My long-time friend and occasional commenter KMS tagged me with this on Facebook. As usual, I gravitate toward the long form, by which I mean I don’t know when to shut up. So I’m posting the “15 books” meme here, too, with a bunch of unsolicited editorializing. The rules are to give “A quick list of 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you — list the first 15 you can recall in 15 minutes. Don’t take too long to think about it.” I didn’t think too long in making up the list, but now that I’ve got it, I’m still thinking.
Here’s my list, in the order I first read them, and why these books mattered to me.
1. Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy – I’ll let Harriet stand in for all my other childhood books (from the Bobbsey Twins to Little Women to Narnia) that promised a life of adventure, travels beyond North Dakota, and a world where a girls’ smarts counted for more than her looks. Unlike KMS, I can’t list the Little House books, because they were set partly in the Dakotas, a little too close to home (though I read and loved them anyway).
2. Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun – I read this the summer after seventh grade while lying in a shady hammock. I’m not sure why my parents let me; maybe they had no idea about the book’s contents, or maybe they’d just entirely stopped paying any attention to the books I read (it was hard to keep up with me). At any rate, it put me off of war, forever.
3. Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds – Yes, really. This book occupied a long, long stretch of my eighth-grade English class. I read it surreptitiously under my desk. It wasn’t just a font of sex ed; it has lately come in very handy in understanding the Mark Sanford scandal.
4. Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman – I picked this up in the college bookstore toward the end of my undergrad career. It was assigned for a course on Canadian literature that I didn’t take but soon wished I had; I raided the whole shelf for that class, scoring Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and some Alice Munro stories. I fell in love with Atwood’s style, acerbic humor, and non-dogmatic, unromanticized feminism.
5. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye – Of all her novels, this is my favorite. She perfectly captured Mean Girl behavior long before Hollywood discovered it. And it’s very darkly funny.
6. Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body – I probably should have included more nonfiction on the list. This book launched my interest in understanding embodied experience, which has been my main scholarly preoccupation ever since. It’s also lively and accessible.
7. Barbara Duden, The Woman under the Skin – Duden showed me that what Martin did for women’s contemporary experiences was also possible to reconstruct historically, though a good deal trickier. And so my dissertation was born.
8. Eva Heller, Beim nächsten Mann wird alles anders – The story of a young German student who bounces from one unsuitable boyfriend to another, this was the first novel I ever read independently in German. It’s light and apparently fluffy, but it’s also wonderfully witty social satire. I was so proud of myself for reading it all on my own. It also resonated with me because I’d just broken up with my grad-school boyfriend, and I needed to believe “with the next guy, everything will be different,” just as much as I needed to poke fun at the idea. The second time I read it, my now-husband and I took turns reading it aloud at bedtime. That was even more fun. (And everything really was different.)
9. Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger – All of Lively’s novels wonderfully capture the contingency of history, both personal and large-scale, and the ways those different histories collide. This one also includes a shocking ending. I’m planning to re-read it this summer, and I’m hoping it’ll be just as good, now that I know how it ends.
10. A.S. Byatt, Babel Tower – This is part of a quartet of novels that follows the sweep of British history in the mid-20th century through the figure of a smart young woman, Fredericka, and the people in her life. Babel Tower, the third of the series, is my favorite of the bunch, despite (or because of?) its disturbing mixture of sex, violence, and maternity. I read it shortly before we decided to have our first child; it both expressed and quelled some of my fears about combining motherhood with the life of the mind.
11. Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep – The main character, Bonnie, is one of the most convincing female characters that I’ve ever seen in a book written by a man. Her insomnia perfectly echoed mine during early motherhood – and convinced me that I either was not completely nuts, or at least had lots of company in my craziness. (Another cheat: Stephen McCauley’s True Enough, which I read around the same time – early 2001 – did much the same for me, with another marvelously loopy female lead.)
12. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible – While I like almost everything Kingsolver has written (except Prodigal Summer, which is too preachy), this is her most rich and nuanced novel. The mother’s hard choices still haunt me. I read it during the penultimate phase of my dissertation, and I was so captivated, it derailed my writing.
13. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections – I almost refused to read this because of the hype. Then, one day in Berlin, I ran out of light reading and it was the only promising English title in the little bookshop where I was sought my fix. Franzen hooked me first on his dry wit and then on his ultimately compassionate take on his characters and their foibles. This was during the final-most phase of dissertating. To this day I blame Franzen for almost making me miss my own defense.
14. Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife – Of all the books on my list, this is the one I’m least likely to revisit. I read it while my husband was almost mortally ill. For me, the book is neither about time travel nor transcendent love. It’s the most vivid depiction I’ve seen of the cascade of catastrophic events leading from illness to decline to death. It haunts me and I wish I’d never read it.
15. Ian McEwan, Saturday – I appreciated how deftly McEwan handles his post-9/11 theme, but mostly I was drawn in by the suspense and the characters. On Chesil Beach is just as good in its own way – I guess I’m cheating on my 15-book limit again! – but since I have to choose, I’ll say Saturday resonates on more levels.
I’ll stop before I cheat again. I can think of lots of non-fiction, a bunch of classic novels (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre fired my adolescent imagination), and more childhood favorites. And shouldn’t the Moosewood Cookbook be on my list, too? Oh, wait, I am cheating again.
I’ll break the rules one last time by refusing to tag another 15 people (as the meme demands), but if you want to leave your own list in comments or link to it elsewhere, please do!