Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Emotionally Weird, Case Histories, Not the End of the World- I love the Scottish Atkinson’s use of words and the fun she has with them. The plots themselves tend to be lazy and lethargic, but the funny way she tells a story and paints characters shows that it is often not “what” the story is, but how.
Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey– Austen is a staple and the cornerstone of all my subsequent fictional choices. Most of her minor characters are not extremely well-developed because they are caricatures- but she displays peoples’ inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies with a lot of wisdom and wit, and she exposes social troubles in a timeless fashion. I have learned a whole lot of lessons from these books and come back to them whenever I have been a failure in some way. They are succinct and tend to end happily, so they are usually a comfort to read.
Keeping the House was an adventure into married life- its joys and turmoils. I laughed and cried as I read about each of the characters- each with their own beautiful and tragic stories. I would go back to this book to find myself again as I was the summer of ’08.
The Sisters Mortland was a very interesting book that vividly painted the lives of three sisters in an old castle in the 1960s. There was so much tragedy in this book, and so much mystery- you see half the book through the eyes of Maisie, a young child with autism, and then there is a tragic near-death of her character. We revisit all the characters years later and find out what really happened to lead her to jump- or fall- to her now vegetable-like existence. The book began much like Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and I enjoyed the twisting, turning plot- but in the end there were no answers or tying up of loose ends, so it left me feeling depressed and anxious to move on to the next book. Still, Beaumann is a skilled writer and deserves a place here.
Grange House has haunted me ever since I read it a year ago- the remote landscape, the shifting plot, the strange language of the narrator. I could read this book again and again. It deeply affected me and taught more about the art of being a writer.
Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley, The Professor- Charlotte Bronte is one of my literary kindred spirits. I have been deeply influenced by her faith, her beautiful feminism and, to my detriment, her lacing of melodramatic plots and tendencies toward the deus ex machina. I read these books again and again, so that they have become who I am.
The Pig Did It was most notable for its perfectly timed comic statements, and it manner of making fun of the Irish long-windedness and at the same time, bringing out its charm. I thought the ending was too contrived… the heroine (a pig herder) shows scorn to Aaron the entire story, and then at the end she suddenly asks if he could love her for the rest of her life. Other than this, the situations the three “murderers” get into is hilarious and made me think of Waking Ned Divine. I would love to read more by this author.
Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations– I once looked upon Dickens as a puffed-up old windbag because that is how my dad saw him. But then I reread Our Mutual Friend in the winter of ’06 and changed my mind. To me, reading Dickens is like looking in tiny miniature windows at families seated around fat pot-bellied stoves, cooking a chicken on a spit, playing music- the women in dry, powdery ringlets and the men with mutton-chop whiskers. I laughed cheerily at the characters and they seemed somewhat like cartoons. I read recently that Dickens saw the world as a child would- happy, innocent characters usually win out over the villains in the end. I wonder if that is true.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee
Arranged Marriage– wonderfully insightful and poetic Indian writer. I can’t wait to read something- anything- by this author. In her short story collection, I was so convinced of her perspective that I thought she had lived the stories- but after she fleshed out many characters in the perspective of “I,” I realized that she was simply a good writer, able to take on the thoughts and personalities of many people. Seeing India through her eyes was an unforgettable experience.
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, The Sealed Letter, Slammerkin, Room– Donoghue writes historical fiction without the consciousness that most writers have. She uses historical details in a way that I think is natural and not forced, and she writes on topics that are often ignored by others. I really loved the snapshots of Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.
The Light at the End of the World– Dopson is a psychologist, which interested me when it came to this book. I had it out from the library for several weeks before I read it, and when I did I found a treasure. This is the only book I have ever read to take place in 10,000 BC, and the way the main character thought was so believable, and yet so foreign, that my mind was opened up to a new world. The way the characters looked at God (Earth Maker) was also fascinating – and that fear of the end of the world and how it came. I would read this book again. It was an adventure.
Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn– the suspense mixed with romance had me at hello. I love her style and I love the way the plot unfolds.
Middlemarch- learning more about George Eliot’s life and finding out that she was much like me was a catalyst toward reading her novels. I have never finished Middlemarch, but its characters have stayed with me – the beautiful, idealistic Dorothea who makes a foolish mistake in marrying the old and crotchety Cassaubon, poor confident Doctor Lydgate who meets the demise of all his ambitions in the lovely but worldly Rosamund Vincy, and all the other the tiny, colorful characters who are woven into the giant tapestry of this plot.
Passion and Purity, The Path of Loneliness – no spiritual writer had a bigger impact on me in my twenties than Elisabeth Elliot. Reading her words made me a better person almost instantly. She taught me, quietly, through example, how practically to live my faith as one who has been saved and one who looks at the cross for redemption. She healed my heartbroken and humiliated spirit in the summer of ’08 and I came out of the summer stronger, wiser, and richly renewed.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the first novels I read and I only just realized how much it impacted me. Ideas like putting a penny can in the closet to collect money for a bit of land, going to the library and reading one book a day in alphabetical order, and the glory of drinking coffee, as well as the delicious descriptions of Brooklyn in the 1910s. Now, after reading it years later, I am more endeared to the characters than ever and their humanity has taught me about myself. I will never forget this book.
All this and Heaven Too nourished my poor heart-broken soul in the summer of ’08. I read all about the main character’s joys and lonelinesses as a French governess, and resonated especially about her hopeless feelings for the count at whose home she worked. I was filled with joyful relief when her life turned for the better on her going to America, where she met a man who was in the position to love her and with whom she was very happy. I will never forget the emotional transformation I underwent in reading this book.
Inside the Victorian Home fueled my imagination and wonderings like few books. I was enchanted to learn the intimate details of living in the 1800s, things I had never known before, such as that infants were fed on pureed bread and water and not milk, and that soaked tea leaves were placed on carpets in order to clean them. I learned how very cold houses were (often 50 degrees) and about the kinds of foods eaten and what a day consisted of. This isn’t a fictional book, of course, but it stirred my soul as if it had been one.
Howards End, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with A View- Delightfully Edwardian and frothy, the novels of EM Forster are fascinating explorations of a changing class system and how its members “muck about.” I love some of the characters that come alive in his writing- Margaret Schlegel and Lucy Honeychurch, however, are my favorites. I love Margaret’s scatterbrained good heart and desire to make all people be friends, and I love the funny match she makes with Mr. Wilcox. Tragedy strikes when Mr. Wilcox’s son kills Helen Schlegel’s lover and she bears his child, and at the end the upper-class Wilcoxes dwell peaceably with the middle-class Schlegels and the lower-class son of Bast. I love the coming-of-age Lucy as she begins to ignore the superfluous social conventions in favor of the truth of how things are, and acknowledges her earthy love for George Emerson. But even beyond the serious ideas of Forster, there is a beautiful, light comedy overriding his work and making it enjoyable to read and wish oneself to be part of the beautiful Edwardian age.
Wives and Daughters, North and South, Ruth – Gaskell will always seem like a later Jane Austen, who gives her characters more perspective and warmth. Like Thomas Hardy, she gives the impression of being able to see into the soul and to decipher good and evil tendencies. Like Austen, her pen can be merciless to social evils. Like Bronte, she popularized the social novel. I love Molly Gibson’s character and I enjoy the deep character of Cynthia. I also love to read about Roger Hamley’s romance with both characters, especially when I feel I am being overlooked in favor of some more audacious and beautiful rival. I more laugh now at Ruth and North and South’s obvious agendas and pleas for sympathy, but I think they are valuable also.
