Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ten Books

I was tagged on facebook this week to list the ten books that have stuck with me through my life.  It made me thoughtful and nostalgic, leading me back to times in my life when books were better friends than people.  (they don't talk back, you know?)

This list is not a list of my favorite books, or the list of the books I read over and over again.  It's the books that have made me who I am.  One of my best days as a kid was getting a library card and checking out more books than I could carry with my mom.  I perhaps gave up too quickly on real life people as a stubborn know-it-all of a child, but books.  Books knew more, could take me places I had never been, places I never thought I could go.  And understanding people and their motives?  I learned that from books.  (and my mom, of course, the Grand Master of her trade)
In middle-school and high school, I found mentors and friends among the stacks of books.  Adults were easier.  Always easier.  I knew how to impress them, with good manners and politeness.  People my age?  Forget it.  They were a different species.

For example, I moved my lunch hour into the library full time after the entirely pleasant incident where some guy decided that stuffing his cheesy nacho wrapper down the back of my shirt was easier than throwing it away.  Because, high school.  I fumed as the orange cheese slid down my back, but I knew that I would find a place where No Such Thing like that would happen.  And that place was the library.

Since then, I've had periods that have been full of new literature, others that were more focused on textbooks.  But I've come to know that ife is too short to spend it without books.
I don't know when I first read this book, but I'm guessing when I was about five.  I loved this book, loved the beauty of his garden and paintings.  My grandparents bought me a print of Monet's garden, and it became a treasured part of my room. 

Then, of course, there was the time that I went on our school trip to the Museum of Art, and upon seeing the only Monet, one of his haystacks, I just sat down on the floor in front of it.  I couldn't believe I was really there, in front of one of his real live paintings, that wasn't in a book. 

So, for my graduation trip to Europe (that I took four years after graduating from college) - the only must-see for me was Monet's Garden.  And being there made me burst into tears, twice.  (I'm sure Sara thought I was crazy...but it had been a place I knew I wanted to see since I was five).  And what a place it ended up being!

2. The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
I was a Camp Fire Girl growing up, and every December the council held an event called "The Giving Tree."  You did a craft for local nursing homes or hospitals, you brought something to donate for the less fortunate, you ate a snack, and you made a patch or beaded thing to put on your vest saying you went to the Giving Tree that year.  You also listened to someone read the namesake book of the event by Shel Silverstein.

Now, when I think about it, it reminds me that giving up parts of yourself for others is worth it.  That tree is part of my moral compass, and part of how I look at the world. 

But. Beware of reading the comments on goodreads for this book: "it enshrines self-destructive and self-pitying martyrdom as the paragon of love for others" and "co-dependent tree needs to get some f%^$ing boundaries."  Yikes.  And here I thought it was a book to teach you to think beyond yourself. 

3.  Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I loved these books as a girl, and took great pride in that my grandmother's family was from a small town called Walnut Grove, near that banks of Plum Creek.  And, my grandfather's relatives came to Minnesota when it was a territory, between 1848 and 1858.  This makes us descendents of Territorial Pioneers (I have a certificate and everything).  This book helped me feel connected to my past.  And of course, I made sure that Laura Ingalls Wilder figured prominently into our family vacations around the Midwest...I don't actually remember what the car ride through the middle of nowhere in South Dakota was like, but I'm betting dad got lost and mom figured out where we were and we finally found the spot where Pa planted the cottonwood trees for his girls, and I was in a dither trying to figure out how to get a stick from each tree.  (I still have them, up in the attic back home).  Watching the girls from the prairie survive through such challenges, it was inspiring.

4.  Unknown set of Fairy books from the 398 section of the Ramsey County Library
I was a child of many phases: dinosaur, methods of torture for Catholic saints, scientists, flowers, and of course, fairies.  There was a set of books at the library that I checked out over and over again...they had canvasy, velvety covers, and a picture pasted on the front, with lots of pictures inside.  I've looked before and haven't been able to find copies of them, but each book had a theme.  I remember a sage green one and a purple one in particular, but no idea what their names are.  Lost to history, they are.
First read in middle school, this connected me to a whole new set of friends.  Bored out of our skulls in middle school, we played a role play game set in this world, with strong heroines and plot twists, a choose-your-own-adventure where the drama and tension ran high.  Unfortunately, most of the ladies were in orchestra, and stayed on the red team for 8th grade, and I was in band so I was on the blue team, and then one of them got really mad at me (still don't know why, ha!) - and so our merry band was a bit more fractious as time went on.  But these days, I'm still real-life friends with one of them, which makes the whole funny episode of my life absolutely worth it. 

