Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mad for Books

I'm known for dropping a few coins to buy books. And I'm careful to not add up what I spend in a year to keep a stack on my nightstand. Fortunately, I'm married to someone who cannot resist books either. He has his; I have mine. Our relationship with books works. We just have one problem: insufficient shelf space.

Recently, some of my friends who blog have offered up lists of books that give them great pleasure, not just on first reading but again and again. Their lists, with the possible exception of one item — L.L. Barkat's Stone Crossings —  don't match my own, which I share below and which is, I must add, in no way definitive of anything; I'm a voracious reader. That none of the listings match is a good thing, because with friends' titles in hand, I don't have to look to newspapers to toss me a hint about what's worth reading and I can even be a little less mad at The Washington Post for ceasing print publication of the stand-alone Book World to which I used to looked forward every Sunday.

So, what kinds of books do I like? The top categories have to be poetry and art and dance (and not 1-2-3 but 1-1-1); memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies; and nonfiction. I do read fiction but not to an extent that begins to match my reading in the other categories.

I could write a post a day for a year and not exhaust all the books I treasure (I also collect artists' books, which are deserving of a separate post). In the interest of keeping this post manageable, I offer here just a few of my favorites from this year's publishing cornucopia and from a few years past. Almost always, I read from several books at a time. At the moment, I have placeholders in at least four books.

Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdomthe late John O'Donohue. O'Donohue was a poet, philosopher, and scholar, eloquent, with wonderful Irish wit. I read this book (its title means "Soul Friend") a bit at a time, the better to savor the wisdom and be charmed by the Irish imagination always at work.

The Art of Blessing The DayMarge Piercy. The poems in this collection fill me up with their passion, their understanding of the desire for and importance of ritual, their exploration of personal identity and history. I read them again and again, along with the many other volumes of Piercy's poetry on my shelves.

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality From the Human Anatomy Lab, Christine Montross. I will read this book again. It's as poetic as it is fascinating for the medical history it reveals.

Feelings Are Facts: A Life, Yvonne Rainer. A superb memoir by a wonderful choreographer.

GoyaRobert Hughes. In a manageable 402 pages, Hughes offers a deeply satisfying critical analysis of Goya's work that is informed by remarkable knowledge of Spanish history and culture. The illustrations, many in color, are well-chosen. Hughes is also the author of The Fatal Shore, The Shock of the New, The Culture of Complaint, American Visions, Barcelona, and Nothing If Not Critical.

Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's BlessingsRachel Naomi Remen, M.D. A physician, professor of medicine, therapist, and survivor of chronic illness, Remen is a wonderful storyteller, and in both of these books she offers stories that I find to be moving and always insightful.

Love Poems From God: Twelve Sacred Vices From the East and WestDaniel Ladinsky. You know what you're in for the minute you read the last paragraph of Ladinsky's Acknowledgments: "The three hundred poems in this book were selected from over a thousand I stole from God when He made the mistake of letting me go through His files, so it seemed. Thanks, God, for not suing me. . . ." I gave this book to my husband but now it sits beside my computer, where I write every day. When I need a break, or a little inspiration, or a laugh, I just dip into this and come up with a smile.

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, Jill Bolte Taylor. I bought this book after seeing Taylor on a video presentation. She tells a fascinating personal story.

Nothing Was the SameKay Redfield Jamison. This is one of the most beautifully written memoirs I have read. One chapter alone, "Mourning and Melancholia", is worth the price of the book. I also have read Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, Night Falls Fast, Exuberance, and Touched with Fire.

Post-DiagnosisSandra Steingraber, a writer for Orion Magazine. My one word for these poems: extraordinary.

Present CompanyW. S. Merwin. I have every book of poetry Merwin has written. I could read him all day, every day, and never tire of his way with words.

Refusing HeavenJack Gilbert. This collection won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Don't read the poems for that reason. Read them because of how good they are.

Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places, L.L. Barkat. The words demand to be read at a snail's pace, even as the compelling personal story urges you on, and they don't go away when the last page is turned and the cover closed. I'm planning to re-read this book soon. I'd like to write about it when my thoughts about it settle.

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of BlessingsJohn O'Donohue. The blessings in this wonderful book are arranged in seven categories — Beginnings, Desires, Thresholds, Homecomings, States of Heart, Callings, Beyond Endings, each section of which is preceded by O'Donohue's commentary. When my own words fail me, I go here and always manage to find something for every occasion of importance: the birth of a child, new fatherhood, serious illness, death.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, Joan Acocella. A reader of Acocella's cultural criticism for The New Yorker, I looked forward to and read eagerly this collection of essays about writers, dancers, sculptors, choreographers and the two saints Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene. It's of no consequence that some of these pieces are more than a decade old; the essays are richly rewarding reading and, in more than one instance, could even be described as revelatory.

What Love Comes To: New & Selected PoemsRuth Stone. This is a collection of work from 12 earlier volumes, as well as new poems. Sharon Olds, a poet whose work I also enjoy very much, says that "[a] Ruth Stone poem feels alive in the hands—ardent, independent, restless. . . ." Make the effort to grab hold of Stone's poems; they're marvelous.

Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? and If I Were AnotherMahmoud Darwish, translated by, respectively, Jeffrey Sacks and Fady Joudah. Darwish, a prolific writer of award-winning poetry and a political activist, is known as "the voice of the Palestinian people". His writing leaves me stunned.

And waiting on my nightstand: Dawn Light by Diane Ackerman (I've almost finished her A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis), A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland, and Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder (I've read all his other books).


Glynn said...

Sitting on bedside is Jack Gilbert's Refusing Heaven. And while I haven't read everything he's done, I'm a fan of Tracy Kidder. Great list, Maureen.

L.L. Barkat said...

Okay, I just added 4 of these to my Wish List! :)

I loved Steingraber's 'Living Downstream.' She's one of the most poetic scientists I've ever read.

Monica Sharman said...

Oh, I have found in you a wonderful book-list filler! I read Exuberance and An Unquiet Mind and Nothing Was the Same this past summer/fall. I really, really like her. She's one of the few authors I've written a note of appreciation to. I could relate to the things she wrote of in all three of these books. If you like memoirs, have you read The Hacienda, by Teran? I highly recommend.
Thank you very much, Maureen. This list is a Christmas gift to me!

Maureen said...

Monica, thank you for the recommendation on Teran with whom I am not familiar. I will definitely take a look at the memoir.

Jamison is wonderful! I've heard her speak; you can find videos of her online, too. She and her late husband enjoyed a most special relationship. Didn't you just love that he filled her bathtub with rose petals?