My favorite books

Inspired by recent list-making, I decided to share a fairly comprehensive list of my favorite books. Some of them are already on my Inspirations page, but even so, the list is long. I introduce you now to other denizens of my fair shelves, in no particular order:

Graham Rust Secret Garden

The Secret Garden, illustration by Graham Rust

Books I reread once a year (or more)

You’ll notice most of these are children’s books, and the same with the category that follows. What can I say? I’m about 10 at heart… and children’s books are quick reads. Please note that many of these are available online as free e-text; where available, I’ve marked those links with asterisks.

  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, illustrated by the inimitable Garth Williams. My first-grade teacher, Clara Schoenfelder, read us Little House in the Big Woods and rendered me Laura’s friend for life. I used to imagine her coming to our time to visit, so I could show her around the way she showed me her corner of the 19th century (in fact, I still imagine this from time to time). My favorites in the series are By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter.
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess*, illustrated by Tasha Tudor. I’ve had my beat-up pink paperback copy almost as long as I’ve had my Little House books, and I reread it as frequently. It must be my favorite girly story of all time. It’s also probably responsible — along with Little Women — for making me so committed to being nice to people. Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 film takes huge liberties with the story, so I dislike it as an adaptation, but it’s sweet in its own right.
  3. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden*, illustrated by Graham Rust. Mommy gave me this book when I was very young, but for some reason I never took to it the way I did to Princess. Then I picked it up again in 2009, after moving into this house and having my first garden, and fell in love. Rust’s illustrations are the most perfect dainty things.
  4. L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill*. I’ve been rereading this book for about a decade, and recently it’s gone into twice-yearly territory. It’s a cozy happy-ending story that plays on all my warmest domestic wishes. There’s a movie version, but I love the book so much I can’t bring myself to watch it.
  5. L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle*. I discovered this Montgomery book only a couple of years ago but it’s now neck-and-neck with Jane for favorite reread. It’s as gleefully romantic as Jane is domestic — and with a hefty helping of just desserts.
  6. Elizabeth Enright, Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away. I got Gone-Away Lake in second grade and it quickly became one of my regular rereads; when I found the sequel many years later, it gained the same status. Only this year I found out that Enright also wrote a second children’s series (the Melendy books) and many short stories for adults. I love them as much.
  7. LaVyrle Spencer, Small Town Girl. Down-home romance novel meets celebrity lifestyle. I can’t get enough of it.
  8. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L Sayers. I go through these three in cycles; even though they all wrote murder mysteries set in 1930s/40s-ish England, I only ever want to read Christies together, or Marshes or Sayerses. I think Sayers is the best writer (and I love the posthumous sequels co-written with Jill Paton Walsh), but Christie is still my favorite, and I have long nursed a hopeless crush on Marsh’s Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Favorites include Christie’s The Secret Adversary*, They Came to Baghdad (my sister and I like to pronounce this one “They Came to Bag Dad”), and Destination Unknown, Marsh’s theatre mysteries and the ones where Alleyn and Troy get together, and Sayers’s Gaudy Night.
Not All Tarts Are Apple