To me, Harry Potter will always be memories of reading the entire series out loud to my younger brother before he went to bed.  Busy high school nights, nights that I can't even remember how late I stayed up to do homework...but I always read to him.  These books may not be "high art" - but you can bet they have stuck with me something fierce. 

It pains me to put two books that I loathe on this list.  But As the voracious reader I was, until these books, I never really experienced disliking a book that was assigned to me.  I hated the characters, the conflict, the language, the anger, everything.  And it was enlightening to realize that honestly, I didn't have to like everything I read.  Most of my book reviews before then were that I liked it, or I loved it.  Here, I finally found the full range of how I felt about books.  And of course, they were assigned by the inimitable KO Paulsen.  Poor me, I was so conflicted.  I wanted to impress all my teachers, and doing that while hating the books he assigned, that was a new challenge. 

There was also the time I made a bet with him: I would read Faulkner's Light in August, he would read Reviving Ophelia (a manifesto-ish book about preserving the intellect and happiness that girls possess when they're in elementary school through the rest of their lives).  I read it, and didn't love it.  I still can't fathom the fact that, effectively, a child's love of toothpaste ruined his life.   I'm not entirely sure if he read the copy of Reviving Ophelia that I loaned him, but one can hope.
One of the most meaningful high school classes I took was AP Humanities.  It was the year my grandfather died, the year the nicest guy I had known to that point took me to prom (as friends), the year I realized that I would never really be good at speech, but hey whatever, the year that I lost my voice and ended up in the hospital, the year started to see high school as something I just kind of wanted to leave. 

We worked our way through history: the Greeks, the Romans, Persia, the dark ages, the enlightenment, the Romantic period, all the way through today.  We studied philosophy, religion, art, culture, in about as many ways as one can.  Ms. Dahlin was quite adamant that we experience pieces how they were meant to be experienced, which meant that we spent plenty of class time reading things aloud, from Beowulf to the Illiad.

But one day in particular stood out: the day that we read Lysistrata.  (cliff's notes: women of warring city-states in Greece are sick of war, and withhold sex until their men agree to stop fighting; it's hysterical).  For some reason, I was chosen to read the part of Lysistrata.  And I had never been in the position of power in high school to that point, even in an imaginary way playing a character.  It was so much fun.  It opened my eyes to the idea that comedy came in many forms, and that sometimes, playing the prude is just no fun.  I also had the very new feeling of being openly reviled by a very jealous real-life girlfriend because of my fake imaginary role of Lysistrata.  (hey!  high school!  nice to remember that...ah...not)
Girl that feels alone in the world fights evil and wins.  It's a typical hero's journey, wrapped in the trappings of a fully-realized world, which makes it unforgettable.  I know that I'm not alone, and I am reminded of that often, but there's something about Sabriel's ability to triumph in the darkest of times that I find soothing.  I will not deny that there are times in my life where I say to myself before a difficult presentation, "Sabriel fought Kerrigor.  I'm entirely sure that I can handle my thesis committee." 

I first tried reading Jane Austen in second grade.  It didn't work.  I tried again in seventh grade.  Nope. Finally, I tried again as a sophomore in college, and promptly read all of her books in the space of two weeks.  It was the time for me to see these strong women struggle within the bounds of their confined world, suffering the consequences of their choices, but also finding happiness.  I adore Eliza Bennett and the decision she made to remain herself, not making herself over in the image of a dunce-of-a-cousin's wife, or as anyone else she couldn't possibly be.  It's exactly what a college-aged adolescent in the aftermath of a breakup needed to read.  And her strength of character has stayed with me in a much realer way than most characters do. 


After making my list, I saw this article in the sidebar where facebook collated the data from all that members had posted, and it was fascinating!

I will say, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those that also sticks with me, but I think it does more so because of Gregory Peck and the book than the book on it's own.  I'd also give a special shout-out to one of the high school librarians for recommending The Handmaid's Tale, and others like Slaughterhouse 5 and Brave New World, which still leave me feeling uncomfortable...but uncomfortable in the way that helped me grow. 

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