Friday, April 1, 2011

Ten Books that Changed (or Are Changing) My Life

I'm not sure what makes me do this. I've recently been recommending stuff to my students, and yesterday had a great conversation with one, wherein I compared him to Jacob wrestling with the angel. We all should be so lucky, to go to the mat with those things we find most beautiful and sacred and terrifying and demand that they bless us before we release them from our presence. At any rate, gazing at my bookshelfs produced this:

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison- the first time I read this book, I was a senior in high school, then again, a junior in college. It was the literary leg of my undergraduate thesis. It was the first book I ever read that made me say, "I didn't know anyone else felt this way. This is so stunning; I feel less alone." I use sections of it as a teaching tool in the classroom, because I think Ellison does some amazing literary tricks, but mostly I still just love it because the voice is so arresting and profound, and because when I read it the words vibrate in my chest like plucked harp strings: the prose provokes in me a visceral sensation. It makes my mouth water.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-again with the doubling up: read first in 11th grade and again junior year. I had the immense privilege of staging (most of) this book with my mentor, Paul Edwards, and a handful of fellow artists while in school. It is irreverant and confused and so ardent in its desires. There's none of the cool Eastern detachment I'm supposed to want in life in this novel; it is all about frustration and passions and the carnival-colored swirling world of mental illness. Another one that vibrates in my body out of familiarity.

  • Immortality by Milan Kundera- I've read most of the Kundera cannon, and Unbearable Lightness twice, but this is still my favorite. It's so experimental (which I generally don't cotton for too much, and I think my husband would love it) and it does all kinds of things I didn't think a book could do. It was the first time I'd read a conceptual-philosophical-religious-international story and it made me think differently about a writer's relationship to her audience and her characters.

  • Running in the Family by Michael Ondatjee- this is a recent read, a purchase in pursuit of advice on a writing project, and it took my breath away. I've had a lot of trouble battling internal censorship, and this book tells its story honestly and without hesitation. Sometimes the writer isn't even there, and we're just left with images and scenes of the family, without his pesky opinion tripping up the movement. It is a fine model for my writing right now.



  • Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin- my father gave me my first copy of this book when I was twelve. I don't know how he came by it, but that gesture cemented several things within me and between us, the least of which he ensured that I'd become a writer. Yes yes, everyone says that Baldwin is a stronger essayist than fiction writer, but that doesn't matter to me. This collection, and in particular "The Rockpile" and the title story, are so significant because they teach me about people I've come from. I don't know if you've ever encountered a thing and felt that you were connected to it in a way that you couldn't see or articulate, but that's how I feel when I read these stories. On top of which, Baldwin's so diverse; he fought in so much of his work against being pigeonholed as one kind of writer, despite the fact that the world wanted to define him. I admire that.

  • The Women's Book of Yoga & Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden- yes, yes, Light on Yoga is transformative, and right now I'm in a bit of an ashtanga groove (started reading this blog recently), but this book changed the way I look at yoga. My practice has been evolved into a spiritual practice of sorts for some time now, but this book helped me discover a kind of synthesis between my flesh, my feminine identity and how I move my body around. I am regularly consulting it for holistic advise about living with the things I live with as a woman. I'm so glad it exists for me as a resource.

  • The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson- I didn't know it when I read this book, but I love Anne Carson. I read her collected poetry of Sappho translation and was transported, and I bought my husband a book-album-picture box-thing called Nox that she created, that is completely inspiring. The Autobiography of Red is one of the strangest and most beautiful love stories I've ever read. It is because of Anne Carson that I can work on the other project I'm working on, which is still much to green and incubatatory (can I make that a word?) to mention here--yet.

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender- I fell in love with this book when I saw Paul Edwards' staging of "The Healer" at Northwestern a few years ago. I met Aimee Bender when she was on Columbia's campus in 2008--that seems like forever ago. She was so approachable and friendly. When this book came out I bought it at a sidewalk sale in my department and devoured it in maybe 72 hours. I was blown away by the writing, her innovative use of language and metaphor; it knocked me on my ass--and I wanted to read it slowly, but the story was so good, so marvelous and interesting that I had to read it fast. I gaze at it on my shelf, half in joy half in terror of how fucking amazing the writing is, and know I must read it again with my writer's mind at the front. But not while I'm writing--this might be one of those books I can't read while I'm writing because it'll make me wanna throw in the towel and go become a secretary or something.

  • Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant- this book is a sleeper, something I'd never heard of before, that I bought recently and am reading quite slowly. Like the above mentioned, this book is definitely one of those I can't read while I'm writing because it makes me want to quit. These stories--regardless of length or subject matter--are so surprising. It's like riding your bike down a hilly street and having all these strange cool things run out to you and tie balloons on your wrist and offer you strawberry Kool-Aid or something. It's alarming. It's sad and complicated. I love it.

  • The Letters of Vincent van Gogh- I'm reading this one slowly, too, because the structure lends itself to being picked up and put down again. I love the intimacy of personal papers, and the kind of wet, incisive truth that comes out in journals and letters that we get to be privy to because someone thought to take these bundles to a publisher. I'm on page 12. I'm so thankful.


So there are a couple others that I'll add post script but that didn't make the list of top ten for one reason or another--some of this will be obvious.


*The Bible- this one's a staple of wholesome religious midwestern upbringing, isn't it? A book I've been reading on and off my entire life for a number of reasons, and that I read now for a number of reasons; it's become quite an interesting tool in terms of writing and relationship. I hope I'm able to view it without the condescension that so many employ in casting it as a great book full of lessons but not necessarily relevant. I hope also that I don't use it as a measuring tool or a weapon or a barrier against the complications murkiness of life, so that I can blind myself with it and feel safer in a strange world.


*Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey-I've written about this book before. Say what you want to about him, this novel shook me for weeks afterward. I don't know what his process was in drafting this thing, but it was astonishing. The kind of discipline I imagine it must take to make a book like this, I should be so lucky.


My husband's book, titled but as yet unpublished (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)- I couldn't bear the cheese factor of putting his novel on this list. It's my hangup. Life with him is so great sometimes I think my face is going to fly off in all the joy, but I feel so obnoxious in that place, so I try to play it low key. It's a knotty tale of race, family and loyalty. Look for it. (I think you can, I think you can, I think you can.)


*one more, I thought of one more. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose- This book has changed the way I read. And write.


What am I missing? Tons, obviously. But what changed your life?

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