2014 List of Books That Changed How I Write
Every year, I attempt to read one book per week, and I’m sad to report that this year I didn’t make it despite giving it my best try. Inevitably, some of the books I read will inform my own writing, and the ones that do tend to shock the pants off of me. This year, was no different. Yes, I read more than four books this year, but these represent the books I read in 2014 that changed how I write.
#4 – The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. Tatjana came to the university to give a reading and I had the pleasure of hearing her discuss writing, this novel, and her new book, The Forgetting Tree. What The Lotus Eaters taught me was the art of the hidden back story. Sometimes, a great book will feed you a character’s back story on a drip system, giving you just what you need as you work through the book. Other times, it’s front and center and you watch the character reconcile their present with their haunting past. In this case, Soli gives you a picture of Linh’s, a Vietnamese photographer, present story with an undertone of trouble. He’s quiet, withdrawn at times, and downright mysterious for 2/3 of the book. And then… Oh, god, and then. In a beautifully crafted flashback, we get Linh’s tragic back story and it changes every single thing that you’ve assumed about this character in the most delicious way. Keeping his back story hidden was a brilliant way of allowing him to step into the spotlight once he was ready.
#3 – Never Let Me Go by Kuzuo Ishiguro. This was one of the more heartbreaking books I read this year, and my biggest takeaway was the power of leaving the elephant in the room. Ishiguro sets his piece in a dystopian future (typically not my jam) where clones are organ donors for their matches. Ishiguro allows his characters to fully understand their fate, but the brilliance lies in never discussing it directly and never delving into the emotional turbulence of each character as they donate all of their organs in successive operations, watch and care for their friends as they die, and come to terms with their own shortened mortality. Instead, that part is left to the reader. You will be horrified, furious, and downright depressed at the state of his young characters as they navigate their world. The matter of fact tone says more about their deep hurt and longing than emotional expository ever could. This book, for me, was a lesson in how what you don’t say can speak louder than what you do.
#2 – Dora: A Headcase by Lydia Yuknavitch. Just holy shit, ok? Yes, it’s YA, but holy mother of all the holies, it’s a slim, little tour de force. Again, I had the pleasure of hearing Lydia read at the U, where she read from Dora and also from The Chronology of Water (another amazing, gut wrenching, truth bomb). Here, it’s Yuknavitch’s voice that drives her unflinching tale of a young girl struggling with her sexuality, her relationships with her mother and father, and where she belongs. The vernacular defined Dora’s world and the characters within it. One word: Marlene. For as long as I live, I will never forget Marlene. This book taught me to get real with the world, characters, and situations. No sugar coating, just full throttle living on the page. That takes a lot of guts and bravery and chutzpah, and if you’re struggling with saying it like it is, this book is for you. And it’s also an amazing read. Thank me later.
#1 – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes, it won the Pulitzer. Yes, it was a doorstop. Yes, I sat on the couch clutching the book for a good half an hour after reading the last line, so lost in the blistering inferno that was once my soul that I snapped to wondering where I was and how long I had been there. Tartt is the master of Grief and Chaos and how they drive and heal each other. Jesus it was just delicious. There were times when I wondered – where are we going in this big, old book, but never for more than two pages. At the end, I wouldn’t have given back those two pages either. What I learned here was the art of comparison shopping. Tartt takes her main character, Theo’s, harrowing experiences and lays them side by side as he stumbles into adulthood. It’s that trick that helps us to see how far he has come and just how far he has to go, and how beautiful and tragic his life is.
I sincerely hope that you read your face off this year, and were inspired by other authors in ways you couldn’t have imagined. If so, tell me in the comments. Here’s to 2015 and finally hitting that 52 book mark!