This is a guest post from Lee Smith. Her new novel is Guests on Earth. She is the author of sixteen previous books of fiction, including the bestselling novels Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Also the recipient of the 1999 Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her website is www.leesmith.com.
I’ll start out with some books that made an early and lasting impression on me, and end up with some recent great reads. Okay, here we go…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a girl, I absolutely identified with young, plain Jane, all alone in the world, thrown into a mysterious, scary yet romantic situation…Later I would also find myself using this archetypal Gothic plot, one of the most alluring and satisfying ever devised.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
A perfect novel, all about art and time—I love the language, poetic and surprising—I read this every year.
I am putting these novels together because they are both written with multiple points of view—a revelation to me as a young writer. This is a technique I have relied upon again and again in order to tell larger, more complicated stories. (Also, I have to read Absalom, Absalom every year. This is my personal addiction! And every time, I learn something new. It’s like the novel changes as I get older.)
The Short Stories of Eudora Welty—you can get The Collected Stories, or any one of her books.
The Golden Apples is probably my favorite. Reading Eudora Welty for the first time made me understand that simple lives and small, rural community life can be the very stuff of literature. Welty’s stories are often mythic, with indelible images. You can tell that she was a photographer, too. She also made me realize that it’s possible to be very funny and very serious at the same time.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
This novel has always haunted me. Tess’s tragedy is all about class and determinism–fate–strong themes in all Hardy’s work.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Fate and poverty are major themes here, too–along with race, and a young African American woman’s struggle to find her own voice–in this unforgettable novel set in the Florida cane fields. A moving love story, too.
An Appalachian Grapes of Wrath by a truly great and too-little-read writer from Kentucky. This is the novel that showed me that great literature can be written in the beautiful Appalachian language of my own childhood. These are the voices that told me stories as a child, falling asleep in somebody’s
lap on somebody’s porch while they all told stories as night came on. It was a revelation to see that these voices can speak eloquently on the page as well. Suddenly, a lot of the events and people from my own life appeared to me as stories–and not hillbilly hokum either, but truly serious writing.
Recent great reads include:
Life After Life by Jill McCorkle
Jill lifts the veil between life and death in this lively novel set in an old folks’ home where romance and laughter abound…along with mystery. Funny, moving, thought-provoking–written in language that lifts and sings. This novel is the best yet from a wonderful writer.
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
Dark, quirky, hilarious, surprisingly moving–Local Souls is a pure delight. Okay, okay, this is my next door neighbor! He is also one of the best and most original fiction writers in America. These three related novellas are set in the small town of Falls, N.C., but they are universal, along with the flawed yet aspiring “souls.”
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
It’s hard to write a strongly thematic novel like this without letting the meaning overtake the characters, yet Kingsolver succeeds brilliantly. The serious ecological implications of this wonderful novel do not obscure the pleasures of getting to know the main character and her family—and watching her come of age as a woman fulfilling her own possibilities. A great read.
But, oh no! I’ve reached my limit here, and I haven’t even mentioned One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez–or Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines or the short stories of Elizabeth Spencer and Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro…..Dear Life! Be sure to read Dear Life!
What are the favorite books in your library?
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