Top 10 Books (Mostly Fiction) Which Have Influenced My View of the World

William Faulkner

Time to play The Influential Book Game here at BookSexy.  I’ll try to keep it brief – but these are the books which have changed my life!  It’s kinda’ hard to encapsulate something that monumental into 50 words or less.

1.  Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway – I read it once, in high school no less, and wasn’t impressed at the time.  All I recall is a man coming back from war and going fishing.  Yet  the mood of that story has stuck with me as if it were one of my own memories.  The complete silence.  The disconnect between Nick Adams and his surroundings.  I didn’t realize in high school what it was about.  But Hemingway’s writing was powerful enough that years later, without picking up the book again, I remembered and finally understood.

2.  Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – He is the greatest Southern writer, living or dead  (sorry Cormac!)  and remains to this day my favorite author of all time.  Flannery O’Connor put it best:

The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

3.  Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger – Is it pretentious to quote yourself?  Probably. “If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.”

4.  A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro – This book is a Japanese watercolor in literary form, and is in my opinion his most thoughtful novel.  Ishiguro’s  continuous exploration of three themes – our choices, the resulting regrets and how/what we remember – is an incredibly accurate portrayal of a character processing the life she has led.

Steinbeck & Charlie

5.  Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – If in my 20’s I wanted to grow up to be Franny Glass, up until my tweens my role model was Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There’s something about finding an empty piece of land, building a house and making everything from scratch – that kind of survivalist lifestyle has always appealed to me.  Well, in theory at least.

6.  Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck – Kerouac may have crisscrossed the country on Route 66, but Steinbeck actually stopped to look around.

7.  A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Defoe’s chronicle of the bubonic plague in 17th century London captured my imagination.  Because of it, there is an entire shelf in my library devoted to epidemics.  His language is startlingly modern.  In a way, A Journal of the Plague Year is the prequel to every Zombie movie (and book)  ever made.

8.  Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional:  to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge… Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point in time.  Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses,  and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.

9.  Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver opened up an entire continent and began a fascination with African culture and history that I still holds me to this day.  It has led me to Peter Forbath’s  The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration & Exploitation of the World’s Most Dramatic River, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alexander McCall Smith and countless others.  For years I’ve been slowly working my way across a continent I’ve never set foot on.   The gift of secondhand experiences.

And finally…..

(drumroll, please)….

Lucky Numbers 11!

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence:  Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich and Writings by Agnes Martin – These books have so much to say that they’ll eventually get their own reviews.  But I couldn’t have a list of books that had influenced my world view and not include them.  Consider this a teaser.

Yeah, I know.  I cheated.

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Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Amphibian by Carla Gunn

Phineas William Walsh is on a mission.  He’s going to save the world one endangered species at a time – and he’s depending on the Green Channel to help him do it.  That is until things go terribly, horribly wrong… as they only can in the life of a fourth grader.

Carla Gunn’s first novel, Amphibian, is both entertaining and engaging.  Written in the first person, it’s greatest strength may be it’s  narrator –  who owes a significant debt to Holden Caulfield (the hero and narrator of Catcher in the Rye).  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Because there’s more going on in Phin’s life than meets the eye – and he has a lot on his mind other than the planet.   His grandfather just passed away and his grandmother is sad.  His parents are separated and his Mom is dating a guy Phin doesn’t like. Not that he likes the idea of her dating. Period.  His father is out of the country 80% of the time and doesn’t know what’s going on.  He’s also the class bully’s favorite target.

And then (if that wasn’t enough!) there is the issue of the Gorachs from the planet Reull.  They’re destroying the planet and the other creatures of Reull need to figure out what to do before it is too late:

When my mom went to do some work in her study, I went upstairs and wrote about Reull and drew some pictures of them.  I drew the Jingleworm, who is red and white and has a part on the end of its body that jingles like a bell wherever it goes.  The Jingleworm’s predator is the Three-clawed Wren and it jingles so much that the Wren doesn’t have any problem finding it to eat.

