Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Books and authors

I wrote this in my private journal awhile ago and meant to transfer it to this blog eventually. Many other things got in the way, however. Then, this morning, I was thinking about books I’ve read over the years and ones I couldn’t remember titles to for a long time. And I remembered this entry:

"So much of who I am came from the time I have spent with authors, characters, settings…books. I work in a local library, so I spend a great deal of time around books. It’s something that makes me extremely happy. While shelving in the adult fiction section last night, I wondered if I had read at least one book on every shelf: A-Z. Thus, this list was born. I tried to narrow each letter down to one particular book or author who had really influenced me, but that proved more than a little difficult. And for some letters, it was quite trying to even name one author I had read anything by – much less, anything that was especially meaningful. Don’t believe it? You try. In any case, I allowed myself a few authors for some letters, just because I could not narrow it down.

Atwood, Margaret – The Robber Bride: When I first read it in 1995, I was a senior in high school. I had read a review of it in my favorite magazine at the time, Sassy and because I trusted their opinion (they had yet to steer me wrong), I gave it a shot. And immediately, I fell in love. Atwood’s sentences are so lush that I want to eat them. Her characters are so perfectly developed, you could easily be standing in a room by them. Which, in this case, is a little scary: Zenia was a force to be reckoned with, wasn’t she? But then, so were the women who hated her – which was why I couldn’t help but love all of them. And that, m’dears, is the making of a great novel.

Alexie, Sherman – I’ve read a lot of Alexie’s poetry and have been left speechless, painfully moved, and breathless. I’ve seen the movies “Smoke Signals” and “The Business of Fancydancing” and felt a kinship with him, too. I loved The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, too, but felt it was a slightly slow read. Then a friend introduced me to Ten Little Indians. Besides leaving that song stuck in my head for an eternity (“one little, two little, three little Indians…”), it left a giant gaping canyon in my heart. Prose so alive and beautiful you could weep and characters so real you felt like you had spoken with them yesterday. I recently saw Alexie read at the local B&N. It was a moment of ecstatic happiness for me – he was just so funny, nerdy and terrific. Just like I thought (hoped) he would be.

Berg, Elizabeth – Talk Before Sleep: I’ve read quite a few of Berg’s books, actually. I’ve read Range of Motion, Open House, Durable Goods and this one. They’ve all been good, and I have to admit that I really like her, which might lower some opinions of me. It’s not high-brow literature. Some might even consider it “chick lit” and since I found the first book I read by her in a supermarket, I can’t blame anyone for scoffing at me. But listen, this woman has a handle on what real people are like. That’s why she’s so accessible; and Talk Before Sleep is one of those great books about death that made me laugh and cry. That’s not something that’s easy to do. If you think it is, you try writing a novel, buddy. Besides all that, Elizabeth Berg lives right here in Chicago (she even came to SPL once not too long ago, but I missed her because I suck).

Carver, Raymond – Will You Please Be Quiet, Please: Raymond Carver’s characters live quiet lives, regular lives with a hint of desperation and sadness. They may be surrounded by people, but completely alone and deep inside themselves. I feel like these characters everyday of my life; when I read Carver’s stories I feel like hibernating under the covers. I feel like taking a plane somewhere where no one knows my name or face. I feel crazy and understood.

Capote, Truman – Breakfast at Tiffany’s: I admit, this is the only thing by Capote that I have ever read. Holly Golightly enchants me to the core – partly because on some level, I think I am her: the hick from the sticks who comes to the city to be someone else entirely? Someone who declares that she believes that everyone is “a little bisexual.” And I bet you thought it was just because my beloved Audrey Hepburn played her in the movie version.

Chabon, Michael – Wonder Boys: Can you say “obsessed?” I admit, I saw the movie before I read the book. But the book is so awesome and perfect. Everything you ever thought about your college writing professors and classmates is all right here. Yes, they’re just as neurotic and addicted and full of you-know-what as you think. And of course, I can’t help but love the fact that the main character is called Professor Tripp. Yeah, I think that has a ring to it.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor – Notes From The Underground: Ever read a book that made you feel guilty for liking it (and liking its narrator)? For me, that’s what Notes From The Underground does. Never have I met a character so compelling and so much of an asshole. He’s so full of himself and feels the world owes him something; he’s intelligent and he knows it. In fact, he probably is more intelligent than many of his peers – and he thinks so, too. Yeah, he’s a real jerk, this guy. And yet, with all his self-centered audacity, I couldn’t help but be interested in the story he was telling.

Eugenides, Jeffrey- Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides: Middlesex was an extraordinarily rich story of several generations of a family whose actions (performed rather innocently, despite what they were) resulted in the mistaken sex of their son. It’s kind of hard to explain – it’s something you have to read to understand. But it’s so funny and the details are so wonderful and vivid, making the story unforgettable.
The Virgin Suicides was the first Eugenides book I read (one of the only two he has published) and just like Middlesex, the details are resonant. But the story itself is quite different – it’s quieter, sort of. Told by the boys who secretly loved and watched over them, the lives of the Lisbon sisters unfold. Everything is told in a voice that is almost like someone telling an often-told fairy tale and the outcome is a story that resonates with anyone who has ever felt unrequited and disconnected. Beautiful and sad…

Fitch, Janet – White Oleander: We’re up to the F’s and I am surprised I made it this far in this endeavor. Yes, this was an Oprah selection. But damn, that woman can pick a book! Janet Fitch is an absolute poet. This is the story of Astrid, a child growing up in the foster system after her artist mother has been jailed for murdering her boyfriend. Astrid is starved for love and will do almost anything for someone else’s affections and attentions. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt like that from time to time. Astrid was a hard character for me not to love, and an even harder one for me to let go of when the book was over. Admittedly, I also loved her seemingly cruel, controlling mother who finds ways to pull the strings in Astrid’s life from jail. Maybe that’s terrible of me.

Gaiman, Neil – Stardust: A perfect fairy tale for adults, this is the story of a boy who promises his crush that he will bring her a fallen star for a kiss. Thus, he goes off in search of the star so that he may collect his kiss – and what he finds is a girl in glowing white, fallen from the sky. Not at all what he (or we) imagined a star might look like, eh? Meanwhile, three aging witches are also searching for the star – and they will even kill for it – in order to restore their youth. By far my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s stories, Stardust is dazzling in way that makes me believe and feel like a kid again.

Homes, A.M – The End of Alice: One of the most heart-pumping, skin-crawling books to fall into my lap, Homes tells the story of two crimes: one that has already been committed and one that is about to be. The nature of the crimes is the creepy and taboo part: pedophilia, pederasty, sexual abuse, child-molestation. Whatever you want to call it, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that all readers will find the crimes themselves despicable. The frightening thing here, however, is that Homes creates two characters that we care about out of two people with a hunger for something we will undoubtedly find revolting. By the end, their roles end up on the verge of being reversed: one character who is free faces possible punishment while the other, having been punished, faces possible freedom. This book scared me and made me think. It made me see people that I would have simply written off as inhuman and monstrous as something flesh and blood.

Irving, John – A Widow For One Year: Another book where the main characters are writers themselves, John Irving’s A Widow For One Year is a look at how our heroes are even capable of screwing up. Here, a young man goes to live and work as an assistant for a writer he admires. The writer and his wife are on the verge of divorce, staying together only at this point for the sake of their young daughter. The rift in their marriage is caused by a tragic event that took place many years earlier. Well, that and the writer’s regular infidelity. During this one summer, the writer, his wife, their daughter (Ruth, who ends up playing more of a part in the story later) and the young assistant interact in ways that change their lives forever. This, however, is only a minute part of the story. Besides an almost predictable affair between the writer’s wife and his assistant, there is the lasting effect it has on the boy: from that point on, he prefers the company of only older women. That is, until he meets Ruth again years later. While there are certainly a great deal of very disturbing scenes in this book and the characters all have somewhat questionable morals, John Irving has a strange way of weaving so many seemingly unrelated stories together into one. This book was the basis for the movie The Door In The Floor, but that movie only tells the tiniest portion of this book. This book is so big and meaty with interesting anecdotes and characters, I wonder why I haven’t really read anything else by John Irving.

