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Question of the Month: Favorites

by Susan Henderson on February 4, 2013

What are some of your favorite books of all time? And what is it about those books that you love?

For me, my absolute favorites include Albert Camus’ The Plague, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain ( I couldn’t find the right size cover for that one so picked another I love), Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and yes, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.

I love these books for big and small reasons–for the dark journey or circumstances that brings the hero’s heart into conflict with itself, for the glimpses of light and dark in the world, for the experience of fully inhabiting both delicate and hardened minds, and for the poetry of individual sentences. (Okay, there’s nothing really so dark about Winnie the Pooh, but it’s some of the most amazing writing I know.)

Besides my all-time favorites, I also have a voracious appetite for gothic stories with Byronic characters facing big moral dilemmas: Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, and pretty much every Shirley Jackson story. Which leads me to the book I’m working on right now. My first novel was the one I needed to write. This time, I’m trying to write the novel I’ve always wanted to read.

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A quick interlude… here are my kids (on keys and guitar) and their two best friends playing jazz over the weekend. It was such a great show, and it’s such a great friendship to watch.

I’m grateful to all who blogged about my book this past month: Girlfriends Book ClubCure for CrankinessCure, part 2A Design So VastJocosa’s Bookshelf,Daisy’s Book JournalStorybook Careers, and my books, my life.

Okay, enough from me. Let’s hear about some of your all-time favorites!

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Bones February 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Really enjoyed The Things They Carried thanks to your recommendation and am looking forward to We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 1:09 pm

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is so creepy and fabulous, I think you’ll love it! But what are some of your all-time favorites?

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Billy Bones February 4, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Pretty much any Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams book.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Pratchett’s sheer genius. My favorite will always be Maurice. A kid’s book, supposedly, but I didn’t feel too old for it.

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Billy Bones February 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Neither did I.

Nathalie (@spacedlaw) February 4, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Novel?
In English, that would be Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Address Unknown (Kathrine Kressmann Taylor), and Hotel New Hampshire (John Irving).

In French: I support the first two cycles of Robert Merle’s “Fortune de France” saga (that’s 6 books out of 10 1/2), and then Balzac… (most of it)
In Italian: Oceano Mare (Alessandro Baricco), Montediddio (Erri de Luca), Come Dio Comanda (Niccolò Ammaniti), and Sostiene Pereira (Antonio Tabucchi).
In Spanish (which I read in Italian or French – I only subject myself to the original for Neruda): El Club Dumas, La Piel del Tambor (Arturo Perez-Reverte), El Hombre que Amaba a los Perros (Leonardo Padura Fuentes), and Donde mejor canta un pájaro (Alejandro Jodorowsky).
Not going into other languages but there is so much out there, it is so difficult to make a choice…

Poets: Pablo Neruda, Cesare Pavese, Jacques Prévert, Rabindranath Tagore…

I could not go into the reasons as to why those books and not others. They all touched me for a reason or another. If you were to ask me the same question in a month’s time (or tomorrow) the list might well be different. Or not. There are so many others left out.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Good Omens is in my husband’s top 3. And I bought Pablo Neruda, at your suggestion, and he’s getting closer and closer to the top of the pile.

What a fabulous thing to know so many languages, and well enough to read the original works! I’m in awe. I took 7 years of French and a little Mandarin and can’t function in either. The only language I’m even sort of competent in is sign language.

I should read some Balzac. I’ve seen plays but never read the scripts.

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Heather February 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm

One of my all-time faves is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Also by him, Veronika Decides to Die. Oh, and The Little Prince. :)

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I never heard of the Veronika book. Both my kids have read The Alchemist. Maybe I need to steal it off their shelf!

I remember a cartoon movie of The Little Prince more than I remember the book, and the sound was warped and I remember being frightened of it.

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Paul Cunningham February 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Love the books you, and Billy and Nathalie, mentioned. The ones I’ve read anyway.

I just reread The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I’ve sometimes forgotten how much I enjoy that book. So I’ll call that my favorite for the week with, like, a hundred or so tied for second place.

My favorite line from The Bell Jar?…, “The lawn was white with doctors.”

And hey, absolutely great and fun fusion jam with your kids, Sue. Had fun watching it!

paul

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Aww, thanks for watching the video! They have so much fun playing, and I love how they’re starting to know enough music theory to improvise.

That line from The Bell Jar… wow!!! Have you been following The Bell Jar book cover controversy? It’s pretty funny: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/sylvia-plath-bell-jar-cover-inspires-online-parodies_b64704

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Paul Cunningham February 5, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Now there’s a cool controversy…, with all of them steering clear of any reference whatsoever to ovens or household appliances! Let the applause reign. Ha.

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Susan Henderson February 5, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Isn’t it fun to see what it sparked? I was also surprised no one went for the cheap oven humor.

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billie hinton February 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I loved Wuthering Heights the first time I read it as a girl, and although I haven’t read it in a number of years, I still love it.

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is another favorite – four novels but inseparable in my mind.

And Marianne Wiggins’ Evidence of Things Unseen.

Cormac McCarthy’s BorderTrilogy and Blood Meridian.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible.

All of Ellen Gilchrist.

Winnie the Pooh, one of the few books I have listened to and loved – the BBC audio version is like a lullaby to me.

And I also love a first reader series called Mr. Putter and Tabby. I adore that these children’s books have as the main characters an older man and his cat, and his quirky woman neighbor and her dog. I’m way behind now in the series, but plan to catch up by the time there are grandchildren in my life!!

I could go on and on. There are so many wonderful books.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Wuthering Heights is one of those books that changes each time I read it. I remember in high school having such a crush on Heathcliff, and then I read it later and thought, he’s wretched, what was I thinking? You’ve listed so many of my favorites, and I love love love Ellen Gilchrist. So glad to see your list.

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GC Smith February 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I buy the A.A. Milne set (Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six) over and over again, for grandchildren, for nieces and nephews, for friends’ kids. I still (at 74) read them for my own pleasure.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 4:53 pm

I’m stunned by the writing again and again. How wonderful that you keep passing it along!

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GC Smith February 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

For me, in addition to the Pooh stuff, anything by Steinbeck, anything by Elmore Leonard, Meville’s Moby Dick, The Bear Went Over the Mountain and The Bear Comes Home (I like Bear books). And, of course, books by GC Smith.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I’m crazy about Steinbeck. I need to read Elmore Leonard. I’ve been hearing about him for years and have never taking the leap.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm
Kate Gray February 4, 2013 at 6:48 pm

So many books, so little time….
There are the books I love, and then there are the books that have shaped me either as a writer or as a person.
I remember having a “fight” with my AP English teacher about having to read Native Son, which was a distressing book to read – I was having a lot of trouble with it – and she finally said that it was the REASON to read it. I think that’s important. If we don’t have the guts to read about something, how are we going to face it if we ever encounter it? So, I occasionally pick something disquieting or uncomfortable to read…Matigari, Away (Amy Bloom), To Asmara and Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti, those are two that have stuck with me. I need to find more….
I love A Moveable Feast and The Garden of Eden – more because Hemingway is so impossible to separate from the story – he’s a fascinating, flawed, terrifying person and character.
Hamlet is another work that I started off hating, but after about five close readings for various courses, I finally saw the depth and amazement in it – plus Tom Stoppard’s alternate viewpoint in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead adds new fun to reading it.
Pride & Prejudice, I adore – Jane Austen and her way of taking little digs at everyone, in an ever-so-polite way…perfection.
Franny and Zooey & Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter – I need to reread these, but very affecting, underappreciated Salinger….
And I have been amazed by every Kate Atkinson book I’ve read – she has a way of upending everything you think you know, even though she writes a “popular” mystery series.

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm

What a great story about the AP class! Now that I’m in my 40s, I only read books I love from page 1 because there are so many great books I want to get to and not enough years left to read them all. However, many of the books that changed my in my hard wiring and opened my mind in ways that needed opening (and seemed to require blunt force) came from books that I wouldn’t have finished except for teachers pushing me. I still remember reading Ulysses in college and physically destroying the book in a rage. And then I had to buy a second one because I still had assignments due in class, and so I tried again and again. And who was the author who wrote a story called Rape Fantasies… was that Atwood? That was another one that just undid me, same with Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but again, I was learning to expand my notions of the force a writer could use to shake the reader. Thanks for your story and your list!

