BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
When it comes to literature, I'm essentially a creature of excess, a "big baggy monster" girl. I love the overlong, overly descriptive novels of the 19th Century more than anything else I've ever read. Mr. Hemingway can keep his "clean, well lighted" prose. Give me Balzac, Tolstoy, James, Flaubert, George Eliot, Stendhal and my all time favorite, Mr. Charles Dickens.
BOOKS THAT SHOOK ME TO THE CORE
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
which I read at fourteen. I'd never discussed race and the Civil War in a classroom setting before (I was a "lifer" at the Lycee Francais de New York where the curriculum focused on the rate of flow of the Rhone River and the courts of the Louis, not American Civil Rights.) We discussed both ad nauseum at home because we were history buffs, relentlessly analytical and somewhat narcissistic. Ms. Stowe’s book is sappy and melodramatic, but even at fourteen,, I found her courage to tackle our country’s central fault line completely inspiring.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
which I also read at fourteen while vacationing in Greece of all places. The romantic sweep of it appealed to my youthful notions of heroism and romance. I could divorce myself from the book's racist depictions to relish the magnificently drawn characters. Scarlett O'Hara's strength, petulance and devil may care chutzbah influence my behavior in ways both good and appalling even to this day.
La Peau de Chagrin, by Honore de Balzac
This is a parable set in 19th century Paris about a young man given the Faustian opportunity to have all his wishes granted by a piece of "chagrin" skin. The catch is that each time he wishes, the skin shrinks, as do his days. It contains the most beautiful description in all of literature of the bond created after two people in love have consummated their passion. I was still a virgin when I read it at fifteen, and it gave me a template of how sacred the connection between a man and a woman should be.
Hard Times, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House... the whole damn Dickens canon
Dickens is the master of language, of humor, of drawing quirky, original, endearing characters, of illuminating social ills. His imagery is without rival: a last minute replacement guest at a dinner party described as a "table leaf," a blabber-mouthed woman’s verbiage described as a waterfall drenching and tossing the listener about, the British law courts depicted as prehistoric swamps. Dickens makes you see and feel, he doesn’t just paint with language, he sculpts in three dimensions.
Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras
One of the few departures from my 19th century fixation, this is one of the great depictions of obsessive love in all of literature and since, at twenty, I was just recovering from my own first experience (a nice kick in the face from Cupid), it resonated.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I majored in "History and Literature" of France and England in large part so that I could focus on the history of colonialism. This is the briefest, finest, most eloquent statement on the evils of the institution. Conrad has been disparaged as a racist but I think those who hurl that accusation are missing the key point he makes about man's infinite capacity for cruelty and tribalism. The only true savage in the book is Kurtz who "hid in the magnificent folds of his eloquence the barren darkness of his heart."
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Few writers understood women better than Henry James, our complexities, our foibles, our weaknesses. I didn’t get around to this one till I was thirty-one, and was happy that I hadn’t. It was not until then that I could have appreciated the caution it offered women against choosing a soul crushing man as opposed to one who will cherish and give wings.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I have to be honest, the setting in turn of the century rural Florida utterly depresses me. I can see the dusty roads, floppy straw hats and sweat beaded brows now, but the unstoppable, sensual heroine and the language leave me speechless.
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
Hailing as I do from a "grand" but utterly dysfunctional family, this tale of one aristocratic clan's decline struck me to the bone. It’s the only book that’s ever brought actual tears to my eyes.
MY FAVORITE PLAYS
Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
It's not often you go to the theater and say, "There you are, Mom and Dad." Our family was funnier, my mother was a great deal stronger and no one was on drugs. However, the narcissistic and insane father, the damaged children, struggling to survive, the sense of impending doom and of human gifts squandered all make me stand up, raise my hand and say "I too am a haunted Tyrone."
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
I hate glass animals, they're right up there with Hummel figurines in my book, but this is the most heartbreaking play ever written. My mother, in one of the finest, if least known performances of her career, played Amanda Wingfield breathtakingly at the Cleveland Playhouse in 1986. It was an all black cast and so often attracted a "non-traditional" audience, some unaccustomed to the solemn silence expected of a theatergoer. During my mother’s speech to her daughter imploring her "Isn't there anything, anything in this life that you care about?" A woman shouted out "She likes that glass!!" Call and response at its finest.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
I’ve seen this performed as a ballet, the movie and in Italian set in Sicily. There’s no way around it, it’s shattering. Don't we all have a belle reve that somehow slipped away?
Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson
I saw the original production of this piece over twenty years ago. In the tradition of our great American playwrights, the late Mr. Wilson faced the histories that haunt families and entire peoples.