December 14: Books on My Winter 2021 To-read List (or summer if you’re in the southern hemisphere)
But since I’m trying not to make new TBRs until I’ve read through my old ones, I decided to look at books I got as gifts this time of year. Just so you know, my birthday was a few weeks ago, so some of these may have been birthday presents, which tend to blend in with the winter holidays for me.
1. There’s No Such Thing As A Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein by Susan Sussman – Like many non-Christian children I felt left out of the holiday season as a kid. This is a book that my parents gave me for Chanukah as a child. It looks at how children of all different backgrounds can help each other celebrate what’s special to them. As Sandy’s grandfather explains to her: “We honor our friends, when we share what is special in our lives with them.” As a child and an adult, I’ve been so fortunate to be able to celebrate my own traditions and background with others, and to help others celebrate theirs.
2. Sweet Valley Twins and Friends Super Chiller: The Christmas Ghost by Francine Pascal– For some reason when I read this as a kid it terrified me. I’d seen various incarnations of A Christmas Carol (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, etc. ) and been relatively OK with them, but for some reasons the ghosts in this contemporary retelling really freaked me out. I think it had something to do with the contemporary suburban setting seeming a bit too familiar. Also I usually didn’t see those movies around the holiday season. I’d gotten this as part of a set for a birthday present, so I started reading it just as the holiday season was starting up. So that also felt very immediate.
3. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis– I got a box set of these as a gift one year in my childhood. I can’t remember who gave them to me, so if you happen to be reading this now, I’m sorry, but I did love the books, so thank you so much for giving them to me! I remember reading this over the school vacation one winter. Though in retrospect, it’s unlikely I could have read them all in a ten-ish day period as a kid… But however long it took me to read them, it’s a happy memory!
4. Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen– My cousin gave me this when I was about twelve or thirteen after finding out that I liked acting and theater. Even though I didn’t become an actor, it taught me more about what acting actually is than anything else I’ve read. Interestingly, I think it also made me a better writer. Some of the exercises that Hagen suggests for actors getting to know their characters also apply to writers who want to understand their characters better. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about how similar acting and writing are in some ways. I think this book underscores my point.
6. The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody– I’m putting these on here as being representative of all the wonderful books gifted to me over the years by my Aussie book buddy. She’s given me so many others too though, for various birthdays and holidays. But I do think I got the first of this series around this time of year.
7. Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne’s House of Dreams by LM Montgomery– I think this may have been a birthday gift from a friend of mine. It was the first time I “met” Anne Shirley, who has become a lifelong friend (or “kindred spirit” as Anne would say). I couldn’t find a link to the actual edition she gave me. While it’s a beautiful, illustrated, hardcover volume, it includes Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea and Anne’s House of Dreams, which always struck me as odd. Why not just include the first 3 books in the series? I’m still glad to have it though, because as I said, it’s beautiful, it’s survived many years, and was my first introduction to Anne and LM Montgomery.
8. A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I’m counting these as one since someone gave me both of them at the same time. Each one is a lovely illustrated edition (linked). Both of them remain favorites to this day. They’re beautiful, sad and ultimately hopeful. I’ve since sought out some of Burnett’s work for older readers too.
9. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume – Just a note that I really don’t like this cover. It implies that God and Margaret have a texting relationship, which they don’t. I’m fine with elements of the book (like references to technology) being updated, but don’t make the whole book look like something it’s not! But I did like the book. I got it sometime before puberty, and it lead to some elevated expectations that were dashed (menstruation turned out to be way less fun than this book implied!) but I still have fond memories of it.
10. The Dancing Floor by Barbara Michaels – Michaels was one of the first “grown up” authors that I started reading regularly. I was probably somewhere in the 11-14 age range, and I told my grandmother that I wanted this as a gift. I was very proud to reveal that I’d graduated to adult reading.
August 10: Secondary/Minor Characters Who Deserve More Love -Warning, some of these have spoilers
1. Beth in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Beth’s description is pretty much summed as “the sweet one who dies.” That’s what she’s remembered for. But I recently read March Sisters: On Love, Death and Little Women, in which four contemporary writers look back on the March sister that resonated with them most. Carmen Maria Machado writes about Beth, and how her illness and death take over anything else she may have been, both for her sisters and for readers. Beth was based on Alcott’s own sister, Lizzie, who also died young (though not quite as young as Beth). While Alcott seemed to remember Lizzie in much the way the March sisters do Beth, there’s historical evidence to suggested that Lizzie Alcott was more than simply someone who died tragically young. That makes me suspect that Beth may also have more going on than she’s given credit for.
2. Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare – Mercutio steals almost every scene that he’s in, in most productions and adaptations of this play. There’s plenty of LGBT speculation about his relationship with Romeo prior to the action of the play, but even leaving that aside, he’s so vivid and vibrant, witty and cynical, which makes his death even more tragic. He’s not a Montague or a Capulet. He’s simply caught up in their feud because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. But his death is sort of a hinge for the play. Prior to that, there was hope for a less than tragic outcome. But when he’s killed, and Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge, the seeds for the dénouement are sown.
4. Jane Fairfax in Emma by Jane Austen – Emma is bright, accomplished, pretty, and rich, but she feels a sense of rivalry around Jane. She senses that Jane is an equal and in some ways a superior, and therefore she considers her a threat. That’s what makes the reader initially take notice. Of course when it comes out that Jane been secretly engaged to Frank Churchill (who’s been openly flirting with Emma…) we get the sense that there’s been more going on beneath the surface of Jane. We never really learn what it is though. Joan Aiken wrote some fan fiction speculation in Jane Fairfax but that’s as close as we’ll ever get.
5. Walter Blythe in the later books of the Anne of Green Gables books by LM Montgomery– Like Anne he’s got some literary asperations, and is admired for his ability to “talk book talk” (I love that phrase!) He’s bullied in childhood, but bright and imaginative. Oh, and doomed. He was definitely my favorite of Anne’s children.
6. Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling– Come on! These guys do just as much work as the main three, they get awfully close to the main action, but they’re constantly relegated to the sidelines.
7. Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen– Kitty and Lydia are the silly ones. Jane and Lizzie are the smart ones. But what is Mary? There’s been plenty of fan fiction (justafewexampleshere) speculating that there’s something more to her than just the middle child. I really tried to limit myself to only one Austen character (I also think Charlotte Lucas and Mrs. Bennet deserve more love) but I found I had to do two.
8. Great Uncle Matthew from Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild– He’s Sylvia’s uncle and he takes care of her following the death of her parents, but we don’t know much more than that really… He’s geologist who seems to go around the world collecting parentless babies? Surely there’s got to be more to the story than that!
9. Molly Grue from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle – Molly dreamed all her life of seeing a unicorn. When she finally does, she’s no longer young and beautiful. She tells the unicorn off for taking so long, saying “‘Where have you been…Damn you, where have you been?… Where where you twenty years ago, ten years ago? How dare you, how dare you come to me now, when I am this?‘ With a flap of her hand she summed herself up: barren face, desert eyes, and yellowing heart. ‘I wish you had never come. Why did you come now?’ The tears began to slide down the sides of her nose.” I think that sense of missed opportunity is heartbreaking. I think that the fact that Molly reacts to it with anger first is such a human thing to do, that it makes it even more heartbreaking. She deserves more love.
“Oh what a guy, Gaston!” A villain you can’t help but love- I’m not usually the type to love a villain. I find them compelling characters sometimes, but at best it’s usually a character I “love to hate.” I’ve had a sense of sympathy with Nurse Rached in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ever since I started teaching though. I think it’s sort of unfair that people think of her as a villain. She’s working in a mental hospital with a vulnerable population that needs consistency and routine. So when Randall McMurphy comes in and starts upsetting things, she pushes back. I know that she’s supposed to represent the medical institutions that dehumanize the mentally ill, but I do think that some of her actions did have valid reasons behind them. Though I wouldn’t say I “love” her!
“Here’s where she meets Prince Charming” Your OTP- OK, so I find it very had to just pick one (and yes, I know the “O” in OTP stands for “one!”) but I suppose if I had to I’d probably pick Jamie and Claire from the Outlander series. A lot has happened to them over the course of 8 books, but I’ve never consistently stopped rooting for them as a couple (I have once or twice momentarily when I was mad at one or the other).
