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— BOOKS THAT TOOK MY BREATH AWAY — posted 6/2020

I posted this reading list during the pandemic, when sheltering in place and limiting our activities and socializing during the early days of the pandemic caused us to change our pace. It was also a good time to be quiet and reflective. Here's a selection of very strong writing I've gotten lost in while seeking solace over the years.


Plainsong - Kent Haruf

The first of a trilogy, this haunting and beautifully written novel takes place in a rural Colorado town. With quiet, elegant, and simple writing, Haruf gracefully brings together a small cast of characters who struggle with the challenges and disasters of life, while exploring their forgiving capacity for love. This is one of those book that makes me put my hand on my heart and be grateful for such talented and elegant writing. 

Floating In My Mothers Palm - Ursula Hegi

Absolutely exquisite writing, this 1998 book consists of connected short stories about the town of Burgdorf in 1950's Germany. Hanna Malter is the only living child of a beautiful artist mother and a much older dentist father. This is Hanna's story of her complex and loving relationship with her mother, and the warmth and pains of the people in her town. When I first read these this, I felt it goes hand-in-hand with Michael Dorri's "Yellow Raft in Blue Water." Both are haunting and heartbreaking poetic writing from the mid-1980's.

Yellow Raft In Blue Water  - Michael Dorris

Michael Dorris' debut novel bares his uncanny ability to write about the tragic vulnerability of human nature in this cross-generational story about three Native American women living on a Montana reservation. He eloquently weaves their complicated story and the love they have for one another that is, sadly, obscured by ill will, deep secrets and misunderstanding. The image of a yellow raft in blue water has followed me for years, since1987, when I first read this astute book.

 

The Snow Child  - Eowyn Ivey

found this sweet and simple story to be a breathtaking retreat to the Alaskan outdoors and frontier. Deeply touching, exquisitely written, this bewitching tale is based on the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka, starring the Snow Maiden, a young girl who is believed to be half-human and half made of snow. From the very beginning, I found myself tearing up as I read this enchanting heart- wrenching story about an aging couple, the bleak Alaskan wilderness and a mystery child who appears before them one day in the woods.

 

Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry

I am a huge fan of "western" writing, especially Cormac McCarthy, Jim Harrison, and Zane Grey . McMurtry lovingly shares with us characters who touch our hearts, make us laugh, and especially make us cry. We follow an Old West cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the 1860's full of endearing, funny, and deeply connected cowboys. It's a big book, a long epic story. I love this Goodreads review: "Warning: This book will destroy you. I have never been so completely and utterly decimated by a novel. I don't need a book club; I need a support group."  One of my all-time favorite books, I can't say this loud enough: allow yourself to get lost in this Great American Novel written by a Great American Novelist.

 

Sophies Choice - William Styron 

Styron's 1979 novel about three people sharing a boarding house in 1940's Brooklyn is a tear-jerker of a love story with its brilliant plot and retelling of Sophie's heart wrenching story of her Auschwitz internment. Full of love, despair, lust, grief, guilt, coming-of-age, and madness, this book is a masterpiece of American Southern writing. It's an amazing story, it's beautifully written, and it's incredibly sad sad sad. I cried my heart out. The 1982 film starring Merryl Streep as Sophie was a big-time tear-jerker.

 

The Soul Of An Octopus - Sy Montgomery

I absolutely adored this delightful book. I had no idea how brilliant octopuses are. I am now deeply respectful of them for their ability to communicate and express themselves as humble beings. This is a heart-warming read that will change your way of thinking about the non-human lives we share this planet with.  

 

A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley

Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1991 National Book Critics Circle fiction award, Smiley's dark novel about life in Zebulon County, Iowa on a large farm is a beautifully and sensitively written book. A modern version of Shakespeares King Lear, with slight retelling, the story envelopes a family's inevitable tragedy. The depth of character and writing style make this timeless book a well-deserved award-winner. Read the book before seeing the 1997 Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Robards film.

