Best-Loved Books

Hello book-readers!

Since Diana asked...

I too am a voracious reader. I was notorious as a teenager for shirking chores to read. So, in rough chronological order of when I first read them, my best loved books (best loved being a weird matrixy balance of really really great books and books that I've loved. I'm totally not confessing to a love of Where's Waldo here):

Curious George - H.A. and Margaret Rey
My first personal hero was the little monkey who could get away with doing anything he wanted even while being caught. Painting on walls? Absolutely. Opening all doors and cages and exploring? Yes! Eating puzzle pieces? Why not?!

Hop on Pop - Dr. Seuss
This book was so awesome and the concept of hopping on pop was so hilarious that 4 year old me a) named my cat "Hop on Pop". I believe this book was also the origin of my father's nickname "Popman" He was a pop. And a man. So...

The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin
My favorite book as a reading child - even more so than the Mixed-up Files... (yes, I would like to live in a museum.) and Harriet the Spy (yes, I like to know everything) - This was a marvelous puzzle mystery that was written for middle-school-aged kids but not dumbed down at all. Clever, engaging, and awesome.

Playing Beatie Bow - Ruth Park
This book is tied up with my memories of living in Australia. It is set in modern and late 1800s Sydney and works on two levels - the puzzle of why she went back in time is paired with the story of how she grows up to deal with her turmoil in the present day. It's charming and beautifully written.

My Antonia - Willa Cather
This is a book that gets richer and more textured every time I read it (and am coincidentally getting older). One of the things that really appeals to me about this book is the union of memory and idealism and reality, and the way the protagonist grows up and understands the difference between the three. Plus, it's a fantastic portrait of people and a time from someone who has moved away but not moved on.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
A gripping American story that is beautifully written and evocative; you can't help but be drawn into the story and the characters as they struggle with issues of fact, fantasy, intolerance, fear, misunderstanding, and hope.

The Psmith Books - P. G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse's light comic frivolity that masks a lovely satire that is so beautifully focused in the Psmith novels, whether he's working for a bank, editing an American magazine, or making sure Mike can marry the girl he wants. Psmith's ability to blithely swim through to his eventual goal in the face of all logic and the eddying impact of his actions. These are just fun.

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
I was sixteen when I first read this, and that image of Janie lying under the pear tree captured my imagination and never let go. This is a vivid story that catches you up in the story of her life using big bold strokes that are supported by a wealth of vivid details. There's a hidden genius in the construction of the novel that seems simple and straightforward on the surface but is really wonderfully intuitive and complex in reality. It's a virtuoso performance that you can enjoy as a piece of escapism.

Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges
A wonderful collection of short stories in Borges' distinctive densely-populated style. There's more than a touch of a surreal realism about his stories, which deal with time and space and reality and fantasy and identity. They're wonderful journies down the garden path - the one that twists around in a fabulous dizzying array of thousands of tiny blooms.

The Complete Poems - Elizabeth Bishop
Reading Bishop for the first time was like a broom swept through poetry and cleaned everything else out. Her poems are vivid and muscular and observed like a scientist pinning down a specimen. I mean that in a good way. They really hit me upside the head, reading them all at once like that.

Persuasion - Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice is a better novel, technically, but Persuasion has a stronger emotional impact because these are Austen's strongest characterizations. More nuance and complex than the previous novels, the characters are almost universal in their natures. In Anne Elliot, Austen created a heroine who is palpable from the first page. It may be own overachieving wallflower nature, but I found Anne to be one of the most richly drawn character I've ever read. Her emotions, feelings, and thoughts are so clearly expressed as part of the narrative that you can't help but be caught up in her emotional rollercoaster. It's a remarkable portrait.

Dubliners - James Joyce
This collection of short stories is anchored by the "The Dead" - which is one of the greatest short stories ever written itself - but the collection is a beautifully executed as a collection and as individual stories. Built around epiphanies and self-discoveries, the tone is measured and straight-forward, but the language is deliberative and smartly chosen. The language of the narrator is pulled to mirror the nature of the characters which draw you into the character's world but allows you to simultaneously connect with and watch the story unfold.

The Loved One - Evelyn Waugh
When Doug Patey suggested I take his Senior English Major Seminar on Evelyn Waugh, I was dubious. I wasn't an English major, and the casual English 1930s racism in the early Waugh novel I had read turned me off. But he said I would like it and said I would be pleasantly surprised. He was right. Waugh's one of the few writers I've read who grew more open-minded and less-bigoted as he got older - and this amidst a conversion to Catholicism! (This is not to say Catholics are bigoted, but rather that during times of conversion and an exploration of spiritual needs, the focus on rolling back racism is generally neither primary or so incredibly demonstrated.) I fell in love with Waugh's shorter works - the travel writings and the novellas in particular. The Loved One is my favorite, though. Set in 1940s LA in the funeral industry, this is a novel about the ties and relationships between people - both in what they think they are and what they really are. It's also a lovely skewering of the funeral business, the film business, and the English ex-pats in the US. I read it at the same time as I read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, which is a marvelous 1960s expose of abuses in the funeral home industry.

A Family Affair - Rex Stout
I am about 98% of the way through the list of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries (featuring the effective pairing of the intellectual sedentary refined Nero Wolfe and his right hand the medium-boiled yet dashing man-about-town Archie Goodwin), and I'm totally reading them out of order. So I've read the last mystery Stout published before his death, and it is a bold, strong entry in the pantheon. Sixty mysteries in, and the man still produces this inspired work? Amazing. It is at once a controlled yet angry commentary on Watergate and a striking, boldly-plotted mystery that actually blew my mind. I wish he had written more novels set after this event so we could see the ramifications. Also, for the record, you can have Archie Goodwin. I want Saul Panzer. If you read this, I strongly recommend that you've read multiple Wolfe mysteries first.

The Eyre Affair (and the others in the series) - Jasper Fforde
You know that feeling when you start reading a book and think "Oh, I've come home!"? Well, I got that in spades in Jasper Fforde's first Tuesday Next novel. Funny and literate and witty, the book - like the series - is set in an alternate book-centric universe with puns, puzzles, time-shifting, imaginative pacing and construction, and nonsene. It is brilliant and funny and engrossing. I like rich literary universes, and in the alternate England, the universe is very rich indeed.

Harry Potter Series - J. K. Rowling
Judging it strictly on escapist merits, the series is top-rate, but it's smartly plotted with a rich backdrop and backstory, fabulous details, and a bright, vivid tone that draws you in. Rowling - who improved as a writer through the series - moved her books to darker, richer, more complex regions as the kids grew older and able to handle more. She's a master of finding balance without sacrificing depth of emotion or connection. Plus, they're fun.

Since I wrote that I discovered several things I've really really liked: the spy suspense of Alan Furst (evocative, smart, interlocking WW2 espionage tales), Julia Child's My Life in France, wonderfully researched and written non fiction on everything from Alice Kobler to the way the Soviet Union solidified its hold on Eastern Europe after World War II, and a wide variety of memoirs and autobiographies that provide an interesting perspective as a group more than they do individually. I'll have to update this page at some point.

I can't believe I just repurposed something from Facebook for my website.