Comfort reads

May apparently wasn’t much of a better month for posting than April, and I don’t think June will yield many posts, either. We are in the thick of moving preparations, and I only have time to write this post because I’m experiencing a very slow chat reference shift today.

In the midst of all the transition that seems to be hitting, I’ve been finding myself rereading a lot of old favorites before I packed them up. Even at the library today, I managed to pick up a new graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time to check out. With all this rereading, I thought I could share a few of my very favorite books that I will always come back to read one more time. There are lots of other books series I love and like to reread, but these are some of the ones I’ve read 10 or more times, that I come back to every few years, that I pull off the shelf just to read a favorite chapter when I’m feeling down. Not surprisingly, several of these are books I’ve been reading since I was a kid, but since I’ve stopped expecting to feel like a “real grown-up” anytime in the next 50 years, that doesn’t seem to bother me.

pride_and_prejudicePride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. This is the only actual “adult” book on the list, and I first read it my senior year of high school for English class. I wasn’t expecting anything super exciting from it (it was one of our last books for the year, and the others live in the range of “mostly interesting” to ” extremely depressing” in my memory), but a friend and I opened up my copy during math class and read the first line. It was ironic–it was funny! I continued to enjoy the story, and the fact that it was basically a romance did not hurt the book in my opinion at all. I also loved the use of letters in the story, particularly since my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I regularly wrote letters during the week just for the fun of getting mail from each other (we didn’t go to the same high school). I now routinely reread P&P every few years (and bits and pieces in between), usually in the spring. I’ve read 4 of Austen’s other books (I still need to read Northanger Abbey), and this one far and away remains my favorite.

Many Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle.

Yep, this is the edition I have, too.

Yep, this is the edition I have, too.

This is the book I still consider my all-time favorite. Granted, I have lots of favorites depending on the day and my mood, but I discovered this one sometime around fifth grade, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. Not one of L’Engle’s best known works, Many Waters stars Sandy and Dennys Murry, Meg’s younger twin brothers who are much more ordinary than either Meg or the youngest brother, Charles Wallace. Sandy and Dennys accidentally interrupt one of their scientist parents’ time-traveling experiments and blow themselves into the story of Noah and the Ark.

I just reread this from cover-to-cover for the first time in many years, and I was able to think a little more logically about why I love the book so much. It certainly has its faults–there is some serious repetition, some of the language is so sparsely lyrical that it almost doesn’t make sense, and L’Engle seems to sometimes confuse her characters in passages of dialogue, especially when the two twins are talking together. But even with all of this, I just love it. I love that L’Engle took a familiar story and wove a whole world under it, without changing any of the details from the Biblical text. I love that the women have more of a role in here. I like how she handled sex–it’s definitely there, but my 5th or 6th grade self missed a lot of the references to it, and it’s presented as something that’s important and great, but that has to be approached with care. And I like the twins themselves, how they are matter-of-fact, regular guys who manage to adopt to a fantastic time and place. They see lots of awful, evil things going on in the world, but they also see the good and don’t despair.

I know many people who just don’t think this one works, and maybe it’s just that I liked it when I first encountered it, but it works for me.

beautyBeauty and Spindle’s End, both by Robin McKinley. My first post for the Hub was all about Robin McKinley, so it’s not surprising that two of her books are here. My mom handed me Beauty sometime in late elementary or early middle school and told me I would love it, and I did, and still do. Going back to it, I can see that it’s a first novel (two of McKinley’s favorite things are books and horses, and both come in strongly here–plus, there are lots of elements about the Beast’s castle that are pure wish-fulfillment), but it’s still a beautiful and well-told story, gives a neat twist on the folktale, and has a great protagonist. Spindle’s End was published about 20 years after Beauty, but it has a similar fairy-tale “feel” to it. It’s a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, and I especially enjoy that there are two protagonists (first, Katriona, then Rosie as she grows) and the strong role that female friendship plays.spindles_end

Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. I’m too old to have been one of the kids who “grew up with Harry,” and yet in many ways I feel like I did. I discovered the series in high school, and read the first three books all in one swoop. The 4th one came out the summer after I graduated high school, the 5th one while I was in college, the 6th after my first and only year of teaching, and the last one when I was half-way through library school. I may not have grown up with Harry, but he was there for a lot of milestones, and I still like to hang out with him, Ron, and Hermione frequently.

