What are books to me? Everything. Short of my family, they are the thing I could not live without. On the desert island, I’d give up food and water, if I could just have the Chronicles of Barsetshire, or Emma, or best of all, Middlemarch. Give me Middlemarch or give me death? Well, maybe! I am a not a reader: I am a devourer. Greedy, never satiated, always prowling and prowling around. Don’t get me near a bookstore. I can not leave without at least three books. The kindle is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me: deep in the night, I can download, download, download again. It’s all house money in the wee smalls.
So, why, how, wherefore? It may not have escaped your notice that I love words. But it goes back way before that. Before words, I loved stories. And before stories, I loved my mom.
I am the older child of two. That means that my mom had the time and the wherewithal to read to me, early and often. But that doesn’t totally explain it. I have inherited her reading gene; for she was a librarian. And no one on earth loves books more than librarians do. Except maybe me: how else can you see the world from the comfort of your own home? Or travel through time and space with the turn of a page? As for my mother and me, our adventures in reading started with a farm in Maine and in the backwoods of Wisconsin.
Is there a more beautiful, perfect, sensitive book than Charlotte’s Web? There is not. It contains what is perhaps the greatest compliment in all of literature. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Put that on my tombstone please, and I will know that I have lived a righteous life. (My mom says she cried at the end when reading it to me; the first thing I ever cried reading to Edward was “Fern Hill“. He is, and will always be, a prince of the apple towns.) We moved on to the “Little House” books. I adored them and their DIY ethos. I loved the show too, but I kept coming back to the books year after year. I’ll never forget the terror of that long, cold winter, or the warmth of the kitchen in “Farmer Boy.”
At my small elementary school we were very lucky to have a big, beautiful library and a patient young librarian named Ms Hervey (not Harvey!). I sat at her feet, astonished and enthralled by Bill Peet books, like Kermit the Hermit (about a crab, not a frog.) Bill Peet was a Disney animator and his books were weird and complicated. I can’t say how they’ve aged but I hope well!
I don’t fully remember the “aha” moment when I could read; what I do remember is struggling with my letters in grades K and 1, and then in the 3rd grade I was reading The Yearling, From The Mixed Up Files of Ms Basil E Frankweiler, and She Was Nice to Mice. (True Story, She Was Nice to Mice is by Ally Sheedy, the actress, and is about Queen Elizabeth I and her relationship to… a mouse. I loved it so much that it sparked a lifelong obsession with the Tudors. Sheedy was 15 when she published it.) I can never step foot in the Met without wondering what it would be like to wander there, at night, alone in the dark.
When I was in the Sixth Grade, my mother went back to work. As mentioned, she, by inclination and degree, was a librarian, with a Master in Library Science from Queens College. And so, to the Mount Pleasant Public Library she went, part time. Like all working moms, she sometimes found herself in a bind, with an obligation to a child and a job at the same time, so when she needed, she took us to work with her, and I was the happiest a person could be. I don’t know that I could or would have enjoyed going anyplace else more; not Disney World, not Henri Bendel’s, not The Yellow Brick Road (our local ice cream parlor) for a sundae. Roaming the stacks, pulling out interesting titles at random, curling up in a corner and getting lost. Since length (indeed, I should say girth) was one of my criteria, I discovered James Michener. Through him I learned all about Texas, Hawaii, The South Pacific. I embedded myself in strange locales in old times, following the soapy, twisty path to the future. When my mom found me, I could check the books out and take them home.
In the Fifth grade, we all developed a passion for the “Sweet Valley High” series, which my mom thought was rubbish (and she was right.) I begged and pleaded and she stood firm. Instead, she bought me the Complete Novels of Jane Austen, in a single, beautiful, leather-bound tome. I spitefully read them all, and hated them. It put me off Austen for years, until I was finally old enough to understand just how the best they are. At around this time, I also discovered Anne Shirley. Over and over again, I went to stay with her in Green Gables, and later at her house on Prince Edward Island. I loved those books with my whole heart; her imagination, her travails, her sense of spirit and adventure. I didn’t consciously comprehend the darkness underneath Anne’s sunny optimism- to me, frustrated at my parents, being an orphan seemed pretty great- but I could somehow relate to her appreciation of everything, and I think those books, through a miracle of osmosis, implanted seeds of grace in me. They gave me a path to love the beauty of everything in the here and now that nurtures, and doesn’t take away from, dreams of the future.
