It’s a quiet morning on Wooddale Avenue. The sun is out making the March snow gleam, and passing cars are more a gentle hum than nuisance today. The little apartment is quiet, too, in a self-satisfied way. Brady finally hung pictures above my desk last night, so excluding long-term projects I hope to do, the place is pretty well ‘done.’ With working long hours now, and catching the 3:04 bus into Uptown for work, my days have felt short, so this empty morning with no pressing to-dos is a treat.
In January I hit thrift shop gold: a stack of novels I’ve wanted to read for ages. I’ve read a handful of them to date now, and have been meaning to share my recommendations as well as the novels still remaining on my list. Upon finishing my masters in English lit. last year, a number of my classmates said the rigorous work load and ever-analytic nature of studying English caused them to like reading less; the opposite was true for me. I loved that though everything else in England (where I studied) was quite different than Minnesota, the books were the same. My dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights back home was no different than the one we discussed in class. Literature is particularly powerful because of this accessibility. While travel, art, and even movies are a luxury not everyone can access, anyone may visit a thrift store and purchase a twenty-five cent novel, not to mention visit a library.
So, without further rambling, the books making me think, wonder, and dream this year (so far):
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: After finishing this collection of nine ill-fated love stories told from the Latino perspective, I was disappointed. The characters created their own doom, and caused me to feel a little too close for comfort to these desperate declines. After setting the novel back on the shelf, however, it stayed with me long enough to realize I actually liked it. Diaz’ novel was painfully true to life, and while I couldn’t wholly relate to the characters’ series of bad choices, I could relate to their emotions. Their questions of ‘what-ifs?;’ their reverberating effects of heartbreak; their overwhelming sense of longing experienced in and outside of love were agitations I had felt.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: I read this novel about a childless couple starting life again in unforgiving 1920s Alaska back in January when the white cold of Minnesota seemed equally unforgiving. This novel, however, was significantly more enchanting than January in Minnesota. The strength and courage of Jack and Mable to cultivate life in a place as remote and difficult as Alaska immediately captured my attention. Not only did their capability impress me, but I deeply admired how well this middle-aged husband and wife embraced the obvious harshness of winter. Of course, much of their fortitude was a matter of survival, but a great deal of their Alaskan experience was deriving pleasure from the long winter in childlike ways such as ice-skating and snowball fights. In one such “moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but they catch sight of an elusive, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.”* Spellbound, the couple are unable to reconcile how a little girl could survive on her own in the harsh Alaskan wild, and Mable, recalling a Russian fairytale from her childhood, believes she and Jack created this child from the snow.
As “Faina,” the snow child, changes the lives of Jack and Mable, the novel becomes a brilliant blend of fantasy and reality as the reader, along with the couple, struggle to explain Faina’s existence. Beautiful from beginning to end, The Snow Child is absorbing, exquisite, and important.
Crusoe’s Daugher by Jane Gardam: Unlike the above novels, this novel isn’t new, but a reprint of British writer Jane Gardam’s “favorite novel” originally published in 1985. My sister lent me this novel a few weeks ago after Brady and I were snowed in while visiting family in Fargo, but to get to the point, I’m very grateful for my sister. Missing Bristol and my English friends very much, this novel was the perfect Anglophile fix, but also an engrossing read. Set throughout the course of twentieth century England, we meet our narrator, the candid, often comical, Polly Flint, at age six when, orphaned, she is sent to live with her aunts in the ‘Yellow House.’ From this early age, Polly relies on Robinson Crusoe and the hardships he so stoically endured as her compass to navigate the highs and lows of living. Perhaps the subject matter is outwardly simple, but Gardam’s writing and her flesh and blood Polly Flint is alive, dazzling, and immediately lovable.
This is one of the few novels in my memory which caused me to laugh aloud to myself, leaving my husband deliciously out of the joke. Polly as a little girl is an adorably blunt, independent, and a minute observer, but even as Polly reaches adulthood, copes with middle-age, and learns to triumph over life’s cruelties, her childlike curiosity and frank observations remain. Gardam’s joyous, caustic, truthful writing is compelling and utterly-absorbing, and I look forward to reading much more of her work.
Women in Love by D.H.Lawrence: During my year at Bristol U., I quickly realized the pale of my literary education in comparison to my professors. D.H. Lawrence was one such writer I had never read, and second semester I picked up a beautiful copy of Women in Love at a second-hand shop with the best intentions of finishing it one dreary English day. Said day(s) were consistently consumed with course reading, and thus it wasn’t until last month that I finally began chapter one.
Written in 1916, Women in Love is the complex story of schoolteachers and sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, and their resulting relationships with Gerald Crich and his close friend Rupert Birkin. This is a novel I now wish would have been on my course syllabus; understanding the frequent nuances and shifting complexities would, I think, be much more palatable through discussion. Even so, I admired Lawrence’s ability to vividly describe a character’s feelings while, at other times, effortlesssly concealing such emotions. Beyond the fierce affairs of the four protagonists, however, Lawrence creates an equally engaging subtext on the relationships between women and women, and the spheres of the male world. The exchanges between Hermione Roddice and Gudrun divulge as much knowledge of the nature of women as does Gerald and Rupert’s often homoerotic conversations.
This novel felt especially true to life for me because its time period was the same as ‘Downtown Abbey.’ (And yes I mention Downtown because this isn’t a graded essay!!). Just as the Crawley family creates a vibrant picture of the class system and Downtown’s urgent need to embrace modernization to save the estate, so do the characters of Women in Love confront the consequences of England’s class system and the question of how to manage modernity in light of long-held traditional systems of management.
Perhaps the best way to describe this novel is as a decadent eight course meal—a grand dinner for a special occasion intended to be savored, slowly digested, and inherently praised. Except in the case of Women in Love, the reader isn’t served the final course; we are prevented from enjoying our dessert because we are either too full from the seven other plates or, perhaps more accurately, Lawrence reserves the satisfaction of the last course for the desire of wanting just a bit more.
I’m currently about half-way through Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and it’s already a novel I wholeheartedly recommend. As for the others on my 2013 book list?:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Crime and Punishment by Fedor Dostoevsky
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
What are you reading in 2013? What should I add to my list? Do let me know!