#1 – Middlemarch by George Eliot

I’ve been putting off this post for weeks. Why? Well, I’ve been really busy. Also, maybe I didn’t want this blog to end. I love telling people what to read so much, why should I shut down this opportunity? 🙂

Nevertheless, the time has come to end my reading recommendations with that greatest of all books to read in your twenties, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

Virginia Woolf’s words, not mine.

Middlemarch. Where do I begin?

Perhaps with a piece of advice I got from Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, in whose “Women Writers” class I first read this book. Write down all the characters’ names in a list as you meet them. Then use that list to keep track of all the people in the book. It was immesurably helpful and took away a great deal of the trepidation I felt when facing the hefty tome.

Really, I think the book is animated by two simple questions:

Who am I?

What should I do with my life?

If you are asking those questions, you should read this book. And there are all kinds of related questions that are illuminated in this novel as well. For instance: What does it mean to be a good person? Are we morally obligated to live up to our potential? What happens when we don’t live up to others’ expectations? What does “greatness” look like in ordinary life?

And of course, there’s the wonderful question that opens the book’s Prelude:

“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand- in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?”

Who indeed.

As Dorothea, Lydgate, Fred, and others try to figure out the answer to those questions through careers, marriages, and so on, their struggles take place within a shifting society. Middlemarch is a world in a little village, a microcosm. Not only that, there are family secrets to be uncovered, forbidden love affairs,* faux-quotation epigraphs that Eliot didn’t attribute to herself (to make the book seem even more literary), and all kinds of other awesome stuff.**

This post hardly does justice to this magnificent work of literature. The only real way to do justice to it is to read it again. So I think I may just do that. What better way to start my 30s?

Note: You could read an e-text for free, but I find a bit of notes and apparatus helpful while reading old books, which is why I linked to the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Or just ask a Victorianist. I am sure he or she has a favorite edition.

*Will Ladislaw = Byronically hot, yet not a (total) jerk.

**Dorothea’s blushing neck!


#3 – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a re-read. I read it as a teenager and then again a couple of years ago.

It is another Bildungsroman!

It’s also classified, often, as “young adult.” But I got much more out of reading it as a grown-up than I did as a “young adult.”

This is not your Catcher in the Rye or Bell Jar progress of a troubled young soul type of book. It’s about a family trying to survive in grinding poverty and the indomitable human spirit. Or something.

Anyway it’s magical.

#4 – Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety was actually the first book I read after college.

Erin Sells, a true California girl at heart (in the best sense of the term, though she is now a California expatriate), recommended this true California writer (in the best sense of the term) to me.

This is a beautiful grown-up book about marriage and fidelity. Which is more unusual in the world of American fiction than you’d think.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Stegner was the famous fellowship named after him which is sometimes given to really awesome people.

But this and Angle of Repose are definitely worth reading, out there in the “Great American Novel” category.

#5 – The Complete Poems 1927–1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop sometimes gets hated on as a poet’s poet. What the heck does that even mean? Nothing. Nothing.

Baby I don’t care.

Before I actually got this edition of her Complete Poems (which isn’t actually complete, but whatevs) for my very own self, all I knew was “One Art” and that one Sestina. Okay, “One Art” is fine and all that, but it’s so much taught in classes that whenever I read it I hear this unpleasantly teachery voice in my head saying “analyze the language! what do you notice about the repetition! blah blah blah.”*

There was like a whole month when I didn’t want to read any poem other than “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.”

My current favorite passage by Bishop is the following, from “At the Fishhouses.”

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.

But I’m sure it will change. Her poems just keep giving.

By the way my one criticism of this book is that the cover is horrendously hideous. It’s the color of old lady bathroom, and the only decoration is a sort of mediocre drawing of Bishop’s.


However I am delighted to discover that FSG has released a new edition of Bishop’s work. It’s about time. I might just have to get my hands on that.

Much, much bettah.

*It’s not a good English teacher voice, though I’ve had lots of good English teachers. It’s more like my voice when I used to be a sort-of-okay-but-not-great English teacher.

#6 – The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson

The second I read the New York Times review of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew I wanted to read this book. I immediately ran to the library.*

I wasn’t disappointed. Rather I found it was even more gripping than I had imagined.

Isabel Wilkerson follows the stories of three people who made the journey from the South to Northern cities. Louisiana to Chicago. Georgia to California. Florida to New York.** Really epic.

Good research and reporting just oozes out of the book. Yet it never disrupts the story. It’s just astonishing to me that a book as big as this one is so incredibly well-crafted. Historical asides provide context for the Great Migration, dismantling myths about the people, time, and places. At the same time the three individuals’ stories are so well-told — I laughed and cried. The three people whose stories Wilkerson follows are not heroic saints. They are not perfect. But they are smart, ambitious, brave, flawed — and just very human. Very American. Just wanting a better life for themselves and their children.

White-guilt-related aside: I often recommend The Warmth of Other Suns to people who tell me they enjoyed The Help. Frankly, The Help was okay (well-paced, good prose), but it left a weird taste in my mouth. Why should I, a white lady, read a white lady’s story about a white lady who, through telling the stories of black ladies, becomes a hero to the grateful black ladies? Can the black ladies not tell their own stories? I felt like a lot of the book was spent trying to convince me that the white lady had to tell the black ladies’ stories for them, that there was no other way. And that just felt creepy and maybe exploitative to me, as a reader. Plus the dialect. Eugh.

So, if you wonder what the lives of real African Americans were like in the ’50s and ’60s, then this book is required reading.

*Haha! Just kidding! I went to the library website and put a hold request on it. We’re in the digital age, people! And I looooooooooooooove the public library. Isn’t my library the cutest?

**Reminding me of some of the longest routes in Ticket to Ride.

#7 – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I vacillated a lot on this one. I wanted to include some sort of big fat contemporary novel by an author who gets a lot of attention. At the same time, I didn’t want to include too many of these types of books because I wanted to leave room for some of the older and more obscure books I enjoy.

Other novels I considered: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Atonement, Winter’s TaleBel Canto, Olive Kitteridge (really, a short story cycle), Animal Dreams (a bit older but Kingsolver is still very popular).

Eventually, Middlesex won out. Why?

Jeffrey Eugenides makes Detroit seem like a place full of wonder and magic. None of those other books do that. Also, he makes Callie/Cal, the protagonist, such a vivid and compelling character. With a transgender narrator, this book could easily have been a novel about gender “issues.” There’s nothing that irritates me more than a novel that’s trying to hit you over the head with “issues.”*


*unless it’s by Steinbeck, in which case the beautiful prose wins me over.