Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ten Books That Stayed with Me, Part I

There is a meme going around right now where people list ten books that stayed with them.  I've been enjoying seeing the lists my friends put together, but what I really want to know is why they named those particular texts.  What was it about them that moves a person so much?  Is it the plot, someone's life circumstances, specific details -- what makes people feel so drawn to certain books?

So I've decided to elaborate on my answers, in hopes that maybe others will follow suit.  Below are my first five; the next five will follow in a separate post.

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin. I read this in fifth grade. I had the light blue paperback from the class library and read it underneath my desk while ignoring whatever I was supposed to be learning. I loved that the book respected me as smart and mature and capable of understanding subtle humor and a complicated trail of clues requiring background knowledge from outside the book. It wasn't like our awful assigned reading, Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw, which employed the same tone you use when explaining something to a slow dog. My desk was the farthest from Mrs. Grossman's, so I always figured I was safe from being caught, but one day I heard her call my name -- it took her two tries to get my attention -- and then say, "I know The Westing Game is a very good book, but could you try to pay attention today?" Caught. And I didn't care -- the book was back under my desk the next day, and Mrs. Grossman would just give me that knowing look and carry on with the lesson. And I'd get back to Turtle Wexler and the mystery of the Westing murder and fortune and all the other characters in the tower, and I'd feel so happy.

Number the Stars, Lois Lowry. This was around the same time as Raskin's book. I remember it so well because I was already in love with history and it was the first middle reader or young adult book I'd read that really got into the subject and handled it well. It kicked off a really intense Holocaust/World War II obsession that almost concerned me (and my parents) a bit, though I read somewhere not too long ago that that's very common and even developmentally-appropriate for that age. It got me to ask myself the big questions about what my convictions were, how I viewed myself compared to others, what I wanted to do in the world now that I knew the dark secret of how awful it can be, and so forth. It was a really beautiful, albeit bittersweet, reading experience for a young reader. Lowry opened up so many intellectual and emotional doors for me. That's exactly what a book for a young person that age should do. I will always love Anneliese and that necklace.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen / Lies Across America, James Loewen.  I'm counting this as a twofer because I read them back-to-back and always think of (and gift) them as a set. I found Loewen as a teenager. I was already questioning history as it was typically taught -- learning during Black History Month about America being founded for the freedom for all never sat right with me -- but he blew that door open. In his passionate style, Loewen revved me up about all the inaccuracies fed to us -- about how Helen Keller is treated as nothing but a deaf/mute child when she was really remarkable for her radicalism in adulthood, about all the historical monuments and statues to slaveowners and Klansmen across the South, about James Buchanan's home tour guides talking about his fiancee's death devastating him when he was really a gay man and no one will acknowledge it, etc. When rereading it in later years, I would of course see that it's a very one-sided approach and there's way too much hyperbole with some occasionally shoddy citation (especially in the latter book). But overall, I still love those books and Loewen's work in general, and I will always be indebted to him for getting me to think critically and question the narrative at historical sites and in textbooks. I often remember his anecdote about the staff at Buchanan's home trying to stop him from asking questions about Buchanan by saying, "It's about the furniture!" Whenever I read something new or visit a museum for the first time, I'm always on the lookout for whitewashing or cover-up via couch. Thanks, Jim.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor. I had, of course, read and heard about people losing their breath or having their heart skip a beat over art that happened to drill them in just the right way.  The title story in this collection did it to me.  I remember that when I finished the story, my eyes were wide, my mouth open, my heart beating hard, and as I leaned back against the wall to catch myself even though I was sitting, I realized I needed to take a breath.  Once my vital signs were acceptable again, I started voraciously flipping back through the pages of my tattered library copy -- I'd go out and immediately buy my own after that gut-punch -- and finding all the little lines that now made sense in a more profound way now after those last two pages.  It was exciting.  And I was laughing, too, because now it was all so obvious, almost cheesy in a way, and I loved that she pulled it off.  It was such a surreal experience and I wanted to feel it again.  So I skipped around and read a few more stories, and eventually repeated the process (though now with much more laughter right from the start) with "Good Country People."  What I soon realized is the heartbreaking truth that all O'Connor devotees have to accept at some point, which is that the stories run out eventually and you can never relive that first "Good Man" punch again.  So to this day, I've left one story in each of my O'Connor collections unread, so that I have something to savor down the road.  Thanks, Flannery.  You're the best.

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton.  A common theme throughout this meme is everyone sneering at books read in college.  "Ugh, if you list books you read in an English course, you're just not a reader."  Wait, what?  If you're at arguably the most pivotal period of transition in your life and reading texts selected because of their power, why wouldn't you be impacted by them?  Ethan Frome did it to me.  I read it straight through in one sitting, not stopping even for a sip of water, and when I finished saw that I had gripped my fingers into the back cover in such a tense way as to leave four dents in it.  This is the story that taught me about stories and how to tell them.  I don't remember why we read it for class or what any assignments were, but I remember it as not just a wrenching story but also one where I could tell what the author was doing in terms of structure and foreshadowing as she went along.  I was reading a book while simultaneously realizing that I had achieved a new level of skill in reading books.  And that was one of the best experiences of my life, because it was like knowing I'd unlocked a new fortune room.

So those are my first five (well, six).  I know four of the next five for sure, but one spot is up for grabs...any guesses?

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