Maybe it’s the fact that Cristina Yang left Grey’s Anatomy. Maybe it’s because next week “all of our questions will be answered” about Tori and Dean’s marriage crisis on Tru Tori. And maybe, no matter how dramatic the rose ceremony promises to be, the Bachelor/ette franchise is just not enough to feed my soul until Scandal resumes in September. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking lately about my all-time favorite books. I’m a self-proclaimed bookworm; a reader from way back. I always have at least two books in progress on my nightstand and a couple virtual page-turners from the public library e-collection loaded on my tablet. From Jennifer Weiner to Joseph Conrad, my tastes are many and varied depending on my mood or stage in life.
I have found, however, that there exists a common thread among my all-time favorites–the books whose imagery and characters stay with me long after they’ve returned to the shelf. I’m drawn to books that address finding one’s identity, writers that take their readers on a journey. Not the new age, Deepok Chopra-ey kind, but the kind you can take with a teenage member of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, a woman’s journey back to her childhood, or a tortured soul who departs for the Wildnerness never to return. The following titles promise to make you think, move you to tears, and prompt you to consider your place in the grand scheme, all in the comfort of your patio chair or picnic blanket.
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga (1995). 29 year-old Margot Harrington, a book preservationist and librarian, travels to Florence to help save books that have been damaged by a flood. She is motivated not only to use her expertise to help in the aftermath of the flood, but also to find that elusive something more that so many of us seek. One of my favorite passages is in the opening pages, when Margot remembers, “My English teacher at Kenwood High used to say that we’re like onions: you can peel off one layer after another and never get to a center, an inner core. You just run out of layers. But I think I’m like a peach or an apricot or a nectarine. There’s a pit at the center. I can crack my teeth on it, or I can suck on it like a piece of candy; but it won’t crumble, and it won’t dissolve.”
Five Quarters of the Orange by Joann Harris (2007). The last book in Joann Harris’ “food trilogy” (the most well-known of which is Chocolat) of course involves rich descriptions of food. But it is also about love, forgiveness, and reconciling the past. Framboise’s journey back to her childhood home on the Loire to untangle a tragedy that happened during the German occupation in World War II leads her to her mother’s recipe book. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the redemptive power of love, particularly the love between a mother and daughter. Side note: It takes a lot to move me to tears when reading a book or watching a movie and I cried my fool eyes out on this one!
Ship Fever: Stories by Andrea Barrett (1996). Short story collections are sometimes tough–I end up channel surfing the titles thinking, ‘what if the next one is better?’ One of my favorite English professors recommended this collection the summer before my senior year of college and it remains one of my favorites. Winner of a National Book Award, Barrett uses the backdrop of scientific discovery in the 19th century to explore human ambition, failure, and longing. Some of the stories are historic, like a twist on Gregor Mendel’s genetic discovery while others are pure fiction. My personal favorites are the title story, “Ship Fever” and “Birds with No Feet.”
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (2009). Sedaris is one of my favorite authors (and he’ll be in Iowa City on June 23rd for a reading at Prairie Lights!). I love his ability to write stories that are a blend of humor and poignant reflection. One of my favorites, “What I Learned” is a perfect example–it’s a funny story about attending Princeton University in the Stone Age, but tucked within the humor is a candid reflection on his relationship with his father. And, speaking of Sedaris, if you have the chance, get an audio recording of “Live at Carnegie Hall” to hear his distinctive voice and make your next trip a true LOL.
Into the Wild by John Krakauer (1992). If you’ve read anything by Krakauer, you know that he has the ability to recount true events with stark honesty and page-turning momentum. This story chronicles the journey of Chris McCandless, a young man who decides to give up all his worldly possessions and wander into the Alaskan Wilderness. Months later, when a hunter discovers his body, his family is left to piece together his last days. Reading this again as a mother, I could feel in particular the parents’ desperation and guilt but Krakauer compels us all to consider the meaning of interdependence through the eyes of a boy who took a journey “over the edge.”
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007). Alexie won the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction with this title, but readers young and old can learn from 14 year-old Arnold “Junior” Sprint as he leaves the Spokane Indian reservation to attend an all-White school. Many in his tribe view him as a traitor but he is determined to live a life beyond his own expectations and that of his community. This child’s journey leaves you wondering, what defines your community? Your tribe? Your personal identity?
Bonus: All of these titles are available at the Iowa City Public Library!