March 2013: I’ve added a few books, including quotes from these short story collections: Belle Bogg’s Mattaponi Queen, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and Flannery O’Conner’s Complete Stories. Also, testament to the power of her story and her craft, Gail Caldwell’s memoir of friendship with her fellow writer Caroline Knapp, Let’s Take the Long Way Home.
I’ve kept an informal and incomplete record of my reading since the early 1990’s, but this page includes only those works that touched me deeply as a reader, for their truth, beauty and/or craft. I’ve included brief quotes for your “tasting” pleasure, as well as links to purchase them at independent booksellers whenever possible …
Tell me your favorite books! I’ll continue to add to this list as new works speak to me.
Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
This was one of the ways that Sirine learned how her parents loved each other – their concerted movements like a dance; they swam together through the round arcs of her mother’s arms and her father’s tender strokes.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
I am torn. I realize that, as usual, my presence has only been acknowledged for the purpose of giving me a task to do. But then again, I concede, that is why I am here. I have also noticed that Chabrot speaks in a manner that I find absolutely enthralling – would you be so good as to send the importunate boors on their way? – and this troubles me. I do love this archaic, polite usage. I am a complete slave to vocabulary, I ought to have named my cat Roget. This fellow may be a nuisance but his language is delectable.
The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
“The pictures just come,” Naomi said. “My hand decides. I can be thinking about one thing and my hand will pick up a pencil and draw something entirely different.”
My hand. She said this as someone else might say, My dog. Eudora would have found this ridiculous except for the likenesses of people and objects she’d seen pour fluently from Naomi’s pencil while they talked about something else. As a child she too had loved to draw, but her gift had abandoned her abruptly and it astonished her to see someone do without thinking what she could now do only with difficulty. Equally startling was the way that Naomi referred to the other selves jostling rebelliously inside her. The person whom Eudora knew was not, Naomi claimed, the Naomi who slaved for her mother at the house, the Naomi who’d once lived near Philadelphia, or the Naomi who stood by a frozen creek on a bitter winter’s night, baring her throat and chest to the rays of the moon.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Years rolled on again, and Wendy had a daughter. This ought not to be written in ink but in a golden splash.
Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs
The moon was high overhead. The crushed oyster shells shone white in the driveway like something out of a fairy tale, crunched softly under their feet as they made their way toward Lila’s house. (from the story “Opportunity”)
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell
Hope in the beginning feels like such a violation of the loss, and yet without it we couldn’t survive. I had a friend who years before had lost her firstborn when he was an infant, and she told me one of the piercing consolations she received in her early grief was from a man who recognized the fierce loyalty one feels to the dead. “The real hell of this,” he told her, “is that you’re going to get through it.” Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation.
False Entry by Hortense Calisher (this book is out of print, so I’ve linked to Alibris … )
Although we seldom said grace, I bowed my head as if ready for it to be spoken. Extraordinary, in what detail that last scene, last supper, comes back to me. I see the cloth with its pattern of dulled blue-and-white daisies, a frayed thread hanging from the collar point of the shirt my uncle had just changed to, my mother’s pricked hands and my own, poreless and young – all the stray facts of that room convened now in space as if they had been rubies. Powerless, a god outside the machine, I look down on our three bowed heads from above.
“Just think,” said my mother, glancing from one to the other of us in her fool’s joy, “by this time tomorrow there’ll be two George Higbys!”
She could have said nothing better to show me how gladly she hurried to annul forever my father and all the heritage of that other life, hers too, that went with him; how eager she was to clip the foreskin, veil the eyes, to gain for me – for her own salvation – the great enclosure of the norm.
My uncle gave his cough and did not look at me. Was he less self-deceiving than she? He bent his head over his plate. “Let him be.”
The Grass Harp by Truman Capote
If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery. Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree. Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
… and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Well, we all hold history differently inside us. For Swede such episodes retold themselves into a seamless and momentous narrative; she had a Homeric grasp of the significance of events, and still does; one of her recent letters asks, Is it hubris to believe we all live epics? (Perhaps it is, but I suspect she’s not actually counting on me for an answer.)
Every Eye by Isobel English
Those who wait upon the act of death and its trappings, always say by way of consolation, like the anesthetist at an operation, “You will be the last to know about it.” So one must expect that all the elaborate and well-mannered machinery will have gone into action before the awful fact dawns that one can no longer turn over and say something.
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman
I asked each one of the students to give his or her name and age. Before anyone could respond, though, one girl, Rima Koleilat, a 25-year-old sociology graduate student, whispered softly to herself, we are all 100 years old.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Now the wind started up in the trees, high up, moving the high branches.
The barn swallows came out and began to hunt leaf-bugs and lake-winged flies in the dusk.
