Monday 25 March 2013

20 Books that Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I’m drawn to certain story lines and certain genres for writing, and I think the answer can soundly be found in the books I’ve read. But it’s not just the books I’ve read, because I’ve read many, many books, and not all of them have influenced me and affected me to the same extent. The more I thought about it, I found it was possible to pinpoint those texts that have actually helped to form my thinking, not just about writing, but about my life, the universe and everything around me. None of them I’ve found to be the ‘answer’ to any of the big questions, it’s all just different perspectives and opinion, but they’ve helped me to develop and review my thought processes through connection and reflection. The result of all of this thinking is the list below, 20 books that have helped to create the writer, and more interestingly, the person that I am. I was going to list only 10, but I found that number to be far too limiting, mainly because to give a clearer idea of how and why these texts affected me, it made sense to put them in chronological order of when I read them, so that you get an overview of how my thinking developed as I grew.

Not all of the books listed below also make it into my favourites list, although many of them do. But sometimes a book can affect me in a significant manner and it’s not one I could bring myself to read again, or that I even enjoyed reading in the first place, but in reading it, it became a catalyst that helped me to move forward, or inspired me, or humbled me. The text became important because of the meaning I ascribed to it. I’m sure we all have books which have done that for us. So here I go with my list (please forgive the fact that I have included plays in the list, as I read them also as texts and in some cases studied them as such, they were too important and relevant for me not to include)

Deep breath, and here we go…

20. Dragonsbane by Patricia C. Wrede
This was my favourite book when I was about 7. What attracted me to it initially was, mainly, the dragon element (including gaudy shiny fantasy cover), because I was obsessed with dragons at the time. What I found was a children’s story quite different to the others. The heroine was a princess who embraced all the things that were improper for a princess to do, like sword fighting, archery, magic and such like, and when she is kidnapped by a dragon (a last ditch attempt by her parents to get her married off) she finds that she can finally put all these learnt skills into action and discovers increasingly ingenious ways to avoid being rescued by an inept prince. What stuck a chord with me was the idea that to only behave in the way that is expected of you, in spite of your passions and interests, is a narrow and limiting road to follow, and that ultimately it is far more interesting and rewarding to find your own path, even if your piers think less of you for it.

19. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
This play came to my attention when my Mum rented the Kenneth Brannagh film adaptation whilst I was feeling sorry for myself with the chicken pox. I was 11. I fell in love with it, completely, utterly, head over heels, in love with it. The archaic language turned out not to be a barrier as I soon realised that the actions of the characters told you the meaning behind the words. Of course I was later to grow up and find that most adults don’t follow the language word for word, just the general gist of it. My affection for this play was such that when I was 16, and would have happily continued to hide my oddness in the background, I threw myself into the spotlight to be a part of it when my school put on a performance of this play. I love the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, the banter and the balance of it. The plot may be a bit barmy at points, the usual fake deaths and mistaken identities, but I could not have loved any story more. The central relationship made me recognise what I wanted from a relationship, maybe what everyone wants, a meeting of equals and a connection that transcends all things. I still know many of the soliloquys from this play by heart because the words meant so much to me. A skill that I’ve found not to have many real world applications unfortunately!

18. The Last Dragonlord by Joanne Bertin
This is definitely a teenage indulgence novel. I read it when I was about 13. The story may be as obvious as a bar of soap, but I loved the fantastical world and the well-realised characters. And, naturally, it involved dragons, which was another draw for me! It’s another underdog story really, of a young woman who finds that she is actually (of course) a half dragon and soul twin to the really rather dreamy dragonlord of the title. But this character was already a Sea Captain and a strong minded individual in her own right. What I think I liked most about it was the dragonlord’s realisation of his own limitations through his relationship with her, that for all the power and privilege he had become accustomed to, her strength and humility gave him a kind of balance that was missing before. Noticing a pattern here?

17. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
I didn’t read the original Peter Pan until I was 14, and I was actually really surprised by it. The Disney films leads you to believe that this is a big comfy blanket of a children’s adventure, where no matter what happens, the children will end up safe and tucked up in their beds at the end of the day. The book is completely different and all the more awesome for it. The adventure is dark, the pirates are violent child killers, and the threat of death and loss is very real. The idea of running away from growing up and responsibility is actually quite an adult theme, and Barrie explores the idea beautifully. This story, just like those of incomparable authors such as Rauld Dahl, shows how important it is to scare the reader, even if it is a children’s book, in fact, especially if it is. You need to make the threat real, without the risk of actual harm and real danger, the achievements and heroic feats of the characters don’t mean anything. Just like with all fiction, the tension has to be real and the characters have to earn their happy ending. This helps the writer to create characters that their reader will actually care about, it helps the reader to suspend their disbelief and buy into the stories, it is how you create characters that people will love, remember and mourn if they are lost.

16. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
This list would be nothing without a mention of Terry Pratchett and the Discworld. I began reading that series when I was about 12, but the book I want to highlight as the most influential of all of them to me at the time is one of the witches’ adventures, Lords and Ladies. I was about 15 when I read it. As he often does, Pratchett playfully made the story in part an homage to a Shakespeare play, in this case A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However the delicious twist was that his fairie folk, the elves, were not playful witty creatures, but dangerous, deceitful predators of the inhabitants of Lancre. The only thing standing in the way of their bewitchment of the populace is, as ever, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Whilst I feel that this is one of the most fun and funny books of the series, it was Magrat Garlick’s personal journey within it that really connected with me. The idea that strength is not something we need to be given to us, but something we gain from within. It’s a story about the power of belief, whether destructive or inspiring, and the idea that belief in yourself is really all you ever need to fight back the wolves (or indeed elves) at the door.

