Happy Book Surprises

After a pandemic hiatus, I am thrilled to plan a trip back to the Savannah Book Festival. I am a teensy bit nervous, and I might choose which authors to watch based on the sparsest and most well-ventilated venues. However, I love that they’re requiring vaccinations and/or negative tests and masks. And because I am very nerdy, I’ve been reading some of the books by the expected authors, including some favorites like The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel, The Spymaster of Baghdad by Margaret Coker, and Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang.

The most recent book I’ve started is The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan, and for some reason I had it in my head that I wouldn’t like it. I don’t know; I think I expected it to be too mentally taxing for my current Covid brain or something. To my surprise, I liked it very much right away. Of course, I’m only about a third of the way through it, so hopefully my enthusiasm will continue, but it made me think of what a delightful surprise it is when you grudgingly pick up a book that you feel like you “should” read, and then it turns out that you really do enjoy it, after all. There are tons of classics that I just plain old like–stuff by Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas comes to mind–and plenty of lighter stuff that I picked up because it looked good and some I loved and some I hated. But there’s just something extra-delightful when you pick up a book that you low-key expect will be a chore, and then it’s not. So here’s a list of my favorite delightful surprised.

The links I’m using are to IndieBound this time. Yes, Amazon is super-convenient, but I’ve tried to reduce my usage a bit. Luckily, Jeff helped me out with resisting the ultimate online convenience siren song. These days, every time I buy something on Amazon I remind myself that I’m basically handing money over to this guy. Blegh.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton: this is the most clear example of this genre for me. I picked it up entirely as an I-should-read-this task, likely back when I was living in Brooklyn and I’d go to the “school assignments” section of my local library because it tended to have both classics and newer books from different perspectives. My work-life was not particularly intellectually challenging at that point, so I’d try to catch up on any of those books that I felt like I should have read already. Many of them were zero fun, some were okay, but I really loved this book, the characters, the story, and how much it taught me about South Africa.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: beginning to read Anna Karenina is the most vivid reading memory of my life. At the time, I was studying abroad in Paris for the spring of my junior year in college. Yes, it was completely wonderful, but it was also pretty exhausting, constantly translating things in my head, and it was way before the internet was vibrant enough to bring me English language anything very easily. I had gone to the famous English language bookstore Shakespeare and Company and had picked a book based entirely on non-literary practicalities: I wanted a very dense read that would take a long time to finish but that was still within my limited budget and easy to tote around on my travels. I started to read it on the Metro ride home and I loved it immediately. There was that already-familiar opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” that reminded me that I was approaching a classic, but then it immediately felt funny and relatable. This guy Stiva is basically whining and moaning to himself on a couch because he feels like his wife is being unnecessarily dramatic about the fact that he’s had an affair, and the entire household is in an uproar and it says something like (because it’s a translation, of course, so it varies): “Every person in the house felt that there was so sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any country inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys.” And I was like, “Oh, yes, I get that,” and also, about Stiva, I was like, “This guy is such a loser/dick and yet somehow I don’t entirely hate him.” That is one of my favorite things: when I can sort of like unlikeable people. Anyway, I was super-excited to have a book in English to enjoy, but even better, I discovered this book right as it was time to pick classes back at college for the following semester, and lucky for me there was a Tolstoy class coming up by one of my favorite professors ever.

True Grit by Charles Portis: a Western by some old white dude absolutely did not call out to me in terms of my usual preferences, but at some point this book landed in my possession (a Little Free Library? a book swap?) and it probably sat in a pile at my house for months, possibly years, before I got around to reading it. At which point my best guess is that I decided to serve myself some “medicine” in the form of a Great American Classic because I’d read one too many stupid books in a row. And I reasoned to myself that at least it wasn’t too long. Instead of medicine, it turned out to be one of my favorite portrayals ever of a girl-power heroine, Mattie Ross. I read this one more recently, since having my daughters, which only made me more crazy about having such a great female protagonist. I loved her strength and her tenacity and I loved rooting for her.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: This is another book that I didn’t get around to reading until I was a full-on grown-up, and I knew enough about Plath’s life history and death by suicide to figure that this book would be a complete downer. And yes, it was sad, but I was surprised by how much this book resonated with me. One thing that made it really powerful for me personal is that the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is in New York City as part of a special program for young people who aspire to work in magazines and journalism that was reminiscent of a program that I used to read about every year in Seventeen magazine. So it felt very vivid and relatable even though she died years before I was born. People go on and on about The Catcher in the Rye, but I was never a fan of Holden, who seemed like a massive whiner to me. For me, if you want a tale of the disillusionment of adolescence in New York City, The Bell Jar is the way to go.


I looked for copies of these books around the house to take a picture, but apparently the only one I have around the house is Anna K. To make up for it, I have her in three different translations. That handy little Signet edition was the one I bought in Paris. Part of me would like to spend a portion of my old age with a magnifying glass comparing the different translations, and part of me is afraid that middle-aged-to-elderly Katie would just be way too impatient and irritated with Anna’s sappiness.

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