In the spring of 2007, I wrote this for a friend who was leaving our fun work group. At the time, bookstores were still common. In our small work group we had experienced a series of family deaths during a short time leading to a strong bond. We worked in human services and witnessed a lot of human suffering and joy as a result of our job. This led to many conversations in which, I was always saying to my friend, you should read this…
My dearest M,
I am on my big green couch surrounded by melting snow and a fog rolling in from the lake. I think that writing you a letter about the reading list for the rest of your life might be good fun.
So, first, you must procure and read: Men are Just Desserts, that way, no matter how frustrated you get with your man, you will know that he is just dessert and that you have to cook the meal (aka: go tango dancing with your friends).
Another good book about men and life and relationships is A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg. Read the book before you read about her marriage, it is eye-opening. After, you may also enjoy The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. When the dysfunction in relationships rears its ugly head, read The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy and its sequel, Beach Music: they help make sense of things. Conroy shows how dysfunctional groups are born, live, and die while he depicts the earth’s beauty interwoven among the craziness. After you read The Prince of Tides, you might want to see the movie.
A Slender Thread by Diane Ackerman is a comforting read when next winter, out in California, you may miss upstate NY. Ackerman’s allusion to the slender thread of life and her tales of her work as a crisis-line volunteer hit home, metaphorically and geographically. Note, when she references her friends Carl and Ann, she is referring to the late Carl Sagan.
I have not read all of the Old Testament but find The Psalms very comforting. Also, on the political scene, read The US Constitution and Amendments. It’s a quick read. If you haven’t read The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, read that too. In my assessment, we have the closest thing to communism on the planet, “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.”
On a lighter note, The Tao of Pooh simplifies the whole religion/existence thing. It just does. Pima Chodron and the Dali Lama have writings on Buddhism: they heal when the heart is confused and or sad or just tired. Pima Chodron practices a sect of Buddhism called Shambhala. There is a magazine by that name and a publisher by that name. I find many of their publications helpful.
How can I recommend everything to read in a few lines in a way that will entice you to check off the whole list? Read Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway and see what you make of it. When people disappoint you and you can’t believe it is happening, read The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck, and when you want to help your family and can’t, this book may help: A River Runs Through It: you will see that it is an age-old problem. Here is a partial quote:
“For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”
― Norman Maclean,
When you are really old, read When I am Old, I’ll Wear Purple. I have not read this one but I know old ladies who have. When you are mid-age, whatever that is, since, because, oh by the way, we don’t know when the grim reaper is coming, read Back When We Were Grown Ups by Anne Tyler. Very good coming to terms story, surprisingly light. A good read if you ever think at 50 of hooking back up with that person you use to date, who was he? what was his name? oh Mike. Mike? Read the short story, The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin. Wow, the duality of perception and the complexity of marriage in the shortest story I ever read.
If you have not read Robert Frost’s poems, start now, online. They are good odes to nature with metaphorical life symbols. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both…
Richard Powers, Richard Powers: read Gain and other books by him. He is in his 40s and a fabulous writer about our times. The science gone amok and the humanity that tries to cope.
So many books, so little time, the page is almost done and my attempt to be witty begins to fail. If you haven’t read The Velveteen Rabbit, buy it, read it, and save it for your first-born. Along with Pippy Longstocking and The Diary of Anne Frank. About grief read, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, if you haven’t already. I felt so connected in my aloneness after my father died by just reading this book.
About the inevitability and confusion of death, read 3 poems by Emily Dickinson. Because I could not stop for death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” and “There’s been a Death in the Opposite House as lately as Today.” To understand the body and how it breaks down from a very humane perspective read: How We Die by Sherwin Nuland.
Cheer up, The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is a good book to read. Each section prefaced by her daughter Caroline Kennedy and the themes include youth, adventure, etc. Oops, I forgot, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, in this he proved that you can become a famous writer at 60 and that you never really get over childhood altogether, but you can make peace with it. I also forgot to tell you about the books by David McCullough: history, my favorite, John Adams.
And on the spooky side, looking always for the metaphor: Stephen King’s Needful Things, do we need it or want it so badly we need it ? Misery and The Green Mile are also by King and very good. Anne Rice, Cry from Heaven and Memnoch the Devil. Frankenstein and Dracula both of which have scenery somewhat like upstate NY from November to March.
Well, I could go on, but what fun would it be for you, the reader? For after these , the world awaits of book suggestions from other friends, NPR, the web and the browsing that happens on a ho-hum day, when there, out from the shelf, pops a book you have never seen or heard of. But for some reason, out of all the bunches you are faced with, that one book calls your name. You open it, it sucks you in, page turning to the end, you wonder what force, what serendipity, drew you here to this one of zillions waiting for a reader’s eyes? You don’t know if there are messages in the atoms that draw one to another, you only know that through that tome you arrived somewhere else at the end of your journey and you never left the couch.