Courting Trouble, Deep in the Heart of Trouble, A Bride Most Begrudging, Measure of a Lady- Gist’s humorous and loveable characters redeem the silliness of the Christian historical romance. Gist’s characters are real, memorable, and the results of living faithful lives do not always lead to perfect results or the typical “dark, handsome stranger who is trying to forget his past.” I read these books as comfort food.
In this House of Brede, An Episode of Sparrows– I came to love this author and her way of painting ordinary lives so very interestingly, when my hand brushed against This House of Brede at the library. I was struggling with fears of being called to be a nun at the time, and this book helped to dispel so many of my fears. It showed what the community of nuns is like and how all the qualities, good or bad, rub against each other until only the good endures. I enjoyed each nun, each problem that came up, and went away less afraid.
Wickett’s Remedy was an adventure in the summer of ’06. I read this book, greatly enjoying the main character’s flair for romance and humor. I suffered with the characters through the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918, and enjoyed the protagonist’s romantic escapades too. I also loved her style of asserting little “asides” as to what other characters thought or remembered of a scene, and how they often corrected the narrator about what really happened.
Green Dolphin Street was as neat as a pin- it set out to study three characters- one with a desire to find the right place, one with the desire to find true love, and one who sets out to find God. It was a very helpful thing to my faith, showing how even the wrong decision can be lived with and can be God’s will. Marianne always loved the boy, and he loved her sister Marguerite. He goes away to sea for many years and finally sends a letter to the household asking for the hand of Marianne by mistake. He realizes his error and never lets her know that she wasn’t wanted. Marguerite becomes a nun, never knowing that he really loved her. All of them, in living the life that was not chosen, grow in strength and in faith. The man humbles himself and lets Marianne think that she has saved him, while Marguerite makes peace with her sister and chooses her vocation. Marianne has the furthest to fall in her pride, and eventually does so. It is an uplifting novel that shows how life’s tragedies can be made beautiful and good.
Hahn, Scott and Kimberly
Rome Sweet Home, More Precious Than Jewels, Hail Holy Queen, the Lamb’s Supper, Knowing the Will of God- The Hahns’ faithful example and teachings have nourished me both intellectually and in my heart. Scott Hahn’s corny sense of humor and scriptural knowledge have coached me to know my faith and to own my faith as few cradle Catholics have been able to do. Kimberly has taught me to be a more godly woman, and, even more than this, has given me to thirst for spiritual excellence.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Under the Greenwood Tree– Thomas Hardy has that love of people and insight for them while also painting them in stark realism. I learned through him how to sympathize with human nature’s accidents and sins, how to understand that, virtue or not, all of us are cut from the same cloth. Though Hardy tends toward the belief that most of human suffering is random or circumstantial and often comes back to an idea that we cannot escape our past or our fate, I tend to find a kind of beauty in this belief which I don’t understand. Gabriel Oak will always be one of my favorite characters.
Stones by the River- I read this book about 5 years ago, but it has stayed with me ever since then- the depth of Trudi’s emotional pain at being a little person, the turmoil and fear of living in Germany in the world war II era, the way the townspeople both stuck together and stayed apart. I will not forget this book.
Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady- I loved every moment of The Portrait of a Lady, even though at several times I was unable to understand the mission of Isabelle Archer. Henry James’ plots are always intensely social, and sometimes I am in the mood for the heaviness of the Victorian social drama, sometimes not. Isabelle Archer taught me not to ignore the quiet loves in one’s life, and to be extremely careful in choosing a spouse. Washington Square taught me that the tyranny of one’s parents’ expectations can often ruin our lives if we allow them to dictate our actions. I have learned a few valuable things from Henry James, but our minds are not akin.
Always Green, Like a Watered Garden– I loved Mibby’s pragmatic humor and her ability to learn faith lessons from her joys and struggles. No matter what she faces, the author paints the story lovingly and humorously. I loved Mibby’s friend who has cancer and I love her cute way of teaching her friend the faith. I like Larry, her unlikely husband, and love how she shepherds her adopted daughter in her faith. And (kudos to the author) I actually grew more interested in gardening from reading this book!
