Ten (or more) Books

There's no way to properly discuss ten formative books in a Facebook post. Books have been far too much of an influence in my life for that. But after the fifth or sixth time I'm tagged on a meme, even I start to notice.

Trying to choose only ten books is... difficult. I started reading at age three, or so I'm told, and haven't stopped since. I don't consume books at the rate I did as a young person, mostly because I'm old and tired and after a few pages I fall asleep. It's also much more slow going reading a nonfiction book on history or philosophy than the paperback novels I devoured as a youngster. But if there's a good mystery on my nightstand, it'll be consumed posthaste.

Here's my books, in no particular order, with honorable mentions:

1. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I discovered this book about the time Nancy Drew was losing her appeal for me. As much as I adored Nancy and her titian-haired adventures, she was always getting captured and having to be rescued. Scarlett O'Hara captivated me because she stepped up, took responsibility for herself and everyone around her, saved the farm and her family (sometimes kicking and screaming) and did it with her own skills and the tools she had at hand. At first she relied on a man, and when he abandoned her by the side of the road in the middle of a war zone, she shook it off and rescued them herself. My parents were concerned about my fascination with this book, because of its racial politics and questionable view of history. They shouldn't have worried; the racial politics (and Scarlett's moral shortcomings) flew right over my young head. It was simply the first book I'd read in which the woman saved herself.

- Honorable Mention: Black Beauty by Anna Sewall. How much of my love for this book was because of its point-of-view structure, its examination of the times in which Sewall lived, its vivid descriptions... and how much was because like most young girls, I adored horses? Unknown. I just know that Black Beauty lives on in my mind more than The Black Stallion, King of the Wind or any of the other horse tales I read as a girl.

2. Imzadi by Peter David. I discovered Star Trek the summer before Next Generation premiered. I couldn't get enough of it, catching every episode on syndication, and was glued to the television for each TNG episode. Naturally, I read the books. Every mass-market paperback I could afford, including those of this up-and-coming fellow named Peter David. Imzadi was one of the first for which I splurged on a hardback, and quickly became my favorite. It explores the backstory of Riker and Troi, and forms the most fascinating time-travel story paired with the best love story in Trek. It works as a romantic adventure as well as a Trek story, and I read it over and over in my teens.

Honorable Mentions: Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno, which was my favorite read-to-tatters Trek book until Imzadi came along, and Diane Carey's Final Frontier and Best Destiny novels, which explored the career of George Kirk and (in the latter) his relationship with young Jim. They should have filmed any or all of these instead of AbramsTrek.

3. IT by Stephen King. Most of King's work falls in the category of "favorite books," especially his earlier work. But IT tops them all. All of King's work is about a boogedy-boo on top and something else underneath: Cujo is about a rabid St. Bernard, but it's really about marriage and its trials and failures. The Shining is about a haunted hotel, but it's really about alcoholism in the family. And with IT, King used his favorite trope (the small evils of small-town life) to showcase not just a shape-changer that lives off fear, but the imagination of childhood and how we lose it as we grow up. We forget the magic and it takes an industrial crane to suspend our disbelief, and that is the great tragedy of human life. IT was the scariest of creatures because it could be anything or anyone. It could be whatever you fear, and that ordinary person you're chatting with (or the person in bed beside you) could turn out to be the monster. It is the only book I ever had to put aside because it scared me too much, but I went back to it a year later and finished it. To this day, it is my favorite book.

Honorable Mention: The Stand. I love destroying the world, and reading King's version of it is always a thrill ride. It is a close second to It, grander in scope but lacks a bit of that bone-chill. 

4. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Levin taps into one of women's greatest fears: becoming irrelevant, a subset of her husband, the loss of her identity in the roles that society created for her. Many thought that Levin was making fun of the women's movement when he wrote this book at its height, but he was really pointing the finger at the husbands who expected wife-mothers to cook, clean, raise the children, look like a goddess and properly submit in bed - and in turn, the fears of those men when they realized their wives were adult women with thoughts and feelings and motivations of their own that weren't entirely about them. Stephen King wrote a brilliant review of the Stepford Wives movie in the 1970s, in which he pointed out the true horror of the final reveal (SPOILERS): It's not that the Katherine Ross android has no eyes. It's that she's so much more beautiful than Ross, with perfect makeup and breasts three times the size of Ross's. Her horror is not just that her husband traded her in for a robot look-alike; it's that this was what he really wanted. Something beautiful, subservient and soulless, because her soul isn't important to him. So when the century turned and they made it into a fucking comedy I went a little nuclear. This isn't funny stuff, folks.

Honorable Mention: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. I lost interest in Anita several books ago, after the series became nothing more than sex scenes woven together by a thin plot thread. I can't criticize Laurell for her choice; the ardeur got her on the New York Times bestseller list, and who wouldn't want that? But I liked Anita the way she was in the first few books: Browning in hand, facing the enemy... and with Hamilton willing to kill off major characters. Anita's not just spending most of her time on her back now; the whole series has gotten too safe, because nobody important dies anymore. So it's easy to forget how damn fun those first five books were.

5. The Rainmaker by John Grisham. I've liked much of Grisham's work - A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief both were amazing novels that dug into the heart of American race relations and politics, respectively. But it's Rainmaker that has my love, because it's a sheer delight of the most cathartic manner for anyone who has battled an insurance company. It has a wry, snarky wit; you will find yourself giggling during a book that by all rights shouldn't be funny. After all, leukemia and domestic violence are a laff riot, aren't they? The movie apparently felt it needed to make Rudy less competent and the insurance company somehow more sympathetic, since it changed much of the court case to make it less of a stomping. But I've always felt that was a mistake, because watching that insurance company get the shit kicked out of it for evil claims handling is a joy to anyone who's ever had to fight for decent medical care, as I have my entire adult life.

