Friday, December 13, 2013

The Books of Our Lives

I recently posted a meme on my Face Book page that quoted author Neil Gaimen: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose.”

(For those of you who don't know the term “meme,” it's those posters, cartoons, glib sayings that are found and re-posted, shared, liked and commented on. I have no idea where they come from but I enjoy the hell out of them.)

It got me to thinking not of my five favorite books but the books that mark passages of my life.

When I was eight and we were flying back to the states from Midway Island, I was given a copy of “The Bobbsey Twins” to keep me out of trouble. No offense to Flossie and Freddie but they were baby books. I was used to reading books four levels above my age. I snagged my sister's Hardy Boys book instead. That might have been the start of my criminally fun career in mystery writing.

Or, maybe it was Nancy Drew. These were the first books I read without pictures. Very grown-up. Not that my family could afford to buy me the entire collection, but my friends and I traded them back and forth, much as I do now with mysteries.

I remember spending one hot summer languishing on the couch, a fifteen-year-old devouring “Gone With The Wind” and playing Scarlett O'Hara in my mind, Southern accent and all. I also remember a trip across country, sprawled in the backseat reading “Grapes of Wrath” as we followed the Joad's journey to the Central Valley of California.

As a library assistant in high school, I found a copy of “Madame Bovary” hidden in the back room. “Too explicit,” explained the librarian, but I was mature enough to be allowed to check it out. I never did find the dirty parts.

While the other kids threw spitballs in study hall, I read nearly all of Thomas Hardy's works. I also dabbled with Tolstoy, Jewish literature and Tudor history. To say I was bored with the school system is an understatement. To say I was considered pretty boring is probably true.

James Michener came into my life when I was babysitting and found the novel “The Source” on the shelf. I also found a cache of Playboy magazines, but that's irrelevant to this blog. “The Source” remains one of my favorite books.

Does anyone remember “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” a small book of poetry by Rod McKuen? That was the romantic period of my life. It was the same time many of us were reading “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran and preaching peace, not war.

But, I did enlist during Vietnam. That's why “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is still one of the funniest books in my mind. Maybe you had to be in the military to really appreciate the absurdity, something we enlisted men dealt with on a daily basis.

Books have been like landmarks in my life, indicating a stage I was going through at the time. It became all about mysteries when I was in my mid-thirties: Robert Crais, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly. I was lucky to have met these terrific authors on many occasions after I started writing mysteries.

Lately, I've gone back to an old love, historical fiction. I wanted to know why Alexander was great (he actually was), why Rome fell, how England developed. With the help of Alison Weir, Edward Rutherfurd, Ken Follett, Colleen McCullough and many other authors, I have figured out the entire Plantagenet family tree and much more. I'm not sure why it's important but I feel I need to put history in perspective. I need to define my version of events in a way that satisfies my curiosity.

Ask me what my favorite book is and I'll ask you what decade of my life you're talking about. For some of us, chapters in our lives are defined and honed by the chapters we read. The books we choose reflect who we are at that moment. I'm sure you're now remembering the books of your life. Look at the book on your night stand and it will clue you in on who you are right now.


Liane Spicer said...

I love book memes! I read Catch 22 more than 20 years ago and I just didn't get why a journalist I admire said it was the greatest book of the 20th century. I didn't get the humor. Since then I've come to regard most of life as absurdist theatre, so I should probably give it a re-read and see if it falls into place now.

Charles Gramlich said...

I read that poetry book by McKuen. Never heard anyone else talk about it. I enjoyed it. Good post. I'm going to do a retrospective on some books in a few posts as well.

Sunny Frazier said...

Liane, there's a website with quotes from Catch-22. I think your head has to be in just the right place to "get" the book.

Charles, I wanted this post to make others take inventory of the books of their lives. Looking forward to your retrospective.

Che Gilson said...

I can never just pick a few books. I've read too many and loved too many!

James R. Callan said...

“Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” was a favorite of mine - 40 something years ago - and still has a place in our library. Thanks for a blog that brings back many fond memories of books we've read.

Holli Castillo said...

I also loved Catch 22. And Nancy Drew was one of the first mysteries I read, along with Trixie Belden. It is too difficult to make a list of 5 favorite anythings for me. It not only depends upon the period of time you are asking about, but depends upon the day of the week and my mood when you ask me. There are too many things to enjoy to narrow it down in a list.

Casey McGuire said...

