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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

My list of fiction favorites...

It doesn't take much to get me to rattle off a booklist. I still giggle with my best friend from high school about the time we stayed with a family in Boston. "Could you list me a few great books for my middle-school girls?" asked our host mom. Amidst the bustle and hum of three moms packing picnics and the din of the twelve kids that comprised our families, I plopped down on the kitchen loveseat with pencil and paper. Not a further sound did I hear as I scribbled down favorites like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and All-of-A-Kind-Family, keenly aware that my brain was spouting book titles much faster than my pen could catch them. Only when my friend poked me in the ribs and whispered in my ear, "Sarah, good grief. I think forty titles is enough. And you're about to be abandoned," did I stop. What can I say? I love me my books. So, when Susan requested a list of favorite fictional books, and Amanda seconded it, I delightedly scrambled to acquiesce. (Thank you girls, for a lovely hour!) I think I'll do several booklists in the following days as this one has been such fun; one of fiction, one of non-fiction/essays/spiritual, and one of children's literature. Each list will be highly subjective, I warn you, the only criteria being the fact that these books are living to me, friends for whom I am passionate, each of whom has shaped a room in my soul.

I'll start with fiction (broken up into two posts), since stories are my favorite anyway. The yarns below range from by the fireside on a snowy day, to the sort you pull down off the shelf when your heart is breaking and you can't talk about it, so you read instead. Quite diverse too, these tales, a merry mixture of classics, modern fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, and a taste of the good kind of romance thrown in for fun. When I can, I'll list a few extra recommended titles by each writer, as I've limited myself to review only one title per belovedest author. (Lest you too be tempted to poke me in the virtual ribs and whisper "good grief.")

Pilgrim's Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge I always knew there could be something sacred in old houses, but it took Elizabeth Goudge to first articulate it to me in this, my favorite of her works. The Eliot family feels itself altogether ravaged by WWII and a world generally unravelled, so they make a somewhat reckless move to the country and buy an old "pilgrim's inn," a wayside house run by monks in the long ago years when devoted souls made their pilgrimages to holy sites across England. With the spirit of a merry host seeming still to haunt the house, and a wood dappled by sunlight and secrets out its door, the family settles into a country round of hearthside tea and gardening that is a healing they barely knew to ask for. When the simple shepherdess Sally and her father, a famous artist, join the crew, plus David, the troubled and brilliant actor and handsomest of the Eliots, "The Pilgrim's Inn" becomes a refuge where love and redemption are born anew. Goudge's ability to capture the spirit that inhabits the very substances of earth; land, houses, trees, rivers, gardens, is something that always makes me step out into the CO pines with renewed wonder. Her keen perception of human foibles and desires also make her somewhat of a spiritual mentor. She is one of my favorite authors ever. If I ever write a P.h.D. thesis, it will be on something by her. Other books by Goudge: The Scent of Water, Gential Hill, Green Dolphin Street, The Rosemary Tree

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry I was warned about this book before I read it. Good thing too, because it is the sort that turns your eyes from its pages into a firm, if gentle probing into your own life. Such a simple book, just the life of Kentucky farm wife in the years during and after WWII, told in her own quiet, unflinching voice. But oh, the beauty of it. I have said before that Wendell Berry is a writer who settles you down into his story, and thus, into your own life. No escapism here; instead, the slow rise of days, words, weather, crops, and biscuits, marriage, and children, and the sweat it takes to live from the land and the depth of soul that becomes the inheritance of those who stick it out. You read this and you see yourself, and rediscover your own capacity to love and create, and your own need to grieve. One of the most beautiful books I've ever read. Also by Berry: Jayber Crow, Remembering, Fidelity,  A Place on Earth

The Hawk and the Dove, by Penelope Wilcock Another quiet sort of book that lightens one's eyes to all that is ordinary, and wondrous, this is actually a set of three novels all chronicling the life of Father Peregrine, the Abbot of a Benedictine monastery in medieval England. With sharp wit, impatience, and a heart that craves true humility, Father Peregrine is a compassionate, if forceful leader of his monastery, a faithful guide to the brothers, and a man who seeks God in the rhythms of the every day. This is restful reading, best experienced by a window with a cup of tea.

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Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton To me, this is a story of real faith in God worked out in the face of irrevocable, soul-shattering grief. That's the soul of it. The story is that of Stephen Kumalo, a black pastor in South Africa in the years leading up to apartheid. Summoned from his tiny village, Ixopo, to help his sister in the sprawling city of Johannesburg, he goes to help, but also to search out his missing son, Absolom. In this search, he is brought to the edge of what a father can bear, his faith is beaten and bruised, but there is a love, and this gentleness pervading the whole book, that leads him on in a right way. Beautiful. But heavy. Don't read if you need something light. Also by Paton: Too Late the Phalarope

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David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens Oh, here's the first classic. There's something about reading Dickens that makes one feel oh so educated, and yet, his books are awhirl with some of the earthiest, most amusing, and downright odd characters ever presented to the world of fiction. I can't decide if this is my first or second favorite of his novels, but it was the first I read and so claims a special place in my heart. David Copperfield must navigate a wondrous, but frightening world when his sweet young mother dies and he is left in the care of an ice-hearted stepfather. With Peggoty, his nurse, and such friends as the ever in debt Wilkins Micawber (and his ever-suffering, ever-devoted wife), the beguiling and dapper James Steerforth, the dramatic and devoted Aunt Betsy Trotwood, and the lovely Agnes Wickfield, David manages to maneuver the world and find his place within it. That last was rather simplistic, but how is one to condense a wild Dickens epic to a few sentences? Go read and enter the world of it for a good while. At 700 pages or so, it is the sort of book one lives in for awhile. Dickens has an uncanny grasp of human nature in its most diabolical and hilarious guises. His plot twists are legendary. Also by Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Nicholas Nickelby, A Christmas Carol

Middlemarch, by George Eliot Oh dear, another classic. My first thought on reading this was that it reminded me of the Bible, so comprehensive was its portrayal of the guilt, desire, and yearning of human nature. My second thought was that I dreaded the thought of sitting in the room with a writer such as the good George Eliot; she would have seen right through my brave attempts at cordiality and gotten into my heart. She's done it anyway, just with her book. Middlemarch is a book that will take you a long time to read, and at times is quite slow (just to warn you), but the intricacy with which she weaves the lives of her characters, and the consequences of their smallest choices will sharpen your view of yourself and the world. Beginning with the story of the idealistic and unmarried Dorothea Brooke and her courtship by a scholar many years her senior, the tale continues into the village world of Fred Vincy, a spineless young man with a gambling habit, his lovely sister Rosie, and the driven young doctor for whom she sets her cap. Everyone has secrets. Everyone yearns for something. And the choices made to attain these goals are what drive many lives to grace, or ruin. Also by Eliot: Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner, Adam Bede

Peace Like A River, by Leif Enger Thank goodness for a few modern writers with good sense and a love of the craft of writing. Never will you meet such a wordsmith of a writer as Enger. The first chapter of this most luminous of novels opens in the voice of Ruben, a twelve year old boy who is convinced he was set on the earth to witness the miraculous doings of his father, Jeremiah Land, who is the school janitor and also speaks with God. When Ruben's brother Davy gets deep in trouble, Jeremiah and his family take off through the plains of North Dakota intent upon the lost son. Ruben wouldn't make it through a day without help from his little sister, and cowboy poet Swede. This is a laugh-out-loud book, full of oddity, and Ruben as a storyteller makes for entertaining reading. The depth of love he tells though, in the father heart of Jeremiah, and the fierce love of Swede is a thing of loveliness. The closing passage is one of my favorites in any story. Oh, and I hope to meet Jeremiah Land in heaven. Also by Enger: So Brave, Young, and Handsome

More to come! Feel free and post your favorites below as I need some good stories these days too. May your reading way be merry!