Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
It’s been seven years since Diana Gabaldon released a title in the massively popular Outlander series, so you can imagine the fervor surrounding Book 9, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (Delacorte), out today. The NYT-bestselling historical fantasy books, the first of which was published in 1991, number 50 million copies in print in 114 countries. The sixth season of Starz’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated television adaptation, which has been renewed for a seventh season, airs early next year.
At age eight, the Arizona-born, -raised, and -based Gabaldon wanted to be a novelist but went the science route first, getting degrees in zoology (B.S.), marine biology (M.S.), and quantitative behavioral ecology (Ph.D.).
She once wrote comic books for Walt Disney and software reviews and was a research professor in the biological sciences; has two dachshunds named Homer and Lucy; is a night owl; was a reader for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (now called Learning Ally); speaks Spanish; started writing Outlander Book 1 in the parking lot of a church, and owns some 6,500 books*. The dorm Gabaldon Hall at Northern Arizona University is named after her dad, a former state senator. Likes: enchiladas, chocolate, a good bottle of Champagne.
A few upcoming milestones: she turns 70 in January (in her honor, fans are raising money for Latin American orphanage organization Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos) and celebrates her 45th wedding anniversary in February.
The book that…
…kept me up way too late:
Frankly, any good book can do that to me. Most recent is probably Kim Harrison’s American Demon.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
A small, indie-published book called The Secrets Widows Keep by Elva Stoelers.
…I swear I’ll finish one day:
Nah. If I put a book aside after starting it, I’m not coming back.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
You don’t even wanna know. During the last six months of finishing a book, I don’t read anything new, because I can’t afford to be unable to put it down. So at the moment, I have—counting—32 brand-new, deeply appetizing novels waiting to be read, now that the book is done. The one I chose to pick up first, though, is The Less Dead by Denise Mina, one of my very favorite writers.
…I’d pass on to my kids:
When my kids were young—8 to 16 or so—I’d just walk past them and drop a book onto their bed, the sofa, etc., saying casually, “You’ll like this one.” I gave my youngest (at the time uninterested in reading) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, at the age of 13 or so. She fell in. Came back a few days later, saying urgently, “Give me something else to read!” I followed up with Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, and that sealed the deal. This daughter has two small boys, aged 4 and 2, and they collectively own roughly 400 children’s books. I gave my son one of the Redwall books at age 8, and Shōgun by James Clavell at 14. He’s now a successful fantasy novelist in his own right—Sam Sykes.)
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
Haha—Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. It’s hugely immersive, will distract them from any anxiety or insecurity, and will leave them with a reassuring conviction that whatever their own lives bring them, it will be Much Better than driving cattle from Texas to Montana.
…made me laugh out loud:
Lots, but the most dependable has always been The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (or any other of the Bertie and Jeeves series). Totally plausible absurdity done with the highest skill and endless wit.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Actually, most of the books I’d think that about already are (or are being turned into) TV shows… Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie series, which will star Lauren Lyle, the wonderful actress who plays Marsali on “Outlander,” for instance, or Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton. Hmm….oh, I know! The Flavia de Luce stories by Alan Bradley—I think the first title is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Would love to see those on film! [Ed. note: She may get her wish!]
…I first bought:
I’m remembering a line [from an essay] by Jean Kerr: “I buy underpants the way some people buy gin—recklessly, extravagantly.” I buy books the same way—not that I like gin nor even underpants (I’ve had a couple of bold interviewers who asked me (on camera) what color were my underpants? To which I replied, straight-faced, “If I were wearing any, they’d be blue.”). I truly don’t recall my first purchased book—I grew up in a house overflowing with books, visited the library about every third day, and got a few for birthdays. It was undoubtedly something from the Scholastic catalog, though.
…I last bought:
Bloodless by Doug Preston and Lincoln Child. Thirty seconds before that, I bought How Lucky by Will Leitch, and a few seconds before that, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. (BookBub is the Devil, I tell you…)
…has the best title:
That has to be just the first one to come to mind (because how could you choose?), so I’ll say The Nutmeg of Consolation, one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.
…has the best opening line:
I never remember opening lines, so I’ll have to give you the one from Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, since that’s the only one clinging to my shattered neurons at the moment: “There was a stone under my right buttock, but I didn’t want to move.” I grant you, it’s not poetic, but I think it does niggle enough to cause people to read the second line, which is all you can reasonably expect from a first line, no matter how good.
…has the greatest ending:
Lots, but A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving has a great one!
…has a sex scene that will make you blush:
I started reading pornography when I was 15 (the result of novels donated to the annual book sale of the elementary school of which my father was the principal. He didn’t know what some of the books—put in a separate box to be thrown away, as they were <ahem> “damaged” (i.e. missing covers)—were, but I was curious enough to find out). Pretty sure nothing written on a page could make me blush.
…should be on every college syllabus:
The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
…I’ve re-read the most:
Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Mostly because I listen to those in audio form while walking dogs (or standing like a mushroom for half an hour while a patient dachshund stakes out a bush, convinced that there is a rabbit in it), and they have a wonderful reader, Patrick Tull.
…I consider literary comfort food:
Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
…I asked for as a kid:
All About books.
…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
Duck with orange marmalade sauce and German potato salad from Outlander Kitchen: To the New World and Back Again: The Second Official Outlander Companion Cookbook by Theresa Carle-Sanders.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
*Inside Gabaldon’s library:
My core reference collection (Scottish history, medical references, 18th century literature, furnishing, architecture, politics, botanical/herbal references, North Carolina history, geography and sociology, slang dictionaries, period pornography, etc.—the books I keep in the big built-in shelves that my husband had made for my 43rs birthday—total roughly 1,500 volumes.
For the convenience of people who write to me asking for specific references about this, that, or the other, about 10 years ago, I entered those titles—and about 700 more from the books in short-term storage (I go through the office shelves every time I finish a major novel and move out things I think I won’t need immediately for the next one)—into LibraryThing, a bibliographic management tool/site. The key word is “Gabaldon” and it should (I hope) show you everything I’ve got listed. That’s the 2,200 volumes.
I also (separately) have a small personal library in my old family home (where I go to hide out when I need to be Left Alone to write without interruption by dogs, children, and general pests (in which classification I don’t count my husband, but he good-naturedly holds down the fort until I come back). This library is specifically for mystery, science-fiction and fantasy (mostly mystery), and numbers roughly 2,500 books.
If we add in the smaller shelves in the office bathroom that have the Native American history and the Scottish/Irish/Celtic/French/Chinese, etc. folklore, plus the enormous heap of TBR books obscuring part of my office floor, we can easily top 5,000.
Oh, wait. I forgot the lower office bookshelves, which hold the general literature/fiction books, which technically belong to the family as a whole, but they’re really all mine…and the science reference/field guides, and the non-English dictionaries (I have a huge Merriam-Webster Third Unabridged Dictionary on a stand in my office, which I still use on occasion, despite online dictionaries) and French and German reading matter. (I had to have a reading competence in two foreign languages for my Ph.D. (they don’t do that anymore, because everyone publishes their stuff in English now), so I can read—but not speak or write—French and German, but slowly. OK, yeah, call it 6,500. <cough> (I would like to point out that other people in this household read, too, but I’m not counting their books.)
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