Thursday, June 30, 2011

4 books that changed the way I look at things.

So what does one do when it is unbearably hot?

Here in Austin, temperatures are quickly reaching clothing-optional levels.  Our outfits are shrinking.  Our robust Texas constitutions are fainting.  Bars don't have enough Mexican Martinis in the world to quench our thirst, and it is now acceptable to take your lunch break at Barton Springs, a watery 68 degree respite from the Hades-like conditions.

I'll tell you what I do.

I read like a fiend.

See, to me -- both a hot (literally) Austinite, and a manic-doer of tasks -- summer is the one time of the year where I feel it's ok to get a little bit lazy.  To loosen the grip on that unhealthy Puritan work ethic.  So I indulge on books, and read morning and night.  I take books to lunch and don't feel a bit ashamed for being antisocial, reading them while fellow patrons mill about.  It's so hot we can barely form sentences, and I must rely on those more eloquent to do the job for me.

So, inspired by a blog I randomly happened upon last weekend, I decided to make a list of the four books that altered my worldview or perspective in some way.

(Speaking of which, did you know that at one time, I wanted to be an English professor?   Oh yes.  I, Blogger of Incessant Typos, used to teach composition while student-teaching in grad school.  Once, I made the class write a compare-and-contrast essay on Will & Grace and The L-Word, which I thought was spectacular lesson, until I got the papers back.  Did you know that it's difficult for young men to stare at beautiful lesbians and simultaneously write a coherent paper?  Shocking I know!  Our next paper was on rhetoric and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Anyhoo, enough rambling.  Here are the four books that shaped Tolly indelibly.  I'd love to hear what yours are, too.

1. Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)

Yawn.  I know.  It's on everybody's top four.  Or three.  Or one.

But in the ninth grade, Catcher in the Rye changed the way I viewed literature.  I couldn't believe it was a classic.  I mean, it had ... cussing!  Not old-timey British cussing either, "bloody hell!" and all that, but the f-word.  To my sheltered, 14 year-old eyes, this just boggled the mind (and was secretly, deliciously, delightful).

Also, here was a book whose narrator seemed like a real person, and not an idealized hero or heroine who, despite subtle flaws, were obviously noble.  Not Holden Caulfield.  He could be an asshole.  Even though you end up loving him:  "Where do the ducks go?" he asks, wandering around Central Park.  Oh, Holden!  Of course you would think about that, or your little sister's knees when she's roller-skating, you sensitive soul you.

I adored this book, because of the way it tore down precious notions of fine literaure.  And of the neurotic narrator at its center.  One gets the sense Holden is too disturbed my modern life to dwell on large issues for very long -- teenage prostitution, for example -- so he distracts himself with questions of ducks and knees.  If you love this book as much as I do, I recommend Jessica Shattuck's excellent article that she wrote last year for NPR about Holden.

2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lammott) 

On the surface, this book is a writing guide.  But deep inside its warm, funny heart,  Bird by Bird is oh so much more than a writing guide.  More like a spiritual guide.

I pick up and read this book whenever I can, just to stretch out my writerly muscles.  While Anne has enjoyed commercial success in her long novel-writing career, I think her real gift is making visible what the writing process is like, and also, making you feel like YOU CAN DO IT too.  Write, I mean.

The first time I read this book was in the early days of the Internet, like, dial-up/running yellow man on AOL/"you've got mail!" Internet, and I remember taking up her now old-fashioned advice.  Like, carrying a notepad with you to write down interesting bits of dialogue you hear on the street.  Taking Polaroids (or in my case, a FunSaver).  That kind of thing.

Anne is just so darn generous with her writing, too.  She spoonfeeds you vivid descriptions and witty asides that you want to steal.  A few weeks ago, I read a passage of hers that said something like: "When I sit down to write, at first, I am very quiet.  I stare into space, look around, and then, I start rocking back and forth.  And humming.  Like a giant, autistic child."

