As lover of all things written, I’ve been kept up many a-night, on weekdays even, turning the pages of a great book into the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t but it down. On a work night, even, knowing that I need to be awake to think enough in my job. A scarce few have made it to the ranks of my absolute favorite. These books have either agreed with an inner philosophy of mine or they’ve helped shape my view in some significant way.
1. Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence – This is a juvenile fiction book I read somewhere before middle school when I was totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic–particularly nuclear war–literature. Okay, so I’m still enthralled by post-apocalyptic literature and film. It’s a sick fascination, like watching a car crash in a way, except much more grim. I will watch The Day After every time it’s on. I just can’t help myself, despite the fact that these stories have always given me nightmares. Imagine being ten years old, barely understanding nuclear war, but gorging yourself on every post-nuclear war story you could find for a period of five years. I’ve read them all–Alas Babylon, A Canticle for Leibowitz, On the Beach, and many more whose titles I’ve lost over the years. Let’s just say that I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.
Anyway, Children of the Dust was always my favorite of these books. It describes the fate of one family, separated by misfortune–the father manages to find refuge in a fall-out shelter with a community of scientists while the rest of his family tries to live on the surface of nuclear contaminated world. The book is divided into three sections: the story of the family left on the surface, the story of the husband in his underground bunker, and, finally, a future in which the surviving daughter of the surface family meets the post-war born daughter of her father. Lots of death, lots of suffering. But, of course, few survive and a new life emerges that would make Charlton Heston scream, “Get off of me, you damn ape!”
It’s a great book. I know I read it several times as a kid and I got my best friend, who is not a big reader, to become obsessed with the book as well. One year for Christmas, she managed to track down a copy of it (it was no longer being published) so I own a copy. It is much thinner than my memory remembers. Well, it was juvenile literature and I was a kid. I will always treasure this book.
2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Who in my generation did not like this book? Well, I suppose some of you out there are not science-fiction fanatics like I am. This is another book from my childhood that made me gravitate heavily towards all the books in our library that bore the red little tilted planet symbol that signified science-fiction books. I was born into science-fiction when I read this book and there was no turning back! I recently bought this book for a coworker’s newborn baby when my company decided to give books as shower gifts. I figured that at some point the child would be old enough to read and enjoy it as I did… and I had a secret hope to infect more children with a love of science-fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time is a fantastic tale of a several genius children on a quest to find their scientist dad that brings them on a journey across space and time through a process called a tesseract. It’s about family and love and, at times, about the central character’s (Meg) growing up. There are two other books in the series, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet which I read. In one of them, I learned about mitochondria because the character Charles Wallace (Meg’s younger brother) was dying of a disease that broke down this cell organelle. I think they might have somehow had to go inside his mitochondria to save him, but I don’t remember. I think there was a whole complete universe within the mitochondria that they visited. Maybe I’m making that up–it was a long time ago. But I wouldn’t put it past L’Engle; her stories were always way different than anything else I’d ever read.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Okay, I know it is a bit cliche for an English major to adore a classic such as this, but I can’t help it. There are reasons a classic is a classic and this book is one that deserves such praise. I think the reason this book so special to me is that it was probably one of the first “classics” in high school that I actually found myself enjoying and understanding on some level. It’s easy to read. It’s tragedy and I looove tragedy. Especially tragedy in which you know right off the bat is going to end up as a tragedy. As you watch events unfold, you keep screaming, “Don’t do that!” and “Ugh! That won’t work.” and “Turn back! Turn back! This is the last point at which you can get out of this unscathed!”
Jay Gatsby is a man from a lower class background who desires, with every ember of his being, to become a part of the wealthy class and he wants it all for the love of a girl (of course). But he is nouveau riche–new money–and he will never fit in with the families of old money no matter how much he tries. For one slim moment, he does win the girl, but you know throughout the book, that it is not going to last because the relationship is impossible in impossible circumstances during impossible times. Of course, we’re left with a smoldering mess of tragedy at the end with only the narrator to spin the tale of the fading star the world will never know. I love the drama of a good tragedy! Did I already say that? Oops!
Even better, in the movie version, which is a fairly decent interpretation of the book, Jay Gatsby is played by Robert Redford… and, God help me, I love that man no matter how old he gets. *drool* I wouldn’t care one iota if he was nouveau riche or oldo riche–I’d take him as my lover any day! And I wouldn’t need one million dollars to persuade me to such an indecent proposal.
Anyway, The Great Gatsby is another book I’ve read several times and still managed to love. The more you read something of this caliber, the more details you find that lead you to admire the intricate pattern the author has woven into plot.
Because of this book, I learned the word “hedonism.” Whenever I use the word hedonism, the descriptions of the crazy parties thrown by Gatsby come to mind.
