A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

It’s my birthday week. Though I’m in far less celebratory spirits than I was when I turned, say, 21 or 25, I’ve made the decision to not rain on my own parade. So in celebration of my, er, maturity, I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane and talk about some of the books that have accompanied me on my slightly turbulent, often clueless, and always eye-opening journey to middle age.

Books that made me happy and feel like a kid

I thank books and their gifted authors for rescuing me during those stressful years when my family immigrated to the States. I’m honestly so grateful that I learned to read quickly since that was the activity I depended on to stay sane. I read and loved many books but these three stand out because they were so much fun:

The Ramona series, by Beverly Cleary

The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series, by Betty MacDonald

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

The first books that made me really think and feel

In late elementary school I began to gravitate toward the kinds of stories that I would eventually seek as an adult: human stories about inner conflicts, struggle, and growth:

A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry

Deenie / Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

Books I read on the verge of becoming a woman

One summer during my teens my mother confronted me about my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, which she found in my bookcase. I got angry at her for snooping around in my room but decided not to tell her that I actually hadn’t picked up the book again since I was twelve (or was it eleven?). Hormones and curiosity were running high, and these were some of the more memorable books that opened my eyes to sex, lust, love, passion, and a world with the opposite sex:  

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

Flowers in the Attic / Petals on the Wind / If There Be Thorns, by V.C. Andrews

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Looking for Mr. Goodbar, by Judith Rossner

Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin

Good Bye, Columbus, by Philip Roth

A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Books I read while exploring an emerging adult identity

It was during college and graduate school that I began to really notice the negative space around me. How had I been shaped by biology, circumstances, geography, and history? I began appreciating what it meant to be a woman and racial minority in the United States. Here are some of the books that made an impression or impact on me during this time:

The Bell Jar / The Journals of Sylvia Plath, by Sylvia Plath

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creating Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria Anzaldua

Strangers from a Different Shore, by Ronald Takaki

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher and Ruth Ross

Books as therapists

And then I started looking for Mr. Right…and was so clueless as to why I kept dating nasty men that I began turning to the kinds of books that I had to hide in my underwear drawer whenever I had guests over. This is just a fraction of the self-help books that lined my shelves during my twenties and just those with the less embarrassing titles. The very last one I bought was The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I read together with Max when we were engaged. Since then I haven’t read another book on relationships; now I figure that the best way to understand my husband is to talk to him myself.

He’s Scared, She’s Scared: Understanding the Hidden Fears that Sabotage Your Relationships, by Steven A. Carter

You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, by John M. Gottman

Books that helped me in the hardest, most perplexing job in the world

This is only a tiny fraction of all the books I have read, purchased, or borrowed on the subjects of pregnancy, labor and birth, childrearing, and child development. These two that introduced me to the sisterhood of motherhood were among my favorites because honestly, the non-judgmental sisterhood is the only thing I’ve needed besides an equal parenting partner.

The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, by Vicki Iovine

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott

The first book I read for fun since becoming a parent

I read this while bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation during Fred’s first year and I even read it with one hand on the frying pan. It was a fun page-turner that made me realize I can make time for reading no matter how exhausted and overwhelmed I am. After this, I slowly eased back into pleasure reading for the first time in a long time.

The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown

The book that I needed to read

Those peak career and parenting years are a self-absorbed time. With a tunnel vision I focused on my own family while allowing my parents to fade into the background. Then one day I picked up Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and I was devastated. It’s the story of an elderly Korean woman who goes missing in a crowded Seoul subway station, and over the days and weeks that her husband and grown children try to find her, each family member reflects on his or her past with the woman. Almost all have regrets of not having appreciated enough the woman who had given her life to them. I recognized myself in the grown children and my mother in the elderly woman.

In the years since I’ve begun to develop a new relationship with my mother, and for the first time I learned of her early love for reading and writing, how she grew up in rural China with almost no books except a few Russian novels in translation that belonged to a cousin…and she would devour them, staying up until three in the morning, reading by lantern light. Instead of looking at my mother as someone from a foreign time and place, I’m now seeing her as a woman who was once a girl with interests and dreams very similar to my own.

Thank you, Mom, for giving me a life so rich with books and hope and love and opportunity.

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin

What books have left a mark on you? What did you enjoy reading while growing up? And did you also read V.C. Andrews? 😉

22 thoughts on “A Literary Trip Down Memory Lane, from Girlhood to Midlife

  1. Happy Birthday Week, Cecilia. I loved walking with you down book lane. Many of the books you’ve read in key periods of your life also are ones that captivated me. Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Anne Lamott are authors that I adore as well.

    The books that have left a mark on me: Somerset Maugham – A Razor’s Edge. Flannery O’Connor – Any one of her short stories, Graham Greene – The End Of The Affair, William Faulkner – Sound & Fury and F. Scott’s Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby. I could probably go on for days, but these are the books that come to mind in this moment.

    Thanks so much for sharing the pivotal books in your life.

