Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born with Teeth’ and the impact she has had on my life

Born With Teeth CoverI was going to write a regular review of Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir, but then I read it, and a simple review is not enough to express how I feel. This will be the most personal post I’ve ever written and I’m very nervous about it, but it feels like the right thing to do.

If you know me or are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have been a fan of Kate and her work since I was 8 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which she played Captain Kathryn Janeway. I’m 27 now and my admiration and appreciation for her has grown exponentially over the years. She is an exceptionally talented actress; a wonderful orator; incredibly gracious towards her fans (I speak from experience); and a true joy to watch in any role she plays.

She is also, as it turns out, a beautifully gifted writer. Her lyrical eloquence weaves a tale so vivid and engaging that I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were a movie. Kate lays out in unapologetic honesty a life filled with adventure, grief, trauma, and, above all, a tremendous passion for her work and her family. As she shares the intimate details of the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, surviving a rape, losing two sisters and the kind of heartbreak only true love can bring, we are also treated to riveting stories of romance, travel and the drama of stage and screen. Kate is an astute observer of human nature and she uses this skill to craft dynamic and colourful depictions of the variety of interesting people she has encountered throughout her fascinating life.

Being the massive Star Trek fan that I am, the chapters about Kate’s time on Voyager were a real treat and I’m certainly delighted that she included them, but even if they hadn’t been there I would still have absolutely loved the book. At times intensely passionate and at others desperately sad, this was a memoir that had me completely hooked from beginning to end and left me with a profound sense of gratitude towards, and a greater understanding of, a woman I have admired for most of my life.

I love and look up to Kate for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but there is one other reason that I have never spoken of because it was too painful and I didn’t think I was strong enough to give voice to it. But then I read Kate’s memoir, and the courage and bravery of her words gave me the confidence to find my own, and reminded me that there are some things which should not be kept hidden.

I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me at a time when I was far too young to deal with it. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, that my family would fall apart. I’m from a rural area in Scotland where there are few resources for special needs children, and with such little support our lives became subject entirely to my brother’s needs.

Eventually, the situation became untenable and my brother was moved to a specialist residential care facility where he could have the quality of life that we could not provide. By then I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends. I was already a huge fan of Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway was my favourite character. To help with my anxiety I took a Janeway action figure to school with me. It made me feel protected and gave me courage to get through the day; a tangible reminder of the strength and fortitude of the character herself.

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

A few years later I started to develop health problems. It’s a long and complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain I had been feeling for years and eventually it all got too much. One night, while I was watching an episode of Voyager, as I often did to make myself feel better, I was sitting with a pile of prescription medications and my mind started to wander.

What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?

I have heard many people refer to suicide as a selfish act. It’s not. It’s an act of pure desperation. You don’t think about the devastating impact it will have on the people who love you. All you can think about is making it stop, about silencing the storm inside you, because how can life be worth living if every day, every second, feels like this? How can you possibly be of any use to anyone? There is no hope in that moment that it will ever get better, there is only the crippling fear and pain which has brought you there.

I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were, little pink, innocuous looking things, and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:

“In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.”

It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, (‘Parallax’, the second episode of Season One), Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to “keep it together” as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.

When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD and I soon began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

As well as supporting me through my recovery, the psychologists there helped me to realise that creativity was the means by which I could find my way back to myself. I discovered that I could write poetry, and over the months that followed I crafted a path for myself made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight. When I came to the end of my treatment, the lead psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help the other patients, which I very happily agreed to.

Now, 12 years later, I have a job in the industry I love (publishing), two university degrees, and, most importantly, wonderful relationships with my hugely supportive family and friends. I write as often as I can and also run an online support group for siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome, in an effort to provide the kind of help I so desperately needed when I was young.

In 2012 I had the incredible experience of meeting Kate at a Star Trek convention in London. Living in Scotland and finding travel quite a challenge I had assumed that I would never get the chance to meet her, so when I did it was like a dream and I still feel so happy whenever I think about it. My mother kindly made the trip to London with me to give me support and said that she had never seen me as happy as I was after I met Kate, who was as kind, gracious and generous in person as I had always imagined her to be.

Kate and I

Whenever I find myself dealing with difficult emotions, trying to adjust to the side effects of a new medication or struggling with the physical pain and fatigue that are my constant companions, I see Kate as Janeway standing on the bridge of Voyager, telling her crew that sometimes you just have to punch your way through. And I do.

Kate now stars as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and she’s absolutely terrific, as is the show itself. You can read my review of the book the show is based on here.

