Friday, December 27, 2013

My Facebook List of 10 Books that Made an Impression On Me is Really Real. For Reals.

During the first wave/rash of Facebook notes a few years ago, this guy I worked with was railing about how no one was listing real answers, they were just listing movies and/or books that were generic classics that folks couldn't argue with, or titles that somehow reinforced an image the person wanted to present to the world.

I remember laughing, but I also remember thinking that if people listed "How to Cure Foot Fungus in 10 Easy Steps" and similar, they'd be up for an entirely different kind of ridicule from him.  (Rightly so, it shouldn't take longer than 3 or 4 steps).  I shrugged him off thinking, "There's no winning with some people."

Yesterday I received a request to participate in another one of those lists.  This one wanted 10 books that made an impression on me.  Not the Top 10, not 10 Favorites, just 10 that made an impression.  So I took a deep breath and wrote the first titles that came to mind, titles that had sunk their teeth into me and ruled the hours/days I spent with them.

Then I remembered the rantings of the man I used to work with and got self-conscious.  Were those books for real?  Am I so accustomed to presenting an image on social media that I crafted that list without knowing I was crafting?  I'll probably never really know, but below I've tried to explain the flash that made me put them on the list in the first place.  The flashes felt pretty genuine...

Ten Books that Made an Impression on Me

1.  Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back (Shel Silverstein)
My Dad bought me this for Christmas when I was in the 3rd grade.  The first Christmas after my parents divorced.  I loved the art.  I loved the story.  And, as I got older, I loved that it wasn't "Where the Sidewalk Ends" (though I like that book too).  And I love how much it says about my Dad.  His sense of humor, his sense of not belonging, and...  more that I haven't quite put into words yet.

2.  Ramona the Pest (Beverly Cleary)
My first anti-hero.  I totally get Ramona.  Always have, always will.

3.  Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
In high school, I was in AP classes because I tested well and my grades were acceptable when I applied myself, but I wasn't a stand-out.  In my first year, I had to read this book for Mr. Dellerba's class.  It was either Writing or English.  The topics were kind of interchangeable at that school.  Or I that's how they seemed to me.

I loved the book.  I loved the teacher.  I was super interested in the assignment.  I really wanted to nail my first Compare/Contrast Essay.  I gave it my best shot, but I wasn't very pleased with the results.  After, I figured I just didn't have it in me, the whole high school student thing.

Mr. Dellerba was different the day we got our graded papers back.  He started class with a different energy, there was something going on with him.  Something good, and I liked it because I liked him.

I mean, I didn't liiiiike-like him.  He just seemed to give a shit.  And he liked Alf (like, a lot).  And it was just good to see him kind of fired up.

He brought out the stack of essays, and said he wanted to read one essay to the class.  Not something he did, usually.

I remember rolling my eyes, looking at the clock, and thinking how I didn't want to hear from one of the achievers again.  Yeah, I looked at the clock.  Like my time was being wasted.  Like I had somewhere better to be.  "Tick tock, Dellerba.  Tick tock."  Oy, I was such a brat!  Such a self-destructive little shit!  Anyway, after trying to not listen, I couldn't help but notice that he was reading my essay.

I couldn't imagine how that could be happening, surely he was using it as an example of What Not To Do.  Although I wanted to learn the Compare/Contrast structure, my "Cat's Cradle" essay involved quotes from "High Hopes", and a tangent about vodka and its warmth-giving properties.  Turns out, he was reading it not to shame my lameness, but because he thought it was good.

I remembered students turning around to look at me, the mute in the back corner of the room, seemingly astonished I had any language skills at all.  And maybe that's all Mr. Dellerba was experiencing too ("Huh, she's not a flat-liner after all.")

Loved the book.  Still do.  Loved the author.  Still do.  Loved the teacher.  Still do.  Love the memory.

Tangent:  Mr. Dellerba ended up being a huge supporter of my writing.  And by that I mean one other time he said I should enter a different essay into a specific contest, because he was sure I'd win.  I didn't do it (see above re: self-destructive little shit).  There's more I can write about Mr. Dellerba, but now is not the time.

4.  Appointment in Samarra (John O'Hara)
When I first finished reading this one, I chucked the book across the room and was depressed for days.  I literally felt as though I had lost a friend.  I couldn't eat.  I wanted to stay in bed all day.  I've read it a few times since, and it gets me each time.

5.  Ask the Dust (John Fante)
Oh, Arturo, you and your world - your lack of cash, your persistence in writing even though no one cares, your bone deep Catholic guilt, your extremely limited diet, the rampant mental instability surrounding you - how could I not fall in love?

