Thursday, July 06, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 1

One of my recurring fantasies is that someday I'll become famous and Oprah will ask me to contribute to her magazine's "Books that Made a Difference to..." column. Since this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I've decided not to wait for Oprah's invitation, but to go right ahead and share my list (or at least the first part of it, for now):

1. "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh
This was absolutely my favorite book as a child. (If you've seen the dreadful 1997 film version with the badly miscast Rosie O'Donnell, please banish it from your mind immediately. The source material is SOOO much better.) Harriet is an aspiring writer who carries a notebook everywhere to record her observations about friends, family, and the assorted, colorful strangers she scopes out on her after-school "spy route." When her classmates find her notebook - and read her painfully honest assessments of them - Harriet becomes the sixth-grade pariah and the target of a "Spy Catchers" club. In her quest to regain the trust of her friends, she learns a little about life, writing, loyalty and tact (and eats a lot of tomato sandwiches), but the story never devolves into anything preachy or "after school special"-ish. Ms. Fitzhugh is far too canny for that. Even as a adult, I find this book charming and wise, and Harriet remains one of my favorite heroines of fiction.

2. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
I discovered this book in the school library when I was in 8th grade. At the time, I identified strongly with Francie Nolan, a young girl who lives in a Brooklyn slum with a hard-working mother, a loving, alcoholic father and dreams of becoming a writer. (That aspiring writer theme again....) The circumstances of Francie's life were, in fact, pretty different from mine, but something about her writing aspirations and the dynamics of her family situation really reasonated with me. Re-reading this book as an adult was a revelation - there is so much loving detail in Francie's story - she's too beautifully and carefully drawn a character for a 12-year-old reader to fully appreciate. And, unlike "Harriet the Spy," this book was made into a beautiful and heartbreaking film by Elia Kazan in 1945.

3. "Nine Stories" by J. D. Salinger
I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger as a teenager, and still have the four battered, paperbacks that I bought for $1.95 each in the late'70s that comprise his entire ouevre. Their pages are now fragile and brown-edged, betraying a lot of reading and handling. Either "Catcher in the Rye" or "Franny and Zooey" would have been the more obvious choice here, but every third contributor to "Books that made a difference to..." picks one of those. "Nine Stories" fed my fascination with Salinger's oft-recurring characters: the Glass Family - Les, Bessie and their seven offspring,all of whom are precocious and most of whom are far too sensitive for their own good. This is particularly true of the eldest son, Seymour, who commits suicide on his honeymoon in the keenly observed opening story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (The other stories have equally whimsical titles - "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" and so on.) I don't read Salinger anymore, but I have lots of intense, happy memories of being curled up with these paperbacks as a teenager and feeling terribly sophisticated and thrilled by lives and viewpoints that were far outside my own experience. (RE: film versions - "Uncle Wiggly" from this book was turned into a mediocre Hollywood tearjerker with Susan Hayward called "My Foolish Heart" - Salinger hated it and vowed never to let another of his works be filmed. This is why we have never had a film version of "Catcher in the Rye." Probably a good thing, too.)

In Part 2 of this blog entry, I shall express my appreciation for Anne Tyler, Alan Bennett, Anne Lamott, and - possibly - others. Stay tuned.


doggsd said...

I have never read any of these( oh don't judge me by the books I have not read yet) But I have tried to read J.D. Salinger, but at the time my mind was too stuffed. Now that it has slimmed down, your comments make me want to try again.

You should write more, you are gifted, grab those thoughts Joni, that lie waiting for birth. Give them life....

joni said...

Doggsd -

I would NEVER judge anyone by the books they have not read (Besides, the first two are pretty distinctly "Girl" books). Thanks for the encouragement.