Given that we are writers, people often ask us to name our favorite books — other than the obvious choice! No home should be without a copy of the Dictionary of Jewish Words. It makes an excellent Passover seder hostess gift. Plus, it’s fun to read. But we do have a few favorites other than our own – it’s an eclectic bunch that includes a talking dog, a runaway wife, the other Boleyn sister and a boy locked up in a room. These are all characters who inhabit our favorite books.
Ellen: One of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. My mom introduced me to her books more than 20 years ago. Tyler is best-known as the author of The Accidental Tourist, but she’s written more than a dozen novels, all quiet ruminations on the paths our lives take, marriage’s expectations and disappointments, children, family connections etc.
Her Ladder of Years is about what happens when an underappreciated mother decides to chuck it all, leave her husband and teens, and start her life over again in a town where no one knows her, with no possessions and no obligations. The mother discovers that humans must make connections to feel alive and that living without possessions, responsibilities and loved ones is impossible. Anyone who’s ever been tempted to dump the carpool, burn the dinner and walk away from the piles of dirty laundry could relate to this book. Not that I would know anything about that…
Another favorite author is Anna Quindlen, because she writes personal essays, my own favorite form of writing. Since high school I’ve liked historical fiction (especially when it’s set in Tudor England) from authors including Jean Plaidy and Phillipa Gregory. New authors like Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), Kathryn Stockett (The Help) or Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals and others) are also great.
Joyce: Thanks for reminding me, Ellen, that I loved The Help and Water for Elephants, too. Even though we talk about writing all the time, we don’t usually discuss what we read. Turns out we are writing and reading buddies. I recently gave Ellen This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, a laugh-out-loud story about what happens when a dysfunctional family of grown children comes home to sit shiva for their dad. She already had a copy of the paperback on her kitchen counter and had just finished reading it!
If you ask me to name my favorite books, I can only recall the last few: Room by Emma Donoghue, narrated by a 5-year-old who is being kept captive along with his mother in an 11×11 foot room, and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, narrated by an old dog who has a lot of moving insights about life and the family he lives with.
What do these two books have in common? They, and many others of my favorites, were recommended to me by my friend Sue Katz, who I always trust to tell me what I’ll love next! I’m also a sucker for books reviewed on NPR. That’s why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Sklott, Unbroken:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand and The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson are piled up on my night table.
The other night, we had the chance to actually hear a famous author answer questions about her writing.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke at Bryn Mawr College. Aside from the fact that her appearance was packed waaay past capacity with more than 500 adoring college student groupies – it was interesting because she read from a not-yet complete work in progress. Authors usually read a favorite passage from a book that they wrote long ago.
Lahiri read two short pieces with the same main character. The first, set in India, gave some background on him as a child and detailed a short adventure with his brother. The other was set years later in the United States when the same character was a grown man. Lahiri said she had no idea (yet) if and how the two stories would connect. We were surprised that she gets her thoughts down and starts writing short vignettes but does not plan in advance where the narrative will take her.
Since we favor non-fiction, we are forced to say, “That’s fiction for you!”
Happy reading. And please share your favorite books and thoughts on reading with us