Kate Walbert

A Few Of My Favorite Things

People often ask me about my favorite books. As a reader, I could (and often do) talk for quite a while about what favorite means and why it qualifies a thing as important. When I was younger, stumbling upon an author that forced me to read differently, and then as a result think differently, was a memorable and revelatory experience. I think of the books that have influenced my reading habits in some way as important.

I found refuge in diatribes of feminism during adolescence, reading essays over and over that spoke to me, tearing them out of books. I especially loved the essay “Blood Love“, from Christina Doza, in the book Listen Up. I tore it out of the book and folded it up and still have it today, nested in a box with old letters and pictures and other such memories.

i was amelia earhartOne of the first books I stumbled upon at the Sandy, Utah library which made me think of writing as something I totally understood, something quietly settled through its words despite the tragedy in its story, was the tiny novel I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, published in 1996. A surreal memoir of Earheart’s fated last flight, it begins: “The sky is flesh. The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It’s a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.” Reading the Goodreads reviews now, I can see the overwriting they describe. But then, all I saw was a quiet unreality so clearly created I could melt into, losing myself completely to the story of a desperate Amelia and her alcoholic navigator.

bloggerrebeccaIn middle school, the first book I read for a class and truly loved (maybe even truly read all the way through) was Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

four books squareNow, I have a handful of books that I look to as favorites, most by authors with many books I adore. Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled is haunting and distant, like trying to read a book as it bends down a dark hallway away from you. The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert tells what appears to be the saddest, simplest story, with ends that begin to unravel as you flip the pages. Walbert writes the style of story I enjoy reading the most, of a seemingly innocent narrator relaying an enchanting past, details blurring and fading as the tale continues. Margaret Atwood is a master of this style as well, with both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake illustrating the dangers and oddities of memory, as narrators enchant themselves more than their readers while relaying their histories. A.M. Homes‘s This Book Will Save Your Life puts the brakes on life’s cruise control as its main character begins to connect with the people he sees every day. In Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, the wreckage of the tech age is a teenage sex offender.

by bloodFinally, Ellen Ullman‘s By Blood is all the right things–slightly insane and drawing the reader into that insanity, bursting with what seems like too much story in incredibly contrived situations that just might be believable, exploring worlds within worlds of heartbreak and loss. Any book exploring San Francisco’s darker moods is a book after my own heart. This one does so beautifully, as its narrator rides the empty N-Judah line through the fog and towards the wind and chill of Ocean Beach.

But for me, there’s always one book that is undoubtedly my favorite, which stands above the rest. What is it, you ask? More on that this weekend…

Review – You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt


The Americans with Russian girlfriends–“pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home–began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang…A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
― Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is a love song of a book: a love song to foreign lands that always seem impossibly perfect until you get there; a love song to a different time when we were younger and everything around us looked so much bigger; a love song to the beliefs we have when we are children, and the hope that we can grasp tightly onto even as adults.

Narrator Sarah had a best friend growing up, a perfect best friend, named Jennifer Jones. They grew up in Washington, D.C. together during the paranoid madness of the Cold War. Sarah’s mom is neurotic, charting nuclear fallout on huge maps spread along the dining table, while Jennifer’s parents are so idyllic they seem quaint.

The girls write letters to the Soviet Union asking for peace, and suddenly Jennifer Jones (just Jennifer Jones, not Sarah) is famous. Her letter has been published in the Soviet papers and answered by their president. They’ve asked her to come to the USSR as an ambassador of sorts. As Sarah watches from home, Jennifer is made America’s darling. And, as Sarah watches from home, Jennifer and her parents crash into the ocean on a small plane, never to be seen again.

Then, years later, Sarah receives a mysterious e-mail from Russia. A woman who knew Jennifer as a child, who hosted her when she visited, asks, “Would Sarah come? Doesn’t she have questions?” She will, and she does. Sarah packs up, and is off to Russia, searching for a truth she isn’t sure exists regarding her long lost friend Jennifer.

If there is a single strong point in Holt’s writing, it is paralleling the disorienting experience of childhood with the disorienting experience of wandering a new country alone. In both situations Sarah seems totally lost and at the mercy of those around her, almost adrift in a sea of people she needs to lean on but may not be able to trust.

In the best way possible, You Are One of Them reminded me of The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, one of my favorite books when I was younger. Both books very much have this “Let me sit you down and tell you what I do and what I do not know about my past” feel to the narration, which creates a feel of unraveling a web of dark secrets and drama with the narrator as they explore their own memories.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

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