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Top Ten LogoGoodness, this Top Ten really made me think! Turns out, most of my favorite books are the ones that are peopled with distinctive, believable secondary characters whom I feel that I know. (Perhaps that also explains my addiction to the ensemble masterpiece LOST.)

Anyway, I could have easily rattled off 10 favorites from Jane Austen’s works, or from The Lord of the Rings. But, I didn’t even try to pick just one of G.R.R. Martin’s cast of characters from A Song of Fire and Ice, seriously?

1.) Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen—Austen’s books are rife with hilarious and memorable supporting characters, caricatures really. But, the haughty, domineering (and hilarious) Lady Catherine takes the cake. An authority on everything and everyone, Lady Catherine commands the spotlight. “I must have my share in the conversation!” She reminds Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

2.) Rusty Everett, Under the Dome by Stephen King—My great sorrow is that Rusty does not even feature in the Under the Dome TV show. But he is one of the most human and memorable characters from the book. Rusty is the everyman, the guy we all root for. Of course, there is Barbie the badass, ex-army superhero. But Rusty is someone whom you know you’ve met … thrust into unusual circumstances, who rises to the occasion.

3.) Peregrin (aka Pippin) Took, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien—It’s hard to pick a favorite hobbit, and I wouldn’t dare. But as literary characters go, Pippin is endearing, mischievous, and stellar. He elbows his way into the Fellowship, peers into the Palintir, and charms both Treebeard and the raving mad Denethor. “Fool of a Took!” cries Gandalf, after one of Pippin’s signature gaffs in the Mines of Moria.

4.) Just about everyone in the Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling—Really these books are a cornucopia of delightful, palpable secondary characters. That is why they were able to get so many British greats to take cameos in the films. There are the scene-stealing twins, Fred and George Weasley; the feared and revered Professor McGonagall; the ditzy and dreamy Loony Lovegood; everyone’s favorite fugitive, wizard godfather Sirius Black, Tonks the ass-kicking, punk auror, oh and also Dobby, the house elf, and then Winky, the drunk elf. Really, I must stop, but it’s not easy…

5.) Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë—I actually do not like Nelly very much at all. She is the original unreliable narrator, presenting her story as if she were not taking sides while in reality she drives along the friction between characters. Knowing Heathcliff is in earshot, Nelly prods Cathy to say it would “degrade her” to marry him.” Decorum prevents me from using the apt word describe Nelly, but it rhymes with witch.

6.) Aunt Dahlia, The Jeeves and Wooster books, by P.G. Wodehouse—Again, I could have picked Aunt Agatha, aka ‘the nephew crusher,’ (or the simpering Madeline Bassett who calls stars “daisy chains,” or the completely daft Barmy Fortheringay Fipps, or Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker). But Dahlia is the one of my favorites partly for the many whacky schemes into which she ensnares Bertie, but also for her line, “curse all dancing chauffeurs,” uttered after she gets locked out of Brinkley Manor during the servants ball. No wonder, Wodehouse titled a book, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

7.) Everyone, Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky— Némirovsky planned this as a sort of paean to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a wonderful, shattering novel about the early days of World War II in France, as the Germans roll through Paris and the small villages. There are so many finely drawn and distinct characters: the parents of a son missing in battle; wealthy Parisians fleeing to resorts; and the kindly, well-mannered German officer who is also a musician. It is so heartbreaking that this novel was never finished.

8.) Aloysius, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh—Sebastian’s teddy bear, who accompanies him to Oxford and upon most of his forays, is sort of a forerunner to Hobbes, the best friend of Calvin. Unlike that stuffed plush, though, Aloysius never comes to life, but often Sebastian can express his feelings, or avoid them, by attributing them to his teddy. “How silly, Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all.”

9.) Nick Adams, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway—Ok, so technically Nick is the *main* character. But he is so often the observer, giving us honest, at times awful, insights into those around him, like the brutal, clinical manner of his father in “Indian Camp.” Every few years I reread these stories because I always find something new in Nick’s view of the world. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there is so much brewing under his subdued reactions to nature. “He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.”

10.) Mma Potokwani, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series, by Alexander McCall Smith—This bossy, but lovable mistress of the orphanage is like the bizarro Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mma Potokwani orders people about and makes humorous demands, but all for the good of the orphans for whom she will go to (and push others to) just about any lengths. And of course Mma Ramotswe would not be happily married to the quiet, reserved Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, if Mma Potokwani hadn’t ambushed them with a surprise wedding!

