I just celebrated my 40th birthday yesterday. Instead of waxing lyrical and trite about life beginning at forty, I thought it would be good to look back at the books that helped shape who I am now as a woman: daughter, mother, teacher, psychologist, friend, reader (especially since our current reading theme is about womanity).
As I was drafting this post, I realized that I can not possibly include the books I discovered post-GatheringBooks – or the kidlit/YA novels I read when I was in my late 20s/early 30s that eventually led me to the birth of GatheringBooks. So watch out for Part Two (book series/ adult novels) and Part Three (picturebooks/graphic novels). And so here is A List of Literary Forty (or so), if you will.
Here are some of the books that found me throughout my forty years of existence and how they have moved me.
I loved this as a child. This is the first book I remember crying over – it was that scene when the baby bird nearly found her mother but didn’t. The pacing, the language, the dialogue, the sense of loss – it’s just timeless.
(2) Childcraft Encyclopedia/ Charlie Brown Encyclopedia
I came from a generation whose parents collected encyclopedia – it was kind of like a status symbol at the time. This means that you have the resources to provide your kids the tools to eventually succeed in life. And knowing how much my parents spent for these babies, I religiously combed through each and every page of these books. Never mind that I didn’t really understand much of what I was reading, the important thing was that I read them.
(3) Collection of Mark Twain stories: Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper/ Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
I loved reading Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. I can’t remember anymore what the book cover of the Mark Twain book was. It was loaned to me by my older cousin who has a personal library to die for. All I remember was that it had gilt-edged pages and it was bound in leather, with yellowed pages and illustrations, and it made me want to sniff the pages as I read it. These images I found online are the closest approximation I can get.
(4) Little Women/ Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
I was crazy over these books as a child. I can’t find the exact book cover anymore on the internet – but it’s a hard bound book that you flip over to read The Little Men on the other side. I thought that the packaging was just ingenious. This was the time I audio-recorded myself reading the books aloud in cassette tapes so that I can own the words (it took too much time to write them down in my notebooks, yes I tried that too) – and this was before the very concept of audio books was even invented. I had to do this because I had to return the books to the same cousin who supplied me with these reading materials.
Yes, I was an avid SVH fan as a tweener. I devoured these books – around three or so in one day. They taught me the discipline of saving my lunch money so that I can buy all the books in the series. And I had a pretty decent collection, if I may say so myself.
(6) Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews
I think this was the first novel that truly horrified me and made me realize that things unspoken can actually be found in books. I think I went on to read up to three books in the series.
(7) Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon / Doctors by Erich Segal / Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
I think it was my senior year in highschool when I discovered Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele, and yes, Erich Segal. While I did enjoy Love Story, it was Doctors that kind of stuck to my mind at the time. I think it was because my parents wanted me to become a medical doctor when I was a child. Master of the Game was the perfect escape – I remembered trying to read this to my boyfriend (who eventually became my husband) because it had a beauty to it that needed to be shared. Valley of the Dolls showed me how happiness can be packaged in a pill.
(8) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I think after reading a lot of historical romance novels by Jude Deveraux and Judith McNaught, I graduated to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. It was the epic saga vibe that got to me. I even read the sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley.
(9) Stephen King: The Stand, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Shining (among others)
I had a Stephen King phase when I was in university. At the time, I still did not have the cash to purchase books that were quite expensive. And so what I did was to rent these books from a hole-in-the-wall books-for-rent stall at my university’s shopping centre. That little store introduced me to a great deal of quick reads then.
(10) The Firm by John Grisham/ The Godfather by Mario Puzo / Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
For some reason, I also gravitated quite naturally towards these testosterone-driven novels: mystery, mafia, soldiers. I found Gates of Fire later on in my life, but I thought it would be good to juxtapose the novel along these other reads that occupied a great deal of my time when I was in my 20s/30s.
(11) Umberto Eco: The Name Of the Rose / Foucault’s Pendulum
When my mystery/suspense novels became too formulaic, it was natural enough for me to turn to Umberto Eco, especially when I discovered how insanely brilliant The Name Of The Rose was, which I followed right after with Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s novels are complex and multi-layered, and perhaps I did not really understand much of what I read when I was younger, but again, it didn’t really matter. What was clear was that I enjoyed myself tremendously.
(12) Charles Dickens: The Adventures of Oliver Twist / Great Expectations
I discovered Dickens when I was in the university as well. I borrowed most of these books from our lowly and dismally-equipped library in the university. I was just grateful that there was a library I can borrow books from, finally. I think this was also the moment when I realized that each book had its own distinct voice, and it was such a pleasure just listening in to what the author has to say: it made reading a very intimate experience.
(13) Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead/ Atlas Shrugged
I think I discovered Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead when I was in graduate school or at the tail-end of my university years. I followed this through with Atlas Shrugged. Both life-changing novels. I particularly took pride in the fact that both are ultra-thick novels that took me quite awhile to get through.