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Kate Gray February 6, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Oh, the list of books we hated in school, now there’s a fun thing to explore! I despised Ethan Frome and A Tale of Two Cities. If I’d thought I could get away with destroying them, I would have. Instead, I settled for writing nonsense and scathing critiques of the authors’ mental states in the journal we were supposed to keep. Jane Eyre also exasperated me, and as I reread it recently, I remembered why…. I’ll have to think of what else…maybe I can find my journal and be reminded!

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Susan Henderson February 6, 2013 at 6:11 pm

One of my kids didn’t like Ethan Frome, and my jaw dropped. For the most part, I love that I was pushed to read broader and deeper than I would have if left to my own, but I still hold my opinions about Herman Melville and Jane Austen. Some books and authors just aren’t your cup of tea, no matter how much you try to appreciate them.

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Kate Gray February 6, 2013 at 6:26 pm

For sure! My Antonia, for another – and Moby Dick for sure…
And I remember in class reading William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow – we were having the allegory and imagery discussion – and one guy just blurted out, “What if it’s just about a wheelbarrow and a dumb chicken?!?!” I still laugh when I think about that moment – but it’s true that sometimes you have to stop hammering at the meaning and just look for the pull of the language – I think some books will open themselves to you if you let go and just read….

Susan Henderson February 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Funny, there’s no reply button near your last comment (I guess we used up our allowed number of comments). Just wanted to say I kind of love William Carlos Williams, his wheelbarrow and his plums. But, yeah, I wonder if they were just supposed to see the images he saw and hear the sound of how he put it all together, and maybe that’s all it was meant to be, which, for me, was good enough.

Jim Nichols February 4, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Hi Sue! I like many of the books mentioned here. Gotta go with The Sun Also Rises for its utterly tone-perfect voice (and dialogue) and the way EH can make you nostalgic for places you’ve never been; with Mockingbird, for Scout, Dill, Jem and Boo; and more current, Our Story Begins (Tobias Wolff) and Olive Kitteridge (E. Strout) for their amazing control of the form, and because I’m working on stories. When I go back to the novel-in-progress I’m sure that’ll change :)

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 9:24 pm

You’re making me want to go on a Hemingway binge. What a great list this is, and I love your description of what you got from these books. (Excited there’s a novel-in-progress!)

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Jim Nichols February 6, 2013 at 12:23 am

Scout is such an American character…and I think part of a classic lineage that includes your Tillie and Addie Loggins …

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Susan Henderson February 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I adore Scout and am honored you think of Tillie as part of her lineage. But who is Addie Loggins?

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Jim Nichols February 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

Paper Moon! Although doing a search I find her name was Addie Pray in the eponymous book from whence came the movie…

Susan Henderson February 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I love that movie! Too bad it was such a horror story behind the scenes.

David Abrams February 4, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Though my All-Time Favorite Books list is in a constant state of evolution and revolution, here are a few of the permanent residents:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (really any Dickens novel, but especially this one)
The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper
Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Rock Springs by Richard Ford
The Stand by Stephen King
Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan
The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Did I say “a few”? Sorry, got a little carried away….

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Susan Henderson February 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Ooh, your list is full of such powerhouses. I’m adding all I haven’t read to my to-do list, including the only Dickens novel I’ve never heard of. And thank you for including the too often overlooked Nathanael West!

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Bethany DuVall February 5, 2013 at 4:51 am

Hi Susan,

I’m passing on a Liebster Award nomination to you. I always enjoy your generosity with ideas about the writing process. The award is a fun way for bloggers to give each other some recognition. If you choose to accept, you can learn about the rules here: http://wp.me/p2aDAm-6F

Bethany

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Susan Henderson February 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Bethany, You are a sweetheart, and I love the facts and questions you posted! I’m only passing because I’m in the homestretch with my book and have sworn off all fun distractions. <3

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Mark Bastable February 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Off the top of my head….

Fifth Business – Robertson Davies
Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut
The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
Practically any PGWodehouse
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Adios, Sheherezade – Donald Westlake
The Magic Christian – Terry Southern
London Belongs to Me – Norman Collins
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The Diary of a Madman – Nikolai Gogol

Most recently…

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender

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Susan Henderson February 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I’m so happy you posted this because, just this weekend, I was trying to decide which Gogol to read. Now I know. Great, British-tilting list. I’ll have to check out a few of them I don’t know.

