It seems fitting that as I sit down to write Stasha’s list (on, er, Tuesday night), my kids are mewling please please just ten more minutes…but they’re not begging for more screen time (although they have been known to
hourly occasionally do that too). They’re begging to have the light left on for just a few more minutes of reading time. Liam is reading something called Divergent (thanks for the suggestion, Karen!) and Caleb…well, Caleb has discovered that Harry Potter is better in print than on the screen. He’s lost somewhere early in Book Six.
How to make a list of ten books? Books that I love to teach? Hate to teach? Books my kids love, books my kids loved but I hate (hellooo Thomas the goddamn Train), books I return to again and again? Books that “Everyone” loves but I hate (Franzen, Franzen, Franzen, let me count the ways). So many ways to make a list of books.
If I were going to make a list of books I loved as a kid…
1. Betsy-Tacy-Tib, by Maud Hart Lovelace. Set in the midwest in the early 1900s, these stories start when Betsy befriends Tacy, and they in turn befriend Tib. They have Big Adventures for little girls who are only six – they go over the Big Hill, they put on a show, glamorous relatives visit from the “big city” (aka Milwaukee), and Betsy, from the beginning of the series, wants to be a writer. The girls’ friendship remains the key through the entire series, which goes through to adulthood, marriage, and the beginnings of World War I. I loved that these characters grew up, unlike Nancy Drew, who I also loved but whose permanent high-school-hood eventually made me quite suspicious.
2. Maida’s Little Shop, Inez Haynes Irwin. Irwin was a radical character- a journalist who spent time at the turn of the 20th century reporting on revolutions in Europe – and who belonged to a feminist group called Heterodoxy, which met monthly in Greenwich Village to talk about suffrage (gasp!), birth control (horrors!), equal rights for African Americans (double gasp) – and, even more shockingly, to offer support for women who kept their own names after marriage. I know – can you imagine? But anyway. Maida is a sick little girl, finally recovered from a long illness, who is surprise surprise, also beautiful and the daughter of a bazillionaire, who sets her up in a little rickety storefront in Boston and tells her to make a go of it. So she does -and meets all kinds of kids from the working-class neighborhood she would never otherwise encounter. This book is the first in a series of Maida’s adventures (all funded by her father, “Buffalo” Westabrook), and all of them (especially the first few) are wonderful illustrations of Irwin’s progressive, radical-for-her-era politics.
If I were to make a list about books I loved when I was a little older than young – a “tween,” I guess you’d call it, although back when I was a tween they just called it “awkward:”
3. Claudine at School, by Colette. Claudine, I realized much later, is based on Colette herself, the rather scandalous and brilliant early 20th century French writer, who grew up in the French countryside and then became the talk of Paris with her love affairs and her brilliant prose. This quartet follows Claudine from her small French village, where scandals bubble just below the surface and Claudine spends her time pining after a lovely school-mistress or else roaming in the woods, through to her marriage to the cultured, indulgent, and slightly immoral Renaud. I spent a lot of time with Claudine and one of my happiest Christmases was when my mom gave me the complete set in one volume. I read it to shreds.
4. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Yes, it’s been the basis for not one but two pretty terrible movies, but nevertheless the original novel still blows me away. And now that I live in a desert, where various “green” initiatives have, literally, taken root, the novel seems almost prophetic. Here, in Abu Dhabi, they’ve done so much planting of non-native species that they’ve thrown the seasonal cycles out of whack – just as happens in Dune. I’m also re-realizing how much Herbert drew on Middle Eastern cultures and languages to create his Fremen – so I need to re-read the book and see if I can recognize my new world in Herbert’s imaginings.
Or I could make the list of shame, which is a game we used to play in graduate school, usually while drinking heavily in order to forget that once we got our PhDs, we’d never get jobs. Put a bunch of tipsy literature grad students together and that’s the kind of craaazy fun we have: what haven’t YOU read that from the you-have-to-have-read-this list? For a long time my shame book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which for someone studying US women writers is sort of like a a therapist saying she’s never read Freud. I got through that (actually? it’s good), and I did finally march through Anna Karenina a few years back, which was amazing – and yet also? Let’s just say I felt a deep kinship with Napoleon’s attempt to march to Moscow in the winter: an incredibly long journey that wasn’t going to end well.
