~ Jimmy Chin, alpinist and filmmaker
Books change our world too-even those innocently read ones, coveted under childhood blankets with flashlights illuminating far away worlds. Pilgrimages to the local library were a Saturday staple–and we always left with arms nearly out of their sockets carrying our marvelous cartel to the Pinto.
I’ve said this before here, and I probably will again, because, it’s probably the most important thing that was ever said. “Just be interesting.” My parents didn’t force-feed us academia or insist on Tiger Mom pursuits in law, teaching or doctorates. Though, Dax did get the fancy credentials, and Dr. Dax was in that scholastic vein early on.
Though I appreciated the curricula of the registered massage therapy program I enrolled in four score and seventeen years ago, I couldn’t wait to resume my recreational reading habit. The text books were shelved and I was able to submerge back into the sublime–creating my own life curricula via books.
“Only boring people get bored,” was another mantra of my mother’s. And, if you are a reader by default, then, it’s difficult to get to a bored state unless you are bookless in Seattle. When I was in highschool I remember my mom asking me to have my hyper-intelligent English teacher create a list of her favourite books. Joan was in the know and a culturally literate wundermind. Surely, given the way she spoke (she was the one who introduced me to such 25 cent words as “surreptitious” and told me my writing was like a white-water rafting adventure instead of a smooth paddle on a calm lake), many books were behind her insights, and her undiluted passion left me spellbound. Joan laboured over the list, though, I know a hundred titles came easily to her mind, and handed it to me a few days later. (*Mom, do you still have that list?)
I too am constantly asking reliable sources for their favourites. You can easily identify your reading soulmates after a few shared titles. I drift all over the genres but always gravitate towards quirky, memoirs, travel junkets and anything Africa.
Which led me to this. A book curriculum for life, in general. The books that you should read as a human. I’m not listing Shakespeare (snore) or those imagery lessons like The Great Gatsby or any of the others that we’re pushed upon us in highschool. No, this is my bespoke list, and, if you are a friend of mine, clearly we share some love and common ground.
I do believe in responsible reading, sometimes–you know, those important books that shaped a time. I’m talking about Love in the Time of Cholera, Keruoac’s Dharma Bums, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast and stuff about urban gurus like Jane Jacobs and bike-pushers like David Byrne.
Books that have found media fame like Eat, Pray, Love completely annoyed me. I never did finish The Celestine Prophecy. And, I’m definitely not going to read 50 Shades of Grey.
My bookshelf is mood-obvious and decade-indicative. Like a walk through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s shift in spirit and palette between the decades (from cheery sunflowers to utter gloom and miserable skies) is so evident.
Yes, I have beach-y, cotton candy mindless reads that sit beside soul sandwiches like Siddartha, Leo Buscaglia and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Those searching books–those were the Vancouver years of 18-23. Living with a bohemian lot of artists, writers and activists, my book choices eclipsed that time period: Salinger, Tom Robbins, everything Douglas Coupland, How to Live on Nothing and a cannonball into the gay world. I found Sappho, Ruby Fruit Jungle and the world of Jane Rule.
The Virgo in me reflexively makes lists, for everything–especially books to read and books that have been read. I have the years well-chronicled. I could probably list my entire bookshelf as each title has been critical at a particular time for growth, inspiration or (ugh, loathe the world), closure.
My brother reads depressing books as they always make him feel better about his own life (*note, he is not depressed, he just likes how books can consistently do that). I like the sob-inducing ones more out of writerly respect. If an author can make you break down with words–that’s a powerful skill. I’ve cried over so many dying dogs in books (Emily Carr’s sheepdog, Marley & Me), and had to take a crying jag break from Jane Goodall’s account of her favourite chimp, David Greybeard, dying of polio and his inability to climb up trees as the disease strangled him.
*Note: do not read the last 50 pages of Marley & Me in a public space. I made this error on a Westjet flight. Read it in the safety of your own home, preferably with cucumbers and Visine at the ready. And gin, probably.
So, this is my list–and, of course, it will be never-ending and constantly evolving with every book I read. However, as of this very moment, at age 39, these are the books I think everyone should read to build a foundation of gratitude, inspiration, awe and fuel fireside conversation and intimate and intelligent dinner talk.
1. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout.
I was disappointed when Oprah described Lindhout’s terrifying memoir as “juicy.” Being kidnapped and held captive by Islamic militants for 15 months is nowhere near juicy. But, the account of her time in Somalia and her inherent will to survive will shake up how you live your life. A life free from the nightmares and stronghold that such an experience must have on a person. It’s raw, agonizing and a remarkable display of resilience.
2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.
I initially thought the book would be too Disney, too schmaltzy. Afterall, it’s narrated by a dog. And, worse, the dog is dying. I remember standing in Indigo on Bay, already hot-eyed and swallowing hard a few paragraphs in. The dog, Enzo, is aware that he is on his last legs–but he’s okay with this. He is beyond eager to come back to earth as a human. He has been carefully observing his human for communication skills to navigate his next life. Enzo’s insights are comical, heartrendering and beautiful. If you’ve ever loved a dog, you’ll squeeze them even harder after this one.
*Also, do not read the last chapters of this book in public.
3. Still Alice, Lisa Genova.
When Alice, a Harvard professor learns that she is experiencing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the awareness and slow ride into the grips of the disease is nearly unbearable to read. Life’s fragility is evident in being witness to a seemingly perfect life suddenly shook-up by the diagnosis. The only comfort I found in this book was learning that, at some point, you don’t remember that you are losing your mind. There is a period of time when you are aware, but, as the words and memories slip, so does the awareness. For those surrounding Alice, it’s like watching a living death but the family rallies to keep the grace and spirit of Alice present.
4. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls.
I read a very yellowed,mothbally copy of this in Entebbe, Uganda. It was one of few books on the shelf at the Jane Goodall Institute that was in English. Pages fell out as I turned them–and now I know why. This is a memoir, not some fantasy childhood of eccentricities. The anchor of poverty and mentally unstable conditions that she and her siblings endured is shocking. It’s a reminder of the turbulent past that so many are trying to resurrect themselves from.
5. The Chimps of Fauna, Andrew Westoll.
Well, as a chimp crusader, this choice is a no-brainer. But, even if your only knowledge of chimps is that chimp lady, Jane Goodall (or even if you still mix chimps and gorillas and monkeys up), Westoll’s memoir shares an intimate experience–his time at a retirement facility for chimps rescued from biomedical facilities. The abuse and neglect is unnerving–and your blood will boil repeatedly–but hang on for the touching encounters and relationships that develop in this rescued family. The dynamics and personalities of a severely wounded bunch and their recovery is a shining promise of hope.
6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer.
I’ve read this book a few times and still get sucked in like quicksand. Christopher McCandless was a well-groomed academic–all his stars were in line for a promising career in law. Instead, he donated his entire bank account ($24,000 to Oxfam), ditched his Datsun pick-up and, walked “into the wild.” Eager to live off the land and escape the poisons of society, he left the conveniences and familiarity of life as he knew it with a bag of rice, a rifle and a few books on plant identification. If you’ve seen the movie (directed by Sean Penn–bravo), there’s no spoiler in learning that he dies only 100 days into his dream. What he etches into the table of the makeshift bus shelter he calls home is an affirmation of why we are here.
7. Falling Backwards, Jann Arden.
Memoirs are a natural source of inspiration, and, a deep behind-the-scenes look at lives we are curious about. The genesis of Arden’s career wasn’t all lollipops, sunshine and unicorns. But, her grace, her insightful way of being—and that inherent humour, makes for a riot of a read. The hot dog in the thermos is a passage you will want to read out loud to whoever is near you. Even if it’s a stranger–do it. Her honesty and what she shares of her life in Falling Backwards adds such a dimension to her lyrics. You will laugh like there is a laughing gas leak in the room— and cheerlead for her beating heart and continued, deserved success.
8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom.
It’s a natural reflex when you hear the title of this book to think of your five. Mine are all dogs, but…who you think you will meet could be entirely unexpected. Albom really spins the idea of heaven on its side–and, religious or not, you’ll find yourself re-examining your life and all the lives you’ve crossed and uncrossed. As his book explains, you may have changed a complete stranger’s life in a way that you will never know about. Until, maybe, heaven.
7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.
I read this on my way to Africa–and as the plane descended it was like landing in those very pages. Though the book is set in 1950s Congo, not a lot has changed over the decades in regards to tribal tensions, wayward ministers trying to “tame the natives” and a population continually struggling for independence and survival. This is quintessential Africa, and the story of a shiny, white family plunked down in the jungles of the Belgian Congo. It’s hairy, frustrating (ugh, the father!) and delightful (young Ruth’s narrative is pure charm). If you want a glimpse into why Africa gets in your bones after just one visit, you’ll see why in the Poisonwood Bible.
8. Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamond Carr.
My sister found this book on the shelf of a store on our way to Lake Louise. She said, “Have you heard of this woman? She was a friend of Dian Fossey?” I was hooked–who knew Dian Fossey even had any friends (that weren’t gorillas). Carr’s determination to stay and make a life out of her circumstances (a failed marriage to a big game hunter), is proof of an indominable spirit in the harshest climate and unforgiving world of farming. Her attempts to maintain a flower plantation in Rwanda against stampeding elephants and bankruptcy is a far cry from her world as a fashion illustrator in New York in 1949. And what she does with her plantation after the bloodbath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a beautiful transition. Hers was a life lived large and unselfishly.
9. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.
I love the reckless and feckless life of Bridget Jones. Though the latest, Mad About the Boy, was a bit of a lunchbag let-down, Bridget Jones is still brassy, fiesty and a fine example of what not to do. But, her character (probably not far from fiction) is reassurance that someone else out there is smoking 158 cigarettes a day while packing back 18 croissants and 3 bottles of vino. And that true love does conquer all–once you land the true love and pin them down.
10. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.
The first chapter made me want to throw up. It was so graphic and terrifying that I didn’t know if I had the steel guts to continue. But, Sebold takes the unsettling event of Susie Salmon’s kidnapping and murder by a neighbour in 1973 Pennsylvania and braids it into a supernatural-laced novel of coping, understanding and possibility.
Okay, that’s 10 off the top. I didn’t even get around to Chuck Thompson, Farley Mowat or Douglas Coupland’s biography on Terry Fox. Then there’s the Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the unbridled adrenalin of Colin Angus. Oh, and anything Anne Lamott, David Sedaris or Burroughs and the clever Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And, I really, really loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And, if you’ve lived at more than 10 addresses in your life, you’ll really lean into Isabel Huggans Belonging.
See? It’s a run-away list. But, I promise the ten books I listed will change your life is some unexpected way. You’ll see. Let me know–and please, share your favourite with me. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I like lists.