One Book I’m Surprised to Enjoy

This weekend I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir by Joan Didion. It sounds hopeful and whimsical from the title but one page in you will realize this is a book about grief. 

The Year of Magical ThinkingI actually knew this going in and I decided to read it anyway. For me, a woman with a curious blend of sunshine and brood, this is an unlikely choice. On the one hand, I tend to want the books I read to be life-giving in an obvious sort of way (sunshine). But I am also capable of work myself into an irrational, breathless fear over nothing. I have a tendency to imagine grief-filled scenarios on my own (brooding).

In high school I once wrote in my journal, I’m in the mood to be depressed. Who says this? Someone who doesn’t need to be reading sad books, that’s who.

Still, I’m learning to be intentional about choosing books to read that I may not at first be naturally drawn to and then giving them a fair chance as  I read. It seems like the healthy, grown up thing to do.

I haven’t been able to put this book down, sneaking in paragraphs during commercials and lapses in conversation. She tells her story in an  immediate and honest sort of way, pulling out ordinary details to describe her unthinkable reality.

To see grief and loss through her experience is for me fascinating, heart-breaking, and strangely comforting. I haven’t finished it yet so it could take a turn, but so far I would recommend it.

Have you read a book you were surprised to enjoy? Or not enjoyed a book you thought you would? Tell us in the comments so we can edit our book lists.


  1. Tina/@teenbug says

    This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while! I heard it was about grief and that is why I have yet to actually read it. But NOW, I’m intrigued.


    • says

      It helps to know up front that it is about grief so that doesn’t come as a surprise. A lot of times books where someone dies is so sad b/c you as the reader have become attached to that person. This book is more about the survivor’s experience moving through the sorrow and the surprisingly ordinary but also irrational thinking that tends to accompany death and loss.

      I can’t yet tell if it would be good to read in the midst of my own grief or not. It seems like it could help a lot of people not feel alone in that space.

      • Wendy Morrow says

        I am reading a super good book that I came across by accident! The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert-an English professor’s journey into Christian faith. It is so encouraging, enlightening and helpful–I saw this book because someone posted on FB that she was speaking at Wheaton and people were protesting–she was a lesbian, liberal professor now wife and mother and classical school homeschooling AND lives in NC AND is with my denomination–so, I was intrigued. Very encouraging and hopeful and helpful–let me repeat…

  2. says

    I read this several years ago and loved it. Joan Didion is a fantastic writer. Even though the book is a heavy topic, there is much to be gained by her use of words, her description of details, how she makes grief accessible.

  3. says

    My favorite show on TV is Call the Midwife, but I didn’t expect the book to be So. Good. The writing is fabulous–really, she could have written books her entire life for a day job. She didn’t start until she was much older–the Call the Midwife series are her memoirs of her time decades earlier as a community midwife and nurse in a very poor, post WWII London community.

    I knew I’d like the book (haven’t read the second two, yet), but I didn’t expect a rating of 5 stars. I only reserve that for very few books. I think I’ve given about 10 books that many stars (in my head? it’s a running thing…) in my entire life.
    If you’ve never watched the show, you have just enough time to get addicted from Seasons 1 & 2 over the next few weeks (on netflix, it’s a pbs/bbc show) before Season 3 starts.
    Sarah M

  4. says

    I just finished, Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett (thanks to one of your blog posts.) I went with the audiobook, which is making everything between Ann & Lucy stick to me so much more than just reading the book.

    I’ve started, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. The way she writes of her life is fascinating. (Though I know her life was filled with much grief.)

    What you said about making up scenarios filled with grief-me too! I’ve been wanting to comment/email you, Emily, but have been too shy, unable to come up with proper words.

    Thanks for this post, finally have me the push to talk about one of my favorite things, books.

    • says

      I’ve hesitated on Autobiography of a Face – haven’t been able to get motivated enough to read it yet, though I’m not sure exactly why. I’m sure I eventually will.

      And I’m so glad you spoke up, Julia! Hope you’ll always feel welcome to do so here. But equally – not to do so. Silence is just fine with me!

  5. says

    I read The Year of Magical Thinking when it first came out via the library. It was a fascinating and brilliant read, heart wrenching and honest. At times kind of ripping your heart and breath away with the sheer reality of grief.
    But in many ways, I think the book is such a gift to have in black and white the levels and depths of grief. It is a book I will always remember and it has helped me to have more insight into grief in my life and in others.
    It is not the most common book to make most “must read” book lists because of the subject matter but it should.

    • says

      I checked mine from the library too – I think I’m going to have to renew it at least once.

      So many of the dates she mentioned (December 2003, January 2004) are easy for me to picture because that’s when my twin girls were born – so I have a strong sense of time and place, thinking of her story unfolding at the same time mine was. It makes it more real somehow.

      • Nancy Lewallen says

        We lost our 7 year old grandson 4 years ago on March 17th…..the grief comes and goes still…..however, I experience Joy in reading about other’s who transition through grief cycles…..A book I have read twice and enjoyed is written by a doctor who lost her son to suicide, “My Son and The Afterlife”…..I would highly recommend it! Never does a mother think her children/grandchildren will go before her! I turn to God mostly for my comfort!

  6. Belinda says

    When finished, please post thoughts. I have friends who are living this right now. If it would help, I’d love to know.

  7. jenn in GA says

    i’ve read that book, and it pulls you in in a strange way. not sure i can say that i liked it, but it was educational.

    the book i’m going to recommend is fiction, and it’s by a first-time author. it’s a YA novel and while it isn’t overtly Christian, it has strong moral themes. i don’t usually care for this genre, but i wanted to read this debut by someone i know locally. i don’t want to share too much because i don’t want to give the plot away. its characters are strong and funny and it’s high school but very smart. it’s called TEMPUS by Holly Lauren. you can get it on Kindle on Amazon for just $3.99! it’s worth it, trust me!

  8. says

    This sounds like something I ought to be reading about now… I’d been wanting to read some Joan Didion but wasn’t sure where to start… Guess I know now!

  9. says

    Emily, I read A Year of Magical Thinking as my husband was dying of cancer. Really weird, I know, but this woman’s suffering echoed my own and supported so many of my own feelings that I felt a bond with her. Ms. Didion’s writing is always raw and honest and certainly this book was an example of that. I’m happy you read it without having grief of your own, but I feel it supports anyone strong enough to handle true emotions.
    I enjoy your work so much and look to it for help often in my journey. Hedy King

    • says

      Doesn’t sound weird at all, Hedy. Makes a lot of sense to me.

      Thanks for your encouragement about my work – I’ll take that as a gift this evening.

  10. Carol says

    Last night I finished reading Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward A Life Of Meaning by Rebekah Lyons. And plan to reread over spring break. She and her husband relocated from the south and started their ministry in NYC. Her personal story crawled right into my heart and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. Highly recommend.

  11. says

    The book “The End of Your Life Bookclub” by Will Schwalbe is a true story about a man and his mother. His mother is dying of cancer. Since they are both very literate they decide to read the same book at the same time and discuss at her chemo appointments and during the times she is bedridden.

    This book was recommended to me by a senior editor at a large publishing house. I’ve enjoyed all her recommendations so I knew this one would be good. Surprisingly, even though it’s a book about a dying mother, it left me inspired. You won’t believe all the adventures this woman had and you’ll be touched by the books they read together.

  12. says

    I remember Roger Ebert used to say that good movies about depressing topics aren’t depressing, bad movies about uplifting topics are depressing. I think that applies to writing as well.

    My mom read and loved Magical Thinking. She has since passed away from breast cancer, but there have been many times I’ve recalled our conversations about the book and in some strange way that’s been a gift—like she was able to talk to me about this terrible time, because that is what’s especially hard—not being able to process this over the phone with her as I was able to almost everything else in my life.

    Two books I was surprised to enjoy…one, I admit, was yours. I shouldn’t have been surprised—because I so enjoy your blog, but I sometimes feel an imposter here as I consider myself a Catholic-Buddhist and I have so often read modern Christian writers only to feel keenly that I am not their intended reader.

    The second was A Pattern Language by architect Christopher Alexander. It is about intuitive design in city planning but much of it is about home design—very short chapters eg: on the difference having windows from two different directions make in a room. I can’t describe it well, but it is now one of my all-time favorite books. I bet your sister would love it as well as you!

    Lastly…I also loved Truth and Beauty, and it lead me to read Lucy’s Autobiography of a Face and to one of my all-time favorite quotes:
    “I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.”

  13. says

    Emily, I just wanted to drop you a comment to let you know I just finished reading “A Million Little Ways”. Can I say I loved-loved-loved it? Yes, I did. It is marked up with a green highlighter. I am sending some love your way on Friday on my blog. I hope my readers pick it up and find it as inspiring as I have. Thank you! Jeri

  14. says

    My daughter has been begging me for weeks to read Hunger Games and the thought of it made me nauseous. I still have nightmares about Mrs. Garvey, Mary’s baby and that wretched fire! I couldn’t leave Spence to sort out the darker themes on her own though so I picked it up last week and had nothing short of a hissy fit (ridiculous) before I finally cracked chapter one. It was like trying to look away from an accident. I absolutely didn’t want to enjoy it but I’m already halfway through Catching Fire.

    Any chance of a top ten title post soon?

  15. JuliaC says

    Emily, I found your book yesterday at our bookstore, and sat in the floor to read at least an hour before going to the check-out. Your words were surely shown to me by God’s Providence in answer to my prayer as I wonder about His plan in my life. This is such an inspiration for my Lenten journey this year. Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your books and blog. The complimentary download, 7 little ways, inspires me to look for A Million Little Ways.!

    • JuliaC says

      Oh, I am reading Grace for the Good Girl and it’s the subtitle that really jumped off the shelf at me!

  16. club20 says

    There is a line from a Doctor Who (older) episode where a character says, “Sad is happy for deep people.” It resonated with me, and this blog post reminded me of it!

  17. says

    Emily, I was so surprised to see this as the book of your post title because I am reading it RIGHT now. It is so raw and immediate, as you say. In fact, I was stunned to see that the book’s copyright and the dates of Didion’s losses & traumas were only 2 years apart. It’s hard to imagine the sort of gut-level honesty and presence of mind needed to write grief and confusion with such clarity. I’ve never read Didion before, but now feel I’m seeing mention of her everywhere.
    I always look forward to reading your posts. Thank you, Emily.

  18. says

    I read this book in the midst of grief in the months following my own dads death from a heart attack. I could not put it down. How she managed to put pen to paper with such clarity amazed me. It helped me process my own grief and gain perspective – somehow it soothed me to know I wasn’t alone in processing the sudden void death had left.

  19. Angela says

    I’m reading The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and surprisingly loving it. I’ve never been much for historical fiction, but this has caught my attention. The writing is captivating and brings you into the story. I highly recommend it!

  20. says

    Lost in the Middle by Paul David Tripp – a book I picked up on my husband’s night stand. I thought it had to do with midlife crisis… I was curious what people in that stage go through since I’m such a long way off!! 😉 ha!! But apparently not as far off as I thought! So many things that applied now and so much more than just a mid life book!! Love it and recommend to anyone no matter the age.

    And Call the Midwife- yes!!! Saw that mentioned in a comment above. So good!!!

  21. says

    “Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.” ~ Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish…

    I loved “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis.

    I so deeply believe loss wakes you up to living.

    I’ll have to check this out…thanks.

  22. says

    Your comment about being in the mood to be depressed reminded me of one of Pablo Neruda’s poems:

    And so
    give me
    your black wing,
    sister sadness:
    I need the sapphire to be
    extinguished sometimes and the oblique
    mesh of the rain to fall,
    the weeping of the earth

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