The following are links to some great interviews and reviews of Born with Teeth. Read it. Seriously. Kate Autograph 1

The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

LA Times

The Mary Sue

CBS interview

One last thing, a shout out to my dear friend Stefani, who very kindly sent me Kate’s book across the Atlantic from Mississippi to Scotland. She has an awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed that I would encourage you to check out if you love books and nerdy things!

Bookish Memories for World Book Day!

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day and to celebrate I thought I would share some of my fondest memories related to books. In the UK we had World Book Day on March 5th, but I’m greedy and want to celebrate twice!

  • When I was about 8 my mum accidentally gave away my favourite book, The Moondreamers (I think it was this one) to a charity sale. I was so upset that she went down to the sale and bought it back for me. It made me so happy!
  • As a kid I used to cut up sheets of white paper, staple them together and write and illustrate (badly!) short stories about animals, particularly robins and pigs.
  • The first bedtime story I remember being read to me was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m pretty sure it inspired my love of reading before bed.
  • I loved audio books as a kid and once a week my mum would take me to our local library (where she used to work) and I would choose a new one to listen to at night. My favourites were Super Gran, Krindlekrax and Girls in Love.
  • The first poem I ever learned to recite was called ‘The Unwise Owl’ which was published in a Rainbow annual. It became a bit of a party act because I had a cute lisp back then which, coupled with my enthusiastic inflections, made for a pretty funny recitation! I’ve kept that poem for over 20 years and I still smile whenever I see it.
  • When I was younger and wanted some time to myself or a quiet place to think I would sit in front of the big bookcase in the spare room and imagine all the different worlds the books contained. When I got older I started reading them and found some of my favourite books there.
  • This isn’t something I actually remember, but my parents have told me that when I was a toddler, all they had to do was put a book in front of me and I would sit quietly for hours. Apparently, even the Yellow Pages provided me with entertainment!
  • During school holidays on sunny days I would make a fort out of a pop-up tent and blankets and sit in there all day with books and snacks until I was called in for dinner. The ones I read in my little fort the most were Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series. I think there might have been some Nancy Drew in there too.
  • I used to go to car boot sales with my grandparents and while they were looking for antiques I was hunting for books. The best find I ever had was a book I had been searching for for ages (this was before online ordering was an option) and I was delighted when I found it. It was Star Trek: Voyager – Pathways by Jeri Taylor. I still have it and still love it (along with everything else Star Trek related!)

How are you celebrating World Book Day? Do you have any bookish memories you want to share? Let me know in the comments! I’m off to read now. 🙂

Liebster Blog Award (2)

liebster-award image

I’ve been nominated for a second Liebster Award by the lovely Phoebe over at Thoughts on Books. Thank you, Phoebe!

I have to admit that I haven’t been spending much time in the blogsphere lately, so it’s been awhile since I discovered any of the new and wonderful blogs I’m certain are out there, so I won’t be making any nominations this time around.

You can find my original award post, along with the rules, here.

Facts about me:

Since I’ve done this before, I thought this time I would try and give you 11 facts about me which are purely book related, so here we go!

1) When I was about 18 months old I had this really weird obsession with the Yellow Pages. I would take each wafer-thin page between my tiny fingers and delicately turn them over one at a time. According to my parents I used to get really excited whenever I got to the taxi pages, but it’s a mystery as to why, I don’t even like cars!

2) The first book I ever remember being read to me as a bedtime story was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We had a beautifully illustrated hardback edition which my mother read to me. It was around that time that I realised I would rather stay awake and listen to stories than fall asleep to them!

3) I had a voracious appetite for audiobooks when I was younger. I listened to them all the time on my portable cassette player (I’m showing my age now!) My favourites were the Harry Potter series, Jacqueline Wilson novels, Philip Ridley’s Krindlekrax (which always really creeped me out but I loved it anyway) and Forrest Wilson’s Super Gran.

4) One of my favourite books when I was a kid was a story based on The Moondreamers cartoons. I carried it everywhere and it meant a lot to me. One day, it accidentally ended up in a box of things to be sold at a car boot sale. I was devastated when I realised what had happened, so my mum went down to the sale and bought it back for me. I still remember being so happy when she brought it home again.

5) Around the ages of 10-11 I was obsessed with Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven stories. In the summer I used to set up a pop-up tent in the garden with a pile of snacks and a blanket and sit there reading for hours.