The air grew soft.
The old dog came out from its rug in the garage and wandered into the fenced yard and sniffed the boys’ pantslegs and sniffed the baby and licked its hot red tongue across the baby’s forehead, and then it scuttled up to the women on the porch and looked up at them, and looked all around and turned in a circle and lay down, flopping its matted tail in the dirt.
The two women stood letting the breeze blow coolly on their faces, and they opened the fronts of their blouses a little to let it play on their breasts and under their arms.
And soon, very soon now, they would call them in to supper. But not just yet. They stood on the porch a while longer in the evening air seventeen miles out south of Holt at the very end of May.
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga
And yet, Dottor Postiglione has an instinct, an instinct that enabled him to survive the prisoner-of-war camp in North Africa and to endure a difficult marriage without losing the sweetness of his disposition. It is an instinct – almost an inner voice, like Socrates’ daimon – for happiness.
Ironweed by William Kennedy
Francis would remember then that when great souls were being extinguished, the forces of darkness walked abroad in the world, filling it with lightening and strife and fire. And he would realize that he should pray for the safety of Helen’s soul, since that was the only way he could help her now. But because his vision of the next world was not of the court of heaven where the legion of souls in grace venerate the Holy Work, but rather of a foul mist above a hole in the ground where the earth itself purges away the stench of life’s rot, Francis saw a question burning brightly in the air: How should this man pray?
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
She was expressionless. But. Her eyes had the same gleam they got when she removed her violin from its case. A long moment passed. We were locked in a brutal stare. I’ll think about it, she said at last, and marched back around the corner of the house. I heard the door slam. A moment later, the opening notes of “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” by Dvorak. And though she didn’t say yes, from then on I knew I had a chance.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same; sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
When I was walking back out the courtyard to the pen I felt like someone came and carved my heart out, then put it walking in front of me. That’s what I thought–there’s my heart going right out in front of me, all on its own, slick with blood.
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Meanwhile the glare was dizzy bright and she met and talked to many people, some known to her by sight and name, some strangers. The plans about the wedding stiffened and fixed with each new telling and finally came unchangeable. By eleven-thirty she was very tired, and even the tunes dragged with exhaustion; the need to be recognized for her true self was for the time being satisfied. So she went back to the place from which she started – the main street where the glittering sidewalks were baked and half-deserted in the white glare.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan . . . See also McEwan’s acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, given in February 2011.
There was a time this century when ships, white oceangoing liners such as luxuriously plowed the Atlantic swell between London and New York, became the inspiration for a form of domestic architecture. In the twenties something resembling the Queen Mary ran aground in Maida Vale, and all that remains now is the bridge, our apartment building. It gleams a peeling white among the plane trees. Its corners are rounded; there are portholes in the lavatories and lighting the shallow spirals of the stairwells. The steel-framed windows are low and oblong, strengthed against the squalls of urban life. The floors are oak parquet and could accommodate any number of jazzy quick-stepping couples.
The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller
It rains steadily through the night, and Delia wakes from time to time to its heavy racket in the trees outside her open bedroom window. At one point, she gets up and puts another blanket on the bed.
When she wakes for good, though, at about five, light is flooding the room. There’s a cool breeze moving the branches of the tree outside, but she imagines she can feel the heat of the day entering the house, rising.
She begins assessing her body – what hurts today, what doesn’t – then flings back the covers in irritation with herself. How tedious can you be? She’s up, she goes down the hall to the bathroom, to urinate, to brush her teeth, to lay out her medications and take the morning batch.
… then she showers and gets dressed in what she thinks of as her work clothes – today a cotton dress and low-heeled sandals. She puts on the makeup she usually wears – mascara, lipstick, a little color on her cheeks – and looks at herself critically in the mirror. Well, she’s done what she can, she can do no more.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
Her hand, from the habit of a lifetime, found the Holy Water font, dipped two fingers in it. But she did not make the sign of the cross.
Show me a sign, she said.
A Turn in the South by V.S. Naipul
Jimmy worked in New York as a designer and lettering artist. Howard was his assistant. Jimmy, who could become depressed at times, said to Howard one day, “Howard, if I had to give up and you couldn’t get another job, what would you do?” Howard, who was from the South, said, “I would go home to my mama.”
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Miss Willerton always crumbed the table. It was her particular household accomplishment and she did it with great thoroughness. Lucia and Bertha did the dishes and Garner went into the parlor and did the Morning Press crossword puzzle. That left Miss Willerton. Whew! Breakfast in that house was always an ordeal. Lucia insisted that they have a regular hour for breakfast just like the did for other meals. Lucia said a regular breakfast made for other regular habits, and with Garner’s tendency to upsets, it was imperative that they establish some system in their eating. This way she could also see that he put the Agar-Agar on his Cream of Wheat. As if, Miss Willerton thought, after having done it for fifty years, he’d be capable of doing anything else. The breakfast dispute always started with Garner’s Cream of Wheat and ended with her three spoonfuls of pineapple crush. “You know your acid, Willie,” Miss Lucia would always say, “you know your acid”; and then Garner would roll his eyes and make some sickening remark and Bertha would jump and Lucia would look distressed and Miss Willerton would taste the pineapple crush she had already swallowed. (from the story “The Crop”)
Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
The moon had inched higher in the sky as Astrid arrived, carrying a bundle of small paper lanterns attached to an electric cord. ‘I found these in the storeroom,’ she smiled. ‘I have no idea if they work. They might be dangerous to use.’ But Veronika took the bundle and began to untangle the cord. She had set the table for two, with red paper napkins and the customary silly paper hats and bibs. There was a serving platter with a mountain of small freshwater crayfish topped with heads of dill. There was bread, butter and two kinds of cheese. And an iced bottle of aquavit. The laptop sat on the kitchen counter playing traditional drinking songs.
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
I reject both theories. Maiden lady that I am, I believe solitude to be not only the unavoidable human condition but also the sensible human preference. Keith and Mitsuko took the trolley together, yes. But I think that downtown they enacted an affectionate though rather formal parting in some public place — the bus depot, probably. Keith then strode off.
Mitsuko waited for her bus. When it came she boarded it deftly despite the aluminum and canvas equipment on her back. The sneakers — bright red this time, as if they had ripened — swung like cherries from the frame. (from the story “Mates”)
A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
But once she had said it, even silent, it boiled up in her like cold spring water through leaves, rising low from her belly till it filled her chest and throat and spilled up into her mouth and beat against her teeth. She had to speak it or drown, and who could she speak to but Frederick Gupton in her arms asleep? She bent again and touched his ear with her lips and said it to him, barely whispered it – “yes” – and wished him, silent, a long happy life …. He seemed the safest thing still, seemed shut for the night, so while they sang the last verse around her, … she looked on at him, and under her eyes his lips commenced to move, just the corners at first, slow as if they were pulled like tides by the moon, as if he might wake to end some dream, but his eyes didn’t open, didn’t flicker, and his lips pulled on till at last he had made what was almost a smile, for his own reasons, and for no more than three seconds but as if, even in his sleep, he knew of love.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. At Sylvie’s house, my grandmother’s house, so much of what I remembered I could hold in my hand – like a china cup, or a windfall apple, sour and cold from its affinity with deep earth, with only a trace of the perfume of its blossoming. Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Transgression. That is legalism. There is never just one transgression. There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all.
Avoid transgression. How’s that for advice.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
How did Nadir Khan run across the night town without being noticed? I put it down to his being a bad poet, and as such, a born survivor.
Solo Faces by James Salter
For some lovely essays on Salter, see The Paris Review’s celebration of Salter; this link leads you to Jhumpa Lahiri’s piece and you can go from there to others.
The room grew slowly darker, the doorway more and more bright. There was the sound of her mixing things, running water. The refrigerator door opened and closed.
Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel
She received the sacrament and experienced nothing. Over at the other side of the curved altar rail she had caught sight of that nice girl, Ellen Ovre, who was now training to be a deaconness, her face tilted upwards, a remote expression in her eyes, completely ecstatic. Alberta had felt a prick of envy and inferiority. But just before the chalice came to her, Fina Zakariassen, who had a cold, snuffled lengthily and emphatically over it. Although Pastor Pio turned it a little and dried the rim with a napkin, Alberta was unable to think about anything in the great moment besides putting her lips elsewhere than Fina’s.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Walking back to his car at the marina on those mornings, he was sometimes surprised to feel that the earth was altered, the crisp air a nice thing to move through, the rustle of the oak leaves like a murmuring friend. For the first time in years he thought about God, who seemed a piggy bank Harmon had stuck up on a shelf and had now brought down to look at with a new considering eye. He wondered if this was what kids felt like when they smoked pot, or took that drug ecstasy.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (this is the first volume of a trilogy)
Now she understood that her mother’s heart had been scored deep with memories of her daughter, memories of thoughts for her child from the time it was unborn and from all the years a child remembers nothing of, memories of fear and hope and dream that children never know have been dreamed for them, until their own time comes to fear and hope and dream in secret.
Mopani had been told that there were stars in the sky whose light even now had not yet reached the earth.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
For this is the truth about our soul, he thought, our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flickered spaces and on and on into gloom, cold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and sports on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping.