The Books That Built the Blogger with Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia

This week on The Books that Built The Blogger, I am delighted to welcome Joslyn from Chronic Bibliophilia. Joslyn’s blog is quite new to me, but I love her book choices, her insightful reviews and her emphasis on women writers. I also love her choices for today’s post, read on and see!

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Joslyn

 

As I’ve gotten older, I have found that though I wear glasses all day long, I see clearer without them when I’m reading. This middle-aged near-sightedness is nothing unusual, but there is something about this heightened focus, this ability to see truer while reading, that is emblematic of my life. Reading has always been an essential part of who I am, a way of interpreting and sometimes escaping the world. Now, it is also when I see most clearly.

Since I first announced to all who would listen that I could read, I have been a devoted bookworm. The books I read as a child truly shaped who I am and how I see the world around me. One of my favorite childhood games was to play library, creating my own card catalog and begging family and friends to come borrow an adventure from my shelves. I think it was not just the allure of cataloging (I will always love a good list), but the desire to share and talk books that drove me to this Poindexteresque past time.

One of the first books of any heft which I read again and again (and again), by myself or aloud with anyone who made eye contact, was “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster.

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If you somehow missed this exquisite book, I STRONGLY encourage you to go find it right this instant. No shade to J.K. Rowling, but Norton Juster is the original genius of imagined worlds and magical thinking. In “The Phantom Tollbooth” Milo, a boy “who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always”, finds a mystery package in his room which, when unpacked and assembled, is a tollbooth “for use by those who have never traveled in lands beyond.” Milo’s tollbooth is the gateway to magical lands full of brilliant allusions and excoriating, tongue-in-cheek wit. There is Dictionopolis – host of the word market, “a happy kingdom, advantageously located in the foothills of confusion and caressed by gentle breezes from the sea of knowledge.” There is Reality, a dismal, empty place where “there were great crowds of people rushing along with their heads down, and they all appeared to know exactly where they were going as they darted down and around the nonexistent streets and in and out of the missing buildings.” Milo’s adventures are unsubtly about exploring new worlds, being open to new possibilities, and embracing mouth-watering vocabulary. It is an allegory for life and for the joys of reading, with something for every reader of any age.

Fast forward to an awkward pre-teen, earnestly attempting to share the beauty and meaning of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a room full of snickering 7th graders more interested in fart jokes and The Babysitters Club than the wisdom of Atticus Finch and the intrepid nature of a girl called Scout. Near tears as someone shamelessly calls the book “Tequila Mockingbird”, I pressed on, hoping to reach at least one future reader whose life would be altered by the uncanny beauty and deceptive simplicity of Harper Lee’s masterpiece. “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of the touchstones of my literary life, a book I re-read at least once a decade.

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The next book that built this blogger was John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Set in a small granite town in New Hampshire, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” tells the story of John Wheelwright and his unlikely best friend Owen Meany, a doll-like imp with a tiny voice “Owen had to shout through his nose.” Irving uses all caps (no quotation marks) for all of Owen’s dialogue, a trick that is dramatic and immediately effective, forcing the reader to hear the unusual timbre and volume of Meany’s voice.

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What is most remarkable, perhaps, about “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is Irving’s virtuosity with foreshadowing. I have found no other author who has so clearly mapped out each story ahead of time, leaving brilliant easter eggs and bread crumbs as his story twists and turns. No detail is insignificant for Irving. If he mentions the color of a dress or a family’s inside joke, be sure that you will come across the momentous import of that detail in due time. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is extraordinary in its complexity and in its ability to keep a firm grip on its reader’s attention for every page.

In 2001, I found myself alone in a new city, truly on my own in the world for the first time. With little income and a world full of strangers, books were my steadfast companions. My solitude and its echoing silences opened up a need for an outlet, someplace to “talk” about the books I was reading.

Thus began my first book journal, in which I could track what I was reading and my impressions of those books – an early, private, and analog book blog. That journal was kicked off with “Skinny Legs and All” by Tom Robbins.