4. Passage by Connie Willis – I read this book on the way to and during my trip to Colorado with my parents in August 2002. My first return to Colorado since I left in July 2001 after a month-long sabbatical, there was a strange irony about reading a book written by a woman from the Denver area who had set the book in Denver. Even further ironic is the fact that Passage is about a young female doctor researching the phenomena of life-after-death. This book moved me in ways I can barely relate in words. The question is never fully resolved during the very shocking ending, leaving the reader to make of the topic what they will. My spirituality was stirred as I read this, and I kept wanting to say, “I believe. I believe.” I kept hoping she’d conclusively find evidence for life after death; like real life, she never found anything conclusive.
It was a really weird time in my life, halfway between a stage of anger and acceptance in my grieving process. On that trip, I also stayed at a hotel where the manager bore an uncanny and striking resemblance–I am not kidding–to my husband. He had his mannerisms, his friendliness, his receding hairline, his eyes, his speech pattern. I wondered vaguely if this were some half-brother of his from the biological father we never knew (which is entirely possible as my husband was born and raised for the first couple years of his life in Denver). I guess this book means more to me because of time in my life when I read it than anything else. I’m afraid to read it again in fear that it will stain the memory of it. Some of my friends were not as taken with the book as I and have found holes in the plot that I refuse to look at. This was my book at a moment in my life when I needed desperately to believe in something. Even if it is a work of fiction.
5. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Arthurian Legends told from the perspective of Morgana, King Arthur’s half-sister, this feminist perspective of the popular legend emotionally describes the colliding of two worlds: the matriarchal pagan traditions and the uprising patriarchal culture of Christianity. It jerked my heart strings because it so beautifully describes the pieces of Christianity I always had a problem with and points out the brutality of men in their dominance of a society. On the surface, it’s just a great story. This book moves like a symphony from beginning to end and, despite its many pages (500?), I never felt like it dragged. In fact, I was glued to it for three days straight (I’d have finished it sooner, but I do have a life). It caused my feminist side to scream with rage and my slightly pantheistic leanings to surface.
It isn’t all negative on Christianity, though. Morgana, the last High Priestess of the pagan sisterhood, finds peace with the new faith when she stumbles upon a nunnery and realizes that even Christianity has its own sisterhood of brave women bound by the tradition of a Earth mother in the form of Mary (Jesus’ mother, that is).
When I read this book, I was angry with Morgana for giving into the new society and for finding something good about Christianity in the nuns she discovered. For every resigned line, I thought, “Yeah, but, the nuns still have a secondary place in the Christian [Catholic] church!” (Whereas, in the pagan culture described in this book, only the women were priests.) However, as I’ve started to come to terms with my own history, I’ve started to realize that I’ve now changed like the character Morgana, and I’ve found my peace to reconcile with Christianity. I guess you can say that I’ve grown with the book, even though I haven’t read it in several years. I remember enough of it for it to still affect me in new ways.
6. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – Sort of post-apocalyptic, this book is about a crux in the evolution of humanity where the Overmind (read: God) has decided it is time for us to move to the next level of being. A race of beings called the Overlords, who look suspiciously like what the Bible has described as demons or the devil, are dispatched to Earth to help us in this transition to our higher state. The sad thing you learn towards the end of the book is that the Overlords do not have the capacity of mind to evolve beyond what they are, so they can never become one with the Overmind, and therefore, can only serve the Overmind in the capacity of helping each race (for, we learn, there are many in the Universe) into its transition.
Childhood’s End has slight references to Biblical themes such as Revelations and makes a case for how man has interpreted past intervention its growth by the Overlords (thus, the image of the devil). I really liked it because it suggested that much of what we as a race misinterpreted in reality became myth, thus binding strongly with my own philosophies that there’s a point in life where science and religion become the same thing. We never really learn exactly what the Overmind is–it does not take away the belief in God or a godlike figure, but supports the idea that man is a part of something bigger than himself.
I also have taken a liking to the genre that describes an evolution of man into something else. Other books in this genre that I have loved in the last few years are The Harvest and Spin, both by Robert Charles Wilson.
7. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – No one points out the ills of society or the fallacies of human nature better than Kurt Vonnegut, which is why I was always one of his biggest fans, may he rest in peace. Cat’s Cradle is the pinnacle, in my opinion, of his cynical outlook on life with such gems as his invented religion of Bokononism and his made-up words like foma. Foma, the basis of the Bokonon religion, is “living by the untruths that make one happy.” Oh, what joyous fodder for a religious skeptic like me!
This book is cleverly told by an unidentified narrator and describes the destruction of civilization (as is a common theme in Vonnegut books) by a scientist who invents a material called ice-9 which has the capacity to freeze all water it comes in contact with instantaneously. Reflecting the very real fears associated with the real life discovery of atomic power, Vonnegut’s scientist is so wrapped up in the fascination of science that does not even realize the potential threat of his invention, nor does he particularly care for he is completely oblivious to human relationships.
