Friday, September 20, 2013

The 15 Books that had the Greatest Influence on my Life

During my time in New Mexico, I was lucky enough to meet my friend Ben, who is made even more awesome because we share the same birthday.  Recently, Ben posted a blog about the novels that have affected his education.  Even though I'm not part of the gaming community that inspired Ben to write his blog (unless being totally awesome at Wii Sports Resort archery and frisbee dog counts), this still sounded like a fun reflection to do--so I'm copying him.

But I'm changing the rules Ben set for himself.  I couldn't limit myself to fiction because that leaves off my beloved Emily Dickinson, and where would I be without her?  So here we go (in no particular order--we'll go with them as they come to me).

"This poetry stuff is tough, Mom."
1. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Thomas Johnson edition). I think it's probably safe to say that I wouldn't be where I am today without this book. Once upon a time, I started college with a plan to major in journalism and become the female Rick Reilly.  Then I walked out of an advising meeting where we established I already had the college writing credits I needed from the dual enrollment classes I took in high school, and the American literature professor was walking by in cargo shorts and a safari hat and my advisor asked her if she would allow me in her Survey of American Literature class.  I'd enjoyed Dickinson in high school, but Dr. Seelbinder's class was really the start of my life long love affair with Emily.  She made Emily understandable and fun with interpretive dance and sing-alongs.  I ended up taking six courses with Dr. Seelbinder, including one totally centered around Dickinson, and abandoned journalism for a double major in English and general Communication Studies. Emily also became the center of a class I taught last fall, so I was able to pass out the love of Emily to a few more students and fall in love with her even more.  Who knows where I'd have ended up without Emily?  I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be in Ohio teaching English.

2. The Trouble with Tuck by Theodore Taylor.  I'll admit that I originally checked out this book in third grade because the picture of Helen, the main character, on the cover reminded me of my mom's high school yearbook picture.  But this turned into one of my favorite books.  Between third grade and graduation from high school, I read this book once a year.  This is a big deal because I don't usually read books more than once.  I'm a love 'em and leave 'em kinda girl when it comes to books.  Usually, I can't even remember their titles and authors a few months down the road.  But The Trouble with Tuck stuck with me.  I loved Helen's commitment to her troublesome (but loyal) dog, Tuck. Anyone who would train a seeing-eye dog for their blind dog clearly loved their dog as much as I loved my Possum, so Helen was a hero in my eyes.  Plus, Tuck was just as good as my Possum.  After all, he saved Helen from stranger danger and from drowning in a friend's pool--dog's don't get much better than that.

3. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  This is a book I discovered within the last three years.  It was banned at my high school, and despite the fact that honors/AP classes were exempt from the bans, I was never exposed to this book in high school.  Then one day, I was at a Pirates game with my family and they were doing "get to know the Pirates" stuff on the screen between innings.  My brother and I noticed that Andrew McCutchen (one of our favorite Pirates) was the only player with a favorite book listed.  His favorite book? Of Mice and Men.  Since Mom and Dad had the book on our shelf, we rushed to read it.  We loved it.  We took it on our tour of PNC Park for a little photo shoot. Of all the banned books out there, this is the one that really made me realize just how sad it is for books to be banned.  I remember seeing a class set of this book on Ms. Powers' shelves in 10th or 11th grade. We were so close to such an interesting book, but because of the possible repercussions of teaching it in our school I went almost 10 years not knowing how much I'd enjoy this book.  So for that reason, I will be rocking this awesome shirt next week for my campus' Banned Books Week Read Out.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Part of the reason my name is Beth is because of Little Women. For a long time, I resented the fact that Mom named me after the dead girl instead of my favorite March sister, the strong-willed writer Jo. (Now, I am thankful that my name is not Josephine--but it will 100% be the name I choose should I ever get another female border collie mix.) Meg and Amy were mysteries.  I had no interest in being the center of attention like Amy or of being a housewife like Meg.  In some ways, I could relate to Beth's quiet ways--and I still can as I'm more content being home with my pets and family than being out at social gatherings.  Jo made the most sense to me, though. She set out from home to follow her dreams of being a writer; she had a best friend who was a guy, but whom she had no interest in marrying; she loved her sisters, even when they did terrible things to each other (ex. Amy burning Jo's books! I was horrified.) Also, Professor Bhaer is my ideal husband. I was so attached to all of the characters in the book that I didn't want the story to end and I was insanely happy when my mom told me about Little Men and I got to continue interacting with the March sisters and their families. Since Little Women has frequently been challenged (first because the women were too free since Part 1 ended without marriage, now because the sisters all got married in Part 2 and weren't free enough), I'll also be sporting this shirt next week.

5. The American Girl Felicity Collection by Valerie Tripp. In second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Gash, introduced me to the American Girl Catalog. I started reading the collections in chronological order, which meant starting with Felicity.  While I loved all of the American girls (we're talking originals here: Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly), Felicity was my favorite. She's actually a lot like Alcott's Jo.  She's free-spirited and independent.  She's fiercely loyal to her friend Elizabeth.  She rescues the abused horse Penny.  I connected with her the way I connected with Jo.  So, in second grade, I decided to save all of my money from chores and my birthday to buy my own Felicity doll.  This was the first time I had ever saved for something I wanted (and it's probably something I could benefit from practicing again in my life if I ever want to be financially stable).  When I earned the full $82 I needed for the doll, Mom agreed to pay the tax and shipping and handling for me and I got my beloved doll.

6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. In high school, my friend Jamie recommended this book to me, but I didn't read it immediately.  After all, the thought of blood makes me queasy, so a book with blood in the title didn't really seem like my kind of thing. Then I started reading this one summer during college while I was babysitting in an old farm house.  Big mistake. I was horrified.  I had to take a break until the gig was up a couple weeks later.  Once I got past my initial horror, I loved this book. I loved the way the town itself became a character in the story.  I loved the way that Capote made you feel sympathy for people that murdered an entire family. I loved this book so much that when the movie Capote came out and was playing at the artsy movie theater near my college and none of my friends showed interest in seeing it, I went to the movie by myself. I loved the experience of going to a movie by myself so much that it's become one of my absolute favorite ways to unwind and I don't think twice about going to a theater by myself now.  If I hadn't fallen in love with In Cold Blood, I might have missed out on a lot of enjoyable afternoons with popcorn lunches. I'm teaching this book in about a month, so I'm pretty excited to see what sort of responses my students have and to have a chance to reread it and find new things to fall in love with.

7. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. After In Cold Blood, I read whatever Capote I could get my hands on.  I love them all, but his novella Breakfast at Tiffany's is the one I couldn't live without. Like The Trouble with Tuck, I have read this book more times than I can count.  What's not to love? Holly Golightly is a character longing for a home, and as someone whose parents have moved from the home I spent my middle and high school years in a week before I moved away to college (and who are preparing for their third move since I graduated from high school), home has been a concept that's kind of baffled me for the past 10 years. There are so many parts that grab me and pull me into the story, but the part I always go to is the cat not having a name because "I haven't any right to give him one: he'll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don't belong to each other: he's an independent and so am I. I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together." And then she lets the cat out of the car and he disappears and she searches and searches for him, but he's gone. It's heart wrenching.  As much as I love the book, the only thing I like about the movie is Audrey Hepburn.

8. Hate Mail from Cheerleaders by Rick Reilly. Once upon a time, I had dreams of being a sportswriter. My dad had this book by Rick Reilly and I started reading it in 10th or 11th grade (I remember reading my favorite essay, "Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug!", while sitting behind a couple cheerleaders in Ms. Powers class and trying ridiculously hard not to laugh out loud and call their attention to what I was reading. This book made me want to be Rick Reilly. I started stealing Dad's Sports Illustrated each week before he got home and went through the mail so that I could read "The Life of Reilly." I loved his hatred of the Redwings even though, as a southern girl, hockey was something I had no knowledge of. Even though I abandoned my journalism major, I still planned to use my double major to go into sportswriting and spent two glorious summers interning at The Charlotte Observer with the wonderful people in their sports departments. I had the time of my life writing about the now-defunct Charlotte Sting and local high school sports. I loved editing articles, even ones about NASCAR, and I fell in love with Barbaro the horse as I searched the AP wires for updates on his condition (and cried when his battle was over). Even though I ultimately went a different direction with my life, I loved every minute of my internship and learned so much about myself and other people during those two summers.  Without Hate Mail from Cheerleaders, I probably would have never even considered a career in sportswriting.

9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  While I always get emotionally attached to stories, this is the first book I remember bringing me to tears. In the middle of Mrs. Kirkland's 8th grade class, I bawled when I found out Leslie died. There was nothing I could do to stop the tears. It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my middle school life, but I shamelessly sobbed again in the middle of the theater years later when my mom and I went to see the movie.

10. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. As you can tell by the cover of my copy, this book as been well loved. I picked up this book in Tome on the Range, the local bookstore in my town in New Mexico (and something that I miss terribly now that I'm not in NM), after seeing it in multiple book stores and deciding not to bring it home.  When Tome on the Range had it featured on their Staff Picks table, I decided to give it a try.  I fell in love with Henry and Keiko in a way that I rarely fall in love with book characters (although you might not guess that from this list). I loved learning more about Chinese culture while reading this book.  Then I decided to teach it in my developmental writing classes and learned even more about internment camps while preparing to teach the book. My students loved it. I had students tell me they hadn't finished a book in over 10 years (and I'm positive they were not exaggerating), but that they finished this book. Students couldn't put the book down, so we were constantly struggling not to get ahead of the sections I had assigned for each class period so that we didn't spoil the story for classmates who were sticking to the schedule. Semesters later, students still come talk to me about this book. Today, I was telling a former student (who loves the characters in this book like I do) that Jamie Ford had a new book come out last week and she responded with "Oh good! Every time I talk about books with someone, I talk about Henry and Keiko. I'm going to go pick up that new one" and she took out a pen and jotted down the title. (It's Songs of Willow Frost if you're interested.) It's always exciting when you see students who claim to hate reading getting wrapped up in a book and this is the one book that I've found that gets students of all ages and backgrounds interested.

11. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I have a confession.  I bought this book solely because of its cover. This time, that strategy worked for me. I had no idea what I would be getting when I bought this book, but I knew I had to have it. It's been a long time since I've read the book, but I remember being thoroughly intrigued by the story being told through the voice of an autistic teenager. This book also inspired me to pick up Haddon's A Spot of Bother, which I later passed on to my dad who still hasn't stopped talking about it. I always love it when I find authors that I can share with the people I love--because let's face it, as an English major, not everything I read is popular with the rest of the world.

12. My Antonia by Willa Cather. It inspired a delicious beer by my favorite brewery, Dogfish Head--do I need a better reason than that? If I do, I can sum up why I love this book by saying it's like American Girl stories for grown ups. I also owe this one to Andrew McCutchen because O! Pioneers was next to Of Mice and Men on my parents' shelf and since it was short and something I figured someone with an M.A. in English should have read, I picked it up next. I loved O! Pioneers so much that I went on a Willa Cather binge for the rest of the summer. My Antonia was my favorite and I rewarded myself with a literary beer when I finished it.

13. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Even though I ended up majoring in English, I can count the number of required books that I read in high school on one hand. In fact, I used to pride myself on the fact that every year I had the highest grade in all of the English classes in my year without having read any of the books. (Now, I'm kind of kicking myself for that attitude since I haven't read so many of the classics and I assign myself a couple summer reading books every summer.) This is one of the few books that I finished in high school. I had very clear images of what each character looked like and when Ms. Powers tried to show us the movie, I was highly upset because Dill looked nothing like what I had pictured him as.  So, I paid no attention to the movie after the first scene where Dill appeared and haven't ever attempted to watch it again.

14. Bad Dog: A Love Story by Martin Kihn. This is another book I bought because of the cover. The cover has a dog face that looks similar to Barley's. When I bought the book, we were struggling with separation anxiety and I was beginning to realize that Barley was a reactive dog (even though I didn't have a word for it yet). I don't actually think I like this book. I don't think it's particularly well written or engaging. The reason it makes the list is because it's what inspired me to start working with our wonderful trainer. This was how I learned about the Canine Good Citizen test. This book taught me that sometimes you have to ask for help. If I wouldn't have researched the CGC to get more info, I might not have started researching trainers in our area. I can't even imagine our life without our weekly trips to the dog gym, so while I'll most likely never open this book again, I am grateful for what I got out of this book.

15. A Dog Year by Jon Katz. How many times have I mentioned this book and Katz's other dog books? I saw the movie version of this first and laughed/cried as I realized I wasn't alone in the struggles I have with my Barley girl. When I realized that the movie was based on a book, I told my sister it would be an awesome Christmas present. I locked myself in my room on Christmas and read the whole book--and again, I laughed and I cried. Katz's struggles with Orson made me realize how vital it is to be consistent with my training with Barley because I do not want to have to make the kinds of choices he had to make about his dog's quality of life as Orson became more and more reactive. Plus, misery loves company so knowing that I wasn't the only one who had no idea what I was getting into by bringing home a border collie was comforting. I've also read almost all of Katz's books since then because for a long time I felt like he was the one person who "got me."

