The Most Memorable & Influential Books in the Life of Kat B.

A little less than a year ago, at a friend’s suggestion and my push, a book club was formed. It contains 75% of everyone I know in Wilmington. The other 25% of people I know are probably all coworkers. I’m pretty enamored with our book club which we call The Bookplates. We are dorky enough to have a name and a Twitter account, albeit a rarely used one. This is the sort of book club where wine actually comes second to discussing the book (it’s a close second) and so far every member has read the entire book each time (with rare exceptions).

In the eight months we’ve been meeting we’ve read:

The Paying Guests- Sarah Waters

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls- Anton Disclafani

*The Land of Love and Drowning- Tiphanie Yanique

*A Little Life- Hanya Yanagihara

*Fates and Furies- Lauren Groff

How to be Both- Ali Smith

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl- Carrie Brownstein

Under the Udala Trees- Chinelo Okparanta

*My favorites thus far.

For January’s book club we were asked to bring a list of five books to share with one another. We could give the list any theme we wanted. Some were based on books of their youth, some were books they thought about a lot- it varied. I pondered my list for several days and asked the advice of multiple friends. Slowly my list became “The Most Memorable and Influential Books in the Life of Kat B.” I excel at titles.

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These are somewhat in chronological order.

Little Women- Louisa May Alcott

Growing up I owned a hardback version with a soft, blue, faux leather cover. Throughout the book were illustrations of important scenes in the March family’s life. Each picture was preceded by a fine piece of tissue paper. It was most likely some sort of Barnes and Noble edition but I treated like a first edition. It was sacred. Sometimes I would trace the drawings onto a piece of paper and pretend I was Amy March. Other times I would write stories and pretend I was Jo March. These girls were in a world that didn’t encourage them to be creative but they would not be stifled.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang- Joyce Carol Oates

If you need a writer to get obsessed with, pick Joyce Carol Oates. She’s written so many novels/novellas/short stories/plays/essays in her life that you will never run out of material. It is impossible. For six+ years I rarely read anything but Oates and it all started with Foxfire. I was sixteen working at the performing arts theater in Winston-Salem and a coworker, much cooler and older than I, gave me her copy. She let me keep it and I’ve probably read it ten or more times. It was a book about passion, anger, belonging and the fierceness of young women. I think I’m done reading and collecting Joyce Carol Oates books, but Foxfire will always be at the top of my book list.

Confederates in the Attic- Tony Horwitz

Stop what you’re doing. Read this book. If you live in the South or are interested in the South, you must read it. This book is as laugh out loud funny as it is totally disturbing. Tony Horwitz travels around to different states in the Confederacy trying to determine why the Civil War is still so important to Southerners. I was concerned when I first started this book that it would leave me feeling ashamed to be a Southerner. Not a chance. Southerners are complicated and generous with their crazy flags flying high. Also, as the book shows Southerners are not all alike, contrary to popular belief.

The Power of One- Bryce Courtenay

I can’t explain exactly why this book made my list. It’s just the kind of compelling story that never leaves you. It’s the story of Peekay, a white boy in South Africa, whose life shows us the Apartheid, South African culture, boxing and his coming of age. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone, especially someone who hasn’t been reading much and needs a compelling story to motivate them to read more. This will do the trick.

Wild- Cheryl Strayed

I’ve met a lot of people who hated Wild but when I read it, quickly and without stopping, I felt like the book had become a permanent part of me. It’s words and story stand out clearly in my mind and when I reflect on it, I first feel the story somewhere within me behind my sternum, near my heart. It is not a tale I have experienced but it’s something I read and thought, “Oh yes, I could see this happening to me or someone like me.” It also pulls me outside. No, I don’t want to lose all my toenails nor venture into the woods with an improperly packed bag and not nearly enough camping knowledge. I do; however, want to experience the meditation of a solo hike in the woods.

And so this is me, if I were a list of books.

The Book For Me

Last week my boss asked me for a book recommendation for her fifteen year old daughter. I read constantly when I was fifteen but there was only one book that came to mind. This book changed my whole life. Maybe if you read it today for the first time as a grown person (or a fifteen year old) it wouldn’t speak to you at all. Maybe you wouldn’t even finish it.

I’ve read it at least five times. Honestly, I think that’s a really conservative estimate.

I have a tattoo because of this book. That’s embarrassing to admit but… might as well get it all out there.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

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I can’t remember all the details but it goes a little like this: The book is about a group of high school girls in the 1950s from the perspective of one of the girls, “the writer”. These classmates don’t become friends until they band together to stop a teacher from being inappropriate with one of the girls. Then they are bound by their experience and it takes over their lives (as things do in high school). A leader has emerged and they follow her everywhere.

The book was everything. It was one of the first books I had read that wasn’t intended for young adults and wasn’t assigned at school. It was one of the first real pieces of contemporary literature I had ever tried. It was dark and overwhelming with its violent and sexual tension. These were girls my age, in a much more oppressed time, but they were wild and chaotic.

