Book Recommendations–Important Ideas

It may seem like a strange topic for the holidays, but the gifts that books bring into my life are most precious when they stretch my thinking, challenge old beliefs, and put into words the feelings I have that are too complex or deep to be able to articulate. There are many original thinkers and writers out there: these are only a very few of my favorites. So this is my holiday “gift” to those of you who like to read widely–a list of books, most fairly recent, that have given me new insights into life’s many ideas.

 

The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman

9780393240740_p0_v2_s114x166Ackerman is one of those writers whose subjects, mostly scientific, explore her boundless interest in how humans “work” in the world.   Here, she tackles the deeply important question of how humans have changed the world; how the intersection of people and nature have made for both innovation and extinction.   She optimistically explores innovations in farming, such as the exploding popularity of organic and rooftop farming in urban-landscaped places such as Manhattan. She also examines human innovations using energy sources such as wind, solar and even body heat.  She is less optimistic, and rightly so, about the changes in animal species and their longevity as a result of intersecting with humans. And where, she asks, is the charm in inventions such as robotics?  Her conclusion: there are a lot of tradeoffs and this is the world as we get to experience it–for good and ill.  Ackerman always writes with both charm and intelligence, which is what has kept me reading her books for years.

 

Justice, by Michael Sandel

When I first read this book a few years ago, I knew it was an important book–very important.9780374532505_p0_v1_s114x166 And so do thousands of others, based on how widely distributed the contents have become.  Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy since 1980, has become a celebrity (with standing room only classes and a PBS series based on the book), partly because of the topic of this book, subtitled “What’s the Right Thing to Do?”  Sandel explores the ethical issues, where no black and white answers may prevail, to contemporary topics such as military conscription, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and surrogate parenting.  He explains, in empathetic and open-minded terms, theories of justice based on maximizing personal freedom, minimizing social harm, and concern for developing collective civic virtue.  He wants his students, in particular, to grasp that ethical concerns are difficult to juggle, and that there is no “perfect” answer, mostly hard choices.

 

9781555976897_p0_v1_s114x166On Immunity, by Eula Biss

For all the screeching from pro and con sides of the vaccine debate (fueled partly by the fear that vaccines have contributed to the soaring rates of autism), here at last is not only a history of vaccines but an intelligent look at all sides of the issue.  Why I decided to pick up a book on the subject has to do with the fact that I have been advised not to have any more vaccines, due to an immune illness several years ago. Biss deserves kudos for not only the uniqueness of her subject, but her dogged pursuit of all sides of the issue, and profiles of people involved such as scientists, patients, and political decision-makers. Who would believe me if I told them a book on immunity was one of my top picks among the books I read this year?  Science has many skilled and imaginative writers now days, and Biss is a writer to be watched.  This book provided me with an education of the most intriguing kind.

 

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

This is one of the most unique books I have come across in a long, long time–a collection of essays that explore the many aspects of empathy–both from the author’s own experience and that of others.  I would Empathy-Exams-Jamison-200x300call it a brave book. Jamison’s stories encompass a huge range of examples of empathy, from deeply graceful to exceedingly painful.  She starts with her own experience as a “medical actor”, helping medical students learn to carefully listen and diagnose from scripted symptoms.  Violence and crime, reality television, extremely painful illness, tourism in a country of dire poverty–I was constantly astounded at the depth of this writer’s intelligence and compassion (and she looks so young in her cover photo!).  I have recently been seeing this important book appear on lists of the year’s best non-fiction, and it is tremendously well-deserved.  Take a plunge here, and I am sure you will be impressed too.

 

9780805095159_p0_v3_s114x166

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

So far there is not a book or column (NY Times) of Gawande’s that I have not read with great interest–and as a top-rated physician, he is in a unique position to write about modern medicine. I think this book is his best, and most important. Half of the book concerns living options as we age–and how we can age with more choices and self-respect.  The  second part concerns how we can die with dignity. One of his major points is that the amazing advances in medical care in the past century have left most health care providers with a laser focus on saving a life, and almost none on the quality of life  the patient will have after being subjected to those techniques.  It is the subject of conversation we all should be having with our loved ones and each other–it is a subject whose time is unconscionably overdue, and Gawande brings great credibility and passion to the subject.

 

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Of all the books that have been recommended to me about why a person would want to live–this is the classic.  I am sure9780807014295_p0_v1_s114x166 most of you have read it at some time, but I would be remiss if I did not include it as one of the books that has a place of great importance in my life. Named one of the ten most influential books in the world, it chronicles the experience of Viennese psychologist Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.  What Frankl noticed, in particular, was that some less hardy people survived when others who were not as ill and starving died.  He came up with his theory, that those with meaning, or hope in their lives had a greater chance at survival. Called logotherapy, it promotes three methods of discovering meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude a person takes toward unavoidable suffering. No wonder the book has sold over 12 million copies!

 

Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

9780393317558_p0_v1_s114x166In my opinion, Diamond is a truly original thinker, and I have read this book and watched the PBS version of it with utter fascination.  His theory that three of the major influences on the rise of civilization and survival of societies have been geography, environment and the ability to develop tools and technology (not to worry, germs are not left out! While ambitious in scope (it covers human history since the ice age), it is intellectually intriguing, and has given rise to many spirited discussions among those who have read it.  Instead of attributing Eurasian influence and domination to racial or intellectual causes, he makes the case that those who could produce their own food and tools, leaving behind the hunter-gatherer life that most humans maintained for centuries, had the greatest opportunity to travel and conquer other peoples. When Diamond writes a book or article, I tackle it with gusto.

 

Book Recommendations–Fall Treats

 

Fall delivers so many treats, and one of the best is the abundance of new books that publishers traditionally release at this time of year.  The stacks by my bed, by my reading chair, and on my desk constitute only a small number of a glut of new titles, too many to mention at once.  It is a bit like choosing my favorite Halloween candy from a particularly large stash.  But wait!  These are all sugar-free, and so, so yummy!

 

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

9780062306814_p0_v3_s114x166What charmed me about this book are its themes–miniatures (as in doll-like houses), Amsterdam in the 17th century, and a bright and unique young heroine who is a new bride in an arranged marriage. Nella is from a formerly-wealthy country family, who marries and moves to the house of a wealthy older man in Amsterdam, a man who is kind but curiously detached and physically remote.  For a wedding present, however, he presents Nella with a cabinet house (based on an actual 17th-century dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) that replicates  every room in their  home. Her efforts to furnish it lead Nella to an enigmatic miniaturist, who recreates the furnishings, people and animals of the home a little at a time, and who must know more about the family than Nella, possibly foreseeing things that have not yet come to pass.  Burton brings Amsterdam vividly to life, fascinating enough by itself.  And the plot reads like a thriller, as Nella tries to understand the family and its secrets. This is a surprisingly accomplished first novel, much deeper and richer than I expected.

 

The Interior Circuit: a Mexico City Chronicle, by Francisco Goldman

Goldman first came to my attention with his haunting novel/memoir, Say Her Name, which recounted the death of his young wife Aura in a freak surfing accident in 2007. In the 9780802122568_p0_v3_s114x166 intervening years, while mourning her death, Goldman decided to spend as much time as he could in Mexico City, where he and Aura had met and lived.  He wanted to learn to drive the circuit, a thirty mile ring around the city, partly to immerse himself in the city, and to draw symbolic ring around his grief.  Driving in Mexico City (known as “the DF”) is not for the faint of heart, as neighborhood streets intersect each other at unanticipated angles, dumping cars into thoroughfares with no merging lanes, each car driven by “wild-eyed, eager race-car drivers who veer off track”.  What Goldman contemplates, during his examination of the city, is not only his personal grief, but the ongoing tragedy of Mexico’s narcoviolence, which in previous decades had left the city “untouched, although still corrupt”. Goldman has tackled and brought into focus a portrait of one of the world’s great historic, tragic and beautiful cities.

