Staff Picks, Part I: Maria

Monday, Jun 01, 2015

“What’s your favorite book?” is a question booksellers get used to hearing. And for the type of brainy bibliophiles who end up as booksellers, it’s a frustrating one. “How can I pick just one?!” We love so many books, sometimes we just go blank in the face of this daunting question. We look around the room in a panic for a book we like to just jump off the shelves and save us, or we mumble awkwardly about how there’s just so many….

After the success of our “Banned Book Wall” display for the last couple months, we have now launched a “Staff Favorites Wall.”  Stop in the store and browse 10 or so favorite picks from each of the four people you find behind the counter at Underground Books: Maria, Megan, Miranda, and Josh.  These are our responses to the question: “What are 10 books that are memorable for having some kind of impact on us as readers?” Many of them are titles that spoke to us at different points in our lives, and may not be our current favorites. We captured a kind of “highlights of our individual reading histories.” In case you can’t stop by the store to browse our selections, we’ll post one of our individual lists each week for the next month. First up is Maria.

Maria is our Swedish intellectual. You’ll find her at the shop most Sundays from noon to five, shelving books furiously to compensate for the rest of us slackers, or battling neglected dust bunnies. When she isn’t at Underground Books, you’ll find her working at the local Farmer’s Fresh CSA, building her tiny house, or nose buried in some heavy volume of Russian literature or other brilliant giant of classic literature.  We love Maria for her gorgeous, brilliant, dreamy, wise, philosophical mind. You can also catch Maria at her and her wife's blog Tiny House Big Dream, where they detail the creation of their beautiful tiny house in the woods. Maria is currently at work on a book about their tiny house adventure.

Maria_1Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

It was one of the first books that really impressed me, I must have been fifteen when I first read it. I remember thinking that he (Dostoyevsky) truly saw the human mind in all its wretchedness and paranoia, but also in its ability for redemption and glory. Moody and gloomy—it seemed about right to my teenage mind, but also held in it a warning crawling from the gutters: “Beware, beware.” The Karamazov Brothers and Notes from Underground are also fighting for a place among my all-time favorites.


War and Peace by Leo TolstoyMaria_2

Despite opening with a couple of hundred pages of war battles and ball scenes, it is probably the best book I ever read. Somewhere half way through the 1200 pages, I felt my spirit elevated, my back straightened, and I thought that it was perhaps not too bad to be a human, after all. Besides being somewhat of a historical chronicle, it reads as Tolstoy’s philosophical opus. If you only plan to read one book by Tolstoy, I recommend War and Peace over Anna Karenina, which I didn’t find nearly as philosophically interesting.



Mrs. Dallaway by Virginia Woolf

I have a huge crush on Virginia Woolf, whose intellect shines through everything she ever wrote. Mrs. Dalloway was probably the first book of hers that I read, and it captivated me from page one with its cleverness and poetic prose. To follow Mrs. Dalloway for a day is to travel inside someone’s consciousness, which could easily be tediously intimate, if it wasn’t for the fact that Woolf is anything but sappy or redundant. To the LighthouseBetween the Acts, and A Room of One’s Own are all high on my list.


Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Bead Game by Herman HesseMaria_4

I really can’t pick one of them…I discovered Steppenwolf first, and loved the existential theme, which was hugely influential, but then Siddhartha spoke to my Buddhist inclinations, and The Bead Game tickled intellectual aspirations. All together they spoke to my longing to transcend and grow out of a fettered “normal” life.


ThMaria_5e Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This is also a book that I have read more than once and whose heroine, Isabel Archer, speaks to my heart. It’s a coming of age story, a story of freedom and individuality pitted against the restraints imposed by money, class, gender, and moral codes. It is beautiful world moving in between the old English society and the new America, a world of aristocrats, country houses, and trips to Italy—all tainted by greed and social ambition. The psychological portrait is one of the most pitiless and most interesting I’ve come across.


Walden by Henry David ThoreauMaria_6

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I had heard the quote long before I read the book, and was predisposed to love it without glancing between the covers. Thoreau is my curmudgeonly friend who refuses to accept anything but a full and authentic life. His Walden is poetic and quiet, and feels like home.


Maria_7The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

Like Marquez, another one who should really be on my top list, Allende is a magical storyteller, and The House of Spirits oozes with rich characters, magical realism, and epic family lore. This was the book that made me think that I could never write a story as full and brimming with life as this one…and then really, what’s the point of writing at all? I fell in love with the character Clara, so stubborn and strong, loving and wise, quirky and wonderful.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan KunderaMaria_8

This is probably my most frequently re-read book. Philosophy, love, eroticism, Prague, revolution, art, loss—it has all I ask for in a novel. It is clever, fun, and sad, but not in a maudlin way. You feel the book, and you feel with the characters, but the weight comes from the fleetingness of things rather than from their importance.


OrMaria_9yx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A new favorite, Oryx and Crake, a speculative fiction about a post-apocalyptic future in which most humans have died, and a new race is created. (Did I say too much?) This is one of the most juicy, smart, fun, scary and captivating books around. Atwood’s future sounds like our reality amplified, and with a triangular love story, and the apocalypse upon us, this is a book to discuss over coffee. Glenn/Crake is one of my all-time favorite characters, who it is easy to feel conflicted about.


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal Maria_10by Christopher Moore

My last book on the list is really just for fun. The title says it all, really. An absurd account of Jesus/Joshua’s coming of age through the eyes of his best friend Biff. Despite the outrageous language and sacrilegious themes, it is actually rather sweet, and you can’t help but love Joshua. He’s the best.



Maria_11The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I’ve recommend this book to all my friends. It is a great story that is epic yet personal, with a sweet and tragic love triangle, loss, war, and escapism. It feels like a boy book and smells of cigarettes, N.Y.C., and comic books. I love Chabon’s use of language and his amazing vocabulary—it is not often that I need a dictionary when I read fiction, but I want to have one ready whenever I read his books. Kavalier is another one of those long-legged, broody, character crushes… For the slightly younger (or not) audiences I recommend Chabon’s Summerland, which is the best adventure you’ll ever be on. (Note the Coyote, a superb villain.)


Tune in next week for a peek at Miranda's favorite books.