I am not known for being hesitant to offer my opinion. I would stand on a street corner and pass out opinions to unsuspecting passers-by if they would just stop hauling me off to the pokey for doing so. But I have found I am reticent to offer them up online.
The primary reason is that people on the web, in venues like these, don’t know me. I have many bad qualities; not proofreading my typo-ridden comments is the least of them. But I have some good qualities too. Without knowing those, and the layers that form me and my opinions, I would not care to be judged as a whole for some of my harsher criticisms. I’m not cruel, but who knows how our words are perceived once we throw them out there for the world to read, even with the best intentions behind them?
To summarize, I’m a coward who still worries that the popular crowd won’t like me.
Second, I often second-guess myself. Even if I have very valid reasons for not liking something, I fear that I may have missed the point. I, unlike most people I know, disliked Stieg Larsson’s book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo intensely. I went onto Goodreads and said as much. I felt safe there, it’s only a few lines and they seem to leave you alone when it comes to your preferences. In further discussion with a friend, she led me to believe that some of the gratuitously graphic scenes do prove essential to the story in later books. I have not been moved to read the remaining two, but I have been less vocal in my condemnation of the first.
I was aghast when I saw the film Atonement for the first time. Foul! I cried. There was no atoning for anything. What a piece of contrite crap, served to us as a placation for an egregious injustice. I sat in contempt for two days until I began to wonder if perhaps I had missed the point. I read an article and found out that yes, yes I had missed the entire point. Crow was served on the platter of my ignorance.
There is nothing passive about my regard for books. Some books become a part of my life. The characters inhabit my world – or I theirs, I’m not sure which. Some I miss, when I close the cover for the night. Some I worry about; I suffer anguish over their decisions or predicaments. I read a quote from Colin Firth a while ago. He said, “When I’m really into a novel, I’m seeing the world differently during that time – not just for the hour or so in the day when I actually get to read. I’m walking around in a bit of a haze, spellbound by the book and looking at everything through a different prism.” This not only describes my feeling about books, but gives me even more evidence that Colin and I were probably meant to be together.
I set out to make a list of my five books. I refrain from using modifiers as “Favorite” or “Best” between my and five, because the books I have elevated to this level were books that deeply affected me – for one reason or another. It took me two years to whittle down and, of course, the list is tenuous as there are new books coming out all the time. I got to seven and could not slice those last two. But a resolve is a resolve and at long last, I did it; I found my five. These books have never left me.
1) The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I read this initially because my oldest brother read it and liked it and I thought my brothers were the coolest people on the planet. It would be redundant to praise M. Dumas’ writing – his ability with words and story are legendary; I love everything about this book. But the reason I’ve read it repeatedly and why it sits at number one has to do with my unfortunate high school experience, and living vicariously through Edmond and his destruction of each of those who wronged him. Though years, true love and maturity allowed me to shuck the shackles of resentment and bitterness I held for the school elites that shunned me, but I still return to the Count when I need to exorcise my demons.
2) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I suppose I could stop there. It is hard to find a person who does not find this book exceptional. I adore this book but I adore Mr. Fitzgerald more. I have recently read The Beautiful and The Damned and was once again reminded how his use of language is unparalleled. Mark Twain is all the treasure he is purported to be but Mr. Fitzgerald, in my world, holds a place set apart from all others, even M. Dumas. Gatsby was the first of his books I read. I loved the beauty, the pageantry and the wealth… the gorgeous, unattainable wealth. I loved picturing Robert Redford as the dashing lead as I read. Will I see the Leonardo DiCaprio version? Possibly. But I am fairly certain the movie will have me racing back to my bookshelf and pouring over the language of Mr. Fitzgerald as a shut-in does his latest copy of Playboy.
*As a side note, a few years ago, my mother-in-law informed me that my husband was named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. She said that her mother, a devout Catholic, demanded she name her children after saints and my MIL proclaimed “these authors are my saints.” It was a rare moment of connection between us, one I wished she liked me enough to pursue.
3) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The thing I remember most about this book is reading it on a plane, coming home from Quebec during my junior year in high school. It was February and the cold was still in our bones as we sat on the climate controlled plane in our parkas. As I read Mr. Steinbeck’s description of the dustbowl, I became hot, dry and parched. I shed as much clothing as my French teacher would allow on a school exchange and sucked back all the tiny glasses of water the stewardess (they were still called that then) would bring me. I felt for the Joad clan, even if I did not particularly like some of them. I appreciated the first hand look of such a difficult time in American history. I am an extremely slow reader due to an easily navigable form of dyslexia in which I transpose words, not letters. It allows me to read comfortably, but I have to go back and reread several times or at a snail’s pace for meaning. The rest of the class finished before me and spoke of how gross the ending was, replete with tongues out and eyes closed shut. When I finally got to the end, I found the last scene one of the most beautiful things I had ever experienced – real or not. I was filled with admiration for the selfless act of kindness towards the old man. But, as it was high school and I was already an outsider, I kept quiet. I did not defend Rose of Sharon or my opinion. It was an act of cowardice.
4) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I loved the writing, the characters and the story. I was wounded at the end and still bear those scars today. I love that Ms. Patchett made me root for a philandering husband, cry over the loss of a terrorist and believe that love can find its way into the most unlikely of pairings. This book has led me to read every other book she has written. I judge them harshly, as I use Bel Canto as my bar. Recently I read State of Wonder, and it comes very close to the magic I experienced with my “first” Patchett novel.
5) A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Amy Poehler pushed this one into my number five spot. There were two books framed during the Viet Nam era competing for a spot in my five when I read an article in which she listed this among her favorites. It occurred to me that Owen had made many bonds for me. Whenever Owen entered into a conversation, the fellow fan and I immerse ourselves in a passionate discussion of the book. We part company friends, even if we know little else of each other. When I realized that Ms. Poehler and I would have one of these discussions should we meet, Owen won the number five spot. And I have always held a place in my heart for Lawrence Welk.
The two that missed the cut are The Three Musketeers and Fields of Fire. The Three Musketeers stands out for many reasons, but the one I will cite is the citadel scene. I occasionally happen to the bookshelf just to read it again and again. It was kicked out of the Five simply because I already had M. Dumas represented. Fields of Fire got the boot for Owen Meany. However, two things about this book: the ending affected me to the extent that my then boyfriend (now husband) and roommate saw my face after reading and asked if I needed medical assistance. Also, I came to learn my father-in-law knew the man who wrote it in Viet Nam.