Never trust someone who has not brought a book with them.”Lemony Snicket
I’m supposed to be working on my grad school final. But at this moment, I feel that this is a better use of my time. When I email with former students and co-workers and friends back in the states, the conversation will inevitably turn to what we are reading. Last October in Nashville several people asked what I would recommend that they read next. I understand the request, but I also have learned that book selection, like friend selection, is idiosyncratic and often unpredictable. Congressional approval ratings are slightly higher than successful reading recommendations of my favorite books. So with the same size asterisk that is reserved for Lance Armstrong’s cycling accomplishments, I offer my All-Time Desert Island Favorite reads. *I won’t pretend that these are for everyone, but I enjoyed them or they helped me grow or the voice spoke to me. So here they are in no particular order.
My All-Time Go-To
There are times when you just want to read something good. Not difficult. Not sweet. Not something from the book club shelf. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is the book I turn to when I need to feel something without thinking too much about it. Did you just hear the collective eye-roll of a couple hundred college students? Yes, I taught this book. Or rather, I prescribed this book, and the students taught me about it. I’ve owned no fewer than five copies. I’ve given away two, and one was destroyed by a friend’s dog (to this day I’ve never been more forgiving). The book was gift from a friend twenty years ago, and I’ve read it close to a hundred times. I’ve highlighted it. Dog-eared it. Underlined it. Quoted it. I’ve given it away. And no matter how many other new and exciting books I pick up, my copy resides firmly on my bedside table.
The Passion is a story about people and what happens to them when what they love no longer loves them. Henri is a simple French farm boy who drinks Napoleon’s Kool-Aid. Make the world France. Bread and circuses. Henri enlists. Of course he’s disillusioned, can you show me a teenager who isn’t? The other character, Villanelle, is a young Venetian woman who works in the local casino disguised as man. She is fascinated by risk and those who gamble it all away without hesitation. But that’s not her. Not until an older married woman sits down to play at her table.
“What is more humiliating than finding the object of your love unworthy?”– Henri, The Passion
Winterson is a master storyteller. The Passion unfolds in such a way that as a reader you are never sure-footed. She weaves her plot with a command and richness of language which satisfies, but never satiates. The prose is fluid and dynamic, and yet also strangely familiar. All of Winterson’s books read like songs you once knew, revealing the words you’ve long forgotten. I highly recommend Written on the Body and her autobiography, Why Be Happy When you Can Be Normal. Quite simply The Passion is the book that made me want to be a writer. I will leave you with a warning however, if you read this book I will want to talk to you about it for far longer than is comfortable.
A Gateway to the Heebee-Geebees Genre
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the book that I have most prescribed to students who want something a little darker, a little more fantastical, and a little more grown-up. I tell them it’s a fairy tale for adults. Gaiman is the best at writing characters we identify with and characters we want to identify with. This is the story of a middle aged man who returns to his childhood home only to experience the return of a long suppressed memory. The book is a powerful recollection of events from his childhood and is full of monsters both real and not. Ocean also has the most fantastic heroine in all of modern literature, Lettie Hempstock. Think Lyanna Mormont from Game of Thrones except even more bad-ass.
The story takes readers back to the age in childhood before reality cemented itself into something more certain. It traces the events of a year of the narrator’s childhood when magic was still possible, but not entirely probable.
“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters.”
If you like Ocean, I would recommend Neverwhere, Fragile Things, and Coraline after. And while I liked American Gods, I realize it’s not as universally appealing as these others.
The Best Book/Movie Combo
In 1996 The English Patient film won nine Oscars. And as good as it was, I still think the book was better. Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece won the Booker Prize in 1992 and is simply fantastic in the same way as listening to U2’s Joshua Tree or watching baseball in October. Some things just can’t be improved upon. The novel checks all the boxes: Impending war, forbidden love, espionage, the pangs of memory and loss. I just bought another copy, because somewhere along the way I have given away the previous four or five. If you haven’t seen the movie, I beg you, read the book first. You won’t be sorry, and the movie will be all that more striking for it.
The Best Guilty Pleasure
David Benioff is better known today as one of the show runners for Game of Thrones and the writer of the next Star Wars movie series. But in between gigs in Hollywood he penned a short novel about the siege of Leningrad. It’s a quick read and page turner in the same vein as The Da Vinci Code. For a couple years after its release the book was in every airport bookshop. The plot is straight forward. It follows teenage Lev after his arrest for looting a dead German paratrooper. He is sentenced to death the following morning, but it spared by a colonel who does so on one condition. Lev (and fellow prisoner Koyla) must return with one dozen eggs within a week’s time. Procuring each egg is a story in itself. They beg, borrow, and steal from Russians and Germans alike. Much like Game of Thrones, this isn’t a book for younger readers as there are encounters with cannibals, rapists, and violent deaths. However, if you’re looking for a book you can’t put down for a couple of hours, you can’t beat this one.
Below are some of the books I’ve read over the last year or so. They might not stand the test of time for me like the ones above, but I enjoyed them and you might too.
Lief Enger – Virgil Wander, Peace Like A River – A new American voice combines a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods and Winterson’s magical realism in a midwest setting. Both books are haunting stories, but each in its own way. Virgil Wander is a unambitious movie house owner “cruising along at medium altitude” when a car accident takes away his command of language and memory. He tries to find himself again, and his journey mirrors that of his rust-belt town.
Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven – In a future where flu wipes out 90% of the world’s population, small camps of survivors try to move on from the lives they remember. Without the critical density needed for food or electricity production, they are no better off than then early settlers. One of the best parts of the book is when a survivors tries to explain how WiFi worked to a child born after the world went dark.
Maile Maloy – Do Not Become Alarmed – This Nashville author is also well known for her young adult books The Apothecary and The Apprentices. But in this book, she sets her sights on a more mature topic, the modern American family and the vacation that goes tragically awry.
Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked, Long Way Down, High Fidelity – I love Hornby’s observational wit and humor, just don’t watch the movie adaptations.
Diane Setterfield – Once Upon A River – The only problem of post-postmodern fiction (besides that term) is the writer’s reluctance to provide satisfactory endings. It’s true with River too. The opening chapters are riveting and carry you like a current deep into the book. But the last 30 pages or so make you wish you had abandoned it. If you can overlook this flaw, it’s a great read with a solid plot around the mysterious loss and return of a missing child two years later. A colorful cast of characters and stories make this an enjoyable read up to the closure. Read it. Change my mind.
Haruki Murakami – South of the Border, West of the Sun, Wind – If you are looking for something different, Murakami is a great place to start. His most famous books are Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and the voluminous IQ84, but they are not great starting points. I suggest South of the Border or his non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
The sun is setting now and an autumn cold front is coming in. I know I’m forgetting some good ones, and I’ll regret posting this when I finally get up and go look at my bookshelf. In addition I could write another post solely on books about running, or non-fiction books, or stories about Africa. Books for kids, that would take a week. But maybe someday, after this paper is done.
Be good and keep in touch.