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Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

Thomas Jefferson,
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

I recently got some fascinating new insights into the Declaration of Independence through Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson was chosen as author by default. He was the third choice, actually. The drafting committee wanted Benjamin Franklin, who was already rather a big-name celebrity in America as well as in England. But Franklin declined, saying he hated writing for a committee.

They turned next to John Adams, a fiery orator for ‘the Cause’ in the Continental Congress. But Adams recused himself, concerned that his vocalizing had caused him to be seen as a ‘radical.’ Adams wisely knew that they needed someone who was seen as a moderate to sway those who still hoped for a reconciliation with the Crown.

At the time the members of the Declaration’s drafting Committee of Five did not realize the importance of the project. Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and even Jefferson were each anxious to return to their home states, for the debates over state constitutions. These negotiations were considered to be the real grass-roots action. As Jefferson holed up in Philadelphia laboring over the Declaration, he yearned to be at the Virginia General Assembly.

Still, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the Declaration of Independence, creating what was not only an historic legal document, but also a masterpiece of writing. The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” by literary theorists.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

At the time, however, Jefferson’s genius wasn’t quite recognized and his opus was heatedly critiqued and edited by the Continental Congress. Jefferson “sat silently and sullenly throughout the debate,” which sounds a bit like the writer’s workshop from hell. “At one point, Franklin leaned over to console him, reminding Jefferson that this was the reason he never wrote anything that would be edited by a committee.” Ultimately, several large sections were cut, and it was this revised version that was printed and circulated throughout the country.

Ellis points out that almost more than the existence of the Declaration itself, Jefferson’s famous closing words, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” became a rallying cry and a pledge that spurred on the revolution.

Still, Jefferson became a rather obsessed with his original draft. “He devoted considerable energy to making copies of his unedited version of the document, restoring the sections deleted by the congress, placing their revisions in the margins so as to differentiate his language from the published version.”  While he sounds like an editor’s nightmare (from my experience at magazines, it’s usually the writers who resist editing that need it the most), the congress took out some very key elements.

First, they deleted all references to slavery and also to Jefferson’s proposal to end the slave trade, which he roundaboutly blamed on George III. This ominous omission still haunts us today. They also cut a thorough anti-king argument which Jefferson modeled after the British Declaration of Rights, a seminal act which set precedent by limiting the Crown’s power, reinforcing Parliament’s authority, and outlining the rights of petition and free speech during England’s Glorious Revolution. This seems a most genius way for Jefferson to use Parliament’s own words and laws to reinforce the Americans’ rights.

They also rejected Jefferson’s doctrine of “expatriation,” in which he theorized the that since the colonists had come to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure” (with no financial or other support of Great Britain), they were not beholden to that country. There were several other deletions including a tirade against George III for sending mercenaries to attack the colonists. In all, I tend to agree with Jefferson on many of his points. Then again, brevity is also important in these matters, especially when copies were made by hand. You can read Jefferson’s unedited version here.

revolutionary_summerEvery writer has known that mixed emotional jumble of having hard-wrought words deleted or rearranged. Often, however, a writer can find a strange satisfaction and even appreciation in this transformation. Not so for Jefferson. As he grew old and the country he helped found took shape, he grew less fixated on his version of the Declaration but never really got over it.

Ellis, however, defends Jefferson on this point. “At that time, he came off as a rather self-absorbed young man, though his early recognition that the language of the Declaration mattered a great deal proved to be prescient.”

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson

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silhouette cropI have a high back window that has played home to a succession of spiders. Jokingly, I have referred to each as Charlotte A. Cavatica, after Wilbur’s friend. Visiting kids always like to climb up and take a look at the arachnid in action—spinning or repairing the web and, yes, sometimes wrapping up struggling prey. It’s a bit like my own personal Nature Channel.

Now it turns out, I actually do have a Charlotte out there, complete with a very large egg sac that she is tending. Like most people, I have a natural fear of these eight-legged beasts, but I loved Charlotte’s Web so much (still do), that I cannot bring myself to kill them. I have somewhat perfected the art of spider catch-and-release.

Also, I was really moved by Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng’s wrenching memoir of her persecution during China’s Cultural Revolution. Cheng was imprisoned in solitary confinement for seven years, her only friend a spider in the upper corner of her cell. As she watched the spider swing about creating its intricate web, Cheng wrote, “I knew I had just witnessed something extraordinarily beautiful and uplifting … I felt a renewal of hope and confidence.” With the spider there, she felt less fearful of the guards who bullied her daily.

Alas like Charlotte, that spider passed away with the arrival of winter, and it is a truly heartbreaking moment in the book. [Aside, Cheng was a wonderful writer and I highly recommend this read!]

Radiant.

Radiant.

I confess, though, as I look out at the bulging egg sac dangling so close to my window … I am a bit (ok very) freaked. [Click on the pic to really see the eggs.] One day hundreds of spiders will burst out separated only by a pane of glass. I’m terrified of a spider invasion through the cracks of my house. But these two books have left such a mark that I cannot bring myself to sweep it all away.

Instead, I’m hoping that like Charlotte’s brood these mini critters will quickly spin tiny balloons and disperse, sailing off with the wind.

 

Perhaps the runt will be left behind to occupy my window, if so I would name her Aranea.

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng

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Sinners and the Sea by , Theras and His Town, and My Ántonia.

Sinners and the Sea, Theras and His Town, and My Ántonia.

This is my second Read-a-thon as a reader. My first outing was a cheerleader (Oct 2011) and last fall I participated at half-speed … doing more of a ‘Read-a-5k’ than a Read-a-thon.

This time, I read three books (shown above): Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner; Theras and His Town by Caroline Dale Snedeker; and My Ántonia, by Willa Cather.

As well as several spring poems (it is Poetry Month after all), and most of the weekend New York Times—in 24 hours. That actually makes me kind of a slacker because we 494 participants who read 588 books and over 5,000 pages! Several readers cruised through 9 or 10 books, so I was perhaps flattening out the bell curve. But the glorious weather was a worthy distraction—I do hope the October 2013 Read-a-thon is on a dismal, rainy day. (Perfect for reading!)

I also participated in my first ‘mini-challenges’: the Book Sentence Challenge and the Share a Quote Challenge. Maybe the best part: I discovered some wonderful new book blogs and had a great time tweeting, commenting, and connecting with fellow bookworms.

Oh, and did I mention, I won a prize!! A book called Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle, so looking forward to getting that in the mail.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did not turn on my TV during the whole Read-a-thon. Then, because Sunday was hectic catch-up (and nap!) day, I didn’t turn it on until Game of Thrones at 9 pm. So I went from Friday to Sunday night without even thinking of the TV.

Most importantly, the Read-a-thon reminded me how much more I used to read. Pre-iPhone, I always had a book with me in case I had a few spare minutes—at the checkout, at the bar, in the waiting room. Now, I sometimes do, but sometimes I’m texting or emailing. I’ve lost those few extra minutes every day of reading. Need to rectify that … for mental health purposes.

Another takeaway: it was soooo nice to turn of the phones and simply read for a few hours. That will be incorporated as a new weekend ritual.

So thank you Dewey’s Read-a-thon for a great weekend of #booklove.

readathon large Here We Go, Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2013

Dewey’s Read-a-thon Book Sentence Challenge

Read-a-thon or Read-a-5k?

Dewey’s Read-a-Thon

Dewey’s Read-a-Thon Start Times

History of Dewey’s Read-a-Thon

Remembering Dewey Through Her Words

A Tribute to Dewey

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Read-a-thon Wrap Up: A Great Weekend of Book Love

In all, I read three books, several spring poems (it is Poetry Month after all), and the weekend New York Times—in 24 hours. Read-a-thoners worldwide read over 5,000 books collectively!

Check out my full Read-athon Wrap Up.

 

7:15 am Update: Back at the Books

I actually, gulp, went to bed for a few hours (#needsleep), but woke up just after 6 am. Cosy in bed finishing My Ántonia and wondering what to start next? Luckily, the doggie is still sacked out, so prime reading time. LAST HOUR #RahRahreadathon

 

11:15 pm Update: Closing in on Book 3

book 3 b

Oh, I do love My Ántonia.

After seeing my post on dogs and flowers, you may be asking, “Is she actually reading?” Yes, I am, though not at the rate of many #Readathon-ers who have racked up 5 to 10 books so far. I feel that I never have enough time to read, so I have really been trying to enjoy the Read-a-thon. Also, I got part of the NY Times Sunday paper delivered today, so I had to read a bit of that.

I am closing in on book 3: My Ántonia, a favorite that I am rereading for book group. Oh, I do love Willa Cather! Off to bed with my book, more tomorrow.

 

9:45 Update: Dangerous Distractions

Not only did my rascally dog Baci lure me outside for walks and games of fetch, but every time we came in … she took over my reading spot on the couch!

Dog odalisque.

Dog odalisque.

Today in the mail came the two most tempting junk mail magazines, including the ‘Most Beautiful’ People. I don’t even subscribe to People, so why would the gods of junk reading send this to me today …  of all days. (I do subscribe to Entertainment Weekly—great book reviews and everything else!)

Hard to resist.

Hard to resist … but I did!

 

7:30 Update: Spring Poetry

It has been glorious out today. I’m not going to lie—I snuk out for a few dog walks. But, in keeping with Read-a-thon spirit, I first read one of my favorite spring poems, Today by Billy Collins.

“If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze …”

If you need a poetry break, try these lovely Spring Poems, via the Poetry Foundation. I also savored a reread of Tintern Abbey, by William Wordsworth.

My own azalias are at their peak, but I also saw vibrant forsythias, blooming magnolias, and the last of the daffodils.

azalias

Spring in flowers and poetry.

 

5:50 pm Update: Book Sentence Challenge

I’ve had some fun checking out all the Mini-Challenges as part of the Dewey’s Read-a-thon. Such vibrant book and readerly creativity!

Check out my entry to the Book Sentence Challenge.

 

4:30 pm Update: Two Books Read

Theras

This is a GREAT book for kids!! Educational and so much adventure.

Just as I suspected, I have gone off-piste and selected a book not from my  #Readathon TBR. How can you really know which book you feel like reading until you are about to start?

I chose a children’s classic that was one of my repeat reads as a kid,  Theras and His Town, by Caroline Dale Snedeker.

Theras is a young boy growing up in Athens who has  all sorts of adventures. (It would make a great  Disney film!)

Also, er, I took a nap. Something about allowing yourself a day of reading is soooo relaxing!

 

12:30 pm Update: Got Physical

The Read-a-thon website said “Let’s Get Physical!” I took my dog Baci to the park for an intense game of fetch. She loves tennis balls the way I love books, so I couldn’t deprive her. Also, this is the nicest Saturday we’ve had this spring. Throwing is a good way to open up the muscles and stretch after a morning hunched over my book. I try not to hunch, but one does get sucked in.

Baci Fetch

Baci is indefatigable!

 

11:00 am Update: One Book Read

Yes, I get a buzz from decaf.

Yes, I get a buzz from decaf.

 

One book down–Sinners and the Sea. I’m not reading as fast as some (who have knocked off two or three), but I have been  distracted by all the fun #Readathon updates on Twitter.

Woo hoo, #Readathon has trended to the TOP spot!!! And I am loving reading everyone’s blog updates … I was told that this counts . 😉 😉

Also, had to finally make coffee! Didn’t get to it due to pre-start dog walk and eagerness to get cracking, spine cracking that is.

Now, which book next?!

 

9:15 am Update: Love the first book!

I was so excited about the day of reading that I woke up early at 4:30 am—like on Christmas! Woke up for real at 7:17 am and feeling great after a night of dreaming about books!

I’m starting with Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner—the tale of Noah’s Ark told by his unnamed wife. I had peeked at the first few pages last night. So far I am really liking this book—lovely but spare writing and so readable! I’m on page 217 out of 337.

Book 1 Sinners and the Sea

Bookmark from Barrett Bookstore, featuring their mascot Riley, the Golden Retriever.

 

Friday Preparations: the Stack to choose from … but not limited to!

 

Readathon Stack

My Read-a-thon Stack: mostly rounded up from
independent bookstores and the public library.

I’m psyched for the Dewey’s Read-a-thon tomorrow, Sat April 27. It’s not too late to sign up if you want to join more than 400 bookworms in this worldwide read-in.

Dewey’s Read-a-thon starts at 8am for me, that’s Eastern Standard Time. Here’s a link to all the Read-a-thon Start Times around the globe.

Above is the stack of books I will be choosing from, though I’m not sure I can get through them all. (Unlike most participants who mow through stacks much taller than this!)

I am soo excited to have a great excuse to sit and read … and read and read!! Last time, I Read-a-5k, but hoping to crank tomorrow. More later, as I will be updating as I read…

readathon large Read-a-thon or Read-a-5k?

Dewey’s Read-a-Thon

Dewey’s Read-a-Thon Start Times

History of Dewey’s Read-a-Thon

Remembering Dewey Through Her Words

A Tribute to Dewey

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Kate MiddletonIn an attempt to criticize Kate Middleton, British radio host Sandi Toksvig has dismissed her as being ‘very Jane Austen.’ Now I cannot even begin to fathom how that could be construed as negative, but it gets worse. Toksvig complains of Kate, “I cannot think of a single opinion she holds—it’s very Jane Austen.”

Clearly Toksvig has never actually read any Jane Austen, because her books are almost entirely composed of characters giving their opinions.

