Last week at the library I found a novel I hadn’t read by one of my favorite feel-good authors: Maeve Binchy. I thought I’d read all of hers; and since she passed away, there would be no more new ones. Perhaps I’d read this one, I thought, and simply forgotten that I had. But as I began to read and discovered I had not, my delight reminded me of my pleasure as a child when a new Nancy Drew book landed on a shelf in the local bookstore. One of the things I appreciate about Maeve Binchy is the way, like Jan Karon and William Faulkner, she creates a community and brings its residents to vivid life.
As I outgrew Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew, I turned to Beany Malone books and Betsy-Tacy books. Along the way I fell in love with The Secret Garden, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and everything Louisa May Alcott wrote.
I cannot remember how old I was when I read The Caine Mutiny (maybe 8th grade) and Herman Wouk became my favorite author. The Caine Mutiny fascinated me with Wouk’s portrayal of real, flawed but likable characters, each with his own manner of speaking. There were no beautiful heroines or handsome heroes, no good guys or bad guys. You could recognize a character by his dialogue even if Wouk didn’t identify him. Wow! I also marveled at the variability of Wouk’s work: Marjorie Morningstar, Herbie Bookbinder, and Winds of War, to name a few. I have other favorites whose novels are far more similar to one another, and thus readily identified with their creator, than those of Wouk. Maeve Binchy falls into this category, as does Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Caine Mutiny was my favorite novel of all time until I encountered Crime and Punishment as required reading in 9th grade. Thus began my love affair with Russian authors: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak and Chekhov. From the Russian novels, I discovered that “not being able to put it down” was not the highest praise, in my opinion, for a book. It took me the best part of an entire summer to finish Dr. Zhivago, and I treasured it!
In college, I met my husband, and we both read Henry James. I loved his writing, while my husband thought The American was one of the worst books ever written. I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby in college too, all of which I still cherish and he doesn’t.
I have so many favorites I’m bound to leave out many. I’m going to tackle them in broad, loose categories of my own design. Being southern myself, I’m drawn to southern writers and settings: To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, the stories and novels of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, William Gay, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Donna Tartt, Lee Smith and Alice Walker.
Some of the writers I admire are so far above my talent and ability, I don’t claim them even as influences, though perhaps they are at a subconscious level. Among my favorites are authors that I think of as more commercially successful but still incredibly talented and often lauded. These include: Anita Shreve (my daughter once told me that her writing reminded her of mine, and I was thrilled), Toni Morrison, Daphne du Maurier, Richard Russo, Margaret Atwood (she defies categorization), Anne Tyler, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, Wally Lamb, Jeffery Eugenides, Elizabeth Berg. Some of my favorites focus on particular ethnicities. These include: Lisa See, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Khaled Hosseini.
From time to time I like to read some variation of science fiction/fantasy, particularly Margaret Atwood (she’s worth mentioning again), Madelaine l ’Engle, C. S. Lewis (although I much prefer his non-fiction), Isaac Asimov and Nevil Shute. And should I admit it? I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games.
Finally I’ve always had a fondness for coming-of-age novels, and I discovered the Anne of Green Gables series (and Emily of New Moon) as an adult. Last year I visited L. M. Montgomery’s home in Prince Edward Island to see for myself the landscapes she described so beautifully.