More on books! Two in a month! See, I’m doing better!
Not long ago, Erin posted one of those tag-people things on Facebook where you were supposed to list ten books that had stayed with you in some way. I thought about it, but then decided to write about those ten books here instead. I didn’t just want to list them but also say WHY they stayed with me. So here we go!
Anne of Green Gables and its sequels by LM Montgomery
This was the absolute first book I thought of. When I was about five, my grandparents gave me the Anne series and my dad read all of them out loud to us until we finished them. I actually have three different copies of Anne of Green Gables, one of which is illustrated.
There’s so much to love about these books. There are so many wonderful characters and I always did identify with Anne—like her, I’m very imaginative, sometimes oversensitive, and have a tendency to get into awkward situations. They’re funny, they’re sad, they’re sweet, and eventually they’re pretty romantic, too. (Gilbert Blythe is one of my literary crushes.) Christiana Krump and I decided that one day we’d go to Prince Edward Island, where LM Montgomery is from and where these books take place, and I will hold her to that!
The Harry Potter books by JK Rowling
Not the most original choice, I know, but these books do mean something to me. I think what I marvel at the most when I re-read these books is how thoroughly and completely JK Rowling imagined this world. It’s just so wonderfully detailed. And—I feel like there’s no way to say this without it sounding cheesy, but I’ll try—despite the darkness in the books, especially the later ones, and the deaths of so many characters, I find these books more uplifting than sad and more about love driving out hate than just good-over-evil. The summer the last book came out, I was struggling with a lot of personal things, but the anticipation of Deathly Hallows coming out was one thing keeping me going.
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman
I probably recommend this book more than any other and it might be my most frequently re-read book. I talked about it in this post and I honestly think any girl would like it. It’s funny and incredibly easy to relate to—and also, all feminist writers should take lessons from Susan Jane Gilman. She manages to make her feminist views clear without coming off as obnoxious or preachy, and the title is actually a reference to how she caved on wearing a traditional white wedding dress, then decided that it might be the most subversive thing she could do.
Joy School by Elizabeth Berg
I love this book so much. I love Elizabeth Berg in general, but this was the first book I read by her. It’s the second in a series of books about a thirteen-year-old girl named Katie in the early 1960s, although you can read the books out of order and not miss anything. (Yes, I’d love it even if I didn’t share a name with the main character.) Katie’s mother has died, her father is distant and sometimes angry, she’s trying to make friends at a new school, and she’s in love with a man who’s much older—and married. She’s just such a sweet, funny, lovable character and Berg’s writing style is so heartfelt and unpretentious.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
As annoying as Jonathan Franzen is as a person, he is a brilliant writer. I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2001 and have re-read it several times since. Every time, I pick up on some little detail or nuance that I didn’t before. It’s about a family originally from the fictional Midwestern city of St. Jude whose septuagenarian matriarch, Enid, hopes to reunite everyone for Christmas. Enid’s husband, Alfred, is struggling with Parkinson’s disease and other health problems. Their three adult children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, all have different versions of unhappiness in their lives. Gary is a husband and father denying, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he’s clinically depressed. Chip, after being fired from his job as a college professor for sleeping with a student, goes to Lithuania to defraud American investors. And Denise is a chef who sleeps with her boss…after she’s already started sleeping with his wife. I think what I love the most is how real the characters feel. They’re often difficult and unlikeable, but you identify with them nevertheless. I hope one day I’m half as good a writer as Franzen with none of the snobbery.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
My first few years out of college, when I was still getting used to the 9-5 office life, I really started to like any fiction that was about work. This book, which is written in first person plural and about an advertising agency facing layoffs, was something I really connected with—particularly referring to what the office’s collective “we” thinks and does and feels. It’s probably something that will have the most appeal to someone who does work in an office, but I think most people can identify with the strange camaraderie that develops in the workplace—some people you like, some people you don’t really like but form a weird bond with anyway, and the way workplaces facing tough times go through everything together.
The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker
I’ve written about this book before because the whole concept of it stuck with me so strongly. One of the main characters, Mary Beth, is a song reader. People come to her and tell her the songs that have been stuck in their heads, and the lines in particular that have been sticking out for them. By making sense of why those songs are there, she can make sense of what’s going on in their lives. But when the secrets she reveals through the songs turn ugly, a greater realization comes about: the only person whose subconscious Mary Beth will not explore is her own. As she sinks slowly into a depression, secrets about Mary Beth and her family come to light, and they must learn how to deal with them. The novel takes place in a small Missouri town in the early 1980s and is narrated by Mary Beth’s teenage sister, Leeann.
This book is a rarity: a lyrically written book with an interesting premise and very compelling characters but an equally compelling plot as well. The people Tucker writes about seem very real and she fleshes them out nicely. But although there are no car chases or murder mysteries, the plot is full of surprises and always keeps you guessing. I didn’t want to put it down. I think this is particularly admirable because Tucker could, conceivably, have taken her unusual premise and done something really simplistic with it, like tack on a mystery or a romance. But her approach is more subtle, and ultimately more rewarding. In the end, this book isn’t really about song reading, but about family, love, forgiveness, redemption, legacy, the weight of guilt, and the necessity of knowing and loving oneself.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
You’ve almost definitely read this—I mean, who didn’t in freshman English class? But this is one high school English class book that I will gladly re-read on my own. Atticus Finch is just such a fantastic character and it’s such a wonderful, moving story.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I sometimes feel like my life didn’t really begin until college. Nothing interesting had ever happened to me, and there was just so little that I knew about the world beyond my personal experience until then. This popular young adult novel, which I first read between my freshman and sophomore years of college, stuck with me partly because it made me reflect on a lot of things that had happened over the previous year. It’s about a quiet high school freshman named Charlie making new friends and learning how to come out of his shell and participate more in life. It says more about where I was in life when I read it than it does about the book, I think, but it might be the most thought-provoking thing I’ve ever read.
Twenty-Something Essays by Twenty-Something Writers
My first year out of college, I just stumbled across this book and bought it. Now I re-read it almost as much as Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. As the title suggests, it is a book of essays written by authors in their twenties. Two of them, both excellent, are written by BC grads (Marisa McCarthy and Luke Mullins). Mary Beth Ellis writes about her struggle with OCD. Eula Biss, taking a cue from Joan Didion, writes about the tribulations and loneliness of living in New York City. Emma Black writes about her first year teaching elementary school. Katherine Dykstra’s essay is about volunteering with low-income children while also writing an article about a luxury hotel. Elrena Evans writes about having a baby during grad school. Eli James, in one of the funniest essays, writes about trying to find a drummer for his band. Mary Kate Frank writes about the indignity of having to move back in with her parents after a series of bad decisions. Joey Franklin, in the winning essay, writes about working at Wendy’s while finishing school and taking care of a young son. Jennifer Glaser’s essay about losing her boyfriend to leukemia is heartbreaking. Kathleen Rooney, a graduate of the Emerson MFA program, writes about her career as an artist’s model.
And those are just some of the great essays in this book. It’s a great compilation of a wide variety of twenty-something experiences, and when I finished it I remember feeling like I’d made a lot of new friends. I hoped that Random House, who sponsored the essay contest, would run it again so I could submit something, but they never did.