Coming up with this list might be hardest thing I've done in a while. 15 seemed like such a daunting number when I started typing this, but now I'm sitting here staring at my bookshelf and realizing that I left off at least two more books that have influenced my life in significant ways, but I can't think of what I would take off of my current list to add them in. So thank you, Ben, for presenting a challenge (especially on an evening I had no plans other than lounging on the couch and finishing Songs of Willow Frost).

Monday, September 16, 2013


Last week, I came across a New York Times article about life with reactive dogs (let's just go ahead and take a brief time out to comment on how cool it is that reactive dogs are getting so much attention! Maybe one day, I won't have to deal with so many of the issues Barley and I encounter daily as more and more people are educated about dogs like mine).

Rachel Maizes wrote about a lot I could relate to, but the part that stood out to me the most was when she wrote, "It’s easy to love a well-behaved dog. It’s harder to love Chance, with his bristly personality and tendency toward violence. Yet in the end, I measure the success of my relationship with Chance by its challenges, because if I can’t love him at his most imperfect what use is love?"

Although my mom was quick to point out that Barley has a bubbly personality and a tendency towards snuggling (with people), Maizes summed up my experience as a reactive dog owner better than any of the other hundreds of books, articles, blogs I've read.  My first dog was easy to love because she was a good dog.  She was my best friend, the one I ran away from home with (but never farther than the big oak tree at the other end of the street), the one who alerted Mom when my knee and a rusty nail decided to get to know each other a little bit more intimately, the one who I shared cookies with under the dining room table.  With the exception of the moments she chewed my Minnie Mouse shoes and ate the legs off my Miss Piggy Happy Meal toy, she was a good dog. 
My beautiful girl was good to my baby sister, too.
How could you not turn into a dog person with this as your first dog love?
Barley's a good dog, too.  She's even a well-behaved dog.  I mean, hey, she's got her CGC certificate, and we worked hard for that bad boy.  She doesn't get on my couch or chew my things. She is a good dog.  But she is not an easy dog.  If our relationship was measured by our successes, we'd be, as John Mayer says, "slow dancing in a burning room."  

Our relationship is measured and defined by our challenges.  Without our challenges, we wouldn't be a team.  As much as I loved my first girl, our relationship never had the intensity that my relationship with Barley has.  We were not a team.  We were a family, but she didn't need me in the way that Barley does.
Go Team Beth & Bar!
Barley depends on me.  Not in the way that all dogs do for food and water and love.  She depends on me to keep her calm and focused and to tell her how to behave in new, weird situations.  If I'm excited about seeing someone, she's excited about seeing someone.  If I'm stressed, she's stressed. If I'm proud, she's proud. 

Tonight, we took one of our normal neighborhood walks. As we got towards the home stretch, a tiny dog, probably less than 10 pounds--maybe a Pekingese?--bolted down its drive way after us.  A few houses down, we had passed a lab lunging and barking at the end of its tie out (while its owner stood in the door way and watched--how maddening!), so Barley was already nearing her threshold.  Before she even noticed the tiny dog, her tail was rigid, her ears were perked up, her eyes were scanning the road ahead.

The tiny dog was behind us, so I saw it first and tried to up our pace, but I soon realized we were never getting away from this little dog.  (How something with such short legs can move so fast is an eternal mystery to me!)

My Barley girl was so good. I said sit and she sat.  That little dog darted around her, sniffing every part of her it could reach.  It stuck it's entire body under her belly--if dogs had laps when they were sitting, this dog would have been sitting in Barley's lap.

Barley's ears were back, her eyes were wide, and her tail had gone from it's usual curlicue to a straight line, but she didn't growl.  She didn't lunge.  She sat calmly and took treats from my hand while that little dog invaded every last inch of her personal space.

Usually, when a dog charges us, especially a little dog, Barley goes over her threshold so quickly that she never hears me say sit and she shows no interest in the treats I offer her.  All I can do is hold on tight and do my best to block the other dog from getting near her mouth.  Tonight, though, I stayed calm and my girl followed suit.

To up the challenge level, when the dog's owner got to us, he picked up the dog and said, "Oh, say hi!" and stuck his little dog right in Barley's face.  Barley passed the test with flying colors.  Instead of even sniffing the other dog, she turned her head to me, made eye contact, and got a treat.

This is a happy Barley dog tail.
Was this a fluke? Probably. Maybe.  Will it happen the next time we encounter a smaller dog? Who knows?  But for that moment, my dog and I were 100% on the same page. She trusted me to help her deal with the unknown.  And she was excellent.