But then the Jingleworms started to hide in the coat of the Green-tailed Squirrel, which didn’t mind because the loud jingling noise of the Jingleworm scared away its predator, the Electric Cat.  The Electric Cat’s ears are very sensitive to the jingling noise.  To it the Jingleworm sounds like somebody scraping their nails on a chalkboard sounds to us.  Sot the Jingleworm and the Green-tailed Squirrel have a symbiotic relationship.

The problem again is the Gorachs.  They are starting to collect Jingleworm tails for jingly bracelets, which they give to their Gorach children.  The Gorachs are parasites, so many of the animals are working on making more symbiotic relationships.  The Gorachs are in for a surprise.

Sure, it has become a cliché to compare novels narrated by juveniles to Catcher in the Rye, but in the case of Amphibian it works.  I’ve always believed that readers tend to miss the whole point of what Salinger was trying to do, – not surprising since his novel has mainly been defined by controversy.  The focus has always been on Salinger’s creation of a smart ass kid doing scandalous things, at least by 1950’s standards.  (You can just imagine what the reaction would have been to Gossip Girl)!

Subsequently, the story Salinger was trying  to tell is too often overlooked.  It is about a young boy, whose even younger brother has just died of leukemia.  Catcher in the Rye, at its heart, is about Holden attempting to deal with his grief.  And doing so in the absence of (I’d even go so far as to say his abandonment by) the adults who should be comforting him.  All the rest, the celebrated language and famous scene with the prostitute, is just so much white noise put up by Holden between himself and his emotions.

I do not want to misrepresent Amphibian as being a heavy novel, though it does touch on some surprisingly heavy material.  Phin is dealing with kinds of grief (and accompanying feelings of helplessness) that he’s too young to put a name to.  Or, like Holden, to even recognize.  But to Gunn’s credit, she chose to tell her story through the eyes of a 9-year old boy – which gives it a very different flavor than if it had been told by, let’s say, that boy’s mother or teacher.  Gunn reveals what’s going on with Phin in a way that perfectly captures a young child’s lack of perspective.   Divorce, bully, species extinction and permission to watch the Green Channel all carry equal weight and importance in Phin’s world.  Because everything is the end of the world – nothing is.  And Phin is a really funny kid.  His humor moves the book along quickly and, thankfully, saves it from becoming the angst-fest it might have been.

This morning I woke up to an awful sound – it was like a wolf trying to howl after swallowing one of those birthday-party noisemakers.  And it was standing over me.

I was a little worried about what I might see – maybe a pack of wolves having a birthday party and the cake just happened to be me – but I took a chance and opened my eyes.  My mother was standing there and that awful noise was coming from her.  She was smiling so I figured she wasn’t choking or something, so I asked her what the heck she was doing.

“I’m yodeling, Phin,” she said.

“But you’re not on a mountain,” I said.  “You’re standing over me making that awful sound.  I thought you were a wolf with something caught in its throat.  If you were a wolf, you’d have to be the alpha because if you were a submissive, the others would attack you for making a sound like that.”

Overall, Amphibian tells a good story about an average child working his way through a world where very little is under his control.  Carla Gunn allows us to smile at his tribulations knowing, even if he doesn’t, that Phin is one of the lucky ones.  Unlike Holden he has grown-ups around who love him and have his best interests at heart.  In the end, that makes all the difference.

Note:  Amphibian is Carla Gunn’s first novel.  While I’ve no knowledge of it being marketed as a YA, it is definitely  straddling the line between categories.  It does not rank high on the BookSexy scale, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Think of it as enviro-lit made more palatable by added sugar.

The book, itself, is more attractive than your average paperback  – with bright glossy covers.  The front end paper is a full page bleed b&w photo of a South America Red-eyed frog (the same little guy who made the cover).  The pages are nice and thick with a slightly corrugated texture.  The publisher is Coach House Books, out of Canada.