Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Favorite Books

Elizabeth Zelvin

Fair warning: this is not a list of mysteries. In a recent post on SleuthSayers, my blog brother Brian Thornton posed a question about “a book that helped you through a rough patch,” claiming that a certain book had “saved [his] writing career.” When he gets blocked, he said, “reading a timeless work...inspires me and helps break the log-jam across the stream of invention.”

I don’t have a comparable story about a book breaking writer’s block. The closest I come is the book that unexpectedly unlocked the gates of poetry to me. There’s my mystery conversion book, the read that introduced me to the joys of genre fiction. And I’ve spoken and written many times about the childhood reading that made me a writer. In addition, I can list a handful of consecutive favorites, books I returned to over and over and gave copies of to fellow readers at different periods in my life.

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery (1923). My childhood favorite, which I first read in 1952 at the age of 8. Like Anne of Green Gables, Emily was a little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island. Driven to write, she was beleaguered by those who didn’t understand or approve. Still in print and the basis for a Canadian TV series.  

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868). The beloved classic, in my opinion not considered the Great American Novel only because its author, protagonists, and readers are female. Several movies and editions of the book are available. I read it first at age 11 and can still be moved to tears when I reread it. A work that influenced not only my dream of being a writer but also my vision of sisterhood among women.

The Sotweed Factor by John Barth (1960). A brilliant literary novel that I call my prefeminist favorite book. I read it many times in the Sixties, before I had a context for thinking critically about “guy books.” The publisher called it “a hilarious, bawdy tribute to all the most insidious human vices with lasting relevance for readers of all times.” An irreverent historical novel set in colonial Maryland, it’s notable for an intense delight in language.


Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (1933). I would not be a mystery writer today if a coworker at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where I worked briefly in 1964, right after graduating college, hadn’t recommended this book. I became a mystery reader on the spot and consider the character-driven traditionals I write and still delight in reading in a direct line of descent from the great Dorothy L.

The Book of Folly by Anne Sexton (1973). This is the collection of poems that turned me on to poetry and led to my thirty years as a published poet. Its accessibility and interest in human emotions were a revelation to me. Sexton is often dismissed as a “confessional” poet. I consider this an anti-feminist jibe belittling the importance of women’s relational strengths.


The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin (1974). This novel was my favorite during my belated political period (a Sixties sensibility in the Seventies). The author is one of the giants of speculative fiction. One edition gives it a subtitle, “an ambiguous utopia.” The story brings to life an idealistic vision of an anarchism that’s about voluntary individual social cooperation, not about bomb-throwing and social chaos. (On our planet, it’s never worked on a national level, but you can find something like it in an AA meeting.)

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold (1999). Again, one edition offers a subtitle, “a comedy of biology and manners.” Part of the beloved Vorkosigan saga, this cross-genre work of genius has it all. Part space opera, part novel of ideas, part outrageously quirky romance, filled with complex and lovable characters, and laugh-aloud funny, it’s dedicated to “Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy”—that is, Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers. Some of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are mysteries and/or galactic political thrillers. This one is not, and I don’t care.

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