The most recent book I have read is unpublished, and so I will not review it. Some time ago a friend of mine mentioned how when she and her now-husband were dating, she gave him a list of five books that he should read in order to understand her better. Since then I have been thinking: what five books would I recommend to someone to understand me?
1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. This book changed my life. I know of no other book that wrestles so earnestly, passionately, and sincerely with faith and disbelief, human interaction, and where the individual fits in the universe. This is a beautifully and lyrically written novel about a group of sophisticated, highly intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate people who make terrible, unwitting mistakes. Also, it’s about Jesuits in space. What more could you want?
2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. In my heart of hearts I am secretly an Odonian. I would that we had no government; that humans lived together in an ambiguous utopia, having everything in common and being part of a social organism. This novel both appeals to and challenges my sense of idealism. In this novel we see the worlds of Anarres and Urras through Shevek’s eyes, a philosopher theoretical physicist, an anarchist. This novel is perfect and balanced in its prose, in its structure. This book challenges me to live more simply: ‘Excess is excrement.’
3. My Daniel by Pan Conrad. I remember my mother reading this book to me as a child when we lived in Nebraska. Though being one of my favourite childhood books, when I read it again as an adult I was surprised by how sad a story it is. This is a book about a young girl and her older brother in the prairies of Nebraska and how they find dinosaur bones on their farm. Something about the dry earth — in the book, it hadn’t rained in three years — something about the plains and the fury of a thunderstorm… This book has rooted itself in my consciousness, even if I can’t quite explain how or why.**
4. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. A friend recommended this book to me by saying Aerin is a lot like me. Or I am a lot like Aerin. As it is, Aerin-sol is a princess who, through her own stubbornness, will, and wit, carves a place for herself in her father’s court. She is resourceful and intelligent. She tames a warhorse who had gone wild. She is a princess who fights dragons. She is a princess who, on the brink of death, saves all. Aerin also has red hair, and it was her I had in mind when I wrote about my own red-haired princess, Princess Agnes in The Golden Crab. I take the comparison with Aerin as a tremendous compliment.
5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ideally, I would recommend reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo in the original Middle English, but I will only ever expect that from a fellow medievalist. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is generally agreed to be one of the best (if not the best) Middle English Romance in terms of structure, form, and content. Sir Orfeo, however, is my favourite Middle English romance: it is Sir Orfeo that cemented my love of Middle English into more than passing interest and it is Sir Orfeo that inspired both my PhD thesis and my novel The Faerie King.
So those are my five books. What five books would you choose to define yourself? If not five, then what two or three?
** I replaced #3, previously The Perilous Gard, with My Daniel, shown above. The entry for The Perilous Gard is below the cut.
3. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. A perfectly balanced, poised young adult fantasy about a lady, a young lord, and the Fair Folk. Kate, one of Princess Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, is under house arrest by order of Queen Mary in Derbyshire, in the Perilous Gard. The lord’s only daughter has gone missing, his younger brother blames himself, and Kate suspects there must be more than just stories about the Holy Well and those Under the Hill. This novel, set just before the Elizabethan court, aptly depicts the ambiguous nature of fairies.