makar [ˈmækər]
n (Literature / Poetry) Scot a creative artist, esp a poet
[a Scot variant of maker]

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Towards the end of the holiday, we went to have morning tea with a friend, who happened to mention that she'd just given her 14 year-old daughter a copy of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This is one of the few books that I have read for pleasure (rather than study) more than once. I know someone who has read Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin six or more times, and another person who rereads The Lord of the Rings Trilogy every year. My daughter is currently obsessively rereading Harry Potter, dipping in and out of the books, making connections, and folding the corner of almost every page because she likes its contents. But I'm a greedy reader and an out-of-control book buyer, so I've never been much of a re-reader, unless of course, I've needed to write an essay on a particular book. Anyway, this snippet of conversation with my friend and her daughter made me think about the books I read as a teenager and the ones that were really important to me. Those that stand out also happen to be books that I've read two or even three times. Here they are:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
It has the most amazing voice that draws you in from the very moment you start reading, and it displays so brilliantly that awakening to the double-standards and general ridiculousness of the world, which you experience as you move from childhood to adulthood. While I really liked this book, it led me to read For Esme with Love and Squalor and Franny and Zooey, which I loved even more.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll 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.” 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This book blew me away. I read it for the first time on Christmas day, when I was about 17. My grandma had just died and we were at her house and I was miserable. Plath's novel articulated so well the anxiety I was experiencing about my future and the pressure to make decisions. I will never forget this powerful image:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” 

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
I was obsessed with fashion magazines as a teenager and I had a very unhealthy sense of self-worth related to my body image. My mum gave me this book and it was a revelation. It changed the way I viewed the world. No kidding. 

“The beauty myth of the present is more insidious than any mystique of femininity yet: A century ago, Nora slammed the door of the doll's house; a generation ago, women turned their backs on the consumer heaven of the isolated multiapplianced home; but where women are trapped today, there is no door to slam. The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically. If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or lobbyists or placards that women will need first; it is a new way to see.”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
What can I say? I am a hopeless romantic and I love all the frustrated passion and the elemental imagery. I think reading this novel sparked my obsession with old houses and tragic love affairs and the connection to landscape and belonging. All these things feature in the novel I'm currently writing. For a teenager, feeling everything in such a heightened state, this dramatic tale transcended the petty squabbles and concerns of my day-to-day reality, and spoke of more universal themes.

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

 I also read a lot of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Jilly Cooper (oh yes!) - to be honest, I just read anything I could get my hands on - but these are the books that left far more than a fleeting impression. I wonder what I would make of them, if I read them now, for the very first time...

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