 

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

9780374187613_p0_v1_s114x166For years, I was almost embarrassed to say that I had read only one of Robinson’s books, Housekeeping, and skipped her newer novels.  Now I’m glad I waited, for Lila is the backstory of a central character for Robinson’s best selling novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008).  I can hardly wait to tackle those two that I missed, now that I am so taken in by her unusual characters and the small town in Iowa that they inhabit.  Lila, a former orphan has had a tough life on the run, barely surviving before (and after) being “stolen” by an older girl who saw the small child neglected and abandoned.  Years later, Lila finds the small town of Gilead, where she ends up settling in (against her instincts) and even marrying an older man, the local preacher.  Robinson is such a skilled writer she can handle burning material with the most delicate care.  Particularly in her portrayal of the relationship of Lila and her new husband, I often held my breath to see what Lila would say or do, only to end up more breathless at the outcome.  A tender, tough and beautiful story.

 

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean

How could I ever resist a book that is subtitled “the history of the human brain” by 9780316182348_p0_v1_s114x166popular science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb)? What makes Kean’s book particularly appealing, (amidst hundreds of books about the brain) is his skill using true stories of unusual doctors, maladies and cures to illustrate this history.  The history of medicine often seems to be one ill-timed, gruesome and unbelievable experiment after another that can make the stomach turn and the mind reel.  Yet among those stories the creativity and determination of doctors who have paved the way for innovations in mental health, surgery, and infectious disease cures stands out.  It would be hard to pick a favorite chapter, as each illuminated a part or function of the brain that I did not want to miss. Science writing is one of the strongest genres being published today, and if I were you, I would not want to miss this one!

 

The Secret Place, by Tana French

9780670026326_p0_v4_s114x166Many of you know by now that I am a sucker for anything Tana French writes, and her newest is no exception.  This is her fifth novel in her Dublin-set mystery series, yet each of her books can stand alone, as she is adept at not necessarily following the same set of detectives each time. She often uses a minor character from a previous novel to play a major role in a newer novel.  In her typically lovely prose, she plumbs the complexities and depths of her characters in a way that few mystery writers do (P.D. James comes to mind, yet French can do as well with fewer words).  A recurring theme in all her books is adolescence, and in this novel a pair of detectives are assigned a cold case involving the year old murder of Chris Harper, who was a student at an exclusive Dublin school. French so beautifully renders the motivations and behaviors of cliques in the world of young women in this book, I could not put it down.  Warning: do not start The Secret Place unless you have hours to spend at one sitting, and have snacks in hand.

 

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

Waters is the author of five other novels (including Night Watch (2006) and Tipping the Velvet, 1998), which I have not read but probably will now. Initially the9781594633119_p0_v1_s114x166 plot and setting of this novel intrigued me, and I was surprised at how masterfully she combined a keen examination of England’s post-Edwardian years, a lesbian love story, and a gripping thriller so seamlessly. With two brothers killed in WWI and her father’s death shortly after, Frances Wray and her mother are left struggling to maintain their London home with a huge debt.  They decide to take in an unhappily married couple as boarders, and the upshot is that the two women fall in love. Waters is known for her unusually silky prose, and a talent for lulling the reader into her smooth (and often comic) plot, then turning up the heat to scorching. A gripping mystery I could not stop thinking about, even two weeks after I finished it.

 

 

 

Book Recommendations–My Hometown

I grew up in the gorgeous Wenatchee Valley of Washington State, and just returned from a visit there for my 50th high school reunion. In spite of the growth it has experienced since my parents moved there in the mid-40’s, it is still gorgeous to me–lush orchards backed by high dryland plateaus and the foothills of the Cascades, with a wide blue ribbon of the Columbia winding through it.  To grow up in a small town during the 50’s and 60’s felt safe and magical–how lucky I was! Whenever I visit, it makes me long for “home”, and here are some stories that remind me of my hometown.