Jacques, Brian – Redwall: It took me a terribly long time to think of a single “J” author who had written anything that remained special for me. Then one day, I was shelving in the Youth section of the library and there it was – a book I hadn’t seen in ages. Redwall is the story of a young mouse who is known for his fearful persona and who must become a hero despite this. As in many children’s books, animals act as people and characters are strong, wise and often, either good or bad. I remember reading this when I was about eight or nine and out of school for some reason (I feigned illness a lot as a kid because I hated the kids in my school), sitting on the couch in my parents’ house and devouring in one sitting. What a lovely way to read a book; I miss being young and having nothing but time to read.

Kaysen, Susanna – Girl, Interrupted: Not like the movie at all, Kaysen’s book is actually more like a case study and a journal in one. There is no linear plot; instead, there are chapters that question the medicalization of life and what “crazy” really entails. Occasionally, there is an anecdote about the girls committed to the asylum where Kaysen is living, but no high drama. Characters are not the point – the point is the treatment and what is being treated. I really like nonfiction and memoir, especially when the story coincides with something I think about quite often: mental health care, medication, disorders of the mind.

Lee, Harper – To Kill A Mockingbird: I first read To Kill A Mockingbird because it was on my sister’s bookshelf and it looked interesting. I think I was maybe 12. I remembered my mom talking about the book before, too, and how much she loved it, that Lee had only written the one novel and she talked about the movie, too. Gregory Peck was Atticus, and mom seemed to like him. When I opened the book, I was instantly transported into Scout’s world: a world where fathers were heroes, brothers were to be admired and the scary neighbors weren’t so scary afterall – they were just lonely. Of course, describing the book this way makes it seem like a rather happy novel. It’s not – the characters are filled with fear, loneliness, evil and goodness. But they’re all very real, very southern and very memorable.

MacCullers, Carson – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: This is by far my favorite book on the planet. I have a thing for the beauty of sadness and loneliness. Someone on Doctor Who once said that sadness is “like happy for deep people.” I don’t know if it makes me especially deep, but I tend to lean toward things that make me feel somewhat shell-shocked. This book metaphorically rips my skin off and exposes all my nerves; a book about misfits (as all of McCullers’s novels are), it got me through one of the really rough times in my life. Somewhere in my mind, I am always still there in the pages of this book – that’s how powerful it was for me.

Nelson, Blake – Girl: I lost count of how many times I read this when I was in high school and community college. Told in the teenage tongue of one Andrea Marr of Portland, Oregon, it is a diary-like rambling with lots of “and then this happened” moments. It’s not something that many writers could get away with – trust me, I’ve tried – but Nelson does it with a technique that somehow makes it work. I can’t figure it out. And how the hell did he come to understand teenage girls so well? Andrea goes from being a smarty pants daughter of elderly parents to being friends with hipsters and falling in love with local rock stars. It all takes place in a time when Grunge and thriftstores and zines were the most happening things, and it made me want to be part of something big and dazzling. It made me want to hand out band fliers and go to Portland. And I especially love her friend, Carla. Long live Butt Rock.

Plath, Sylvia – The Bell Jar: How do you talk about someone you love so much and have spent so much time obsessing over? In other words, how can I talk about Sylvia Plath? And how can I talk about her to people who just know her as “the writer who stuck her head in an oven?” Sylvia was so much more – in fact, that’s not who she was at all. She may have been stricken with sadness and hopelessness at times, but at other times, she was so completely alive with words and thoughts and schedules. Just read her journals and you’ll see how amazing she was. I do not glamorize her death – but her life was so brilliant and wonderful and most importantly, her writing was so extraordinary. Words you could see and taste – that’s what Sylvia Plath means to me.
And this, her so-called “potboiler,” was – while not her best work (her poems show much more perfection and skill) in my opinion – revolutionary in what it did. It opened discussion of mental health care and made it less taboo for a woman to be independent and outside the box of what society felt women should be. Which, I know, was not Plath’s intention – Sylvia actually openly despised feminism, not quite understanding that it stood for some things that she wanted for herself. Nevertheless, The Bell Jar did what it did and it is amazing for that.