This is all just a very long winded way of presenting you with a reading list. For here, I will attempt to make recommendations based on feeling. Check back, for it will be added to frequently.
So You Like Bridgerton?
Then Trollope is your man. Though he sits in the shadow of Jane Austen for wit and brevity, to my mind there are few writers as fond of humanity as Trollope is. Even his shadiest characters, like the scheming Lizzie Greystock of the The Eustace Diamonds, are treated humanely and with a sort of avuncular wist. The heart wants what it wants (which is in her case the luxury and comfort that come with having money, after years of singing for her supper.) If you like glamour and titles, the Palliser series should keep you busy for years. It starts by following the trials and travails of the young MP Phineas Finn, as he falls into accidental scandal and then finds himself back in good standing. As the series grows, it shifts directions, but throughout it all is one of my favorite heroines, the romantic, smart Glencora MacCluskie Palliser, the Duchess of Omnium. (Glencora would be a great name for a cat.) If you like a bit of country romance, go with Barsetshire, with it’s scheming clergymen and sweet country lasses.
Insomnia Strikes Again
You are exhausted. It’s been a long, longer, longest day, week, month, two years. It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear… You just want to go to sleep, but it won’t come, because your brain is spinning in circles. May I introduce you to Alexander McCall Smith? He ostensibly writes “mysteries” but these are not the misanthropies of PD James and Agatha Christie. These are just human foibles packed as curiosities. As a result, there are fewer, more soothing reads than his books. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, starring the graciously pragmatic Mma Precious Ramotswe and set in Botswana, is incredibly charming and warm as a bowl of soup on a snowy night. The Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh, are hardly mysteries at all, but more like philosophical ponderings dressed up in middle class attire. Recently I’ve been snoozing along to the cases of Detective Varg and his Sensitive Crimes Unit based in Malmo (hint: there are no bodies to be seen.) Set in Malmo, one suspects they are a bit of a reprimand to the extraordinarily violent mysteries coming out of Sweden in the past decade or so. In any case, they are all tender reads.
Sharp Ladies with Sharper Pens
There is no accounting for taste, and mine runs in many directions. I, frankly, worship at the alter of Hilary Mantel. If there was a book I wish I could have written it would have been Wolf Hall. The story of Henry the VIII is so oft told, it’s drifted from fact into legend. Mantel, watching it all unfold from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, turns history on its head for something totally fresh and modern. All the world’s a chess game. If you’re not the historical fiction type, her memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, is so brilliant it gives me the shivers to think about it. She is funny, wise, sharp… no… keen! No one has been more influential on my own writing.
For my money, there’s no better title to any book than Behind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. And it’s a darn good read too. She manages the tripartite trick of being incredibly dark, emotionally riveting, and yet funny at the same time. Life After Life has one of those head scratching premises- a woman dies and comes back over and over and over again- that usually make me run in the other direction. Well, it’s not what you think and you should definitely read it. And though it seems a kind of stand alone story, Atkinson branches off from there, with related stories, including the more straightforward, devastating, and also beautifully titled A God In Ruins. Atkinson, who thrives by twisting genre, even has her extremely compelling version of the murder mystery: The Case Histories. If you like Tana French, you’ll love it and you’ll be happy that there’s a series. Jackson Brodie is the anti-Dalgliesh. He’s not that smart, or that intuitive. He’s just an inherently decent guy, trying to get by and mind his own business, to whatever extent a private detective can.
You may have noticed that I enjoy a doorstop- and the 19th century is my friend. Indeed, I love a lot of pages. The more, the better. I like to sink into my books and stay there a while. Let me put it this way; I’ve read War and Peace three times, and recommend the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation above all others . But the one book I am always reading, all the time, is Middlemarch. I’m not sure why, except that Eliot is so wise, even about Dorothea, who will be wise someday, but in her youthful desire for wisdom is not so wise at all. The older I get, the more I find that delights me and comforts me, and yet strangely makes me think of my own mortality in vivid, shattering ways. It’s that her characters are so life-like, and she is so alive, that I feel her next to me, in my ear, even though she has been dust for over a century now. I don’t know if this makes me feel good or terrible or both. But I am never not reading that book. In a similar way, when all else fails, I reach for Emma. She is not as likable a heroine as Lizzie Bennet or the Dashwood sisters, but I relax in her small, silly, romantic world when the real world is too much.