“I want so much more than this provincial life” A character destined for greater things. – I suppose any book that uses the “chosen one” trope could fit this one. I’m going with the Obernewtyn Chronicles though. When we first meet Elspeth Geordie, she’s an orphan in a post-apocalyptic world. She struggles to hide her special mental abilities from the totalitarian “Council.” But when she’s caught, she’s sent to Obernewtyn, a mountain retreat where “Misfits” are sent. But there are secrets at Obernewtyn that no one knows about. Over the course of the series Elspeth learns what happened to the world to bring about the apocalypse, and that it may happen again. Her presence there isn’t an accident at all. In fact, she may be the only one who can stop it.
“Be our guest!” A book that made you hungry.- I think some of the descriptions of food in The Night Circus are very tempting!
Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups, unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes.
“Should a diner inquire as to the nature of a particular dish, question the origin of a bite or a seasoning, a flavor she cannot put her finger on (for even those with the most refined of palates can never identify each and every flavor), she will not be met with a satisfying answer. …
The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers.
“Beauty and the Beast” Opposites attract. I’m sort of tempted to use my own book for this one, but I won’t! I’ll got with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s about Don Tillman, a socially inept geneticist (it’s suggested that the character has Aspbergers but he’s not diagnosed). When he decides he wants to find a wife, he designs The Wife Project; a sixteen page, scientifically valid, survey to help weed out smokers, drinkers, and women who are tardy. Rosie Jarman is all of the above. She and Don end up on a date due to a mix up and she confides that she’s trying to find her biological father. Even though he has no romantic interest in her (according to the survey she’s all wrong for him!) Don designs The Father Project. You can probably see where this is going. I thought this book was really sweet, but I wasn’t a fan of the sequel. I haven’t read the third book yet, but I think this one works perfectly well as a stand alone.
“But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see” A character who is more than they appear- For some reason the first book I thought of for this one was The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Cecilia has been married to John-Paul for years. They have several children and a pretty happy family life. But when Cecilia finds a letter from her husband in the attic, with instructions that it’s supposed to be opened in the event of his death, Cecilia reads it, even though he’s very much alive. What she learns turns their lives upside down. It throws Cecilia into a moral dilemma that she never imagined, and makes he wonder who is the man she married.
“I was innocent and certain, now I’m wiser but unsure” A book that changed you in some way- I’ve always been aware that I’ve lead a privileged life, but sometimes I don’t think of certain things as a privilege because they’re things I’ve taken as a given. Growing up in the US in the late 20th and 21st century, I took for granted that I could read whatever I want. Yes, I was aware that this was not a freedom everyone in the world enjoyed, but I never really thought about what that meant, or what it looked like to fight against it, before I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafazi. I think being a reader has made me who I am. It’s taught me empathy. It’s taught me how little I understand the scheme of things. So if I didn’t have the freedom to read as I chose, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today. This book made me consider all these ideas for the first time. Why would oppressive regimes go to so much trouble to ban books, and keep certain books out of certain reader’s hands? Because I’m not alone in this! Reading anything (regardless of whether or not it’s an “important” book) opens minds and hearts. Therefore it’s extremely threatening to an oppressor. Reading about the discussions that this Iranian book club had, and their responses to what they read made me realize on a conscious level that one of the most important things that literature (and art more generally) does is to show us that we’re not alone. That other people have emotional reactions to things, just like we do. Art can be a bridge between people of very different backgrounds and viewpoints. These connections can threaten the very foundations of a society. In that way, reading a novel, and sharing it with others, can be one of the most subversive things a person can do.
“Kill the Beast!” A book you picked up because of hype. – Are we talking about books that lived up to the hype, or books that didn’t? I suppose the most recent one was Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which I heard was amazing, but I found it just OK. It actually inspired me to write a post of when you don’t love a hyped book. So stay tuned for that!
“I’ll never shake away the pain” A book or moment that always makes you cry- I didn’t want to repeat too much on this but when Jamie and Claire separate just before the battle of Culloden in Dragonfly in Amber, they think it will be forever. Jamie tells Claire that he’ll see her again someday. That always makes me weepy.
“I will find you,” he whispered in my ear. “I promise. If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you – then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest.”
His voice dropped, nearly to a whisper, and his arms tightened around me.
Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”
“How does a moment last forever” A book that you’ve loved since you were little.- So. Many. Books. Can’t…choose! I’m tempted to use my “standard” answer for this one and say “fairy tales” (I go into the reasons why a bit here, here, here and here) but I decided to mix things up a bit. I think I was about nine years old when I picked up this book sort of randomly knowing nothing about it. That edition had the author’s name as “Julie Edwards.” As I read I fell in love with the sweet story of an orphan trying to create a home for herself. I flipped to the “about the author” page in the back of the book and saw that “Edwards” was the married name of Julie Andrews, star of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music etc. Apparently in addition to being an Oscar winning actress with a gorgeous singing voice, she is also a writer. When I saw that, I felt like an old friend that I thought I knew surprised me in a magical way. Mandy is still worth reading for adults. It’s a little reminiscent of The Secret Garden in some ways.
Name a book that is an odd pairing but they still fit perfectly– Inigo Montoya and Fezzik from The Princess Bride always struck me as sort of an odd friendship. I don’t know if they were intended to be a sort of comic echo of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, but they always remind me of that. To look at the giant Fezzik, he’d seem to have nothing in common with Inigo, a thin, vengeance obsessed, swordsman. But they have a solid friendship, and seem to offer each other comfort and support on a regular basis.
A book/series that you have a love/hate relationship with– As much as it breaks my heart to say this, Harry Potter. I’ll always love Harry Potter, but JK Rowling’s recent behavior has cast a shadow on it for me. I don’t “hate” her, but I don’t approve of or agree with some of her recent statements and actions. I’m still trying to make peace between my love for the books and my disappointment in their author. I have no doubt that I will do it, as I said, the books will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s still a work in progress for me.
A character that is totally clueless but you love them anyway– Is it totally cheating to pick Emma for this one?! (For those who don’t know, Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, which is why I say that it might be cheating)
Name a book that made you cry– A Little Life by Hana Yangihara totally did me in. I think it was a beautiful book but it was hard to read at times. I’m always hesitant to recommend it, because of that. I’m sort of glad that I read it at a moment in my life when I was able to appreciate it, rather than at a time when I might not have for various reasons.
A book that makes you laugh– I’m assuming this means intentional laughter. There are a few (see here and here). There are also books that have made me laugh unintentionally, but that’s another story… One that I haven’t mentioned on the lists but would like to highlight is Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It’s sort of what might happen if Lord of the Flies met America’s Next Top Model, and then they invited Pirates of the Caribbean over to hang out. It touches on some heavy subjects in a humorous way, without ever actually making light of those subjects. It’s a delicate balance and I majorly admire Libba Bray for pulling it off.
A book with a crazy party– Well, I once made a whole list about this, but if I had to pick just one, I’d say the literary masquerade party in The Starless Sea sounds like one of the few parties I’d really enjoy. Though I do think I’d have trouble deciding on a costume! I don’t know if I’d call it a “crazy” party (though it does lead to some craziness), but crazy parties don’t appeal to me that much anyway.
Name a character that you can never fully trust– For this one, Tinkerbell from Peter Pan comes to mind. Yes, I know that “All you need is Faith, Trust and a little bit of Pixie Dust.” I know she seems like a sweet tiny fairy, full of just those things. That’s why it’s easy to forget that she’s jealous to the core and pretty destructive!
A book with a memorable villain– Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca is one of my favorite villains of all time. I suppose you wouldn’t expect a middle aged housekeeper to be threatening, which is what makes her great. She’s so manipulative too, She gets under the skin of the second Mrs. De Winter and then tries to push her to suicide. And then she gets really destructive! I talk about a few other favorite villains on this list.
Name a book with witches– Just one? I’m actually working on a list of my favorite books about witches at the moment! But I suppose if I have to choose just one, I’ll say Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. because I don’t think it gets enough love (actually I can’t just say one, because it has a sequel called First Frost) It’s overshadowed a lot of the time by Practical Magic, and there are some similarities (both are about sisters who are witches, both use a magical realist style) but they’re not the same (especially now that you can take the Practical Magic books as a series that goes in a very different direction). I would say that Garden Spells is worth reading on its own merits.
I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to do this, go ahead! Please let me know so I can see your answers (I’m very nosy!)
From which series are you reading or did you read the spin-off series?
I actually can’t think of many books series that have spin off series. The one that pops into my mind is the Lord John series which is a spin off of the Outlander series. Unlike Outlander, which has elements of SFF weirdness, these are for the most part historical mysteries. They feature a character, Lord John Grey, who is introduced in the third Outlander book and plays a significant role in several of the following books. But in the Lord John books, we learn that he had his own stuff going on too.
