Books That Changed My Life

In which I examine the books that I carry with me inside. Not literally.

Melodramatic title, no? But I’ve been thinking about the books that changed my life in some way. So in no particular order, and in no way complete…

1. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsberg–This was the first book that I remembered the title and author of from when I was a child.  I loved this book. I read it so many times. I wanted to be a runaway, except that I had no reason, but moreover I wanted a secret. I still haven’t run away, and I’m pretty short on secrets too, but I still think about this book with such fondness. As soon as my children were old enough, I bought them a copy to devour. I don’t know if they loved it as much as I did, but it stood the test of time. I loved reading it as an adult almost as much as when I was a child.

2. The Chronicles of Prydain by Llyod Alexander –My very first fantsy series if you don’t count the Grimms. And his was name I remembered as well. For whatever reason the double L at the beginning of his name fascinated me. But I digress. I don’t really remember the stories very much at all, but I do remember falling in love with magic and fantasy. I was very young when I read them and always intended to get back to them and never did. And the character Taran has always remained in my heart as the perfect hero even if I can’t remember what he did.

3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury–I didn’t read this until I was an adult. It was assigned to my eighth grade daughter as summer reading. She and her friends didn’t understand it, so they gave it to me to read and help them understand. I loved it. It is a series of vignettes connected by one summer in a boy’s life. They aren’t even his stories for the most part, but stories that affect him and help him grow. The next year, I got a job teaching at my daughter’s school and then I taught the book for the next seven years. I loved teaching this book. The Helen Loomis chapter made me cry every year, Col. Freeleigh made me want to live, and the Ravine sent chills down my spine. It is a book filled about magic, and yet there isn’t anything supernatural in it. It is a book that affirms life like no other.

4. Bewitching by Jill Barnett–I had reached a rut in my reading about two decades ago (God, has it really been that long?) and then I came across this book. It was the first book that made me laugh out loud and then cry (real tears–it was pathetic) at the end in years. I was feeling like I had lost all my emotions and this book help me find them again. Now I cry at TV commercials.

Some (very few) of my favorite books--the ones that were close enough that I could take this pictures quickly.
Some (very few) of my favorite books–the ones that were close enough that I could take this pictures quickly.

5. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov–When I was a teenager, I swore I hated science fiction. Not for me, said I. And then in high school I had the chance to take the class that all the students said was the best English class my school offered. So I signed up for it, holding little hope that I’d like the topic. Boy, was I wrong. It was the best English class, but I LOVED the science fiction. What the hell had I been thinking? This stuff was terrific. And Asimov’s book was probably my favorite of the ones we read (including Princess of Mars, Stars My Destination, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Martian Chronicles). I also taught this book to students, many of whom claimed they didn’t like science fiction either. Hahaha.

I didn’t realize when I started writing this blog that it was going to appear in parts. I have to continue because I still have a whole list of books that I haven’t mentioned yet. So thus concludeth part the first.


Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Azkaban by JK Rowling


Damn it. They were right.

In which I look at the sedentary world of writing and why you shouldn’t (Shouldn’t what? I’ll leave you to fill in that blank for yourself.)

If you know me, you know I play volleyball. I have since seventh grade, grumbledy-mumble years ago. My knees are shot. I went to an orthopedist who said I have a choice: play volleyball now or hike with my grandkids later (no grandkids on the way yet or even close, just so you know.) Robot Guy, who also plays volleyball, said definitely play volleyball now. “We’ll get you robot knees when you need them.” So I’m playing volleyball now. In fact I’m on two teams. which means a lot of volleyball on the weekends. And I’m loving it.

Yes, that is Robot Guy playing (Number 17).
Yes, that is Robot Guy playing (Number 17).

Now I’m a writer. We sit. We think. We write. Also the age thing has made me slower, and I’ve never been one to exercise, so I realized that I needed to do a little something extra so I wouldn’t be killing myself on the volleyball court. I started working out three times a week while Youngest is in her classes. It was convenient–the gym was right down the street from her classroom–and it was perfect timing. By the time I finished with my workout, I could whip out a notebook and write for the half an hour or so until she finished. And so far I’ve been pretty good at going.