In fact, Austen’s novels were actually rather progressive in her day because her heroines were so expressive. Spirited Elizabeth Bennet readily speaks her mind, much to the discomfiture of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who remarks “upon my word, you give your opinion most decidedly.” Mr Darcy notices this also, and it’s one of the things that draws him to Lizzy.

Emma Woodhouse also shares her opinions eagerly, even when, as noted by Mr. Knightley, they are completely off-base. “Mr Knightly loves to find fault with me,” she tells her father. “We always say what we like to one another.” Indeed, Emma dislikes Jane Fairfax precisely because “there was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, [Jane] seemed determined to hazard nothing She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved.”

Marianne dashwoodMarianne Dashwood, aka ‘sensibility,’ is most demonstrative about her romantic ideals. Her sister Elinor, who has more ‘sense,’ is equally ready to counter with arguments for reason. To Colonel Brandon she worries that Marianne’s openness is “setting propriety at nought.”

Also in this novel, the respectable and educated Edward Ferrars realizes that he cannot love Lucy Steele when her letters contain flattery but no substance.

While Persuasion’s Anne Elliot may be reserved, her opinion is well-regarded (except by her unkind father and sister). After Louisa Musgrove’s accident, both her brother Charles and war hero Captain Wentworth turn to Anne for advice and leadership. “‘Anne,’ cried Charles. ‘What is to be done next?’”

Even Fanny Price, the ‘Most Likely to be Voted a Pushover,’ takes a stand when her cousins plan to perform a risqué play. She also, despite enormous pressure, refuses to marry the disingenuous Henry Crawford, which gets her banished from Mansfield Park. Both Fanny and Lizzy Bennet decline financially advantageous proposals from foppish men, despite the very real threat of indigence and homelessness.

If Kate Middleton is like a Jane Austen character, it is because she exhibits a similar tempered resolve as well as much grace under challenging circumstances. Why all this Kate bashing? Ahem, Hilary Mantel.

P and P sistersIn addition to strong heroines, Austen liked to poke fun with a variety of foolish, ill-informed, and opinionated characters. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, though she has never studied piano, determinedly criticizes the finger work, style, and execution of anyone who plays for her. From the tiresome Mr. Collins, to the know-it-all Mrs. Elton, to the pompous Sir Walter Elliot, these caricatures opine confidently, and often nonsensically, on topics they know nothing about. Does this not seem rather like Sandi Toksvig in her disparaging of Jane Austen (and of Kate)? Perhaps it is Toksvig who is the Jane Austen character after all.

British Radio Host Hits Out at Duchess of Cambridge as ‘Very Jane Austen’

Author Hilary Mantel Calls Kate Middleton ‘Plastic’ and ‘Designed to Breed’

Hilary Mantel Defends Kate Middleton Comments

Royal Bodies — A Lecture by Hilary Mantel

Jane Austen Bio and Links via JaneAusten.org

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books as clockI don’t know what it is about ‘Spring Forward,’ but I always find myself reshuffling my TBR pile. During winter, the early darkness and the cold winds prompt me to reach for heavier, atmospheric tomes. I started off November with Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s study of Thomas Cromwell versus Anne Boleyn. I followed that with mostly moody fare like G.R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, and one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Richard III (after they found him in a parking lot in Leicester). Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies feel like winter reading, but the comedies seem more apropos to spring and summer—except of course, Twelfth Night and A Winter’s Tale, which I should really put in my rotation next December.

Now, the changing of the clocks and all that extra daylight are teasing me with spring fever. I’m aching for sunnier, lighter reading. I particularly enjoy reading Jane Austen in the spring. I love the brightness and delicacy of her writing. Over the weekend, I reread Pride and Prejudice (for the 200th anniversary!), which Charlotte Brontë decried as “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers.” But, that’s exactly what I am craving right now: literature that can fill the flower gap while my daffodils inch out of the ground.

One of my ritual spring reads is usually the newest No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel. Alexander McCall Smith’s descriptions of, “the clear and constant sun,” the acacia trees, and Botswana’s dry, dusty plains work almost like a few hours in front of a sunlamp—a literary jolt of vitamin D. I am so vexed that the latest title has been pushed to November. I got a similar escape to desert heat, when I read The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, which takes place in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

The LacunaThis spring, I plan to finally reach for The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about Diego Rivera in Mexico. I’m embarrassed to admit that I will be digging into the hardcover, which I bought ages ago. (Sigh, the perils of the TBR.) Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, The Bean Trees, and Pigs in Heaven are also great reads for the sun-starved.

Finally, spring fever makes me crave page-turners, so both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and the new Sophie Kinsella, Wedding Night, will be at the top of my pile. If only I didn’t have to wait until April for Sophie!

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