Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Bucket List | The Ideal Bookshelf of Rebecca Rupp

This year for One Book, One San Joaquin, we are featuring Rebecca Rupp's After Eli as our children's read.  This is a fantastic book about friendship, sorting out priorities, and healing after a tragic loss. Rebecca will also be featured in the Reading Meets Art: My Ideal Bookshelf program.  She gave us the list of the books that she couldn't live without and have the most meaning in her life.  We then took that list and had them illustrated by local artists.  Rebecca's painting will be featured during the Ideal Bookshelf Reception at the Cesar Chavez Library on Monday, September 9 at 6:00 p.m.

Along with their list of books, each participant submitted a write up discussing why their books have special meaning or hold a special place in their life.  These will be displayed with the renderings of the Ideal Bookshelves.  

As a little preview to the big event, I wanted to share what Rebecca wrote regarding her own Ideal Bookshelf.

Illustrated by Serena Cho
My (Sort of) Ideal Bookshelf
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks by Robertson Davies
            Robertson Davies was a Canadian writer, playwright, and professor – who, by the time I belatedly discovered him, had a bushy white beard that made him look (depending on his expression) like Rasputin, Charles Darwin, or Santa Claus. He’s known for his rich, dense, wonderful novels (I love them) but the book that had practical impact on me was The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks.
            Samuel Marchbanks is Davies’s curmudgeonly alter-ego. Under the name of Marchbanks, Davies, in the 1940s, wrote essays and editorials for an Ontario newspaper, of which Papers is a collection of the best. Among these is a year’s-worth of Marchbanks’s irascible daily (daily!) journal. In it, he reflects and reports on an immense array of topics, comments on the human condition, skewers everything he doesn’t like (dogs, opera), and complains about his evil coal furnace. It’s funny, eccentric, caustic, and catchy.
I’d like to try that, I thought.
Now I keep a daily journal - part record, part writer’s notebook, part sounding board – and I can’t imagine how I ever did without it.
I owe it to Samuel.

 The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

            The name Virginia Woolf is usually followed by the descriptor “author of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway” – and yes, those are wonderful books and I love them. I am a Woolf groupie.
            However, the first of her books that I read were her essay collections, The Common Reader and The Second Common Reader. These essays, which left me in awe of Virginia, are all gorgeously crafted works of art – clever, perceptive, erudite, the sort of essays any writer would strive to emulate. But for me, Virginia packed a double whammy, because of Dorothy Osborne.
            Dorothy – the subject of Woolf’s essay “Dorothy Osborne’s Letters” – was born in 1627, and fell in love at the age of 19 with Sir William Temple, a suitor of whom her family violently disapproved. In the seven years before they could marry (they had to wait for the deaths of both objecting fathers), they wrote letters. None of William’s survives, but the British Library has 77 of Dorothy’s – all crammed with a vivid and opinionated personality, speaking her mind on any number of topics (including marriage; she’s not sure it’s a good idea).
            However, she eventually marries William and spends the rest of her life dutifully supporting his career and having seven children. She never wrote again, and all the sparkle that was Dorothy seems to have gone out of her. The last glimpse we have is a casual mention in a note from her husband’s secretary, who describes her as “mild.” (Dorothy, mild!) I hope she was happy, but it’s hard not to see her life, as Woolf does, as a feminist tragedy. You wonder what she might have done if only she’d had money and a room of her own.
I’ve loved many novels with feminist themes – Middlemarch, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple – but Dorothy just struck a lasting chord. Perhaps because she was real. Perhaps because she was born, so unfairly, 300 years too early. Perhaps because I’ve never liked the word mild.
            And perhaps because Virginia Woolf didn’t either.

Alice in Wonderland is brilliant and I’ve loved it since I learned to read.  I come back to it time and again.
I think that we all could do worse than believe six impossible things before breakfast.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

There are a lot of books told from the point of view of a child – but very few that really, beautifully, work. Harper Lee puts you back in a kid’s bare feet and lets you walk around in them. This is a wonderful book for many reasons, but one of them is that it helps me remember what life – the confusing world of adults, the elusive world of childhood - truly looked like when I was eight.
It’s also a moral compass. When it comes to issues of right and wrong, I ask what Atticus Finch would do.

Illustrated by Brittany Montejano
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I got Little Women for my ninth birthday, read it that very night, and thought Jo made a huge mistake in chucking Laurie (heir to a fortune) in favor of that pudgy middle-aged German professor. I’ve since come around on the professor (who was, after all, played in the 1994 movie version by Gabriel Byrne) and anyway Laurie must have had problems since he went on to marry Amy. Amy. Please.
            Little Women is an inspirational classic for nine-(and up)-year-old female bookworms – along with Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy.  We all identify with tomboy Jo, who wants to be a writer, is a whiz at amateur theatricals, and is disastrous when it comes to parties and clothes.
            But here’s the thing about Little Women: BETH DIED. It was my first experience of heartbreak. I can’t say this totally prepared me for future tragedy, but it did give me my first awful taste of what it might feel like.