Heh.  Me too, Anne.

3. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (by Ruth Reichl)

When I moved back to Austin in 2007 after graduate school, one of my first freelance writing gigs was doing restaurant reviews for The Onion: AV Club Austin.  It paid a tiny amount, and I was just one of several local reviewers, but I was SO proud of this accomplishment.  Look!!!! I said to Ross, when my new editor wrote me with my first assignment.  I am a PAID WRITER.

Ross told one of his teacher friends about it, and to indulge me, that friend lent me a copy of Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl's memoir about reviewing restaurants for The New York Times.  Every time she visited a restaurant, she went both in normal, everyday clothing, as "Ruth," and then again in a costume. Not, like, a bear costume: She dressed up as other people.  Early in her tenure at The Times, she caused a scandal when she awarded Le Cirque one star.  She wrote two side-by-side reviews, comparing the service and food she received as Ruth Reichl, and the service and food she received as "Molly," a plain, frumpy character she invented from the Midwest.  Ruth got seated before the King of Spain did.  Molly got seated by the bathroom.

Garlic and Sapphires was the book that showed me that restaurant reviews, and food writing in general, could be written in a literary way -- like little short stories, as Ruth puts it in her other memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.  This spoke to me, since even though I was no culinary expert (see: Tuesday's ruined pancakes for proof), I was a story-teller.  Like Ruth.

But I have yet to visit any restaurant here in Austin or elsewhere in disguise.  That's some ballsiness.

4. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (by Marisha Pessl)

I read this book just last year, as a result of this post.  My friend Katherine recommended it to me in the comments section, and like her, I stayed up until all hours of the night finishing it.

Oh my God.  Where to start with Special Topics?  First of all -- this is Pessl's debut novel.  Which might make you hate her, if you are also a writer.  Some people do, and insist that the prose is terrible, because it's so densely layered with the narrator's incessant scientific, historical, and literary references.

But I didn't feel that way.  Once I got past the narrator's "thinking" style, and also past my latent feelings of inadequacy, I dove headlong into Pessl's creepy, dark world of secret societies, murder mystery and anarchist networks.  And then realized how singularly brilliant this young writer is.

Anyway, those are all big, superlative brush strokes; here's the plot: A teenage prodigy named Blue, the book's narrator, begins the story by staring up at the bloated face of her dead teacher, who hangs from a cord in a tree.  This woman's name is Hannah Schneider, and for the duration of this book, while Blue rewinds back and gets you up to this point, you'll be asking yourself: "Who killed Hannah Schneider?"  In fact, chances are, you will ask yourself this nagging, burning question for the rest of your life and join online discussion boards and Amazon groups the moment you turn the last page to get everyone else's consensus ... or at least if you will if you are like (i.e. oddly and selectively obsessive).

Since she was a young girl, Blue has been entirely raised -- some would say isolated -- by her academic father.  He is her best friend, her confidante, and despite his egotistical posturing, can't help but being a ladies' man.  They travel all over the country together on his guest lectures, leaving when his teaching post is up, or when some poor, besotted woman starts stalking him.

On their last stop, in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue enters her senior year in high school.  Never cool and always a social outcast, because she is simply so damn smart, Blue is surprised -- and excited -- when she's immediately inducted into what appears to be a small secret society.  It's comprised of five students, all who seem to have a very interesting relationship with their film teacher ... Hannah Schneider.

If you read any book this summer, please, please read this one (especially so I can bug you to death about who killed Hannah Schneider).  This is the book that, more than any other I've read recently, reminded what a good, immaculately-spun yarn looks like.  How to lay out clues.  How to store away hints.  How to paint larger-than-life characters, and how to move those characters in such a chess-like way through the plot.  And the end!  I'm still recovering from the end!  I'm just dying for you to read it.

So, those are my four gems.  Now it is your turn, because I'd like to hear which books shaped you.  I think people's favorites say so much about them.

which four changed things for you?


