4 books that changed the way I look at things.

So what does one do when it is unbearably hot?

Here in Austin, temperatures are quickly reaching clothing-optional levels.  Our outfits are shrinking.  Our robust Texas constitutions are fainting.  Bars don’t have enough Mexican Martinis in the world to quench our thirst, and it is now acceptable to take your lunch break at Barton Springs, a watery 68 degree respite from the Hades-like conditions.

I’ll tell you what I do.

I read like a fiend.

See, to me — both a hot (literally) Austinite, and a manic-doer of tasks — summer is the one time of the year where I feel it’s ok to get a little bit lazy.  To loosen the grip on that unhealthy Puritan work ethic.  So I indulge on books, and read morning and night.  I take books to lunch and don’t feel a bit ashamed for being antisocial, reading them while fellow patrons mill about.  It’s so hot we can barely form sentences, and I must rely on those more eloquent to do the job for me.

So, inspired by a blog I randomly happened upon last weekend, I decided to make a list of the four books that altered my worldview or perspective in some way.

(Speaking of which, did you know that at one time, I wanted to be an English professor?   Oh yes.  I, Blogger of Incessant Typos, used to teach composition while student-teaching in grad school.  Once, I made the class write a compare-and-contrast essay on Will & Grace and The L-Word, which I thought was spectacular lesson, until I got the papers back.  Did you know that it’s difficult for young men to stare at beautiful lesbians and simultaneously write a coherent paper?  Shocking I know!  Our next paper was on rhetoric and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Anyhoo, enough rambling.  Here are the four books that shaped Tolly indelibly.  I’d love to hear what yours are, too.

1. Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)

Yawn.  I know.  It’s on everybody’s top four.  Or three.  Or one.

But in the ninth grade, Catcher in the Rye changed the way I viewed literature.  I couldn’t believe it was a classic.  I mean, it had … cussing!  Not old-timey British cussing either, “bloody hell!” and all that, but the f-word.  To my sheltered, 14 year-old eyes, this just boggled the mind (and was secretly, deliciously, delightful).

Also, here was a book whose narrator seemed like a real person, and not an idealized hero or heroine who, despite subtle flaws, were obviously noble.  Not Holden Caulfield.  He could be an asshole.  Even though you end up loving him:  “Where do the ducks go?” he asks, wandering around Central Park.  Oh, Holden!  Of course you would think about that, or your little sister’s knees when she’s roller-skating, you sensitive soul you.

I adored this book, because of the way it tore down precious notions of fine literaure.  And of the neurotic narrator at its center.  One gets the sense Holden is too disturbed my modern life to dwell on large issues for very long — teenage prostitution, for example — so he distracts himself with questions of ducks and knees.  If you love this book as much as I do, I recommend Jessica Shattuck’s excellent article that she wrote last year for NPR about Holden.

2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lammott) 

On the surface, this book is a writing guide.  But deep inside its warm, funny heart,  Bird by Bird is oh so much more than a writing guide.  More like a spiritual guide.

I pick up and read this book whenever I can, just to stretch out my writerly muscles.  While Anne has enjoyed commercial success in her long novel-writing career, I think her real gift is making visible what the writing process is like, and also, making you feel like YOU CAN DO IT too.  Write, I mean.

The first time I read this book was in the early days of the Internet, like, dial-up/running yellow man on AOL/”you’ve got mail!” Internet, and I remember taking up her now old-fashioned advice.  Like, carrying a notepad with you to write down interesting bits of dialogue you hear on the street.  Taking Polaroids (or in my case, a FunSaver).  That kind of thing.

Anne is just so darn generous with her writing, too.  She spoonfeeds you vivid descriptions and witty asides that you want to steal.  A few weeks ago, I read a passage of hers that said something like: “When I sit down to write, at first, I am very quiet.  I stare into space, look around, and then, I start rocking back and forth.  And humming.  Like a giant, autistic child.”

Heh.  Me too, Anne.

3. Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise (by Ruth Reichl)

When I moved back to Austin in 2007 after graduate school, one of my first freelance writing gigs was doing restaurant reviews for The Onion: AV Club Austin.  It paid a tiny amount, and I was just one of several local reviewers, but I was SO proud of this accomplishment.  Look!!!! I said to Ross, when my new editor wrote me with my first assignment.  I am a PAID WRITER.

Ross told one of his teacher friends about it, and to indulge me, that friend lent me a copy of Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir about reviewing restaurants for The New York Times.  Every time she visited a restaurant, she went both in normal, everyday clothing, as “Ruth,” and then again in a costume. Not, like, a bear costume: She dressed up as other people.  Early in her tenure at The Times, she caused a scandal when she awarded Le Cirque one star.  She wrote two side-by-side reviews, comparing the service and food she received as Ruth Reichl, and the service and food she received as “Molly,” a plain, frumpy character she invented from the Midwest.  Ruth got seated before the King of Spain did.  Molly got seated by the bathroom.

Garlic and Sapphires was the book that showed me that restaurant reviews, and food writing in general, could be written in a literary way — like little short stories, as Ruth puts it in her other memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.  This spoke to me, since even though I was no culinary expert (see: Tuesday’s ruined pancakes for proof), I was a story-teller.  Like Ruth.

But I have yet to visit any restaurant here in Austin or elsewhere in disguise.  That’s some ballsiness.

4. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (by Marisha Pessl)

I read this book just last year, as a result of this post.  My friend Katherine recommended it to me in the comments section, and like her, I stayed up until all hours of the night finishing it.

Oh my God.  Where to start with Special Topics?  First of all — this is Pessl’s debut novel.  Which might make you hate her, if you are also a writer.  Some people do, and insist that the prose is terrible, because it’s so densely layered with the narrator’s incessant scientific, historical, and literary references.

But I didn’t feel that way.  Once I got past the narrator’s “thinking” style, and also past my latent feelings of inadequacy, I dove headlong into Pessl’s creepy, dark world of secret societies, murder mystery and anarchist networks.  And then realized how singularly brilliant this young writer is.

Anyway, those are all big, superlative brush strokes; here’s the plot: A teenage prodigy named Blue, the book’s narrator, begins the story by staring up at the bloated face of her dead teacher, who hangs from a cord in a tree.  This woman’s name is Hannah Schneider, and for the duration of this book, while Blue rewinds back and gets you up to this point, you’ll be asking yourself: “Who killed Hannah Schneider?”  In fact, chances are, you will ask yourself this nagging, burning question for the rest of your life and join online discussion boards and Amazon groups the moment you turn the last page to get everyone else’s consensus … or at least if you will if you are like (i.e. oddly and selectively obsessive).

Since she was a young girl, Blue has been entirely raised — some would say isolated — by her academic father.  He is her best friend, her confidante, and despite his egotistical posturing, can’t help but being a ladies’ man.  They travel all over the country together on his guest lectures, leaving when his teaching post is up, or when some poor, besotted woman starts stalking him.

On their last stop, in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue enters her senior year in high school.  Never cool and always a social outcast, because she is simply so damn smart, Blue is surprised — and excited — when she’s immediately inducted into what appears to be a small secret society.  It’s comprised of five students, all who seem to have a very interesting relationship with their film teacher … Hannah Schneider.

If you read any book this summer, please, please read this one (especially so I can bug you to death about who killed Hannah Schneider).  This is the book that, more than any other I’ve read recently, reminded what a good, immaculately-spun yarn looks like.  How to lay out clues.  How to store away hints.  How to paint larger-than-life characters, and how to move those characters in such a chess-like way through the plot.  And the end!  I’m still recovering from the end!  I’m just dying for you to read it.

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So, those are my four gems.  Now it is your turn, because I’d like to hear which books shaped you.  I think people’s favorites say so much about them.

which four changed things for you?