 

9780393967951_p0_v1_s114x166Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

When I read this story in high school, it made a deep impression on me, and when I read it again as an adult it felt as fresh and new as it had the first time. It is one of my very, very favorite classics.  Anderson published this novel in 1919, and it is considered his greatest work. Young George Willard, the somewhat omniscient narrator, is a reporter for the small town newspaper of Winesburg.  He explores the lives of its citizens in a series of “sketches” that illuminate their inner lives and struggles to fit in–into small town life and into themselves.  Small towns have a way of both judging and enfolding, strengthening and weakening, but ultimately help us come to know ourselves in ways city life cannot.  I obviously love small towns, and recognized so many character types that I knew growing up, in this universal tale of individual lives woven together.

 

A River Lost, the Life and Death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden

When I recently heard this author speak, I was so impressed that I bought the book 9780393342567_p0_v1_s114x166immediately and read it in two sittings.  Harden has a finely-honed journalistic gift: being compassionate toward both sides of controversial issues.  In this case, it is the pro-environmentalist- salmon-lovers and tribes, vs. farmers and businesses who need water for irrigation and cheap energy from the many dams on the Columbia.  Even though I grew up on the river, there were so many things I did not know about it until I read this book, particularly how much barge traffic the river handles, and how dumping more water over the spillways at particular times of the year is bringing back the salmon fisheries.  A very worthy read for anyone from the Northwest.

 

9780874221220_p0_v1_s114x166Rufus Woods, the Columbia River & the Building of Modern Washington, by Robert Ficken

This biography of the ever-eccentric, energetic publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World (now the Wenatchee World) was one of the Northwest’s most influential men.  His tireless promotion of Wenatchee and the Grand Coulee Dam had its supporters and detractors, and no one seemed to be in the middle!  I was only five when he died, yet our family was closely intertwined with the Woods'; our family “grew up” with the family of Rufus’ cousin, Warren, who also worked for the paper. It is still owned by the Woods family, and grandson Rufus is now the publisher. The story was fascinating to me because it not only examined the life of someone who cast a giant shadow in our valley, but because the politics and logistics of building the dam showcased federal policy and history in ways that are still being felt today. I loved reading more about a most unusual and memorable man, and more history about “my hometown.”

 

Hometown, by Tracy Kidder

I will at least try anything Kidder writes, and have loved almost all of them.  This is one I did not know until recently, and in true Kidder style he burrows into his subject (this one, the small town of Northampton, Massachusetts) and examines it in engrossing detail.  Most 9780671785215_p0_v1_s114x166of the complex drama of life in this small town (population 12,000) is examined through the eyes of Tommy O’Conner, a town cop.  But there are other characters equally complex:  a single mother given a chance to attend  prestigious Smith College, an executive with mental illness, and several others. What emerges is an unflinching yet tender portrait. While this may not be Kidder’s strongest book, even his runners-up are better than most authors’ first place offerings.

 

9780893011512_p0_v1_s260x420Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West, by Toby Sonneman and Rick Steigmeyer

Sonneman and Steigmeyer lived the migrant life of fruit pickers in the 1970’s, traveling from Florida to Washington State to follow the harvest. They lived within loose family groups of mostly Okie (former Oklahoman) migrants, trying to organize an advocacy group, which ultimately fell apart.  Much of the text and photographs were written about Washington’s harvests, a topic well-known by most of us who grew up or live in the Wenatchee Valley. Steigmeyer’s photographs are intimate and fascinating, capturing more of the grace and grit than the hardships of migrant life. They remind me of much of striking 1930’s WPA photographs.  Sonneman’s text is gracious and rich in detail about a way of life that has all but disappeared, as more migrant families stay put in one area.  This is a book I have owned for years, was a Western States Book Award winner in 1992, and  I would not part with it for anything!

 

East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

This is unlike most of my recommendations in that I loved most of the book, except for9781400032655_p0_v1_s114x166 the ending, which seemed not a reliable fit with the rest of the story.  So if you can ignore that, here is a painting that captures the Wenatchee Valley, where I grew up, perfectly.  Guterson describes the feel of the orchards, the harvest, weather, and the people so tactilely.  His story follows the fate of Ben Givens, a widower and retired surgeon, as he grapples with his terminal cancer.  He keeps living life, engaging with people around him and those whose paths cross his, and they represent a rich and varied group–a migrant worker, a drifter, a young couple, and a sage veterinarian, to name a few.  He hunts where my own Dad used to hunt, and captures the Palisades, south of Wenatchee, so well I could practically smell my Dad’s hunting jacket, pockets stuffed with Chukkers we would later have stewed for dinner.

 

Book Recommendations–Lost Memory

There is scarcely a conversation with friends around my age (55-85, let’s say) who don’t either have memory loss themselves, have a family member or had a family member with memory loss, or greatly fear memory loss.  I fit in all those categories myself, so have been searching out books that are insightful, honest, and speak scientifically to this topic. The reason I can remember their titles is because I have been keeping a book journal for 40 years, and refer to it often. A key for dealing with memory loss: write down what you need to remember!  Here are some of my favorite reads on the subject.

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

9780312427801_p0_v1_s114x166Absolutely unique and charming, this short novel about a Japanese housekeeper and the former math professor she assists takes unexpected turns without throwing the reader out of the car, so to speak.  Both central characters are unnamed, yet we become intimately acquainted with them as the housekeeper tries everything she can to deal with the professor’s dementia and improve his quality of life.  Aid comes partly from her son, a latchkey child whom the professor convinces to come to his house after school.  They form a curious attachment, as the professor tries to help him with his math homework and the boy renews the professor’s love of baseball.  The effect of the professor’s love of math, his ability to engage both mother and son in its mystery and beauty in spite if his significant dementia, made for a story both delicate and heroic.

 

In the Shadow of Memory, by Floyd Skloot

A friend recently recommended this older (2002) and unknown title to me, and all I 9780803293229_p0_v1_s114x166can say is–wow!  Skloot, a well-known author and father of also-well-known writer Rebecca Skloot, lost significant memory when in his early 40’s, due to a serious viral infection.  Unusually eloquent, the book was compiled from a series of essays Skloot wrote and published after his illness, describing the process of “reforming” memories, learning to accept those that he will never have back, and simplifying his life significantly to cope on a daily basis with the physical effects of memory loss. He also discusses the effect that early childhood trauma can play in later memory loss and dementia, due to compromised immune systems.  Poetically beautiful and absolutely engaging, I am marking it in my journal as one of my most prized reads this year.

 

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova

Another charmer, and definitely better-known, is this novel of a 9781439102817_p0_v2_s114x166woman professor who starts discovering her own memory loss when she cannot find her way home from a routine run.  She teaches cognitive psychology at Harvard, is in her early 50’s, but is soon diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  What I found particularly fascinating was the point of view of Alice, who both watches and comments on her progressive loss as the disease advances.  Many have commented that the book was a heartbreaker, and it was, but it was so compassionate and honest that I could not help come away better informed, more fascinated with the workings of the mind, and even uplifted by this amazing story.  Recommended reading for everyone, as I believe we are all touched by severe memory loss at some point in our lives.

 

9780062309662_p0_v4_s114x166Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Another slant on memory loss, this new debut novel combines the story of Maud, a woman in her 80’s with quite severe dementia, with a mystery, family love story, and humor.  Healey’s novel uniquely combines all three genres, and it kept me turning pages well into the night.  Maud’s challenge is that she has found a small keepsake in her garden that she believes belongs to her friend Elizabeth.  However, as many times as she calls and visits Elizabeth’s home, to the extreme frustration of her daughter and care givers, she cannot find Elizabeth.  Believing that something is wrong, yet unable to communicate this to those around her, provides both humor and heartbreak.  And, the beautifully rendered portrait of the seesaw between caring and worrying vs. independence for an elderly family member was what gave the story special depth and meaning for me.

