Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Book That Almost Got Away

DEBORAH CROMBIE: There are THOSE books. The books you read that you know as soon as you've read a few chapters, or even a few pages, are going to be books that you can't imagine NOT having read and that will forever be part of you in some indefinable way.

We've talked before (more than once, as it's a subject obviously dear to our hearts) about books we read as children that impacted us profoundly, both as writers (for we who are writers) and as people.

But what about books we've read as adults that we knew, instantly, were special? One of those for me was Possession by A.S. Byatt. For my daughter, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. These special books could be classics that we've just now got round to reading. Or something recommended by a friend, or a book review, put on a list or in a TBR pile and left to gather dust.

And then one day, something brings it to mind, or you run out of things that you have to read (which for working writers, doesn't happen very often.) You pick up this book. You begin. Soon you know you will be seduced, transported, and changed. And you think, "How could I NOT have read this???"

This happened to me recently with two novels by Connie Willis, Blackout and All Clear. Blackout was published in 2010, and was recommended to me by my friend Kate Charles. I thought, "Oh, sounds interesting," but somehow just never got around to picking it up. Then I saw another mention, somewhere, and thought, yes, I really must read that. I bought it (in paperback, thank goodness) started reading, and KNEW. And everyone I talked to about this fabulous book said, "You haven't read Connie Willis???" Where had I been, behind a rock??? I soon discovered that Blackout and its sequel, All Clear (which won the Hugo and the Nebula and heaven knows what else, it's that good) were actually one very long novel. So be forewarned, if you haven't read these books, you should buy All Clear before you finish Blackout because you will HAVE to know how the story turns out and what happens to the characters (three time-traveling historians from 2060 Oxford who go back to WWII and get stuck in the Blitz.) I have still to read Willis's earlier time-traveling-Oxford-historians books, but I will.

So, dear REDS, what have you read that you now can't imagine having NOT read?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Wow, Debs, those sound fabulous.  I was preening because I have long proselytized about Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale, which I thought HAH when it was made into a big budget movie, then worried  because NO WAY was that gonna work, and apparently it didn't. But the

book is FABULOUS and I could read it a million times.

And I came late to Philip Pullman's  amazing Golden Compass books--love them. Huh. Guess I am drawn to novels that cannot be made into successful movies.

RHYS BOWEN: Debs, I'm also a huge fan of Possession, and have re-read it several times. Also adore Connie Willis. My latest find is Kate Morton. I loved her Forgotten Garden and The Secret Keeper. And Hank, I was also so impressed with The Winter's Tale. Not sure about seeing the movie.

I found the movies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were disappointing. To me they didn't capture the flavor of the books, the whole concept of little people taking on tasks far beyond them, but still remaining their simple, loveable selves.

HALLIE EPHRON: Great question. At the top of my list would be Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. Talk about a 12-hankie ending. And that's another book that did not translate well to the screen. Also Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries Anything by Barbara Pym (Excellent Women.) Olive Kitteridge. Women's fiction, all of them.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Like Hank, I absolutely adore A Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin — so I'm pretty wary about seeing the movie. (It's gotten pretty terrible reviews, although I don't let reviews dictate what I see and don't see....)

One of my favorite books in the entire world is The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, part of the trilogy His Dark Materials. The movie should have been fantastic — it had a huge budget, big stars, great special effects — and yet, alas, wasn't. Sometimes things are just better in your head than on the screen.

One series of books I think has been adapted well to the (small) screen are George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones. I think the HBO series might actually have more nuance and shades of gray than the books.... (Maybe not — have only read the first book, but three seasons of the TV series...)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've long waved the flag for the fabulous Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Vorkosigan series is both a fabulous read and a master class in blending genres - just writes science fiction interwoven with mystery/romance/comedy of manners, all populated by the most real characters ever. No signs of a movie for these books, alas, although Vorkosiverse fen (plural of fans for the non-skiffy among us) are very excited about the possibility of the talented and hunky Peter Dinklage as the hero, Miles Vorkosigan.

