Truth be told, my love affair with reading began with The Bobbsey Twins. Each week, my ten-year-old self sat cross-legged on the worn carpet of our local library, scanning that familiar lower shelf for another book in the series. I knew I would be taken on another adventure – to a dude ranch or the seashore or the country – with Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie – an adventure far from my own ordinary life. Today, thanks to Laura Lee Hope, I am a self-proclaimed book nerd whose counters and drawers are littered with book lists, who only buys purses large enough to hold the latest novel, and whose coffee table and book shelves overflow with teetering stacks, enough to take me into the next millennium.
While I still love a good adventure, I’m drawn to books for a variety of reasons: to learn more about history, to explore a new culture, to sink into the pure beauty of language, to connect with the human condition, and yes, even to laugh – preferably out loud. I have come to realize that snobbery has no place among true readers. We read what our true selves long for and enjoy at particular moments in our lives, and in the process, we are beckoned toward new authors, new genres, and new levels of engagement.
As a high school Language Arts teacher, I discovered a wealth of great writing in YA (young adult) literature. As a result, one of my greatest joys was putting the “right” book in the hands of a student, and then watching the magic happen: Eleanor and Park to the girl who grew up in an abusive home; The Scorpion King to the boy whose family fled the drug-infested streets of Mexico. Whether we be child, adolescent, or adult, there simply is nothing like a book to connect us to others, to make us feel we are not alone.
Today, newly retired from the classroom, I have more time to devour books, and I continue to interact with readers, to discover new titles, and to pass on my favorites when a friend asks, “Can you recommend a good book?” For the last several years, I have kept a journal, reviewing each book I’ve read, and it is from these reflections that I share the ones that still live inside me. While I’ve included a few award winners, I’ve also added those hidden gems that often escape attention. It has been a daunting task limiting it to ten, but here they are, in no particular order.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer – Historical fiction at its best, this novel takes us through the casualties of World War II, focusing on the Jews of Hungary and France. It also brings us a beautiful love story in the characters of Andras and Klara, whose relationship begins in Paris and is tested by exile, separation, and brutal conditions. The story takes textbook history and puts it in human form.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlo Ruiz Zafon – This book about books is a reader’s dream. Set in 1945 Barcelona, the story presents a maze of intrigue as protagonist Daniel seeks to solve the mystery revolving around the writer of a book found in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A compelling plot, mysterious characters, great writing, and a touch of the fantastic create the perfect combination for a page-turner.
The Rope Walk by Carrie Brown – Reading this engaging story felt like a stepping into a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird, complete with a precocious Scout in the character of Alice and her Dill-like sidekick, Theo. Together, they form a bond with each other and with a neighboring artist stricken with AIDS. Brown’s writing is honest, witty, and smart – the very qualities embodied in Harper Lee’s own style.
The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass – Smart writing, humorous complications, and endearing characters make this a purely enjoyable novel. Percy Darling (what a great name!), a newly-retired librarian, drives the story. His quirky personality and acerbic wit as he interacts with neighbors and family made me wish he could step off the pages of the novel and join me for a cup of coffee.
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak – Many readers, myself included, fell in love with Zusak’s The Book Thief. This second novel also astonished me with its beauty and power. The story follows Ed Kennedy, a cab driver whose life is going nowhere – until he receives a series of mysterious messages. He is soon on a quest to intervene in the lives of people who desperately need a window of hope, and we are left with a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos – This book has risen to the top of my favorites list and is one I have recommended countless times to other readers. The setting is contemporary with its roots in historical events – the extermination of the Jewish people and those who profited from the selling of their precious possessions. The characters are people you must believe exist outside the pages of this book – beautifully flawed and altogether human.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman – An utterly compelling YA novel that needs to be in the hands of adult readers. The setting: the not-so-distant future. The characters: throwaway, troubled teens who are about to be “unwound” through the legal harvesting of all body parts. The issues and ideas: right to life, social justice, politics, religion, and the justice system. Shusterman unapologetically explores the terrifying consequences of decisions in the hands of a powerful government without conscience.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson – Known mostly as a travel writer, Bill Bryson steps into a different realm with this laugh-out-loud memoir of his growing-up years in Des Moines, Iowa. Bringing us back to the 1950’s and ’60’s, the book is filled with all things nostalgic – from family life and entertainment to school and community life. To a baby-boomer, this is comfort food; to others, it is a glimpse of life so much simpler than today.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave – It is the voice of the narrator, Little Bee, that grabs readers from the very beginning and carries us through to the end. We follow the lives of two characters who years ago crossed paths on a beach in Nigeria and share a memory of an event so brutal and terrifying, it will forever leave its mark. There is both redemption and tremendous loss in this story, which challenges readers to think deeply about the issues of immigration and the people who seek refuge.
Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean – In 1995, Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon starred in an award-winning film based on this startling non-fiction book. While the film was compelling, the book offers so much more: an honest, intelligent, and uncomfortable examination of the American justice system. As a spiritual advisor to death row inmates, Sister Helen discovers the stark realities and politics surrounding capital punishment. Her involvement with both victims and criminals as they share their stories, as well as her unflagging commitment to honor the inherent humanity of all people, humbles us and challenges us to look deeply into our own set of beliefs.