Cathy Benavides said...

Ok, I might get judged for this, but I'm going to say it anyway. It's a kids book called "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. Konigsburg. I think the first time I read it was 4th grade, and I've owned a copy of it ever since. I've lost it twice, and both times I've replaced it within the same week. It's about a brother and sister that run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum Art. That book taught me so much- about what it means to be great, how important self-discovery is, and just how much everyone really wants to be unique. It's a super quick read (like 100 pages and some pictures) but believe you me, it's worth it. It's still in my top 3 favorite books after all these years.

Carrie Rosalind said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read any of these yet! Though Catcher in the Rye has always been on my "to read" list...and I am going to take your suggestion and read Special Topics - it sounds super cool!

kellynD said...

When I was in high school, I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I've read it over and over again, and I love it every time. Grab Onto Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles is excellent. Both of those books are really easy reads, and I'm certain they're meant for teenagers.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Saffran Foer is great. The book is a million times better than the movie!

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is by far the most depressing and wonderful book I've read lately. I highly recommend it. The story focuses on Judd Foxman after his father dies and he finds out his wife is cheating on him. It's heartbreaking and I want to go home and re-read it!

Anonymous said...

Hey Tolly! So, I love this post! Thanks for sharing these books with us.My list is as follows:
1. Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry-It's a Middle Grade book but it changed the way I thought. I always have a copy of it on the bookshelf. And Lois Lowry just rocks as an author.
2. The Aquariums of Pyongyong-Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag-This is amazing and haunting. You cannot be the same person after reading it.
3.To Kill A Mockingbird-Yes, it's probably a cliche one, but it was the first book that changed me and the way I looked at the world.
4. Hourglass by Myra McEntire-It didn't necessarily change me as a person but it did change me as a writer. It just came out on the 14th. She's a fast-paced & exciting new author and I loved it.
Hope all is going well with you!

Tony said...

1. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

When I was maybe 10, my friend down the street's older brother lead a roleplaying game based on Tolkien's works. He wouldn't let us younger kids play unless we read the books first. I read them and was engrossed into the concept of fantasy books and being able to create an entire world where authors can set their story. It really enriched the imagination of a little kid whose trees turned into castles. I never got to play the game though.

2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan

Reading this book in high school changed my view of the super-natural, religion, and the world around more than anything else I've read.

3. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium - Carl Sagan

Yeah, Carl Sagan again. This book is a collection of works and the essay where he writes about his own death is beautiful and tragic.

Er... I only have 3 really.

Lani said...

As an English Literature major, I shat on my very foundation to note my four favorites:

1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. The story of a professor on his death bed is packed full of life lessons that are comforting and easy to remember. My favorite part (and I'm loosely paraphrasing) is when the professor is asked if he wishes he was 30 again. He says... 30? I am 30. I am also 42, 57 and 66. It made me sensitive to the aged and the youth.

2. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair didn't make me a vegetarian, it made me sensitive to immigration rights.

3. Black Boy by Richard Wright made me sensitive to the plight of African Americans.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey made me sensitive to mental illness.

All four books made me more empathetic as a person which I believe makes people better overall.

Dad said...

Read Cool Hand Luke. King Cohn. Hells Angels. Roughing It. In Cold Blood.
I guarantee you won't be able to put these books down until your eyes won't stay open.

Austin Eavesdropper said...

@Cathy ... don't you love those books you read as a kid, that DO teach you about uniqueness? I felt the exact same way about Ramona book. And my God, Judy Blume.

@Carrie - Catcher in the Rye is just wonderful. Think --boarding school runaway, 1950s, the counter-culture is JUST beginning to emerge. The main character (like the author) is deeply neurotic, and always tries to distract himself by the troubling realities around him with these little imaginative thoughts. When you find out what the title "catcher in the rye" stands for, you'll just cry and cry. It's really beautiful.

Austin Eavesdropper said...

