Monday, July 30, 2012

5 Books that Influenced Me

In this month's issue of O magazine, author Jennifer Weiner did an interview called "5 books that influenced me." I believe she meant influenced her writing, but doesn't every book a writer reads influence their writing? I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read 4 of her listed books. But! I have read many others! Et voila!

5 Books that Influenced Me

1. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. 
When I was kid living in Greece (on Santorini), a friend of my mother's gave me a copy of Durrell's awesome memoir about the years he and his family spent on Corfu in the 1920s. Gerald was the youngest by far of his three siblings; he was about 10 or 11 and his two brothers and sister were in their early 20s. The book (and its two sequels) are hilarious, mostly thanks to Gerald's family and a succession of visitors, all of whom were eccentric and hilarious. Gerald was an early naturalist, madly into creature collecting of all kinds. (As an adult, Gerald started his own zoo, the Jersey Zoo and dedicated his life to conservation.) This book and its sequels were written so well, with such humor. I still have the books, and remain impressed. I related at the time, but even as an adult finding the silly in everything is still relatable.

2. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
I love epic British wartime dramas, and Coming Home is exceptionally good. It's so good that I re-read it every few years--I make myself wait a few in order to forget parts so I can rediscover them again--and the love story, the plucky heroine, and the cozy, bucolic setting always get me. Pilcher plots the story wonderfully--and for an epic, it never gets boring.

3. Watermelon by Marian Keyes
This was the first book by Keyes I'd read and also her debut novel. It's not her best or my most favorite (and I've read all her books, I adore her so), but the first line got me like no other--and that's when I started paying attention to first lines. Her first line goes something to the effect of "The day I gave birth was also the day my husband left me." Man! I had to read about that!

4. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is an American who transplanted to England in his twenties and stayed there, married, had kids. He's proof that the dry, always delicious British wit isn't bred in. Notes is Bryson's memoir of his adopted country, and he tours it from bottom to top. At times the humor can come across as too cynical and harsh, but overall he's makes me giggle, and he inspired in me a whole new way of writing and seeing the landscape. You can't go wrong with any of Bryson's books, and I venture that A Walk in the Woods is better than Notes, but Notes remains my favorite because at the time I read it, I was actually traveling across England and Scotland so it was timely and I have great memories of it and the trip. I didn't read it on purpose, that was the great part--it was given to me at just the right time.

5. Toss up: Light a Penny Candle or Echoes both by Maeve Binchy
Hmmm. Looking at this list of books, I see either English or Irish writers, and one American who turned into an Englishman. What does that say about me? It says I like British wit and settings, but there's more to it: when I was about 9 I read every thing I could get my hands on--and because we were living in Greece at the time, that meant all the holiday reading the tourists left behind. The hotels would keep the books in a basket and I (and other ex-pats) were welcome to raid it anytime. Most of the tourists were English, and that meant I read a ton of British authors at a time when I was learning story cadence, grammar, and other fine writing points. Maeve Binchy's two epics, Light a Penny Candle and Echoes, are superb and I've reread them since I was a kid. As with Pilcher, Binchy (hmm, another common demon: the ch in their names) put heart into her stories--and that's more elusive than you think. Heart is what made both authors massive worldwide bestsellers, and it's not that easy to duplicate or else everyone would be doing it.

* Special edit: I didn't know when I wrote this post and scheduled it for publication on July 30 that Maeve Binchy died on July 30. I am deeply saddened by this news. (Link goes to a news page with more info about her life.)

So those are my most influential books. What are yours? I'd love to know! Please share in the comments.

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