BOOKS THAT OWN ME
I own a lot of books. Hundreds. Stacked on tables, crammed into bookshelves, packed away in boxes. Usually, I’ll read a book once and that’s it. Occasionally I’ll come across a book I truly love, and I will turn to it again and again. These pages are dog-eared. The jackets are missing. I don’t own these books—they own me.
Here’s a short list of my favorites:
Susan Minot wrote a book called Monkeys about growing up with lots of brothers and sisters and having a father who slowly loses his mind. The entire family dances around the elephant in the room, and the children try to fix the world for their parents but can’t. I love this book, and I love this writer. Minot’s young characters speak with the disturbing honesty of children stuck in hell.
“The Ballard of the Sad Café”
In The Ballad of the Sad Café, Southern Gothic author Carson McCullers penned a love story about an awkward, tall woman who falls in love with a short, cagey stranger. The stranger breaks her heart, makes her look like a fool, and then leaves the small town she’s stuck in forever. What’s not to love about a storyteller like that? McCullers was a fearless woman writing crazy fables of tragic love at a time when women were supposed to behave like Doris Day.
Rosemary Woodhouse is the face of all that is good in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, one of my favorite books. She’s modern, optimistic, funny, vibrant. She loves her husband, who turns on her in the most vicious way imaginable, forcing her to become the primal mother who wields a knife to protect her child. Rosemary is everywoman, wanting life to be good for the people she loves, until she comes face to face with true evil. Instead of shrinking, she fights.
The characters in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the adult world—how we lie to ourselves, how we betray each other daily. My favorite story in this delicious collection is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In it, Seymour Glass is losing his mind. He went to war, and now he’s back, married to Muriel, a shallow young woman who doesn’t understand him. Seymour loves her, but that only makes his sense of isolation more painful. While his wife is preoccupied with frivolous things, Seymour sits on the beach and talks to three-year-old Sybil, who calls him “See more glass.” Seymour tells Sybil about bananafish, an allusion to his inner turmoil. It’s the story of a man who can’t contain his pain any longer, and somehow it’s funny and sweet and poignant… and the most hauntingly realistic thing I’ve ever read.
“Silence of the Lambs”
Gorgeously written by Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs is a chilling look at the fine line between good and evil. Clarice Starling grew up poor and struggling, but the one thing that kept her afloat was her father, a cop who believed in justice. After he died Clarice got sent away to live with relatives, where she witnessed the slaughter of the spring lambs. The death of the lambs drove Clarice to become the kind of person her dad would’ve been proud of. But it’s just the kind of psychological weakness Hannibal Lector preys on. Clarice needs his help to stop a psychotic creep from skinning more victims, and she allows Hannibal to probe her psyche, but instead of manipulating and controlling her, Hannibal comes to admire this dauntless woman. Clarice is a hero who can’t be corrupted and she outwits both monsters in the end.
William Peter Blatty’s crowning achievement is a superbly written shocker and the definitive horror novel. Great thrillers are often about ordinary people confronting evil, and never has there been a more authentically ordinary character than Chris MacNeil. Despite the fact that she’s a movie star (there’s nothing ordinary about that), she comes across as a regular person—a divorced mom and compulsive worrier who lies awake at night fearing death and… what-the-heck-is-making-that-scraping-sound-in-the-attic? When a demon possesses her daughter, Regan, Chris is forced to battle not only the supernatural, but a medical establishment that cannot help her little girl. My vote for the ultimate horror Mom.
Denis Johnson’s legendary collection of short stories is a harrowing masterwork—hypnotic snapshots of young men who use drugs to ward off the suffering they feel every day of their failed lives. Each gemlike tale is carved from Johnson’s own vivid life experiences. We are transported into a radiant world full of ravishing beauty and raw visions. Johnson’s genius is that he has us willingly embracing the transformative power of human emotions—yearning, grief, and wonder.
I love these books with all my heart.