Monday, June 22, 2009

Fifteen books in fifteen minutes

In response to

1. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
3. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
5. Agyar by Steven Brust
6. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
7. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
8. A River Runs through It by Norman Maclean
9. Taste of Power by Elaine Brown
10. The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones
11. The Iliad by Homer
12. The Odyssey by Homer
13. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
14. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
15. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

The first four were easy, and I am willing to bet that if I make another list in ten years or five years or even one year, half of the books on the list will be different, depending where I am in my life. I am a big believer in finding and reading the right book at the right time. Sometimes it is something which complements events or my state of mind and even provides insight. Sometimes it is to escape into something completely different or to find a heroine who handles her problems the way that I would like to be able to handle mine.

Fifteen minutes after having completed my list, I find myself wishing that I could add more, but I can't decide what to replace.

I read The Power of One when I was seventeen and have never looked back. "Little beat big, if little smart. First with the head, and then with the heart." Words I try to live by each and every day. For years, a sterling silver charm of boxing gloves hung from a chain around my neck. Some days it still does, when I need a little something extra to face the world. I have given away no fewer than half a dozen copies, mostly to the men who have wandered in and out of my life. As far as I know, only one finished it. Maybe two. It's the book that says the most about me, from a philosophical perspective.

To Kill a Mockingbird became a part of my life even earlier. For some reason, I get a lot of comfort from this book, and I tend to read it when my life is chaotic. I have read it at least four times. Miss Maudie's house always burns down. Atticus always defends Tom Robinson. And Boo Radley always comes out. I know that you can make a similar case for any book -- every time you read it, the same things happen, but for some reason, it's only important in To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I was little, I wanted to be Fern in Charlotte's Web, Templeton the rat is one of my all time favorite characters, and "salutations" is a permanent resident of my vocabulary.

Sydney Carton's speech at the end of A Tale of Two Cities brings tears to my eyes every single time. I think that he is the first imaginary man with whom I fell in love.

Agyar was my first vampire novel -- the beginning of what will probably be a lifelong seduction. Now if I could just get around to reading Dracula.

War for the Oaks was one of my early forays into the world of urban fantasy. The power of the music and the way the author writes about it really spoke to me. It's a perfect example of finding and reading the right book at the right time. The specific circumstances escape me, but the book most certainly has not. The Little Country by Charles de Lint followed soon after, and I have been hooked on the genre ever since. It is unfortunate that Emma Bull has not written more novels on her own. Territory is also excellent. A magical retelling of the legend of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Autobiography of a Face was a memoir I almost could have written myself, although my own illness was far less obviously physically scarring.

"I am haunted by waters," says Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It, echoing my own kinship with the element. The pulse of the rivers runs in my veins, and my heart beats to the waves of the tide.

Elaine Brown's Taste of Power is the story of the Black Panther Party from a woman's perspective. Her story is harrowing and beautiful.

I have read all of Nicole Mones' novels, except for Cup of Light, which I have been somewhere in the middle of for several years. All of her heroines are stunningly gifted in one respect while being almost tragically flawed in another, and yet it is their flaw which enhances their gift. The Last Chinese Chef is the first book of hers I read, and even though it is fiction, it started me down a path of reading about food which has led me to such titles as Shark Fin and Sichuan Pepper and The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and A Pig in Provence.

The Iliad and The Odyssey were a central part of my education. I have read parts of each in their original Homeric Greek. The language is exquisite, and the stories are timeless. Greek and Latin are the keys to so much of the English language that even a passing acquaintance with either language can open up whole new worlds of understanding.

My best friend gave me a copy of The House of the Spirits one year for Christmas, with the inscription "This sounds like us." Even though she hadn't read the book herself at that point, it turned out that she was absolutely right. I promptly went on to devour Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, and The Infinite Plan. Many years later, I have resumed reading Allende's work, and having recently finished reading The Sum of Our Days, I feel inspired to read the rest -- fiction and non-fiction.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a powerful story in its own right, but for me it is another gateway book which has led me to seek out memoirs of women who write with insight about their own lives and are frequently in extraordinary situations where they change the lives of others for the better. The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo and Kabul Beauty School come immediately to mind.

All Creatures Great and Small set me on a path to veterinary medicine in the sixth grade. I never actually got there, but I have also never forgotten Herriot's stories.

There you have it -- my fifteen in fifteen.

1 comment:

  1. I am in AWE of the list and the commentary. I've made a list and I'm working on my comments.