Top 10: Books that Changed (or Made) My Life

When did I first decide that I wanted to write? It’s funny… I don’t remember. I wouldn’t say that I have always wanted to write, but I can say that I’ve always loved to read.
This week, one of the assignments that my writing partner and I gave each other was to choose a book that made us want to write… and of course, I could not think of just one. Which led me to wonder, is it fair to try and only choose one, or would it be more honest to say that it was all books, or maybe the act of reading itself that gave me the urge to write? For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I’m hesitant to try and answer that question. At times, a single phrase in a book overwhelms me with inspiration. Other times, I find a deep sense of gratification in the story as a whole. And then there are the moments when the sheer act of turning a page, of smelling an old book, of holding it with both hands, is a deeply spiritual, emotional experience.
As we discussed our picks, I was struck anew with the realization of how deeply influential good writing is and how transformative it is when people learn to read. As a young girl, my days were filled with great stories, pages, and words. When my frizzy-haired, stick-figured self had no one to relate to, I always found deep comfort in the weight of a book in my hands, and a deeply awkward main character, not unlike myself, that could be found within it’s pages.
And at every stage of my life, it seems, I’ve found book after book that meets me where I am emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and it takes me somewhere new. Even better, I love to find out that the people who wrote them were also once awkward, inquisitive, imaginative young people that found books and authors that inspired them, too.
The Official List:
1. I Think that It is Wonderful - I read this over and over when I was little! The start of my love for poetry.
2. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume – between the ages of 8 and 13, I read this about 400 times! It was the first book that I remember mentioning World War II, Hitler, and anything about being a Jew. Note to teachers and parents: I recall this book much easier than any elementary school history lesson…
3. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster – the first book where my teacher told us to think about writing themes and messages, rather than merely text.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle – between the ages of 10 and 14, I read this about 800 times! The characters were so unique, but utterly relatable.
5. Harry Potter (1-7), J.K. Rowling – controversial those these books were in my household, they had a huge impact on my life and my desire to write. My own peers, kids who at one point felt indifferent to reading where consuming these books like after-school snacks – all 700+ pages of each one! And suddenly, the underdogs, the awkward, geeky kids had a hero who fit their mold. And suddenly, it was cool for teenagers to talk about the things that are important in life, like love, friendship, good versus evil, and ask ourselves, could we be as brave as Harry, Ron, or Hermione?
6. A Great and Terrible BeautyLibba Bray – initially, it was the sheer gorgeousness of the cover that made me pick this one up. But the style of writing, the character of Gemma Doyle, and the recurring theme of coming of age as a young woman had me hooked from the first page. (Sadly, the sequels don’t quite live up.)
7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – by the time I finished college, I had read this book for a class no less than 5 times. A little daunting after the third time, but I still love it. The first time I was assigned to read it was in my high school British Literature class, and after reading it we had to write a 10-12 page research paper. To this day, that paper is one of my proudest accomplishments [135 points out of a possible 135 points from one of the most demanding teachers at our school!) and I am still utterly fascinated by the layers and layers of meaning to be found between it’s pages, not to mention the inspiring author herself who dominated her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron – at the age of 18, no less!
8. The Reader, Bernard Schlink – It’s simple: this book changed my life. I was working at my hometown library as a page, and one day I came across this book. The cover looked interesting, but I was drawn to the simple, mysterious title more than anything. It was the Oprah’s Book Club seal on the cover that kept me from actually checking out for 6 months… When I finally did pick it up, I found a story so rich with compassion and raw, utterly human history that I could not believe that I had not even heard of it before. It’s been made into a great film, but I highly suggest you read the book first. If I had to choose, this would be the book that made me want to be a writer.
9. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – If I were stranded on an island and could only bring with me one book, this would be it. The characters, the plot, the writing – all work together to create this magnificent and completely original love story. It’s like listening to your favorite album on repeat – it just never gets old, and you feel like the characters are real, like they live in your head, and that each word was written for you. DO NOT under any circumstances see the film before you read the book, or I swear you may never pick it up. Even if you read it first, I’d say the movie is a rental at best. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, that cinematic “interpretation” is like getting McDonald’s when you ordered filet mignon.
10. Atonement, Ian McEwan – Of all the books I could have chosen to take with me when I traveled in Europe, I impulse-purchased this one in the airport just before we left American soil. Talk about context. Once again, the writing itself is reason enough to love it, but the characters and the story are so vivid and heartbreaking that it was glued to my hands for the first two weeks, save for that whole seeing the world part of my trip… Again, this book has a film adaptation, and I am happy to say that it is every bit as good as the book itself, although I always recommend reading it first.
Tell me, what are your favorite books?

