I started this last week when I listed 7 books which shaped me during my childhood. Today you'll get the rest of the list of influential books from, this time from my adulthood.
8. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This was the first piece of adult fiction that really grabbed me and made me care deeply. As I said last week, I've always tended toward biographies and memoirs. I had certainly read works of fiction before this that I enjoyed but this one just hit me in a far more powerful way. I was bumping along the road with the Joads. I worried about what would happen to them. I wanted to know they could survive. Of course, not all of them do and they find California is not the promised land they expected, but there is a seed of hope when the formerly self-involved Rose of Sharon, who has just lost her baby, nurses a man dying of starvation. Aside from capturing me all along the journey, it was the book that made me appreciate how honest endings aren't always happy but they may give us just enough hope.
9 & 10. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom & The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. I am listing these two together because I read one right after the other in the weeks after my Nana died. After back surgery that went horribly wrong and set a cascade of bad things in motion she went from healthy and active to dead in 4 short months. She was my last living grandparent and a member of what Brokaw calls the greatest generation. I was broken hearted and for the first time I had to walk my children through the grieving process as I trudged through it myself. Each one of us grieved in very different ways. I didn't hide every tear from the kids. We cried together plenty of times but I was concerned that if I really fell apart and wailed like I wanted to it would be too upsetting for them. I let them see me grieve, but in private moments when the girls were at school and my son took his nap I'd pull out the book and let the flood of tears start. These books may not be considered great literature but they provided a badly needed catharsis during those days.
11. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. Yep another one from Steinbeck. I read this a number of years after Mr. Lime and I did the bicycle trip from Pennsylvania to California. That trip was such an education about human nature and my own country's geography and various subcultures. I was curious to read the observations of one of my favorite authors. Although his trip had taken place decades earlier than mine and was just the author and his dog in a camper, I wondered if I might find any parallels. I was not disappointed. His reflections were thought provoking and tied up a few loose ends for me even as they generated new questions. The difference in time periods between his book and my trip made for some interesting comparisons in my own mind. It's a great book for anyone to read but I am so glad I had my own cross country experience first. It made reading this book like sitting down to have a drink with a fellow traveler and sharing notes.
12. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder,Insanity, and the Making of the OED by Simon Winchester. This is about the process of publishing the original Oxford English Dictionary and the friendship which developed between the main editor and one of the most prolific contributors of entries. Ok, stop yawning now. I mean it! This is not a boring book. It's fascinating. Winchester did a masterful job of weaving factual tidbits in with the narrative of the two main characters. I came away really amazed by the perseverance, organization, and attention to detail which was maintained over the duration of this herculean effort. There is a mystery about the man who contributes so much. As for the details revealed, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. The subtitle is not mere hype. Laugh if you want, but I gained a whole new appreciation for my dictionary. Ok, so I am a hopeless nerd. The bit about the Funk & Wagnalls last week didn't already convince you of that?
13. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Ms. Nafisi is one of the intellectuals who suffered during the early days of the Islamic revolution in Iran. She had grown up in relative freedom, able to dress in western clothes, to read world literature, and to study and teach among men and women. Suddenly she risks being beaten if she is not veiled. Foreign books are censored. Colleagues are fired and students are expelled. Nafisi begins a secret book club of women who are determined to continue pursuing their love of literature. They have difficulty even obtaining the books they want to read. The authors and works they choose come to represent so much more to them. During their book club meetings they can discard the veils, share their hearts, find strength from the stories and from each other. I have to admit, a lot of the works the author links to are not ones I ever read or may be ones many people have complained about being forced to read in some class. Understanding what they meant to these Iranian women who cherished them enough to take real risks in obtaining them made me examine how much I do or don't value my own intellectual freedom. It made me see how it can all be swept away so quickly. That was a fairly sobering realization.
14. A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Ok, so they are technically children's books and I was actually introduced to them when I was 14. Therefore the argument could be made that I should have included them last week. Well, I'm the one doing this book meme and who says I have to follow any meme rules much less the ones I make up myself? And don't even start in on me about listing 2 books under a single number. Uncle Shelby is all about breaking the rules. He'd certainly understand. At 14 we stand on a cusp. I certainly did. Mom was recently engaged and we moved into her fiance's house for the summer as sort of a trial run. My brother would get up early in the morning to walk two miles to sit in our empty house rather than stay at the zoo in the fiance's house. I started working for the first time. One job was not enough to keep me out of the house. I found two. One was helping an older cousin of mine during a day camp program she ran. She brought these two books to share during story hour. After all the kids went home I asked her if I could borrow the books because I enjoyed the parts she shared. I read the rest of the poems and found verse that tickled my funny bone, validated having a slightly skewed perspective on things, and played with words in the most fun way. Other poems were touching in their tenderness. At the age of 14, when you're not quite grown but not a little kid, when you have a home but not really, when maybe you have a new family but you aren't quite sure, when you have all these divergent parts of you that want expression and you can't quite find the way...well, it's very nice to have a somewhat subversive grown up who takes you by the hand and suggests breaking dishes as a way to avoid the chore of washing them. When Uncle Shelby follows that by speaking of a game called Hug-o-War before describing the evils of growing into a sourpuss perfectionist you realize there may just be other people out there who "get" you. I've made sure my kids had lots of access to Shel Silverstein and all the small people in my life get copies of these books as they learn to read. They are simply satisfying selections of silly, sublime, and subversive verses.
15. Traveling Mercies and Plan B by Anne Lamott. I read these books this past year. Again, I'm drawn to memoirs. Lamott shares her journey of faith in a way that it alternately hilarious and thought provoking. The last few years I've become increasingly unsettled in my own faith for a lot of different reasons I don't intend to go into here. I am disquieted and restless and quite honestly, a bit sick of some of what I see around me that strikes me as rather callous and Pharisaical. I do continue to see some fine examples too, for those I am grateful. In Lamott's books I see a real person who is very willing to admit to her own frustrations and failures as she trips and stumbles while learning to walk the walk. I appreciate the honesty and the humor she brings to the telling of her journey.
16. Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project by Dave Isay. This is an outgrowth of the project begun to document and oral history of American life in the voices those who lived the stories. StoryCorps interviews are conducted and recorded under the supervision of facilitators trained to enable regular people to interview their friends, family members, or neighbors. The book is excerpts of the most deeply affecting interviews. As a person who often looks at a stranger and wonders what stories make up that individual's life, I truly enjoyed getting a taste of these personal narratives. They are not always polished story telling but they are authentic and powerful no matter the form. I loved the validation this gave to the stories everyone has.
Yes, you got more than 8 books. I could easily give you more for last week's list or for this week's list but this ought to keep you busy for a little while. If you'd like to share the list of books that had an impact on you, I'd enjoy a peek at what pages spoke to you.