Here is a list and a brief description of some of the books I've drawn from. I've also included some of Melissa's favorite books. This list will continue to grow, so check back often.
Note on 8/27/16: The first two books on this list, Walden and Ceremony, will aways be #1 and #2. I will try to add new books in the third slot so you don't have to scroll to the bottom to check for new additions.
Henry David Thoreau
This is the book that started it all. Melissa wrote her Master's thesis on the role of nature in literature and in our lives, comparing Thoreau's views of nature with those of Leslie Marmon Silko in "Ceremony". Melissa and I met at a college party in 2001. Our conversation that night centered around Thoreau and Silko. She fascinated me then, as much as she does now. This book was the first gift she ever gave me.
The book is a reflection on living in harmony with the world and nature. It is a journey of independence and personal discovery. An introspective discussion on what it means to live in the world and society, while maintaining peace with the natural world. It was written in 1854, but reads as true today and it did then.
Leslie Marmon Silko
Part two of Melly's thesis, she drew comparisons between Thoreau's non-native view of the world with the Native American view of nature in our lives. This book was actually the second gift she gave me. I gave Melissa a signed first edition of Ceremony on the day of our wedding.
Ceremony follows the journey of a half Laguna Pueblo, half white man named Tayo coming home to New Mexico from the the war in the pacific. Tayo is struggling with witnessing the death of his close cousin, Rocky, during the Bataan Death March. He is working to reenter society, but feels lost between the two cultures, white and Native American. He finds solace and healing by returning to nature and spirituality found in the outside world.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M. Prisig
October 22nd, 2016
I started reading Zen a few weeks ago, about the time I went to the trade show referenced here. The juxtapositions between having to "pay the bills" but also find background meaning in the mundane are interesting to ponder. One of my hang-ups of late has been trying to find purpose in doing the things necessary to survive. In that sense, this book about personal and cosmic balance is proving to be very timely.
The Year of Magical Thinking
I started this earlier this summer and have had to hit pause several times. It is the account on the year following the death of her husband. I've found myself identifying with a lot that she has written, but have also found a lot of it too close to home too soon.
I'm about 3/4 of the way through, but haven't been able to come back to it for sometime now. May need to put it down and come back sometime next year. Too much too soon.
House Made of Dawn
N. Scott Momaday
October 22nd, 2016
Melissa was reading House Made of Dawn when we first started dating. She included excerpts from it in several of her early letters to me. I pulled it from the shelf to see if I could find those early notes. I was rewarded with a treasure trove of her hand written margin notes.
I had somehow forgotten that I had read the book once before. Once I got to rereading the book now, with her notes as a guide, is like listening in on a conversation between her and the author. It was fascinating and reaffirming.
The book took sometime to get back in rhythm with, but once I got accustomed to Momaday's unique prose it was wonderful. A beautifully written masterwork.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Sept. 20th, 2016
This was the book Melissa was last reading. It was on her desk, open with notes. This was my first time through it, and I have to say it resonates well with today's world events. Though the story is told from a child's perspective, there is very little that is childish about it. It is a story about fairness and dignity, and about how those things are often denied. It ends a little too simply for these times, but it must have been world changing at the time it first appeared.
I found myself identifying both with Boo Radley and Atticus Finch. Boo in that I am having a hard time finding a reason to participate in the world. It is so much easier to wall off the outside world and live completely in a world of my choosing. Atticus in that, like him, I am a widow the sees the world and asks why things have to be the way they are. Like water dripping on stone, small actions are necessary to precipitate big change. One step, one action, at a time.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Sept. 2, 2016
The story follows the life of an Australian doctor being held as a POW by the Japanese during WWII. The Australians are being forced to build the Burma railway for the Japanese. The doctor's story runs in three arcs, focusing primarily on his time in the labor camp, but also falling in love with a married woman before the war and his countrymen declaring him a hero after the war.
This can be a very violent read at times, but at its heart focuses on 'just surviving' against the harshest of odds. It is a story of love, friendship, death, and recovery.
Sometimes a Great Notion
This one is for me. This is one of my favorite books, one I come back to often. I am an unabashed Kesey fan and would venture that Sometimes a Great Notion may be better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Be forewarned, this is a hard book to get wrapped in to. You have to work for it, but the beauty of the prose and the payoff in the story is worth the effort. Case in point, read about Kesey's view of time at the end of this essay.
The story follows three generations of the Stamper family in rural western Oregon in the early 60s. The Stampers are independent loggers at odds with the town, viewed as responsible for prolonging a painful union strike. The story follows complicated relationships between a father and son, two brothers, and in a troubled marriage. Like Walden and Silko, Kesey uses nature as a character and plot driver.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Somewhere during her college career at Virginia Tech Melissa had to read this book. I discovered it quite by accident one afternoon in about 2003 and it has stuck with me ever since. Specifically, Kundera's writing about dogs in our lives and his beautiful insights about how dogs view the world. I wish I could take credit for my comments about dog time written here, but they are all Kundera.
The story takes place in Prague in the spring of '68, before the Communist invasion of Czechoslovakia. It follows a man and wife as they work through the man's infidelities. As they seek to reconcile, they bring a dog in to their lives to regenerate mutual love and trust
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
Greene explores the potential probabilities that the universe is finite or infinite. He lays out the potential scenarios for parallel or repeat realities, alternate planes of existence, whether we alone, and that every potential outcome has its own potential universe.
You don't have to agree with it, and may get bogged down in the technicalities, but it is a nice thing to think about and consider when you are down. I found that I could only take it in smaller doses, mixed with lighter fare with fewer existential repercussions. If you are looking for a decent grounding in quantum physics, general relativity, and string theory, this is a good place to start. Greene does a good job of putting each in to easy to understand and relatable terms.
