Books We Can’t Quit: Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy

Harper Perennial
236 pages, $14.99


Review by Megan Culhane Galbraith


Just when I needed it, when I’d planned to write about Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, for “Books We Can’t Quit,” the book quits me. I couldn’t find my 1994 edition in my own bookshelves (had I loaned it to someone?), I went to the Saratoga Springs library and it was listed as “lost” in the catalog. I found one copy, a reprint, and the last one on the shelf at a local, independent bookstore. How, I wondered, could I have allowed one of the most important books in my life to vanish?

Was this a metaphor for what Grealy’s book has meant to me? Why has it haunted me since I first read it in 1994?

Autobiography of a Face is an excavation of Grealy’s soul. In it, she dissects the pain endured by multiple surgeries to her face as a result of a Ewing’s Sarcoma discovered when she was just nine years old. Skin grafts, bone grafts, tissue expanders, chemotherapy, and radiation, these are all physically painful, but it was the emotional agony that resonated with me: her throbbing, metaphysical pain. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard




Review by Martha Anne Toll


I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


Harper Collins Publishers

336 pages, $25.99


Review by Amanda K. Jaros


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a book that has never gone out of print, is a particularly relevant story right now. This year, the book marks its 55th anniversary and is being celebrated in concurrence with the publication of Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. Despite this much-anticipated release, I find Mockingbird significant today not so much because of Watchman, or the fact that it continues to be a staple of high school English classes, but rather, because every time I turn on the news I see stories of prejudice as our society continues its struggle for racial, sexual orientation and gender equality. Though Mockingbird was first published in 1960, in many ways it could have been written last week.

The story revolves around Scout Finch, an eight-year-old tomboy who spends her summers playing outside with her older brother Jem and their friend, Dill. The three play-act scenes of the townspeople’s quirky habits, they sneak out at night to lurk the neighborhood, and they are obsessed with their reclusive, and unseen, neighbor, Boo Radley. Radley is a phantom of speculation who inspires both fear and fascination in Scout. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Read-Aloud Poems Every Young Child Should Know, edited by Marjorie Barrows




Review by Susan Marque


I have been thinking a lot about home recently. The lack of having one, and my fourteen moves in the last four years, to various short-term rentals, which means I have few possessions. A thin, light green hardcover remains a symbol of home for me. It is one of the items that has always been with my parents, alongside a vase from my grandmother, and a numbered Lichtenstein lithograph. My parents have lived in six houses, in four states, taking a smaller amount of things with them each time they move. I have yet to own a home, have nothing in storage, and travel light.

Read Aloud Poems Every Child Should Know is out of print, but a couple of originals can be found. My mom sent me our brittle copy in the mail so that I could take a look at the poems again. (She made sure that I promised to send it back before my next move, wrapped it in tissue paper, and told me to do the same on its return.) Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: What begins with bird, by Noy Holland



167 pages, $16.95


Review by Brynne Rebele-Henry


Noy Holland’s 2005 story collection What begins with bird is a catalogue of conception. The female characters are a host of surrogates charged with the rearing of their own wombs, babies both imaginary and not, and the men are damaged bruisers, temperamental, mentally unstable fathers unaware of their growing broods, lumberjack drop-outs, quick to lose control. Tinged with love and the catatonia and soreness of afterbirth, Holland’s prose forms an ode to the lilt, bulge, hobble, and gilded calamity that is pregnancy, the fallopian galaxy of it, and to the burlesque that is parenthood. Holland frequently uses the garden of fertility as a metaphor— the stunted growth of roots that result in insanity, the barren ovaries of plains and mountains and the hardships of existing in a body—and equates the tangles of birth, abortion and menstruation to winter, when trees strip their own leaves in a form of reincarnation. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


Little, Brown and Company

224 pages, $24.95 hardcover; $8.99 paperback


Review by Lisa Rabasca Roepe


I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school and I was best friends with one of our class outcasts—a boy, much like Holden Caulfield, who was misunderstood, who was smart but yet managed to be failing most of his classes, and, like Holden, was kicked out of school. Although, unlike Holden, my friend’s departure from school was only a temporary suspension brought on by him setting a fire in the guidance counselor’s office in an ill-fated attempt to destroy a test he had failed miserably.

 At the time, this book showed me it is OK to be an outcast, and Holden Caulfield, with his dislike of phonies and movies, and his concern for the ducks in the lagoon in Central Park South and his friend Jane Gallagher, became my hero.

 The novel follows three days in the life of Holden Caulfield. Many have speculated that Holden is telling the story to a psychologist while inside a mental institution. “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy,” Holden says.

 His tale begins on a Friday night, the weekend before Christmas break, and just after Holden has returned from New York City with the fencing club. The team had to forfeit their meet because Holden, their manager, left all the equipment on the subway. We also learn that Holden has been kicked out of Pencey Prep for failing every class except English, and it’s the third school he’s been asked to leave. His history teacher, Mr. Spencer, asks Holden if he has any concerns for his future. “Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right.” Holden says. “Sure. Sure, I do. But not too much, I guess.”

 Holden goes back to his dorm room and goes to the movies with friends, even though he hates movies. It seems like a normal Friday night on campus until his “handsome roommate,” who is on a date with Holden’s friend, Jane Gallagher, comes back to their room. They get into a fight and Holden decides he’ll just leave school early, go to New York City, check into a hotel for the next three days and then go home.

 Over the next three days, we see Holden struggle with loneliness and depression (“I was feeling sort of lousy. Depressed and all. I almost wished I was dead.”) Eventually he sneaks home to see his sister, Phoebe, and leaves a note for her saying that he is moving out West and asking her to meet him at the Natural History Museum so they can say goodbye. Phoebe shows up with a suitcase and says she is going with Holden. Holden’s story ends with Phoebe on the carrousel and Holden standing in the pouring rain watching her and crying because he was “so damn happy.”

Since high school, I have probably read this book a half a dozen times. I have devoured everything else by J.D. Salinger—Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise the Roof Beam, Carpenters—at least twice. I feel the same way about books as Holden does, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

 When I was younger, I wished I could have called J.D. Salinger and discussed Holden with him and told him about my friend who reminded me of Holden. I wasn’t aware of J.D. Salinger’s history with young girls and, in fact, I didn’t know about it until I attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and our teacher had us study For Esmé—with Love and Squalor. A few of the students were offended and refused to read or discuss the piece. I remember being annoyed with them because I just wanted to learn how to write like J.D. Salinger. Who wouldn’t?

 It wasn’t until last year when I read My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and Salinger, the 720-page biography by David Shields and Shane Salemo, that I started to feel creeped out. The story of how a 53-year-old Salinger wrote a letter to Joyce Maynard after reading her article, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life” in The New York Times makes me uncomfortable, especially since she dropped out of Yale to move in with him. Maybe she wanted to learn how to write like him, too.

 But I can’t turn my back on my one of my favorite literary heroes, Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is a book that, regardless of its author’s life, I just can’t quit.



Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer living in Arlington, VA. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Mid, Mommyish and Good Housekeeping.

Book We Can’t Quit: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell


451 pages, $12.00

Penguin Classics


Review by Julienne Isaacs


Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively unsung Victorian novelist, at least compared with Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. Like her contemporaries, Gaskell uses the marriage plot as a vehicle for female self-actualization and empowerment. But in my opinion, she surpasses them all.

Eliot has a superior knowledge of politics and a shrewd sense of community life, Austen has an ungodly talent for drawing-room drama, and the Brontës infuse gothic panoramas with intense sexual energy. These elements are present in Gaskell’s work, too, but she adds a generous social ethic and a talent for complex human drama. In North and South, Gaskell makes social concerns the core of a love story that is wonderfully readable more than 150 years after its publication. This is a novel I can’t quit, and can’t even skim. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers

Houghton Mifflin Company
176 pages, $7.95

Review by Sara Watson

It is Frankie who compels me, with her particularly gloomy and yet somehow charming brand of adolescent anguish, to pull this book from my shelf again and again. And it is every exquisite sentence that keeps me reading through to the end. Check out this opening, easily one of the most beautiful in all American literature:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War, by Magda Denes


W.W. Norton & Company
384 pages

Review by Désirée Zamorano

The Girl Who Lived

Nearly twenty years ago I picked up Castles Burning, A Child’s Life in War. It seared me as I read it; I did not put it down until I had finished it. Since then, each time I hear of war in the world, whether in Syria or the Ukraine, the Boko Haram or Iraq, I think of it again.
In the opening paragraph Magda Denes recounts how she as a small child begged for stories from her older brother, Ivan, stories they both loved: “The tales were always intrinsically just. They progressed from peril to joy; they spoke of an ordinary predictable world, where the virtuous were rewarded and the wicked were punished…Losses were restored and the near dead revived. Lack of caution was not a fatal error.” The author has announced precisely what this tale will not be.

Magda Denes’s ferociously unsentimental memoir starts in prewar Budapest in a Hungarian family of nearly aristocratic proportions. Within pages we watch the secular Jewish family move swiftly from a household of more servants than family members to the impoverished tenement apartment of Magda’s begrudging grandparents. The reason for this sudden change of lifestyle? The father sold all of their possessions to pay debts, buy 12 suits, 45 shirts, as well as first class passage for himself, and himself alone, to flee to America. From this first abandonment, our hearts are with this little girl. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, 1968


Vintage Books

384 pages, $11


Review by Gabriel Gilbert


I can’t quit Albert Camus’ lyrical essays. Better known for The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger, his lyrical essays differ in that they read more like prose poetry. I found his essays by chance around the same age Camus was when he wrote them—in my mid 20’s. What’s hard to quit is the fact that he writes in the language of someone sensing the end of youth.

Camus confesses in the preface that “there is more love in these awkward pages than in all those that have followed.” That love takes on the form of an urgent yearning for the past. Camus senses that life is fleeting, yet nothing escapes him. The sun bleached beaches and ancient Roman ruins in Tipasa—his home—serve as Camus’ muse while he struggles to catch his breath in search for that place where “his heart first opened.” His prose is biting. He contends with a world where war has robbed the young of innocence and life. His essays are underscored with a certain elegy. Continue reading