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There is something about Robbins’ manic, personified writing at times of great upheaval in my life that brings me solace. I still remember reading “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” on my honeymoon. Anyway, “Skinny Legs and All” is about love and lust, money and politics, and so much more. The blurb on the jacket actually summarizes it as well as can be done in one far-reaching sentence: “in which a bean can philosophizes, a dessert spoon mystifies, a young waitress takes on the New York art world, and a rowdy redneck welder discovers the lost god of Palestine – while the illusions that obscure humanity’s view of the true universe fall away, one by one, like Salome’s veils.” WHAT?!?! I realize that this choice, alongside “The Phantom Tollbooth”, makes my literary taste seem bent on the fantastical, which is oddly quite far from the truth. My taste runs towards literary fiction by and large, but I do love irony, satire, and tongue-in-cheek humor, and Tom Robbins has those in spades.

journalThat little reading journal and its successors served me well through a wide spectrum of reading adventures and major life changes. Looking back through its pages is like reading a diary – I can see where my interests wandered, when I felt happiest, what I was reading during life’s big moments. It even captures the depths of postpartum depression, when months passed without a single entry. In 2016, after 15 years of handwritten, closely-held notes, I decided to embark on something bigger and, to me at least, braver – a book blog. Thus was Chronic Bibliophilia born, initially with the idea of chronicling a Year of Reading Women and later as a delightfully fulfilling project documenting my literary journey.

 

My final selection of books that “built” me as a blogger, then, is Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming.” This book, ostensibly written for youth but truly meant for EVERYONE, is poetic perfection. An autobiographical novel in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming” is all about the power of stories and storytelling. It is an ode to reading, a hymn of praise to the importance of books to our inner and outer lives. “Brown Girl Dreaming” is the perfect defense for my blog’s premise – that we need stories to find ourselves and our place in the world and that those stories ought to expose us to a rich diversity of cultures, voices and ideas.

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“Brown Girl Dreaming” , too, was one of the first books I discussed on my blog where I felt like I was hitting my stride and gaining confidence and courage in my writing. Reading this treasure reaffirmed and strengthened my desire to spend more of my time writing and talking about books.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

I love Joslyn’s choices and her thoughts behind them. The Phantom Tollbooth is a firm favourite in our house and has already been read to the twins! A Prayer for Owen Meaney is a book that is very close to my heart as it was my beloved Daddy’s favourite book. And now I’m totally intrigued by Brown Girl Dreaming, which sounds amazing!

It’s also interesting to read about the transition from book journal to book blog, for what are blogs after all? Other than an online journal?

Are any of your favourites in Joslyn’s list? Did anyone keep a physical book journal before starting a blog?

Top Ten Tuesday – Debut Novels

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It’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I enjoyed thinking about this week’s topic, Top Ten Literary Debuts. I actually made a list of about 25, so culling it down to 10 was hard. Special mentions should obviously go to classics such as The Pickwick Papers, Wuthering Heights, The Invisible Man and Sense and Sensibility but in the end I went with some of my favourites!

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 1992, The Secret History is a murder mystery about a group of classic students at a privileged New England college who attempt to evoke a new way of thinking and living outside the boundaries of their lives. From the opening page, Tartt lets us know that they have taken their experiment too far and have murdered one of their group, making this striking novel a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit. The Secret History was a literary phenomenon and has since become a literary classic. Has she been able to follow it’s success? That is another argument, but there is no mistaking that The Secret History is a remarkable achievement. Smart, readable, gripping and one of my favourite books of all time.

2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970 while teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons as a single parent. The story is about a year in the life of a young black girl named Pecola Breedlove, who dreams of being a beautiful, blond, blue-eyed child was conceived during a writing workshop and propelled Morrison to literary fame. With it’s themes of racism, abuse and familial love, it is a complex and striking first novel packing as much power as Morrison’s Pulitzer prize winning Beloved.

