I am thrilled to be posting this piece because it features writing from some of my fellow Sister Writers. I have the pleasure of mingling each week with a talented group of women who, like all of us, strive to write their truth with grace and courage. Each woman who contributed to this post wrote about a book that has inspired her. What follows is a wonderfully eclectic set of short passages, skilfully written with touches of humour and poignance, that I know you will enjoy reading as much as I did. Being privy to someone’s favourite book is a strangely intimate exercise because we are given a glimpse into their private world. I thank each of them for sharing their thoughts with us.
(And it’s not surprising that several writers chose books read when they were young girls. We are impressionable in those years as we search for answers, trying to find our place in the world. Books can be a refuge, offering solace when lonely or a window into a different lifestyle, unlike the one we have grown up with. They can also open our eyes to new ideas).
Glenda MacDonald writes:
“A book that inspired me when I was a child in the 1960’s was Becky Bryan’s Secret, one of the first novels by American author Betty Baxter. I discovered the hard cover book published in 1937 in my mother’s library and noted my aunt’s signature inside the front cover. I was entranced by the story of a young girl trying to fit into the new town her family has moved to. She harboured a family secret that threatened to destroy her new friendships. Unbeknownst to Becky’s friends she grew up as part of a circus family. The book ends with Becky becoming the hero as she reveals her secret and puts her circus skills to use by walking a tightrope to rescue a child. I was so enamoured with the promise that a family secret, or something you were ashamed of, could someday work to your advantage. I have never forgotten this book and was delighted to get it back from my mother recently.”
“I have since learned from Wikipedia that Ms. Baxter, later Betty Baxter Anderson, went on to publish over 20 books for teenage girls, mostly part of her career series. They were unusual for the time because they put the lead female characters in traditionally male roles. Beneath my aunt’s signature in the book is my own, and beneath mine is my niece’s to whom I introduced the book. I have a renewed interest in this author who died in 1966 at the age of 58 and have found many of her other books for sale on Amazon.”
Edye Jacobson, was a teenager when she discovered an author whose prose opened up her world:
“I read E.M.Forster’s, A Passage to India in the summer of 1962, in my last year of high school. At once I sensed its immense power as a work of literature, and I felt the superior consciousness of the person who had written it. It didn’t make me want to go to India, which would never have occurred to me, as I was a poor girl from a limited family in the backwoods of the Ottawa Valley. Rather, it brought India to me, “the real India”, and not as a travelogue, but India the Imagination, the place where all manner of things are created and destroyed in an endless dance of harmony and contradiction. When one of the novel’s leading characters, Mrs. Moore, has her much-anticipated experience of the mystery of India in the caves of Marabar, she finds to her horror that “the void is empty, and without meaning;” confused and deeply shaken, she rushes to take the next boat back to England.”
“We are given to understand, as conflict erupts among all of the main characters, that an Englishwoman cannot simply adopt, holus-bolus, the experience of an Indian person. However well-intentioned, it is ignorant and wrong-headed to try to erase the real differences of culture and religion that exist between people; rather as the male characters in the novel discover after much suffering and disappointment, it is possible to make connections with people through what Forster calls “humanistic affection”, by which he means the acceptance without understanding that arises from the exercise of good will, tolerance, curiosity and faith in our fellow man. Read this book and pay homage to E.M.Forster, who devoted his life and his art to the human project.”
SimtenVural, also writes of an eye-opening reading experience as a teenager:
“I grabbed a classical book with an intriguing cover from my father’s library. I was 15 or 16, a self-centred and ignorant teenager. The world was spinning around me. Theodore Dreiser’s, An American Tragedy, opened my eyes; it led me to “see” others and their emotions. Clyde, the protagonist had dreams which dragged him to an irresistable plan which ended with his execution. The story was a slap to my spirit. I started asking questions about life, death and the truth.”
For Marie G., discovering D.H. Lawrence in high school awakened her senses to the adult world. She understood his characters and their yearnings. Here is one of her favourite passages from Sons and Lovers:
“She hated her position as a swine-girl. She wanted to be considered. She wanted to learn, thinking that if she could read, as Paul said he could read, “Colomba” or “The Voyage Autour de ma Chambre,” the world would have a different face for her, and a deepened respect. She could not be princess by wealth or standing. So she was mad to have learning where on to pride herself. For she was different from other folk, and must not be scooped up among the common fry. Learning was the only distinction to which she thought to aspire.”
As you can imagine, it was no easy task for our contributors to choose just one book that inspired. Madhu acknowledges the challenge, then makes her choice:
“Asking me to pick a favourite book is like asking me to pick my favourite child! It’s impossible! There have been different books that enchanted me at different phases of my life. I am usually drawn to fiction. In particular, fantasy fiction. But today, I don’t want to talk about one of those. I want to talk about Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. I read Gone with the Wind as a teenager. My parents, both avid readers, bought it for me as a birthday present; it was a paperback with some heft to it. I started reading it before bed as usual, the small font a little hard to read in my semi-dark bedroom, but the story had me tightly clenched in its claws and I couldn’t put it down.”
“A whole new world was opened to me. I loved and hated Scarlett O’Hara. Hated her famed 17” waistline and hated how desperately she chased Ashley Wilkes. I remember yelling, “Rhett is it” as I read. The war, the drama, Melly and Mammy, they all moved me in a way I’d never thought they would.”
Donna Reid, was also inspired by a classic tale, David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens:
“I love the language and imagery and the fact the book is based on the writers’ own experiences. Dickens was a protest writer who helped to raise awareness and bring about change.”
Sometimes a book has the power to inspire us to take a life-changing step, as Laurel Carley discovered when she read, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, by Gloria Steinem:
“A trap can be opened if you’re strong and you know how it’s sprung. But if you don’t know how, or you don’t have the strength, it’s important to find someone who does. My own assistance came from a well-known stranger, Gloria Steinem, right when I needed it. I was just about to submit and allow the trap I was in to finish crushing me. Sitting propped up alone late one night many years ago in our big empty marriage bed in our darkened house in rural B.C., I cracked open my can of Coke, my chocolate bar, and my new book.”
“I had fresh hopes of being swept by a massive sugar rush and a smart woman’s words right to the brink of a vital life change. By morning I had reached both the brink of change and the back cover of Revolution from Within. And I knew without any uncertainty that I was going to get out of my marriage and save what was left of me.”
I think it is fitting that our final piece is about a writerly book, one that comes highly recommended by Maureen Novak:
“ Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, by Ray Bradbury, is a title I might easily have overlooked even though it was recommended in a Toronto Public Library blog last year, because I associate Ray Bradbury with science fiction and fantasy and horror. Fortunately, I’m a sucker for anything with the word “Zen” in the title and that’s what hooked me. It was published in 1990, when Bradbury was 70 years old. Perhaps best known for Fahrenheit 451, he had already written dozens of books by then and went on to write many more before his death at the age of 91.”
“I like to pick this up for inspiration and fervour and the pep rally that he provides. It’s as if there are trumpets and air horns in the background. He knows how to have a rollicking good time. And he’s no stranger to work. He claims to have been putting out 1,000 words a day since he was 12 years old. An especially good essay within: How to Keep and Feed a Muse. Ray Bradbury is Fun. Colourful. Effervescent. An excellent guide to have on the trail.”
Til next time, keep reading.