I confess to having a hard time with the question “what’s your favorite book?” because my “favorite” is mercurial. It has to do with what sort of mood my life is in, and what things I’ve been reading recently, and what season it is.
Plus I love a lot of books.
It’s hard for me to choose. So, in an effort to narrow down my options, I’m limiting this list. These are my top ten favorite books…that no one has heard of. (Of course, no one is probably a bit of an exaggeration. Someone has. The publisher and the writer at least. I just tend to like the more obscure books. I’m OK with that. I just want more people to know about them!)
1. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman: A short book with forty short stories, each exploring one idea about what the afterlife might be like. My favorite is the last story, which imagines that when we die, we start living our original life backward. “By the time you enter womb again,” the story concludes, “you understand as little about yourself as you did your first time here.” This is a haunting and provocative book. I read it aloud to my dad when he was in hospice and discovered it is also comforting and moving.
2. Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return by Mary Ellen Geist: A successful anchor on CBS radio, Mary Ellen Geist quit her job and moved home when her father’s dementia became increasingly difficult for her mother to manage. Part medical handbook, part touching memoir, this book explores the mental, emotional, and practical issues that surround taking care of a family member with Alzheimer’s disease.
3. The Door by Margaret Atwood: Somehow, someone started to spread the word that no one reads poetry anymore. Can we stop spreading that rumor? Because I, and many people I know admire, and read poetry. Atwood’s most recent poetry collection is eminently readable: her signature slightly-caustic but considerably truthful voice combines with approachable topics like parenting, the environment, writing, and aging. Growing old, in fact, permeates nearly every poem here, and if you are over forty, you must read the titular poem (it’s at the very end); it will simultaneously terrify you and break your heart.
4. Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue: Emma Donoghue’s recent novel Room won all sorts of awards and will soon be released as a movie, but I love Kissing the Witch much more. It is a collection of re-imagined fairy tales, taking the stories you know—Thumbelina and Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel—and changing them in illuminating ways. Each tale connects to the next one, creating a sort of flowing narrative that links everything together in the end. If you like women’s studies or fairy tales or good writing or seeing old stories in new light, you’ll love this book too.
5. Annals of the Western Shore series by Ursula K. LeGuin: Set on the western side of a great, unpassable desert, the stories and characters in Le Guin’s young adult series are slightly magical. On the surface it seems to be standard fantasy fare, with a country of small city-states and people with magical powers. But as you read, you see how it explores ideas like slavery, responsibility, women’s rights, the distribution of power, the structure of identity. The books—Gifts, Voices, and Powers—can be read individually, but they circle around each other in intriguing ways when read together.
6. This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, edited by Elizabeth Merrick: A girl living in a large city, working in a fairly glamorous industry, searches for her true love, with assistance from her sassy girlfriend. She experiences some variation of dating a red herring before finally finding Mr. Right. The conventions of chick lit are fairly straightforward and formulaic, and the editor of This is Not Chick Lit believes women writers can do better. Then she proves it with 18 short stories written by women writers, none of them fluffy or formulaic.
7. The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw: The Girl with Glass Feet is Ida Mclaird, whose feet have literally turned to glass: toes, arches, and a whiteness starting to creep up her ankles. It started after a summer vacation to St. Hauda’s Land, which is an entirely fantastical creation—an archipelago of islands somewhere off the coast of some mainland, somewhere cold, somewhere with strange flying creatures and bodies made of glass sunk in icy bogs—but not so fantastical that anyone who lives there actually lives a wondrous life. In fact, the residents are fairly depressed, caught in old-folks neighborhoods and decrepit cottages, trapped by the legacies of past family members. Ida returns to the island to try to find a cure for her feet, and there she falls in love with photographer Midas Crook, and maybe her glass heels, glass ankles, glass calves are a medical condition—or maybe they are a metaphor, for how love transforms the beloved.
8. The Reapers are the Angels by Aiden Bell: I always feel a little hesitant to recommend a novel about zombies. But this isn’t just any living-dead novel. It’s not about the zombie apocalypse, but the post-apocalypse. Twenty five years, in fact, since the dead began to walk the world in all their gory, violent hunger. Since Temple was born into this infected world, the zombies are just part of her existence, and perhaps it’s that fact—she doesn’t remember any pre-zombie life—that makes her the character she is. And it is her character, running a sort of cross-country race with Moses Todd (who is both a father figure and an enemy), that makes this novel so memorable. In even the direst of situations—and, with zombies, there’s a lot of dire—she is able to find, see, and appreciate beauty, so that, in the end, it’s only a book with zombies, not one about them.
9. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean: As Hitler begins his siege of Leningrad in 1941, Marina is working as a docent in the Hermitage. Dedicated to preserving the museum’s priceless art, she and her co-workers take paintings from frames and put them in safe storage, pack away delicate, ancient objects, and try to keep from starving to death. As the siege continues, Marina works to memorize the details in the paintings. It is these memories of Rembrandts, Raephaels, and Rubins that become more and more clear to her decades later, when she is an old woman beginning to suffer from dementia. Part history, part art lesson, part exploration of memory’s power and frailty, this poignant novel is entirely unique.
10. Bog Child by Siobhann Dowd: Set in the early 1980’s, during Ireland’s Troubles, this young adult novel tells the story of Fergus, whose brother is carrying out a hunger strike while imprisoned. Out cutting peat with his uncle one day, Fergus discovers a body, and the mystery of its origins creates a story within which he finds the meaning of his own troubled narrative.