I actually just thought of a third. Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series eventually transitioned into her Will Trent series, but I won’t go into how that happened since it involves major spoilers!
With which series did the first book not sell you over from the start?
Does a trilogy count as a series? For my purposes I’m saying it does! I really enjoyed Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, but the first book was probably my least favorite. Not that it was bad- it wasn’t! But I gave it 4/5 stars, whereas the second and third, I gave 5/5. I think it took some time for me to get really attached to the heroine, to the point where I was really invested in what happened to her and the people she cared about.
Which series hooked you from the start?
I think that I was captured by Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy after the first chapter of the first book. It opens in a market in 19th century India, and (without spoilers) the heroine witnesses something traumatic and life changing. The next chapter moves the story to a very different setting, and I was totally on board for the trip! I want to reread the series, because it’s been a long time since I originally read it, but I’m afraid it won’t live up won’t live up to my memory of it.
Which series do you have completed on your shelves?
A few, but one of the only ones I have as a set is the Anne of Green Gables series. I was given a volume that included Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne’s House of Dreams for a childhood birthday and I fell in love with Anne and company. It was a few years later that I learned that the series actually has 8 books, not 3! While Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea are the first two, Anne’s House of Dreams isn’t #3 it’s #5, so it always seemed kind of random that it was included in that volume. I actually still have the volume, because it’s a beautiful, hardcover, illustrated volume, but the choice of books is rather strange to me. So when I learned that there were other Anne books out there, I got the complete set so I’d have them all!
Which series have you read completely?
Many of the ones I’ve mentioned so far I’ve read completely. Others that jump to mind include:
Which series do you not own completely but would like to?
I’ve read the first two of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and I own the third book as well though I haven’t read it yet. I want to eventually read the whole series but they’re slow going and I don’t want to buy the rest before I’ve read the first few. They’re good, but they’re not easy reads because they have a lot of references to things with which I’m not familiar. We’re also not in the main character’s head much, so his thoughts and motivations are a mystery a lot of the time. That’s the way it’s supposed to be until all is revealed, but it can make it a challenge to get into the books if you’re not it in the right mood for it.
Which series do you not want to own completely but still read?
I recently discovered the October Daye series (I’ve only read the first book so far) and I definitely want to read more, but there are 14 books in all and I don’t have enough shelf space as it is! I’ll stick to the library and ebooks.
Another series is The Dresden Files. I think I’ve read the first six or so books, and really enjoyed them. But there are 17 in the series, so I run into the same shelf space issue. Plus some things on the author’s twitter make me question whether I want to support him financially, so I’m going to stick to library copies
I’ve also been enjoying Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series. But there are 15, and they’re probably not books I’ll want to revisit after I finish them.
Which series are you not continuing?
Most likely the Cormoran Strike series. It’s unfortunate, because I really enjoyed the first few, but ever since it came out that the most recent book in the series, Troubled Blood is a platform for a Rowling’s transphobia, I haven’t been looking forward to reading it. It’s not the first time some of transphobia seeped into the series (there was a questionable episode in The Silkworm) but it seems like the first time it’s really taken over a book.
Which series you haven’t started yet are you curious about?
MANY! The first one that came to mind is Leigh Bardugo’s Alex Stern series, which starts with Ninth House. I haven’t read Bardugo’s other work, but this appeals to me because of it’s collegiate setting. I’m really liking the whole “dark academia” genre lately.
Which series would you like to re-read?
There are a lot of series I’ve loved that I don’t want to reread either because I worry that they won’t live up to my memory or I suspect that they won’t. I try to only reread if I feel like I’ll get more out of it, because it always feels like a bit of a risk. I recently saw the film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and realized that while I remember that book well enough, I only have the vaguest memories of the sequels.
Which series did others love and you did not?
There are a few of those! One would probably be A Song of Ice and Fire. I read the first book (and watched the first few seasons of Game of Thrones) and while I enjoyed parts of it, it kept on killing off the characters I got attached to! It felt like every time I got invested in a character, it was a death sentence for him/her! I may give it another try at some point, but I got tired of having to find new characters/storylines to care about only to lose them in a few chapters.
Charlaine Harris‘ Southern Vampire/Sookie Stackhouse novels are a series I really tried to like. It sounds like the kind of thing that would be right up my alley, and I read a few of them, but I just couldn’t warm up to the characters or invest in the world that she’d created. I’ve liked a few of her other series (see above) but this just didn’t work for me for some reason.
