Books I Push on Others

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 imgresI 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 Wettaimgres-1

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)

cover-insideSometimes 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.


33 thoughts on “Books I Push on Others

  1. The Language of Flowers blew me away, also. I finally got around to Memoirs of a Geisha, which was extraordinary. For writers, I am recommending Valerie Bowman’s Painless Marketing for Busy Authors. Other recommends: Lissa Bryan’s Ghostwriter, a haunting love story, Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says NO, about health and the stress-disease connection, Barbara Shapiro’s The Art Forger, which gives an amazing view of life of a painter, Sere Prince Halverson’s The Underside of Joy, about motherhood, family, and loss, Heart’s Kicking and Dreaming, the audio version of the Wilson sisters autobiography, and for those who like it hot, Roni Loren’s Melt Into You, a passionate novel full of BDSM, menage heat, and love.

    • I recommended Life After Life at Great New Books, but there was a caveat–I loved and disliked it at the same time. Loved her writing, though, and I’d like to read more. Her WWII scenes were stellar.

  2. I totally agree with your recommendation for The Language of Flowers. It was not what I was expecting, which is partially why I enjoyed it so much. I just finished War Brides and really enjoyed that as well. I was a history major and the book still added so much detail to England and the roles of women in World War II. The Kitchen House is next up on my list after I finish the Ender’s Game series. I know, I know…Ender’s Game. Don’t judge 🙂

    • Hey, there is no judging here! I don’t even know what that is, beyond the title and the fact it’s a series. War Brides sounds interesting; Kate Atkinson’s WWII scenes in Life After Life have gotten me interested in the subject.

  3. The Language of Flowers is one of those books that I keep meaning to read! I just reviewed (today) Early Admission by Lacy Crawford. I really liked that and will be recommending it a lot, I’m sure. I’m a big Colum McCann fan, and I can’t wait to read Transatlantic. I’ve been recommending Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (she’s one of my favorites too), The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, and The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison.

    • I loved Olive Kitteridge so I’ve been wanting to get to The Burgess Boys. And I’ve never read Claire Messud, but her recent book is on my must-read list. Heading over to read your review right now.

  4. Wow, Jess… You described my feelings – EXACTLY- about ‘what’ makes a book GOOD. It is ALL about the emotion the author allows me to feel. Rarely, for me, is it about plot, either. “Character development, believability, voice, connection.” YES! For me, the perfect book is one that gives me that emotion WITH the writing that dazzles me, or makes me savor sentences on my tongue.

    Some of my ultimate favorites this year (and beyond) include The Orchardist (wow – the writing and emotion!), The House Girl, Cascade, the Invisible Mountain (for the language and story! Woo wee!), The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, The Baker’s Daughter, Room. I also agree with you on The Round House, The Language of Flowers, The Snow Child (and I read The Kitchen House as well). I can’t wait to see what you recommend at Great New Books! And now … I have a dilemma… I need to add even MORE of your recs to my insane list of “must reads.” Not enough days to read!

    I also just read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, for book club. Holy blow my socks off, Batman!

    • Thanks, Melissa, and thank you for this list—I’m especially going to look up The Orchardist and Invisible Mountain.

      Funny side note–I was swinging through the book section at Target when I saw The Kitchen House on the bestseller shelf and thought to myself, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to read that” and grabbed it. But as I’ve been reading, I’ve been nagged by the feeling that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. You have just reminded me it was actually The House Girl I’d been meaning to read! Geesh.

  5. I completely agree with Melissa — you will love The Orchardist, Jess, though it is hard to read some of the scenes. You’ll know why.

    I’m currently reading a book I’ve thought about you about 100x while reading. I think you’d love it … Erika Robuck recommended it to me. Simon van Booy is one of her favorite authors … Everything Beautiful Began After. It’s slow to start, but it picks up speed, and the writing and characters are so lovely. The story definitely makes me F-E-E-L. The other author I’ve become hooked on this year, especially her newer books and Me Before You is Jojo Moyes. Unbelievable. She grabs the reader with emotion. Can’t stop thinking about her work, though it’s not literary or highbrow, it’s full of meaning and questions.

    LOVE hearing about what you’re reading and what writing and books reach you. You say it so well. Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly. Also, so glad you’re at GNB! xo

  6. Great post and excellent recommendations, I’ll be bookmarking this page. Last year it was The Snow Child for me, I wanted everyone to read it and for those who don’t read much but love cats, I’ve been recommending Caroline Paul’s hilarious true story Lost Cat with its brilliant illustrations by her partner.

