To-date, I’ve read 31 (and a half) books this year. That may not be a lot for you, but for me, it’s quite the achievement. And of these 31.5, many moved me.
While beautiful technical victories of character development and diction and so on, these stories stuck to my memory like static cling because of what the stories provoked in me. And I can’t let them go.
So, why am I telling you this? This is not an A+B=C blog post. Instead, as it is the end of the year, a time upon which we reflect, I wanted to share the favorites of my favorites with you. And I’m not going to talk about their brilliant writing techniques—of which there are plenty. Instead, I’m going to tell you why they moved me, in hopes that they might move you too.
I’ll Give You the Sun & The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
I’m obsessed with these books. Lapped them up like melting ice cream on a hot day. In fact, I actually listened to both of the books while on separate business trips that required me to drive long hours alone. And you know it’s a good book when you get to your destination and are sad to leave the car. So, why did I love Nelson’s books? While the coming-of-age stories were wonderful, the way in which she tells the stories is exquisite. It’s downright stunning. She has a way of writing her teenage characters with such vigor and color and poise that her words changed me. I felt charged with the reckless youth of my former self, and the world around me was a bright opportunity for adventure.
I believe the power of her books consists of more than her ability to write characters with a strong voices or her use of strong dialogue (both of which she’s obviously spectacular at doing). After all, I’ve read books with stellar voice and realistic dialogue before, but I’ve never had this kind of visceral reaction to a story.
I wanted to stick my head out the car window and scream sweet nothing into the streaming night air, I wanted to sneak out of my own house, meet friends on the merry-go-round and get drunk on cheap rose wine, I wanted to live.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay & Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
These books are very, very different. The former is a heart-wrenching story of woman’s kidnapping, fight for survival, and then fight to find normalcy, and in the latter, our world is struck by a deadly flu that kills 99.9% of the population and how the .01% learns to move forward and start again. But here’s why I can’t get either of them out of my head, (SPOILER ALERT) neither can move on, not really.
Gay’s protagonist experiences…honestly, it’s hard to even talk about it. Just know, it’s brutal. And her character is not okay. Not by a long shot. Even in the last pages of the book, after fighting for years to regain a sliver of the life she had, the woman she was before she was kidnapped, she (SPOILER) sees her attacker and unravels. The end.
At first, I was angry. I was rooting for her! I cared about her! How could all or her hard work be gone just like that? I was venting to a friend about it one day, a friend who had also read the story, and she just looked at me—and with that look, I was undone. Here’s why this story matters: Gay so gracefully, tactfully, and honestly portrayed trauma in a way I have never read or experienced before. I believe she is respectful but true to what so many people go through. And in this world, well, I don’t have to tell you—people are not always okay. Things happen, and it changes them. Sometimes you can’t go back. There may only be a different future. A new normal.
Similarly, that’s why I also keep returning to Station Eleven, except in this case, instead of one character going through physical and mental trauma, it is an entire world that has changed and the select few who must somehow continue living. This story isn’t one about survival: it’s about starting over and about how to keep a microscopic piece of civilization, of history, of art alive. Can you imagine? Losing not only necessities like electricity, medicine, pre-packaged food, but also losing thousands of years of history, culture, customs, language, stories. Furthermore, can you imagine knowing what you lost? Knowing there used to be such a thing called the Internet, but having no idea of to bring it back from the grave?
One of the main characters we follow is part of a traveling symphony. A group of musicians and actors that move from town to town, giving Beethoven and Shakespeare back to a world that hasn’t heard music or tales of woe in 20 years—and just like that, I was struck by the beauty of such a simple thing. Repeatedly, I found myself in their shoes, grieving with the characters, wondering with them, and wandering with them. And I was bizarrely grateful, in this fictional world, to know that Beethoven’s 9th and A Midsummer Night’s Dream survived. It’s been five months since I finished the story, and I’m still grateful the violin lived.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Doerr’s prose leaves you bruised with life and beauty and—if you’re a writer—jealousy. But this isn’t why his story moved me. Throughout the novel, he moves back and forth between the two main characters, a young boy growing up in Germany under Hitler’s influence in the 1930s and a young blind girl living in France during the upcoming and eventual war. Back and forth like a game of tennis, we get their stories in snapshots. Until, finally, in the eleventh hour when their paths ever so briefly cross.
The moments between them are an innocent reprieve from the loveless world from which they both came and to which they must return. This is why I can’t them go. Separately, they’re great characters. I loved them, and wished them well. But because of who they became for each other, even if it was only for a handful of pages, I can’t forget them. Each is memorable for his and her actions toward and with the other.
So, you’re asking yourself, how do I do this? What do I take away from this besides a to-read list? Honestly, I’ve no idea. I’m still learning too. And like I mentioned earlier, I could dissect some of the technical achievements of their works, and perhaps I’ll do that another day, but I think that would be missing the bigger opportunity. I fell in love with these stories because they brought out something true in me and what I believe are some of the truest pieces of what it means to be human.
Something about these stories has punctured the piece of myself that only music can speak to. The emotions, the soul those melodies alone evoke.
So, in 2016, find those stories for you and let them move you. After all, what’s the point of all of this if these things don’t change us? So, go. Find your violin.