These are 10 books (some are series) that have stayed with me long after I finished reading them in various ways & for different reasons:
1. Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmens
My grandfather used to read this to me when I was little, and I still have most of it memorized. I can’t tell you how many sleeps of my childhood started with “in an old house in Paris, all covered with vines.”
2. Fifth Grade Can Really Kill You Barthe DeClements
I didn’t fit in at school. This novel about a young girl with a learning disability isn’t rocket surgery, but it spoke to my little kid heart… ESPECIALLY the scene with the uncle and the earrings. Helen is a walking disaster, and so clueless as to her role in life that it’s just tragicomic, mostly because I identify with all Helen’s embarrassment; having a learning disability and being gay are the same- both are ways for kids to eat at your vulnerability.
3. Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
I was in 8th grade when I read this, and it literally engulfed me. When my mind got on the plane with Brian, it was one of the few books that could keep me from switching back to thinking about what was going on at “home.” It’s about a boy going to visit his father in Alaska, and while they’re in the air, the pilot has a heart attack and dies. Brian crashes in the woods and the story follows him until he’s rescued. He ends up getting rescued in the fall, so there’s a second novel that Paulsen wrote for fans wondering if Brian would have made it through the winter. It’s a love letter to Brian, but as Paulsen has said, absolutely unlikely.
4. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
If you have been paying attention to me at all over the last 25 years, you know that I am The Receiver. I cannot think of that book without finding a piece of myself and my abuser, because Lowry’s prose regarding the transfer of memory through touch is so incredibly apt. I didn’t live my abuser’s life for her, but I felt it on my skin, especially when I was Jonas’ age. It was my junior English teacher that gave me the book, and transferred me out of her class before I could tell her how much she changed my life by having given it to me.
5. The Babysitters Club
I, like every teen girl of that period, was obsessed. And you all know what I mean when I say I memorized the first fifty pages. However, I am betting that I am one of the few fans who absolutely wanted to marry half of them. Kristy, the stereotypical lesbian, was not one of them. She was so over-the-top that I thought she was bossy and rude. And then I learned that she was just from the northeast. Plus, Stacy and Claudia work so much better when you think of them as a couple. They weren’t in the series, but in my head they were so that I had someone that looked like me. My favorite book of them all was when they went on a cruise, because the way their stories were woven together was in first person, through reminiscent journal entries. And all of the sudden, I’ve found my root. As an aside, I think those books did literally help me. There were concrete suggestions for working with kids, laid out in a fantastic format.
6. Richard Wright’s Entire Body of Work
Anything by Richard Wright, ever. At HSPVA, my freshman English teacher opened my eyes to Wright, and he gutted me like a fish with both Native Son and Black Boy. I went on to read everything I could get my hands on containing his name. He knew what it was like to be gay, because he was black! Even if it wasn’t literally true, it felt like it could be true, and it sustained me through the worst year of my entire life bar none, including this one. Not only did Richard Wright connect to my soul, he led me to a gay black author named James Baldwin. However, I didn’t know he was gay when I read “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and finding it out post-read was seeing Jesus, absolutely no quotation marks implied or necessary.
7. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
The question was about books that have affected your life. Didn’t say whether it had to be positive or negative. The first time I read this book, I liked it. Wasn’t bad. Hell of an ending. Well, as you might remember, I had two English teachers my junior year because one ceased to enjoy my company. Because of this, I read it with a class both the first and second semesters of junior year. And then I read it again my freshman year of college. If I have to hear that line about keeping vaseline in your gloves to keep your hands soft for your wife, I will VOMIT. Sufficed to say, I do not believe it stands up to multiple readings, because the more I read it, the more the horror set in. And that’s when the brilliance of the story set in. The ending bang is not the shot of George’s pistol, but when it hit him that he would have to live with this monstrosity every day for the rest of his life. I only had to do it for a year and a half and I felt insane.
8. Eat. Pray. Love., Elizabeth Gilbert
I loved that book for the same reason a lot of other women. It gave me permission to be myself. It reveled in it. That book is all about learning to accept yourself for who you are, even the dark asshole parts you’d rather not… especially if you are raised in the South and can’t even allow yourself to think about things that just don’t need to be talked about. It is the entire reason I am so comfortable talking about what happened between my abuser and me. Elizabeth Gilbert was the first person to show me in color that my abuser’s reaction didn’t matter. Her reaction was her reaction. What I could do was treat the situation with as much love and respect as I could, and hope that she would just figure out on her own how to deal with it without shutting it down. Her silence has been the biggest gift she ever could have given me, because it allowed my thoughts to blossom and take up space in the world and to change- often as much as six impossible things before breakfast. Liz Gilbert is so soda pop in person that you’d think her book is, too. But then there are lines like this, and this is a warning if you haven’t read it. This will and should kick you where it hurts.
When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.
It takes a superhuman effort to become an emotional cartographer, because I realize that my blog entries are a function of mapping and I feel that weight heavily. And at the same time, it makes me feel like a billion dollars that in generations to come when people are looking for me, they can Google “Leslie Lanagan” and really, REALLY find out what I was like… which is difficult to accept, because now there’s no need for an airbrushed headstone. Oh, well. Maybe someone in Corpus Christi will put me on the hood of their car.
9. Barbara Kingsolver
I just put the author’s name instead of one particular book because every one I’ve read has just hit me where I’ve lived. The Poisonwood Bible was revelatory because I found myself in Leah, who goes from shy Baptist preacher’s kid to African freedom fighter (moves to Africa with her white family, marries while there). Leah has the life I want to achieve one day- overcoming tragedy to fight another day. She reminds me of myself in other ways, too, especially that she’s so eloquent and precocious having been born a preacher’s kid.
Animal Dreams is a love story to and about a family woven together in letters from one sister to another. One is in small town USA, the other in Contra-ridden Nicaragua. It’s dedicated to a Portlander I’ve grown to love- Benjamin Linder, who died in the crossfire between the Sandanistas and the Contras while trying to build a hydroelectric dam designed to serve both sides. It was given to me at a time in my life that I really needed it… struck such a chord that there’s still a copy of it on my dresser so I can pick it up whenever I want.
10. The Bible
Little known truth. My blog is named what it is because “The Bible” was already taken. But to me, they are interchangeable. I don’t care if the stories are factually accurate, because if you’re looking for facts, you’re in the wrong place entirely. I’m looking for the Truth, the part of wisdom that comes through whether the variables are the same or not. Let me explain what I mean with the sentence “I was raped.” It is an extreme example, I know, but stick with me. Would you ever turn away someone’s truth if they sent you a note that said “I was raped” because something was misspelled? Words being misspelled change the factual accuracy of the sentence, but not the content behind it. The Bible is the same way. I do not reject the Truth that comes out of stories like the feeding of the 5,000 because it doesn’t scare me that it might not be factually accurate. It scares me that someone could read a story like that, in all of its moral lessons, and reject it because it never “really” happened.