Friday Favorites: Fiction Books!

Writing has been my first love for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I constantly wrote stories.  I still remember a few gems. I drafted one story when I was 7 or so in this cool orange pen I found while on a play date at my neighbor Jessie’s house.  The first full page of white-lined paper detailed the characters’ names and the names of all of their pets.  What was rising action?  I didn’t know.  The next story I’ll always remember was intriguingly entitled “The Newsroom.”  This grew out of my fascination with news reporters and desire to maybe become a meteorologist. I scribbled this story–along with illustrations–with a black pen and top-spiral mini legal pad I found at my grandparents’ house. There was a a marriage between the meteorologist and the sportscaster, a wannabe news reporter cue-card holder (this was 1992 or so!), and a purse thief mystery the station was able to solve.  How no one has yet to pick up the television rights to this tale is beyond me.  In second grade, we wrote weekly stories in our Squiggle Books based solely on a line or arc or swirl our teacher sketched on the facing page.  A fan of short story series even then, I made sure my book was called All About Billy and that each story was, in turn, all about a fictional boy named Billy.  I penned a “novel” in 8th grade, Sarah Gold Turns 10 Years Old, which is as ridiculous as it sounds, and have played around with countless other stories and poems since.

But reading?  This was a struggle for me.  I am a slow reader, even now.  I used to hide a notebook in the pages of our in-class reading books so I could write instead. Over time, though, I have come to treasure reading.  Certain books, which I will share in my Friday Favorites today, have resonated with me.  Now, as an adult, I always have a book or two I am reading.  My love for reading came later in life–a fact I share quite honestly with my high school English students.  Let me tell you about the books that, at various points in my life, paved the road to reading for me.  I hope you’ll find a book to spark your interest.  Please comment as well with the book that did it for you! 🙂

1. The first book to stay with me: Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner (genre: children’s lit, ages 8-12)

I will forever remember when we began reading Stone Fox as a class.  I was in fourth grade and had Mr. Sabol, my first ever male teacher and a true rock star in the classroom.  He gave us all fun nicknames and made learning both entertaining and impactful. His wife taught across the hall, and they often engaged in playful banter from room to room with louder-than-usual comments like “I KNOW my class will perform better than HER class on this science project!” or “Just be glad HE’S not your teacher!”  They were adorable and real. He remains a role model for me as not only an educator, but as a spouse as well.

But back to Stone Fox. When Mr. Sabol distributed the thin, pale blue books to us one morning, he said, “Trust me, kids, you will see me cry when we get to the ending.”  He was right.  The day we finished reading aloud, we all cried–boys and girls and teacher. When I got off the bus that day, I urged my mom to drive to the book store so we could buy it.  We sat on the couch and read it cover to cover, and we cried, too.  This is a story of triumph and fear and loss and family and second chances and so much more.  This is the first book that got me. The memory alone still pulls at me.

2. The “pass around the cafeteria table and hide from our moms” book: Forever by Judy Blume (genre: young adult)

Scandalous! That is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Forever by Judy Blume.  This book chronicles a shy girl’s first long-term high school relationship with blunt honesty and without a cheesy, forced romantic ending.  This was a nuanced choice for an author at the time.  Young adult books now, such as those by John Green, consistently push the envelope.  Forever did this first. I remember when I happened upon this book in our school library in ninth grade.  I immediately tore through it and encouraged every girl at my lunch table to read it as well.  It was our own secret little book club.  Forever taught us about relationships in a way our moms and health classes didn’t.  It was a contagious read.  I have gone back and read it a handful of times since.  Though it does have many out-of-date references (it was published in 1983) and technology has completely reshaped high school dramatics, it is still a classic that I may not recommend as a teacher, but I recommend as a girl.

I can recall 10 years ago when my yet-to-be mother-in-law asked me if I approved of her middle school-aged daughter reading it.  I quickly told her, “no way!”.  Then, I sent Rachel, who is now my sister-in-law and a wonderful aunt to my three cuties, an AIM message and told her to finish it anyway and talk to me when she was done.  Sorry, Susan!  It is a teen girl’s right of passage.

3. My favorite series for all ages and stages: Harry Potter by JK Rowling (though The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite one!)

I was late to the HP train, but once I boarded at Platform 9 3/4, I became hooked for life.  There are some die hard HP fans out there–my mom and best friends among them–and while I love each word and every crafty sentence of all 7 novels, I am not going to win a trivia contest or receive my honorary doctorate of wizardry from Hogwarts. But I know excellent writing when I read it, and Rowling delivers. The scope and depth of the story and backstories and character lineage alone truly create a world that exists and not just in a reader’s mind; it is that complete and thought-out. I don’t believe one is ever too old or too young to give these novels a try.

I finally “caved” and read the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, during my sophomore year of college. I was completing an independent study in which I co-ran a book club at a women’s maximum security prison and our goal was to read texts that allowed for mental “escape”.  We selected the first HP book, The Giver, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and a few others, but Harry and his hoard of budding wizards won out over the other muggle-driven texts. This book showed me that literature, or even just the act of reading, can create a solace so vitally needed in a person that it saves her.  This book club, and this series, accomplished that for the 7 women I worked with at Edna Mahan.

4. My favorite “just for girls” series: The Ya-Ya books by Rebecca Wells (genre: realistic fiction, southern lit, short stories)

There was a period of time during and after college that I was decently obsessed with audiobooks. When we weren’t at school, Mike and I lived 2 hours away.  Every other weekend, I spent 4 or so hours in the car to and from his house and fell in love with countless characters and tales.  My favorite of these, though, is Ya-Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells.  When I picked up this audiobook, which is a series of short stories, I didn’t realize it was a part of a trilogy and wasn’t even the first book.  I listened, loved, and laughed every minute of my drive.  Not only is the writing honestly humorous and hauntingly sad and femininely silly at the same time, but the voice actress reading the text nailed the southern accents. I have since purchased all of the books in the series and reread them in whole or in part many times.  Each book contains interlocking short stories, so it is a perfect starting point for those who do not feel they have the time to commit to a full novel.

The stories follow the complex and sometimes strained relationships between mothers and daughters as well as the lifelong bonds of female friendships. Like JK Rowling, Wells creates a world for these women that is so vivid and crisp I have a hard time imagining it is all pretend–even the heart breaking moments.

5. The book that reminded me why I want to be a writer: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (genre: metafiction, short stories)

I first read this “novel”–though, truly a collection of short stories–in a creative writing class in college.  Reading this text as a writer rather than as a reader reshaped who I thought I would become as a teacher and reignited my deep love for writing.  This book taught me the value of using the writing of others to inform my own writing.  Tim O’Brien’s use of metafiction is complex and sometimes confusing, but his details are precise and concise in the best way.  I use small excerpts of the stories from this work when I teach craft to my English I students.  Tim O’Brien knows the power of a word much like he knows the power of memory, a theme closely explored throughout TTTC. 

The Things They Carried follows soldiers before, during, and after the Vietnam War.  This makes it a great choice for male readers looking to connect to a text. The short story layout, as I mentioned earlier, speaks to those who can only pick up a story every once in a while.  Some of the details are gruesome, but life can be, too.

6. My greatest reading accomplishment: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (genre: Russian lit, fiction, literary realism)

I read this book during the final semester of college.  Yes–the entire semester.  On top of course work and job interviews it did take months. Plus, the book is really, really long!  That is why Anna Karenina is my greatest reading accomplishment.  This sweeping saga follows a Russian socialite through a personal awakening of sorts that ends her marriage but awakens her soul.  Sappy sounding, I know, but I enjoyed this novel as much for its torrid love story as I did for its look into Russian history and culture.  I fell in love with some characters, like Katia, and despised others.  I embraced the descriptions and coldness of both the people and landscapes.  I just adored the experience.

Reading this book really was an experience.  I remember getting to Dr. Meixner’s seminar class early just so I could sit alone and read a few pages.  I would read while I was on the elliptical machine at the gym. And, oh, I loved the feel of the book.  I had never had that much adoration for the feel of a book in my hands.  I linked the exact version I read so you can understand what I mean.  It was beautiful.  The cover was so soft.  The pages were thin, Bible-like. This book is most likely the reason I have a hard time using an eReader even now. There is nothing quite like having the perfect book in your hands; this one did that for me.

7. My favorite mindless, funny, yet real read: Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella (genre: chick lit)

I have love affairs with authors.  If a book clicks with me, for whatever reason, I will read the author’s entire catalog before moving on to someone new. I am very much like Taylor Swift in a reader kind of way.  Sophie Kinsella’s fun, light-hearted, and self-aware novel Can You Keep a Secret? ignited my love for her and my appreciation for chick lit.  I am a serious English major turned English teacher.  I am supposed to only read classics, right?  No way.  This story and its protagonist, Emma, are as self-deprecating, quirky, klutzy, and anxiety-ridden as can be–much like me.  I find Emma, and all of Kinsella’s other heroines since, so relatable in the most exaggerated of senses.  This was refreshing to me as a reader. I love all of her books, but three other must-tries are Remember Me?, Twenties Girl, and I’ve Got your Number. I actually shed a tear at the end of that last title, and not because the ending was sad.  I was sad to end my reading relationship with the main character.

8. My favorite “everyone should read it or has read it already” novel: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (genre: historic fiction)

This is a must-read.  If you can, though, I suggest the audiobook of The Kite Runner as well as it is narrated by the author.  His authentic accent and bodily connection to the story make for the most perfect experience. This is a story of fathers and sons and friendships in both pre-war and war-torn Afghanistan.  It is eye-opening, heart-breaking, and breath-taking. Hosseini is one of the most gifted writers of exposition I have encountered.  He is so subtle you almost overlook the true depravity of a situation.  But he treats life with a sense of fragility and kindness that makes you feel real emotion, not fictional emotion.

I implore you to read A Thousand Splendid Suns as well.  I actually love this book more than The Kite Runner, but went with Kite for my list because it is more widely recognized.  Suns chronicles a female perspective of life in Afghanistan and how the lives of different women from different circumstances cross paths in unexpected but honest ways. Again, the subtlety and beauty of Hosseini’s descriptions will leave you breathless.

There you have it: my 8 favorite fiction texts.  I cannot wait to read your suggestions as well!

 

In a future post, I will explore the non-fiction and children’s books that I love and my kids enjoy. Happy reading, now that you have 8 books to add to your list!  😉

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