5 Big Books I’ve Read or Reread Recently

It’s been a while since I wrote about my love for Big Books (tomes of 500 or more pages). Here are the five most recent ones I’ve read.


A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 928 pages

This is the final entry in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. (The first two are Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century, and World Without End, set in the 14th century.) This novel begins in the latter part of the 16th century, as young Princess Elizabeth is poised to become queen. One of Follett’s strengths is the creation of strong, well defined fictional characters, and he creates a cast of them here. In their interactions with a few historical personages of the era, these characters live through the religious battles and shifting loyalties of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

I found particularly fascinating Follett’s picture of how the young Queen Elizabeth, facing enmity from most of Europe, created a network of spies and secret agents. This novel covers about a half century but, as in the other two novels in this series, the story never seems to go on too long. Follett is a genius at keeping a large cast of characters interesting while moving through an extended narrative arc.


Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages

What a gem of a novel! I discovered it through one of the newsletters of Kindle deals I receive daily.

Piercy uses 10 narrators—four men and six women—to cover the full breadth of World War II and its effects. The characters include soldiers, intelligence officers, code breakers, factory workers, French resistance fighters, and women entering jobs left vacant by the departure of the male work force. As she does in much of her work, Piercy here emphasizes the women characters, but her male characters are equally as individualized and important.

Like Ken Follett, Marge Piercy keeps a large cast of characters moving coherently over the wide sections of time and place necessary to encompass the vastness of an entire world at war. This is a novel that at some time in the future will appear on a list of Big Books that I’ve reread.


Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages

Penmarric is the only reread on this list. I think I originally read it about 35 years ago (it was first published in 1971), so I’d had enough time to forget the details and therefore relished the chance to reread it.

This is one of those big, sprawling family sagas that I enjoy so much when they’re well done. And this one is very well done. Like Marge Piercy and Ken Follett, Susan Howatch keeps a large cast of characters moving across an extended time span.

The novel covers the years 1890–1945 and three generations of the Castallack family. The story focuses on Penmarric, the huge ancestral home on the family estate of Penmar located in Cornwall (the same area where the current PBS drama Poldark is set). The house represents the family fortune and tradition, but it’s actually the Cornwall region that focuses the characters’ desires and keeps them grounded. It’s a big family, with big dreams and aspirations, and Howatch introduces us to these several characters as individuals forced to live out the consequences of a father’s decision and of the social conventions of an era.


The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages

The introverted, learned, meticulous novelist Henry James meets the dashing fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to like?

At the heart of the novel lies a philosophical conundrum. Holmes is in the midst of his hiatus after the incident at Reichenbach Falls, when he was supposedly killed by his archenemy, Moriarty. Holmes has faked his own death and disappeared because his powers of ratiocination have suggested to him that he is a fictional character. While Holmes ponders his own existence, James is left to think about how own question: If Holmes is fictional, what does that make the novelist himself?

Despite their existential crises, James and Holmes have work to do: They’ve come to America to solve the mystery of the 1885 death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, scion of the family that produced two U.S. Presidents. Was Clover Adams’s death the suicide it appeared to be, or does it involve sinister forces and matters of national importance?


Dune by Frank Herbert, 535 pages

My husband, daughter, and sister-in-law all love this novel, but I had put off reading it for 50 years because I don’t like much science fiction. What convinced me to read it, finally, is not the realization that this novel has become a major icon of science fiction literature, but rather our retirement relocation to Tacoma, WA, home town of Frank Herbert. Herbert was influenced to write his masterpiece by the presence for nearly 100 years in Tacoma’s North End, very near to where we now live, of a copper smelting and refining plant. The final incarnation of the company that owned the plant was known as American Smelter and Refining Company (ASARCO). ASARCO closed the plant in 1985 because of a decline in the market for copper and the need for pollution control.

The company that was originally one of Tacoma’s biggest employers was also one of its biggest polluters. Its giant smokestack, built in 1917, dominated the area at 571 feet tall. The smokestack finally became a symbol of environmental pollution, and it was demolished in 1993. The area became a Superfund toxic cleanup site. The soil around where we leave is still being tested for contamination as older property is sold and new building projects started.

