The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
I knew the tales of Camelot and King Arthur when I was a kid. They didn’t appeal to me then and they didn’t appeal to me as a young adult. I was a feminist before I knew it and all of the tales were dominated by men, which did not interest me. All the chicks in the traditional tales are either dimwits (Gwenhwyfar) or evil, ball-busting witches (Morgan le Fay). None of them have any personality or power; they are boring one-dimensional stereotypes. The Mists of Avalon tells the tales of Camelot from a woman’s point of view. And what women they were! Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) isn’t an evil sorceress, she’s misunderstood and wants to be loved! But her aunt Morgause sure is a jerk. Gwenhwyfar has a three-way! Igraine was a secret bad-ass who fell in love with a not-so-secret bad-ass and produced Arthur! Lancelet isn’t so gallant. King Arthur is wonderful, but sometimes spoiled and petulant. If you’re a reader like me, you’ll also appreciate the boatload of prequels and sequels.
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
When I first considered what books changed me, this is the first book I went to. I don’t necessarily relate to James: I’m not an orphan, no mean aunts abused me and unfortunately, no one has ever given me a sack of magical, glowing-green, crocodile tongues. What James and the Giant Peach did do was make me realize the potential for storytelling and fiction and OMG books are amazing. This is the first “chapter” book I was exposed to, thanks to my third grade teacher (shout out to Mrs. Cypher nee Garrett.) This is also the book I chose to read from for the library’s 24 Hour Read Aloud.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Oh, Edmund Dantes, how could Mercedes give up on you? Thanks to a very good friend (looking at you, DWR) I was more or less forced to read this book. There was some cajoling involved (“C’mon, you’ll love it. Honest!”) All I knew about Dumas was The Three Musketeers movie- which, no. Again, being contrary means saying sorry because I loved- devoured- this book. It introduced me to a new genre (ADVENTURE!). I moved on from The Count of Monte Cristo to the rest of Dumas and then to books about pirates and prison breaks. The biography about Alexandre Dumas’ father (the son of an African slave and French nobleman) called The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss shows that many of Dumas’ characters were inspired by his own pops.
The Bachman Books, Stephen King
You know the movie The Running Man? It came from this book of short stories. And it’s the worst story of the four! The other three stories, Rage, The Long Walk, and Road Work would all be amazing movies. I was probably too young to read this, but whatever. This book inspired me in two ways. First of all, as a budding writer, it introduced me to the idea of short stories. I mean, I was 11 and wanted to write a novel. There’s not much to go on at that age. But a short story? Oh yes, that could be done! Second, it was the first time I was ever emotionally invested in a character. I loved Peter McVries (The Long Walk) and his scar and his sub-conscious death wish (which honestly was just a preview of coming attractions for me).
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
Any time I mention enjoying Rand books, I immediately get flamed for being an egoist, an elitist, or a Republican. I’m none of those things. Not too many elitists work for the public library (I’m just saying). Like any book, you should take what you want/need from it. I didn’t swallow her philosophy whole, but you know what? She had some smart things to say about the nature of happiness and joy, and valuing yourself. I’m not going to push an old lady into the street and I donate to charity, but there is something to be said for being aware of your worth. Self-confidence is sexy, yo. It’s also simply a good story, especially if you like heavy industry, politics, and trains. And for readers that object to Objectivism (see what I did there?) as a philosophy, read this awesomeness.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
During my final semester as an undergrad, I took 19th Century Russian Masterpieces (I was there a long time, it was slim pickins’ at that point). The reading list was intense. Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), Chekhov plays, Dead Souls (Gogol), Pushkin, and of course, the granddaddy of Russian novels, War and Peace. I was dreading it. I was intimidated by it. The name alone hurt my stomach. But since I wanted to graduate from college before I was 50, I sucked it up and opened it. Oh. My. Word. Four days later, I finished it, crying. It’s the Russian Gone with the Wind and don’t let anyone tell you different. Go Team Andrei!
I could write about a ton more books that have made a difference in my life. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything taught me how to make a perfect hamburger and boil an egg. I have a line from a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem tattooed on me, so I’ll include him, too.
What books made a difference in your life?