The Ordinary Princess showed me a world more beautiful than my own. I was around 9 years old when I read this book, and I have never forgotten it. The ordinary princess living in the forest and meeting the man-of-all-work who was really a prince stirred my senses and was deliciously romantic. Loved it.
Lewis, Clive Staples
Till We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, Chronicles of Narnia, The Problem of Pain– CS Lewis is foremost my literary friend, and then a great teacher. I have learned so much from his comforting, succinct examples on faith, first revealed to me by my first high school crush. I could imagine myself sipping coffee with him and smoking pipes. He is my literary pedagogue and one of my best “friends.”
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow
Dearly Beloved, Bring Me a Unicorn, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead- Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a favorite from the day, at 17, I discovered Bring Me a Unicorn in Reader’s Digest. I devoured her journaled thoughts, because I had never met a writer so akin to my own way of viewing the world. Introspective, furnishing her life with beautiful images and pictures, and pondering the meaning of things, she made me feel so much less alone than I had ever felt. I cherished the mysterious romance of the Lindberghs and was crushed when I read her commenting later that “I was so in love”- implying that at that later age she was not in love. It was the first time I had encountered the idea that “in love” was not a permanent condition. Sometimes I read Anne now because I can read her thoughts at later ages and see myself growing and changing also.
Lady’s Choice-this is a book of letters exchanged between a quite educated schoolteacher and a cattle-driving ranch owner in the early part of the 20th Century. He pursued her for 5 years, and she said no each time in the desire of living a more vivid life. Set in the turn of the century, her resistance is amazing, but she finally married John Love at the spinsterish age of 29. It was hard to remember at times that this book was actually true – it read as easily as fiction. I read this when dating my college boyfriend, fearful of getting married and settling down too young, and this book confirmed my feelings that I should go out and live my life more fully before marrying. I wonder if my growing up 5 years would affect the manner in which I read the book now.
Lovelace, Maud Hart
The Betsy Series– I loved Betsy and her family – I loved their cheerful house, and how they made fudge, and sang opera with “the crowd”. I loved her two sisters and I loved Betsy’s spirit of unabashed romanticism. For a long time there was a sub-conscious link between I Love Lucy and Betsy- Betsy had the same flair for funny scrapes. As an 8-16-year old, I adventured with Betsy and checked out her books again and again. I was in love with Joe Willard from the moment I “met” him, and ever since then have been unmistakably drawn to intelligent men who wear the same air of mystery and are not easy to interpret. My favorite of these books has always been Betsy In Spite of Herself, which I took off to college to comfort me in my grown-up loneliness.
The Garden Party, Bliss, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, A Dill Pickle- Mansfield glimmers and sparkles like a Monet painting, and she- like a prism- collects poignant little images and pieces of life. Her short stories thrill me, and whenever I need a new taste of life, I seek her out. Some of her images have captured me for years, and have become private jokes. When the woman meets a man she once loved in Dill Pickle and “the tiger which had slumbered peacefully roused and woke himself”- and the girl in Garden Party, whose entire life of luxury is shattered when she comes upon a cottage in which the father of the household has just died, the “inward expression when one has swallowed cream.” Beautiful, unique writer.
A Man Called Peter, Something More, Christy, Julie- Reading Catherine Marshall made me a faithful teenage girl. Ripe from my own spiritual conversion of heart, I discovered Something More and was entranced by her stories of faith and miraculous happenings. This book influenced me for the good in a time when I very much needed to know “where to go now.” I fell in love with Peter Marshall and vowed that if I ever found someone like him (preferably with a Scottish brogue) that I would have to marry him. I thought I had found a character like him in Matthew Kelly and was very disappointed to find out that he is now married.