KellyND-- I haven't read ANY of those titles. (Including Everything is Illuminated ... eep). I love your suggestions. My readers give me the best ideas for books, like Special Topics in Calamity Physics. So I may try out yours next!

Anonymous (Kelly) -- To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh so wonderful. Have you ever seen the movie with Gregory Peck? He was perfectly cast for that role. For a long time, that book made me want to name a pet (or, one of my children) Scout.

Tony -- Role-playing gamers are so exclusive!! Tell you what. When you and Christina come down to Austin in the future, we'll play our own Tolkein game and won't invite your friend's stupid older brother. It will be awesome and he'll be so jealous. Anyway, Carl Sagan -- ooh, Billions and Billions. I have got to read that. I don't think I've read any book that chronicles a person's thoughts as they near death ... but my first college roommate read Carl Sagan too, and I promised myself I'd read him. Someday.

Lani, I love that you were an English major too. You're a little contemporary Americanist! Did you ever get into Langston Hughes? (Since you mentioned Richard Wright). I was fascinated by the whole Harlem Renaissance scene, and the convergence of jazz + AA poetry. Reading Hughes' poems are like listening to Miles Davis riffs.

Daddy, of course I love In Cold Blood! YOU need to read A Cold-Blooded Business, by one of my favorite author clients ever, Marek Fuchs. I think Mom might have a copy.

Emily Slerm Reynolds said...

1. Rabbit, Run (John Updike) (AKA I may as well not even know how to speak or write English, because John Updike is such a damn genius)

2. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) (AKA my lingering teenage angst is still a force to be reckoned with)

3. Seymour: An Introduction (JD Salinger) (AKA Why I love Wes Anderson movies)

I can't bear to decide on #4 so I'm just going to leave it out.
Also: your rollerskates.

Rainy-Day Kate said...

Catcher is great, of course, but I'm so thrilled you included Special Topics--it's a phenomenal book and, yes, one of my favorites.

When I was a kid, Sabriel by Garth Nix probably had the greatest influence upon me. Special Topics, of course, was also hugely influential. Zweig's The Post-Office Girl miiiight make the list; I'm not sure. However, I'd also like to mention a play that I only read recently (and saw even more recently): Arcadia. Stoppard is a genius.

Libby said...

To Kill A Mockingbird- read it over a very hot summer and it changed everything.

The Bell Jar- it made me feel alive

Kerissa said...

The books that have shaped me and really just changed my life are:
Franny & Zooey - Honestly I'm naming my first child Zooey (don't steal it). This book taught me so much about myself - about really thinking for myself. When I read that book, I don't think I ever had really thought about what I believe in as a person. Not just religion. But everything in life ever. My copy has all of my favorite quotes written on the front and I read it at least once a year.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - I just remember reading this book and crying my eyeballs out. That's when you know it's good. When it grabs you like that. The friendship between these two - one gay and one straight - and the things they have to deal with in that taught me so much about friendships. oh so good.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - This is one of my most favorite books in ever. The way that Foer writes is the bees knees. I shared this book with my writing group last year and they really saw how he writes and how I've taken so much from that in my own writing. Lovelovelove.
You Shall Know Our Velocity - Dave Eggers best book in my opinion. Just blows you away.
and Perks of Being a Wallflower - A lot of 'how do i grow up' kind of feelings with this one.

amy said...

As an English teacher, I have many, many titles that are special to me and that I LOVE and reread over and over. But as far as books that changed me... what an interesting question. The first title that immediately comes to mind is The Book Thief. It's miraculous, and it changed the way I look at death.

janine robinson said...

i'm such a copy cat. i'm SO down with first commenter with "the mixed up files of mrs. basil...." also, almost any woman i meet who loved "harriet the spy" is bound to be my friend. "bird by bird" is the best writing book ever. most recently, "travels with charley" delighted me, and "bossypants" made me laugh and cry (nostalgia and the new feminism!).