Bria Sandford is an associate editor for Portfolio, Sentinel, and Current. In her spare time she reads about the Puritans and talks about New Hampshire.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
At a glance, you might think the story of Mildred Lathbury, a young single woman in post-war London, would be a cozy little read and nothing more, but you’d be wrong. Under the surface of this rather conventional story of romantic near-misses, there’s an undercurrent of wry self-deprecation and bitter resignation that’s quite bracing. Pym’s heroine is an “excellent woman,” who lives a quiet life, does what needs to be done, is aware that she’s constantly overlooked, and copes with humor, grace, and just the tiniest touch of despair. I picked this up a couple of years ago when I was looking for a relaxing but smart weekend read, and it nearly threw me into a quarter-life crisis. I’ve not been able to get enough of Barbara Pym since. (I also can’t stop recommending her; while writing this I got a text from a friend saying, “Mildred is driving me crazy!”)
The Sagas of the Icelanders by Various
Come for the largely historically accurate prose histories of Icelandic society, stay for the battles with magicians protected by armies of cats. Most interesting to me were the stories of Icelandic women, who seemed to retain more influence than their European sisters did. Be sure to read about Unn the Deep-Minded, who in old age captained her own ship and moved her family to Iceland, where she freed all of her slaves and spread her Christian faith.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
This Scandinavian epic traces the entire life of a woman in medieval Norway, from her childhood through her years as a wife and mother to her eventual entry into a convent shortly before her death. A group of my friends badgered me for months before I actually gave in and started the enormous tome, and I wish I’d caved sooner. Undset’s theologically and psychologically rich treatment of the themes of love, sin, and grace were life-changing, and her characters will be with me for a long time to come.
Selected Stories by E.M. Forster
I’ve picked this Forster collection solely because it includes “The Machine Stops.” The story describes a dystopian world where everyone has abandoned the surface of the earth to live underground in “the Machine.” In the Machine, people live in climate-controlled pods, where the Machine makes life easy. They communicate with friends and family virtually. No one ventures outside, because “ideas” are more important and interesting than the boring and dangerous outside world–and because the Machine will kill you if you do. For a story written in 1903, it’s a terrifyingly accurate depiction of life in the age of the Internet. If you read it, beware: you may have to delete your Facebook account when you’re done.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I hate reading or watching horror, but I love Shirley Jackson. The terror in her stories builds slowly and in an understated way. There are supernatural figures in her stories, but the really unsettling characters are ordinary people with ordinary motives. And she turns a phrase like no one else–who wouldn’t want to read a book that begins, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
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