 

Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, by Kate Whouley

Author Whouley wrote an earlier book that I loved (Cottage9780807003312_p0_v1_s114x166 for Sale, Must be Moved); she picks topics that prick my curiosity. Having lost my  Mom just over a year ago to age-related dementia, I needed to read someone’s else’s view of the sad, frustrating and funny experiences that come with it.  Whouley had it a lot harder than I–she was an only child, and on a good day her Mom was only slightly demanding with her daughter.  Their relationship was prickly, and soon after Whouley’s first book was published, she realized that something was wrong, and that her Mom could no longer live alone and care for herself and her cat.  The story of her mother’s last years struck a deep cord with me–Whouley finally got to experience her mother as a deeply flawed and loving human being. There was a kind of healing that happens when a parent forgets so much of the recent past and can only deal with the immediate present.

 

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

9780143120537_p0_v1_s114x166Here is a very different book about memory–in this case, how to expand it and even win a contest for developing exceptional memory!  Author Foer took an interest in a very unique subculture of competitive memorizers, and put himself under the tutelage of a former winner of the U.S. Memory Championships to learn how to improve memory (and why  one would want to!)  Along the way he explores the latest in memory research, the tricks of the memory trade, and his often-hilarious experiences preparing for the memory competition.  His story provided me with a unique view of how historical inventions, such as the printed book and of course technology, have caused humans to lose memory, and the ability to remember (much as unused muscles atrophy).  A happy counterpoint to the many books on memory loss that I have been reading. Here’s hoping I can improve my own memory, or look upon memory loss as a DRAM too full that needs to be upgraded or erased!

Book Recommendations–Favorite Classics

Summer seems to be the time of year I love to pick up classics that I have not yet read, or reread old favorites. Because I was an English major in college, I have read what seems like a million classics and I’m still working on the “pile”.  Just this week I picked up Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for the first time, and am loving it. I thought it would be easy to make a short list of favorite classics, but they all crowded in, vying for attention when it came time to pick only a few.  So look for more favorite classics in a future post–there are just too many great ones to choose from.

 

The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

9781400034208_p0_v1_s114x166I admit being very partial to Maugham, and have read almost everything he has written (except maybe his letters).  It was hard to pick from Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence (reviewed in an earlier blog), or Of Human Bondage.  Many say that this was his most serious novel–it is certainly that–and much more.  Maugham himself “narrates” the story of four characters who are young and in search of their life’s place in the world.  But the story primarily follows Larry, a young American who was a pilot in WWI then came to Paris to recover and pursue a spiritual path in a world he finds too materialistic. Maugham moves his plots along well without dragging, and at the same time fully develops his characters, revealing all their flaws while not judging them. He respects the reader and his characters enough to let them figure out their own lives.  That is what I love about this man’s insightful and subtle writing.

 

An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser9780451531551_p0_v1_s114x166

I remember reading this classic when I first started graduate school, and was quite overwhelmed to finally understand how excellent fiction can examine and make one ponder the many moral dimensions of life. Dreiser published this story, based on a sensational murder case, in 1925 to almost as much publicity as the original crime.  His story  is of a young Clyde Griffiths, born into a poor religious family but who, after being hired by a wealthy uncle, aspires to much more. In his quest to move into a higher stratum of society, a tragedy occurs which changes his life dramatically. This is really a detailed portrait of American values and cultural differences in the early 20th century–the economic divide, political corruption, moral hypocrisies, and how the very essence of a person’s character develops.  I thought of it as a “must read” after finishing it, and am still of that mind and anxious to read it again.