Honorable Mention: Primal Fear by William Diehl. I read the book before it was a kickass movie, and it was a Swiss watch of a story leading to a twist ending not even I saw coming. I never liked any of the other Aaron Stampler novels as much as the first one, though.

6. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I hesitated before adding this one, because it's new to me. But it's also an awesome accident. Last Christmas I requested In the Bleak Midwinter by M.R. Sellars. Murv is a friend of mine, and his Rowan Gant mystery series is amazing. Strongly recommended, folks. Jimmy went to Books-a-Million (because he's not yet housebroken; indie bookstores, please!) and picked up the Spencer-Fleming book by mistake. I blinked twice: instead of Murv's Wiccan detective, I had a book about a female Episcopal priest who is a former Army helicopter pilot and helps the local police solve crimes. Sounds ludicrous... but it was amazing. I tore through that book and was delighted to find out that it was the first of a series. I started ordering them as I finished them, and soon I was ordering two at a time. Which reminds me: the next one is waiting for me, so I'd best drop by my bookstore.

- Honorable Mentions: The Tess Monaghan mysteries by Laura Lippmann. A series gets to be boring after a while - see Patricia Cornwell and Stephen White - but Lippmann's ex-reporter detective rings true because Lippmann herself was once a journalist. Also, Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, which I consider to be more emotionally compelling (and quintessential Christie) than her better-known Ten Little Indians.

7. Ender's Game/Speaker For the Dead/Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. Gah. I didn't know anything about Card when I began reading this series, and after Xenocide the Ender series failed to keep me. But those three books changed my vision of what science fiction could be. I've detailed in CultureGeek why I find such a cognitive disconnect between OSC's public ravings and the spirit of tolerance, empathy and forgiveness embodied in those three books; I won't reiterate them here. Suffice to say I'm glad to keep them in my library, and staunchly refuse to give him any more of my money.

- Honorable Mention: Twilight Eyes by Dean Koontz. Koontz is very hit-or-miss for me - mostly miss, to be honest - but this one is special. A carny who can see "goblins" - sadistic demon-like creatures who look just like us - begins to encounter more and more of them on his travels with the carnival, and realizes something terrible is brewing. It's a strange little book in that the first two-thirds comprise the original novella, and then he wrote a third section that kind of feels tacked-on. It was added to the paperback edition but does not appear in the original hardcover. It's not bad, mind you, and I can see why he felt the story wasn't over. But it's a hard break in the story, and probably the only thing keeping it from being one of my all-time favorites.

8. The Fan by Bob Randall. The what? you're asking. A ticking time-bomb of a novel, it was the first book I read told in epistolary format. That means the whole book exists as letters, newspaper articles, notes, etc. - nothing is in narrative. I found the structure fascinating, as well as the terror of this aging star's obsessed fan. It was made into a substandard movie in the early '80s starring Lauren Bacall and Michael Biehn, but the book is definitely worth your read; and the ending floored me. It had enough of an interest for me that I experimented with epistolary format in "Wonderland," my short story that took a science-fiction bounce on Frankenstein and won the Darrell Award.

Honorable Mention: Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Harris is one sick fuck; I didn't even finish Black Sunday, and that's rare for me. But his first two Lecter novels are masterpieces of psychological warfare and the forensics of the warped mind. When he tried to turn Lecter into a hero in his later books, at the expense of one of the best heroines in modern literature, he ruined the series. I hope the money was worth it; again, can't throw stones. But I could read those first two books over and over. 

9. Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison. How do you pick the best of Ellison? His use of the language is second to none, and as difficult as he may be in person, his commitment to excellence can't be dismissed. This is probably my favorite of his collections, though Slippage and Deathbird Stories also come to mind and Angry Candy has some fine pieces. Whatever you may think of Ellison personally, check out Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the documentary about his life and work. It doesn't pull punches about his failings, but I always find it inspirational, even as it reminds me how little I have done in my career, and how far I have to go.

- Honorable Mention: Unwelcome Bodies by Jennifer Pelland. Every story in this collection is strong, and years after reading it for the first time, it still sticks in my mind. Science fiction is at its best when it's making a subtle point, and Pelland's pen dissects our obsessions with beauty and the impact of our physical selves with brilliant acumen.

10. Watchmen by Alan Moore. Who wasn't affected by this? It's silly to even recap it, except that it was maybe the third or fourth graphic novel I read and cemented my fondness for the art form. As a rule I don't care for Moore - V for Vendetta has done more harm than good as far as I can tell, I was disappointed in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and I cannot even bring myself to speak of Lost Girls. But Watchmen was a true masterpiece. I suppose I was properly prepared for it; Jason Tippitt loaned me his copy right after I finished Arkham Asylum, which is also not light reading.

- Honorable Mentions: Fables Vol. 1, which introduced us to Fabletown in awesome style, terrific art and a fun whodunit. I often wonder if Once Upon a Time ever got sued by the creator of Fables. By Vol. 4, Fables had seriously strayed from its kickass beginning. I kept reading through Vol. 10, but I never really got past the lobotomization of Snow. Still, it was great stuff from the start. And I'd be remiss not to point out Why I Hate Saturn, which nobody's ever read but me. The first two-thirds of that graphic novel are the funniest I've ever read. It loses its way toward the end, but that hasn't stopped me from reading it over and over.

Damn. Now I want to go read.