15. Red Dwarf (Infinity welcomes careful drivers) by Grant Naylor
Dad picked up this novel for me for 20 pence from a car book sale. I also read it when I was 15. This story elaborates beautifully on the television series. It is the same characters and the same almost Rankinesque world created by a mish-mashing of familiar everyday objects and ideas with the fantastical but it is just, well, more. It gives more detail on who the characters are, what they think, their history and their experiences on Red Dwarf, and, of course, more humour. I actually prefer this book to the series, although you wouldn’t have one without the other, so really it’s not possible to separate the two. The desperation of characters’ situation I found comforting. I guess especially so as a teenager, when you’re more unsettled and unsure of yourself than at any other point in your life, because no matter how lonely or desolate you feel at the time, life is never as sucky as it is for these characters. Each one is loveable due to their recognisable and relatable character flaws, the Cat is vain and shallow, Dave Lister is a lazy slob, all untapped potential and no initiative, Rimmer is a toe curlingly hopeless loser and a coward, and Kryton is compulsive, narrow minded and incapable of empathy. But I loved these characters. I still love these characters. Their flaws helped me to acknowledge and accept my own and it is their frailty that makes you connect with them and care about what happens to them. Flipping awesome (and very funny) storytelling.

14. The Life and Loves of a She-devil by Fay Wheldon
I was about 16 when I first read this story. It has become one of those books that I will come back to every few years and read again. Not particularly because I gain something different from it each time but because it’s a beautifully written, sad and very true novel that says so much about the experience of being a woman. It examines the construction of women through society’s gaze and questions not only the validity of that construction but also how we both triumph and fall apart as a result of it. The protagonist, Ruth, fails to meet society’s expectations of her; she’s too ugly, too clumsy, not motherly or romantic enough. Her reward for this failure is to lose her husband to the love of another woman, a beautiful, successful representation of everything that a woman should be. Through the resulting pain of her situation, Ruth transforms her thinking and sets out to destroy the woman who has taken everything from her and also suffers intense pain and sacrifice to turn herself into the perfect image of a woman. Or what she is told is the perfect image of a woman. It’s a deliciously joyous and challenging journey of revenge that examines the true cost of vengeance. What appealed to me most was how brilliantly clever and self-aware Ruth is at every point, which helped me to empathise with her. She gives an honest representation of the events, not justifying her actions of forgiving them, she just tells you her story and her emotions and you draw your own conclusions.

13. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I think I had just turned 17 when I was introduced to this play in my A Level Literature class. Or I was just about to. I remember being a hurly burly mess of emotions at the time anyway, my head filled with ideas of mad, passionate, all consuming and yet ultimately doomed romance. As such I remember the lamentful relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, his rejection of her and her heartbreak being a big draw for me. But Hamlet is so much more than that. The character’s obsession with philosophical thinking and his over-analysis of his own and everybody else’s thoughts and deeds, is something that most people can relate to and have been through at some point, especially as a consequence of loss and grief. Hamlet’s journey is symbolic of the human condition, and the understanding that he comes to, that mankind is ultimately corrupted beyond repair, is one that many people will have come to in their own thinking before. Of course I could go and on, and have done before, there is so much that one can read from this text. But above everything this work of fiction is beautifully poetic and unapologetically ambitious in the themes that it deals with. It is one of the examples of why Shakespeare’s work has transcended the barriers of time and circumstance. To quote a thoroughly modern rogue, it’s Legen-wait for it-dary!  

12. The Crow Road by Iain Banks
I read this book for the first time when I was 17, which is why it appears here on the list. Although on reflection I think it had a greater effect on me when I re-read it at 21. Maybe it’s because rather than reading it with the protagonist reminding me of other people I knew, I read it for that second time and saw myself in him. It’s truly one of Banks’ best works, and in fairness, many of his novels since which explore similar complexities of family relationships and a young man’s search for identity just don’t come close to this story. This coming of age saga stood out most for me for two reasons, one being the difficult relationship between Prentice and his Father, from his hero worship of him to his disappointment in him, as it is very real and relatable. The second reason being the subtle and again very real love story between Prentice and his best friend from childhood. Both signify a move from childish perceptions and desires to adult understanding and growth. The fact that it ties in a thoroughly compelling mystery at the heart of it as well is just the icing on the cupcake. To me, it is an all round brilliant piece of work.

11. Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
This is a dark novel indeed, and an example of King at his best, using the horror genre to tell an emotional story about the human experience. I was 17 when I read it for the first time. I can give you the set up, because it’s in the blurb on the back of the book. A man and wife visit their holiday cabin out of season for a bit of kinky fun times. But during the event, something changes, and then something happens, and the protagonist ends up left on her own, handcuffed to a bed, with nobody nearby, and the sun is going down… The story is about what happens next. This is a powerful book that taught me of the need to confront your demons in the harsh light of day, not hide from them. The need to understand and face the darkness, whatever the source of your darkness is, and work through your pain. Doing this gives you the strength to fight back and ultimately move on.

Right so, I’m going to give an intermission here, because I appreciate having your attention and realise that this is a wordy one. Why not have a cuppa, or a smoke, or a mocha or a number 2, whatever floats your milkshake. Part 2 is coming up shortly…

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