Answering a Challenge: Five Favorite Reads

I began blogging a couple of summers ago for an audience of approximately one. Me. I still sit here and write mainly to myself because the thought that anyone else actually reads this thing makes me cringe a little inside. The weird moments occur when a colleague tells me his wife read my blog or when the author of a book I’ve reviewed steps in to say hello. I wonder then if I should go back and scrub clean some of my language or wipe out all the TMI bits or if my family will curse me, or…

But mostly it’s pretty calm here and occasionally it’s magical. Like when you meet a kindred spirit in the blogosphere. And when that kindred spirit just happens to be Irish, as in Living-in-Ireland-Irish, well then you know you aren’t here just whistling dixie. My fellow writer and adventuress of the blank page, Edith, who blogs here: In a Room of My Own has been a source of encouragement and inspiration since we chanced upon each other last summer (and Edith, I’d treasure you if you were from Hoboken or Bangkok, you know. It’s just that I have this thing about your Emerald Isle!).

Recently Edith tagged me in a lovely challenge: to cite Five Favorite Books and to pass along the challenge to other bloggers whom I admire. A nearly-impossible feat (this naming of only five favorites) but I shall try.

First, let me toss the baton to these wonderful writers, readers, bloggers who inspire me with their writing and life journeys:

mag offleash writing with grace and introspection from a quiet place in the Northeast U.S.

In a Vermont Kitchen a brilliant cook and a passionate reader and writer whom I feel as though I’ve known forever; someday we shall meet in the flesh!

Grace Makely writer, illustrator, adventuress

Ideas to Words novelist, imaginist, dreamer and doer

Word by Word healing through aromatherapy, inspiring through words in Aix-en-Provence

And now to narrow down a lifetime of reading to five greatest hits:

  • Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh Read when I was six years old, this book set me on my journey to become a writer. Never mind that I took a thirty-eight year detour. Harriet and her journal, Ole Golly and her yellow bathrobe, Sport and the sleep in his eyes, Dostoevsky, and tomato and dill sandwiches never left me. Friends once even read my journal and tossed me out for it, further bonding me to my Harriet. My hero.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen I make it a point to reread an Austen each year, to remind myself that characters carry a story, that language is to be revered, and that at heart I’m just a girl who loves a love story with a happy ending. Jane Austen reminds me that fewer joys are as pure as a wonderful story.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner It has been ten years since I read this, my first Wallace Stegner. I cite it as the book that transformed me from a casual, although avid, reader to an analytical one. The book that set me on the path first revealed by Harriet the Spy. For this novel opened to my intellect the wonder of writing and the power of carefully crafted prose. Reading Stegner made me ache to write; he pulled open the empty space in my heart that has finally been filled by my own acts of literary exuberance.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald I find tremendous inspiration and motivation from reading books on the craft of writing. I am grateful to the writers who explore and contribute to the vast canon of helpful advice for those of us still groping in the dark. That being said, if all those texts were taken away and I was left with only one example of the perfect novel, it would have to be The Great Gatsby.

The first four came to mind with ease. The last is torture, for it means excluding dozens upon dozens of glorious reads. And so the last shall be reserved for an ever-changing roster of “The Last Book I Read” even if it was one I did not enjoy. Because literacy and time to read and the chance to hold someone’s heart and soul in my hand are gifts beyond reckoning.

This gives me an easy out, since the last book I read was by one of my favorite writers. And in a sweet turn of chance, I begin and end by delighting in the literary treasures of Ireland: a circle that includes my friend Edith whom you met at the start of this ditty, and the author Colm Tóibín, who completes my favorite reads list.

You can explore my reviews of Tóibín’s books here in my blog or via my Goodreads page. Tóibín has given reader-me breathtaking, troubling, resonant stories; for writer-me, he is teaching me to see and listen to the empty space between the words. As a mother-to-be, I took my baby’s name from one of his stories. If you know my story, you will know I never had a chance to meet that child. After that loss, as in other impossible times, books became my solace. Weeks later I finally began to find words of my own.

Reading has changed my life. How about you? Although I hand this off officially to the bloggers above, I would love to hear about your five favorite reads.

Tag. You’re it.

13 thoughts on “Answering a Challenge: Five Favorite Reads

  1. Dear Julie,
    What a beautiful piece! And to be named in such an asteemed group, I am thankful and humble. Although it is your blog and your writing I look up to and I always enjoy what you have to say next. I love that you included Gatsby, which I believe has the best last line of a book ever, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Always brings tears to my eyes. Has ever a more perfect sentence been written? I think not. P&P and Gatsby made my top five, the others are more difficult, but I think they would be “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Little Women,” and “Rebecca.” But of course, the list is always changing, but there are always those few that rise to the top.

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    1. Oh. To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh no. My list is blown 😉 How could I not include that? I also had Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale in my head, alongside Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon. A Catcher in the Rye. A Death in the Family. I Know This Much Is True. Anything by Tim Winton.

      And that Gatsby line, I agree. Breathtaking.

      Thank you for bringing so much spirit to my spirit.

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  2. Julie, I’m blushing at your kind words, and yours too Claire. But of course you both know that your blogs are my very favourite of all on the blogosphere, don’t you? I feel exceedingly honoured to find myself in such wonderful company as both of yours.

    Ah, The Great Gatsby – it’s been far too long since I read this. Time to root it out again, to pull it, dust and all, from its hiding place, somewhere on my groaning book shelves! The problem is that when I go looking for it I will inevitably be distracted by other gems, half forgotten.

    I have a wee proposition for you Julie, and Claire too; indeed for anyone who reads your blog and would like to follow suit. You refer to books about the craft of writing in your post. Well how about we each write a post about just this topic – which are our very favourite how-to books about writing, viewed from any angle, the ones which we feel have helped to form us as writers. I know at least one which we all share – Pricilla Long’s marvelous tome; but from the many which fill your shelves, which do you consider the most inspiring and influential on you as a writer?

    Last idea, for the moment anyway – would either of you consider checking out Tania’s blog on transformative blogging and consider entering the conversation? Check out my latest posts, an interview with Tania, and then follow her posts on her blog. Julie you opened your wonderful piece here with a musing about why you blog — Tania is attempting to engage as many women as possible in a year long challenge to make us all ponder just this question. I have been writing in my journal on this topic almost every day for a couple of weeks and it is incredible what is emerging!

    In the final analysis, it may not interest either of you, but there is something about the whole concept of blogging and why we do it that calls for deep reflection. Of course it goes even deeper than blogging and probably ends up very quickly in the territory of why we write at all, or at the very least the two domains largely overlap. But still there is a point where blogging and the act of blogging exists out there, on its own.

    I would love to engage with you both in a discussion on why we all blog, instead of say, journaling privately. What is it that calls us to put our thoughts and words out there? And where is ‘there’ anyway?

    In the end I must say that I am eternally grateful to have discovered both of you via the internet, and the fact that such a meeting of minds is made possible through the web will always have to be the base line as it were for any discussion.

    Sorry that this reply to your post is so long…perhaps I ought to have written it as an open letter to you both on my blog! 🙂

    Much love, Edith xxx

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    1. I love your reply, Edith- thank you for your thoughtful words and your wisdom.

      I’ve been following your conversations with Tania and I just subscribed to her blog. I need to get back to your blog, reread your interviews and comment. My initial read of your and Tania’s thoughts resonated deeply and I’m still sorting through so much of how I feel and behave with regards to blogging and creative writing.

      I will say without hesitation that moving from private journaling to public blogging led directly to the biggest leap: writing fiction and seeking publication. Reading the beautiful ways Tania explains the blogging process is causing me to reflect on how this blog has evolved in the past two years and what more I could be doing with my voice. The avenues presented through her projects and the resources available at the A Room Of Her Own Foundation overwhelm me with wonder and possibilities – thank you for sharing these through your blog.

      So yes, I would welcome the chance to talk more openly about this and to engage with experienced writer/bloggers about the intersection of reflection and craft.

      And yes to the writing craft book reviews!

      You are a blessing to me, Edith!

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  3. I should be sleeping by now but you are my last read before bed and what a delightful post and a lovely little tribute to wonderful Edith and thank you for the mention, most unexpected. Well, it feels very apt reading your list, that I’m off to bed with The Great Gatsby, the book that is 🙂 deciding the time has come to read it and perhaps even Tender is the Night in preparation for the new piece of fiction on Zelda. Enjoying it so far and now I’m even more intrigued to absorb Fitzgerald slowly. Merci bien Julie et bon nuit.

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  4. Nice choices! I always loved Gatsby. My picks are as follows: 1) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 2) A Separate Peace by John Knowles 3) She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb 4) I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb 5) Anthropology of an American Girl by Hillary Thayer Hamann

    Wow! That was hard! If you ask me again in a year, I’d probably have different choices. I have something similar to this on my blog–a feature called “Desert Island Books.” Not a very simple activity, I can say that much.

    Thanks for making me think!

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    1. Katie- first off, I’ve been meaning to post on your blog about your “no writing” experiment and you’ve gone and updated on me – now I have even more to say and ask! I love your writing.

      Beautiful choices – I just added A Separate Peace to my TBR lis- can’t believe I’ve never read it. I’m not familiar with Hillary Thayer – off to explore!

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  5. I am just going to throw out the first five that come to mind. If I did the list tomorrow it could well be five different ones!

    Roots
    Little Women
    The Book Thief
    Watership Down
    Before Women Had Wings

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    1. I know – it seems criminal to narrow a list of hundreds to five meagre picks! I pondered this for a couple of weeks before creating my list and these were truly the reads to which I kept returning, except for that impossible fifth. Maureen, who wrote Before Women Had Wings? I’ve never heard of it.

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      1. “Before Women Had Wings” is written by Connie May Folwer. It has been years but the final page had me sobbing. My childhood was not nearly as tragic as the young girl in the book but her love for her very flawed mother was something I could relate to. Of course since posting that list I have been second guessing myself. ”

        Oh I always loved “the Thornbirds” another one of those can’t put down books. I read it one summer at the beach in Vancouver. Oh to be a care free teen with so much time to bask in the sun with a good book! (and of course without sunscreen-what was that?) Finished it and started it again-something I never do.

        Next on my list would P&P of course but the books on my first list were ones that I simply could not put down; I love that feeling of rushing to get back to book and then that sadness when you reach the final page and just feel so fulfilled and yet hungry for more.

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