Saturday, January 02, 2010

Books that will always stick with you

"We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day." -- Edith Lovejoy Pierce

On Facebook a few months ago, there was a meme on Favorite Books. I changed it to "Books you've read that will always stick with you" and came up with my Top 15. I wrote, “There is a story behind each and every one of these books. They are not necessarily my ‘favorites,’ but they will always stick with me.”

Now, for my first blog posting of 2010, I have decided to elaborate and give the “stories” behind the books:

1. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
Classic Dr. Seuss. One of my first books. What I remember most about this book is “reading” it to my brand new sister-in-law when I was three years old. She really believed (or so it seemed) that I was reading the book to her as I had memorized all the words on each page, and this made me very proud. It made me want to learn to read for real!

2. Blueberries for Sal
I loved this book. Sal and her mom out looking for blueberries up in Maine and a mama bear and baby bear looking for them, too. The goal of the humans is to save them, not eat them (so they can can them for winter), while the goal of the bears is to eat them all right now (so they can have fuel for winter hibernation). The same goal, but with two different means. Imagine the surprise of the two different mamas when they realize their progeny have gotten mixed up! A simple book with simple yet exquisite illustrations by Robert McCloskey, the author of Make Way for Ducklings, another of my all-time favorite picture books.

3. Nancy Drew - The Secret of Shadow Ranch
In second grade, our teacher Mrs. Hardy used to read aloud to us from Hardy Boys books, that I imagine boys in our class brought in. I broke the mold when I brought in a Nancy Drew book for her to read aloud. This was the first Nancy Drew book I ever read, and it was the first Nancy Drew book that our teacher read aloud to our class. Breaking glass ceilings in the second grade gave infinite pleasure!

4. All About: Archaeology
This was a book from the infamous Landmark book series, which, alas!, I believe exists no more. I think I read every Landmark book that was in our elementary school library. This one, though, I selected from our local bookstore for my birthday; I was allowed to pick out any book I wanted, and this was the one I wanted. I was mesmerized by Heinrich Schliemann and his search for the lost city of Troy, by Howard Carter and his exploration of King Tut’s tomb. For years afterwards, I wanted to grown up and be an archaeologist!

5. Rifles for Watie
I. Loved. This. Book. Am not sure how I discovered it, but I think maybe I acquired a hardbound copy at the used book sale that was a part of the annual Clothesline Sale to raise money for our school. I loved stories about young boys going out into the world to become men (maybe because there were no books about young women going out into the world to become women!). I also loved the Civil War. My father used to take us to visit Civil War battlefields whenever we were traveling around parts of the US that had Civil War battlefields, and I was intrigued.

I also liked this book because it was set in the West and covered a part to the Civil War that we rarely hear about. My father was also a big aficionado of the American West. It was like this book melded my father’s love of the Civil War and American Indians with my love for adventure and a good story. And a young person becoming an adult.

6. A Separate Peace
We had to read this book for Ninth Grade English. That in itself should be a harbinger of doom, but I LOVED this book. My kids (some twenty-five or thirty years later) had to read it as well, and they hated it. When I read it at the time, I did not notice the homoerotic parts. Hell, it seems every book we read as kids was homoerotic, but I never noticed it! What I liked about it was the teenaged narrator racked with angst, how he became friends with the easy-going athlete, and the tragedy that ensued. Well, no, I did not like the tragedy; I was very upset by Phineas’ sudden -- and unexpected – death. But I liked the fact that a book could be written from the perspective of a teenager who was as clueless as the rest of us.

7. David Copperfield
Another ninth grade English read. I loved this book because it was LONG and confusing and full of vocabulary words I had to learn. And because it had a host of really neat characters who were weird and mysterious, some evil, some noble, some ordinary (albeit extraordinary in their ordinariness). I think I really came to appreciate Charles Dickens after this book, although there are others of his books I enjoyed far more.

8. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
OK. This was puberty and girls going through puberty and – hello! – NOBODY wrote books about puberty. Except for Judy Blume. What girl can ever forget: “We must! We must! We must increase our busts! The bigger, the better, the tighter the sweater! We must increase our busts!” I liked this book because it was real. It was honest. It talked about stuff pre-teen and teen girls go through when they go through puberty. And I don’t know another author who handled this as well as Judy Blume. I also enjoyed her boy going through puberty book, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, as well as her iconic forbidden young love but, yes, we really have sex book, Forever. I cannot imagine going through puberty without Judy Blume!

