If books were boys, I’d be considered a stage-five clinger. I latch on to one and won’t let go. I read the same books over and over every few years, loving the way my interpretation changes–or doesn’t change –with whatever’s going on in my life at the moment. So it took me a long time to narrow my list to just five for which I have deep affection, poignant associations and/or literary respect. Even now I’m vacillating on a couple, not for their inclusion but for the books I’ve had to leave off the list. But, let’s not overthink this. Each of the books below has been in constant rotation since my teens and is a worthy candidate for a space on your nightstand.
Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret
As a pre-teen girl, stuffing the bra I clearly didn’t need with two uneven halves of the L'eggs Pantyhose egg (the reason, to this day, I'm sure my breasts grew unevenly), I found a soul sister in Margaret Simon. At twelve, I too struggled with my relationship with God, prayed for my period, and yearned for breasts like Laura Danker had (though I swore I’d never let anyone touch mine behind the A&P.) Margaret’s issues – wanting desperately to stand out and fit in – were so close to my own that I suspected Judy Blume was reading my diary. Till I remembered I didn’t keep one. I read Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret again last year and was delighted to see it still holds up. Mostly because I never really got those breasts I wanted so badly.
Rob Fleming summed up my teens and early twenties better than I ever could: “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Rob might’ve scoffed at the music on my mix tapes – mostly The Smiths and The Cure (muffled by the sofa cushion I was crying into at the time) – but our mutual arrested development and need to keep one foot out the door would have made us fast friends. Of course, I would’ve tried to ignore my own ambivalence to create a relationship out of nothing, while Rob, having drunkenly surrendered to my advances, would’ve fled the scene on squealing tires. Top 5 breakup songs: Pictures of You by The Cure, Where Does the Good Go by Tegan and Sara, You Oughta Know by pre-Prozac Alanis Morissette, Sinead’s Nothing Compares 2 U, Don’t Speak by No Doubt and The Scientist by Coldplay. (Don’t judge.)
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
This one always evokes several visceral reactions from me –helpless laughter, delighted repulsion and a craving for hot dogs so intense that my battered copy from college has several telltale stains. I love that you can feel Toole’s joy in the writing –each of Ignatius J. Reilly’s rants are more bloated and grotesque than the last. But there’s also sadness. As Walker Percy says in the forward, “One never quite knows where the sadness comes from --from the tragedy at the heart of Ignatius's great gaseous rages and lunatic adventures or the tragedy attending the book itself.” Yes, Toole’s suicide hangs over the book, but doesn’t diminish it. Joy and sadness comfortably coexist from unseen sources because Toole was that skilled a writer.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
My mother was a huge Agatha Christie fan and a few years ago I inherited her collection of 80 novels and short story collections. These were the same battered paperbacks I started reading when I was nine or ten, plodding through the foreign words and small type. Mom would sometimes give me additional clues, even pointing to the very page or paragraph that held the answer and still, I don’t think I solved a single one. There are definitely better written, trickier, more confounding Agatha Christies, including Hercules Poirot’s Christmas (which Mom threw across the room when the murder was revealed), but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had everything I love about Christie’s works: the stunning twist, the arrogance of Poirot, a terrific secondary character in Caroline Sheppard and an excellent story.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
There are lots of reasons to love Fannie Flagg’s works–and I may even like Daisy May and the Miracle Man better – but being from Birmingham, I have to admit I hear her books as much as I read them.
She captures the Southern voice better than almost any author I can name. Rumor around town is that Fannie sneaks into garden club and Junior League meetings just to listen to Southern-speak and scribble notes in a little notebook. I can believe it. Her books are poignant, funny, comforting and filled with memorable characters. Oh, and The Whistle Stop Café is loosely based on a real place–The Irondale Cafe. Yes, the fried green tomatoes are delicious (they serve 600 to 800 slices daily) and no, they don’t serve barbecue with extra ingredients. Be sure to try the cobbler.
Looking over my list, I admit I’ve chosen books not just their literary merit, but also for the way I internalize them. Again Nick Hornby, speaking through Rob, sums it up: It’s what you like, not what you ARE like.
Your turn. What books do you revisit every few years? Which characters make you feel like you’re catching up with an old friend?
Stephanie writes the Chloe Carstairs mystery series under the pseudonym Bille Thomas. Check out her books!