J.B. by Archibald MacLeish

            J.B. is a poem, a play, and the story of Job. Job - J.B. – is a happy man, rolling in dough, with a wife, five children, and faith in the Almighty. Then – due to a bet between God and Satan – he’s divested of everything. (Children dead; wife and property gone.) It’s the quintessential story of horrible things happening to a good person – a problem formally known as a theodicy: how to explain evil in the world in the light of a supposedly loving God? MacLeish sums this up: “If God is God, he is not good/If God is good, he is not God.”
            Ultimately J.B. and his wife, Sarah, reunite, determined – even though there is no justice in the world – to overcome tragedy and forge a new life.
            It’s a powerful, painful, and uplifting play, and an object lesson in the power of human hope and love in the face of adversity.
            It contributed to making me an atheist.

 Le Ton Beaude Marot by Douglas Hofstadter

I love English. It’s such a lush and versatile language (look at all the synonyms we have). On the other hand, I wish I were bilingual. Or tri.
Hofstadter’s book is a 600+-page tome about literary translation. It takes as its theme a catchy little ditty by French Renaissance poet Clement Marot - a rhyming get-well wish to a sick little girl. The poem begins “Ma mignonne” – a word for which there is no direct equivalent in English. (Sweetie? Cupcake?) Throughout the book, dozens of volunteers and Hofstadter himself take stabs at translating the poem – and all attempts are wildly different. It’s an astounding look at the scope and span of language.
I’ve always loved language as the tool of my trade, but this book made me appreciate how truly miraculous it is that we can all talk to each other.

 Whatever Happened to Justice? by Richard Maybury

            Randy, my husband, and I homeschooled our three sons – in the course of which we hit a number of books with themes that have popped up ever since in the course of various heated arguments. Among these are Dr. Seuss’s Butter Battle Book, Eleanor Farjeon’s “The Goldfish,” Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards. And Whatever Happened to Justice?
            Whatever Happened to Justice? is a homely paperback published by a teeny press in which the author (in the role of “Uncle Eric;” the book is aimed at teenagers) discusses the nature of law. Maybury is a proponent of natural or scientific law, which is based on time-honored historical precedent, as opposed to political law, which is arbitrary and changeable. (Natural law: Do not steal. Political law: in Massachusetts, it is illegal to put tomatoes in clam chowder.)
All laws, according to Maybury, can and should be boiled down to two: (1) Do all you have agreed to do, and (2) Don’t encroach on other people and their property.
This changed the way in which, ever since, I have viewed our legal system, our political process, and Congress.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan’s birthday falls on November 9th, and around here, we celebrate it.
My education, from freshman year to Ph.D., is science all the way – a discipline in which I was hooked by books (the kids in The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom planet built a spaceship; Meg Murry’s mother has her own laboratory off the kitchen in The Wind in the Door) - plus a chemistry set, a dissecting kit, and a couple of pickled frogs. I’m passionate about science, and I deeply regret the loss of Carl Sagan – public defender of skepticism and critical thinking, master communicator of the wonder and excitement of the scientific world.
This, perhaps my favorite of his books, is subtitled “Science as a Candle in the Dark.”

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

The lesson of Barbara Cooney’s picture book Miss Rumphius is “Do something to make the world more beautiful” – and Miss Rumphius, the original guerilla gardener, does just that, by seeding her sea-coast neighborhood with lupines.
If only we were all like her.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

            When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my best friend Jeannie passed on to me her brother’s discarded collection of science-fiction comic books. I’ve been a science fiction fan ever since. The above title, in all fairness, should read Jeannie’s Brother’s Cast-Off Comic Books.
            That said, for me the appeal of science fiction – aside from sheer entertainment value – is the fact that it’s all an enormous thought experiment, the ultimate in What ifs? There are, of course, many terrific science fiction books, but outstanding among them are those by Ursula LeGuin, whose wonderfully imagined worlds give us a chance to re-evaluate ours.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

            I found The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a bookstore on a long-ago school-class trip and forked over every penny of my lunch and spending money to buy them. It was my first and never-forgotten experience of beggaring myself for books.
            But not the last.
Oranges by John McPhee
Connections by James Burke         
            Blast. I should have picked Pliny’s Natural History here, all 37 books of it. Pliny the Elder, first-century Roman, set out to record all the knowledge of the world in his encyclopedic multi-book. He was an indefatigable researcher, a fanatical collector of facts, and a bottomless pit of curiosity. He is my hero.
            I write both fiction and non-fiction, and as a non-fiction writer I’m perennially inspired by Pliny – and by John McPhee and James Burke. These two share the ability to make us look at things that we often take for granted – oranges, rocks, horseshoes - and see them as the wonders.
            At the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Emily (dead) says good-bye to the world - to all the ordinary things, clocks and sunflowers, new-ironed dresses, coffee, hot baths. “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” she says.
            That’s what I take away from good non-fiction: that we live in an amazing world and are so lucky to be here.

            That’s what I believe.


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