Joyce Maynard: TOP TEN BOOKS

Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard has written ten novels, including To Die For and Labor Day, both turned into acclaimed movies, and most recently Count the Ways, an epic portrait of an American family over four decades as it navigates a devastating accident against the backdrop of historical events and shifting  social attitudes. Maynard’s 2017 memoir, The Best of Us, tells the agonizing story of her second husband’s battle with pancreatic cancer – a battle he lost. But she is best known for her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World, in which she wrote about her teenage relationship with J.D. Salinger, in the process soliciting – in her words – near universal condemnation from those who felt she had sullied a great writer’s reputation. In a 2018 essays for The New York Times, she wrote that the vicious reaction “did not destroy my career or my emotional well-being, but it came close.” Accused by one critic of “oversharing” she offers a pithy response:  “It’s shame, not exposure, that I can’t endure. I’ve lived with so much of it. It’s the things that people don’t talk about that scare me.”

Below are Joyce Maynard’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set.


Time Will Darken It

William Maxwell
Published in 1948, this deceptively quiet, exquisitely subtle novel follows the story of a lawyer and his pregnant wife who allow a group of difficult houseguests to move in with them for what proves to be an increasingly challenging visit that nearly destroys their marriage. For many years an editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell may have been best known for applying his skills to the fiction of others. I have always wondered why his work—real, true, generous and wise—is not better known.  What he creates here is a portrait of a small town in Illinois shortly before the first World War that captures a moment in time, long past.
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Kent Haruff
Though set in an utterly different world—the high plains of Colorado—and a different time (closer to present days), Haruf’s lyrical, big-hearted  novel stands as an interesting companion to Time Will Darken It. Like Maxwell’s work, this one offers the portrait of a small town and a set of characters—a pair of aging bachelor brothers tending their ranch, a pregnant girl alone in the world, a sad high school teacher whose wife has left him, a pair of teenage boys in trouble—who find it difficult to tell each other what they long for and need, and, for their silence, risk missing out on love.  I love the way Haruf brings these apparently unconnected individuals together, and what their connections offer in the way of redemption.  I have gone back to this book again and again, often just before starting a new novel of my own.  I learn something new every time.
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Studs Terkel
Back in the nineteen sixties, radio legend and oral historian Studs Terkel set himself a seemingly impossible challenge: to capture, through a series of wide-ranging interviews, the voices of a vast array of American workers—farmer, librarian, stone-cutter, professional baseball player, nun—speaking about their jobs. Studs Terkel himself remains silent in these pages; he yields the stage to his subjects, whose testimony explores not simply how Americans earn a living, but more so, the meaning of work, and what our work means beyond providing a paycheck. As a one-time journalist, I understand well the importance of the interviewer in bringing out a subject’s stories. As a writer of fiction, now, I use Terkel as a reference—more valuable to me by far than a thesaurus—that informs me of lives and experiences outside of my own, and the language of those who live them.
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The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank
We all know how Anne Frank’s story ended, though that part isn’t documented in the diary. Still, this is a hopeful book, written by a true optimist. For much of my life, I’ve kept a postcard of her tacked over whatever desk I occupied at the time, to remind me of how lucky I am, to be alive, and writing. I often imagine what Anne Frank might have created, given the chance. What’s my excuse not to try my best?
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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston
Though this dazzling novel is now frequently assigned in high school and college English classes, it was out of print during my own young days. Back in 1971, when I entered college, there was not a single course in the Yale Blue Book on African American literature. The name Zora Neale Hurston was unknown to me. Forty-eight years later, when I returned to college as an undergraduate (having dropped out at age 18, the first time around), I took a class in literature of the Black South. This novel—painful, horrifying, heartbreaking, funny and true-- overtook my imagination for weeks, and remains there still.
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Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel García Márquez
What could be more romantic than the story of a man who holds true to his passion and devotion for the woman he loves for his entire adult life? For me—an incurable romantic—this is the ultimate love story.
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A Wilderness Station: Collected Stories 1968-1994

Alice Munro
Choose any collection, you can’t go wrong. Over her long and brilliant career, Alice Munro populated a world of strange, troubled, damaged, unique and somehow also universal characters, set them into motion and let them live on the page. She never wrote a novel, and never needed to. I love the form of the short story—love Mavis Gallant and Shirley Hazzard and Laurie Colwin and Tillie Olsen, Jhumpa Lahiri (hmmm…. all women here)—also James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, Chekov, of course. But the one to whom I return most frequently, as a student, is Munro.
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Charlotte’s Web

E.B. White
Some might call this a children’s book, and that’s when most of us first encountered it. But if you haven’t read this one for a while—or never did (in which case, lucky you: there’s a joy awaiting) –discover it as an adult!  Set on a farm in Maine (once again, I’m drawn to small town American life), and featuring an unlikely cast of characters that includes not only the Arable and Zuckerman families—most importantly, a young girl named Fern-- but also a rat named Templeton, a pig named Wilbur, and a very wise and literate spider named Charlotte, White is looking at nothing less profound than facing the prospect of our own death, and that of those we love.  And he manages to do so with tenderness, humor, common sense as well as wisdom.
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Goodnight Moon

Margaret Wise Brown & Illustrated by Clement Hurd 
I know, it’s just a picture book. And Monet just painted a lot of haystacks, and the Shakers just made some chairs. But if you ask me (and come to think of it, you did), one of the highest achievements of work that achieves the standards of art with total simplicity. I read this book a few thousand times to my children when they were very small. I started them on Goodnight Moon before they even knew what the words meant. Even then, though, this little volume—first published in 1947—possesses an almost magical quality that can calm a crying infant, from the pure sound of the words.
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Several Short Sentences About Writing

Verlyn Klinkenborg
"Imagine it this way,” Klinkenborg says.  “One by one, each sentence takes the stage.  It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.  Then it leaves the stage.”  I pretend, as I read these words, that I am this sentence, stepping away when I reach that last word.  “It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one down,” the author goes on to say.  “It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience or pause to be acknowledged and applauded.”  Once again, I pretend I’m the sentence (the bad kind) that does precisely this. The list is long, of books about how to write better.  A few (Stephen King’s On Writing comes to mind) are really terrific.  Out of all of them, this one’s my favorite. I can just about guarantee that following Klinkenborg’s advice will make anyone a better writer.
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