A friend of mine facebook/bookScout recently launched a contest calling for books you’d take to a desert island. It got me thinking… What would I look for if I only had a handful of books to read over and over again?
First off, I would need characters who are vividly drawn, with all their fears, desires, and joys to keep me company through the days. I would need stories to lose myself in over and over and to find hope and beauty to help me through the nights. Stories that mine the human experience to capture our complexities and our opposing natures, that don’t shy away from our flaws, but always find the beauty and love within us.
It’s so hard to narrow it down (perhaps all my books’ weight is what caused the boat to flounder in the first place) but with these criteria in mind, here are my top 13 picks.
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
“We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to untie.”
A shipload full of wonderful characters. Told through the eyes of an adult, it recalls an 11-year-old boy’s trip from his native Ceylon to England. It recalls a cast of wonderful characters on board, the boys’ adventures, and the intricacies of adulthood, glimpsed but not fully understood. The adult man looks back at how that three-week journey coloured his future and shaped his life.
Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire
“They dance so fast, good and evil, these two polar opposites. So tightly and furiously. You can’t dance with just one of these partners. If you cut into their dance, you end up with both, as a threesome.”
A truly remarkable book - so beautiful and so heartbreaking. A Cuban refugee recounts his childhood growing up in Havana, humorous, absolutely mesmerizing and so vivid you’ll feel like you’re there. His exile to the U.S. in the wake of the Cuban/Castro Revolution is a sad but remarkable story of a time in history and the personal cost to him, his family, and all Cubans.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
“A pain exploded up high in her chest and spit her out of this terrible world.”
A wonderful, mesmerizing beautiful book to be read again and again.The author captures mankind’s humanity towards one another, our grace and beauty as easily imagined as our violence and brutality. The characters are vast and rich drawn, each one wonderfully imagined and real in their desires, their fears and their joys.
No Great Mischief by Alistair Macleod
“All of us are better when we’re loved.”
A story of family and loss, history and sadness, but essentially a story of love. Love for a people, a past, a landscape, and mostly for each other.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson.”
A haunting story of a blind French girl and an orphan German boy from 1934 through 1945 as they slowly but inevitably connect in the last dying days of the war. It is so moving and suspenseful that I never wanted it to end. Although brilliantly capturing the horrors of war, it is never without a sense of how sometimes people try to be good to one another and doesn’t judge when they aren’t. Beautiful and delicately written.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This old classic is one of my favourites to read again and again. Every time, I find something new in the poetry of Fitzgerald’s language and his uncanny ability to capture those emotions that lie hidden beneath the exterior we show to the world.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So begins Tolstoy’s brilliant masterpiece of adultery, class, and society is another book I never tire of reading. Daunting, yes, with its huge cast of characters and in sheer length alone, but so well worth the effort. A mirror into the tragedy of the human soul, it’s as relevant today as ever.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
"And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight… love and memory. It’s about sorrow.”
Drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam at 21, O’Brien’s brilliant collection of linked stories are reflections on war, death, love, life, and story-telling. No desert island refuge would be complete without it.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”
I like to reread this book every so often to be reminded of what great writing is. A married woman makes a vow to a God she doesn’t believe in to save the life of her lover during the war’s London bombing. Beautiful and heartbreaking, with such an intensity of emotion and character.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Theo Decker is 13 when his mother is killed in a random bombing of a New York museum. He is taken in by a wealthy Park Ave family, then reunited with his father who takes him to Las Vegas. A captivating story of his life into adulthood where he is forever haunted by his love for his mother, the strange girl who survived the bombing and a beautiful tiny 17th-century painting he has taken from the museum. Alienated, unmoored and in love, he moves around the world in a state of paranoia, fear, and love.
A Gentleman in Moscow bt Amor Towles
“Fate would not have the reputation it has, if it simply did what it seemed it would do.”
My fasciation with Russian literature continues with this story of a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest in a famous Moscow hotel. The characters and adventures of his 30-year stay is brilliant, funny, and beautiful.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”
A masterful evocation of an unrequited passion so strong that it binds three people’s lives together for more than fifty years. Lushly told and ageless in its humanity.
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
“… much of what the church calls sin is simply being human.”
Told by a young German “zwerg” (a dwarf) from 1915 to 1952, who yearns to grow tall, and to be accepted by her neighbours and townspeople. Told with an uncanny ability to see into the hearts of the townspeople, this beautiful story deals with magic and truth, corruption and redemption, sadness and joy, love and betrayal.
What books would you take if you had only a few to read over and over again? What would you look for to sustain you?
In the meantime, happy reading!