Today is National Book Lovers Day, and I don't know about you, but the books I love most are the ones I can't get through without a lump rising into my throat or a tide of nostalgia roiling through me or some other real, emotional response. So, to celebrate those stories that stay with us long after we close their cover, here is my list of seven books that will make you feeeeel.
Mary and O'Neil
by Justin Cronin
You might know Justin Cronin from his vampire trilogy that begins with The Passage, but it's his debut book, a novel-in-stories, that has remained my favorite since I first read it eight years ago. Mary and O'Neil fall in love and start a family together, but you could argue that the book should be called Kay & O'Neil after the sister and brother who, in their early twenties, lose their parents in a car crash and spend their adult lives supporting each other through their grief and other challenges, Kay's cancer among them. While the narrative touches on big themes and milestones (a wedding, birth, death), Cronin finds the minor chords in these moments with quiet wisdom and emotional precision.
In one of my favorite passages, O'Neil's daughter has just been born, and he calls his parents' old number from the hospital late at night. He plans to hang up after it rings, but a woman answers, and she mistakes him for her own son. He doesn't correct her.
by Carole Maso
Ava Klein spends the last day of her life in a hospital bed conjuring the moments, images, voices, and desires that made up her life. This novel by Carole Maso is constructed as an accumulating series of brief, stark fragments, as though Ava is gathering them up in her arms, her yearning to grasp and hold everything in the end so palpable that the reader cannot help but ache and rejoice with her and find themselves sifting through their own lives for those words a loved one whispered in the dark.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison's collection of essays interrogates empathy and pain like she's turning a prism and catching every possible refraction of light. Whether her subject is an ultra-distance runner, a group of people with the same mysterious, possibly made-up disease, or herself, Jamison writes with curiosity, generosity, and a fierce commitment to connection through understanding.
About the choice to empathize, the effort it often requires of us, she writes:
by Anne Carson
Anne Carson's autobiographical account of her brother leaving and essentially disappearing, and later his death, defies definition. It comes in a box, an accordion-folded long piece of paper, on which the text and photographs and copies of a letter are printed. Within the fragmented narrative, Carson translates from Greek the Catullus poem, 101. More than a book, it is an artifact of grief and of searching for meaning. Carson calls it an epitaph for her brother.
She writes about the act of translating as a process similar to trying to understand the brother she lost:
5 Ways of Going Home
by Alejandro Zambra
This succinct, postmodern novel by Chilean writer/poet, Alejandro Zambra, begins with an earthquake and grapples with the personal (family, love, friendship) and the political (life under a dictatorship). The first section of the book introduces us to an unnamed boy who, following the earthquake, spies on his neighbor at the request of Claudia, a girl who becomes a sort of friend. Then the book pulls back to situate us in the head of the author-narrator, who is clearly mining his own memories and relationships to tell the story. He reconnects with his ex-wife and returns home to visit his family as he writes his novel, and in the story he's writing, the boy reconnects with Claudia and sees his parents, his home in a new light. Both storylines excavate what it means to tell one's story, the fleeting spark yet inconclusiveness of memories, and how we come to understand (or still fail to understand) our loved ones, our homes, and ourselves. The writing is darkly funny at times but most often is disarmingly tender. If you're feeling introspective or you're fascinated by the way we try to make sense through story, then this brief but moving book is a must-read.
by Elizabeth Strout
Another novel-in-stories, this Pulitzer winner by Elizabeth Strout presents a nuanced portrait of its title character, a math teacher with a tough exterior, as well as a set of recurring characters living in coastal Maine. While Olive may be at times rash, uncompromising, and even cold – not unlike the landscape she inhabits – she has her moments of surprising vulnerability, and Strout writes with compassion and humanity.
In one story, Olive imposes herself into the vehicle of a former student, now a young adult, who has returned home and plans to kill himself. They sit in his car by the marina and talk despite his urgency for her to leave him alone.
An Untamed State
In Roxane Gay's unflinching novel, Mireille, a daughter of privilege among poverty in Haiti, is violently abducted and held for ransom. She endures a brutal thirteen days of captivity as she waits for her father to pay, even as she fears he will not. The emotions Gay's writing stirred in me were intense and sometimes nearly unbearable, but there is also a spirit of hope in this book, of hard-fought resilience.
This is the opening passage:
Whether you start a new one or revisit an old favorite, take some time today to indulge a little in a good book. And let me know what you love best about books. Which ones make you feeeel? Happy reading!