Books We Like
Posted on 11/7/2013
My earliest memory of being in a library took place when I was six years old. It was the first week of elementary school and the school librarian explained to us that we could take home any book we wanted from the picture book wall. ANY book? I get to pick? My parents had always read to me, but this was the first time the book choice was entirely my own. I still remember which book I chose, May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk De Regniers. I could not have put a name on it back then, but what I felt at that moment was empowerment. Since that day I have treasured the privilege involved in choosing a book to read. I know that it was the first entirely independent decision I had ever made and it is still an amazing act of autonomy to me. My reading choices since grade school have taken me on a wandering path reflecting what captured my curiosity at a particular time, what I valued, what I wanted to learn about or understand, and a few books that defy explanation. Three books I’ve recently read and want to recommend are about women who also make their own choices. One is fiction, one is a memoir, and one is a children’s book.
The first is a collection of short stories called Runaway by Alice Munro. I had not read anything by her before and certainly had no idea that this Canadian author was about to win the Nobel Prize. These quiet stories were a fascinating introduction to her writing. They drew me in and have stayed with me, begging me to return and reread them. The women in these stories have made decisions that involve changing or leaving a situation or relationship. Sometimes this is done impulsively, in a way that feels that the character is deliberately acting in an unfamiliar way to force change. Sometimes they make choices more thoughtfully to break out of a stifling situation. Their choices are inevitably fateful and there is no way to retrace and go back. While providing a strong sense of place, the stories are set primarily in Ontario and British Columbia, they feel familiar and ordinary, and have the sensibility of a quiet meditation on life and fate, like one would find in a Dutch still life painting.
Biographies and memoirs, especially when they reveal something about the mind of an artist or musician, are a favorite of mine. I was eager to read Just Kids, rock icon Patti Smith’s memoir about her life and relationship with controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith moved to New York City’s bohemian underbelly in 1967 to find herself as an artist and human being and she describes this edgy, punk world in a way that is both straightforward and poetic. Her initial meetings with Mapplethorpe are told very simply, without detracting that theirs was in every way a powerful and mutually creative pairing. Their relationship morphed from two young people discovering themselves and their expressive voices, to two groundbreaking artists who remained intimately connected to one another even after they were no longer romantically involved. One thing that surprised me about the book was Smith’s romantic tone when discussing the bond between them—not what I was expecting from a poet/musician whose work is characterized by raw emotion and confrontation. But she conveys her strong and tender emotions beautifully as she describes her final meetings and conversations with Mapplethorpe as he died from AIDS in 1989.
The third book, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, is a children’s book with a memorable young protagonist, Miss Moses LoBeau, rising sixth grader. She is exactly the sort of plucky girl, funny and confident, that one would hope to meet in a quirky, small North Carolina town. Her luck began when she was a newborn and washed ashore during a hurricane. She lands in a town full of singular Southern characters where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and iced tea is the lubricant for every social situation. But her charmed life in Tupelo Landing is turned upside down when a murder investigation comes to town. Mo is not one to leave things to the professionals and is soon leading her own investigation to solve the crime, which threatens to take away the people she loves best. But this a children’s book after all and the story unfolds with a light touch, even when it brushes up with harder subjects such as loss and domestic violence. The reader comes to appreciate that Mo’s luck is truly a result of her resourcefulness, can do attitude and the strength of the community she loves.