(14) The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe / Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
These books were also read while I was in college – either borrowed from our library or rented out from that hole-in-the-wall book stall at the shopping centre. The Bonfire of the Vanities was my first foray into the corporate universe, I think, while Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery was an unexpectedly enjoyable classic.
(15) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte / Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
I read these books when I was in my late teens and early 20s. It introduced me to romances that were never meant to be actualized.
(16) Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton / Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence/ The Awakening by Kate Chopin
When Austen and Bronte failed to give me what I seem to be seeking, I gravitated towards Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, and Kate Chopin. The thing is, I read these novels for leisure reading even while I was poring over my psychology text books as an undergraduate. I was not a Literature major, but I acted like one. I meticulously read the novels that I knew most majors in Literature were reading. I eventually took Lit as my minor in college – which is when I probably discovered Chopin through my Lit Professor. I especially liked the fact that these books were written at a very different time – allowing me an escape from contemporary novels.
(17) The Unbearable Lightness Of Being By Milan Kundera / The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
When I was in grad school, I was also teaching in the university where I completed my undergraduate (University of the Philippines in Diliman). The junior faculty formed a group which we called KATIPON and we had a book club where we read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Great discussions about emotional and physical infidelity, best friends versus lovers, the various shades of morality. It was just natural that I also read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne as I was ruminating on the grey areas – realizing that not everything is etched in stone or very clear boundaries.
(18) A Spy In The House Of Love by Anaïs Nin
I don’t think I’d be able to do a list of books that shaped my womanity without making mention of Anaïs Nin. This was one of my favourite books when I was in my late 20s, I believe.
(19) Tolkien Phase: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings
When I quit teaching to do full-time graduate work, I immersed myself in Tolkien’s world. My books looked like these and I think I bought them from a thrift shop. At the time, it was immensely difficult to find these at regular retail book stores. It is so easy to take for granted our easy access to books here in Singapore – but during my growing up years and when I was in my 20s, books like these were considered to be a luxury.
(20) By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho
Before Coelho became known to be the snake charmer that he is now known to be, I loved this novel. While I did enjoy The Alchemist, it was By the River Piedra which changed the way I viewed the world. It was a heady experience reading this novel, which I couldn’t even afford to purchase at the time. There was this bookstore previously in the Katipunan area called Pages which sold what-was-considered-rare-books such as these. I discovered Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in this place. It has a very cozy atmosphere with couches and a coffee shop. Customers are encouraged to browse and read for as long as they like so long as they buy the occasional coffee and tiny cookie. Which I did – and I read the book in something like two or three visits, because I had no disposable income to speak of at the time. Now I own two copies of these books which I bought at Bras Basah here in Singapore for 2.50 SGD – roughly the same price as the coffee I bought in that book store when I was reading it for free. Life is funny, sometimes.
(21) Dracula by Bram Stoker
For as long as I can remember, I have always had a thing with horror novels. I think it was during the vampire phase when I devoured a great deal of Anne Rice that I picked up Dracula by Bram Stoker.
(22) Weaveworld by Clive Barker
Clive Barker is one of those few novelists who are able to put fantasy and horror together so convincingly with unforgettable characters who would remain with you. I bought a lot of his other novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet – I have his Imajica One and Two which I hope to get to within the year – or the next, maybe? I read somewhere that there is an out-of-print illustrated version of Weaveworld – I do hope that it finds me someday.
(23) The Mayfair Witches Series by Anne Rice: The Witching Hour, Lasher, Taltos
While everyone was going gaga over the Vampire series (Interview with the Vampire, Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned among others), I was immersing myself in Anne Rice’s The Mayfair Witches Chronicles which I thought was infinitely better than the vampire novels.
(24) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky/ Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak/ The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
While I was reading a great deal of mainstream novels, I was also burying my nose in quite a lot of classic novels which I usually borrow from our university library. It was like a dance of sorts: the popular novels were quick reads. These classic novels on the other hand took longer to read (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for one, is massive). They were well worth the read, though, and made me really think about morality, love, and beauty. I also enjoyed how foreign they were – yet they were able to provide me a glimpse of life’s truths, expanding my soul to hold realities far different from my own.
(25) Beloved by Toni Morrison
I was deeply disturbed by this novel which was introduced to me by my very first Research boss. It unsettled the very core of my being and introduced me to novels written by people of colour – and that there is even such a category. Recall that I was not a Literature major – all these books found me by chance and circumstance.
(26) I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The minute I knew about Toni Morrison, it was not a huge leap for me to discover Maya Angelou whose poetry moved me and made me proud to be a woman. In The Caged Bird, I learned that “a woman’s work is never done”, and the many things I take for granted as a female living in this part of the world.