6) I’ve loved writing stories since I was a little girl. My favourite subjects at that age were animals, usually birds (particularly robins) and squirrels (who for some reason liked to have adventures in space). I used to cut up sheets of white paper, staple them together and then fill them with stories and illustrations of the animals off on their adventures. My family assures me they were funny and cute, although I think they might be a bit biased!

7) I am lucky enough to have a large bookcase in my room with six tall shelves. From top to bottom: Spiritual; Favourites; Star Trek (reference books and memorabilia); Photos and Ornaments; Star Trek (novels); Textbooks and Anthologies (Literature, Politics and History).

8) My favourite place to read is in bed. It acts as a barrier for me between the events of the day and a good night’s sleep. It’s also my way of getting through nights of insomnia. If I start to fall asleep but want to keep reading (which is 99.99% of the time), then I close one eye and keep going!

9) I don’t own a Kindle or any kind of e-reader, and I currently don’t ever intend to (unless it becomes the only way to read books in the future, perish the thought!) I don’t have anything against them and I’m glad that e-books allow more people access to books, but they’re just not for me. You can read more about my feelings on this in one of my earlier posts here.

10) My ideal job would be working for a university press, preferably in Arts and Humanities journals. I would be very happy spending my days editing articles about literature, politics, history etc. I would also be delighted to work for a fiction publisher. I think it would be awesome to be in that kind of dynamic and exciting environment with people who are as enthusiastic about books as me. That being said, I currently work for a publisher specialising in the shipping industry. Although it’s not where I thought I’d end up, it’s a fantastic place to work and I feel very lucky to be there.

11) As much as I love reading and couldn’t imagine not having a book on the go, I definitely didn’t inherit it from my dad. He has only read FIVE books in his ENTIRE life, and those were the ones he was forced to read at school (or by my mum as she tried in vain to convert him). I don’t really understand how that’s possible, but he’s just not into books. He’s still an awesome dad though. 🙂

Phoebe’s Questions for me:

1) Do you still live where you grew up?

Unfortunately, yes! I live in a small town in the Scottish Borders and although it’s a beautiful place and will always mean a lot to me, I don’t want to settle down here. While I did my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I lived in cities, which I definitely preferred. I’ll be moving on again as soon as I can.

2) What is your favourite aspect of book blogging (or blogging in general!)

I like having a little creative space online where I can share my thoughts and love of books with anyone who feels like stopping by. It’s a really nice thing to be able to do and I also love being able to drop in on the creative spaces of other bloggers and find out about the things that are important and interesting to them.

3) If you could pick one scent to smell for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think I would have to go with lavender as I’ve always loved that scent.

4) Are you a morning or evening person?

I’m a night owl all the way. I don’t really become fully mentally functional until sometime after lunch, and I’m always at my most productive when it’s dark outside. During the summer months while I was doing my undergrad, I used to love opening my bedroom window at around 4am and watching the sunrise after a productive night of studying.

5) If you could bring back one person from the past who would it be?

My Grampa, definitely. He passed away in 2011 and I miss him all the time. Along with my Granny he helped raise me when I was a child and we stayed very close even after I grew up. He was a man of few words but those words were always worth listening to. I would love to see him again.

6) Favourite subject at school/college?

English, without a doubt!

7) Have you ever had any pets?

Yes, since I was about 18 months old. We’re a major league dog-loving family and we used to breed Labradors. The most we’ve had at one time was four black Labs, and our dogs are usually related in some way. Currently we have father and son duo Diesel and Basil, who are just lovely. I also had two guinea-pigs for about 4 years while I was in high school, and a couple of goldfish who unfortunately only lasted a week!

8) Ever broken a bone?

Not so far, which is lucky since I’m such a klutz!

9) Favourite app?

I’m not much of a techy person to be honest, so I don’t use many apps apart from for social media, but I do love Angry Birds and my Memo Pad app.

10) Dog or a cat person?

As I said above, I ADORE dogs and don’t know what I’d do without them. I quite like cats too though.

11) Describe your dream house.

When I picture my dream house, my imagination can’t seem to get past the library I want to have, so I’ll describe that. It would have floor to ceiling shelves, preferably made of aged oak, stuffed full of books all organised by genre (because I like to organise EVERYTHING). There would be a really comfy armchair in the corner and a desk. There would also be a child-sized plastic table and chairs set so that I could help my children practice their reading. It would have a skylight and a view overlooking the countryside.