This book was recommended to me by the same guy who didn't like book and movie lists on Facebook.  Not a surprising connection, huh?

6.  Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (Raymond Carver)
I've said it before, I'll say it again:  When I read Carver, I wonder why I bother reading anyone else.  This is the first book that made me aware that there were books about the kinds of people I knew.  The first book that made me think about writing for reals.  Not that I thought I could do what Carver does, but...  I don't have the words for this impression yet.  It was a very long time ago, but it's still too close.  I know it in my bones, but I've never verbalized it.  I'll have to have a think on how to say this one.

7.  Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton)
I read this one during my peak dark, depressed, semi-goth teen years (I guess that would be my nadir, huh?).  The tragedy filled me with such glee that the essay I wrote for school (early college? high school?) was full of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" lyrics.  I wanted that song as the soundtrack of the book, because it was the best way I could communicate how happy the inevitable ending made me.

We're all so damn stupid, aren't we?  Reaching for the wrong people in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, usually mucking everything up worse than it had been before.

I love it.

8.  The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)
This story makes me crazy.  Each time I finish reading it, I am frustrated as though it were all new to me.  The story contains my greatest fears, and so I keep reading it in hopes that somehow it will turn out differently.  Maybe on the 23rd reading all of Lily's naive and youthful folly will have made her stronger and more prepared for the future, maybe the people she knows will be less judgmental and more helpful, maybe she will triumph over the limitations of life in her time, maybe Bertha will fall off her yacht and drown before she carelessly and selfishly ruins Lily.

Maybe the 24th reading...

9.  A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
I read this for school in the 8th grade.  I failed every essay question and writing assignment.  My teacher would take me aside and want to know why I wasn't reading, why I wasn't keeping up with the class.  I was reading at the prescribed pace and I was listening in class, so I would just kind of shrug and tell her that I couldn't explain it.  After some time, my guidance counselor was contacted.  After some more time, my guidance counselor called my Mom.

First my Mom and he talked, and then he brought me into his office and asked me what I thought about the ending, and so I told him.  He said that I had obviously read the book, and then the whole episode seemed to be over.

I wish I knew what the trouble had been, what my damage had been, why I was unable to communicate with that teacher about that book...  But I don't really care.  Soon after I discovered Cliff's Notes, and learned to button it with certain teachers, to just give 'em what they want, and do my own thinking on my own time.

Not a solid choice, really.  I wish I had just been what I was, even if what I was was a problem.

But that's not the point, the point is:  This book made me want to read all of the big thick classics, especially if all of them contained so much beauty and pain.

10.  Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
I read this one multiple times in high school.

At some point in high school, my brother moved in with my Mom (which was where I lived too).  He was in his 20s.  He worked in a bar all evening, got drunk after work, and then woke up late morning/early afternoon to start work on rebuilding his cars and motorcycles in the driveway.  (Yet, for all of his effort, he never seemed to have a viable vehicle to get himself to work on-time and was always on the cusp of losing his job).

By this time, I had been in the longstanding habit of arriving home from school with the singular goal of watching 120 Minutes or David Letterman, whichever one I had taped the night before, while eating some kind of crappy snack food.



But my brother was the sort who would point our giant 1980s 2' x 3' indoor stereo speakers toward the outdoors to provide a soundtrack for his DIY auto shop.  It didn't matter if it was sunny or freezing, he'd throw open whatever windows and doors were necessary for him to effortlessly hear GN'R.  It was impossible to watch TV when this was going on.

Gone were my peaceful, self-managing days of latchkey-dom.  Man, did it suck.

A normal teen walking home from school would have hit the corner of her street, heard the noise and returned to school the next day intent on signing up for excessive amounts of team and club membership.  Anything to delay the inevitable return home.  Or, more my speed, would have turned around and taken the bus downtown.  Though I did flee downtown pretty often, it wasn't as much as I would have liked because my cat and dog were at home.  I felt they needed someone to look out for them.  I think they disliked my brother's music more than I did.  More than the neighbors even.

When I'd think of the poor creatures, cowering under furniture to hide from Axl Rose, "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."

So I'd go home, gather my crappy snack food, lead the cat and dog into my small bedroom at the back of the house, and shut the hollow door.  Then I'd crack open Jane Eyre, sit very still, and read until the critters relaxed.  Once they nodded off to sleep, I wouldn't want to disturb them, so I'd just keep still and keep reading.

It was always Jane Eyre.  In reality, it wasn't always, but in my memory, that was the book.  Always.

So that's the list.  It might not be the same list if I had been asked yesterday or tomorrow, but it is for real.  I think.  As real as can be, anyway.