My Desert-Island Top 5 Books (That Influenced Me)

To paraphrase Nick Hornby, My desert-island, top-five most memorable books in chronological order:

1. Escape to Witch Mountain

Tony and Tia were different. (Didn’t we all feel that way as kids?) They could both read minds and had telekenisis – they could move objects with their minds. That was a talent I tried to practice as I suffered silently at the dinner table. Instead of paying attention to what was being yelled at whom, I’d try to move the salt shaker to me. Maybe I hoped my real parents would find me? Or I’d be whisked to another planet?

I had an intense interest in the occult, the supernatural. I was just about to say in books like The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key, but he also wrote the aforementioned Escape to Witch Mountain. Lol. But Lois Duncan’s oevre, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, about an evil witch inserting herself into a family or Down a Dark Hall, about a boarding school that channeled kids’ talents through dead artists, scared my older sister (I had to put book covers on the library books) but fascinated me, as did “The Fembot” episode of “The Bionic Woman,” and later, sci-fi stories based on Philip K. Dick like “The Adjustment Bureau” or “”Minority Report.”

 

2. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Don’t think I was a dark and depressed youth. I met Judy Blume early, before Nancy Drew, before The Three Investigators, before my subscription to Alfred Hitchcok’s Mystery Magazine. (Other tweens subscribed to Seventeen magazine, but this was my pick. Go figure.)

How did Judy Blume make everything so damn funny? “Eat it or wear it!” WEAR IT! Even the Peeping Tom in Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? was kind of funny. Deenie’s back brace wasn’t, but my mother confiscated that book — and to this day I have no idea why. Humor like Blume’s and Ramona The Pest, kept me smiling even as I had no reason to be, and paved the way for my longitme relationship with Mad magazine.

 

 

3. The Catcher in the Rye 

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing youll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Fine, maybe this is a cliche. Maybe so many young adult novels take this anti-authoritian tone that when actually assigned to read this book, they scoff. “What’s the big dealio?” they say. What they don’t know is that if you were stuck in an establishment type of school before the new millennial, before The Fault Was in Our Stars and other YA books like She’s Come Undone were actual school assinments, back then you could not believe your luck at getting to read something like this, as opposed to, The [boring] Red Badge of Courage or the (sicko) Lord of the Flies (which I wonder if will be removed from curricula during the #MeToo movement?) I LOVE YOU HOLDEN!!

 

4.  Joan Didion — All of It

You might notice that all I’ve listed until now (including Nick Hornby in the opening as a slippery #6) is fiction. I love, love, love fiction. Until I tried to write it. Turns out I had no imagination whatsoever. Everything I wrote was thinly veiled versions of my life, working out all my angsts and fears and revenge fantasies. I became a journalist and, although I only noticed it in retrospect, all my favorite pieces had me in them. I was an esssayist and Did. Not. Know It.

Until I read Joan Didion — too late in life for sure — but new for me, this insertion of oneself in the middle of a scene to define the zeitgeist just like Lena Dunham would do decades later.

 

5. My Misspent Youth

After Didion, a world of creative non-fiction was open to me and blew my mind. I loved George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and how he goes into the bowels of the earth (similarly replicated in Nickel and Dimed and even Stephanie Land’s Maid). I didn’t have to cover serious news in stentorian “objective” writing, but I could put myself into the story to guide the story.

“I discovered Jewish men like I discovered books: in the library, tucked away in the dark corners of suburbia, reticent and wise and spouting out words I had to look up in the dictionary. Unlike Christian men with their innate sense of entitlement, with their height and freckles and stamp collections and summer Dairy Queen jobs, all those homages to the genetics and accoutrements of Western civilization, Jewish men were rife with ambiguity, buzzing with edge. Their sports were cognitive, their affection seemingly cerebral. They were so smart that they managed to convince girls like me that they liked me for my brain, that even though I was a shiksa, even though I had been deprived of Hebrew school and intense dinner debates about the Palestinian Question, I was a smart girl,” Meghan Daum writes in the essay “American Shiksa” (not to be confused with the equally brilliant Wendy Wasserstein’s Shiksa Goddess, Or How I Spent My Forties), one of the essays in My Misspent Youth.  ”

I ended up getting my MFA in creative non-fiction, devouring essays like Daum’s and memoir’s like Strawberry Soriyan’s Girl Walks Into a Bar, and Lauren Slater’s genre-bending memoir Lying and Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping: A Life in Stories, and so many people who wrote honestly and searingly that it made me want to be just like them.