This local experience prompted Frank Herbert to write Dune, which many people consider the seminal work of ecological science fiction. I don’t love the book anywhere near as much as my family does, but I am glad I finally read it (if for no other reason than I can now include it in my list of Big Books read).


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Reading Plan for 2018

I’ve spent the first three days of the new year putting together my reading plan for the next 12 months.

Reading Challenges

I usually only do the Goodreads challenge of reading a certain number of books during the year. After meeting the goal of 40 books for the last several years, I’m increasing my magic number to 45 for 2018.

And this year I’ve also decided to do Off the Shelf’s 18 Reading Resolutions for 2018. I chose this one because 18 seems like a manageable number. Here are the categories:

1. Read more books by women
2. Read more diverse books
3. Read a book more than 500 pages
4. Read a book written by someone under the age of 35
5. Read a book written by someone over the age of 65
6. Read a collection of short stories
7. Read more nonfiction
8. Read a novel based on a real person
9. Read a collection of poetry
10. Read a book about an unfamiliar culture
11. Read a book from a genre you might not normally read
12. Read a book by a local author
13. Read a book about mental health
14. Read a “guilty pleasure” book
15. Read a book with a LGBTQ theme
16. Read a book to learn something new
17. Read an inspirational memoir
18. Read a book you’ve had on your shelf for years but haven’t gotten to yet

Personal Reading Goals

In an effort to read outside of my usual comfort zone (primarily psychological novels), I’ll try to read some of these types of books in 2018:

  • translations
  • science fiction
  • biography
  • fantasy
  • plays
  • poetry

I also need to catch up on the Classics Club list that I drew up some time ago. I haven’t made a dent in it in a LONG time. In fact, a look at my original list reveals that I’ve only read 11 of the 58 titles on that list.

Therefore, in 2018 I plan to cross at least six items off that list.

How About You?

Do you set annual reading goals, or do you prefer to pick up the books that call to you during the year? There’s something to be said for either approach.

If you’d like to give the reading-challenge approach a try, Google “2018 reading challenges” and you’ll find a LONG list. And if you’d like to set up your 2018 reading plan by constructing your own challenge, here’s a good place to start:

50 DIY READING CHALLENGES TO MAKE 2018 THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR READING LIFE

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The 15 Best Books I Read in 2017

Since I’m choosy about what I read and mostly read only books I’m interested in, it’s often difficult to choose the titles that belong on my year-end “best books I read this year” list.

And this year the task was particularly difficult. After much adding and subtracting, I’ve finally hit on this list of the 10 best plus 5 honorable mention.

The Best

Backman, Fredrik. A Man Called Ove
Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds Of Truth
Crouch, Blake. Dark Matter
Harper, Jane. The Dry
Honeyman, Gail. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Jenkins, Reid Taylor. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You
Rooney, Kathleen. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds

Honorable Mention

Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Dolan-Leach, Caite. Dead Letters
du Maurier, Daphne. My Cousin Rachel
Eskens, Allen. The Life We Bury
Fuller, Claire. Swimming Lessons

How About You?

What books made your list this year?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Thanks to Goodreads for the following statistics:

I read 16,335 pages across 48 books.

SHORTEST BOOK: 135 pages. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

LONGEST BOOK: 894 pages. Dune by Frank Herbert

AVERAGE LENGTH: 340 pages

MY AVERAGE RATING FOR 2017: really liked it: 4.0 stars

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Top 5 Novels of All Time

Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.

Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?

If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.

To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdI remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.

Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)

Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.

2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.

This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.

I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.

3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.

I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.

But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.

4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.

This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.

The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.

Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:

  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.

But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:

5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett

When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.

One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.

In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.

How about you?

What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why I’m Content to Read 40 Books Rather Than 100 a Year

Whenever I come across someone’s claim to have read 80, 90, or even 100 or more books in a year, I have to wonder how much they comprehended, appreciated, and now remember of those books. With so much current emphasis on productivity and life hacks, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that more is better when it comes to reading. I prefer to slow down when I read, to take enough time to appreciate the author’s style and subtlety and craft instead of getting to the last page so I can pick up another book.

Although I believe that I get more out of a novel when I read slowly enough to savor it, I wondered if other people have the same experience. So I did a little research.

Although I’m talking mainly about reading fiction here, there’s also some discussion of reading nonfiction and the differences between reading fiction and reading nonfiction.

