It’s that time of year again. I’m not referring to the Holidays, or setting aside time to take stock of what I did or didn’t accomplish over the last eleven months in order to prepare for those dreaded New Year’s Resolutions. I refuse to participate in winter assessments. Winter is not my friend. I get cold, irritable and often blue— not a good time to make decisions. My goal making happens in August, on my birthday, when the sun is bright, the weather is hot, and my energy is high.
The time I’m referring to is the “list making” portion of this season, specifically to the Best Books of 2019 that have already lit up the Internet. I never gave those Best lists much thought until last year when a writer friend announced, in her December newsletter, that she would be stepping away from all social media for a few months because she wasn’t emotionally equipped to withstand the repeated blow of her book NOT landing on anyone’s Best List. All I wanted to do was wrap her in a hug for the duration of her exile.
But I was also perplexed. How could this happen? My friend is a grand storyteller of suspense. I was so excited about her book— that wasn’t hitting the 2018 lists— that I’d bought several copies to gift to friends and family upon its release. And so, I pulled up my 2018 booklist. But after perusing the thirty-six books I read— a slow reading year for me— I discovered I wasn’t even able to make a list of ten favorites. Only five book titles got me hot and bothered again. I thoroughly enjoyed my friend’s book, but in the end it wasn’t one I continued to recommend.
I was mortified. What kind of friend doesn’t continue to promote another friend’s book? How can I call myself a Champion for Writers, if I so easily fall off the promotion wagon for a book I enjoyed? Valid questions. But what kept smacking me in the face was the notion that how well and how long any reader loves a book is never an objective process. It’s deeply personal. And if I were to engage in this Best Books of [current year] process, the act of selecting five or ten books would inevitably leave some author’s book— one I might have loved— on the coffee table to become hidden by magazines and newer books. And so, I vowed to avoid the Best Books of 2018 and all future years.
But rather than be totally Bah-Humbuggy, I’ve decided to share the books I return to again and again as a writer and a reader, along with an explanation for why my desire to reread continues to grow. The order of these books is based only on how they came to mind.
My Favorite Re-readable Books
The Hours by Michael Cunningham— is the first book I would pack if I ever planned to be stranded on a deserted island. It was the first novel I read after I chose to commit myself to a writing life. Yes, I thought— as I compulsively turned the pages— to strive for this level of storytelling is a worthwhile obsession. I have no idea how many times I’ve read The Hours, but every time I do the beauty of the prose overwhelms me. And there is no getting around it— the way Michael Cunningham uses a semicolon is damn sexy. But my love for the story is not solely based on skilled craftsmanship. The power of the story rises from the intricately woven lives of Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Dalloway, who all struggle to find peace with the sadness and sense of displacement that permeates their lives. It is this shared struggle that fuses them across time as if each woman is reincarnated into the next. The Hours no longer holds surprises for me, and yet, each time the climax arrives the truth grips and sears my heart unexpectedly. Living in a world where overstimulation has become the norm, I’m ever so grateful for this book that exquisitely shows a single glance, flower, or an hour can be enough.
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice— not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God: I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
I’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany five times. The last time I pulled it off the bookshelf was to read it in weekly installments to my eighty-nine-year old aunt. When I reached the end, I said, “What should we read next?” She said, “I don’t know. That Owen is a hard act to follow.” He is. He’s also one of the most inspirational fiction characters around. I’ve met several people who don’t care for this particular Irving novel because of the narrator Johnny Wheelwright. Johnny is a dishrag next to Owen. He lacks initiative. His personality is so neutral he can’t even get laid. But this is exactly why he is the perfect narrator for the story. Owen’s unconditional and unwavering faith means nothing to the reader without Johnny’s endless confusion about life. Irving’s choice to place such opposites side-by-side forces the reader— just like Owen’s sacrifices force Johnny— to take a stand. An unforgettable story.
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway— is a little story with Zen-like power. I often reread phrases, sentences and paragraphs in order to savor the simplicity and accuracy of a moment.
He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.
The first time I returned to this story, I did so because I longed for the relationship between the old man, Santiago and the boy, Manolin. The old man and the boy only have three scenes in the book, but the appreciation and love the old man has for the boy is unmistakable and amplified in our hearts throughout the story with fourteen one-line references.
If the boy were here he would wet the coils of line, he thought. Yes. If the boy were here. If the boy were here.
And if that isn’t enough to persuade you let me share this. Hemingway’s old man has one of the biggest hearts in literature.
I had better keep the fish quiet now and not disturb him too much at sunset. The setting of the sun is a difficult time for all fish.
