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Talking about amazing books is an occupational hazard… moving from the general to the specific to the intimately personal brings a whole new level of discourse. #10 life-changing books was the twitter challenge from a friend … wow!

Just ten, was the first thought that came to mind, followed quickly by this could be fun and not bad for the blog. I need to wave a neon banner saying there’s the no way can it be an exhaustive list, because a) I’m too book addicted to settle on a single list, and b) there are way too many books that I haven’t had the complete  & utter pleasure of experiencing to eliminate them wantonly. As I’ve been packing and unpacking boxes of them, I decided maybe 10 important books per chapter of my life, yes?

What ending up emerging surprised me in that some of the choices I didn’t realize I considered “life-changing”, they were just part of how I framed my life and the questions I asked. Here we go with a non-comprehensive, chronological list of books that have brightened, punctuated and/or otherwise rendered my childhood richer:

1)      Three Little Animals by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Garth Williams). Goodnight Moon is sweet, and Runaway Bunny makes me cry – however, Three Little Animals is the one I packed in high school bags, and college boxes. Dug it from storage to read to babies, and taped pages when they loved it too much. The copy was used when my parents bought it to read to me, and now the pages are slightly brittle, feeling “rusk-ish” to a stroking finger. Brown tells the story of the aforementioned animals who live in a lovely cottage in the forest edging town. Beset by curiosity, the first two don human clothing and wander into the city. Clad in the traditional hats & suits of the modern age, they quickly lose each other. The youngest, showing a patience similar to my own, mimics the dress of the others with materials from the forest and goes to find them. Clothed and conventional (even the forest-y child), they are lost among the crowd – when suddenly a fierce wind whips hats from humans and animals alike and the little animals recognize each other and themselves and race pell-mell back to their true identities in the cottage near the woods, beside the city.

2)      The Trumpet of the Swan by EB White.. EB White wrote three iconic children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. Each works as narrative beautifully. and each have their adherents. For me, despite my appreciation of erudite spiders and adopted rodents, it was always Louis. Think of it — the Daddy-cygnet bond and the trope of “finding your voice,” unique and individual made it resonate honest and true for me. The story of a blues-playing bird might not seem particularly realistic fiction, however, there were accents — for example, the red winged blackbird omnipresent in the scenes near the lake. It sounded incredibly descriptive and beautiful, this fictional world — when I first came to Gettysburg and saw the red wings perched on the waving stalks of grain against the saturated summer sky, my delight was probably out of proportion. To this day, I delight to see them arcing and perching in the fields as I go about my routines.

3)      Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne Shirley was my go to of childhood. Don’t get me wrong, Half-Pint, and Jo March had their place… I love them both – it’s just Anne made me. Of course, I loved her adventures and how she made a home and family with Marilla and Matthew – that’s not why the books are still on my shelf, and they have been re-read countless times. It’s because when she traveled down a simple dirt road, it became the “White Way of Delight,” the millpond was a “lake of Shining Waters,” and she knew that there are people tuned to you like music notes, your “kindred spirits.” She loved writing, like many protagonists in books I love. For Anne, however, writing and words were more than mechanical tools, they were loving conversations with a page, rendering it alive and joyous… and thus, ambition was born.

4 & 5)      In Praise of Folly by Erasmus & The Prince by Machiavelli.  As I’ve mentioned, my Daddy loved 2 things completely — God and education ( and women, but that’s another post or possibly a therapy session). He read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey were educated through reading and commenting on the classics — so that became something we did together. Throw in Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, and you’ve got philosophy, politics and religion by the time you’re 10. Rereading them as an adult, I found that what I had taken away as a child was a certain wide-eyed cynicism for authority and those that tell me “what something really means.” Of the three, Erasmus with his openhanded, if loving and humane mockery of everything remains a favorite.

6)      Favorite Poems Old and New.  The brothers and I were expected to pick a poem, read through it a few times and then perform it for the family and an ancient tape recorder. Though there was grumping, the boys and I have no fears of public speaking to this day. Certain authors were staple — the rice and beans of those nights — Eugene Field, Kipling, Carroll, and Tennyson. Though if you ever need it, I can delight (and have) an audience of 40 with a rendition of Thayer’s Casey at the Bat…. a resume item with limited appeal, but hey…

7 & 8)      The Merchant of Venice &King Lear.  Saying I love Shakespeare is rather like saying you read “all the newspapers,” it lacks a certain specificity. At one point, Daddy would let me stay up to watch PBS rebroadcast the plays as performed by the Folger theatre… and they were spectacular. My Barbies would act out the plays afterward, and I would try and wrap my southern girl tongue around the richly nuanced language. Will taught me that what’s written and what is can be two extremely different and complex ideas. One of my favorite plays of all time is Merchant of Venice. Portia is sexy, bright and articulate – well able to hold her own in a battle of love or law. The concept of Shylock as other was disconcerting, and made me a little squeamish at loving the play. Portia’s dialogue in the courtroom, other than the oft-quoted (and rightly so) speech about mercy, her arguments against Shylock are vile, boiler-plate anti-semitism. Although, given the Bard’s predilection for humanity as opposed to dogma — it can be argued that rather than being anti-Semitic, Merchant holds a mirror and is more about societal prejudice much in the same way Othello’s “otherness” makes him vulnerable, but that isn’t what makes him falter. Lear is more straightforward and Cordelia became a model for “family love….” The idea that one loves in action as opposed to language — not a bad life goal.

