#8 – Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Gaudy Night has EVERYTHING I like in it. To name a few:

1. Mystery

2. Academic regalia

3. Romance

4. Quotations from John Donne

5. Feminism

6. Early 20th-century British prose

7. Bach

8. Ornate chess pieces

9. Awkward alumni events

10. University campuses in the summertime*

Which is probably why I re-read it, say, once a year. This book might be the book I have re-read the most times. So good.

*They really are one of my favorite things.


#9 – Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch

This book, Yehuda Amichai’s Selected Poetry, wins the award for “poetry book I take off the shelf and read most often and try to carry around with me at times.”

Yehuda Amichai is an Israeli poet. He died in 2000.

Please enjoy this poem (with audio): “A Letter of Recommendation.”

“Oh touch me, touch me, good woman!
That’s not a scar you feel under my shirt, that’s
a letter of recommendation, folded up tight,
from my father:
‘All the same, he’s a good boy, and full of love.'”

Why do I love his poems so much? I have no idea. I just do.*

Hat tip: I was first introduced to Amichai’s poems in my 20th Century Literature class in college, with the wondrous Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.


*This is a terrible answer in a creative writing class, but this is my blog, and I have no explanation — which frustrates me — but there you go.

#10 – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I realize this selection is a bit more low-brow than some of the others. I am okay with that if you are.

Like many of the so-called young adult books I’ve read over the course of the past few years, the Hunger Games trilogy is fast-paced and exciting. But what made these books have a bit more staying power after the last page-turny page was turned?

For me, it’s the fact that the stories delve into the problems around our comfortable spectator approach to violence. Children are forced to kill in order to entertain the wealthy. And though the heroine is forced to kill to survive, she doesn’t remain untouched by the violent acts she’s had to commit. I feel like this book is a good starting point for discussion, and while it mirrors contemporary social problems (as do many dystopian novels) it doesn’t treat them in a heavy-handed way (hellooooooo Handmaid’s Tale).

And if the astonishing Jennifer Lawrence is going to be in the movie, it can’t be that bad, right? Right?

Hat tip to Deanne Liu, who first recommended The Hunger Games to me.


#12 – Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella

If I could magically trade places with anybody and try out their career for a day, I might choose Joan Acocella. She gets to review dance and books for The New Yorker. What could possibly be more fun?

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints is a collection of Acocella’s essay profiles of creative people. (As you may have guessed from the title, 28 of them are artists and two are saints — Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene). Resisting cliches about art and suffering, she considers the lives of artists and asks thoughtful questions about the relationship between art and life.

I loved the profiles of Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, and other dancers. I discovered a writer, new to me, whose work I enjoy — Penelope Fitzgerald. I also loved her essay on the history of writer’s block in which she considers famous cases — Ralph Ellison, Coleridge — and asks why and how it happens.

“Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing,” she says.

I may have skipped a few essays. But I would recommend this book to anybody interested in how creativity works.

#13 – The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. … There were, in classical ballets, the moments when one or another abandoned lover tries to find and resurrect one or another loved one, the blued light, the white tutus, the pas de deux with the loved one that foreshadows the final return to the dead: la danse des ombres, the dance of the shades.”

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s pas de deux with her dead husband in a sense. This book’s energy comes from the tension between Didion’s desire to be a “cool customer,” the elegant, detached observer who narrates her nonfiction, and her very real need to mourn her husband.

I cried a lot reading this book, even though is basically the opposite of sentimental. Maybe because of that. I started to think about how it will when I lose someone close to me. Hasn’t happened yet, for which I am grateful every day. When it does I might reach for this book.

Extra credit:

Where I Was From is also excellent. That Didion’s account of California — and the idea of California — attempts to make sense of both Thomas Kinkade and the prison guard lobby is pretty amazing. A thought-provoking, beautiful book I want to read again.

#14 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I’m really indebted to Chris Chaney for suggesting I read David Copperfield. Life lesson: English professors are wonderful people and are likely to be delighted to talk about books with you even if you are not or never have been  their student.

I had a little bit of a phobia of Dickens. So many words. But eventually I just dived in and it was worth it.

Note: This novel doesn’t really have a plot.

It is, however, a bildungsroman, which means that plot is not all that important. And it’s always handy to know German literary terms to throw around at parties, so, there you go.