I’ve seen this meme crop up before, most recently in joshuwain’s journal:
What are your five favorite books, i.e., ones which you go back to over and over and over, the ones that really changed your life? And why?
I’ve ignored it because–okay, in part because I tend to ignore most memes, but the thing is, it’s difficult for me to answer that. See, as much of an avid reader as I’ve been over the years, I haven’t been much of a repeat reader. There are books I can think of as favorites, but they’re not ones I’ve returned to over and over, and it’s hard to definitively say that any book “changed my life.”
But, trying to think about this is an interesting challenge. I’ve come up with one non-fiction and four fiction titles.
What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles
If you recognize the title, you might say, “A job-hunting book? What’s wrong with you?” Well, yeah. The thing about Parachute is that it really isn’t a job-hunting book in the way other ones are; it starts from the premise that the best job for you is one using skills that you enjoy using in a field you want to be in, and thus the most important thing is figuring out what those skills are and what that field is. This isn’t a book about polishing your resume just the right way; it’s a book about finding your calling. I don’t know that I’ve found mine yet, but it’s made me think about it more deeply than I had before, and I may yet pick up the book again soon to work through some exercises in it once more.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen Donaldson
This is a series which still evokes very strong vitriol, sometimes for the admittedly purple prose that bogs down some of the volumes–but usually for the title character, who is arguably the most unpleasant “hero” in all of fantasy fiction. What I appreciated about this long tale, though, is that Donaldson took all of the tropes of epic high fantasy and wrung not only serious personal drama but deep reflections on salvation and responsibility out of them in a way that few others have managed. There are a lot of series that get glibly compared to The Lord of the Rings; warts and all, this one deserves it.
The Wood Wife, Terri Windling
There’s a subgenre of fantasy called “urban fantasy”; it’s kissing cousins with magic realism, the high-falutin’ mix of real world settings and surreal magic told with a straight face. Urban fantasy has the same contemporary settings with extraordinary events, but unlike magic realism, characters recognize them as extraordinary, and the dream-fever distance is replaced by a grounded, sometimes gritty close focus. This is my favorite genre of fantasy, by far; there are several other books I could name as great examples of it, but this is one of the few books I have read more than once. It’s a mystery story, the poet main character trying to learn more of the mysterious death of another poet, who left his estate in the Rincon Mountains (near Tuscon) to her. This novel captures all the magic–both metaphorical and literal–of the Southwest, and it’s beautifully written.
Unicorn Mountain, Michael Bishop
This is another urban fantasy, although before I’d heard that term, but it’s also a detailed character study and love story, as intricate and layered as any “literary” novel, which is why it’s stuck in my mind for fifteen years after only one reading. Set in the Colorado mountains, it’s a story of a ranch owner, the husband she divorced, her Ute indian ranch hand (who’d deserted his own wife and daughter years before this), and her ex-husband’s cousin, an advertising executive dying of AIDS who’s sought out the ranch as a retreat. And, under all this is the ranch’s secret–a herd of unicorns live on the mountain, and the unicorns are also dying. Putting it this way sounds churlish, but this book was so far above the writing level of the fantasy and sci-fi potboilers that I’d been reading that it made me a choosier reader. It also reinforced the notion that fantasy isn’t a juvenile cousin of science fiction, but is perfectly suited to complex stories and even contemporary themes.
Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver
I picked up this book in an airport mostly because of the title and interesting cover blurb, but it became one of my favorite novels. It’s not genre, but it has a bit of a magic realism feel to it in its style and connection to Native American culture, and it’s also beautifully written. A daughter has returned home to a small town in the southwest (yes, there it is again) to take care of her dying–and somewhat enigmatic–father, to come to terms with the death of her activist sister Hallie, and over time, to become involved with the town’s politics. This book manages the hat trick of being innately political without being preachy (a trick Kingsolver failed to pull off in later, longer novels), and it illuminates a lot of environmental and political concerns I share. The title of the book comes from this exchange:
Codi: “So you think we all just have animal dreams. We can’t think of anything to dream except our ordinary lives.”
Loyd: “Only if you have an ordinary life. If you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.”