Last week, I reviewed Emma Donoghue's mind-blowing novel Room and named it my new favorite book ever. Since then, I've been pondering and trying to articulate what makes a book a favorite. I've been remembering my personal favorite books over the years, and what stands out most to me is how tethered to a particular time and place most of them are. When I think of the book, I think of when and where I read it. I've been blogging for three and a half years, and only two books have become my favorites in that time. You all know how much I love both American Wife and Room. Today I'm sharing my pre-blogging favorite books with you too. (Book covers go to Amazon and links go to websites of interest, including reviews on this blog.)
In chronological order:
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
As a teenage reader, I stuck to contemporary, realistic fiction. In those days, reading provided me with immense comfort knowing someone, even fictional someones, understood me. I was not a fan of historical fiction or classics. In tenth grade (American literature), we had to read The Awakening, and I was shocked when I fell in love with Edna. Despite the distance in time, place and lifestyle, I understood Edna in a way I could not articulate at that age. I recall being in the minority in my class as I championed Edna and her decisions. I absolutely understood her actions and thought they were wise. In words I didn't embrace yet, Kate Chopin made me realize I was a feminist before I was comfortable with the term. The Awakening wasn't a book I loved from the beginning. I enjoyed it more than any other required reading, but it wasn't a book I loved and rallied for until its final pages. For years, I finished every book I started in case it had an ending as powerful as The Awakening.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Johnny Got His Gun was the first book I remember reading for school and reading ahead. I could not put it down. I've never been a fan of war books (or movies, really, except The Messenger, which I think is the best war movie ever). Johnny Got His Gun read like a mystery. If you haven't read it, you really should. It's told in flashbacks of Johnny's life before the war and in present tense, as he comes to in a hospital and tries to figure out what happened to him while at war. It's still one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and it puts a necessary human face on war. It absolutely shaped my ideas about war, humanity and life.
Medea by Euripides
I had to read Medea my senior year of high school, and I read it in a single sitting. I could not believe the words of a man so many years ago could affect me so profoundly. Much like The Awakening, many people don't understand the actions of Medea. I find her inspiring and intriguing. Shortly after we read the play in class, the Alliance Theater put on a production of Medea starring Phylicia Rashad. Her strong, nuanced, mesmerizing performance convinced a few Medea holdouts of its worth, and it reminded me how much I adore theater for providing varying interpretations of plays.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
Shortly after I read Medea, I read Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Although I enjoyed the play throughout, it's definitely one that hooked me in the end. I was amazed by Ibsen's planning, restraint and mind. The story is fantastic enough, but when the ending was revealed, I was blown away at its perfect structure. By this point, I think it's clear the effect my 12th grade English teacher had on me. She introduced me to three of my favorite books and she convinced me to start watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which is still one of my favorite television shows. She challenged me to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and I still vividly recall some of the other books I loved in her class that didn't make this list (The Inferno and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight most notably.)
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I read Invisible Man in college, and it truly changed my life. It's a book I'm glad I read with a small group, as I would have missed so many of it's most powerful moments because I didn't get them. Invisible Man is one of five books I keep on my shelf that I've read. I still have papers stuffed in it with my scribbled notes and favorite quotes that wouldn't quite fit in the margins. I wrote what I still consider the best essay I've ever written comparing Invisible Man to Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the film didn't come off well against the Ellison comparison.) On this list of favorites, Invisible Man may be the best book I've ever read. It's a challenging read, but Ellison's brilliance continues to astound me. It had a profound impact on my life, as it truly changed the way I look at the world, humanity, and made me a socialist (in case you're one of those who considers Ayn Rand the cure for such thinking, reading Fountainhead in college did not change my mind, it only made me roll my eyes a lot.)
Zami: A Biomythography by Audre Lorde
Zami is the first non-fiction book on this list. I read it in my first women's studies class (and I promptly became a women's studies major.) I still have a hard time explaining Zami to those who haven't read it. It is the most unique book I've ever read. Audre Lorde is one of the writers and human beings I most admire, and I'm saddened I discovered her work after her death. I would have loved to meet her and hear her speak, or at least dream of the possibility. Zami is the book I can articulate what I love about it least well, and I regret it.
Women, Race and Class by Angela Y. Davis
Any favorite book list would be incomplete without an Angela Y. Davis title, as she is my favorite thinker. Women, Race and Class had the most profound effect on me because it was the first of her books I read. This book made me an unqualified believer in interdisciplinary studies. One can not study women, race or class without the others. The world is complex, and Davis is one of the few who can articulate its complexities so beautifully and engage readers of all levels in complicated theory. At several points in my life, I've considered applying to the History of Consciousness Ph.D. program at UC Santa Cruz to study with Ms. Davis. It will probably never happen, but she is perhaps the living person I most admire.
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Indigo Girls have been my favorite band since I was twelve years old. On my favorite album of theirs, Rites of Passage, there is a song titled "Virginia Woolf." Naturally, I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf shortly after this album came out and attempted to read her diaries. I was too young to understand or appreciate any of it. A few years later, when the live cd set "1200 Curfews" came out, Emily admits in her introduction to the song that she wrote papers about her in college but had no idea what she was talking about. When I finally was able to appreciate Virginia Woolf was in college, when I read A Room of One's Own in a history of feminist thought course. I had to stop underlining because there were more passages underlined than not. I so wish I would have read A Room of One's Own at fourteen instead of her diaries. I've always felt Virginia was a kindred spirit (yes, largely because of the Indigo Girls song), but A Room of One's Own solidified that feeling. Despite being a product of the time it was written, I still find it's message incredibly relevant and important.
