I have been tagged repeatedly in this meme (and the music one, and there ought to be an art one, too). I hate lists. I hate the inherent [ahem patriarchal, capitalist, etc] need to rank and rate and declare bests, that divides us into endless competition. But as the latest tagger, Helen Grant suggested, it’s interesting to hear what has influenced your friends. So in that light, a random selection of books off the cuff, not the ‘best’ or the ‘highest rated’ but some that have had an impact on making me who I am.
I don’t remember a lot of the details of this book, but it’s the first one I can remember changing me. Much of my childhood passed in an unremembered Zen state of being, but I distinctly recall excitedly asking my cousin as he got into the car with us (my mother, brothers and I), ‘Do you like fog? I like fog!’ because the book had so captivated me. I still love fog. I am fortunate to live in two areas prone to fog, mist and the haar, so make of that what you will. Books that fired my imagination enough to make me want to live there also included My Side of the Mountain, set in the Catskills. Huh: half the year, I live there.
Yes, I wanted to be Jo, like so many young women. Her life (and her author’s) gave me a model to believe it could be possible for a girl with no experience to speak of or connections with famous people — that one could just make up the things and write about them and make books. I cannot read the book even now without crying. And I still haven’t totally forgiven Amy. Like the Alice books, indelible.
My copy was plain: a turquoise cover with the title and Anna Sewell’s name in white, a knobbly texture. It was a book I read and re-read constantly. That kicked off my horse mania: I read every book in the library on horses. Seriously, every book. I still feel angry that the librarians (or my teachers?) forced me and my best friend to read books that were not about horses (did they ever do the same thing to boys? I doubt it). I read a book on Annie Sullivan. It was fine. But then it was back to horses. This is why I trust my obsessions.
I think there is an age at which many young girls diverge from the common path: some go to Plath. I went to Parker. I liked Plath, but Parker was the one for me. At an age when one is too young to know the truth of her mordant wit, one fancies she does. She is wrong. When she is older, one understands more clearly why Parker hid her sorrow behind wit so it wouldn’t frighten the mens. Also I guess I can’t squeeze in Barbara Pym this time so she’s here too. And Anita Loos. And of course Austen. And Gaskell…every funny woman.
It’s a bit unfair to make Marie stand in for a whole host of medieval books, but there it is. You’d have to understand my distaste for what I thought of as ‘medieval’ once upon an ignorant time — this is why I have such sympathy for my students’ eye rolling. Oh, but you don’t know, I tell them — and then of course I show them. My madeleine-in-the-tea moment might have been Beowulf, but Marie made me change my mind about the stereotypes. Medieval romance seemed the least interesting thing out there. It’s still not my favourite thing, but Marie told her tales — even the wretched Arthuriana — with such verve and a lack of sentiment that I even decided to retell her tales. Likewise many medieval women — Hrotsvita and Silence and Christina of Markyate and more…
Likewise standing in for all the great crime dames like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes’ masterpiece is a genius dissection of a serial killer that predates the much more lauded Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Where the latter gives a (surprisingly shallow) insight into the mind of a serial killer with a great deal of sympathy for him — Thompson seems to admire Lou Ford’s smug disdain for the world — Hughes lays open the brutal mind of Dix Steele with insight and understanding. There is a kind of sympathy for the mess of desires and ambitions he has, but there is no doubt about his chilling nature from page one. Hughes was way ahead of her time and still doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. If she’d written only this book I’d call her a genius — but she’s written several excellent books.
Seven tomes already and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is why I don’t like lists. They are always inadequate. So this last one stands in for all the books of the fantastic I have read and loved. It’s also to make plain that the influences go on. While we gild the memories of some books from childhood to give them lustre, books can continue to change life. I’ve written conference papers and essays on this immense novel — and finally admitted I am probably writing a book on it. I love its world, I love Clarke’s loving scholarship of it. You never know when a book will sneak up on you and nudge you to another path. This one’s put me to work in a delightful way — I even get to use my medieval scholarship a bit.