    • Thanks so much, Rudri! I’m glad you enjoyed this post and that we share books in common. I also love your list. I haven’t read Maugham yet but I am eager to. I also loved The End of the Affair. I have to say that my one attempt with The Sound and the Fury was a difficult one, but I was also much younger then. Maybe I should give Faulkner another try.

  2. Wow! What a wonderful trip down memory lane, and a great exercise for many of us who grew up with books. I see so many on your list that would’ve made mine, and many more I need to read! It has been such a delight to get to know you Cecilia, and who knew that having a glimpse of your writing space and literary journey would make me feel even closer to you? Happy birthday again, Cecilia! And oh yes, I totally read V.C. Andrews.

    • Aw, thanks for that, Justine! It was pretty fun to write this post and to look up the old images of the book covers…it made me feel nostalgic. There is a kind of sisterhood even in the books that we share, I think, down to the dirty old V.C. Andrews books!

  3. I loved reading this post! It’s so much fun to read about what books have influenced others, especially in the growing up years. I too read Harriet the Spy (and then would sneak around my house taking notes). I read ALL the Judy Blume books, Lois Lowry, and, yes, V.C.Andrews. A big part of my life, too, were all the L.M.Montgomery books. Over many years, I collected them all, and read them all, and today they are sitting on my daughter’s bookshelf. I loved those books. Thanks for this trip down memory lane! And have a Happy Birthday!

    • I think it’s so wonderful that you can share your childhood books with your daughter! I only have a boy, but the other day I was reading one of my favorite Judy Blume books with my good friend’s daughter. It was so lovely to be able to do that. (My friend says I can borrow her daughter any time, ha ha.) Anyway, it looks like you and I had very similar reading tastes as girls! I too loved Judy Blume and read everything she wrote. Where would we be without her?

  4. Happy birthday! I loved this post, and I hope you’ll repeat the exercise when you hit another milestone birthday! I might try to write something like this when I hit the big 3-0 later this year. Jane Eyre was a formative book in my childhood, and then The Razor’s Edge as a young adult. And Four Quartets, come to think of it.

  5. I really enjoyed your retrospective, Cecilia. Books are much more of a “Soundtrack to My Life” than music so I can really identify with your phases and milestones. What I have always enjoyed so much about motherhood is getting to overlap those phases with my daughters as we read and share. I get to pick up on some of the books I missed (like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series!) and they become the books of another whole phase of my life. My daughter, 11, has just discovered Judy Blume and that’s been so fun for me because I haven’t revisited them since I was the same age, so the memories are untainted by the intervening years 🙂 Please Look After Mom sounds like a poignant read.

  6. This brings back a lot of memories for me as well! I love so many of these books, especially the Ramona ones. She has a special place in my heart. I love reading her to my girls. Happy birthday! What a great post.

  7. Happy Birthday Week, Cecilia~ I’m glad you told us so I could wish you a happy week! This is a fantastic list of books and yes, I did read V.C.Andrews, though I probably won’t watch the Lifetime show. Please Look After Mom was an especially sad read for me too–and it made me realize how much I needed to improve upon my relationship with my own mother while we both were around to do it.

  8. what a wonderful post, and I’m impressed that you can not only remember all of these books, but moreover that you can connect them to a specific time in your life! I only hope that when I reach 30 I’ll be able to do the same.

    I saw many of my own favorites on this list. I was so closely attached to Ramona in elementary school. I always felt like it was difficult to behave and do the right thing, and Ramona’s constant blunders always made me feel better about myself. Jane Eyre and The Awakening were two of my favorites in high school. I never read V.C. Andrews but I have the feeling I would have enjoyed her books immensely 🙂

  9. This is such a fun post! I have read many of the books on your list, but some titles, I must check my local library for! I think the most unfortunate part of being a younger reader for me was not really defining my own path as a reader. I read assigned books and titles required of me, but I never did much searching on my own until college. So sad. But so true.

    • Alexandra, the one image I have in my head of your mother is that photo in which she is smiling – I think you had taken her out for ice cream with Auggie or something like that. I just remember those quotes you had posted of how happy she was. I wasn’t there so I don’t know everything, but she just seemed so happy in her final months, Alexandra. You did that for her. You made her feel loved and you surrounded her with love. You did a lot.

  10. Pingback: A Selection of Great Blog Posts January 2014 | Consumed by Ink

  11. An amazing journey through books. Thank you for sharing the different stages of your life and what books helped you along the way. You brought back many memories for me as well. I read Flowers in the Attic, but I think that was the only V.C. Andrews book I read.

  12. What a great post. I hold so many of these books close to my heart. I met Lois Lowry a few years ago. Actually sat and had a conversation with her. It was surreal. Now I need to read Please Look After Mom. While it’s not exactly the same, my grandmother is slowly declining with Alzheimer’s. Lately, Ive been revisiting my past self – especially my teen years — and wishing I would have given her more of my time. That’s all she’s ever wanted from me.

I'd love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s