Palahniuk, Chuck – Trying to choose just one book by Palahniuk that I love and that has changed me in some way is like trying to choose one desert island book to read the rest of your life: it’s hardly possible. I can say one is my favorite, but only until I start really thinking about another. There are a couple I didn’t like too much, but they are few: Diary, for one, just made me anxious and annoyed with the character who just let things unfold without doing anything. But so many of his others are good to the last line, keeping you laughing and guessing all along the way. Subtly, they also make you think. It’s a pretty great combination.

Rilke, Rainer Maria – Letters To A Young Poet: A love letter to the craft of writing and a declaration of devotion to the writing life – I know no other words to describe the letters Rilke writes to his young admirer and aspiring poet. I read this when I was discovering my own talents as a poet and I keep a copy to go back to often and re-read passages from.

Sedaris, David – Naked: Though his subtle and sarcastic brand of humor may not be for everyone, to me, David Sedaris is one of the funniest essayists I've ever come across. His wry and comic look at his family and himself are exactly what I need at times. Naked was the first Sedaris book I read and so far, it's still my favorite (though I have, admittedly, only read one other one). I find myself laughing out loud sometimes reading his anecdotes, and it's such a great feeling. His sense of humor is a lot like my own (though I'm sure he's much funnier).

Tea, Michelle – Valencia: This books is so sexy, sad, smart and rock-n-roll, I want to absorb everything about it.

Urrea, Luis Alberto – Nobody’s Son: The book that made me take Urrea's creative nonfiction course at UIC, it's a powerful and painful look at what it means to be torn between two races and cultures by birth.

Walker, Alice – The Color Purple: I don't know why it is that such a book about such a broken spirit as Celie can make me feel so empowered, but it does. Celie is abused by everyone - the man she thinks of as her father, the man she is virtually forced to marry and his children - and still, she winds up with hope and a future and someone to love. It was years after I saw the movie that I finally read the book and I have no idea why I waited so long.

Wurtzel, Elizabeth – Prozac Nation: My brother actually introduced me to Elizabeth Wurtzel and I went on to read all of her books. This, however, is the first I read and my favorite. It's the one I feel the most kinship, too. Even if you are someone who has never suffered from depression, you will understand it when you read this. And if you are someone who has, you will understand the pain and frustration of the people around the depressed person. I felt oddly ashamed, because sometimes I was angry at Elizabeth, too, even though I've been there. I think that's a valuable understanding, though -- for everyone whose lives in some way are touched by mental illness.

Zindel, Paul – The Pigman: The very first book that ever made me cry. I remember finishing it up in my parents’ kitchen back in North Carolina, my vision blurred by the tears that insisted on getting out. Lorraine and John are high school misfits who play a prank and end up becoming friends with a lonely old man who collects ceramic pigs. There’s a reason behind his collection, of course. And there’s a story game in the book that I still play sometimes with new people I meet. It really does tell you a lot about someone. I realize that Paul Zindel’s books are for “young adults” (i.e, teenagers), but to this day I can find no other author who understands what it means to be a weirdo better than he does."

I could not think of someone for the letters O, Q, V, X & Y, but I am always open to reading suggestions. Drop me a line and tell me about your favorite books. ;)


  1. I love Girl by Blake Nelson! I remember reading the (heavily edited) chapters in Sassy magazine when I was 16. I read this book once every few years and I always marvel at the's so dead on.


  2. Yay! It's so rare for me to talk to someone who *knows* that book -- much less, liked it. I kinda want to read it again's been several years. Also - woohoo(!) for Sassy magazine. That magazine was probably a good portion of what made me who I am today. ;)

  3. Hearing you rave about Sherman Alexie makes me wonder if you've read any Barbara Kingsolver. There's a similar spirit to both writers.

    And if you don't know Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, it's amazing... sort of in the same vein as Mockingbird, but from a more modern viewpoint.

  4. I've never read either. I've heard of Barbara Kingsolver, but not Enger. But thanks! I'll check them out. ;)