September 29: Favorite Book Quotes (these could be quotes from books you love, or bookish quotes in general)
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
For a character who is “no bird” Jane is often associated with them in this novel. Even her name sounds like “air”. But perhaps it is a free bird, as opposed the the caged bird she calls to mind here, that one associates with Jane the most. No matter what happens she is able able to take off when she chooses. She may seek out greener pastures, or go back to battle old ghosts. I think it takes a lot of nerve for her to assert this actually. At this point in the book, nothing in her life has told her she has value. She’s “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” but she feels that she has intrinsic worth in spite of that. That’s what gives her the guts to assert herself, to take off when she feels it’s necessary, and to refuse to be ensnared.
2. “From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was about 12 and I definitely identified very strongly with Francie. I still do, even though I’m older now. This quote is a perfect example of why. I honestly do feel like books are my friends. Some people might see that as sad, but I see it as having reliable friends who never talk back and never leave me or let me down. (I do also have some actual, human friends too!)
I’ve always had a tendency to be hard on myself. Even when I was a child, I would take myself to task for my mistakes. I first read this book when I was about nine, and right away something clicked when I read that! It was so freeing to see things that way! Even now, if I have a bad day, I try to remember that there’s always tomorrow, and there are no mistakes in it yet! It doesn’t always help, but I do try to remember it.
This was a more recent read, and a big theme in this book is the perceptions of others vs. self perception. That really resonated with me, even independent of the rest of the book. I think that we constantly create different versions of ourselves with different people. To some extent that’s natural: we behave differently with out friends from adulthood for example, than we do with people who have know us since we were children. But it can be cultivated too. Sometimes we have a sense of how someone else sees us, and we can try to live up to it. How a stranger sees you for the first time is powerful, because it can give us the feeling of a blank slate. We can sort of create ourselves anew.
This is from a conversation between Gandolf and Frodo, after Gandolf tells Frodo about the Ring. Frodo wishes that this hadn’t happened during his lifetime, and this is Gandolf’s response. They’re words that I’ve thought of a lot through the craziness of 2020. Things happen that we don’t control. But we control our response.
This quote stands out to me because of the distinction made between loving someone and thinking well of them. We often think of loving people as thinking of them in the highest regard. But really, we can love people and not think well of them at all. We can love people and not like them. So the distinction makes a lot of sense when you think about it.
Just very true words. People can turn anything into a weapon. They can make things that are supposed to help up, things that are supposed to make us better, destructive. Is that true of everyone? No, of course not. A whisky bottle in the hands on one man may be meaningless. It might simply mean that he likes the taste of whisky and enjoys a glass of it and the end of a long day. But in the hands of another man, it could mean that he’s about to become a violent drunk. Similarly, the Bible is a book that is supposed to teach people to be kind to one another, to help each other. And one person may use it that way. But another may use it as a way to oppress others and even as a justification for it.
8. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” –The White Album by Joan Didion
I just think that this is so true. When something terrible happens, we immediately try to understand it. We try to put it into some kind of workable context. I once lost someone close to me, and I almost immediately tried to put that loss in narrative terms. I thought about how this person’s narrative arc was complete, even though he was young. I was aware that I was imposing a narrative on something that didn’t necessarily have one, but it did help a bit to think of it that way. Stories help us get through life, by escaping it, and sometimes by giving us tolerable ways to understand it.
9. “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” – The Twits by Roald Dahl
Once again a children’s book proves that it can articulate something more simply and memorably than something intended for adults. I think that this was something that I tried to convey when I wrote Beautiful. Needless to say, I definitely think it’s true. And the reverse is too. Someone might be totally gorgeous, but if they act like a jerk, sooner or later, they won’t look so appealing.
But the thing is that there are a lot of books I’ve loved but never reviewed. My reviewing a book has more to do with time/inclination than love.
Since I wasn’t feeling this week’s topic, so I decided to go with one of my own. I’m definitely more of a big city girl IRL. But I do appreciate some small town fiction.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn– Camille is a reporter who returns to the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. She finds a town that’s even more toxic than the one she left years earlier. At the same time she must grapple with some equally toxic family relationships.
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery– Avonlea is practically a character in these novels (most of them at least). Actually most of Montgomery’s work features small PEI based towns that play a large role in the story.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson– The small town takes on a villainous role in this one. I think it rivals Wind Gap for toxicity! This town has it’s own set of witches (sort of), but the “normal” townspeople might be more dangerous than the witches!
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen- A lot of Allen’s fiction is set in small towns, but this one (and the sequel First Frost) is set in Bascom, North Carolina. It’s a typical small Southern town in many ways, but some of the residents (namely the Waverly family) are anything but typical. That fact sends Sydney Waverly out of town right after high school graduation. But it might also be what brings her back.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King- I’m actually not a big fan of this novel, but one thing that King does in it really successfully (IMO) is create a portrait of mundane, everyday evil. We see acts of abuse and bullying that make up the fabric of daily life in ‘Salem’s Lot. Ultimately I think that’s more chilling than the vampires that eventually make an appearance.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious– This novel is about how three women come to terms with their identity as women and sexual beings in a very conservative, small, gossipy New England town. This book was a major bestseller when it came out in the 50’s (it was quite scandalous because it dealt with subjects like incest, abortion, adultery, and murder; as well as larger issues like hypocrisy, social inequality, and economic privilege) . It spawned a sequel, and both books got filmadaptations. It also inspired a successful TV series. I read it years ago, and don’t remember much in terms of plot, but I do remember that secret filled town.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo– The titular town in this novel is a working class town sees through the eyes of Miles Robey. Miles owns the Empire Grill (where everyone in town seems to eat) and is father to a teenager.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng- Shaker Heights prides itself on being an open minded small town. Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive and make a home for themselves there. But when a controversial custody case divides opinions in town, Mia finds herself on the opposite side from her employers, the Richardson family. The split could have dangerous consequences.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee– I think that Maycomb, Alabama is one of the of first places I think of when I think of fictional small towns. Like many, it’s a close knit community where there’s a lot of gossip and people know each other’s business. It’s harmless, until it’s not. We see another side of this town from a different perspective in Go Set a Watchman.
March 24: Genre Freebie (pick a genre and build a list around it! i.e., best/worst romances, non-fiction for travelers, memoirs for foodies, classics that feel timeless, romance novel kisses, science fiction that feels too real for comfort, women’s fiction for newbies, etc.)
I think we’re all at least a little stressed, anxious and need of feel good reads right now.
1. Anything Jane Austen: Austen is an author whose complexity is often overlooked for a number of reasons: she’s a woman, she employs the marriage plot in her works and she’s funny. But those are also the reasons that her work makes for feel good reading. It’s hard to go wrong here. Her inclusion on this list probably won’t help her get the recognition that she deserves as an author of complexity and depth. But it will help you feel a bit better.
2. The Anne series by LM Montgomery– Bad things happen in these books. People get sick and die. But the heroine sees the world with optimism even through the bad times, and when we read about it through her eyes, we can’t help but see it the same way.
3. Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty -20 years ago tragedy struck Abi’s family and she got a book called The Guidebook in the mail. She always linked the two events in her mind, so when she gets invited to a retreat by the writers of The Guidebook, she goes, half expecting answers. What she finds is not what she expects but it is something that will change her life nevertheless. This book is about love, loss, hope, believing in the impossible, the self help industry, and more. It’ll make you laugh and cry, possibly at the same time.
4. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman– Nina Hill is a compelling character because she feels like someone you might really know. She has a full life that she likes, but when it’s turned upside down, she realizes how much more the world has to offer. She’s deeply flawed and those flaws aren’t magically gone by the end of the book, but we know that Nina can live with them and thrive.
5. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – This is a coming of age story about an introvert who ventures outside her comfort zone for the first time in many ways. It’s also a celebration of loving a fictional story to the point of geekery.
6. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim– This book is about four strangers who are in a rut in their own ways. They all buy into a month long getaway at an Italian castle, and that getaway changes them all in different ways. This book is gentle, but lovely. As the characters start to feel better you start to feel it as well.
7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman– Eleanor Oliphant has issues. She tends to say exactly what’s on her mind no matter what that might be. She avoids social interactions whenever possible and her life is kept to a careful timetable. When she meets Raymond, an IT guy from her office, she’s initially disgusted: he’s unhygienic. He’s a smoker. But when they save the life of another lonely fellow on the street, Eleanor finds herself drawn into a friendship with two other people. I made some assumptions about Eleanor when I first started reading that turned out to be wrong, when I read her story and got to know her. Similarly, Eleanor’s assumptions turn out to be wrong much of the time.