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Raima February 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I love the questions you ask, Susan, but this one is hard! So many books, so little time, for one thing…but I also have to say that the books that I totally adored at one time have sometimes fallen off the list. For example, “Little Women,” which I must have read a hundred times when I was a girl – I tried it again as an adult and could not see what had appealed to me. I suspect it was just Jo, the one I wanted to be like – the writer.

I have always been a lover of short stories, and I think my favorites reflect this. My copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales was read so much the covers fell off. When I got a little older (high school age) I discovered Ray Bradbury’s short stories, such as the collection “Golden Apples of the Sun.” I think I learned how to write stories by reading his, but I’ve recently learned that he was heavily influenced by the Grimm brothers’ tales, so…!

As far as novelists go, I’ve read everything Ellen Gilchrist has written. Her novels are actually these intertwined short stories, though, so I suppose that’s consistent. I also have read almost all of Gail Godwin’s books.

But, I keep thinking about childhood influences and the books that stayed with me most were “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet,” by Eleanor Cameron and “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. Yes, there’s a theme – the budding little scientist wanted to read geeky things!

And I love Winnie the Pooh, but didn’t discover it until I had kids of my own to read to. I’m glad you put it on the list, though, since it made me think of other great kids’ books, such as “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Littles,” which was a series. Apparently, I like tiny things that hide in walls or in fields. Or that live in holes in trees, like the characters in Winnie the Pooh.

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Susan Henderson February 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Yes! I tried to reread Little Women last year, and by page 2, I was embarrassed and cringing. That said, so many children’s books are still such vibrant memories and very influential in my current writing life. I still reread Grimm to be reminded of how visual and original and wicked your stories can be. Grimm reminds me to walk right towards what I fear and give it a physical life that matches the emotion.

Love Stuart Little and Cricket in Times Square and so many of those books that opened both new and familiar worlds to me.

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Susan Henderson February 8, 2013 at 2:53 am

OMG, OMG, OMG, wish I could share the news I’m not allowed to share cuz I’m dying here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-D

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Ric Marion February 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm

3 OMGs??

Must be something big!

Do spill.

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Susan Henderson February 10, 2013 at 2:30 am

The moment I’m allowed to spill, I will. : )

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Susan Henderson February 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Ric, I posted the news over on my FaceBook page so it’s not so public and searchable. Come on over, if you want: http://www.facebook.com/susan.henderson.520

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Tracy Mays Olmsted February 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Hi Susan:

Great video…nice to see the boys close like their dad and uncle (as I remember them from Singapore days)!

I teach 5th/6th grade and we asked students to create a “Bookprint” which listed books that shaped their lives. Here is my bookprint, starting with childhood, and also incorporates some favorite young adult novels to share with students:

The Little Engine that Could – Watty Piper
Nancy Drew series – Carolyn Keene
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
Into The Wild – John Krakauer
Stargirl – Jerry Spinelli
The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
Life As We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer
Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand

Best regards!

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Susan Henderson February 25, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Tracy, I’m so touched by the reminder of Singapore and the generations of brothers close in age, not just David and Michael, but Hal and Charlie, too.

Your list of books contains so many of my favorites that I’m determined to read the three I don’t know.

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Chris Raimo March 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Ahh, yes. The Bookworms Dilemma: The bookworm reads so he can add to the list but the list grows faster than the bookworm reads.

Old Man and The Sea. How cliche but for my it was the first book I read as a kid that made me want to write. To be able to read it in a single sitting only intensifies the emotions it invokes. It’ the most significant commentary on life, love, failure & triumph I have ever read…or perhaps I read it exactly when I needed to.
Travels with Charlie and most anything Steinbeck
What is the What
Ishmael/Story of B/My Ishamel
Monkey Wrench Gang
The Preservationist (D. Maine)
Frankenstein to name a few.

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Susan Henderson March 2, 2013 at 12:15 am

That’s a lovely and fascinating list of books! Those first great books that speak to us, that make us want to read and write and study everything around us, are the best. For me, I think it was Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. But I do remember the first time I read Hemingway and that masculine, economical style, and how he made me interested in things (fishing, bullfighting) I didn’t think I could be interested in.

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