A few months ago I bought the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. I had heard some talk about this book which it seems discusses the parenting style of Asian mothers and the challenges of doing so in Western societies. I have not even opened the book. It sits on my desk waiting. Its red cover catches my eye as though to remind me, “I’m waiting, I have something to tell you which will scrape away at areas of your life that you would rather not acknowledge right now. You can run, but you cannot hide”.
Most books that I have read have been a guide of sorts regardless of their genre. Books have helped me to define a faith system that balances what is true in my soul and what science has proven to be factual. Books have taken me on adventures that leave a longing within me that will never be satisfied. The written word has caused laughter to erupt from a place deep within me that I never knew existed and words have reduced me to tears.
I began reading with ferocity fairly early. My three older brothers had a very strong influence over the reading material that I chose. The Classics, Biographies, history and sensible fiction and even horror stories were permitted. Romance novels were forbidden and anything resembling a romance novel was justification for verbal humiliation. I’m fairly certain that I can blame them for some deficit in my “girliness” but to this day, I cannot even pick up a book that appears to be a romance novel without some level of shame. I suppose I’ll make a mental note to thank them for that or maybe not.
Early in my life Harper Lee introduced me to my first love, Atticus Finch. Admittedly, I have difficulty separating the book character “Atticus” from the movie character “Atticus” played by Gregory Peck, but who better to hold dear in my heart? Atticus in his dark suits and white starchy shirts pressed by Calpurnia (who was more of a family member than a maid) stood up to racism and small town narrow mindedness and accepted pies and firewood in payment for legal defense. He taught his children to be respectful to the disabled neighbor whose reputation, fueled by ignorance, created fear in the community. Atticus is the man by whom I measure all men. Harper Lee instilled in me a sense of justice, charity and responsibility for my fellow humans. She allowed me to value the perception of life from a child’s eyes. To this day nothing gives me more pure joy than leaving a treasure in the knothole of a tree for Boo Radley or someone else who can appreciate this simple pleasure.
With some level of misfortune my taste in men was also influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre who introduced the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester was clearly damaged goods and yet his hunger for love made him irresistible. I have a terrible soft spot for the dark and brooding male who I believe can be saved by love. I had difficulty learning that these men rarely come with a happy ending, but sometimes…. Luckily for me, I found my Atticus.
Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes presented me with the dichotomy of humor in the face of a wreckage of his life. McCourt demonstrates the amazing and natural resilience that life holds. Like the plant that grows through the crack in the pavement on the side of the road, McCourt describes a life in which he was repeatedly run over by disappointment, poverty, hunger and betrayal and thrived in spite of it. Perhaps the image that McCourt presents that has imbedded itself most significantly is the image of young Frank McCourt licking the grease from the wax paper left from the fish and chips consumed by someone else. Hunger can result in terrific physical impairment but can also result in tremendous acts of depravity. I have known moments of financial scarcity but I have never known this type of hunger. Unfortunately the hunger described in this book only touches on what is common in many parts of the world and even in the history of people I love.
John Irving gave me friends that I needed at times when I felt isolated. His characters had a similar philosophy about life. I wanted so much to call them and invite them over for dinner and drinks where we would discuss religion and human nature. Our ideas would blend harmoniously and we would be comforted by the confirmation that we are not alone in our thoughts. Irving writes about love that doesn’t fit in a box and doesn’t play by the rules and yet is real and worthy of acknowledgement. In the book, Cider House Rules I celebrated the courage of Homer who learns that his moralistic judgments, no matter how well founded and logical can’t always be the foundation of law. He learns that there are always exceptions and that that the option of choice cannot be violated.
Perhaps the author whose words have moved me most is the author Norman MacLean, who wrote A River Runs Through It. The ability to truly explain how he has been able to delve into my soul by describing nature and human relationships escapes me. Perhaps the best that I can do is to quote him and be done at that. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Books have been my parent, my guide, my priest, my advisor and my friend. Their words have shaped me, comforted me and enabled me to sleep. They are dependable and unchanging and yet each time I read them they offer me something new. Someday soon, I will find the courage to read Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother and it too will offer me another layer of myself and a better understanding of someone I love. However, always and forever Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will have imparted the sweetest advice; to view life through the eyes of a child and through the branches of a tree.