Thanks again for this, Phoebe! I’ve enjoyed doing it. 🙂

Second-Hand Sentiments

The inspiration for this blog came from an unusual place, at least for me. I was working on a job application and one of the requirements was that I write about what I considered to be the most interesting publication of the last year. My first thought was S.  by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst because of its original (and very cool) concept, but that’s not the one I landed on. I had to be concise and professional in the application, and my creativity felt a bit stifled, so I decided to write about the book I chose here. I didn’t get the job, but at least I got this blog post out of it.

I ended up choosing a wonderful little book I had sitting on my desk waiting to be gift wrapped for my friend’s birthday. It’s called Dedicated to… The forgotten friendships, hidden stories and lost loves found in second-hand books and is a beautifully designed collection of inscriptions discovered inside second-hand books which author W.B. Gooderham has spent years compiling and preserving. Each inscription is faithfully reproduced in the original handwriting, transcribed where necessary, including full colour cover images of the books in which the dedications were found. The book cover is beautiful and the author’s introduction is presented on aged and worn looking paper. In case you hadn’t noticed, I think the design and production team over at Bantam Press knocked this one out of the park!

Cover Image

I find it interesting for several reasons. In the age of the ebook and digitised content, it underscores the continued significance of books as physical objects which can be given as meaningful gifts inscribed with the giver’s sentiments. It nurtures the idea of second-hand bookshops as treasure troves of the personal histories and memories of the books’ former owners. These inscriptions reveal additional layers of meaning to these books which transcend, and sometimes seemingly conflict with, the content within. For example, in a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, is a dedication not of fear and oppression, but of hope and love. It reads: “This book was published in 1949, it was about the future 1984. I have given it to you with love in 1994, the start of our future.” Sentiments such as this provide a fascinating insight into the different ways in which books are interpreted and valued by their readers.

1984 Dedication

You can click on this for an enlarged version to see the text better.

Not all books are given with such romantic intentions, however. Imagine opening a copy of A Book of Surrealist Games given to you by your girlfriend that simply reads: “For Ted – my period is 3 days late. Xo. d.” Not the most sensitive way of dropping that bombshell! Of course it could all have been a joke, given the choice of book it was written in, but that’s one of the great things about these inscriptions: you can’t know for sure what the writer’s original intentions were.

Some inscriptions are more obvious, and some are just plain cute. One of my favourites was found in a battered old copy of the British children’s classic Worzel Gummidge. It read “If this book should ever roam, box its ears and send it home.” It may not have made its way back to its original owner, but at least W.B. Gooderham gave it a good home and shared its message with other readers.

I have to wonder why these books were given away in the first place. Did the relationship which inspired the 1984 dedication break up? Did Ted discard the reminder of an insensitive joke or the beginning of an unplanned journey into fatherhood? How did good old Worzel lose his way? These questions will most likely never be answered, so, like many great books, this one will leave it up to the imagination to decide.

I wrote my own dedication to my friend when I gave her this book. It seemed appropriate. I’m sure she won’t mind if I share it.

My Dedication to Becca

Author W.B. Gooderham continues to collect inscriptions from second-hand books and posts them to his blog. You can check it out here.

Top Ten Books Which Mean the Most to Me

Recently one of my friends introduced me to Top Ten Tuesday, an idea created by The Broke and the Bookish. Every week they provide a new theme for a top ten list of books which bloggers can use to share and compare the books they love with other readers. You can see a list of past and forthcoming themes here. My friend has her own bookish blog, Caught Read Handed, which is awesome and you should check it out.

The category ideas are really interesting and definitely got me thinking, but for my first shot at this I’ve decided to go with my own theme. I don’t know how often I’ll post a Top Ten entry (and if I do it probably won’t be on a Tuesday, my inspiration doesn’t care what day of the week it is), but I’ll try and do at least a couple more.

My theme is going to be the Top Ten Books Which Mean the Most to Me. These are the books that carry with them memories of important times in my life, and I would never want to be without them. I’m from Scotland, so the titles have UK spellings. I mention this because ‘artefact’ and ‘traveller’ still don’t look right to me, even though that’s how we roll on this side of the pond.

If anyone wants to pick up on this theme and create their own list, go right ahead. Post a link to your blog in the comments, I’d love to read it.

AurianArtefacts of Power SeriesMaggie Furey

This is the first fantasy series I ever read and it marked the moment when I became aware, not just of how brilliant and inspiring this genre is, but of how my mother’s passion for reading had been passed on to me. Ever since I was a little girl, I had been aware of the tall and overstuffed bookcase that lived in the spare room. The shelves were packed with titles by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Katherine Kerr, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Raymond E. Feist– to name a few – all promising tales of wonder, magic and adventure. Since fantasy novels often feature mature themes not suitable for children, my mother told her impatient and curious child that she would need to wait a few years before she could delve into the pages of these wonderful worlds. Finally, one day when I was 14, mum came into my room and handed me the first in this series, Aurian, smiled, and said “I think this is a good one for you to start with.” I tore through it and its three sequels, and my love of the fantasy genre was born. I learned of its wonders and dangers along with the young female protagonist as she grew into her birthright as a powerful mage on a quest to reunite the Artefacts of Power and the disparate peoples who wielded them. The bookcase itself has been gone for years now, and its contents are scattered about the house and amongst friends and family, but this series remains in my safe keeping, and reminds me to always be grateful to my mother’s good judgement and Furey’s fantastic writing for introducing me to the world of fantasy fiction.

The Banned and the Banished Series – James ClemensWitch Fire

Of the many fantasy series I have read since The Artefacts of Power, this one is my absolute favourite. Not only are the characters believable and relatable, the plots exciting and dramatic, and the emotions captured both powerful and tragic, the five novels which make up the series have a number of metafictional elements which I absolutely love. When you open each novel, you are presented with an ‘Assignation of Responsibility’ to sign, date and fingerprint as a promise that you will protect the contents of the books, known as the Kelvish Scrolls. Scholars of the Scrolls introduce you to each instalment and warn you of their corrupting influence and the questionable motives of the unknown author, whose identity and true motivations are only revealed at the close of the final book. This revelation is both uplifting and heart-breaking, and is one of my favourite parts of the entire series. Finally, when you have read all five novels, the senior scholar poses one final question which must be answered and signed with a palm print before the reader can call themselves a Scholar of the Commonwealth. This series combines my love of the fantasy and metafiction genres with very talented writing and a plot so engaging that I have seen hours pass by without once raising my head from its pages. I have never encountered a series of books so immersive that I can only reread them if I have absolutely nothing planned for a week or more. I can’t recommend them enough.

MosaicStar Trek Voyager: Mosaic – Jeri Taylor

Star Trek has been a huge part of my life since I was 8 when I first saw an episode of Star Trek: Voyager on TV. It has been a huge influence on the way I look at the world and has helped me through some of the hardest times of my life. I really can’t explain how much I love it. There are literally hundreds of Star Trek novels out there, and I’ve lost count of how many of them I’ve read (and own), but this one means the most to me. It is the biography of my favourite character, Captain Kathryn Janeway, written by the woman who created her, and chronicles the struggles and heartaches she endures on her way to becoming the larger than life, courageous and inspiring character I grew up watching on TV. She is portrayed by actress Kate Mulgrew, an incredible woman who I have been lucky enough to meet and chat to (and don’t think that wasn’t one of the best days of my life!). I’ve read this book so many times it’s starting to fall apart, and I have many significant memories of it, but the one I remember most is of the night my Grampa died. He was more of a father than a grandfather, and without him I don’t know where I would be, so his passing was devastating to me. That night when I couldn’t sleep for crying, I opened Mosaic and reread the chapters where Janeway is struggling through the death of her own father, and seeing her recover from her grief and move forward gave me hope that I could do the same, even though in that moment it felt impossible. Sometimes it still amazes me how influential and comforting well-crafted and relatable characters can be.

The Poetry of Robert Frost – Robert FrostRobert Frost

I first discovered Robert Frost when I was 15 and sitting in Higher English class. His poem ‘The Secret Sits’ was being used by my teacher as an example of how poems could be particularly effective when only a few lines in length. I loved those two lines so much that I looked up more of his poems and fell in love with those too. I think his ability to use pastoral and ostensibly simple language to convey his feelings about philosophical and moral questions is wonderful, and I take great pleasure in interpreting them and figuring out what they mean to me. My absolute favourite is ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, which has a deep personal significance to me.

Jane EyreJane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

So it seems that there are Brontë fans, and there are Austen fans, and never the twain shall meet, like Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans, lest all hell break loose. While I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, I definitely have a preference for the writing styles of the Brontë sisters. This began when I was about 16 and I was given a beautiful Collector’s Library edition of Jane Eyre as a gift. They are small, beautifully bound pocket sized hardbacks with gold leaf edged pages and red ribbon markers. Normally I don’t like reading books with very thin pages and small font, but I could easily make an exception for this one. It was this edition which started me thinking about books as beautiful objects, and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. I also love the story itself, and it’s one of my favourite classics.

Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

This book is a lovely collection of letters written by Rilke to novice poet Franz Xaver Kappus. They’re inspiring, uplifting, honest and humble, and encourage the young man to follow his passion for writing no matter what obstacles, either real or imagined, are in front of him. Rilke tells his would be protégé that he doesn’t need a mentor; he already has everything he needs to be a writer, if only he would trust himself. Decades later, Rilke’s words have inspired readers all over the world, including me, to continue to do what they love, even if at times they doubt what they are producing is any good. I’ve written a blog post about this book before, you can find it here.

If on a Winter's Night a TravellerIf on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino

This book was a birthday gift from my uncle, himself an avid reader, and I’m so glad he chose it for me. If he hadn’t I quite possibly wouldn’t have discovered it on my own. Aren’t book recommendations great?! I have always loved metafiction, and this novel is a brilliant example of it. Some readers might find the nature of the novel’s construction frustrating, as each chapter is only the first of a book that is never finished. However, that’s the whole point. You, along with the novel’s protagonist, are on a quest to locate the rest of these unfinished stories, only to find that a more interesting one is being created along the way. The conclusion to this quest was, to me, unexpected and brilliant. I feel like maybe I should have seen it coming, but, instead, I got to have one of those moments every reader loves; when you look up from the book in your hands, smile and think, “Well, that was pretty damn awesome.” If you like a different kind of story, I would highly recommend this book.

I am Legend – Richard MathesonI Am Legend

A classic example of science fiction at its best, I Am Legend explores a post-apocalyptic world in which a virus has transformed the human race into vampires. All except for Robert Neville, the last remaining uninfected human. In his struggle for survival, Neville addresses questions of what it means to be human, and what it means to be normal. Ranked at No.2 on the SF Masterworks list of the best works of science fiction, this novel is a brilliant example of how the vampire trope can be used to explore the best and worst of humanity. No sparkling, one-dimensional characters here! I love this book because it always gets me thinking and challenges my perceptions of how society defines ‘normal’. As a person who has never felt all that normal, this is particularly significant to me.

America - A Narrative HistoryAmerica: A Narrative History (7th Edition) – George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi

When I first started this list, I wasn’t expecting one of my undergraduate degree textbooks to make the cut, but this one did. I have a longstanding interest (some might call obsession) with the United States, and my undergrad was in American Studies. This book charts the complete history of the USA from the pre-Columbus era to the presidency of George W. Bush. Told in an engaging narrative style with beautiful illustrations and a packed Appendix, it was an inspiring and informative addition to my student library. Aside from these features, one of the reasons I love it is because it allows me to hold virtually the entire history of the country I love in one hand. America is a relatively young country on the world stage, a fact belied by its power and influence, and for me there is something kind of awesome about being able to hold its history in just one hand (but not for long, mind you, it’s pretty damn heavy!) This feat is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with the narrative history of my own country, if you want the kind of detail that this book goes into. It brings back great memories of a degree I loved when I flick through it, and will remain on my bookshelf for a long time to come.

Sister Wolf – Ann ArensbergIMG_20140422_242659493

This book is now out of print in physical form, and was very difficult to find when I was looking for it 4 years ago. I had to get it sent over from the USA since no UK supplier seemed to have a copy, and even then it wasn’t easy to track one down. It’s poorly bound and the pages are unevenly trimmed; facts my Publishing Studies graduate degree has caused me to notice more so now than I did then. I think these reasons are partly why it’s so precious to me – it’s unique and can’t be easily replaced. I originally discovered it when I was deciding which texts to use in my undergrad literature dissertation which analysed the symbol of the wolf in American literature. The novel tells the story of Marit Deym, a wealthy trustee of her deceased parents’ estate who deeply resents the conservative trappings of the upper echelons of Massachusetts society. As an act of rebellion, Marit smuggles a pack of wolves into the wildlife reserve on her land. As the novel progresses, the wolves become a symbol for Marit’s own repressed feral nature as she struggles with love, jealousy, madness and death. Arensberg’s command of language and symbolism is fantastic and I loved being able to use it as part of my dissertation. I have a huge passion for academia and research, and I was very happy and content while I was working on it. This book takes me back to those times and as a result is very important to me.

I’ve really enjoyed putting this list together. I think that it’s a useful and fun exercise for any book lover to do. Why don’t you try it for yourself? You might be surprised by the books that make your list!