Thought provoking as always, Sunny, though I do have to expand on your closing thoughts. Another thought stream is some people read to remember or to try to understand their past, some may be trying to shape their future, and have known those whose choice of reading material was a means to escape the present.

Isn't it another way of saying we are trying to sate a hunger? Then the mystery becomes why do we have that hunger.

Years ago my sense was that your spirit was young and neither old or ancient filled with past lives. Wondering if your old love of historical fiction fascination is proving me wrong and you are trying to fit together pieces of your past lives?

Does having a copies of your books on my coffee table mean I want to EEEEEK

To know you are crazy you have to be sane...

Patricia Gligor said...

I've gone through lots of phases in my reading choices too. I clearly remember the days when I read everything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Tender is the Night" remains my favorite.
And, I've gone through phases in my writing too. Poetry as a young girl and teenager, short stories in my twenties and thirties and novels after that. :)

Lou Allin said...

I was reading Death of a Salesman at the age of ten. I caught the idea that this guy Willie was kinda sad. Other than that, old cottage reads included The Princess and the Goblin, and no, I didn't want to be a princess. I preferred my belt knife.

C.L. Swinney said...

Sheesh I feel inadequate for not knowing some of the authors you talked about Sunny. Looks like I need to do some catching up. My favorite is a Hillerman novel. Guy just pulled me into his writing allowing me to escape reality. Thanks for this great blog!

marja said...

I had a grandmother who kept me supplied with Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the Oz books, and anything else I wanted. Thanks to her I discovered that The King and I was actually a book titled Anna and the King of Siam. Yes, the books remind me of periods of my life, but more than that, they make me think of the people in my life at the time I read them. Great post!
Marja McGraw

Carole Avila said...

Here's a sad little comment, not intended to be whiny. I didn't get books growing up. We had a Dr. Seuss collection of 5 books that were well used by the time I got them at age 3. I had to learn to read on my own because it was "every man for himself" in our dysfunctional home. Hop On Pop was my favorite until I found a tattered copy of P.D. Eastman's "Go, dog. Go!" and from this I fell in love with the craft and knew I was destined to become a writer--yes, at 3 years old. Family trips to the library were rare, but in the 8th grade Denise Dixon let me read her Nancy Drew book, "The Secret of the Hidden Clock," (in a fabric cover!) and I was blown away. From then on, I couldn't read enough, secretly dreaming of the things I would one day write. Right now I'm reading sci-fi fantasy, and now that I'm officially published, I suppose I am sort of living in a dream world!
~Carole Avila

G. B. Miller said...

My tastes in reading have always fluctuated based on whatever it was I was doing at a given point in my life.

Not too many books have stuck with me throughout the years, although the ones that did, are the kind that would have me answering way too many questions as to why.

Eileen Obser said...

There are so many books; I could never just pick a few favorites. W. Somerset Maugham was a favorite in my teens. I've probably read all his novels and collected stories (they remain on my bookshelf), and I think "The Summing Up" and "The Writer's Notebook" inspired me to be a writer. I keep them nearby and quote him in my classes. Thanks for this blog, Sunny!

Joseph Chiba said...

I have "The Once and Future King" on my nightstand right now, Sunny. I first read it over 20 years ago, in college, when I was a bit of a fantasy geek, and I'm revisiting it now to remember why it's the masterpiece it is. Choosing a favorite book is like choosing a favorite pasta for me. There's no way I could ever stop at five! And I believe that not only do we define the chapters in our lives by the books we are reading, but also that we choose to read or not, and that defines us as well. Like Carole Avila, and probably many others, I learned how to read on my own, and it wasn't until my college days that I could really write with any confidence. Even a simple essay for my classes. But somehow I found the magic of books and thought someday I might even be able to write one and become a published author. That day is still on the horizon, but I can see the landscape clearly now. I read children's books now, in the mix, I guess as a way to catch up on what I missed as a child. But I think we ultimately choose to read about the things that make us the people who we are. I guess that makes me a bit of a fantasy geek still. Thanks for sharing.

Sunny Frazier said...

Not to worry, Chris. I was a geek and I'm sure lots of people either haven't heard or haven't read many of the books I read.

Carole, we were a military family. Books were too heavy to move. I discovered the Bookmobile at the age of 8 and my world opened up.

Eileen, I went through my Maugham period and also my F. Scott phase, Patricia. I haven't read classics in years. So much new material to keep up with!

Crystal Brock said...

Ahhhh, The Grapes of Wrath. What an excellent read. The imagery haunts me still. Love your posts!