Books I’m Thankful For

It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday. As per usual, I sort of forgot about it until the beginning of this week, so I haven’t made an American-style feast to assuage my homesickness and feed all of my friends. Maybe next year. (I say this every year.)

Last Thanksgiving sucked. I was alone, in a house I’d only moved into the month before, in a job I couldn’t stand; my mother was about to start radiotherapy and I was an ocean away from her; my writing was stalling. My whole life felt like it was stalling. I wrote a Facebook post about the things I was grateful for–to be essentially healthy (despite having a chronic medical condition), to have functioning limbs and eyes and lungs, to possess a house and a job at all, to have a family that loved me. It got a lot of likes, but it didn’t make me feel much better. Instead, that night, I cried, and I read.

I read Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, which is the first in the trilogy known as His Dark Materials. It’s less philosophically angsty, less aggressively atheistic, than the other two, but it’s magically clever, with images that haunt and hold you: a golden compass. A polar bear in steel-blue armour. A narrowboat nosing through the fens. It distracted me, it charmed me, and I was utterly, utterly thankful for it.

In that same spirit, here are some other books for the existence of which I’m grateful: because they provided coping strategies, because they opened my eyes, or because they entered my life when I most needed them. They’re not all my “favorite” books or the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re the ones that I owe something to.

The Song of the Lioness quartet, by Tamora Pierce.

These are (or were until my dad cleaned out the bookshelves in my old playhouse) absolutely essential comfort reading for the holidays. Alanna of Tortall is a kick-ass warrior protagonist, but she’s also sexually active and empathetic: neither the Manic Pixie Dream Girl nor the dreaded Strong Female Character gets a look-in here. The first books that suggested bravery as an ideal to emulate.

Still one of my favorite covers of all time.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

All I would read when I was ten or so; I don’t think I touched another book for months. I obsessed over them, whispering the proper nouns to myself, feeling the sound of them in my mouth: Earendil, Morgoth, Galadriel, Lothlorien, Fangorn. Years and years later, I’d study Anglo-Saxon poetry and realize quite how much of it Tolkien jacked, but during my early adolescence, the magic of Middle-earth was entirely unspoiled for me. It was immersion on an unprecedented scale; I’d never before entered so fully and willingly into someone else’s world.

A Dog So Small, by Philippa Pearce.

Very situation-specific, this. I was thirteen when the Heathrow airplane hijacking scare happened, the day before we were due to fly home and four days before I was due to start high school. We were delayed for forty-eight hours: scared, thirsty, heat-struck, impatient, and confused by inadequate communications. I was terrified I’d miss the start of freshman year (I was an unbearably nerdy little twerp). I spent those two days reading aloud to my brother (who was then eight) this book by the author of Tom’s Midnight Garden. The book is about a dog so small it fits in peoples’ pockets. I’ve no idea where it came from, and I think we left it on the plane, because we couldn’t find it once we got home. It’s difficult to conceive of a situation in which I could possibly have been more grateful for a book; I’ve always entertained the notion that, like Mary Poppins, it came to us when we needed it.

Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl.

This was the book that taught me, when I was seventeen, that I could feed myself. It’s impossible to overestimate the force of that revelation to a habitually overweight, diabetic teenager. Suddenly it became clear that not only was it okay not to be a size zero (that, indeed, you could be successful and happy without that), but also that I could take charge of what I put in myself. I could cook what I wanted to eat, and eat what I cooked. Mind-blowing. Of course, this did not stop me from massively fucking up the first thing I cooked from this book (a seared sea bass recipe of which the less said the better, except to mention that fish sauce and fish paste are not the same thing). But it did put my feet on a path that led to empowerment and autonomy and self-acceptance, which, when you’re seventeen, is everything.

Tender, by Belinda McKeon.

Read this past spring. I am grateful to it because, of all the books I have ever read, none so clearly and immediately evoked my frame of mind post-breakup as this one did. McKeon had it. It was like she had been there. I hadn’t been at all well, mentally, and her protagonist, Catherine, with her doomed obsession for her best (gay) friend James, echoed to precision all the things I had thought and felt. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to know that you may have been mad, but you’re not alone in your madness. Tender did that for me.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.

Sometimes you’re grateful for things not because they make you happy or comforted, but because they smack you in the face with a (metaphorical) mackerel and remind you to wake the fuck up. That’s what this report did. I hold a passport from a country that engaged in extrajudicial punishment of prisoners being held on charges that were frequently not articulated to them; those punishments often escalated into torture, which was only very thinly rationalized, and the CIA lied about it, repeatedly and deliberately, to other branches of government and to the media. If I’d ever had any lingering innocence about the essential benevolence of Western democracies, this report exploded it, and that’s as it should be.

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed is, as my friend JonBoy would say, “a genuine goddamn treasure”. She is the former advice columnist for the Rumpus (writing under the pseudonym Dear Sugar), and Tiny Beautiful Things is her collected works. It is impossible to explain how important, how radically compassionate, these columns are unless you have read them. Without judgment, without sentiment, with infinite love and patience and knowledgeability, Strayed tells her readers what they already know they must do to be the best versions of themselves that they can hope to be. She is neither unrealistic nor discouraging. I once described her as your best friend, your coolest teacher and your big sister all rolled into one, and I stand by it. Everyone in the English-speaking world ought to be grateful for Tiny Beautiful Things.

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13 thoughts on “Books I’m Thankful For

  1. Helen says:

    Just crying about this because I’ve had a quantity of red wine & I love you. I feel the same about all these I’ve read. Love you!

  2. What a beautiful post, Elle. Right to the very end (I love that picture and quote).
    I was older than you when I read The Lord of the Rings, but I loved, loved it at the time, and even read it twice, which is something I don’t do very often. And, I’m reading Tiny Beautiful Things right now, a little bit each night. It makes for a good last thought before going to sleep.
    Happy Thanksgiving! Wishing you a much better one than last year. 🙂

    • Oh man, Cheryl Strayed is so great. Reading them at bedtime is a fab idea. And yeah, pretty sure I’ll have a better thanksgiving this year–thank you!

  3. A lovely post and engagingly written — and I greatly enjoy reading through snippets of your life (chronological, too) via the books you are thankful for.

    I was too old when I found out The Song of the Lioness existed. I would have adored it as a child (budding feminist and all). Is it worth reading in your twenties?

  4. I hope this Thanksgiving has been an up from the last, my heart wept a little at your awful one last year (I hope you’re mum is doing better too!).

    Such a marvellous selection of books, I now want to read them all.

    Fun fact about me, I will travel for food. So if you ever want to spend thanksgiving with a weird English book lover you don’t know – I’d be perfect for that situation 😉

    • This Thanksgiving was infinitely better–thanks so much for your kind words. (My mum is also now cancer-free!) So pleased you liked the books; I’d recommend them all, of course. And that is actually so great to know; I’m really thinking that I need to get on top of this whole Thanksgiving thing next year, and may well throw a dinner party!

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