A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto
I don't recall exactly why I picked this book up off the new book shelf at the public library. In those days, my first out of college days when I could once again read with abandon and checked out more books than I could possibly read in a week, I picked up so many books for so many reasons. I then carefully arranged them by due date and mysteriously read them in any order that pleased me at the time. This novel continues to haunt me. To date myself a little bit, I used quotations from this novel as away messages in AOL instant messenger for years. There was a quote scribbled in my reading journal at the time that pertained to anything I might be feeling. This novel has stayed with me in a different way than other favorites from my early post-college days. I really enjoyed all of Whitney Otto's novels, but this one stands out above the rest for me.
Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach
Perhaps no book is as tied to a time and place for me than this one. In the summer of 2004, I traveled alone through France and Italy for three weeks before meeting up with friends in Greece for the Olympics. I always like to read books set in the places I'm visiting, and when I stumbled across this memoir, I knew I had to take it with me. Alice Steinbach and I are kindred spirits. Her writing is certainly more elegant than mine, and I'm grateful at her ability to put emotions and thoughts into words. In this memoir, Steinbach traveled to Paris, London, Oxford, and Italy. I spread out my reading so I could read the Paris part in Paris and the Italy parts while in Italy. I visited London and Oxford (among other places) in 2002, and I enjoyed reconnecting with those places too. In many ways, Steinbach helped frame my story of that trip with her memoir.
Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
Meeting Rob Sheffield at BEA was one of the highlights of the week for me. In general, I consider myself mostly a novel-reader. I enjoy non-fiction, certainly, but I don't often find myself carried away by it. Love is a Mix Tape is a notable exception. I picked this memoir up from the library after reading a review in Entertainment Weekly and sat on the porch to start reading it. I didn't move until I finished it. I had tears running down my cheeks. I made notes of songs to listen to and pages of quotes to remember. I promptly bought a copy to make Mr. Nomadreader (then nomadreaderboy) read it. He loved it too, but wished I would have warned him it would make him cry. Love is a Mix Tape has stuck with me because it's a beautiful story, it's uniquely and wonderfully written, and it manages to be about life, love, loss and music without shortchanging any of them.
The favorite authors:
No list of my favorite novels would be complete without the inclusion of my two favorite authors: Tom Perrotta and Pearl Cleage. It's impossible for me to pick just one book (or play, in the course of Ms. Cleage), so instead, I'll tell you a favorite story about each.
When Joe College came out, I was in college working at an independent bookstore in Atlanta. One of my co-workers, Beth, introduced me to Tom Perrotta, and I immediately devoured Bad Haircut: Stories from the Seventies, The Wishbones, and Election. When Joe College came out, we were ecstatic. Usually, new books came in the week before, and we could read them early. In this case, the books arrived that morning. I was faced with working eight hours and not being able to read Joe College yet. Despite the film of Election being quite successful, Tom Perrotta was not especially well known yet (arguably, he's still not, but Little Children made more waves), so when someone came in asking for the new Tom Perrotta novel that night, our co-worker alerted Beth and me, and we started talking to the customer. He was thrilled anyone knew about the book because he was Tom's brother. I confess, I was starstruck by the brother of one of my favorite authors. He kindly offered to mail our books to Tom to sign. I like to think Tom got a kick out of hearing about his two squealing fans in an Atlanta bookstore that night. Regardless, despite my inability to name a favorite Tom Perrotta book, Joe College will always hold a special place in my heart because of that night and the personalized inscription that followed.
Earlier, I mentioned my trip to the Alliance Theater to see Medea starring Phylicia Rashad. I first saw Phylicia Rashad at the Alliance in Blues for an Alabama Sky, a play written by Pearl Cleage. I loved that play, which we saw on the theater's smaller stage. Pearl Cleage instantly became a playwright I followed, but when her first novel came out, I was ecstatic. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day blew my mind. As much as I love live theater, nothing replaces the personal connection with a novel for me. For me, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was the perfect combination. It went on to be an Oprah Book Club pick, which made it popular, and Ms. Cleage wrote a sequel (I Wish I Had a Red Dress, which I thankfully snagged an ARC of while working at the bookstore). It may not be my favorite novel of hers (If I had to choose, I would probably pick Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do), but it was her first, and I never knew she would write a novel, so it has a special place in my heart. While working at Murphy's Restaurant (where I met Mr. Nomadreader) in Atlanta, Pearl would come in semi-regularly. I never waited on her, but I could also never find the words to tell her what her writing means to me.
I feel as though I've bared my soul to you in this post. These books (and authors) are so incredibly personal to me I feel their summation almost defines who I am. Writing about them has made me nostalgic to revisit these favorites too. I'm not much of a re-reader, but these novels deserve for me to read them again, when I'm at a different time and place in my life to see if they still resonate so strongly with me. I hope to start re-reading these favorites soon, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on them again.
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