It is interesting how some of the best books don't translate well onto the screen, isn't it? And when I think of movies that have improved on the book, the book is invariably almost unreadable:Last of the Mohican's, Bridges of Madison County, etc.

DEBS: I never ceased to be amazed by the things that we seven diverse writers (and readers) have in common. Hank, I was thinking about how much you love A Winter's Tale when I wrote the intro to this post. Do you know that I read it when it was first published, and can you believe it's been forty years??? I had a hardcover copy, which disappeared, sadly, in some book purge or other. I've just now bought the paperback, which should be easier to read, weight wise:-) I hope I can time find to re-read it.

Hallie, I LOVED The Time Traveler's Wife. The movie--yuck. 

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is up there, too, but it has a very special and weird emotional place for me. When I was stranded in London the week after 9/11, no phone, no internet, no contact with family or friends in the US. I bought a copy of The Golden Compass. Then the next two books. I read non-stop. Those books were what got me through that week. 

Julia, I got to read a Vorkosigan book in manuscript as a first reader! How cool is that?  They are wonderful, and one day (some day...) I'm going to read the series straight through.

And then somehow this discussion morphed into books that did or didn't translate to the screen, but I think that is a whole other blog! Or two. Or three!

So, READERS, what books have you come across, perhaps unexpectedly, that have impacted you so profoundly that you can't imagine having NOT read them?


  1. This is tough; there are so many books that, when I reach the last page, I’m tempted to turn to the beginning and read again, so I’m going with the books I somehow always find myself re-reading: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series . . . Irving Benig’s The Messiah Stones . . . Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 . . . .

  2. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which was actually a pretty good film . . . .

  3. When pieces of a book come back to you after years, decades-- is that the kind of book you mean? I have been grokking "Stranger in a Strange Land" for nearly half a century, and pretty much everything I know about writing novels came from nearly memorizing "Gone With the Wind" when I was in junior high (I keep telling people to go back and reread chapter 1 after reading the entire GWTW-- it introduces almost all of the themes that will present themselves in the book and almost all of the characters, coming back full circle to the opening sentence in the chapter's last couple of paragraphs. Amazing writing!)

    I love Connie Willis's writing, and Sue Grafton's minor characters (which are so thoroughly developed, even when they are just serving you a cup of coffee), but no writer grabs me like Ray Bradbury.

  4. Oh, I have to say Margaret Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN. I was so completely into the world of the story. For nonfiction, May Sarton's JOURNAL Of A SOLITUDE changed my thinking about the writerly life. I went on to devour all of her journals.

    I read Connie Willis' LINCOLNS DREAMS long ago, which is really about Robert E. Lee, which made me read TRAVELLER again, which made me read GWTW again, which I am sorry about now. Boy, did I dislike Scarlett O'Hara. I said this at a conference last year and everyone at the table was roundly appalled, which I thought was amusing because they were all Yankees, and I grew up in the Deep South. That was the same conference where I made a comment that Franco Harris dropped the ball. You don't want to say that in Pittsburgh, I found out.

    Sorry, it's 5 a.m. and I'm babbling. My post is probably more about what not to say at conferences.

  5. By end of day today, I'm printing out today's blog and ALL the comments and saving it for when my workload clears. These are gems. Thanks, Debs, for starting the conversation!

  6. Exactly… Can't wait to hear what everyone says! Ramona, off to find gone with the wind…

  7. Must add: A SECRET HISTORY, by Donna Tartt, and pretty much everything by Alice Hoffman.... I'm about 100 pages into Tartt's newest, GOLDFINCH.

  8. Yes! The Time Traveler's Wife blew me away. And it made me realize I would never be able to write anything remotely close to it. A brilliant concept, as was The Lovely Bones.

    In 1981 I read Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, and it truly changed how I think about the world. In order to remember how it changed me I try to reread it once a decade or so. It's very funny, but kind of horrifying, too.

    Two more: Craig Ferguson's Between the Bridge and the River, and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. I don't know how the last could ever be made into a movie. Also totally original.

  9. One of my all-time favorite books, simply wonderful and got little or no attention, is THE POWERS OF CHARLOTTE by Jane Lazarre. If you can find a copy, you'll thank me profusely.