 

9781486145621_p0_v1_s114x166Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence

One summer I read one of Lawrence’s books after another, enchanted by the sensuality of his writing style and subject matter. I was still young, and still romantic. While he was most famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (like most people, I read it at about age 14) , my favorite was this title.  Although Lawrence was always at the center of controversy for his writing, his popularity has fallen off in the past 20 years or so, (probably because he did not produce any dystopian novels!)  Women in Love follows the relationships of two couples, one of them obviously modeled on Lawrence and his wife Frieda (Birkin and Ursula in the book). The highs and lows of their courtships and love, their intellectual pursuits (i.e. long philosophical discussions about art and life), and their differences are primary themes of the book.  Many critics think this is Lawrence’s best novel, and I do agree, although The Rainbow comes close (and is the predecessor to this story).

 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

If I had to pick one favorite from this group, this would be it.  It is considered not only  9781593080235_p0_v1_s114x166Eliot’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece when held up against most English literature, for good reason.  But before I list the reasons, I will say that all of her other novels have also seriously impressed me–Daniel Deronda in particular. Several critics have said that there are “no easy resolutions in a great novel”, and Middlemarch fulfills that requirement perfectly.  A richly woven story, it follows a number of primary, well-defined characters in a nineteenth century Midlands English town, almost all of whom are less than happy with their life’s circumstances. But it is the character of Dorothea, unhappily married to an elderly husband (Casaubon), to whom I was most drawn, because in spite of her frustrating circumstances, she is the most accepting of her situation.  She tries to do right, even as she is thwarted in her pursuit of happiness. Steeped in realistic plot, character and setting, Eliot has a hold on me. I could scarcely put Middlemarch down–every page (and there are 800!) made me want to keep reading.

 

9780072434224_p0_v1_s114x166Their Eyes Were Watching God,  by Zora Neale Hurston

Perhaps because I did not read this novel until I was about fifty, as opposed to reading it for a class assignment years ago, I came to love it by the tenth page.  Written by Hurston after a stormy, tortured love affair, it was published in 1937 and was a commercial success. However, several male members of the Harlem Renaissance criticized it roundly because of her use of African American dialect. I think it is one of the stars of the story–she uses authentic dialect of the times in which she lived, which makes her voice more expressive and unique.  The plot, or story, is told by Janie Crawford, a black woman who by age forty has had three marriages–her last being her most loving but still troubled. When her third husband dies, she comes back to Eatonville, Florida to live (a real community run and populated only by African-Americans).  Over her life, Janie has struggled to find her own voice, and her own happiness, which finally happens.  Hurston created an entire, unique universe in this novel–startlingly different, yet so familiar to me because the characters are so real, human, and unflinching.

 

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

My first introduction to Dickens was seeing the movie (in black and white) when in junior high school.  Even then it charmed me, as most of Dickens can charm me 9781593081386_p0_v3_s114x166because of his unique characters.  His books are long and kind of windy, which makes sense since he was often paid by the word.  But he is the author I seem to return to when nothing else appeals. What Dickens does, and does best in this particular novel, is to capture everything a reader could want in a 400 page book and rarely produce a dull moment.  Set in London and Paris prior to and during the French Revolution are the stories of two very different men and the events that cause them to intersect.  Dickens gives us melodrama, memorable characters, smart pacing, emotional depth and great humor and satire.  As I write this, it makes me want to pick it up and start it all over again! Which I am sure I will.

 

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck

9780743272933_p0_v3_s114x166Here is another example of a classic I did not read until recently.  Yet I remember staring at its cover in my family’s bookshelves for years as I was growing up, and having my mother praise it again and again. It is a more quiet novel, the story of an ordinary peasant family in pre-revolutionary China–farmer Wang Lung and his obedient and hard-working wife O-lan.  The story starts with their wedding day (sometime before WWI), and follows his life’s ups and downs to the end when he finds that the land he worked so hard to acquire and farm during his lifetime is to be sold by his sons, who are the inheritors.  A common enough story, yet more poignant and beautiful because of the culture and times in which it is set.  Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this in 1932, and it was a runaway best seller for the first two years after being published. Just lovely; told in simple, unadorned language which makes it all the more unforgettable.