    My reading to value the writing writer is Cormac McCarthy for language and Dostoyevsky for character and Kathleen Jamie for observation.

    This year I read a lot of great non-fiction and want to make sure I read more of it, but the fiction great for me this year has been a new writer I’d not heard of before Caroline Smailes and her excellent magical novel The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. I feel lucky to have stumbled across it and fortunate that she has a few other novels I can explore. Ah, so much great reading out there!

    • Oooh, fun! I love discovering new writers, especially if they haven’t gotten a lot of press support. I’ll add your book to my list. And, I have a pretty big confession to make: I have yet to read a book by Cormac McCarthy. He’s probably at the top of my list of masters I need to get to but, as you say, there is so much great reading out there.

    • I’m not sure what kind of books you typically like (and books are so subjective, anyway) but most people I know really liked Language of Flowers, so I’d start there. It’s hard to put down, not in the thriller sense, but you just want to keep reading. Same, for many, with The Snow Child. Let me know if you read one of them!

  7. Thank you for sharing your favorite books! After looking at all the rave reviews and reading the blurb of the book, The Language of Flowers is now on my to-read list. 🙂

  8. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to read books like Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice once again. Even Jane Eyre for that matter. Like yourself, I’m always searching for books that possess a different tone and sense of capture. I love heading down to my local independent book stores because I can always count on the workers or shop owners to help guide my judgment.

    I’m always looking for good reads for my mother, boss and myself. I’ve also been wanting to read The Language of Flowers. Last week, I read a book called If I Knew Then What I Know Now by Doreen Guma. If you enjoy books about living up to your potential and fulfilling the dreams of the individual as well as a united people, I would highly recommend this book. It’s a great way to push people to find that quality and work balance in life. Thanks for sharing, Jessica.

    • Thanks for the rec, Gina! And I so wish we still had an indie bookstore in my town. It went out of business about ten years ago. I’m glad we still at least have a bookstore (B&N) but too often they know more about where a book is in the store than about the books themselves.

  9. Looks like I have to pick up The Language of Flowers! The only name I recognized on your list was Louise Erdrich because another friend recommended The Painted Drum and I have it on my to-read. (In Cold Blood is also on my to-read.) I’ve read several excellent stories this year but they are mainly children’s MG/YA novels. If you’re interested, I’d recommend The Fault in Our Stars. 🙂

    • I have heard about this book from all my reader friends, and the Great New Books women loved it. I don’t know why I’m hesitant to pick it up; I keep hearing “tear-jerker” “heartwarming” “funny” and I think it’s knowing I’m about to go on an emotional roller coaster. Which, of course, I want good writing to make me do, but…..

  10. I’ve only read East of Eden of the books from your list, but I have two others on my shelve to yet to read, Silver Sparrow and the Language of flowers. Echoing Bev, Memoirs of a Geisha, loved it. There are many amazing books out there, but what calls to a reader/writer, is never the same. I rarely recommend books to other just because what I love the next person may hate.

    • I KNOW – I sometimes twinge when I recommend a book because no book is perfect and reading is so subjective. Even at GNB, I sometimes include the things I didn’t like about the book just so I’m not pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes. 🙂

  11. Thank you for this list! I’ve read none of these and I’ll be adding them to my TBR (a few already are). My favorite two books this year are Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and Jolina Petersheim’s THE OUTCAST. But I also reread THE SCARLET LETTER — which is on my all-time fave list. I have a feeling I’ll like your picks since ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are on my all-time list too!

  12. Very interesting!
    I’ve come across East of Eden before and was unsure whether I should buy it or not.I think your post has convinced me!

    Like almost any other person,classics like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ are my favourites,so I won’t really tell people to read them.
    Instead,I’ll often encourage them to buy:
    Peter Pan: because it is a wonderful story underlaid by a poignant message!
    The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s only novel that is a also consummate piece of art!
    The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Highly original and contains some of the best passages I’ve read.Will give you a different outlook on life!
    The God of Small Things: Booker Prize Winner in 1997.Funny yet tragic.A must-read.

    These books are very well known among critics and are often included in ranking lists,but somehow,they are relatively unknown to the general mass.That’s why I think they deserve to be read!

    Thanks for sharing!

  13. LOVED The Language of Flowers. By the way, East of Eden is the only book I have ever read three times. I absolutely love it. It’s practically a soap opera–and I mean that in a good way!

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