Long after most children and their parents stop reading aloud together, my mom and I just kept on going, through my sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. We started L.M. Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" series when I was in maybe the eighth grade and found that we liked them so much that we couldn't think of a good reason to stop.
Each night after I crawled into bed, homework hopefully completed, she would come into my room, settle down in the wicker chair that I had spray-painted a lurid blue and together we'd slip into Anne's whimsical world of scraps and triumphs.
We shared so many common interests, my mom and I, including a love of walnuts, all things British and anything pretty, but it was over books that we truly melded. She bribed me when I was about 14 to read "Gone With the Wind," which I did, over and over again, spilling buckets of tears over Melanie's death scene and committing the first paragraph to memory ("Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful … "). She introduced me to Chaim Potok, John Steinbeck and James Michener (her favorite) when I was a teenager and would always ply me with books, suggesting her favorites and going through the stacks by my bedside with interest.
As I grew older, our taste diverged a bit — she fell hard for Jan Karon's "Mitford" series while I discovered noir fiction, mid-century British mysteries and travel writers — but we always talked books, and we especially loved to buy children's books, sometimes for her grandchildren and sometimes for us.
When my mom unexpectedly — unexpected only that we didn't know it would be that day, although we knew it would be some day — passed away this past April, the gaping hole her absence left in my life actually took away my breath. I didn't know that grief was a physical pain, sharp and hot, like the end of a poker left too long in a fireplace. As I struggled to regain my balance, I turned, yes to friends and loved ones, but also to my books, especially at night, when the grief was at its most searing.
In those ensuing months, it was those old book friends that gave me the comfort that I needed. They took me away and back to places that I loved, allowed me to spend time with dear friends I hadn't visited in years and gave me a little relief from the reality of a world without my greatest champion.
So, while I read a few of 2018's new books, like Tara Westover's devastating "Educated," my year-end book list is instead a compilation of the books that got me through 2018 — my oldest, closest books friends.
'Jane of Lantern Hill,' by L.M. Montgomery
I've read all of L.M. Montgomery's works, and while the "Anne" books remind me most of my mom, I've always loved Jane Stuart from "Jane of Lantern Hill" best of all. She lacks the intensity of Emily Byrd Starr from the "Emily of New Moon" books and Anne's charming ways, but she's sensible and self-reliant, two qualities I've long admired. When she glows with the pleasure of polishing the silver or weeding her little garden, I get it. These aren't activities that most people think are anything more than drudgery, but for Jane and me, they offer the chance to make dowdy things better with very little effort. Plus, Jane never gets over the magic of her summer home on Prince Edward Island, and her continued appreciation for its beauty — highlighted in Montgomery's purple prose — taught me to see my world as something special.
The 'Harry Potter' series
I went through all seven books this year, all on audio. J.K. Rowling and Jim Dale will never know what they got me through. They went with me everywhere, Dale's voice and Rowling's characters, walking me home from work, keeping me company while I made dinner, getting me through the hours before I fell asleep. I allowed Harry's own grief, as personal and senseless as mine, to share in my heartache. His adventures distracted me from my hurt, and in this rereading (relistening), I found in these books about wizards and broomsticks a great deal about loss and carrying on, even when I wasn't sure I could keep it up.
'A Room With a View,' by E.M. Forster
It was the movie that initially won me over. I must have been 10 or so when my dad, a pilot, brought home a VHS copy from one of his trips. Everything about it was a revelation (including that bathing scene!), a world where people walked about with lace parasols but were also still people — people who had their feelings hurt and who could be irritating and at times overly complicated. And while the Merchant-Ivory film is excellent (and it is excellent), Forster's novella is its equal. Humor, elegance and humanity are all there, and in this year when I sought escape, Forster gave me two perfect landing places: Florence and the English countryside. "Howards End" is actually my favorite Forster novel — it's so good it almost hurts — but it was Lucy Honeychurch, Cecil, Charlotte and of course Freddy who buoyed me up when I needed it most.
'The Girl in Blue,' by P.G. Wodehouse
There is likely no greater antidote to sadness than the frothy, witty writing of P.G. Wodehouse — which I say as a proud former member of the Wodehouse Society. With Wodehouse, there are so many options for joy. I revisited not his Jeeves and Wooster stories this year, although they are likely his best work, but instead a novel called "The Girl in Blue." It's just like his others — Wodehouse books are a little like a bag of Skittles, with very little distinguishing taste between them — but in his deceptively jaunty prose I found kindness, hope and a strong undercurrent of generosity. What ho, indeed.
While my mom was in the hospital, I needed something light to keep us company and provide some distraction, so I dug out my old friend Henrietta, fictional writer of a series of charming World War II-era letters — actually written by English writer and illustrator Joyce Dennys for Sketch magazine. These little vignettes about Henrietta's life in her English seaside village are full of humor and humanity and gave us plenty to smile over and relate to during those long hospital hours.
And here, at the end, it became my privilege to return the favor of years before and read aloud while my mom rested; I just wish we had been able to finish them.5 comments on this story
My other notable 2018 reads: "Silhouette in Scarlet," by Elizabeth Peters; "The Pigeon Tunnel," by John le Carre; "The Whole Art of Detection," by Lyndsay Faye; "Magpie Murders," by Anthony Horowitz; "Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare," by Giles Milton; "Six of Crows" and "Crooked Kingdom," by Leigh Bardugo; "Educated," by Tara Westover; "The Martian," by Andy Weir; "The Silkworm," by Robert Galbraith; "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," by Michael Chabon; "The Secret History," Donna Tartt (which I loathed, just FYI)