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.

Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable FeastA Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven’t been to Paris, you just won’t get A Moveable Feast
If you aren’t already a fan of Hemingway, don’t bother reading A Moveable Feast

Look, I’m struggling to get a start on this review and those were the first two statements that popped into my head. I don’t know if they are true. I don’t know if they are fair. What I do know it that this work – fiction, memoir, sketches, a polished diary – whichever of these it may be – wouldn’t exist without Paris. Obviously, right? No, that’s not what I mean. I mean Paris is to writers as Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. It’s all about terroir – that sense of place, climate, geography, culture that shape the flavor and texture of a thing. You can make great wine out of pinot grown in Oregon, New Zealand, Chile – but it will never, ever approximate the glory of Burgundy. Writers can write with greatness anywhere in the world, but a writer in Paris – and goodness, a writer in the vintage years of the early-mid 1920’s – is a singularly-blessed creature who may pour forth with words that change the world.

Hyperbole? Ah, well, I guess you’ve never been to Paris.

I bought a cheap, paperback copy of A Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Company last winter. I’d spent the day retracing the steps of the Lost Generation through the 5eme and 6eme Arrondissements: the Luxembourg Gardens, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rue Mouffetard, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, La Place Contrescarpe, Rue Descartes, Quai des Grands-Augustins — the haunts of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford as they drank and smoked and wrote their way between the wars. Other than the now-phony tourist traps of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore and the relocated Shakespeare and Company bookshop (opened in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951 after the original shop closed in 1941 during the Occupation of Paris), much is as I imagined it was in 1924. The light shines golden and bittersweet in the narrow streets, landlocked Parisians flock to chaises longues in the Luxembourg Gardens to soak up an unseasonably warm February sun, students at the Sorbonne crowd the coffee shops in between classes, smoking, flirting and speaking in a rapid-fire Parisian slang that I was hopeless to comprehend.

My paperback copy of A Moveable Feast is now dreadfully dog-eared. I have marked passage upon passage in which Hemingway talks about writing – he was so disciplined and therefore so productive – that weakened my knees: “I would stand and look out over the rooftops of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence, and go on from there.”

or about Paris: “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

or about wine “In Europe then we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also as a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary… “

This is a collection of sketches of a writer as he remembers his happiest, purest days spent healing from the injuries and horrors of World War I, in love with a devoted wife and a round, sweet baby, being discovered by artists of influence and nurturing others through their own addictions and afflictions. Of course we know that Hemingway’s own story does not end well. As he pens what will become the final paragraphs of A Moveable Feast many years later, he recognizes how fragile and temporary were those years: “But we were not invulnerable and that was the end of the first part of Paris, and Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed…. this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Perhaps the one true condition of enjoying this memoir is that one must be an incurable romantic. An affliction I bear with pride.

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