Here’s the bad news. Although I haven’t lost a pound (eating right is a whole other story), I have noticed that my endurance on the court has gone way up. Damn it. It’s working, which means I can’t quit. I find exercise boring. At least on the volleyball court there’s competition. I thrive on competition, but on the elliptical it’s a fake competition with myself. Doesn’t work for me on a psychological level. Thank God the machines have TV. At least I can be distracted. A little. The day the cable went out at the gym was the worst.

So I’m off to work out. Yeah, yeah, don’t lecture me on how good it is for me. I’m not stupid. I know it’s the right thing to do. I’m doing it. But don’t expect me to stop grumbling about it either. (Razzaldy-hummbledy-brumble)


Books I’m reading now:

Harry Potter und der Gefangen von Azkaban by JK Rowling

To the Nay Sayers

In which I look at the denigration of genre fiction.

I met a woman once who asked me why romances could be so popular when they all told the same story. Oh, sure, some elements are the same–a man, a woman and a happy ending (and even that’s not necessarily true any more. The popularity of LGBTQ books is growing and welcome, as are erotica books)–but the journey is different in each. It’s what the characters learn on that journey and how they grow that make every story unique. She scoffed at my explanation and dismissed my notions as uninformed. I listened to her politely with a smile set on my face, then changed the subject. After all there’s no use arguing with someone who clearly had never read romance, had no intention of reading romance, yet has strong opinions on it.

All genre fiction tends to suffer from its reputation (although I would argue romance suffers more than its fair share). Maybe because all genre fiction follows formulae and for some reason people think a formula means no creativity. Heck, Joseph Campbell broke all stories down to one formula (the Hero’s Journey), which then Chirstopher Vogler laid out for writers in his best selling and fascinating book The Writer’s Journey. So it’s easy for pretentious people to dismiss entire genres of books as unoriginal or written by hacks. Those people are wrong. Yes, not all genres will appeal to everyone. I, for example, don’t like to read horror or police procedurals, but that’s a matter of taste, not a reflection of quality. I can look at the trailers for a film and know if I want to see it. A lot of times those are the films that end up winning the awards. I just don’t like that type, but as I said, that’s taste, not quality. I also don’t like red wine, black coffee, brandy, or much chocolate.

The more I think about why genre fiction is popular and why the some or the populace regards it as less than literary, the more I realize it’s about how the books make you feel and the messages they send. Even within genre fiction there is some I don’t like to read. I dislike the heavy, angsty, emotional story. I love a good romp. I love a lighter tone. Even with a high body count, I love a lighter tone (Yes, such books exist. Death and destruction with a light tone. My favorite.). It doesn’t mean that serious events don’t occur in the story; it just means I don’t need to take Xanax when I’ve finished the story. I have read some of what is called literary fiction that has made me want to gauge my eyes out after slitting my wrists. I like the romps, the adventures, the humor, the uplifting endings (doesn’t mean not sad; that means that the human spirit wins at the end. Heck, I cried at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. And Toy Story 3. Sobbed at that one.). It’s about how I felt as I read the story.cute-super-hero-clip-art-superhero-boy

And the message. Stephen King once said that genre fiction was the place where values are tested for society to ponder (Or something like that. I tried to find the real quote with no success.). I agree with him. Genre fiction is where the protagonists face circumstances that test their beliefs. If they choose rightly, they are heroes. If not, they become tragic victims. This idea is pervasive in our modern culture: “You underestimate the power of the Dark Side”; “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”;“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s going to keep digging, he’s going to keep trying to do right and make up for what’s gone before, just because that’s who he is.”  (That last one is Joss Whedon, in case you didn’t recognize it)

I like heroes. And villains for those heroes to fight against. Because I want to leave a story cheering, even if I’m crying. And in real life I like the heroes who do the right thing daily without fanfare or capes or parades or even fighting.


Books I’m reading now:

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove

Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Azkaban by JK Rowling