3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It takes courage to call your debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but courage is not something Dave Eggers is in short supply of. When he was in his early twenties, his mother and father died within months of each other, leaving him as sole guardian of his 8 year old brother Christopher. This part autobiographical and part fictional novel charts their journey, both geographical and psychological to move on from their parents death. At times it may be arch and self-conscious (particularly as it charts Eggers attempts to star on MTVs The Real World) but it is an emotional tale of how we deal with loss and navigate our lives toward adulthood. Eggers has gone on to found McSweeney’s journal and publisher and his most recent novel was The Circle.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
American writer and poet Sylvia Plath’s debut novel The Bell Jar was also the only novel she wrote. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it charts it’s protagonists descent into clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a mere month after its first UK publication and under the wishes of both Ted Hughes and Plath’s family, was not published in the US until 1971. To read The Bell Jar is now almost a rite of passage and it remains a searingly honest and beautifully written book.

5. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Before his untimely death, Scottish writer Iain Banks was as well know for his science fiction novels as his literary fiction. However he wrote his debut novel The Wasp Factory in an attempt to be more mainstream as his science fiction novels had not been accepted for publication. His story of Frank, a teenager with anger issues and violent tendencies living on a remote Scottish island became an instant classic and allowed Banks to write full time and excel in both genres. Banks often said that he envisaged The Wasp Factory as a SF novel, with the island standing in for a planet and Frank as the alien. It is certainly an unforgettable and remarkable debut.

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6. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In 1964, Harper Lee talking of To Kill A Mockingbird said that ‘I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place’. But sell it did. Lee’s debut novel about a little girl called Scout and her father Atticus Finch, has sold over 40 million copies, been turned into a classic movie and regularly tops the list of the worlds best loved books. Regardless of your thoughts on this year’s follow up Go Set a Watchman, there is no denying the power and strength of what was, for a long time, Harper Lee’s only book.

7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In 1816, following the loss of a baby, Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein at the behest of Lord Byron who suggested all in his company should write a ghost story. Aged only 19 at the time, Shelley’s debut novel has become a gothic classic and is often cited as the beginnings of the science fiction genre. Early reviews may have been mixed, but the classic tale of the doctor who creates life is an archetypal story that has captured readers imaginations for years. Without Frankenstein, could there have been Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde? Who knows, but Frankenstein has entered the public consciousness to become one of our most recognisable monsters.

8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
The story of the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may go some way to explaining the astonishing success of Steig Larsson’s trilogy. A journalist and editor, Larsson died at the age of 50 and left three (now four?) unpublished thrillers now titled the Millennium series, featuring journalist Mikeal Blomqvist and expert hacker Lisbeth Salander. Scandinavian crime was just beginning to take off in the UK when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and Larsson became the poster boy for that particular genre. The book may not be the greatest thriller ever written, but there is no doubt that it’s popularity is in most part due to the fascinating character of Lisbeth Salander – the damaged, tough and smart protagonist. Two movie adaptations and over 30 million copies later and the fourth in the series has just been published.

9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers was only 23 when the publication of her debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made her an overnight literary sensation. It is a hauntingly beautiful tale of the deaf-mute John Singer and the social misfits that inhabit the town in which he lives. Often cited alongside Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as one of the main authors of the literature of the American South, McCullers debut is a novel of psychological depth and social insight and remains a masterpiece to this day, giving voice to the lonely, the forgotten and the unloved.

10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man began life as Stephen Hero in 1903, with a planned 65 chapters. Joyce reworked and condensed his novel, introducing his now famous use of free indirect speech but still struggled to find a publisher. At the behest of WB Yeats, he sent the manuscript to Ezra Pound who initially serialised it in The Egoist literary journal before it was finally published in New York in 1916. The publication of his novel earned Joyce a place in the canon of great writers and contains all the techniques he developed in his later works Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses

 

So, aside from the classics I mentioned at the start, have I missed out anything really obvious? What would be your favourite debut novel?