    Kent Haruf's PLAINSONG, which I had to read for a book club and adored, rereading many times.

    John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN, which is his masterpiece in my opinion. I come back to it again and again.

    For all you sf/fantasy fen, C.J. Cherryh, absolutely the greatest! Both genres. Her FOREIGNER series is an incredible examination of what it means to be human, which she examines in many of her many books, but the little-known book, BROTHERS OF EARTH, is probably her tour de force on that. As I was thinking back over her books, it was hard to pick just one favorite, though, and she writes so well. I've learned so much about writing from her.

    But probably, if I just had to choose one book for this category, it would be Linda Hogan's MEAN SPIRIT. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize the year it came out, but got little attention still. And it's a literary thriller. Hogan's an acclaimed Chickasaw poet and fiction writer, and in this novel, she took a true story of a whole series of murders for gain that were perpetrated on the Osage Indians in the early part of the 20th century and covered up or overlooked by government agencies until one man stepped up to the plate to stop it and bring the killers to justice. I dare you to try to put the book down once you pick it up, and just thinking about one scene in it always makes me cry. Such a powerful book!

  10. Great post! My credit card is shuddering at the thought of what the "end of day" shopping list will look like.

    Here's one that almost got away - a nerdy/shy guy in a writers' group recommended it several years ago. (Shame on me for thinking I wouldn't like anything he liked because our writing styles and personalities were so divergent.)

    I LOVE this book: SLEEPING WITH SCHUBERT by Bonnie Marson. It plays off Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and has the composer reemerging/cohabitating in a modern day female Brooklyn lawyer's body/soul. I was laughing one moment, crying the next.

    Because of that book, I now own a half dozen CDs of Schubert's music, and feel inspired when I remember to play them before sitting to write. (Note to self...)

  11. Great idea, Hallie, printing this at the end of the day! And maybe ouch on the credit card, but it's books, right? Cate, I remember seeing Sleeping with Schubert and thinking I wanted to read it. Not going to let it slip this time.

    Karen, I have Between the Bridge and the River, and have never got round to reading it!

    Susan, I never read a Secret History because someone (on DorothyL, I think) accused me of having copied it when I wrote Dreaming of the Bones, which came out not long after. I was a bit incensed, but maybe it's time I got over it:-)

    The first book on my NEW list is The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Urrea, who I had the great pleasure of meeting last night at the Tucson Festival of Books.

    Talk about getting into to trouble wanting to buy books!!!

    More about Tucson tomorrow--it is an amazing festival!

  12. The most traumatic time of my life was 25 years ago this month. After an emergency C-secetion and a baby in neo-natal for 28 days, my parents were killed in a car wreck. I was reading Rosamund Pilcher's The Shellseekers at the time, andd I don't think I will ever be able to read that book again; however, that didn't keep me from reading more Pilcher. There are two books that I can't imagine not having read: Winter Solstice and Coming Home. These characters have become members of my family. The other book that has stayed with me is Water Like a Stone. It was the first Crombie book I read, and I have become fascinated with living on a canal boat. It has become my "Someday I'm going to do that" dream.

  13. Ah, so many books fit this category. "Time and Again," by Jack Finney. "The House of Stairs," by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine. "Cold Sassy Tree" by Olive Ann Burns. The haunting true-crime "Beyond Belief" by Emlyn Williams. "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson. "The Drifters," by James Michener. And the book that fueled my entire reading life: "Our Mutual Friend," by Charles Dickens. But the list could go on and on...

  14. In thinking about this topic, I am surprised to find that the books which have left their mark are those that have brought me to tears and, occasionally, sobs. To Kill A Mockingbird, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany...the list is long. Even John Kennedy Toole's comic masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces saddened me, knowing the circumstances of its publication. This intrigues me (and no one else!) because I usually avoid obviously sad movies and books, preferring mystery, comedy, and Jane Austen. Not sure what this says about me, but I like this topic and will continue to think on it today, so thanks for bringing it up!

  15. My favorite book to re read again and again is a book called: The Shadow of the Wind by Carols Ruiz Zafon. His other novels are not so memorable. But this one just hits me.

  16. That book, for me, would be Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. It was gut wrenching in it's honesty about the changing world of the 1910s and 20s. Her experiences were unbelievably tragic and soul-searing, yet she eventually came through it all as a whole, vibrant person. And on top of that, it's extremely well written. If you are at all interested in what WWI was like for the British, especially the women, it's a must read.

    Since then I've read Anne Perry's and Pat Barker's books about the same period, but Testament is by far the best.

  17. Almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver, whose writing makes me think I should delete everything off my computer and not even try (make quilts instead). Especially her first book, The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible.

    Thanks everyone for these ideas. My library hold list is getting longer....

  18. Me too, Beverly. I've read Testament of Youth over and over. (And I'd add that the miniseries is stunningly faithful, but we're not doing that topic this week, right?)

  19. My very first mystery, one of the Jane Marple books by, of course, Agatha Christi. That has led me to a life of reading and mostly mysteries. Thank you for continuing to provide me with reading.

  20. Debs, I know I've talked to you about Connie Willis before, but seeing how much you loved Blackout and All Clear here made my heart leap with joy. All Clear came out in February of 2010, and I gobbled it up as soon as it did. The problem was that the rest of the book (as you said it was all really one gigantic book/story), All Clear, didn't come out until September of that year. It was a long six months. Now, I don't mean to keep pressing you about it, but if you loved these books, you simply must read the first of the Oxford time travelers, Doomsday Book. It takes one of the travelers back to the beginning of the plague in England in 1348, and Willis spent five years writing it. This book is such an enormous favorite of mine that I can easily say it's in my top five (which is a hard category for me to determine). Then, the next Oxford time traveler book is To Say Nothing of the Dog, and this one is a bit different in tone, as it is a delightful romp through Victorian England with one of the travelers looking for something called the bishop's bird stump. Several short stories are also available with these wonderful time traveling historians.

    So, I think it's safe to assume that one of my unexpected treasures is Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (followed of course by the rest of those tales). Others include an author I hope you have heard of, and if you haven't, please seriously consider him. Alan Brennert's novel Moloka'i deals with the practice of sending those diagnosed with Hansen's disease, leprosy, in Hawaii to the island of Moloka'i and the Kalaupapa leper colony, in operation from 1866 to 1969. The main character is a seven-year-old girl who is sent there in the late 1800s. This book and Brennert's book Honolulu taught me much as well as providing beautiful stories, and they greatly enriched my recent trips to Honolulu. Next time, I am visiting Moloka'i.

    Another surprising book of impact was Joseph Kanon's The Good German. It made me think of perspectives that I hadn't much considered about WWII before. Unfortunately, they made a movie of it, which I refused to see after hearing how they had bastardized it.

    The Girls by Lori Lansens took me by complete surprise. It is a book about adult conjoined twins who are nearing the end of their life span in their thirties. The format is alternating chapters in which each twin gives their history of their lives from their perspectives. It is the book that solidified the belief that in the ordinary is the extraordinary, and in the extraordinary is the ordinary. No one is only one of these.

    Okay. I can see that I am approaching the point of no return on talking about these books, so I will conclude by simply listing ten books that I had no idea would become an essential part of me.
    1. Doomsday by Connie Willis
    2. Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
    3. The Good German by Joseph Kanon
    4. The Girls by Lori Lansens
    5. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
    6. A Widow for One Year by John Irving
    7. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
    8. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
    9. Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Nashland
    10. Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

    I really could have added more, but I'll stop. This list doesn't include those books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Hounds of the Baskervilles, which I knew of and was fairly certain I'd love.

  21. A Tale of Two Cities and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--never ever watched the movie of the latter because the book was so powerful. And then came the poets, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Wright, William Stafford, Pablo Neruda, Villon, Beaudelaire, and many others. Shakespeare's The Tempest--and I have to say that I adored the recent movie version with Helen Mirren in the role of Prospero (in this version Prospera)! Nonfiction, The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy.

  22. OH! I love this!

    I see a lot of books and authors here I love, and many I've got to find right away.

    THE book I push on everyone I know - Ann Fairbairn's "Five Smooth Stones."

    I have not read anything by Connie Willis, but that is going to change immediately.

    Debs, I'm with your daughter. When I discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafon's the cemetery of lost books trilogy - only a year ago - I felt as though a whole new world had opened for me.

    and, my TBR list is growing by leaps and bounds today!

  23. I feel that I should apologize for posting more material, but when I was getting my masters in library science, I focused largely on young adult literature, and there are some books from this category (loosely defined as it may be) that were wonderful surprises and forever lasting influences. I will simply list below five of these gems. Again, these books are ones that caught me by surprise in their impact. There are many children's and young adult favorites of mine that I quite expected to be so.

    1. Whirligig by Paul Fleischman -- from which I learned the positive connections our actions can have to strangers that we will never meet
    2. The Rifle by Gary Paulsen -- in which our actions can have not so favorable consequences
    3. All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins -- in which the first lessons of how friendships can change and dealing with being the odd girl out
    4. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin -- in which death becomes rebirth and the difference between a job and a vocation is learned
    5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green -- in which living with being terminal includes love, laughter, and hope

  24. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
    Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
    Shōgun by James Clavell.
    Jane Eyre
    Exodus by Leon Uris
    Diary of Anne Frank
    Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

    ....and a few years ago when putting down my old lab was just around the corner a friend appeared on my doorstep with home baked muffins and this memorable book -
    The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

  25. Some of my favorites are "Shadow of the Wind", "Mists of Avalon", and "Ahab's Wife" - and perhaps Susanna Kearsley's "The Winter Sea". But as for THE major life changing read, I have to go with the first 2 parts to Deb Harkness's All Souls Trilogy, "A Discovery of Witches" and "Shadow of Night" (and I owe stumbling upon ADOW to you Debs!).


  26. After reading so many comments, I think I need to go read Winter's Tale right away!

    I read many books I like or admire, but not too many that wrap themselves into my brain the way my chidlhood reading did. However, I think Byatt's Childrens Book is one that did, even more than the often mentioned Possession. Wolf Hall.Most of Kate Atkinson's books - they are so weird, they are so wonderful.I often like Alice Hoffman (not always) but the one that went right to my heart was Practical Magic. And almost everything Penelope Lively has written. I don't want to write books as good as hers; I want to write her books. And for a surprise - John Updike's Rabbit books.

  27. I have to go back in time to "Meet the Austins" by Madeleine L'Engle of "Wrinkle in Time" fame. A child who felt not always loved in a family that was not very close, this Austin family drew me into their arms and held me tight. It made me realize what could be someday and I did indeed do things the mother in that book did with my children - such as read to them at length every night until they were past 13 years old and go out to look at the stars with them every night. That whole series of books moved me deeply.

    "Time and Again" by Jack Finney just opened up my imagination and made me fall in love with the idea of time travel - I was in awe! I am so glad to read of Connie Willis and her time-traveling books - will be getting started on those soon!

    "The Brutal Telling" by Louise Penny - my first of hers I read - did something to my insides I can thankfully never fix, and I have since devoured every one of her books despite the assault on my emotions - they have gotten me through some very hard times as the perfect escape.

    Likewise, "Dreaming of the Bones," my first by Deborah Crombie, opened up the wonderful world of Gemma and Duncan and ruined me on so many other books/authors I used to read as hers are so well done many other books just don't measure up anymore!

    Thank you, good writers, for your gifts of countless endless lives and places that enrich our lives and deepen our way of thinking. So many more I could mention.

  28. Debs, after I got on the van tonight the driver said, "All these people are here for a book festival?"

  29. I just want to thank everyone for the wonderful comments. This is indeed a post to print and keep. So moving to find other readers love the same books, and so awe-inspiring to see so many I haven't read.

  30. What Kathy said about reading the previous Connie Willis time travel books. They are all connected, and I found it fascinating to pick up the connections from The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

    FIRST read Fire Watch, Willis's original time travel story, also part of the whole picture, written in 1982. It's available online here