Love in a Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love – Mitford’s novels are England between the wars – decadent, smooth, and rich. I will never forget Linda’s endless games of Patience- “if this comes out, I will be married at 18”- and I hung my head, embarrassed to find myself like her. Linda’s optimistic romanticism, that search for ideal love, chastened me and showed me that such an ideal is not to be found, and it is too elusive to last. I much more wanted to be like Fanny, but unfortunately, not. I loved the crazy family and their games- it reminded me of an English version of my own family.
Montgomery, Lucy Maud
Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, and everything else she ever wrote- though sometimes she seems silly, over-proud of her own ideas and self-congratulatory, I can’t ignore the powerful effect LM Montgomery had on my life- my ideals, my thoughts, my personality. I gobbled up every book she ever wrote and proudly sported the full collection of her books on my shelves, vowing that my own kids would read them someday. Montgomery’s characters all share one thing in common, which is both their undeniable charm and their Achilles heel: they are all isolated from the outside, practical world by virtue of their powerful imaginations and depths of feeling. The others in their world are doing one of two things: paying them poetic homage and drinking in their words like honey, orbiting them like satellites- if not doing this, they are unromantic, stodgy, thinking only of the town gossip or boring things like shelling peas. This pride of the inner world, of the imagination, captured me initially because I was naturally akin to Anne and Emily and Pat, and always felt misunderstood by others- particularly my family. But the pride was counterproductive also, in that it tended to cast off those more practical-minded people in my life as being “not good enough for my imagination,” etc. Montgomery’s tragic flaw is that she failed to portray the entire picture- anyone not like her was relegated to the cast-off wardrobe of the mean-spirited or the unintelligent, with characters barely developed or shaded in. It has taken me years to recover from this circumstantial view of others, but I am finally learning to appreciate writers who circle, with larger omniscience, the greater spectrum of human appetites and personalities.
The Truest Pleasure – I don’t know exactly how he did this, but Robert Morgan got into the head of a woman and made her seem real on the page. I learned so much about myself in reading about the marriage of the girl and Tom. She is so passionate about revivalist meetings, and he so adamantly against them. He spends all of his hours working hard on their farm, scheming about how to make every dollar he can. The real-ness of this couple’s Appalachian life together gave me a true sense for what marriage must be like – both why it is a joy and why a constant struggle.
Father Elijah, Strangers and Sojourners- my life changed in the summer of ’05 when I forced myself to read Father Elijah. I loved the humble priest and the questions that were raised in this apocalyptic book. I couldn’t put it down after a few chapters. When I later read Strangers and Sojourners, I laughed and cried with the woman protagonist, finding in her so many parallels with myself and my older sister. That desire for more which characterizes the book, the glimpse into married life- the vocation, the calling itself, and the struggles that come in persevering for so many years, touched me deeply. I have read bits of it again since and have found few other writers who can capture a story so poetically as Michael O’Brien.
Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings and A Few Green Leaves made me want to be an excellent woman. I identified with the quiet plots and the church-centered lives of quiet, sensible spinsters who do not have high expectations. I also liked that Pym always finds a way to match-make them to eligible Episcopalian priests or other such gentleman. Pym taught me how to live a quiet life with dignity and to make the most of it.
Santmeyer, Helen Hooven
….And Ladies of the Club was my whole world in the summer of ’04. I drank in the lives of the characters, and then the characters’ children. I loved quiet, introspective Anne Gordon because I saw my reflection in her, and I equally loved spunky, spirited Sally because I did not. Thomasina Ballard’s romance with the piano teacher, and the spinsterly Eliza, the girl who first acts so well and then becomes a mother and scorns all women who act, “Shaney” and her unrequited love for Johnny Gordon; Johnny’s love for his ice queen of a wife…. So many stories and people. Most of all, this novel set me up for life. I saw life lived from age 18 to age 86, and how the characters’ perspectives changed with time. And I saw life mapped out. I read about heart-breaking tragedy and change, and realized that pain could also be beautiful. I consider this book a classic because this book is life, and the author put herself into it, I am sure; even though I don’t know her story, I know this is her story.