(27) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson/ Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
There is something luminous about Marilynne Robinson’s writing. I think it was a kindred who introduced me to her novels. It is of the same ilk as Anne Tyler’s novels, hence I put the two together. This was when I discovered how lyrical prose novels can be.
(28) Possession by A. S. Byatt
Possession was my first book-about-book that is so intricate and so deeply affecting that it turned me into an A. S. Byatt fan. I think I have a few more of her novels waiting to be read in my shelves.
(29) Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love In The Time of Cholera, The Autumn of The Patriarch
I didn’t even know that magical realism was a genre – even after I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and fell in love with his labyrinthine stories. There is always a dab of irreverence and such wanton abandon in his writings that was never apologetic in its full intensity and deep-seated melancholia that just hit me like so many daggers in the heart.
(30) Isabel Allende: The House Of The Spirits, Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, Of Love and Shadows
Isabel Allende was my hero for a time. While Marquez was all aesthetics and form, Allende was pure spirit and affective layers – the playing around with the real and the otherworldly, the visceral and the ethereal – the witchery of her words just ensnared me.
(31) Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace
Atwood was perhaps my first foray into science fiction with her Handmaid’s Tale. This was when I paid attention to the sparse, distilled beauty of language, that I sat up and really took notice of the words. As you can now perhaps deduce, I tend to read a lot of the same novels written by an author that moved me. It must be the researcher/teacher in me.
(32) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie/ Haroun and the Sea of Stories
I mentioned earlier that I discovered Rushdie in that small, independent bookstore in Katipunan called Pages which I think only lasted for a little over than a year. While most everyone fell in love with The Satanic Verses, it was Midnight’s Children that held a deeper impression on me – and Haroun and the Sea of Stories which I have yet to finish reading.
(33) Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship by Thomas Moore.
These were the books that I was reading before I got married – when I was in my early 20s. While I gravitated naturally towards darknesses and horror, I also breathed these novels like so much fragrant air: it was my meditation, my sense of quiet, and made me marvel at a universe that was way bigger than myself.
(34) What To Expect When You’re Expecting by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff and Sandee E. Hathaway
When I got pregnant, this was my bible. I read this like a fish drowning. I didn’t have anyone to ask about the little things I was experiencing as a pregnant woman or as a first-time mother. This was my go-to guidebook each time I was confused, and provided me with that sense of confidence that I knew what I was doing (even when I didn’t).
(35) The Secret Is In The Sauce: Cookbook for Noncooks by Marianne Gonzalez De Leon
When I quit teaching for a year and a half to concentrate on getting pregnant and graduate school, I kind of played house, and pretended that I was this fab Stepford Wife (minus the wealth, power, and influence of course). I still have this much-loved cookbook – which allowed me to make the most marvelous dishes, even when I was a klutz in the kitchen. I think I bought this from a small restaurant in Quezon City that also sold hard-to-find spices, condiments, ingredients. It had a family-recipe vibe to it – and it came with a lot of illustrations and side commentaries that were often amusing. This is where I got the recipe for all my cookies. This was a limited edition kind of cookbook and I am sure that it must be out-of-print by now.
(36) The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman/ Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi
These are the professional development texts that changed my life – and set the course of my research and publication. Hillman proved to me that a psychologist can go beyond dry empiricism and could tackle life’s most important questions. They made me grateful to be in the profession that I am in at the moment.
(37) American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I read this in my early 30s, I think. It is massive, it is fantasy that breaks boundaries. It is heartbreaking. It is beautiful.
(38) The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest)
I read this when I was in my late 20s/early 30s as well. I feel drunk whenever I read Oscar Wilde: intoxicated with words and with something expansive, like liquid fire that just runs through my veins, making my spirit shine.
(39) Poetry: Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman, Luis Cernuda, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings
Since I didn’t have a lot of money to buy books when I was young, I had to rely on a few photocopied pages of books from these authors (talk about the woes of developing countries – and there was no internet yet at the time). A good friend introduced me to Pablo Neruda’s poetry and I was forever changed. I found Luis Cernuda’s poetry in Pages and painstakingly copied most of my favourites in a little handmade notebook that was given to me by another friend. T. S. Eliot was a discovery from my Literature class – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock both flummoxed me and excited me. E. E. Cummings removed the ceilings in my mind when it came to poetic form, structure, and style. Tagore made me fall in love. And I am still going through The Leaves of Grass, discovering something new each time I dip in its pages.
(40) A Book of Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now: Selections from the World Over Edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone
This was one of the most expensive books I bought when I was in my 20s. I consider this a necessary indulgence. I simply couldn’t let it go. Up to now, this is one of my most treasured collection of poetry and introduced me to the likes of Adrienne Rich, Sappho, Margaret Atwood’s poetry, and so many more from all over the world. I admit though that I would have liked to see more Middle Eastern poetry.