Friday 5 - Life Changing Reads

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I love to read, but I am the biggest book-snob you will find.  My criteria are simple, but unrelenting:

- The acknowledgements from the author must be authentic.  Theacknowledgements tell you so much about the place from which the author is coming and about the kind of person who wrote the book.  I can be put off by the first sentence.

- It must end happily.  There can be strife and sadness at the beginning and middle, but the end must have an uplifting resolution. I see enough violence and sadness in life. I spare myself any potential agony and always read the ending once I have read a few chapters.  A cliché, I know, but I can not bear to fall in love with characters and then end my time with them in sadness.

- It must be "true" in the Hemingway sense. Elaborate ruses or exaggerated characters do nothing for me. I find that I am more often than not drawn to non-fiction because I find that many fiction authors forget that just because the characters and story are made up, the emotions and situations must ring true. Oh and don't think I am all high-brow here, I count the Big Stone Gap series, A Trip to the Stars and Harry Potter among my favourites.

Even with the above criteria, as a voracious reader, I have found many books that I love. Over time there are some books that stuck with me more than others. The simple act of reading changed something internally, like Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Man's mind, stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions".

1. Unless by Carol Shields. Its about the suburban life of a mother, Reta, whose family is in the midst of a crisis as her oldest daughter has left home and sits on a street corner with a sign saying "Goodness"  I love this book passionately.  I've read it countless times, but 2 of the times stick most in my mind.

The first time I read it, I was just a daughter.  It was when it was nominated for the Booker Prize and we were living in London and I worked with rough sleeping (homeless) drug users.  I could understand so completely that bottomless pit of utter despair you feel when you look at the world (and the plight of women in it) and want to run away screaming with hopelessness. I could understand Norah's need to shut down to it all. 

The second time I read it, I was a mother.  At the time, I was struck fiercely by how my perspective no the novel had changed. I can and still do understand Reta's deep need to immerse herself in the everyday pleasures and domesticity...to make a small bit of beauty in an ugly world and to just keep going, not because you want to all of the time, but because you have to, for everyone that depends on you.

2. A Slender Thread by Diane Ackerman.  It is about her work in a crisis centre and looks at the biological roots of crisis.  I could say so much about this book.  I found it in a bookshop in Calcutta.  I have read it so many times that the covers are falling off.  It prompted my own work for a number of years in a crisis and mediation centre and working with rough sleepers. Her style of writing and the sensitivity with which she rights about the people she worked with is inspirational, but mostly, its this quote that gets me every time:

"A man was holding a loaded gun on his family, threatening to kill them and himself and anyone else that got in his way.  Lewis walked right into the man's house, sat down beside him, and said quietly:"Tell me your story." Ten hours later, the man gave him the gun.  The truth buried in this drama gets to the very heart of crisis centre work: each of us has a story, each of us has a loaded gun that we aim at ourselves.  After hours, or years, of talking the story can be told in its fullness and the gun can be laid down.  The story has both happy and sad chapters, and parts of it may be forgotten.  Sometimes it takes an outsider to help remember of clarify it.  Lose your story and you lose the pageant of your life." Yes.

3. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingslover.  If I could ever be anyone's biggest fan, it would be Ms Kingsolver's.  To pick Small Wonder out of all of her books is a bit like splitting hairs, as I love them all.  But in this one, I hear her voice at its most true and eloquent.  Barbara led me to Wendell Berry and the simpler life.  She made me laugh and cry and think...sometimes all at the same time.  I cry every time I read the chapter that starts, "The Columbine used to be my favourite flower"...because they used to be mine too.

4. The Fussy Baby Book by William and Martha Sears When Ellis was small, I thought I had done something wrong.  I looked for some reason why he never stopped crying, didn't sleep, fed all the time and just wasn't like other children we knew. This book made me realise that Ellis is a special person with different needs and the sheer unbridled vibrancy of his personality is a gift.  It also helped me with the simple, but powerful realisations that I'd done nothing wrong and I wasn't alone. It continues to be my backbone at times of instability. 

5. Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost.  I read this poem for the first time when my family and I were caught up in a mob that carried blame too far.  To this day, in times of deep crisis I find myself looking for a star to get me through.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud-
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use Language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

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As an aside, I may have to add the Bakerella blog to this list, as I have been obsessing about cake pops for nearly a week.  I am making some this weekend.  We shall see if they change my life.

On that note, have a wonderful Easter weekend.  I am going to be stepping away from the computer for a few days to focus on creating, baking (cake pops, sugar cookies, Easter nests, bread) and being with my wonderful boys. Oh and getting my rear into gear on my garden, I am so far behind!

Have a lovely weekend and I'll see you on Monday!

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