Gaudy Night, Strong Poison – usually I am not excited by the Mystery genre, but Dorothy Sayers reconciled me. Her explorations of life, of people, and the expert way the mystery itself parallels Harriet Vane’s own personal discoveries, were quite well-done. I could compare her to Jane Austen, but won’t, mostly because she stands quite happily on her own. I was impressed by Peter Wimsey’s character and how he appeared in Harriet’s eyes. I will never forget to understand the truest love as that of best friends, affectionate minds, sharers in a mystery. But most of all, I have discovered in Dorothy Sayers a writer who I need to rise to understand, and her adroitness with words presents an intriguing challenge. I won’t be able to resist more books by her in the future.
Drowning Ruth was an interesting perspective on how a hidden secret can burn holes in one’s life if never revealed. Amanda returns home to her sister when fired from her nursing job. She soon discovers she is pregnant after being seduced by a married man, and her sister Mattie agrees to help raise the child as if her own. Mysteriously on the day of the baby’s birth, Mattie drowns in the lake. No one knows about the baby for years, until the secret begins to ruin the new lives that have sprung up. Great exploration of character and how people are driven by different things and act on certain motivations. It challenged me to see how the accidents of different minds colliding with different suspicions and motivations, can really affect life and death.
The Thirteenth Tale – I loved this book because it was a mystery from start to finish, with layers unfolding. It was also about bibliophiles, which was a really fun subject. I wish so much that she would write something else, and I keep waiting.
Sheen, Bishop Fulton
Three to Get Married changed my world in the summer of ’04. I eagerly gave the book to Becca and Larry as a wedding present. I can’t remember much of the ideas now (5 years later) but I discovered a teacher as good as CS Lewis, who taught me about my Catholic faith. My understanding of contraception changed, not that I would need to think much on the subject for a long time, but I know where to go if I am ever engaged.
I Capture the Castle is one of the most endearing, insightful coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read. When I saw that the main character was only 15, I expected to be bored, but her way of looking at the world changed all of that. This book taught me how very different people can live in harmony together, bred in affection (even in dysfunction and poverty) and how love very seldom is a neat and orderly thing. I love the main character and I love Simon, whom she falls in love with.
The Comforters, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark’s prose reads easily – it is gossipy and brilliantly funny, so that it is easy to forget that she is one of the foremost writers of the century. Her books are too immediately enjoyable to be classics. I loved Miss Jean Brodie – so completely blind, so woefully but confidently mistaken in her views on things. I would never trust her with my children. I would return to Muriel Spark for comic relief from life – which is not the least important thing there is.
Touch not the Cat, Rose Cottage, The Prince and the Pilgrim- I read Touch Not the Cat at least 3 or 4 times because I am romantically fascinated with two minds who have spoken together for so many years, unknown. The rare intimacy I find in this book is so beautiful, especially when it is revealed who Bryony’s lover is. The revelation of this sweet love is often what I turn to when I feel the need of that love and understanding in my own life.
War and Peace- I love the way Tolstoy characterizes. He puts a character down to a single facial feature or way of acting, and you always remember that character ever after in that way. Tolstoy is also sympathetic and you get to know the roundness of his characters- and you get to know a volume and a wealth of people and social situations. I enjoy the “peace” more than the “war,” and I tend always to stop reading at the Battle of Borodino. But I vow to finish this book one day.
Saint Maybe- The realistic outlook of the author in telling the story was indicative of suburban life, and highly entertaining also. Anne Tyler was not one of my most memorable favorite authors, but I loved her characters.
The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray- Dorian Gray captured me in January of ’09, as I read the entire book in a single day. I thought that the novel seemed scripted like a play, but of course, Wilde was foremost a playwright. More than anything, I loved its honesty- even then, I saw elements in this work that would lead to Wilde’s death-bed conversion. So many profound questions (and quotes) surfaced…about what true beauty is, and can we hide from ourselves?