Reading Life Series: Books for a Time

Jesuits in space. A young girl coming-of-age in the middle of an apocalypse. And a girl growing up in Brooklyn who finds beauty in the strangest places. What do these things have in common? Me, apparently.

Recently, I’ve listened to a few episodes of a new podcast, “What Should I Read Next?,” which is hosted by Anne Bogel from Modern Mrs. Darcy. Each week, Bogel’s show features a new guest, and she does a little book matchmaking for them. In order to recommend appropriate books, she asks her guests to list three books they love, one book they hate, and a book they are currently reading. One of the things I find fascinating about the show is that for most guests, the books they love reveal something interesting about their psyches and their lives. The guests  often don’t make the connection themselves until Anne remarks on the connection between the books they list and what those books reveal about the readers.

I also appreciate that Anne doesn’t ask her guests that most dreaded question: What is your favorite book? While naming my favorite book is difficult, I feel like I can safely list three books that I love (with the understanding that these are not the only three). Since I first listened to the show, I have been thinking about which three books I would list if asked to do so.It’s harder than it sounds. Once I decided on three books I love, I thought about my reasons for choosing these three and what these books say about me and the kinds of stories that speak to me. Without further ado, here are the three books I love (now).

tree           sparrow           miracles

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: I first read this book when I was twelve years old, and I believe it will always be included in my list of favorites. The story takes place in early twentieth-century Brooklyn and follows the lives of the Nolans, an immigrant family  originating respectively from Ireland and Austria, over the course of a few years. The novel opens with eleven-year-old Francie Nolan sitting on the fire escape of her tenement and doing what she loves best: reading. Though the novel only spans a few years (maybe five), it feels more epic. The reader experiences Francie’s coming-of-age and the many challenges she and her family face, trying to make their way in and outside of Brooklyn. The eponymous tree reveals some of the book’s main themes: hope, survival, and triumph in the most unlikely places and circumstances. Like Francie and her family, the tree is viewed by others as invasive and ugly. But, in reality, the tree is hardy and resilient, thriving in an unlikely environment.

When I was a young girl, I identified with Francie. She was a reader. But, more than that, I identified with her family life in many ways. Francie’s mother is strong and often works multiple jobs to provide for her family. And her father, though he loves her, is a drunk and often breaks his family’s hearts.  In the end, for a twelve-year-old me, I found hope in the story, that like Francie, if I worked hard (and kept reading), I, too, could change my future. This is a beautiful and moving novel that appeared in my life at the right time.

Some favorite passages:

“Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices…But they were made out of thin invisible steel.”

“The world was hers for the reading.”

“Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere-be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father stumbling home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more…It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life – the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: This book has been on my radar for a long time.  I heard about it from people I know. Amazon continually recommended it to me for years. Every time I encountered The Sparrow, I read the description and thought, “not for me.” It’s just one of those books that is hard to describe and to summarize. Then, last year both Amazon and Goodreads recommended it as a book I may like. I finally added it to my wish list and forgot it about it until I heard Ann Kingman on Books on the Nightstand mention the book. Again. I bought it. The universe was clearly speaking, and I needed to read this book. And I’m so glad I did. The story opens in Rome in the year 2059, and the chapters alternate between this year and the year of 2019 when a young astronomer discovers music coming from another planet. The reader knows when the book opens that an expedition was sent to explore the planet and to make first contact with its inhabitants. And, that something went terribly wrong, leaving a Jesuit priest, Father Emilio Sandoz, the sole survivor. The novel slowly unfolds the story of a curious group of explorers–which includes Jesuit priests, a doctor, her husband (an engineer) and a prostitute–and the tragic consequences of the mission.

This book, too, came into my life at the right moment. It beautifully handles questions of faith, definitions of hope, consequences of trauma. It grapples with issues relating to the benevolence and presence of God. Ultimately, The Sparrow asks you to consider humanity, spirituality, art, and beauty in new and interesting ways that acknowledge the complexity of these issues.

And, if you can’t tell, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Some favorite passages:

So God just leaves?”

No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”

Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”

But the sparrow still falls.

Lemme tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” She watched him chew that over for a moment before continuing, “They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole lot different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt. Oh, there are continuities. He has always been fun and he has never been able to budget his time properly and – well, the rest is none of your business.”
“But people change,” he said quietly.
“Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.

The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: I was in the middle of a busy semester of teaching when I finally read this book. During semesters, I am constantly reading for work, but often find that I don’t have as much time, energy, or focus to read the number of books I want. I was looking for something fun, short, and quick. I wanted something that would quickly draw me in and keep me turning the pages. This book checked all of those boxes, but to my surprise, it has also stuck with me. It’s hauntingly beautiful in ways I was not expecting.

The story takes place in California and is told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl named Julia. One day, she and her family wake up to discover that the rotation of the earth is slowing. At first, life goes on as usual.However, as the days and nights become longer, everything is affected. The tides. The birds. And all life on Earth, including Julia’s.

After I read The Age of Miracles, I recommended it to a friend, who texted me as soon as she finished it. She found it too sad and depressing. Maybe I’m a bit dark or strange, but I found the novel to be…reassuring. Even at the end of the world, life still goes on in mundane and extraordinary ways, especially for an eleven-year-old girl. Complicated family life. Issues with parents. School. First love. That’s what makes this novel unique. It’s a coming-of-age story at the end of the world.

Some favorite passages:

How much sweeter life would be if it all happened in reverse, if, after decades of disappointments, you finally arrived at an age when you had conceded nothing, when everything was possible.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different—unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove. Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected. Blurry vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens. Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces. Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. Some girls were turning beautiful. A few boys were growing tall.

I liked the idea, how the past could be preserved, fossilized, in the stars. I wanted to think that somewhere on the other end of time, a hundred light years from then, someone else, some distant future creature, might be looking back at a preserved image of me and my father at that very moment in my bedroom.

I definitely see some common themes in these books that I love. Hope. Survival. Triumph, even after devastation. I obviously enjoy coming-of-age novels because I’m interested in what makes a person uniquely them. But, there’s also something else that connects these books. I honestly believe that some stories come into our lives at just the right moment, when we are ready for them, when we are most receptive. These books were the ones I needed most at the time. And, for now at least, I continue to need them.

Which books do you love? Which ones came into your life at the right time?

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