 

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Annie Proulx's second novel, written in 1993, received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize Award. It's not the easiest of books to read. I would never want to meet the characters or share their lives, but her descriptions are impeccable. You can feel the weather. You are right there in her landscape details. You can ride on her slow pacing. She shows the true colors of life in a Newfoundland sea town, the local culture, language, and grim climate. The beauty of this book is the writer's subtle use of words, along with her unique voice, and sparse sentences.

 

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Four damaged lives converge in an Italian villa at the end of WWII in this hauntingly exquisite book that reads like a slow-mo poetic dream. Michael Ondaatje's exceptional writing is well-deserved of the 1992 Man Booker Prize. Sensual and cerebral, the storytelling is utterly melancholic in its beautiful characterizations and poetic depictions of love and war.

 

News Of The World - Paulette Jilles

The little bit of time I spent with the two main characters in this novel left me feeling calm and safe. It’s a quiet read that takes one far far away from the crisis in which we are currently living. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an honorable elderly widower who earns his living in northern Texas giving newspaper readings to live audiences who are eager for news of the world. In the winter of 1870 he agrees to transport a 10-year old white girl captured as a child by an Indian tribe back to her family, undertaking a dangerous 400-mile mission in post-Civil War Texas. Having to learn how to communicate with this girl who does not remember the English language, we witness Captain Kidd's vulnerabilities as he tenderly cares for his young passenger on their long journey. This gentle and comforting story, so elegantly written, explores the limits of trust, responsibility, and honor. It is a hopeful book, the perfect read during these weeks of coronavirus self-isolation.

 

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstein

'm not a circus fan nor am I into magic, but this magical book about a circus set in the Victorian era, totally blew me away. Elegantly and ethereally written, it is charming and mystifying, poetic and lyrical, vividly dream-like tale. Oh if only I could attend this spectacular circus that only takes place in the dark of the night. This is one of those books that I look forward to re-reading. It's an enchanting read.

 

Snow Falling On Cedars - David Guterson

An exquisitely written novel complete with romance, suspense, heartache, horrific injustices, and drama. Taking place in the Pacific Northwest, the story centers around the horrible treatment of interned Japanese Americans during WW II. The captivating courtroom drama mixed with memories of a disgraceful chapter in 1950's American history makes for a compelling read that is magnificently written.

 

Truth And Beauty - Ann Patchett

Author Ann Patchett's memoir is an unzipped homage to her loyal, loving, heartbreaking, and fiercely annoying friendship with poet Lucy Grealy. A beautiful testament to the powers of friendship, this is Patchett's incredibly honest portrayal of true love for, and utter distaste of, a best friend. 

 

A Piece Of The World - Christina Baker Kline

For me, New York Times Christina Baker Kline's bestseller "Orphan Train" comes in second to this absolutely gorgeous piece of writing that was inspired by Andrew Wyeth's iconic painting "Christinas World." A heart wrenching story taking place in Cushing, Maine, this fictional memoir is the real life story of Christina Olson and the painting of her by her friend Andrew Wyeth. Restricted by a crippling disease, Christina's sad and tragic story is beautifully revealed in this quiet read that offers a delicate sense of place and explanation of the mystery of the painting.

 

About Grace - Anthony Doerr

Written 10 years before being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "All the Light We Cannot See," the author's first novel, "About Grace," is just as word-perfect a book and stunning accomplishment. Doerr's moving storytelling captures a world of human frailties, full of grief and longing, along with the power and mystery of nature. Burdened by agonizing dreams that later come true, David Winkler lives despite every reason for him to die. In his journey to find truth he brings tiny bits of joy to the people he encounters. Full of so many sentences I wish I could carry around with me in my pocket, this is one of my most recommended books.

 

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be." Oh how I loved this book! It's a riveting tale of a woman writer in a remote coastal village in British Columbia, whose writers-block gets distracted when she discovers the journals of a Japanese girl that wash up on the shore in a barnacle-encassed waterproof box. A beautiful and poetic book built on many levels and complexities that include school bullying, suicidal thoughts, the Japanese-version of WWII, the elderly nuns inhabiting a beautiful ancient Buddhist temple, and the horrific deadly 2011 Japanese tsunami.

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