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July 01, 2005

Books That Changed Our Lives

Last week the Book Tarts revealed what we’ve been reading lately.  This week, we asked each other what book most influenced us as we evolved into writers. None of us could choose one, of course, but we tried to keep it short. We’d like to hear from you, too.

From Sarah Strohmeyer:

I was recently asked to participate in our local library's series on life-changing books and the one I picked was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith.  I read that book twice in the summer of seventh grade and have picked it up often. For one thing, Betty Smith wonderfully captured the flavor of an immigrant-rich Brooklyn. Tough, smelly and painfully beautiful. She taught me that characters could be multi-dimensional, good and bad at the same time. That Francie saw the beauty in her drunken, handsome father Johnnie Nolan and, therefore, so could we. That the rather zaftig and morally loose Aunt Sissy (whose inspiration later sued Smith) sought warmth, not sex. But what really blew me away was Katie, Francie's Germanic mother, whom I despised, then later pitied when I read her as an adult. "Sometimes it is better as a child to be needed than loved," is a line that haunts me still as a mother.

Other more contemporary books that I've loved and re-read include Susan Isaacs LILY WHITE, Fay Weldon's THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, Anne Tyler's BREATHING LESSONS and THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood. Women all. Hmm.

Nonfiction books that had a huge impact on my thinking were CITIES ON A HILL by Frances FitzGerald. Also PARALLEL LIVES by Phyllis Rose, a study of five Victorian marriages.

What I like, I guess, is ripping back the veneer and getting to the heart of the rotting wood. What I get from my non-fiction and fictional favorites is the ultimate, reassuring lesson that no matter how weird we seem, how self-centered or generous, lovely or evil, at the core we are all extremely similar, faulted human beings.

From Susan McBride:

My gosh, at this point in my life, I've read more books than I can recall, though I'll try to narrow down my choices for "most influential titles" to a few.  There was JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes.  I was such a history freak in grade school, and this novel about Johnny and pre-Revolutionary Boston (gotta love those Sons of Liberty) is one that stuck in my head, a precursor to my John Jakes' days when I'd hit the bookstore for the fattest historical novel I could find. I stumbled upon a copy at a church rummage sale not long ago and will read it again, one of these days.  I must confess that I'm a lifelong GONE WITH THE WIND fan, in the same way I love REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier.  Margaret Mitchell sucked me in with the first sentence:  "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton Twins were."  Du Maurier did it, too, with that unforgettable, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."  Both books are rich in characterizations and atmosphere, unraveling stories that I want to go back to time and again.  A contemporary book that rocked my world is LYING AWAKE by Mark Salzman.  God, what gorgeous prose!  I've read it twice already-and made my book club read it--and I know it won't be the last time.  "The nuns drifted through the garden like sailboats"--oh, boy.  I want to be Mark Salzman when I grow up.

From Harley Jane Kozak:

It’s tough to elaborate on the 3,254 books that influenced my life, so I’ll confine myself to two. The first is Lady and the Tramp, the Little Golden Book. It changed my life because it was the first I read completely by myself, as a first-grader. (Nowadays, if you’re not reading Faulkner by Kindergarten, you're considered developmentally slow, but that’s another blog, for another day.)

The second was a sci-fi book called Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin, given to me by an insightful brother-in-law. It was about a girl on the cusp of adolescence, living on a spaceship, when I was on the cusp of adolescence, living in Nebraska.What got to me about the book was a single sentence, which I shall now mangle in attempting to paraphrase: “The universe was filled with people and there wasn’t a single, solitary spear-carrier among them.” That idea was so potent to me, that everyone matters, that everyone counts, a principle that flew in the face of my own junior high Quest for Acceptance tendency to separate people into categories of “cool” and “why bother?” That in the movie of life, there are no extras. What a concept

From Nancy Martin:

I clearly remember the dark day I finished all the horse books in my elementary school library. (Oh, Walter Farley, what would Freud say about your black stallion?) I was bereft. Grudgingly, I agreed to try Nancy Drew and never looked back.  As a teenager, I savored every word written by Mary Stewart, and I still admire her evocative way with language.  In college—years I spent mostly hiding in the quiet stacks of the library to read instead of going to class--I consumed Heart of Darkness, All The King’s Men, Gatsby and all usual the dead white men.  (I loved Richardson. Go figure.) The summer a childhood friend committed suicide, I discovered The Bell Jar, and suddenly books became much more meaningful.

But the books that have become my haven, my inspiration, my constant companions are those written by Jane Austen. They are always tucked into sofa cushions or splayed open on my nightstand and now downloaded to my PDA.  Yes, I love Anne Tyler, Elinor LIpman, and Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon, but last year my beloved copy of Persuasion finally fell into such bits of dust that I was forced to replace it.  Oh, happy day! Seeing those familiar words printed in a different font, arranged in new formations on the pages, makes them new again. I have found new passages to savor. With her writing, Jane has taught me to seek out sly wit and astute observation.  I am drawn to characters who appear to hover in the background, who are quiet in their desperation.  They roil with passion and intelligence and yearning that is irresistible to me.