The old man risks his life to break his eighty-four days of bad luck and when he’s on the verge, when hunger, thirst and injury could push him towards cruelty his overriding thoughts are of kindness. My feeling is that everyone in the world needs to read or reread The Old Man and the Sea. The sooner the better.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald— I have never read Gatsby without pausing to covet the following passage:
A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The awe I have for Fitzgerald’s descriptions draws me back again, and again, and each journey reveals more about the magic of writing. The Great Gatsby exemplifies the power of What If— the backbone of all great stories— for this phrase is the driving force behind Jay Gatsby’s very existence. Every action within the novel is woven out of Gatsby’s desire to recover the moment in time when he was spiritually and emotionally alive— the time before the war, with Daisy. I don’t believe any other writer captures or romanticizes the Jazz Age as well as Fitzgerald. The excessive gaiety of the times, and the endless flow of gin and sex is present in the lives of Daisy and Gatsby, but so is loneliness.
And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.
I tried to go then, but they wouldn’t hear of it; perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone.
The need to escape into a relationship that provides more intimacy, or the fear of never finding someone to truly share your heart is an aching pulse through the novel. It is this aching pulse that calls to me again and again, and so, I return to covet every word from the beginning to one of the most memorable endings in literature.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell— I revisit the story almost every year, either by watching the film or rereading the novel. The film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable is one of the best book-to-film adaptations. It’s a superbly accurate condensation of the story that unfolds against the backdrop of our country’s Civil War and Reconstruction. But the depth of courage and resilience that make Scarlett O’Hara stand out as a heroine and a woman to be admired, in spite of her flaws, can only be fully appreciated by reading the book— all 1037 pages. One of the most extraordinary facts about Scarlett is not her beauty, but her age. She is only sixteen when the story begins. She is an innocent, then the war breaks out, she marries, gives birth, is widowed, cares for her sickly sister-in-law during her childbirth, survives the burning of Atlanta and manages to get back to her home Tara, only to discover her mother has died. When her father dies not long after, Scarlett is the only one left to save her beloved Tara from being sold to carpetbaggers. By the time all this is accomplished she is only 21. Yowza! Her ability to rise up, at such a tender age, to combat the forces that threaten the security of herself and all those she loves is true inspiration. She is a woman who could lead the #Metoo movement of today. Gone With The Wind is a love story on a grand scale, but the heart of the story is Scarlett’s personal transformation, which is deftly fleshed out through Scarlett’s complicated relationship with Melanie. She hates her mealy-mouthed sister-in-law. Her jealousy is palpable, and yet, Scarlett can never bring herself to do Melanie wrong— not even when it places her own life in danger. Scarlett O’Hara changes from a spoiled child to a courageous, resilient woman with an enormous heart. Sure she has flaws, but don’t we all.
This is another whopper of a book— the uncut version is 1153 pages. And like Gone With The Wind, it is totally worth your time. In fact, if I had to choose between the two I would pick The Stand. The first Stephen King novel I read was The Shining. It was so scary I could only read it during the day. The Stand, too, is a frightening tale, but not in the same way. Although the scenario of a plague that obliterates almost the entire population sounds far-fetched, it is completely plausible. It is a story of good vs. evil, about personal choices, about the external forces that can pull us away from our moral center, about listening to our hearts and caring for others. You’ll recognize yourself as well as your friends and family. Your heart will break, but you will also be uplifted. Another book that has more resonance in today’s world than it did when I first read it in 1980.
Okay, so you knew this was coming, right? It’s impossible to love The Hours without also being captivated by Mrs. Dalloway. I honestly can’t tell you which one I prefer. To me, they are inseparable. Whenever I reread one, I must reread the other. If you haven’t read either, my recommendation is to read Mrs. Dalloway first. Doing so will allow you to appreciate how exquisitely Cunningham incorporates Woolf’s characters and events into this modern version. But once you’ve read both, I dare say, you’ll also find them inseparable. I covet Woolf’s flow, how seamlessly she moves from the interior of one person’s world into another. I am also thoroughly captivated by the emotional complexity within each character. How they are confident one second and in a shamble of doubt the next. How they are torn about their feelings about others and how the inability to resolve those feelings adds to their humanness. But mostly, these days, I am grateful of Woolf’s attention to detail that triggers or emotions, which often leads us into dark waters, but more often than not lifts us up.
To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallow swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them;…and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks— all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.
If any of these books sparked something inside you, I hope you’ll honor that instinct and read them when the time is right for you. And if, like me, you fall in love with them, please share them with someone else.
You’re welcome to email me about any of the books listed above, or on any topic related to the books you love and, of course, your writing journey.
Thanks for listening. And Happy Holidays!