8. Love, Rosie by Cecilia Ahern– Rosie and Alex are best friends who are meant to be together. But just as it seems that things are happening right, they go very wrong. The book is a series of letters, emails, and notes over the course of years and Rosie and Alex come together and apart and together time and time again. This books is frustrating at times, but it’s a reminder that things endure beyond the frustration.
9. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen – The Waverly’s have always had mysterious gifts that make them outsiders in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. Claire has embraced those gifts as a caterer, preparing her dishes with what people need. But her sister Sydney left town as soon as she could. When she returns, with her daughter, she confronts everything that she left behind. This book is brimming with bits of magic. It never overtakes the narrative, but it grows around the edges and creeps inward.
What are your favorite feel good (or feel better) books?
1. Beautiful by Fran Laniado– How obnoxious is it that I included my own book on here? Well, in my defense, publishing this book has taught me a lot about writing and publishing in general and I’m grateful for the experience, everything that I’ve learned, and the ability to carry it forward into my future career.
2. Beauty by Robin McKinley– My first week of college, I knocked on a classmate’s door to ask a question and saw her reading this book. That was how I made my first friend on campus. It’s true what they say: when you see someone reading a book that you love, it’s like a book, recommending a person.
3. Fairy Tales– OK this is less a book than a literary category but it was what first made me fall in love with literature. I think that fairy tales taught me some very important lessons that I’ve carried through life: that appearances can be deceiving, that dragons can be beaten and that witches can be good or bad depending on the circumstance.
4. Curious George by HA Ray- I remember a point in my early childhood when I thought of Curious George as a friend. Like me, he was curious but unlike me, he was brave. I was often scared, so I let George do the exploring and get into trouble! In a way he was the literary character who showed me how to live vicariously through a character’s experiences on the page. While that’s not always a good idea by any means, at times (particularly in early childhood) it’s the wiser course. So thanks for the friendship George, and thanks for getting into trouble for me!
5.Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell– I think that reading this book made me think a lot about the connections that I have to people and my ability to communicate with them. Karana, the heroine of this book is stranded on an island alone for many years. Even after she’s found she’s still isolated because there’s no one left alive who speaks her language. It made me think for the first time about being understood, and how grateful I am to have that ability. It’s something I’ve always valued and this book highlighted why in a way that few things had previously.
6. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume- I think that this book normalized a lot of being a growing girl. Not that it was all accurate: I read it when I was about 9 or 10 and it made menstruation seem like a wonderful treat girls earned when they reached a certain age: that led to a major disappointment a few years later! But it also let me know that what I was thinking and feeling was normal and that a lot of other kids were just as confused about the whole experience of growing up as I was.
7.Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– I think that this book gave me an awareness of my privilege and I’m grateful for that. I’m not grateful for the unfair advantages that I have as a white, American born citizen. I don’t think it’s right that I have those privileges due to accidents of birth and I wish that we lived in a more equitable society. But I’m grateful that this book gave me a view of life without them. That view made me more aware of them and how they’ve played a role in my own life. I don’t know if I’m explaining this very well!
8.The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion– A few years ago I lost several loved ones in the space of a few months, including someone very close to me. A lot of books about death and grieving seemed to offer platitudes and trite promises. Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death (while their daughter was in a coma fighting for her life) didn’t wrap it up in any false comfort. Losing a loved one is hard. Grief is confusing and scary. It doesn’t follow any rules. But it’s often the price we pay for loving people.
9.Anne of Green Gables (series) by LM Montgomery- I’m using these as a stand in for several books that feel like old friends. They’re the books I’ve read so many times that reading them feels like coming home after being away for a long time. I’m thankful for the knowledge that whatever terrible things may happen in real life, these books are always there. They won’t always make everything better, but they’ll help me feel less alone through whatever happens.
10. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott– I’ve never been a very organized writer. My process (insofar as I have one) involves me writing down whatever pops into my head, and then fixing it and making it presentable later. I don’t outline. I don’t have formal “drafts,” I just write and rewrite until I have something. Lamott’s advice to writers is essentially “whatever works.” There’s an understanding that that won’t look the same for everyone. It gives my messy, chaotic writing style a sense of validation.