Off topic, or five novels that changed me

books

When I started this blog, I planned to avoid two topics: books and cooking. Not because I don’t love those topics dearly (I do!) but because I worried I would be so busy posting about books and cooking, that I would never get around to anything else.

Today, I’m breaking that self-imposed rule and talking books, thanks to Kate, at Book Nook, who recently asked the very simple question what is your favorite book? And are there different books for different stages in your life?

I could talk about books all day long, and I whole-heartedly agree that there are different books for different ages. The concept of a favorite book has always been problematic for me, not because I can’t pick one book, but because the word “favorite” feels too insignificant to reflect how I feel (or have felt) about certain books.

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When I was an adolescent, I would have called Wuthering Heights my more-than-favorite book. I read it countless times by age 18, and in college I managed to write at least three papers on it. As an adult, I am fairly certain that I might now find it wild, excessive, histrionic. Plus, I pretty much know it by heart. Still, Wuthering Heights is filled with brilliant tidbits, quotes, observations, and the one that has stuck with me the most is this quote, voiced by the ever-romantic Catherine Earnshaw:

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” 

It is such a beautiful image for how an idea, a feeling, a thought, can permeate and change you. And books do to. When I try to name favorite book, that is where my mind flies – to the books that have washed through me and “altered the color of my mind.” A bit grandiose, maybe, but still, true of a great book.

Since my affair with Wuthering Heights, I’ve read many, many good books, and a few that changed me, or altered the color of my mind. I’ll post my list below, but first, I’ll add that there are many bloggers who write beautifully about books and reading, including the afore-mentioned Kate at Book Nook, Lindsey at A Design so Vast, and Anny at Dreaming in Stitches. They all inspire me and I’m happy to be jumping in on the reading discussion.

crossing to safety book

(1) Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. When asked what is my favorite book, I often cite Crossing to Safety, a beautifully written story of life-long friendship between two couples. The novel follows the Langs and the Morgans from their ambitious early lives into old age. This book is filled with the realities of adulthood – births of children, illness, faltering careers and transcendant love and friendship. The only thing that surpises me is that I loved it so much the first time I read it and I was only about 24. This book is compassionate, honest, adult and subsequent readings have still held me enthralled.

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(2) The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The only novel written by Edward P. Jones (thusfar) and the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World takes on slavery in the antebellum American South. Jones strips away any vestige of Gone with the Wind style picturesqueness of the epoch. The rawness, the loneliness, and physical vulnerability of both slaves and slave owners is palpable and not surpisingly the story is heartbreaking. What did surprise me is how much I loved it despite its deep sadness and dark subject matter. Even now, eight years after reading it, this book sticks with me.

(3) History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The unforgettable story of world war II refugee Leo Gursky, who is pining for a lost love and a lost book manuscript, and the story of 13 year-old Alma Singer. Their stories are masterfully woven together and the final twist is funny, sad and absolutely thrilling. I read this book when my children were small and one of my fond memories of is sinking into the couch for an hour of reading during their naptime. I don’t have a photo of it because I can’t find my copy – I must have lent it out to someone.

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(4) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cyclical time, repeated names, gypsies, fortunes made and spent, alchemy, an unending civil war, an entire town of insomniacs, banana companies that come and go, and an industrious and long-lived matriarch, this book is filled with archetypes, luminous moments and poetic prose, and there is a reason it won so many, many awards. I would have considered this book my favorite in my early twenties, when my Spanish was good and I was working in Latin America. I recently re-read it with my book club (in English this time), confirming my deep connection with this novel. I was surprised that it was not universally loved by the group, but then, maybe I would have not loved it so, had I not first read it as a younger person.

(5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. As I explained above, I loved this book to excess when I was an adolescent. There’s a reason its a classic.