What about you?  Can you name a book or two that influenced you?


I just wrote something for another column about my introduction in junior high to the original Gothic, REBECCA, which inspired me to keep reading--and eventually write--books like it. I've gone through everything by Victoria Holt--one of my favorite romantic suspense writers--and would give anything to have more of those! Since then I would have to put MISTS OF AVALON near the top of the list, and most recently THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, one of the most beautiful books I've EVER read!

Trixie Belden in grade school. Loved those books.

Go Trixie - I had every one of those and must have re-read them at least once if not twice. I would have to say Judy Blume, for anyone over 30 discovering Peter, Fudge and later the characters in her older books - Tiger Eyes, Gym Shorts, Margaret - is a pivitol moment in growing up.

Certainly Alice Hoffman, if you haven't read Turtle Moon run, don't walk and get yourself a copy. Any type of Mystery novel - Encyclopedia Brown anyone? and later Robert B. Parker, Laurell K. Hamilton, Nancy A. Collins, Susan Issacs.

Books are like old friends I've discovered, I've never lived without stacks of them throughout my home and as our apartment has shrunk and we've had to make decisions about "stuff" the books are still there.

My early influences were Madeleine L'Engle's Murry family books (the WRINKLE trilogy and loose sequels), Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden stories, and Agatha Christie's novels. As I grew older those books had laid a foundation for interest in P.D. James and Evelyn Anthony.

Recently, I've been picking apart Andre Dubus III's HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES because they both achieved the same level of characterization I am working to write.

My copy of LITTLE WOMEN is missing its cover. Sometime in the past 35 years it finally fell off because I read it so much. Susan, I, too, have a thing about GONE WITH THE WIND, and I agree with Bethany about Alice Hoffman's TURTLE MOON. But I think the book that made the most impact was THE GREAT GATSBY, which, in its simple accessibility manages to present such complicated issues and characters and a murder to boot! It is, to me, always an English major, the perfect novel.

I want to jump in with "Me, too!" on all the books mentioned so far.

I used to watch my daughters read The Babysitters Club books and worry that they'd never amount to anything and it was all my fault for encouraging pop fiction. Now they're reading Henry James and David McCullough, so it all works out in the end.

One author more than any stands out from my childhood: Judy Blume. What more can you say? Even today, little girls want to read "Are You there, God? It's Me, Margaret." Oh, great, now I gotta go get a copy to read this weekend!

Judy, of course. But in addition, Enid Blyton was captured my attention as a young reader. I read the one book I had of hers until the spine was well worn and the pages were dark brown. We lived in the States by then, and she wasn't published here. A couple of years ago I bought up all my favorite series (Mallory Towers & The Twins at St. Clares) through eBay. I reread them all during maternity leave. What a joy!

Ditto on "Gone With the Wind" and "Rebecca."

I will add to the mix "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen (my favorite of hers) and "Great Expectations" by Dickens. Oh, and I will have to add "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Huge as it made me cry.

Me too on Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew--my grandfather used to buy them for me, and he kept a list of which numbers I had. Then later in life when they were still at my parents, most of them got ruined in a flood. :( But I did love them, and now I'm re-collecting!!!

Oh, me too, me too. Nancy Drew, Little Women, and Wuthering Heights, which may explain the dysfunction of my romantic relationships for the next few decades. And The Mysts of Avalon--that one redefined feminism for me. What a book!

I still have my yellow-spined Nancy Drews in a box. Can't bear to part with them. And LITTLE WOMEN scores high with me, too, and I think I read every Judy Blume book available when I was in the throes of adolescence. I also read the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Loved those. Honestly, there's nothing wrong with being book-crazy. We all turned out okay, right? (I mean, no one's in jail, are they?)

Tough one. To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that really moved me. Gone With the Wind. Still have my original set of the Little Women series.

As a Mom, I have to say if you haven't read Barbara Parker's Junie B. Jones books, you're in for a treat. The only ones my son would read - that's how he learned.

And Harry Potter. These books got families talking about books again and got my entire family reading together - last July, it was a race among me, my mother, my 12-year-old daughter and my 32-year old brother to see who could finish "Order of the Phoenix" first. I won, but I had to stay up all night do it. Seven hours straight from midnight and it was worth it!

Other books have changed my love life, but I don't think this is the right blog for that discussion....

Ah, what a lovely trip down memory lane.

I had one special summer, after fifth grade, when my reading list contained the most wonderful books in the world, and I remember almost every one. A Wrinkle in Time, My Side of the Mountain, And Now, Miguel, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Later, Agatha Christie and Tolkien and Rosemary Rogers and Victoria Holt.

Jeez, no wonder my writing is so schizophrenic!

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