November 21: Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For (Happy Thanksgiving week in the USA!)
I’m thankful for books period! I can’t imagine my life without them. I can’t imagine myself without them. But if I had to narrow it down to ten, these would definitely be on my list:
1. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion- A little less than two years ago I lost a loved one. I found that a lot of the books out there about grief ultimately ended with platitudes, with cliches and saccharine reassurances. But Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death (while their daughter was in a coma fighting for her life!) felt honest and real to me in a way that other books didn’t. It confronts the absurdity that we feel in the face of such a loss; the sense that things seem normal but they’re not supposed to be. Then we go into the the grief- the violent waves of feeling, and mourning, is what happens in the meantime, the general sadness as we try to put ourselves back together again.
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.
For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.
2. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi- This really showed me how subversive and liberating the act of reading can be. It made me more thankful for my ability to read, and to do so without restriction. The author, Nafisi, was a professor of Literature at the University of Tehran. In 1995 she resigned her position because of increasingly repressive policies that grew even worse as time went on. But for two years, she had seven of her best female students come to her house every week, to read and discuss forbidden Western literature. This forum allowed the women to speak their minds about the political, social, cultural, and religious implications of living under strict Islamist rule. This gives the reader and understanding of revolutionary Iran. But what this book club really did was give women a chance to connect to a world they might never know otherwise. It allowed them confront different ways of thinking and accept them, reject them or modify them. In other words, it’s about how art helped these women to survive, to connect and to understand themselves in an extreme situation.
There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom,”
3. Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery– I love Anne dearly. I would never want to give her up. But something about Emily spoke to the creative in me at a very young age. It’s that connection that I’m specifically thankful for. Unlike Anne, who was an orphan since she was a baby, Emily, lost her beloved father as a tween and was sent to live with relatives. That gives Emily a sort of melancholy right off. She knows what she’s lost. Writing for her is a form of survival. It’s a way of communicating with her father. Initially, that’s a literal communication; she writes him letters. But it becomes more abstract as she gets older. I can relate to Emily’s desire to express certain ideas and feelings that don’t readily lend themselves to words.
“It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside– but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond– only a glimpse– and heard a note of unearthly music.”
4. Ramona the Pest by Beverley Cleary- Ramona taught me so much as a kid. I saw so much of myself in her. I tried to do the right thing, to understand what people wanted of me, but sometimes I fell short. It was nice to know that the same could be said of this character. Not only does Cleary have obvious sympathy for the misunderstandings that cause Ramona to be called a pest, but she also sees it as a tool for empowering a character who doesn’t have a lot of other resources. I liked the idea that what other people found annoying could be my way of getting what I wanted! This is definitely one of the books that first made me fall in love with reading.
“People who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.”
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood- I’m horrified that we live in a world where this novel is increasingly relevant. But if we must live in a world like that for time being, I’m thankful that it exists. It’s a warning and a call to arms in one volume. I read it for the first time in high school. At the time, I was just starting identify what being a feminist meant to me, as opposed to how other people perceived it. Before I read this book I tended to think of it as equal opportunity for education and employment. I saw it as the idea that I didn’t need a man to survive, and that my value wasn’t defined by my male partner. I still believe all of that. But this book really illustrated how much physical autonomy is a part of it. Women’s bodies are seen by our society as a sort of common ground. From there it’s a very slippery slope. Men start feeling qualified to make decisions about women’s health, their sexuality. In so many ways this has ceased to be speculative fiction, and become frighteningly realistic. But there is one way that the United States is different from Gilead. We can read what we want. And that might be the best reason to read this book. It’s why I’m so thankful that it exists.
“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”
6. Beauty by Robin McKinley- When I first started college, I had a question for one of the girls in the dorm room down the hall from mine (don’t ask me what it was, I honestly don’t remember!) When I opened the door, she was sprawled on her bed reading this book. Immediately we started talking about fairy tale retellings! So this book helped me make one of my first friends in college. Actually that’s not the only friend that I’ve made due to Beauty and the Beast retellings (but that’s another story…) But it also was one of my first exposures to fairy tales retold for older readers. It allowed me to see a familiar take in a new way, and turned me on to so many other fairy tale retellings! Later, writers like Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Cunningham showed me that fairy tale retellings can also be literary, or shocking, or subversive.
“Would it help perhaps if I told you that, had your father returned to me alone, I would have sent him on his way unharmed?”
“You would!” I said; it was half a shriek. “You mean that I came here for nothing?”
A shadowy movement like the shaking of a great shaggy head. “No. Not what you would count as nothing. He would have returned to you, and you would have been glad, but you also would have been ashamed, because you had sent him, as you thought, to his death. Your shame would have grown until you came to hate the sight of your father, because he reminded you of a deed you hated, and hated yourself for. In time it would have ruined your peace and happiness, and at last your mind and heart.”
7. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- I feel a little odd being thankful for this book, because it’s hard to stomach in many ways. It discusses abuse and trauma that are almost too horrible to believe. In one way you could read it as saying that there are things that can happen to a person that are just too terrible to endure. But I didn’t read it that way. Thankfully, I read it at a time in my life where I was able to take it as an affirmation of the power of friendship and love. It’s about the beauty of the struggle through life. By the end of the book, a character who has lost so, so much, is left with compassion. To me that’s a really beautiful notion.
“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”
8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith- I definitely identified with the heroine of this book. Her name was Francie, mine was Fran. She loved to read, and I loved to read. She lived in Brooklyn and I… well I’d lived there for a year when I was a baby, and so I’m pretty sure that we have that in common too! I think I was about twelve the first time I read this. I read it again in college and was stunned to discover how much I missed, how much went over my head on that first read! It’s harsh and realistic; poignant and bittersweet.
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
9. Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen- Let’s face it: historically speaking Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday (to say the least!). That’s one reason I look at it as a time to be with my family and take stock the people and things I’m grateful for, as opposed to honoring a largely fictional story of the pilgrims. Even as a child I read enough to know that the happy, friendly version of the Thanksgiving story that we were given wasn’t the whole story. So I was grateful to discover this book, about an immigrant girl who feels uncomfortable in the US. When her teacher has the class make pilgrim dolls for Thanksgiving, Molly and her mother make a doll that looks like them; a Russian Jew who comes to America fleeing religious persecution (like them). This teaches Molly’s classmates that a pilgrim isn’t only someone who sailed on the Mayflower. It also proves that by coming to the US for religious freedom, Molly, an immigrant, is just as much an American as some of the first settlers. That’s something that a lot of contemporary Americans should consider when condemning immigrants, and people who practice religions that aren’t Christianity.
“Pilgrims came to this country from the other side,” I said.
“Like us,” Mama said.
That was true. “They came for religious freedom,” I added. “They came so they could worship God as they pleased.”
Mama’s eyes lit up. She seemed to understand.
10. Fairy Tales from around the world- This might be cheating since it’s really more of a category than a single book, but fairy tales shaped my childhood in a way that nothing else did. They shape what I write now. They taught me the important things in life: that sometimes things aren’t what they first appear to be, that a good heart is never completely unrewarded, that you can’t get something for nothing, and that magic will only save you if you use it wisely.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”
I’m also thankful for
- Parents who read to me all the time, taught me to read for myself, and encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on!
- The books, fiction and nonfiction, that taught me something new, let me look at something with new eyes, and changed or influenced my perspective in some way.
- All of the books that I can’t list on here that took me to a different time or place. That gave me an escape from reality when I need one, or even simply, a friend when I needed one.
- All the wonderful people I’ve met this year through this blog; and the wonderful books that they’ve helped me discover!