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? 😉