Friday, June 19, 2015

Books That Have Stayed With Me


This particular post is inspired by a meme I saw going around on Tumblr and Facebook a while back. It involves listing, and I quote from the prompt, "ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes, and don't think too hard. They do not have to be the 'right' books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you." I've had my list for a while, though I never quite got around to putting it up on Tumblr as I initially planned.

These are the ten books that have truly stayed with me, in rough chronological order based on when I first encountered them. Many would not normally stand out as candidates for the best books ever, whether for their genre, from their author, or otherwise, and some of them are not fun to read, but each was valuable to me in some way. Ones that I would recommend to friends are marked with an asterisk:
  1. Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom by Katherine Patterson
  2. A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power
  3. The Plague by Albert Camus
  4. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay*
  5. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook
  6. Quiet by Susan Cain*
  7. The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
  8. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
  9. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides*
  10. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie*

I'm totally likely to write more detailed posts on a few of these at some point (certainly about Susan Cain's Quiet), even if it gets to being a bit off topic relative to what I normally like to write about. As such, I don't have detailed thoughts to write on every one of these in this entry. There are few things I like more than rambling about books I enjoy. I have a few jumbled thoughts for now.

It might be odd of me, but I like to look back on my own memories of childhood for signs of the adult that I am now. I spent most of college dreaming of being a historian whose work focused on China, and perhaps it is no wonder because I went back to (1) so many times. I enjoy history because it reveals unexpected sides to events and places that I thought I knew about, and for a reader at the average age for Katherine Patterson books, details about the Taiping Rebellion are likely completely new and strange.

(2) and (3) are books from high school. (2) ignited a sense of justice with a global focus and a desire to work for it (though I've followed up with that initial desire imperfectly over time). I found the language of (3) to be beautifully written (though it is in translation, and I'm never too sure what I know about the original when one reads in translation) and felt that it got at deeper truths about life and being human. My blog's title is, in fact, inspired by my teenage fondness for the writing of Albert Camus, which I think necessarily goes hand in hand with maybe just a touch of self-important pretentiousness.

As to (4), Guy Gavriel Kay's work is normally shelved with sci-fi/fantasy, but many of his books depict events parallel to historical ones, with relatively minimal added fantasy elements. His fiction sounds like it was written by a historian, which I am all for. I love all of his historically-inspired novels, such that it is difficult to choose just one. I ended up picking out one of his two "China" novels, but for those who are new to his work I might recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan or Sailing to Sarantium instead.

I don't have too much to say about (5) except that reading it was like a punch in the gut despite its events being very much rooted in the recent history of South Korea, a thing that I am far from familiar with. It is very heavy-handed, almost emotionally manipulative, and yet... it certainly stayed with me.

As a lifelong introvert (and one who is situated pretty far on the shy side of the spectrum) who has never quite been able to overcome those tendencies for long, (6) is near and dear to my heart.

(7), Amy Chua's memoir, is extremely controversial. She's very good at marketing books through controversy and controversial premises. I shouldn't judge her also-controversial next book without having personally read it, but I found the premise as publicized to be deeply problematic and can't imagine that accusations about possible racist implications are that far off the mark. I know from reading Tiger Mother that the criticisms ignited by the Wall Street Journal excerpt were largely off the mark because those excerpts were, inevitably and even purposefully, removed from the larger context, but I still think of everything surrounding The Triple Package and its marketing as rather crass. Yet, for better or for worse, I can relate to her. We're both second-generation Chinese-American immigrants who would wholeheartedly defend our parents' high expectations during our childhoods. She writes in a self-deprecating way (surprisingly) and, as she tells it, she eventually learned to chill out a bit as a mother, and I ultimately see this version of her in her book as a flawed, but sympathetic and well-meaning figure, one whose motivations I certainly understand and even share. I do find her scholarship a bit... tacky, but that's another topic entirely.

(9) is a book about being a young adult and trying to muddle through the first year or two of the transition into adulthood. If I embraced a touch of youthful pretension with my teenage embrace of Albert Camus, then these characters practically bathed in that sort of thing (postmodernist philosophy and semiotics are apparently the hottest things to study at their university). The protagonists are not at all like me, and yet I thought most of this novel ran quite true to my memories of the transition from college senior to new graduate.

(8) and (10) both convey truths about race in America today, (8) more subtly and (10) much more directly. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also did a fantastic TED talk about the importance of diversity in what stories get told. She's fantastic and Americanah is fantastic if one is willing to be open-minded about race in America. 


  1. Thank you so much for this post! It's a shame most bloggers don't write more often about their book recommendations... I've been compiling a list of books to read this summer and this is very helpful!

  2. You're welcome! I just love talking about books. I had a lot of time to read for fun before I started graduate school, and at times, I've been able to keep up the habit in school. I like reading a fairly wide range of genres too.


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