If I had to choose a favorite from the series, this would be it.

If I had to choose a favorite from the series, this would be it.

As I said, there are more, even more that should be on this list, but these make up the core of my go-to comfort reads. What are yours?

Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle

Certain Women 
I read this book for this first time when I was in library school, probably in the spring or summer of 2007–I remember that I found it in a used bookstore that’s sadly no longer open in Durham. I enjoyed it when I read it, but I had forgotten a lot about it, so I decided to reread it a few weeks ago. I think it’s one of Madeleine L’Engle’s more complicated books–it’s certainly one of her later books, and I think one of the few “adult” books she wrote after she became a well-known children’s author.

Before I go too far, I don’t think I’ve mentioned on this blog that I consider Madeleine L’Engle my favorite author. I have lots of favorites, but she’s one who’s books continue to appeal to me both because I like her stories and because I appreciate her outlook on life. Like my mother (who introduced me to L’Engle), I’ve found more to criticize in her books as I’ve gotten older, but overall, I still think her books are fabulous and capture the way I feel about many things. So while I do have a few critical comments, more of this book works for me than it might for other readers.

A quick overview of this one is difficult, but it basically follows actress Emma Wheaton as she spends time with her very famous actor father, David Wheaton, while he is dying. They are in the Pacific Northwest, on a boat, with David’s current wife, Alice, and Alice’s brother Ben, who runs the boat. David spends much of the time reviewing his life and regrets, particularly those regrets related to his marriages (8 in all), his children, and never having gotten to play King David in a play that Emma’s playwright husband, Nik, was trying to write. There is a great deal of flashback, and Emma has to come to terms with her own past traumas and mistakes while she’s trying to help her father in his dying and let go of him, too.

Those familiar with L’Engle’s work may be surprised the she focuses so much on a character with so many marriages–her Austin books are sometimes criticized for presenting a family that’s too perfect–but as in her other books, she treats almost all of her characters with compassion. David Wheaton acknowledges that he’s messed up many times, and many people have gotten hurt because of his choices, but he maintains friendships with some of his past wives, contact with almost all of his children, and overall is a sympathetic character. Most of his children get along with each other, and several of the wives are friends as well, which is where I can see L’Engle looking at the world with rose-colored glasses. While many former spouses can remain or eventually become friends, and step-parents and step-siblings often do become friends, the “one big happy family” ideal seems to come a little too easily.

My other criticism is actually the use of the Biblical story of David. I generally like when L’Engle uses Biblical themes–Many Waters, a retelling of Noah and the ark, is my all-time favorite–but it gets a little tiresome here. Part of it is a natural part of David Wheaton obsessing with the story and Nik’s play in his reminiscing, and also of Emma and Nik forming their relationship largely around work on the play, but sometimes it just gets to be a little too much.

With that said, I like the book. I like the theme of less than perfect families still loving each other, even if it seems a little too easy here. I like the focus on dying well and using the time of dying to reflect on life and say good-bye, along with the rejection of medicalizing death. Emma is a likeable, but not perfect protagonist–her own problems come out in pieces as the book unfolds–but I like the choice she makes at the end of the story. Additionally, the world of the New York theater scene in the 1940’s is wonderfully vivid, and I’m sure drawn largely from L’Engle’s own time as an actor (to support her writing!) in that period.

I looked up some reviews from when the book came out (in 1992), and the main criticisms were L’Engle’s rosy outlook and that she had sprinkled trite philosophical truisms throughout the book. I’ve already mentioned the former, and I think if you can get past that, then you can get past the truisms, too. To me, a more hopeful and optimistic outlook is sometimes what we need, and I think the smatterings of philosophy rang true in the world of the characters.

If you can get a hold of the book (Durham Library does have 2 copies, which surprised me a bit), and if you like L’Engle’s other books, I would recommend this one. Just remember that this is definitely not a kid’s book–it’s written for adults.