I love this book because it just eloquently satirizes human relationships and religion, and emphasizes the responsibility of scientists to society. Something in these pages resonated with me and I found myself exclaiming often, “You are soooo right!” as I chuckled. Vonnegut, in my eyes, will always be a genius. His fiction and his non-fiction papers tell me that we think a lot alike. Although he may be slightly more cynical than I am!
8. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – This is another story about the collision of two very different worlds. It’s the future and the human race has discovered another race (I think it might have been a planet off of one of the Centauri suns, as those are the closest to us and used often by writers). We send a convoy to study this race who has apparently welcomed our presence with open arms. Of course, we screw up and majorly blunder in our relations with this culture completely alien to our own.
The science is less important, for the genre is just the convention Russell chose to construct a unique setting for her story. The theme is old–two different cultures collide and misunderstand each other. We could find this going on elsewhere in the world as western civilization tries to negotiate with tribal cultures we can barely understand. It’s really a great sociological study of humanity, as seen through the safety of a telescopic lens so that no fingers can be pointed directly at anyone. But you can draw your own analogies as you read; they are certainly plentiful.
9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – The reason I love this book so much really has mostly do to do with a description of a very future Earth enduring a natural death under a swelling sun and a disappearing moon. I think it’s chapter 9 or 10. It occurs sometime after the Time Traveller has left the Earth of the Eloi and the Morlock. In his rush to escape, he accidentally pushes himself very far forward into the future to a time long after the human race has gone from the Earth.
The descriptions in this chapter are so vivid, I could see it clearly in my head like a chilling painting I always think of whenever I’m reading something about how things will come down in the solar system as the sun dies. I remember that I was reading this chapter while babysitting some kids who were playing as I only half-monitored them as they moved about their basement playroom. Suddenly, that playroom just dissolved around me and I was in the time machine with the Time Traveller, watching these crab creatures move about the scorched surface of an unfamiliar Earth. I got goosebumps, which for me is always a very clear indicator that I’m emotionally moved.
This chapter taught me a very simple lesson (which is also, I think, what it is intended to have taught the Time Traveler): human existence on the planet is only temporary. In the grand scheme of the universe, we are inconsequential and small. The things we value and worry about and put all of our thought into are transitory. Everything we may do probably amounts to nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Somehow, this line of thought urged me to live for the moment, to not allow myself to become weighed down by the small stuff. It should have depressed the crap out of me, but the sick person that I am, the sense of smallness and insignificance somehow makes me feel comfortable. And, to me, there’s always something beautiful in a universe, even in its destructive capacity. I find assurance in the understanding that no matter what we do to the planet, we have no power to rule it. We can make conditions here unbearable for life (and thus snuff ourselves out) and other life will emerge that can live in these conditions. The planet will go on, whether or not the human race is on it, and to me, there’s God in that. We have our chance to have a go as minders of this celestial garden; if we ruin it for ourselves, then something else will emerge that takes over. And the planet will go on until the sun burns out. And more suns will go on after ours burns out. The Universe is constant, I believe. Even after one is extinguished, another is created. I think the cycle of energy that creates life and binds the collective Universe is endless. After all, how did we get here now?
Ahhh, but I babble… Sorry!
10. It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong (with others) – I know it’s cheesy for me to tout this book, knowing how much I love Lance Armstrong and feel he can do no wrong. BUT, this is a really, really inspirational autobiography about finding the strength to overcome a horrible situation and not only come back to life, but come back kicking and punching and shoving your way through it. Folks, this man was within inches of his life. As he states repeatedly in this book, he should have died. Yet, for reasons not even he understands, he happened to survive. As he openly admits, some people die from cancer and some live.
This book is such a testimony to fighting your way back from any great loss and findng strength in the lessons learned. I especially loved the duality of Armstrong’s statements about his brush with death. He tells you repeatedly that he would rather he never had to go through this horrifying experience; yet, he openly admits that going through cancer gave him a drive for life and his career that he never had before, without which he would have never gone on to earn the seven Tour de France victories. I understand this duality because I’ve felt it myself with my husband’s death. While I desperately wish that I would never have lost Mike, I have found an empathy within myself towards other people that I never had before and I’ve discovered a more devoted thirst for life. I think this book validated these feelings that I thought were kind of shameful to even consider. It’s an odd thing to almost love and depend on the one thing that crippled you so badly.
I read this book during my time in Colorado when I was becoming an avid cyclist. I think I used this book as my personal gospel for finding a way to get beyond my own grief. It also showed me that death is random. Here is a guy who was so close to death, yet he survived; it made me see a randomness that was somehow comforting when thinking about my husband’s death. And the cycling was inspiring which, as you know, brought me back to life too.