Life Measured in Books is a series of interviews and essays by voracious readers and book bloggers. The pieces tell the stories of books that shaped their lives--in bookishness and beyond--in meaningful, impactful ways.
This piece, comprised of three short essays, is by book blogger Leslie Golden, who blogs at More or Les Golden where she shares her thoughts on reading, writing, and the books that follow you home. When she's not reading, she can be found working on her first book, a middle grade historical fiction novel.
The first book that really opened my eyes was the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
That was the summer I turned twelve and, as usual, I was looking for something to read. YA wasn’t a recognized genre then and there was a big gap between the wonderful children’s books I had wallowed in and the books in my mother’s library. I was complaining about being bored and my mom handed me Rebecca, saying it was a good story. My mom had a talent for understatement.
Although the heroine is young, the book is about overpowering adult emotions and, at the time, it was like eavesdropping on the grown-ups. Until that point, I had no idea that grown-ups could feel as inept as I felt then, or as consumed by an obsession. That’s what Rebecca is, by the way, a sermon on obsession. The second Mrs. de Winter is obsessed with her perceived shortcomings, Maxim’s actions are dictated by his devotion to their home, Manderley, and the housekeeper is consumed by her feelings for Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca. Rebecca is also a moody book -– even though most of the action takes place in high summer, the atmosphere in every scene is as weighted and thick as the moors in Wuthering Heights or the Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles. I was sucked into this tale of a non-supernatural haunting. Decades later, the book still pulls me under whenever I re-read it.
There are a few things everyone mentions when they talk about Rebecca. How it starts with one of the best first lines of a story (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”); how the title is the name of the someone you never see in the book and the story is told by another character whose name is never given; and the terrific twists in the last part of the tale. All of these are great tricks but I think the story behind the book is enlightening.
Long before du Maurier wrote Rebecca and long before she married, she discovered the estate known as Menabilly during a hike. The house was abandoned and in terrible shape at the time: windows gone, ivy growing everywhere, uninhabitable. Nevertheless, it called to her and this depicter of obsession fell in love with it. When she was overseas and homesick for England, memories of Menabilly influenced her and contributed a lot to the Manderley estate in Rebecca. The financial success of Rebecca gave Daphne the chance to live in and restore Menabilly, although she could never own it: the estate is entailed to the heirs of the Rashleigh family. Instead, Daphne took out an incredibly long lease on the house and spent a fortune returning the house to stately home it was meant to be. She stayed there for decades, fighting in the end to remain in what she called “the house of secrets." I think Daphne’s great love and obsession was this house and you can glimpse the depth of her feelings in Rebecca.
Obsession, sinister house-keepers, incest, and murder are probably not appropriate themes for a 12-year-old kid, but something must have stuck. Ever since then, I’ve sought out atmospheric stories of intrigue. I guess I’m still looking for another Rebecca.
All of us can name books that became beloved favorites, stories that instantly felt like home, stories we return to again and again. These are wonderful stories but they aren’t necessarily the ones that enlighten us. They aren’t the books that lead us into a previously unconsidered genre. I ran into one of those back in 1985 that influences me to this day, but it wasn’t a book. It was a play: Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser” showed me the link between Shakespeare and modern life, between classic and modern tragedy.
I knew the requirements of classic tragedy: a good, powerful person comes to grief because of a character flaw and his/her bad choices ends up affecting thousands. That’s fine for the Greeks and Shakespeare, but it doesn’t mesh well with contemporary or modern plays that focus on the common man. Then came this story about an actor-manager in World War II, trying to keep his business and career going while “all the best actors are away in uniform and the theatres are bombed to bits as soon as you’ve booked them.” An actor who drives himself to the edge of exhaustion and the dresser at his shoulder who coaxes and wheedles and nags him until the actor accomplishes his goal. Together they’re pulling one more performance of “King Lear” out of the actor and the new play finally has me understanding and appreciating the old one.
I’ve come to adore contemporary pieces that frame or reference classical ones -- a great way to introduce The Bard to The Bored. Because it was so brilliant and witty, I never realized how cerebral a piece “The Dresser” is.
I love the point/counterpoint of a witty dramatic pieces that expect the audience to keep up. The Dresser is one of those and I can see how I’ve continued to look for and read other plays that demand that kind of sympathy and intelligence from the audience. All of David Mamet’s plays qualify. So do Tom Stoppard’s. I was reading a brilliant one today, “The History Boys” and I realized it was another in this same line of theatre. I want plays and books that edify and amaze me. I want prose that challenges me and makes me smarter.
After “The Dresser” I realized the best part of reading is not being passively entertained. For me, it’s when the experience is more of a symbiosis, to understand and be understood. To me, that’s a noble pursuit.
I’m a sucker for the literature of dysfunctional families. It may have started during my adolescence when I read the works of Eugene O’Neill, the patron dramatist of the genre. Dysfunctional families are perfect subjects for drama, filled as they are with Sturm and Drang. O’Neill nailed the underlying conflicts when when he described two characters (modeled on his parents) as people devoted to each other who speak different languages and neither partner holds the other’s key. They love each other but they cannot understand each other.
That kind of family relationship is also well-documented in the work of Pat Conroy and reading his novel The Prince of Tides was a revelation. While my own nuclear family was never that chaotic, Conroy’s prose answered one of the primary questions every reader has: “You are not alone.” I wasn’t the only person who had a hard time understanding or communicating with the people I loved, and Conroy’s belief that love could ultimately prevail restored my hope. Nevertheless, it took a nonfiction book to show me how the cracks in such families develop and how those flaws can be mended.
I was on holiday when someone gave me a copy of Melody’ Beattie’s Co-Dependent No More, advising this was one of the (then) new books that characterized addiction as a “family” disease.
Basically, the disease changes the behavior patterns of the direct sufferer (addict) so much that the responses of the closest family members are affected as well. In an effort to help and support the loved one in the throes of addiction, the supportive family members will try to “take up the slack” by taking on the sufferer’s responsibilities, covering up for the sufferer and ignoring their own feelings of fear, frustration, and sadness. The problem is, these “helps” actually enable the sufferer to avoid the consequences of his/her actions and the addiction usually continues. These patterns have hardened until the addict is now perceived as an irresponsible, untrustworthy person and the loving, supportive family now devote much of their time and energy attempting to control the behavior of addict, who they now see as a victimizer as well as a victim. Feelings of affection are now curdled with anger, each family member’s sense of autonomous identity is lost, and no one is talking. The family no longer functions well, even if the addict goes into remission, and younger members take these behavior patterns with them, often repeating their parents’ mistakes.
Beattie’s book outlines techniques a family member can use to regain his/her individual identity and resist emotional manipulation. Since the book’s initial publication, therapists have realized that co-dependency crops up in any relationship where a chronic imbalance has resulted in the participants developing rigid roles: where one person always “the controller” and the other “the caretaker." The techniques in Co-Dependent No More not only aid relationships in trouble, they can help healthy relationships stay that way.
I’m not as rigid as I used to be. Before the book, I avoided the “Self-Help” section of the bookstore and looked down on its patrons. I don’t do that anymore. I understand a bit more about loving people without taking on responsibility for their decisions. I still love the literature of dysfunctional families, but I don’t live that life. Other people need conflict to feel they are alive; I thrive in feelings of peace. I prefer to keep drama on the page or the stage.