And they belonged to one another. They were a community within themselves. Poor, desperate, and out of control maybe but as I read I felt connected to them.  At the time I read Foxfire I think I would have done anything to felt that connected to someone else, to a made up little family.

A woman I worked with gave me the book. Nicole was older, maybe in college or graduated. When you’re in high school you can’t actually grasp how much older other people are. There are grownups and then there’s you. I don’t remember much about her except the moment she handed me the book and I saw it’s pink, black and white cover. She was sitting at the window on one of the tall chairs and she told me I could keep it. Later when I told her how much I loved it, she nodded unsurprised and told me to find some of the author’s other books.

For the next six years I barely read anything else. Joyce Carol Oates is an incredibly prolific writer so there was more than enough material to keep me supplied. She’s written over 50 novels, novellas, over 30 short story collections, plays, books of essays (I took these numbers from a 2010 Wall Street Journal article– there’s more now). Some I don’t care for. We Were the Mulvaneys did not rock my world. I couldn’t finish Middle Age (my mother read it though and said I was just too young to relate).

Others are vivid and their characters are alive to me.  The teenage girl in You Must Remember This who has an affair with her uncle. The woman we follow from childhood as she grapples with sexuality in Man Crazy. The man and woman bound by crime in Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart. Marilyn Monroe in Blonde- a constant mystery. Legs from Foxfire- vulnerable and manipulative and violent. There are imprints in my mind of these characters that can never be erased. I can recall scenes from their stories and how they looked to me, even though I haven’t read these books in over five years.

You know when you’re talking about something and you get really excited so you start talk faster or louder? You’re so into whatever you’re talking about that you don’t want anyone to cut you off or maybe you’re not even aware that you’ve been talking for too long now. That’s how I feel about JCO’s writing.

I don’t read Joyce Carol Oates as much as I used to, but looking over the list of novels she’s written brings back the memory of being in a bookstore and gazing over all her books. What one would I try next? I want to read them all over again.

Favorites:

Foxfire

Man Crazy

You Must Remember This

Because It is Bitter and Because It is My Heart

My Heart Laid Bare

Broke Heart Blues

I’ll Take You There

Heat & Other Stories

Will You Always Love Me? And Other Stories

Faithless: Tales of Transgression

I Am No One You Know: Stories

In case you’re wondering I did a quick count and I’ve read 29 novels/novellas/short collections by Joyce Carol Oates. Yes, that seems like a lot to me, too.

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If You Could Have Dinner With Five People Dead or Alive…. Part 1

Nominee #1: Patti Smith

Patti Smith is someone I have loved for a long time but I often forget about her. It’s a terrible thing to forget about such an interesting person but from time to time I do. I first learned about her when I read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk in high school.

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I don’t remember Patti Smith being a huge part of the book but she was certainly prevalent enough to have a captured my attention: an enigma of sorts. This socially awkward musician/poet/artist who didn’t seem carried away with drugs and maintained herself in the face of a culture of constantly losing oneself. A poet- a real live NYC poet! Oh, if I only dared to dream so high. Later I would see the movie, Foxfire, and hear Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot and my love would only become more engrained.

And so Patti Smith has drifted in and out of my life. Recently at a brunch, her memoir was mentioned with incredible praise. Just Kids is well worth the read. I’m only halfway through it and my love is deepening still. Patti Smith is so personable, so humble, so self-aware without being self-conscious or self-involved.

Although Patti Smith apparently doesn’t like dinner parties as she is not particularly social, I hope she will accept my hypothetical invitation.

Nominee #2: Joyce Carol Oates

If you know me, you know this is an obvious choice. I have loved Joyce Carol Oates for 10 or 11 years now. When I was in high school selling tickets at performing arts theater, one of my coworkers gave me her copy of Foxfire: Confessions of An All-Girl Gang. At 15, as an angry confused teen girl who desperately wanted to belong to someone or something, there was no greater gift than this book. It was dark and dangerous, vaguely sexual and haunting. I was Maddy without gang or I wanted to be anyways.

I won’t show you the poorly done, poorly chosen (at least I feel so many years later) tattoo I have that is a result of this book. If you’ve read it-you know.

From that point, I read considerably more JCO books (including those written in her pseudonym) than anything else. I’ve read somewhere between 25-30 of her published works (novels, novellas, collections of short stories, etc) and sadly this means I’ve read less than half of her work. In the world of publishing, her very name is synonymous with “prolific”. And she lives up to this without fault.

When I was in college I wrote my thesis on Blonde, her story based on Marilyn Monroe. I did it poorly and sometimes I think of writing it over, to really get it right this time. I met JCO at a reading of The Falls at University of South Carolina at Columbia. She was incredibly tall and frail looking. She gave the air of not really being there, as if she could just float away at any moment. When I handed her my copy of Blonde to sign, I told her I was writing my thesis on the work. She asked me what the title of my thesis was. I didn’t know. Her eyes widened a little without looking at me and she said, “Good luck with that,” in a way that I knew meant she thought I needed it.

If she came to my dinner party, I would do better.

That’s all the invitations I’m managed to churn out so far. More to come. RSVPs required.