5. Chekov. Yeah. I know. Brilliant short-story writer and playwright, chronicler of the human condition, whatever. Have seen his plays about depressed Russians who are vaguely suicidal and… they make me depressed and vaguely suicidal, which is why I’ve never actually read a word the guy wrote.
6. Don Quixote, Cervantes. Again, a big ol’ gap in my reading resume. Some people consider this book pretty much the first real novel, and as one of those over-educated academics, I should have read it. I can do the cocktail party chitchat about major plot points, hum a few bars of “Dream the Impossible Dream,” and talk about tilting at windmills, but more than that? Nope. (And, yes, the fact that I think mentioning the high points of Don Quixote might be actual cocktail conversation may clue you in to why I don’t get invited to a lot of cocktail parties. That and I tend to eat all the dip.)
7. Oliver Twist. I’ve never even seen the musical, although Liam’s school is putting it on this year, and so he walks around singing (off-key, naturally, he being my son) “food glorious food…” which I don’t think is in the book. And the reason I’ve not read Oliver Twist leads us to the next possible way to make a book list:
Books or writers that everyone else loves but that I pretty much… don’t.
8. Dickens. Husband pretty much almost left me over this one. What can I say? I liked Bleak House, with its endless lawsuits, and okay, A Christmas Carol, but otherwise? I’ve just never been able to enter those worlds. I blame myself, really I do, but Dickens leaves me cold.
9. Jonathan Franzen. Don’t even get me started. So he’ll share this spot with Don Delillo. Yes, important twentieth-century writer, satiric, brilliant, experimental, blahbety blahbety blah. Like Dickens and Franzen, he leaves me cold. It’s as if I’m staring through a plate-glass window at some extraordinary mechanic: I’m impressed but uninvolved.
10. Zadie Smith. Read White Teeth, didn’t like it much, figured I’d give her another chance with On Beauty, her novel satirizing academic life (among other things) and you know? Just not my cuppa tea. Maybe because people keep comparing her to Dickens.
And that’s ten. But now I think that what’s not on this list is what books and writers I love now, as a grownup…so I am going to give myself five more spots on this list…because I am a grownup and I can. You can stop reading at #10 if you want, I’ll understand.
11. Early Stephen King, right on through about Firestarter. His new “serious fiction” (the stuff that gets reviewed in the New York Times Book Review) is fine, but the early stuff – the short stories in Nightshift, the vampires of Salem’s Lot, even the first version of The Stand… those books are brilliant. And terrifying. Read them with the light on. You should also read his book on writing – seriously. It’s good. The dude knows his way around a sentence.
12. Toni Morrison, especially Song of Solomon and Beloved. Stories that grab you by the throat, prose that explodes with beauty and violence, and a vision of the other side of the American Dream that rocks you back on your heels.
13. The Bone People, Keri Hulme. Often when I teach books I stop reading them for pleasure, but this novel, written by a woman in New Zealand, never gets old. Every time I read it, there’s more there – heart-breaking, and maybe a little sentimental, but also gorgeous language, a desperate story, and an affirmation of the need for human connection in order to survive. Students wrestle with its strangeness but come out the other side amazed and awed by what Hulme has done.
14. Willa Cather. One of best. She’s way more than pioneers and prairies, trust me. The Professor’s House as a story of coming to terms with middle age … or The Song of the Lark, about a girl who dreams of becoming an opera singer – and succeeds without going mad, becoming a horrible person, or having her heart broken. Think about it. How many stories like that do you know about a woman who succeeds as an artist without suffering some sort of hideous heartbreak?
15. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Children’s books? Adult books? I dunno. Ignore the terrible movie and read The Golden Compass…but cancel most of your appointments because once you start, you’re not going to want to come out. When I was in the hospital after giving birth to Liam, in the terrible days after he was born, when I wasn’t staring into his isolette in the NICU, I took refuge in The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy. Amazing.
Stasha asked for one list of ten books…I’m turning in about five lists and fifteen books. I promise next week to follow the rules.