9. Gone With the Wind
OK, OK. Yes, this is my all time favorite movie of all time!!! Probably because I love Vivien Leigh. And Clark Gable. And all of the other memorable character actors. And the sweeping saga of the movie itself. But I loved the book, too. Which is quite different in many ways from the movie. I mean, Scarlett has about ten times as many kids in the book. But the point is: I love Katie Scarlett O’Hara, even though she was a spoiled rich girl brat. More importantly, she was a survivor. And she helped her family and friends make it through the Civil War as the plantation era world they knew was destroyed all around them. And she came through the other side. And made frickin’ dresses out of curtains and captured Rhett Butler. I never understood her obsession with Ashley, whom I thought was a weak-kneed wimp. But I admired Scarlett’s fire and strength and loyalty to Tara. This was a heroine full of flaws that you could still root for! Scarlett O’Hara was a woman to be reckoned with.

10. Origins - Richard Leakey
Back to the interest in archaeology and anthropology, but crank it up a notch! I was totally fascinated by the story of how the Leakeys went to Africa and the Olduvai Gorge and sought out, quite simply, the origins of our species. I found this story absolutely fascinating. It reinforced my desire to become an archaeologist/anthropologist.

11. The Snow Leopard
A book that was loaned to me by a father of kids I used to babysit for. A book that completely captured my attention. A real life story of loss and journey and truth set in the mountains of Tibet, by a modern author, Peter Matthiessen. I read this book in high school, and it changed my life. I was enchanted by mythology and the hero and journey myths, and this book seemed to be a modern day rendition of the hero/journey myth. The author had just lost his wife to cancer, and he was on an internal quest, or journey, even as he made a real journey through the Himalayan Mountains in search of the legendary black snow leopard. This book totally captured my spirit and has remained one of my favorite books of all time.

12. The Sun Also Rises
People make fun of me for liking Ernest Hemingway. But I will not apologize. I think the man was a brilliant writer in his early years. Some of his short stories, like “Hills Like White Elephants,” still take my breath away. And I LOVED his first novel. No, I did not truly understand all of it when I first read it as a teenager, but something about his writing sang to me. And I particularly liked how I could compare The Sun Also Rises with his life and his friends and acquaintances and his later memoir of this time in Paris, A Moveable Feast. The Sun Also Rises is still one of my favorite books.

13. The Magnificent Spinster
This was my first introduction to May Sarton. I had an aunt, my father’s sister who was next in age to him, who used to send me books and write me long letters. We would write back and forth and talk about books and literature and writing and life. I am not sure exactly when she sent me a copy of this book. I think it may well have been right after I got out of the Army, when I was a bit at loose ends. I remember stumbling across a May Sarton book in the local public library at about the same time my aunt sent me a bunch of her novels. And I was totally blown away by The Magnificent Spinster. May Sarton was a poet, but she was also a novelist. And it was her novels – about real life families and couples and individuals that caught my attention. The novel that moved me most deeply was The Magnificent Spinster. I went on to read all the other novels by Sarton, but I was also captivated by her numerous published journals. In the end, though, the one Sarton work that moved me most deeply was The Magnificent Spinster, the story of a girl of New England privilege who went on to become a teacher devoting her life to service and education – as told by one of her former pupils, who was by then in her seventies.

14. What to Expect When You're Expecting
I loved this book because it was like a Bible. Or an encyclopedia. I used it religiously. And it was endlessly helpful to me. First as a comfort and source of knowledge as I embarked upon my first pregnancy and then as a handy, reliable reference source and one I was wont to pass on to otWhher newly pregnant women. I also was a devotee of What to Expect in the First Year. Part of the allure of this book was that it took me FOREVER to get pregnant. We were married for many years and went through long periods of separation brought on by the Army and field time and deployments. More than anything else, I wanted to get pregnant and have children. This was something I had intensely desired since childhood, and at one point I thought it might never happen. But, then, after my husband returned from Desert Storm, we conceived our Desert Storm baby. And less than two years after him, our second child. As well educated and trained as I might have been, I knew absolutely nothing about being a mother. I just knew that I wanted to be one. This book was a comforting beacon in the night to me as I embarked on my new career of mother.

15. The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell
My sister sent me this book as a Christmas gift one year. She knew well, I am sure, of my predilection for mythology and stories and symbols. I loved the conversations in this book and one of my lifelong desires would be to have dinner with Joseph Campbell. I continue to be intrigued by story and narrative and myth and heroes and journeys and truth.