9) A Wrinkle in Time. Meg Murry, as I have noted before and probably will again, emerges as one of the strongest, coolest heroines literature for me. It’s partly because she rejects the concept of “hero” so decisively. When Ms. Matthews read the story to us in 3rd grade — I didn’t feel the fear, that I’ve since been told “kids all know,” the wonder of the experience and the thrill of solving the puzzle of freeing her Dad & Charles enthralled me. Meg acts through the prism of both logic and emotion — making mistakes and moving forward, flawed but spectacular. Also, I want a Ms. Who, Which, and Whatsit in my life — they should just come with birth!

10) To Kill a Mockingbird. With one book, Harper Lee revolutionized southern lit. Don’t get me wrong, Faulkner, Chopin, O’Connor, and Percy still painted pines, red clay, and drawls with brushes that rang true…. yet, close your eyes. Imagine a Southern gentleman — go ahead, I’ll wait. For 75% or perhaps 78.3%, the image that will form will be Gregory Peck in a white suit — Atticus Finch painted by Hollywood. Atticus’ dynamic with his children, his passion for “right,” his compassion, his intelligence mark him as both a hero and a dream. When you’re a girl, and they asked you to think of Prince Charming — Disney held no appeal for me. My “prince” was a combination of Atticus Finch, Glenn Miller (the dude made swing sing), Henry Knox and Mercutio (kind of the Han Solo of Romeo & Juliet)…

There are more, which I will save for the next chapter — maybe some of these are weird choices for ‘kid lit,’ but hey it opened the world for me, stretched my mind and made my world view unconstrained in so many ways!

chapter 1:

  • The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring  (from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado) — Daddy believed in art & music as passionately as he believed in books — so if a classical concert/opera/oratorio came into town we were there… he would have loved watching my oldest perform light opera
  • Hallelujah Chorus (Handel’s Messiah) — every year we attended the Community Chorus production, and OMG, I learned how moving music can be
  • Bach’s Aria — Goldberg Variations (Simone Dinnerstein) — love her treatment! My piano teacher, a German refugee insisted you spend a year mastering Bach, and then she would assess which composer you should attempt next — I was Chopin or Liszt while my little brother was Haydn or Grieg
  • Half as Much (Rosemary Clooney) — this was one of two songs Daddy would sing to me when I was sick, Van Morrison does a cover that reminds me of childhood
  • You are my Sunshine (Papillon) — there are approximately three billion and two versions of this — the other song my Dad would sing — the cajun version here is one I used for my girls when they were babies
  • When the Red Red Robin (Carmen McRae) — my Mama was like me, singing was more an exercise in optimism than actual pitch, but the woman could whistle anything. When she was busy, you could get a Broadway show — or something like this perennial favorite.. When the girlies were babies, and less likely to critique my vocal skills, I sang this to them every morning as they woke and I did that 1st diaper change.
  • Ten Feet off the Ground (Louis Armstrong) — seriously, who knew? the song is from a Disney movie called, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band –– all I ever knew was Louis’ version — and he served as a gateway drug for hard jazz later….
  • Elmer’s Tune (Glenn Miller) –my parents were older and were both WWII/Depression era kids — so the brothers and I grew up with more Big Bands than rock bands. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James and Duke Ellington — they still make me want to dance. I learned to these melodies, standing on my Dad’s shoes…
  • Come on In (Buck Owens & Brad Paisley) — one of Owens’ last recordings was with Brad Paisley — still has that California sound
  • Dumb Blonde (Dolly Parton) — Miss Dolly was adored, even by my mama who generally considered short skirts and large chests a sign of dissipation — and this song was a joke between us
  • Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (Loretta & Conway) — as much as she loved Dolly, I can’t say she felt the same about Loretta Lynn — and unlike many women she found Conway smarmy — but this song
  • Upside Down (Diana Ross) — my little brother, who is infinitely cool, taught me to disco to this — yeah, not in front of the parents
  • Yesterday (the Beatles) — my Dad thought the Beatles were hippies who did drugs, and made freaky music that inspired serial killers (thanks Manson family) — however, I played this on the piano one afternoon, and he came in from his study asking about the beautiful melody — 15-year olds aren’t particularly sensitive with “I told you so,” although in the wake of his musical epiphany he opened his mind, and more importantly for teenage me — his wallet, to new styles of mids
  • Catch a Falling Star (Perry Como) — in other awkward moments, watching your mom “fangirl” — my mother idolized Perry Como — I try to remember the “ick” factor for the daughters when I’m drooling over a singer, actor or historian (yep, brains are sexy)
  • Thanks for the Memories (Bob Hope) — if he had a special, the TV was on.
  • It’s been a long long time (Bing Crosby) or Don’t be cruel (Elvis) — similarly treated in the house and I watched my mother cry as they both died the same year…
  • Wouldn’t it be loverly (My Fair Lady) — my 1st traveling Broadway show — I could mimic Eliza’s every pause — playing this over and over, it’s just lilting. Though my favorite is the feisty number, Show Me, where she asserts her independence and demands less talk, more action….
  • Get down tonight (KC & the Sunshine band) — when I was little & mischievous, I would sneak into my big brother’s room & play his music — this was one of his albums & it was so different from what played in the family room!!
  • Mama Tried (Grateful Dead) — Merle Haggard was another in the brother’s rotation — when I got into the Dead (another chapter) — he told me if the Dead played any Merle, he would show up. I remember calling him from Wisconsin the 1st time I heard the Dead cover it….

Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit. —> Neil Gaiman

Take care,
Aly

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