Friday, January 24, 2014


Largely in chronological order of when I first read them, this is a super eclectic list of the things I’ve not only read and loved, but also managed to remember past the window of time when I first loved them. Plenty of books I read as an undergraduate English major were loved in their moment but long since forgotten…

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
            Unequivocally my favorite book. I re-read it every five years or so and I find something new to love every time. Jane shaped my own life and undoubtedly Ella’s as well. It’s a book with some of everything: a near-gothic plot, a roguish love story, an odd but endearing heroine, gorgeous writing. I can’t imagine how Charlotte Bronte accomplished this masterpiece of close, introspective writing so far ahead of her time.

Cider House Rules (John Irving)
            This is a favorite book of my teen years and I still think of it fondly. John Irving’s perfectly-balanced plot is a model of how to construct one of these, and his premise and characters are completely unique. To my mind, the things he does well he does best in this book. (Also, the setting for the orphanage in the movie was the abandoned state hospital for the insane that I lived near in Northampton, MA for a number of years. Unfortunately torn down now, it was one of the coolest settings ever.)

Possession (A.S. Byatt)
            This is perhaps best suited to those with a strong literary bent, as it’s the story of two scholars discovering a treasure trove of undiscovered documents. It’s so perfectly well-done, though! Byatt’s creation of the treasure trove of poems and letters is in itself a remarkable accomplishment. Add to that a decent mystery and love story, and it’s a delicious read for those of us who like poetry and old documents. 

Country of the Pointed Furs (Sarah Orne Jewett)
            I’ve counted this among my favorite books for many years but I confess that I haven’t re-read it in ten or more years, and I wonder if I will love it quite as well as I used to. Books are like that sometimes. Certainly I love the setting of this one—the story of an herbalist on the coast of Maine. It’s not a page-turner, though. More of a reflective meditation within a series of connected tales. And of course, lovely writing.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
            Seems trite to even list this book. But certainly I have loved it. And Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion are right up there…

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
            I didn’t read a lot of fiction while in graduate school for plant biology, but among what I did read, this was my favorite book. It’s written by another scientist-cum-writer like me, and has a few of the same features, including a highly intricate plot. Perhaps it’s the scientists in us that seek to unravel complexity. I believe you’d categorize this as science fiction, which is not a genre I typically read, but this one is so very good in so many ways that it matters not at all. The characters are fascinating and memorable, the plot is intriguing on many levels, and the resolution to the central mystery is breathtaking. Quite an achievement. Also, it’s fitting but ironic to list this just before the Lymond Chronicles, as I learned of Dorothy Dunnett from Mary Doria Russell, another fan, and the recommendation launched me into a deep and abiding passion for historical fiction (hence the irony).

The Lymond Chronicles (Dorothy Dunnett)
            Dorothy Dunnett has had the single most profound influence on the writer I’ve become. I went through a phase when I first moved to Vermont and my children were young that I read nearly no other writer. This is possible because her books are so long. I savored the six books of the Lymond Chronicles, then her one singleton retelling of the Macbeth legend called King Hereafter, and then made a valiant attempt to get through the eight books of the Niccolo series. In the aftermath, I can only say that she remains larger than life to me. Her facility with both language and storytelling have, to my mind, no equal. And her erudite wit is unmatched. In fact I can hardly read her these days because I grow too despairing of ever reaching a fraction of her skill. That said, it seems to be a pattern that only about 2% of readers can get through her books. The other 98% say, “this is too dang dense” and slam it down. I’ve had this experience in recommending her to others, and I’ve heard the same from others who love her books but can’t get anyone else to read them—they’re too dense. If you look her up, though, you’ll see she has a small but almost cultish following across the globe of people who worship her books. The Lymond Chronicles is widely-considered her best work. The Niccolo series gets bogged down in too much historical detail and an oddly-constructed plot and few people finish them. King Hereafter is quite good, though. If you happen to be in the 2% who can read her books and you haven’t read them yet, I envy you!

Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier)
            Again, a book so many people have read that I needn’t say much about it, but it has everything I love in a book and more. It was another that helped launch me into a career in writing historical fiction.

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
            I don’t read a lot of literary fiction because I typically find it too slow. I’m all for character-driven plots, but the plot needs to have some motion to keep me going. Beautiful writing alone isn’t enough. That said, a literary novel about an Iowa minister holds no obvious appeal for me, however I had loved her earlier book Housekeeping so I was disposed to read this one. To my shock I read it once and then started over to read it again. I NEVER do that. Gilead completely blew me away as a near-perfect book. It has just as much story as it needs, the driving voice of a man you cannot help but love, and Marilyn Robinson’s signature exquisite writing that, when she nails it, brings tears to your eyes. Or at least it does for me. What especially made this one transcendent for me was the love between the characters. Where Housekeeping is just as gorgeously written, in the end the characters are unconnected, alone and cold. In Gilead, the voice of the humble minister is ennobled by his love and worry for his wife and child, making of him an unlikely but warmly engaging hero. I can’t do any justice to this book in talking of it. It simply must be read.

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
            I’m not as much a dedicated fan of Barbara Kingsolver as many people I know, but I did completely love this book. It reads like a classic magnum opus, every word sure-footed and solid, flowing along as if unfolding. I plan to read it again.

Middlesex (Geoffrey Eugenides)
            Again, a book that seems effortless but is clearly the result of remarkable vision and powerful tenacity. Each piece fits neatly into the next slot, which has been built under your nose while you weren’t looking. This one does it all right.

Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
            I have a soft spot for stories about books. In this one, everything about the search for the mysterious sole surviving copy of a book by an enigmatic author who lurks at the edge of the story is pure candy to me. The entire setting is like the best haunted house you might ever be able to imagine. One with a dusty library full of books that harbor all kinds of wonderful secrets. Usually these kinds of novels about books are strong on set-up but then fail to follow through. And in truth that’s kind of what happens in other of Zafon’s books I’ve tried to read. But in this one book, he utterly and completely nails it. It’s a purely delightful read. Most everyone who likes the smell of books will like this one.

The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)
            I think these are brilliant, especially for the humor and complex plotting.

The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins)
            Likewise, I think these are brilliant, especially for the pacing and character depth.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
            Most people have read this so I won’t say much about it, other than I loved it and thought it did so many delicate things really well. As soon as I finished it I told everyone I saw to read it. I only do that once every five years or so.

A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin)
            Mark Helprin is a real writer’s writer, whatever that means. I think it means he tries really hard things in his writing and more often than not, he pulls them off. When he pulls them off especially well, it’s astounding. That’s what I think of A Soldier of the Great War, a book I completely adored and plan to read again. Not only is it a great read with a stellar main character, it’s a great primer on Word War I, a period I continue to wish to study more than I actually study it. Also, it’s worth mentioning that if you like short stories, Mark Helprin writes brilliant ones. He has several collections.

A Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman)
            My husband and I both completely enjoyed this book and I think it’s probably the best book I’ve read in 2013. It surprised us in many ways, and was vivid and compelling throughout. It has a completely unusual setting and an engaging premise—especially for those of us with kids. I have one complaint about the ending but it’s relatively minor and I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilage.