It’s almost the end of June, meaning half the year has already gone by, and I’ve been reading quite a few books to keep me busy during that time. I didn’t want them to pile up before sharing my favorites (some are just too good to keep to myself!), so here’s a list of what I think is worth recommending. I’ll add part two at the end of the year to make my 2017 list complete.
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
This was my first Calvino book, and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of a young boy who climbs a tree out of defiance and ends up living in trees for the rest of his life, as told by the narrator, his younger brother. It was well-told, bringing life in that country and time alive in the reader’s imagination and rendering the experience of living (and loving) in the tree tops realistic. It reminded me of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love a bit, mixed with something else familiar and endearing to me that I can’t quite place. I’m glad to have chanced upon this sweet book.
“This he understood: that association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts, and gives a joy which is rarely to be had by keeping to oneself, the joy of realizing how many honest decent capable people there are for whom it is worth giving one’s best (while living just for oneself very often the opposite happens, of seeing people’s other side, the side which makes one keep one’s hand always on the hilt of one’s sword).”
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I never thought I’d read this book (because of a distaste for Anna Karenina after reading it years ago), but now that I have finally done so, I’m very grateful. Despite being 1386 pages (and aside from the very boring epilogue on free will), it was so easy to become engrossed in the story. Like a true Russian novel, it contained drama and sadness, but it was also comical at points, as well as loving and romantic and cheeky and spiritual and philosophical. I can understand why it has remained a classic for so long. The complexity of relationships and the thorough understanding of human nature, as shown through the characters’ facial expressions, gestures, and innermost intentions, was enchanting. I felt I could see through people while I was reading it.
“In that glance, apart from all circumstances of warfare and of judgment, human relations arose between these two men. Both of them in that one instant were vaguely aware of an immense number of different things, and knew that they were both children of humanity, that they were brothers.”
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
This was such a lovely, charming, insightful book. It was subtly funny and endearing, giving the reader advice on life from Proust’s writings while simultaneously being a sort of biography on Proust. Not only did I learn about Proust– about whom I previously knew nothing about and now feel an affinity for– but I got to see why his writings are worth considering and how they were influenced by his life.
“Lucien Daudet felt that Proust possessed ‘an unenviable power of divination, he discovered all the pettiness, often hidden, of the human heart, and it horrified him: the most insignificant lies, the mental reservations, the secrecies, the fake disinterestedness, the kind word which has an ulterior motive, the truth which has been slightly deformed for convenience, in short, all the things which worry us in love, sadden us in friendship and make our dealings with others banal were for Proust a subject of constant surprise, sadness or irony.'”
“The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
I loved this book — snippets of Rosenthal’s life, arranged alphabetically in an encyclopedic manner, still somehow giving me a thorough profile of her as a person. Her love of life is contagious and inspiring but also tragic in that her life was so short (she has recently died of cancer). I was wondering how to capture this simultaneous happiness/sadness, and she does it herself in the W section with ‘wabi-sabi.’ There are so many coincidences like that in this book. I wanted to keep reading it forever and have everyone I know read it, too.
“Evidently, if you put yourself on high marshmallow alert, high button alert, high injustice alert, high whatever alert, the world will gladly accommodate you.”
“OPINION, FRAGILE FOUNDATION OF STRONG
The two people laughing and drinking and carrying on at the next table are annoying, stupid, childishly conspiring, and clearly beneath you, until they invite you over to join them.”
Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska
I had no idea what this was when I started reading it and thought it was another book of poetry by the author, but it turned out to be really brief essays on books she read. Some were more or less reviews, while others were thought tangents prompted by the books. All were entertaining in some way. I learned from what she wrote, but I was also impressed both by her humor and the directions her mind would veer from the books she was supposedly writing about. This is by far my favorite book of hers that I’ve read.
“Detached observers always ask in such cases: ‘So what does she (he) see in him (her)?’ Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green—clearly, then, it’s getting whatever it needs to survive.”
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
I loved this. I learned so much more about philosophers I had only heard about (like I felt after reading At the Existentialist Café) and realized why they are considered so wise: Socrates, Seneca, Epicurus, Montaigne, and Nietzsche. (I’m leaving out Schopenhauer because I didn’t like the chapter on him.) I was shocked to find excerpts of the philosophers’ writings not only interesting but also relevant to life and aligned with what I have found to be true myself. I wish the copy I read hadn’t been a library book so that I could keep it and reference it when I like.
“We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitles to obtain it.”
“The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us. As Schopenhauer put it: The . . . poet takes from life that which is particular and individual, and describes it accurately in its individuality; but in this way he reveals the whole of human existence . . . though he appears to be concerned with the particular, he is actually concerned with that which is everywhere and at all times. From this it arises that sentences, especially of the dramatic poets, even without being general apophthegms, find frequent application in real life.”
“Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.”
Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004 by Czeslaw Milosz
I was afraid of reading a whole book of Milosz’s poems because I thought they might be beyond my understanding or maybe even boring, which would ruin the reputation I hold in my head of him. This book proved me wrong and made me admire, appreciate, and like Milosz even more than I expected to. He writes about life, about his sins and his turning towards and away from religion, about the people he knew who no longer exist, about his younger self who exists no more, about the tragedies he’s witnessed, about guilt and love and aging. It felt like he was writing my own soul.
[from If There Is No God]
“If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.”
How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
The subtitle for this book is: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. (The question being, ‘How to live?’) Montaigne strikes me as being a spontaneous, understanding, somewhat lazy man, and his writings capture life as it is so perfectly that it’s easy to forget they were written in the 1500s. This makes me want to read his Essays (like the mentions of them in Consolations of Philosophy and Nonrequired Reading did). I would highly recommend this book to others.
“If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays. I would make decisions; but it is always an apprenticeship and on trial.”
He [Montaigne] knew the dangers of writing too unassumingly about his actions in the Essays: “When all is said and done, you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self-condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.”
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
A deeply poetic, probing, and clear-sighted book about the author’s experience in the Buda work camp of Auschwitz. He captured the psychology of deprivation, hunger, and slavery so clearly that you wonder why this book isn’t read in classes attempting to study those very phenomena. I ate this book up and was sad when it ended– his writing, his story-telling, was that engaging. This is by far one of the best books, one of the most important ones, I’ve ever read.
“But this was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last– the power to refuse our consent.“
For those interested in the companion book, The Reawakening is a good follow-up to Survival in Auschwitz, as it covers the year after Levi leaves the camp in Auschwitz and is placed in Russian camps, waiting for repatriation in his homeland of Italy. It is much less harsh, though at times still a struggle to get by, but it is nevertheless filled with the tension of living in limbo, of anticipating the time he can finally return home. Just as before, his writing is beautiful enough to be read forever.
“…something had happened that only the few wise ones among us had foreseen. Liberty, the improbable, the impossible liberty, so far removed from Auschwitz that we had only dared to hope for it in our dreams, had come, but it had not taken us to the Promised Land. It was around us, but in the form of a pitiless deserted plain. More trials, more toil, more hunger, more cold, more fears awaited us.”
(I’ve posted even more excerpts from the books here.)
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
A selection of Sedaris’s diary entries from 1977 to 2002, this newest book of his gives a glimpse into Sedaris’s life that the stories in his other books don’t show as fully (though, of course, his stories come from the experiences he writes down in his diary). He has such an ear for the bizarre, from conversations he’s a part of to those he overhears, and even for situations that are strange yet overlooked by so many of us as we go about our day. You’d think that weird stuff happens more with him, but it might just be that he makes a point to notice it.
“If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in.”
“That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.”
“A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary. It was valuable, she said, because after a while you’d stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts.”
Ledoyt by Carol Emshwiller
I didn’t think I’d read anything else by this author after reading her sci-fi short story collection The Start of the End of It All (I’m just not a big fan of sci-fi), but because Ursula K. Le Guin praised this so much in Words Are My Matter— and because it wasn’t sci-fi at all but rather a drama set in the American West in the early 1900s– I gave it a shot. Le Guin was so right. Every page made me feel something; it was so rich with character and emotion and environment, despite a level and almost stoic writing style, that I fell deep into the story and had a hard time resurfacing. It is a heartbreaking story, but it is also full of love.
“But maybe that was one reason why she liked him, that he left it all up to her, never made a move and wasn’t going to. He gave her plenty of time and space to get back to feelings she had closed off for so long. Even the frustration– that he came so close and yet never quite close enough.”