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Why does this post not have a title? Because I’ve chosen the anti-theme.The theme is : there is no theme.The theme is : there is no synopsized, clever label for what my life is about right now.
Writers get very fussy when there seems to be no linguistic solution for whatever it is they feel. At least this writer does. Articulation is my life. I’m not the try-this-on-for-size writer that says the same thing fifty different ways of average. No. A clear, concise, carefully-crafted thesis is my policy. On the one hand, I’m proud of it; words are a finicky medium.
The best writing is like oil-painting. I’ve always found both to be difficult, because at some point you just have to leave the piece alone. An extra stroke or word or phrase will only make it muddy. The image will lose it’s vibrancy and it’s clarity, it’s meaning.
Sometimes writers don’t know when they’ve written something that it makes readers feel like they’re running a marathon on a path made of… pudding. Thick, messy, icky-sweet, utterly debilitating. They’ll never make it to the finish-line.
On the other hand, the times – like now – when I feel like I can’t articulate myself, I become too restless to let the writing process flow easily. I write, erase, rewrite, and slaughter.
Clear and concise thesis? Abandoned.
I’m left with scraps and ramblings. I’m left with a muddy, indistinguishable image of my life, where my thoughts and feelings run together like all the wrong colors from a dirty brush.
And I also find reading others’ writing tough to swallow. I’m often envious of the phrase or analogy that they were smart enough to articulate before I could reach it myself.
Yes! That’s exactly what I mean/think/feel! Damn. They said it first…
So I am both frustrated with myself and starving for inspiration, for something that doesn’t make me feel like this whole writing business is a spectacular myth. My solution-oriented self isn’t handling this well, clearly.
Before I get too whiny and cynical about “how hard writing is,” let me just say that I haven’t given up. I know this is only a funk, a season, a ‘tude, a phase. I will exhibit confidence in my writing through action, if not in thought.I need to put myself out there more. I need to write, write, write, even when other things may feel wrong.So I will.

Puking Pink: My Adversity to Breast Cancer “Awareness” Campaigns

I’ll tell you the truth : I love October, but I hate breast cancer awareness month.
Please hear me out, because I’m the daughter of a breast cancer survivor.
To make a very long and painful story extremely short, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago. She had a mastectomy, chemo, and went into remission. Five years later, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer – breast cancer that had moved to other parts of her body. First, it was a tumor that had wrapped itself around one of her lower vertebrae. Then, it was her femur, her humerus, her ribs. She had radiation treatments. She found a cancer treatment center to go to where the doctors could give her more holistic treatment options. She started taking vitamins and eating better and pursuing clinical trial treatments that might help her. In 2008, we found out that it spread to her liver. She still kept moving forward, finding more ways to treat her illness. Her list of treatments and counter-treatments is a million miles long.
Eight years after her second diagnosis, here she is. And here I am. We’ve learned a lot about what’s important to us, and we’ve learned that we are blessed beyond our wildest understandings. But that’s not to say that the heartache of living with cancer isn’t abundantly, painfully real to us.
We pray that someone finds a cure to this disease. We pray that others find the strength and the faith to battle their own diagnoses and that they can learn to advocate for themselves. We pray that people learn to pay attention to their own bodies, their own health histories, their own well-being.
However, I just cannot stomach the pink-ribboned, horrifically over-sexualized, over-commercialized breast cancer “awareness” campaigns that have come out in recent years. Whether it’s buying a bag of chips with a pink ribbon on it, sporting a “Feel Your Boobies” t-shirt, or posting a vague and suspiciously sexual statement in a Facebook status, it has all become an easy target for manufacturers and commercial advertisers to target their most vulnerable and influential demographic: women.
Should we be donating to a good cause and raising awareness? Yes. But at what cost?
Even the products that sport the pink ribbon have been known to contain harmful cancer-causing chemicals. And there are other campaigns meant to “raise awareness” that raise questions about their moral and ethical treatment of women.
So the question becomes: are these companies milking the breast cancer issue and are you willing to continue buying into their exploitation?
Because here’s the thing: raising awareness and finding a cure breast cancer is a good cause. But not all campaigns “for a good cause” are good for us.

The Elusive Age.

I wish I knew what this thought meant, but I have no way to articulate it, except to repeat it over and over again. I want something new. Am I thinking clothes? Or house decor? Or a new design for my blog? Or a new haircut? Or… (_fill in the blank?_) No, it’s deeper than material things. I wish I knew what it meant. And why.

Perhaps it’s an emerging pattern of nostalgia. Every year at this time I remember that I spent a Fall in Europe wandering and reading and writing and learning to my heart’s content. You can take the phrase ‘travel bug’ literally. It’s an itch that must be scratched and when you don’t it gnaws away at your thoughts, convincing you that if you could just go someplace new, everything would be better.

But am I now incapable of being happy where I am? I am happy. I have a wonderful husband and a good job doing something I actually like, and I have a great group of friends and family. I just have this restless feeling. Like I’m waiting on an elusive “new”, an elusive “better,” an elusive “different”, and I don’t know when or where or how I may find it.

A lot of people my age feel this way. A lot of people who were once my age felt this way, and they either did something great or resigned themselves to the waiting and the wanting. How will I deal with it? How will my friends deal with it? Our days aren’t meant for biding our time or waiting for something to come to us. We’re meant to reach out and grab hold of what we want. But what if we don’t know what that is? How do we find out what it is? What is the “great” that we might do? I’ve just asked a lot of big questions, many of which may not be answerable. It’s better than not asking, though. It’s better than not contemplating what it is we’re doing. I found this quote the other day, and I really hope that I can find a way to live up to it, and that my peers do, too. I have a feeling that this is what we want, and what we are most afraid of.

“What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.” -Eleanor Powell