Not All Tarts Are Apple, Pip Granger

Books I reread every two years or so

  1. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s too long and too densely emotional for me to reread yearly, but every time I do, this book is like my best friend. Here‘s a short review I wrote in college. As I recall, Elia Kazan’s movie version is all right, but I don’t know that it’s really a book that translates well to film — it’s so thorough and so internal.
  2. James Herriot‘s All Creatures Great and Small series. Yorkshire puddings, spoiled Pekingeses, reverence for nature and wholesome sentimentality. So good. I reread these every winter.
  3. Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children. The original 19 titles, mind you! — not the more recent volumes “created by” Warner but written by other, less imaginative, authors. The characters are real enough to be endearing, yet sparsely enough sketched to make perfect ingredients for fanfiction. Too bad I don’t write in that genre (but I would love to meet anyone who’d actually read Boxcar Children fanfics!).
  4. Garrison Keillor and Jenny Lind Nilsson, The Sandy Bottom Orchestra. A teen book for sensitive, academic, classical-music-loving teenagers like me — though I didn’t discover it until I was older than its target audience. I always snicker at the same great lines. Here‘s the short review I wrote in college.
  5. Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game. A children’s mystery with a super-smart female lead. Everything fits together so fabulously, it’s a pleasure to watch the story unfold.
  6. J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series. I can’t actually reread it too often — it’s too long — but I return to it whenever I can.
  7. Louisa May Alcott, various works but especially Little Women*, Little Men*, and An Old-Fashioned Girl. Alcott’s stories — like Burnett’s, Montgomery’s, and Wilder’s — are heavily responsible for my worldview and the way I treat others.
  8. Madeleine L’Engle, various works for children and adults. I didn’t care for A Wrinkle in Time when I first read it in fourth grade, though I love it now. Her books have helped me generate lots of thoughts and writing in the past. My favorites are A Ring of Endless Light and A Severed Wasp, though I’ve gone off L’Engle a bit since finding cause to push her off the pedestal I’d put her on.
  9. Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin series. I cherish these extremely. Yes, they can be racist/stereotypical (as far as I can remember, all depictions of black people are appalling, and depictions of all manner of other folks are simplistic and stereotypical), but Hergé’s ink lines and storylines are still my holy grail of comics and adventure stories. I think it helps that I watched the wonderful cartoons on Nickelodeon when I was younger. And soon there’s going to be a movie! Great snakes!
  10. Pip Granger, Not All Tarts Are Apple and the other novels which take place in this community of 1950s Soho (London). I love Granger’s books so much. The characters are diverse and the setting gritty, but the stories are as lovely and satisfying as children’s books.
  11. Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted. Cinderella retold for smart girls and word nerds. As with A Little Princess, the movie is a terrible adaptation but enjoyable as its own entity (maybe because Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy are in it?).
  12. Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel*. He may be more than a century old, but he’s still just as sexy-hot. Swoon.
  13. L.M. Montgomery, the Anne of Green Gables series #1-6 and the Emily series. I don’t love these as much as the two Montgomery books I mentioned earlier, but I’ve known them longer and they’re still regular fare on my nightstand. The 1985 movie remains awesome for Anne fans. Someday I will visit Prince Edward Island!
  14. Stephanie Tolan, Surviving the Applewhites. I love this story told from the POV of the cranky, organizational-geek member of an eccentric artistic family. Plus The Sound of Music plays a big supporting role!
  15. Beverly Cleary‘s teen novels and her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. I probably get through these every three years or so, though Yamhill was once annual reading for me. I remember picking up Fifteen from the library when I was about ten, and Mommy found it and wouldn’t let me read it. That makes me laugh now because, like other old-fashioned teen romances, Cleary’s are ridiculously tame; they couldn’t possibly have damaged my innocent self! Now I read them as much as I like, and happily.
  16. Tim Farrington, The Monk Downstairs. Romance of the intelligent emotional, not the steamy, sort. If you’re anything like me, it’s impossible to say which is the bigger turn-on!
Miss Rumphius

Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney

Picture books

  1. Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, illustrated by Hilary Knight. This was my absolute favorite book as a child. Knight’s illustrations are a sublime mix of fine detail, adorable realism, hidden jokes, and a storyline that adds a whole new level of fantasy to Lear’s delicious poem.
  2. Franz Brandenberg’s What Can You Make of It?, illustrated by Aliki. I gobbled down all Aliki’s books when I was younger, and my mom bought me a whole bunch of them at a signing. But for some reason this one — which I only read a few times when I was little, and never owned — is the only one I own as an adult. It really speaks to my love for creativity in everyday settings.
  3. Barbara Cooney, Miss Rumphius. Such a gorgeous, lush, wistful story of growing up and finding a place in the world. I can’t think of New England, or read the word “lupines,” without thinking of this book. I found a video of it! It’s not the greatest reading, but still the art and story almost bring me to tears.
Professor's Daughter

The Professor’s Daughter, Sfar & Guibert

Non-obvious comics

Obvious ones include Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Craig Thompson’s Blankets.

  1. Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons. This book changed my ideas of what comics could be, with Barry’s poignant collages decorating each chapter.
  2. Madison Clell, Cuckoo. Clell takes us through her experience of Dissociative Identity (Multiple Personality) Disorder with perfect synergy of form and content.
  3. Kerry Callen, Halo and Sprocket. I found this book on a friend’s bookshelf and had to order my own copy. Callen explores the small conundrums of everyday life, via his unlikely trio of characters: a girl, an angel, and a robot.
  4. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece, Incognegro. A sharp, thoughtful graphic visit to the 1930s in Harlem and the American South.
  5. Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, The Professor’s Daughter. A love story between a Victorian girl and a mummy — so unlikely and so beautiful. What makes me even wilder about this story: Sfar, the author, usually does art, while Guibert, the artist, is normally a writer (at least at the time of publication).
  6. Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. Snoopy on writing? Enough said!

Year of the FloodOwn and love, but don’t (often) reread

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood. Sustainable food, the apocalypse, and so much more. I like this volume even better than Oryx and Crake, the first book in the trilogy (and that one was pretty damn awesome).
  2. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. When I read this book in 2004 it blew me away. Later I talked to friends about it, and they didn’t think much of it, so I wondered whether my youthful enthusiasm was misplaced. I reread it in 2010 and loved it all over again.
  3. Jack Finney, Time and Again. Time-traveling romance by the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’ve read this book two or three times. In eager exuberance I assigned it to friends when we had a book club, and they either hated it or didn’t think much of it. I adore it.
  4. E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler.
  5. E.L. Konigsburg, The View from Saturday. Both these Konigsburg books used to be on my regular-reread list and now aren’t; I don’t know why. But they’re wonderful and I still think about them all the time, especially when considering art museums, afternoon tea, or the migratory habits of sea turtles.
  6. Tamora Pierce. I love every Pierce fantasy novel I have ever read. Her worlds are fascinating, her magic organic and real, her female protagonists idol-worthy. I suspect the only reason I don’t own and reread all her complete series is that she’s written so many: between her books and the ones already on my regular-reread list, I’d never do anything else! (Not that that’d be a bad life…)
  7. Children’s Rooms and Play Yards. My parents had this book when I was a kid, and I used to love looking through it and fantasizing about living in the photos. As an adult I tracked down my own copy. It’s such a dream.
Every Grain of Rice

Every Grain of Rice, Annabel Low & Ellen Blonder

Cookbooks/food books

I know most people don’t include cookbooks in their “favorite books” lists, but with some of mine, I read them almost as if they were fiction. Most of these have been with me for years, and they’re good friends.

  1. Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food. Ceaselessly informative and entertaining, and unlike most encyclopedias, highly quirky. This would make a wonderful bathroom book if that weren’t a gross place to keep a food book.
  2. Matt Lee and Ted Lee, The Lee Bros Southern Cookbook. A Southern cookbook that’s veg-friendly and has “Sunday” (time-consuming) and “Tuesday” (quick) versions of dishes like fried chicken or collards? Love it!
  3. Tom Hudgens, The Commonsense Kitchen. I love this cookbook so much, it’s my new go-to for basics and classics. Hudgens has taught me to toast oatmeal before I add water, and his triple ginger cake is just heaven.
  4. Nigella Lawson, Feast. I received this one during a cookbook Secret Santa, in which I’d requested How To Eat but got this one instead. So glad. Sometimes I just sit down and leaf through it for pure food porn… but her recipes are also wonderful! I make the oatmeal-cranberry-white chocolate-pecan cookies every winter.
  5. Madhur Jaffrey, World Vegetarian. This massive cookbook is so comprehensive, I haven’t even scratched its surface. What I love about it isn’t just that it’s full of veg recipes, but that it’s so global in scope, with flavors and ideas from all over the world.
  6. The Ethnomusicologist’s Cookbook. This book serves the same purpose as Jaffrey’s for me, except it’s not veg. If I want to know how to cook something from Namibia or Okinawa or Appalachia, I turn here.
  7. Annabel Low and Ellen Blonder, Every Grain of Rice, and Dim Sum (written by Blonder alone). These tender, beautiful books are full of loving memories and lush watercolors. If I wrote a cookbook, it would look like this.

That’s it for now, fellow bibliophiles! I don’t buy as many books these days, so to see what I’ve been reading recently, look for me on Goodreads. Thanks for going through the whole list. 🙂

Do you share some of my favorites? What are yours?

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