Selling books for 22 years and loving books for 56 years, reading stories is a big part of my life. My mom loves to tell about the very first book I ever read as a toddler, the Sears catalog. I spent hours flipping the pages and pretending to read each one. Reading allowed me to see lives lived differently than my own and it helped me to escape my life when it was boring or overwhelming.
My mom took us to the library every chance she had and I remember leaving the Beauchamp branch library with piles of books every time. We moved to the near west side when I was 13 and was so excited when I was old enough to walk the ten blocks to the main branch of the Onondaga County Public Library in the gorgeous Carnegie Building. I am so grateful to my parents for fostering a love of reading and imagination and for putting up with all the family gatherings where they found me with my nose in a book!
With all that I’ve read over the years, people may wonder which books are my favorites. My four sets of bookshelves would suggest that there are too many to choose from, but I will try. This list is in no way complete, and most of them are available at Barnes & Noble (of course!)
Striped Ice Cream by Joan M. Lexau (1968) is a sweet story about Becky who was about to turn 8 and it seemed no one in her family cared or even noticed. The youngest of 5 children being raised by a single mom doing her best, they barely had enough to get by, no money for presents, but they could always choose their birthday meal. All she wanted was chicken spaghetti and striped ice cream and some attention and for them to not act so mean. This was the first exposure I had that some people didn’t have as much as I did, and when my parents moved to the near west side to help people in the community who didn’t have much, I understood.
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (1951) This Jewish family from New York City just before WWI was as far removed from my urban Catholic upbringing as I could have imagined. Five sisters who loved each other, teased each other, and always had each other’s back. I loved following their escapades. A couple of years ago, I met and bonded with my now good friend Linda who loved these books and actually lived in NYC as a child. We couldn’t believe we found each other, two women who loved these sisters in our childhood.
Mrs Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald (1947) I was generally a good kid and never needed any of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s magic to behave. It seemed weird that someone would refuse to take a bath or never want to go to school, but I always enjoyed Mrs Piggle Wiggle’s fixes for these ill behaved neighborhood kids. A few months ago I was babysitting the noodles (my niece and nephew) and this was their bedtime reading, another generation enjoying this quirky lady.
Any Calvin and Hobbes book by Bill Watterson (from the 1980s) I loved this cute and snarky child and his stuffed tiger that was as real to him as the Velveteen Rabbit. Calvin is smart and sassy and full of mischief and Hobbes was always ready to jump in and help, no matter how crazy it was. His parents have an infinite store of patience (and most likely quite a bit of pride for his imagination and smarts!)
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (2005) I have loved this story for years, long before they made a movie of it. My favorite part of this book is that Jeanette is unapologetic and unashamed of her unorthodox upbringing. She and her siblings had to take care of themselves for much of their lives and are the better for it. She took those lessons and became a successful journalist, a real rags to riches story. DId you like Mary Karr’s The Liars Club? You will love Glass Castle!
On Writing by Stephen King (2000) Let me start out by saying that I have only read 2 Stephen King books in my life and this was one of them, He scares the hell out of me! The first half of this book is about his early life, then the second half contains thoughts about good writing. He says writers are not born, but made, and he shows us how his writing life informed his whole life.
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott (1994) This was one of the first books I read after starting at B&N and I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since. The concept of shitty first drafts is a useful one, kinda like how it is said that it’s really difficult to edit a blank page. Her flawed, broken past shapes her storytelling and her writing. People always say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but I did meet her once and she was gracious and kind. She’s my writing hero.
In An Instant by Lee & Bob Woodruff (2007) I just had to pick up this book after my mom told me that when Bob was hit, she woke up from a deep sleep knowing something was wrong and prayed all night, finding out the next morning that he had been hit by an IED. The story of his recovery from his traumatic brain injury and the healing that he and his family went through is inspiring and heartbreaking. It was a big help to me a couple of years later when my sister had an accident and spent months recovering in the hospital.
Drinking With Men by Rosie Schaap (2013) I met Rosie on Nantucket at their annual book festival. I love how every chapter is set in a place where she had been drinking at the time. In search of the perfect drinking atmosphere, she tells the stories of the people she meets along the way. It’s charming and heartwarming. I would definitely bring her to some of my favorite CNY haunts for a drink.
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman (2012) This compelling story tells about a lighthouse keeper in Australia in 1918. He lived an isolated life and eventually brings a wife to the island and they work on starting a family. How this family comes about, and what happens to it is an amazing story of life and loss and sacrifice. No surprise that this has also become a movie.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016) This is a fun book I discovered when I went to a book signing in Rochester with my friend Judy, and B&N chose it for one of their Discover New Writers selections. Here’s the story: four siblings have been waiting to receive their inheritance from their deceased father, who decided that after he died, they would not receive their money until the youngest turned 40. He was hoping that they would all make their own way in the world without his money to help or hinder them. Of course they all lived their lives expecting and counting on the money, So what happens when Beatrice has her birthday and the money is gone? Read it and find out!
Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom (2003) Tuesdays With Morrie is an amazing true story, but this fiction book also tells a compelling story about life and death and love. Eddie dies saving a small child at the amusement park he worked in for most of his life. He endured loss and loneliness and pain throughout his long life. He finds out that heaven is not a magical paradise, but a place where you meet five people who help to explain things about your life. They are not the five people anyone may expect, and the lessons learned are surprising,
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2016) This story of two sisters in WWII France is more than just a family tale. It’s a rich, layered story of the French Resistance and how two sisters on different sides overcome heartache and betrayal to support each other and come through the other side. If you love this book, and so many people do, try Kristin Hannah’s Winter Garden, a WWII story about Russia.
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova (2011) This book from the author of Still Alice is the story of Sarah, a busy working mom who never seems to have enough hours in a day. A devastating car accident leaves her fighting for her life with a traumatic brain injury called left neglected. This means that her brain does not recognize left as a concept and cannot process anything seen or sensed to the left. I know this sounds kinda like science fiction but it is a real medical condition and I just cannot do the explanation justice, so you really need to read it. Genova has a Ph.D .in neuroscience and does lots of research for her stories, so Sarah’s story has a realism to it that is not found in most fiction.
The Identicals by Elin Hildebrand (2017) Vacationing in Cape Cod is one of my favorite things, and most trips include a ferry ride to either Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. Why both? Because each of them has a distinct personality. Hildebrand captures each of the twin islands perfectly. The identical twins featured in this story are remarkably different, and they have made their homes on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard respectively. They have not spoken for years and have not ventured to the other island for as long. When circumstances force them to come together, the sisters are forced to connect to each other and to the childhood places that have a pull. This is my favorite Elin Hildebrand book, intricate and compelling.