Into the Wild
Want to feel like a grown up? Go back and read "Into the Wild" so you can argue with someone's life choices. It is the true story of Chris McCandless, a 22 year old kid who gave up all of his possessions to follow adventure. Chris donated all of his money to charity, loaded up his 1982 Datsun and drove west. The book chronicles his journey through the Southwest and Midwest, eventually ending in tragedy in Alaska. During that time you grow marvel at the senses of youth and innocence shown by Chris, but also angry that he could put his loved ones through such anguish. It is a highly relatable story for anyone who has ever dreamed of 'running away'.
Our own Melissa went through similar exploits, though with smaller stakes, when she set forth on her new life in New Mexico and Arizona. The maturity that comes from taking such a journey can be priceless, especially when one never considers the consequences. We all dream of getting away, but we don't ever realize what that means until we are in it.
Love Is A Mixtape
I read this book several years ago, shortly a couple years after Mel and I got married. I remember thinking it was profound, but also thinking that I would never have to go through what Sheffield endures. When we lost Melissa this was the first book that came in to my head. I have come back to it, am currently re-reading it right now. The line so far that sums things up, "...we all have been cheated by her death. I have been cheated a little less because I got more of her than most."
Sheffield is a music reporter for Rolling Stone, and several other publications. He does have a big soft spot for the 90s, so don't hold that against him too much. This book explores his relationship with his wife, in life and death, after her untimely passing at 28. It is profound, funny, and uplifting. A good read for anyone, not just music fans.
If you are starting to catch a theme, good! Melissa believed in the power of the wilderness and Desert Solitaire is a good example. The restorative power of the natural world has helped many push through adversity and tragedy, from John Muir to Teddy Roosevelt to me.
Here Abbey does his best attempt at Thoreau. The book chronicles his summers at Arches National Park in the late 1950s, before the roads were put in and it became a tourist trap. His descriptions of Glenn Canyon before it became Lake Powell make this book worthwhile. It helps you realize how much that lawn out front is really costing us.
Emily St. John Mandel
Books about the end of the world are a dime a dozen these days. You pick your poison: Zombies, vampires, viruses, what have you. Station Eleven is the rare book that can transcend the genre, at once poignant and pulp. Melissa and I both read this last summer and had several conversations about the meaning of connections with other people and with civilization.
Station Eleven follows several groups of people loosely associated with each other through their connections to an aging and famous actor. The story follows the characters over the course of 20 years, during which time the world experiences a massive pandemic and must rebuild. Most dystopian fiction focuses on the collapse and immediate aftermath of 'the end of the world'. St. John Mandel is unique in that she essentially glosses over that in favor of the much meatier story several decades on.
Bless Me, Ultima
Melissa kept a very special place in her heart for New Mexico. She only lived there for about a year, but it was one of the most important years in her life. She carried that place with her everyday, the way we all carry the place where we first became independent. She returned often to Bless Me, Ultima for both its portrayal of New Mexico and for its spirituality.
The story is of a boy growing up New Mexico shortly after World War II. He is learning good and evil in the world, through the life and death near him. He questions his beliefs about God and his purpose in the world. He is guided on his journey by Ultima, a grandmother-like figure in his community that some view as a witch. through his relationship with Ultima, he discovers a oneness with nature. Through his discovery that "All is One" he is able to resolve the major existential conflict in his life.
The Grapes of Wrath
Melissa somehow made it all the way through a Bachelor's and Master's in English without having read The Grapes of Wrath. We all have books like that, for me it's To Kill a Mockingbird (which I am remedying as we speak). I finally convinced her to read this Steinbeck classic last summer. Apart from (warning, not safe for work), but also including, a questionable ending she fell deeply in love with this story of perseverance.
I have drawn an incredible amount from Steinbeck over the years, up to and including my feeling that Melissa, like Tom Joad, is all around us. To paraphrase, she is with us in the way children laugh and the way the dogs bark, in darkness and light. Even if you have read it, go back and read it again. I will probably do the same.
Melissa's Mom got both of us hooked on this book a couple of years ago. It is a sprawling story of a child's journey through loss of his Mother in a terrorist attack through a series of homes, an unlikely friendship, art theft, Russian mobsters, and unrequited love. It is told with flair and suspense. As my sister-in-law would say, "it's sticky". You think about it long after you've finished it.
Melissa started reading it on a weekend trip to Maryland to see family. The book was on her Mom's kindle. Melly didn't have one of her own at the time, and had gotten hooked on the book. Her Mom actually gave Melissa the kindle so she could finish the story. That's how fun it is to read.
The Tsar of Love and Techno
I never got a chance to share this book with Melly. I regret that because I think she would have loved reading it. Like "The Goldfinch" above, it follows an object, also a painting, through the course of several deeply engrossing stories. I read it this past winter during a couple of heavy travel weeks. The stories follow a series of characters from the Stalin-era Soviet Union through the cold war and in today's Putin-led Russia. The most engaging portraits in the book are those that focus on nature, whether than be a field in Chechnya, a forest in Siberia comprised of man-made plastic birch trees, or the toxic waste generated by a Chromium mine. The use of landscape as a lyrical character is fantastic.
The Art of Racing in the Rain
Melly and I listened to this book as an audible download during Christmas 2014. This book is tied up in my mind with trips to Maryland to see her family and to the south rim of the Grand Canyon to see mine. Like movies and music, somethings just remind you of a time and a place. It definitely helps that it is a good story.
The book is told from the perspective of the family dog. It follows a man from bachelorhood, through marriage, children, successes and failures. It's told with love and humor, mixed with some sadness and controversy. On top of all else, it's full of racecars and dogs. What's not to like?