Most people save their Favorite Books of the Year posts for the end of the year, appropriately. But right now it’s Sunday morning and I’m cozied up on the couch with my children, in the glow of a reading lamp; outside, it’s dark gray, chilly, and rainy. This, to me, is fall. And everything about fall makes me want to read and talk books.
I find it harder to lose myself in books like I used to, before I studied the craft in college and grad school, before I’d had enough reading years in me to recognize (what I consider) true skill. For that reason, I’m hesitant to re-read my childhood favorites, like Anne of Green Gables, To Kill a Mockingbird, In Cold Blood, and Red Badge of Courage. These are all classics, so I rest fairly easy that I’d still love them, but I’m not quite sure the risk is worth it. A few years ago, I re-read East of Eden, a book that enthralled me twenty years ago. The second time around, while I still liked it and definitely appreciated it, I thought Steinbeck droned on a bit too much. I simply am not ready to admit that my tastes might have changed with regard to Steinbeck (my first literary boyfriend), and so I will not re-read The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s not the plot I love, usually. A book could be about everything or nothing. It’s the emotion I feel when I’m reading a really good book. Character development, believability, voice, call it what you will. If I make a connection to the book, I’m sold. I’ll tell everyone I know about it, like I did over at Great New Books with The Snow Child, Untouchable, The Best of Youth, and, coming up….well, I’ll wait and let you read my next rec on September 25.
I’ve had other favorites in the last year (I use the term “year” loosely). Here they are, in no particular order, with links to each:
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (okay, in some particular order. I put this first because it came to mind first and it’s the book I’ve told the most people to read this year)
If Jack’s in Love, by Jack Wetta
Up From the Blue, by Susan Henderson
Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson
Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (I read this about two or three years ago, but just saw it on my Goodreads list and liked it enough that I want to include it here; I’ve been meaning to read more of Waters)
Sometimes I love a book simply because it’s different, compelling in its writing. A quiet book, about people living their lives. But the writing is gritty, honest, true, and gets at the heart of things. Jim Harrison writes like that. And Denis Johnson. I read their books for the writing. Which is no small thing, by the way. It doesn’t mean there’s no story; there has to be a story. Their writing in particular just makes it so much richer. Besides Johnson’s Train Dreams, this year I read Harrison’s The River Swimmer, which I liked a lot.
I also read Colum McCann for his writing—though he is more epic and sweeping than Harrison and Johnson, but still, for me, it’s the writing with him and less so the story—and even then, it’s less the writing and more McCann’s observations and ponderings on the human condition, and the love for humanity that shines through his stories. He is like Steinbeck in that regard. Smart ones, they. This year, I read McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (good) and Transatlantic (very good).
Right now, I’m in the middle of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, which may well end up making my Favorites list by the end of this year.
Which books have you told your friends they have to read? Why? Please do let me know.