John Miedema put together his book Slow Reading from research for a graduate course in library and information science. He defines slow reading as a voluntary practice done to increase enjoyment and comprehension of a text, a process that some people describe as “getting lost in a book.”

This book is about reading fiction. Here are a few quotations:

  • “A fictional work provides a sand box for imagining other identities and choices”(p. 56).
  • “Children can use fiction as a testing ground for their future selves. Is there any reason to stop this process when we reach adulthood? It is sad and a bit creepy to watch those adults who cease to imagine. It is as if their inner landscape is withering” (p. 57).
  • ”Slow readers have a particular capacity to open up to new ideas, and allow the sense of self to be transformed” (p. 62).

In 3 Key Advantages of “Slow Reading” That Turbocharge Your Learning Gregg Williams, a marriage and family therapist, acknowledges that productivity drives a lot of what we do—we want to get more done, and we therefore have to work faster to become more productive. This drive is most apparent in our desire to consume as much information as possible. We read quickly so we can move on to the next book or article. According to Williams, fast reading may work in some circumstances, but real comprehension demands slow reading.

Williams describes his own experience with realizing how fast reading in fact slowed him down. It takes him a while to get around to the meat of his argument, but he ends up pointing out three advantages of taking time to read a text slowly:

  1. Slow-reading uncovers “hidden” gems.
  2. Stories lead to deeper truths.
  3. Slow-reading adds to your web of knowledge.

He explains that “slow reading is also a very good idea whenever you are reading to understand any body of knowledge (for example, textbooks and popular nonfiction).” When you’re trying to learn something, slow reading saves you time in the long run because you can follow the logical flow of facts and associations.

In many cases fast reading may serve your purpose better than slow reading, Williams concludes. “The good news is that you can decide to switch between the two.”

Slow reading is related to what some others call active reading. Actively reading fiction requires slowing the reading process way down. In The medium is not the message Leah Price, who teaches English at Harvard, looks at the slow reading movement. Most proponents of this movement, she notes, are literary critics, who “care as much about form as about content.” She notes:

Ever since modern literatures were first taught at university a couple of centuries ago, their average professor has read at the same pace as her seven-year-old.

Reading slowly allows us to savor the words, to see and appreciate how the author has used techniques such as imagery and sentence structure to construct a story that resonates on several levels. When we read literature simply for its narrative sequence—first this happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened—we miss all the artistic effort that the best writers put into crafting their tales. (For ideas on how to do such close reading, see How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Harper/Collins, 2003).

Tim Parks, novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, laments how much his students seem to miss when reading literature in A Weapon for Readers. He writes that we approach literature with too much reverence and therefore treat it uncritically:

If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity.

This reverence toward the written word, he says, came of age in the second half of the twentieth century and “is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins.”

Parks particularly noticed this attitude toward the sanctity of the written word when working with students studying translation:

I would give them the same text in English and Italian and ask them to tell me which was the original text. Or I would give them a text without saying whether it was a translation or not and ask them to comment on it. Again and again, the authority conveyed by the printed word and an aura of literariness, or the excitement of dramatic action, or the persuasive drift of an argument, would prevent them from noticing the most obvious absurdities.

Be sure to look at his examples of such absurdities, which make his point readily evident.

In wondering how to help his students become better readers,

I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive.

The result? “[I]t was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem”:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

This transformation from “passive consumers of a monologue” into “active participants in a dialogue” describes the interaction between a reader and a literary text that is the basis of reader-response criticism. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), Louise M. Rosenblatt calls this interaction “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In Rosenblatt’s terminology, the text is the written work and the poem is the meaning that the reader creates in interaction with the written words.

Arming ourselves with a pen and approaching a work of literature as our partner in an active exchange will allow us to focus on reading fiction as both an artistic and a pleasurable experience—also as a necessary experience, according to Parks:

For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed.

I read a lot of articles and web sites about reading, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the quotation—usually encased in a text box with a fancy frame—“No two readers ever read the same book.” This is a succinct statement of the hypothesis of reader-response criticism: Readers create their individual sense of meaning because they bring to the reading process their unique consciousness and set of personal experiences. I find that in order to produce this transactional process between the book and me, I have to slow down and take time to savor the reading process. And that’s why I read 40 books a year, not 100.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown