If you are the type of person who hates textual analysis…don’t even bother with this one.
A lot of my Facebook friends have been tagging me with a status challenge: In your status line, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard – they don’t have to be the “right” or “great works, just ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.
Normally when I see a tag like this my response is to freak the hell out. You guys know how much I love books. I get paid to read them, to talk about them at length, to dissect them until the skin is torn off and the bones are put into broth. But if you asked me to pick my favorite book I would look at you like you’d grown a second head. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite nephew. It’s also antithetical to my entire personality; I tend to look at my books like most people look at their toes. I’d like to keep ALL of them, please.
It’s not just that the picking of them is difficult. I tend to look at myself as a book hoarder, but at the same time I’m not necessarily sure I’m the best expert about what books are worth their emotional salt. Yes, I know, I’m an English professor and an academic and I’m supposed to read all of the ‘classics’, but it were up to me I’d spend all of my time reading really bad historical fiction. The type that rips bodices and plots intrigue and possibly has a bit of witchcraft involved. Those books you see in the Fiction section that have a midsection of a woman wearing an impossibly beautiful stomacher’d dress, sitting in a way that’s a cross between lounging and being constipated? Those are my jam.
I love books. I love reading them, I really love buying them, and I love looking at them. Bookstores are my favorite place in the world. Last weekend the boyfriend surprised me by taking me to Barnes and Noble after dinner. I was breaking in ridiculously high boots at the time, developing the world’s most painful blisters all during dinner/walking around New Haven, and by the time we got to Barnes and Noble I wanted to saw my feet off at the ankle. Yet I limped around that store for about half an hour like Monica on that Friends episode about the boots, giddy with all the New In Paperbacks and Half Off Hardcovers and all the various versions of Settlers of Catan. When the boyfriend caught me wheezing in pain next to a display of the new Doris Kearns Goodwin biography and asked why in God’s name I didn’t want to go right home and put on Band-Aids – he’s a logical dude – I immediately sucked in my breath and said “I’m fine! I’m gonna go sit in that chair,” and hobbled off until I collapsed with a biography of Catherine the Great.
I am compulsively addicted to reading the way other people are addicted to online gambling. I used to read them under my desk during science class, and my adorable science teacher told my mom at Open House “I don’t want to stop her, because I think it’s so great she loves to read that much.” Mr. Zaccaro, thank you for aiding my total suckage at science and all related disciplines.
Okay, on to the list. I had to do a lot of thinking about some of them. Others came to me easily and fully formed. It’s like writing itself, I wager. Also these are in no particular order. Most of these aren’t ‘classics’, but that’s not the point.
Runner-ups: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, Mythology by Edith Hamilton, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (I know, this is a shocker. But I only read LOTR when I was 16, and the films are the things that stick with me moreso than the books. They’re in my favorite books, but not books that stick with me)
Emperor Mage, by Tamora Pierce. This book is Book #3 in the Immortals series, but it’s the first one that I read. I picked it up in a bookstore while on vacation at the Jersey Shore, and immediately fell in love with the leading character Veraldaine Serrasri (Daine for short). Daine possesses the wild magic of the title, magic that allows her the gift of communication with animals and transform into them. In this installment of the story she meets Emperor Ozorne in the country of Carthak, and continues to extend her powers with the help of her mentor, Numair. I love this book and this series because of its focus on a young female heroine that is intelligent, capable, and strong, and is allowed to make her own decisions and subsequent mistakes. She is flawed, but completely lovable as a result of her flaws, and also possesses great passion and skill. Tamora Pierce’s gift at illustrating heroines was first captured in her famous quadrology Song of the Lioness but this was the first one I read, and it introduced me to the formidable way Pierce builds her world. She also doesn’t really waste time with elaborate descriptions, choosing instead to focus on the characters. The result is a complex and fascinating look at a young girl and her maturation, with her ability to transform into animals becoming a lovely metaphor for the ‘wilds’ of adolescence.
Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume. Now, if you’ve read any of Judy Blume’s YA books such as the Fudge series or Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, you know that Judy is insanely good at capturing both the euphoric highs and the bottom-scraping lows of being a young adult. Summer Sisters takes the best of those books and combines it with the more intensely adult aspects of Blume’s adult works such as Wifey, as well as the innocent explorations of sex Blume famously illustrated in Forever (which is still one of the most sexually graphic books I’ve ever read, and I read Bret Easton Ellis books for fun.). The book tells the story of Vix, who spend several summers together on Martha’s Vineyard at the invite of Caitlin, a popular girl in her class. They begin these summers at 11 years old and continue on until they are about 17 or 18, and the summers are filled with discussions of family, sexual discovery, and friendship. The book continues on to their adult lives as well, with some disturbing and fascinating plot twists. I read this book when I was 13, around the same age as the characters in the first third of the book, and immediately identified with the various situations the girls were going through. What I find also fascinating about this work is that usually the MPDG (Manic Pixie Dream Girl) is someone that changes the protagonist’s life for the better. That happens in some ways, but in a lot of ways Caitlin is shown to be incredibly damaged and unhealthy in her mindset, and Vix ends up being the more interesting character because of her various discoveries about herself without Caitlin. It’s also a fairly interesting discussion about what happens when the wild child refuses to grow up, and the consequences of those decisions. This book is dear to my heart because of the fact that I spent many of my childhood summers at the Jersey Shore, and the way Blume describes being a child at the beach is very close to my own experiences…without all the lifeguard banging that goes on in this text.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I read this book as a senior in high school while taking part in an elective English course called “That 80s Class”, in which we read first novels by several authors whose works are indicative of 80s culture. That class was also the first time I read Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Thomas Wolfe, but Tartt’s incredibly textured story of a college freshman who falls into a semi-Greek, semi-occult secret society obsessed with reaching levels of Pan-like trance in the woods had me at the first paragraph. I can’t even say anything else about the plot; this book demands you work out the twists and turns on your own. I’d call it a Gothic thriller in a way, and the more you don’t know about the story, the better. It also helped that I am completely and utterly obsessed with mythology and folklore, so this story and its heavy usage of those forms had me hooked early. Tartt is also very deliberate and research heavy, and writes one book a decade – her newest, The Goldfinch, came out earlier this year and I’m looking forward to reading it the instant Christmas passes and I don’t feel guilty about buying things.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
This book was in my sixth-grade teacher’s bookshelf of things we could take out, read, and then put back. I “forgot” to put this back on the shelf…sorry, Miss Schiavetti. Looking back, this was a totally inappropriate novel to give to eleven-year-olds; the back cover blurb read What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world marries the most handsome prince in the world…and he turns out to be a son of a bitch? I immediately thought I was committing a crime just for reading the damn thing. But I grabbed it, took it home, read it – in secret, because that back cover was so scandalous! – and completely fell in love with it. I knew instantly that this was something I had never read before, nor would since. The book is framed as a ‘Good Parts Version’ of a much longer text by the fictional author S. Morgenstern, of the country of Florin. Goldman’s narrative is repeatedly broken up by his own commentary, talking about or alluding to chapters or passages he cut out for the sake of brevity, or random tidbits about how he used to read the ‘good parts’ version aloud to his son (which provides us with the linking model of the movie and adorable Fred Savage as the sick kid in bed who hates ‘kissing’ books). Speaking of the movie, I had never even heard of there being a movie adaptation until I was a freshman in high school, and of course I watched it and loved it…but the book is about a bajillion times better. Even now when I tell that to people, they immediately say “THERE’S A BOOK?!” YEP. GO READ IT. Not only is there much more to the stories of Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya (the famous “Hello, my name is…” stuff is all in the book, no worries, as well as all of the famous lines from the movie), the ending of the book is ten times darker than the film, which I think makes it much more of a realistic political commentary style book rather than the fairy tale of the movie. (I still absolutely love the movie, though. Cary Elwes? COME ON.)
A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1 by George R.R. Martin.
Because duh. I was yelled at by many, many people to read this book for about six or seven years by my close friends who are of the same fantastical mindset as I, and for whatever reason I never listened. I’m an idiot. Mea culpa. Honestly, though, I tend to think most of the fantasy that’s being written right now kind of sucks. It all feels dishonest and inappropriately sexual for the sake of T&A, and there’s rarely any depth to it. Game of Thrones was a thrilling rejoinder to that argument. It had tons of political intrigue, and a narrative that never went the way you thought it would go – or wanted it to go, sometimes – but that made the story all the more real. I picked the first installment over A Storm of Swords despite that one being assuredly the most complete and most thrilling of the written series so far because Game of Thrones does such a masterful job of setting up the entire universe of Westeros while also not giving away so much that he leaves no stone unturned. He lets the reader find things out at the same pace as the characters, which I found very refreshing. The last 50 or so pages were among the most shocking I had ever read in any book, and the climactic sequence with Danaerys literally had me sitting up from my prone position on the couch and yelling “HOLY SHIT” over and over. The rest of the books in the series are even more provocative, hilarious, deeply moving, and utterly bonkers. Just don’t spoil yourself for any of it, especially if you want to keep reading the books. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. Seriously, the minute you start reading the books, stay off the Internet. And don’t watch the show until you’re done reading!
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Anne Shirley is my spirit animal. I first read this book when I was about twelve years old, at a time in which Anne and I were very close to the same age, and I immediately felt a kinship with the way Anne talked, reacted to life, and treated her entire experience at Prince Edward Island as a kind of grand romantic adventure. I also found myself profoundly jealous at how Anne could just live her life as an eccentric optimist without giving any type of a rat’s ass about what people thought of her – of course, until it affected Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, and then she was quite contrite indeed. But the rambling way she talked, her quick flaming emotions of either happiness or rage, and the way she would put on plays with the other kids struck a deep chord with me, and I’ve felt myself inextricably tied to Anne ever since. It also helped that her sparring partner and future husband, Gilbert Blythe, was one awesome dude who never wanted Anne to be anything less than totally herself at all times and never wanted to change her. I got a chance to revisit this book as part of a graduate seminar in Children’s Literature last semester, and it took everything I had to not just yell “I LOVE THIS BOOK” over and over again throughout the 2.5 hour class. And yes, I own the complete Anne of Avonlea series as well as some of the apocryphal Anne Shirley material discovered after Montgomery’s death. Whenever I need a shot of optimism and some advice about how to be thoroughly and authentically myself, Anne is my go-to.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.
Bret Easton Ellis’s first book, Less Than Zero, was on the syllabus of the course on 1980s literature I took in high school. I read it, and loved it, and decided to read Ellis’s entire oeuvre. I got around to reading American Psycho several years after I had seen and loved Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation, and was still completely shocked by what I read. Whenever I have a book list of literature that has profoundly affected me, Ellis’s 1990 parody of 80s excess and corporate ‘killings’ is on there without a doubt. That’s not to say this is a text I return to over and over again; this ain’t no Anne Shirley romanticized view of the world. This is probably the most disgusting book I’ve ever read, and I’m including all of the Holocaust and Rwanda testimonies I had to slog through last year for a Literature and Human Rights course. But the grossness is something that suits the overall tone of the book. Patrick Bateman is a monster, but he has thoroughly convinced himself that the need to dominate is merely a way in which he shows that he’s ‘made it’ in the world of finance. The book is darker, funnier, and way grosser than the movie – the movie does a really interesting thing in that until the very end when all hell breaks loose, the killings are only loosely alluded to, whereas in the book the killings are alluded to until about halfway through and then every single murder Bateman commits – or doesn’t commit? – is spelled out in excruciating detail. Take everything creepy about the movie and make it barf, and that’s the overall plot of the text. Is it misogynist and insanely awful? Yes. Is it a commentary on man’s need to ‘nail’ everything? Definitely. If you can get through the first few chapters of non-stop descriptions of everyone’s clothing and technological excesses, you’re home free. Sort of. Just maybe don’t eat anything before getting to the final chapters.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
I swoon over this book. I want to press it to my bosom until the ink rubs off. First of all, the actual words on the page were like nothing I’d ever read before. How can I not fall in mad love with a text that has the line “It was bliss and gorgeousity made flesh. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”? Burgess is a wizard with language, and shows the malleability of words on every page of this classic, which I quite prefer to the film. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ve only seen half the story. Burgess divided his story of a British ne’er-do-well and his band of ‘droogs’ into 21 chapters in order to mimic the maturation of a person from child to adult, and Stanley Kubrick excised Chapter 21 in order to make his film’s ending much bleaker than the original text. Burgess has roundly criticized this move, stating that the entire purpose of the final chapter is to show that man has the capability of redemption. I personally prefer this tone rather than the film’s interpretation, but then again I’m a relentless cockeyed optimist so that’s to be expected. I appreciate the film for the way it depicts a certain style of reckless abandon, but the tone of the text and Alex’s way with narrating his experiences are nearly impossible to translate into a visual and dialogue heavy medium.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Oh, Little Women. I read this at a very young age, or at least knew of the story when I was very young, and instantly knew that this was something I would want to keep with me for a while. Nevermind that I saw the masterful 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder and it still makes me a weeping mess on the floor – you just have to mention “The Valley of the Shadow” track on the gorgeous Thomas Newman score to me or my best friend and we both just start screaming “BETH! NOOOOOO!” This was a book about a group of friends who also happened to be sisters. Sometimes they are awful to each other, but most of the time they stick together and go through life and all of its euphoric highs and devastating lows. My favorite is Jo, which is a stock answer of course because she’s everyone’s favorite, but I felt a connection to her similar to the one I felt towards Anne Shirley. Additionally, this was one of the first books I had ever read where the main guy and the main girl didn’t get together and it was for a reason that now, after reading it again for the first time in a while, is entirely plausible. Jo didn’t refuse Laurie for any reason aside from the fact that she just didn’t love him in the way that he loved her, and as a girl indoctrinated on Disney and the concept of ‘first loves are FOREVER RIGHT?!’, it totally blew my mind and pissed me off as a kid but now I completely get it. Laurie also loved Jo the way that a little boy loves a little girl, and then once he matured and got a bit more adult in his ways of the world, he was able to understand and love Amy in a way that was much different…although that part always weirded me out, I gotta admit. I feel like he just wanted to marry into the March family so much he picked the last one available.
Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola.
I know, this looks like an incredibly hard left turn considering I have works by Bret Easton Ellis and Anthony Burgess on this list. But the Grandma Witch had to be on this list, if only because of how much the entire collective work of dePaola has shaped my life path. I don’t remember how I first read this book; I remember reading it as early as 5 years old, and it ended up becoming the first Christmas present I gave to my nephew three years ago. Additionally, dePaola just came out with a new Strega Nona book and it’s on the list of things I plan to give my godson for this year’s Christmas celebrations. It’s because of dePaola that I was invited to present at the Children’s Literature Association Conference this past year in Biloxi, Mississippi. It’s the book that gave me an idea of my Italian culture, which didn’t really happen that much in my childhood – I went to a school that seemed to be populated with Anglos out the yingyang and girls with middle names that were “normal”, like Lynn or Marie or Elizabeth or Jane. Nobody with a name like Marsiella, that’s for sure. But Strega Nona normalized this feeling for me. I didn’t feel so weird when I sunk into the world of a woman with never-ending pasta, who could get rid of a headache with olive oil and a hairpin, and a foolish assistant who just wanted to look cool for the villagers. Sidenote: I got to meet Mr. dePaola about five years ago at a book signing and it took everything I had inside of me not to just shout “I FREAKING LOVE YOU” into his face while we chatted.
My point in writing this long treatise is – it doesn’t matter what books stick with you, or whether or not they are canonical. The point is, they meant something to you, and you learned something from it, and you carry those lessons or feelings or truths with you.
I’ll see you for a special Christmas post on Tuesday! Go read some books!