The Books They Gave Me

In which we reflect on books given us by loved ones.

Meet Lady A.

I rarely deviate from the formula here, even when times are slow, but I really want you to meet and fall in love with this amazing blogger and advice columnist. I’ve linked her blog above, but she’s also on tumblr here

Lady A is smart, wise, funny, and very sexy. For a long time, she’s had an alternative sex advice column in the Chicago Phoenix, but it’s time the rest of you met her too. 

Enjoy!

Rhinehart.

He knew by then that I was in love with him. I told him the week before he started seeing someone else. She was beautiful and perfect and I knew that I had to be happy for him because he was my best friend.

He told me this book reflected the reckless side of his character nobody ever really saw. Except me, of course. I knew that boy like the back of my own hand. Still do, in fact.

Ultimately the book itself didn’t really matter. And yet I devoured every page like a starving woman. Anything to get closer to this beautiful enigma. Sometimes we read chapters together, sometimes I read alone. The words embraced me like he never would.

Finishing the last page was my own personal therapy. I couldn’t sit around for the next book recommendation. I had to write my own story. 

Lansdale.

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It wasn’t always obvious to me what my brothers and I had in common. They were loud and boisterous, whereas I was quieter and more studious. On any given day during the summer, they could be found yelling and diving into the swimming pool, and I would be listening to them from my room as I built a new Lego castle. Despite our more obvious differences, however, we all loved to read, and as we got older, found great pleasure in discussing and loaning books to one another.

My brothers loved to read the Hap and Leonard series by Joe Lansdale. They had discovered him around the same time (although both would lay claim to being “first”), and would spend hours talking about the characters, their favorite lines, the bizarre plot twists. I never made a point of reading them until my younger brother gave me a copy of his favorite installment to the series, Captain’s Outrageous, for Christmas, and told me to be finished with it by New Years. He was so excited for me that I started reading that night, and finished by the next afternoon.

I didn’t care much for the story, and I still don’t. But it occupies a permanent space on my bookshelf because it gave me something far more important than the story of a half-baked caper. Reading this book, I began to understand my brothers in a different way. Their admiration for the main characters spoke volumes about their own desires for fairness and justice. Their raucous laughter over ridiculous jokes told me that they had held on to a sense of silliness well into their adulthood. Their anger toward the antagonist gave lie to a protectiveness that they had never grown out of. Reading this book, I was able to know my brothers more deeply than I had since we were children. I started waiting eagerly for the latest novels to come out, thrilled at the prospect of now sharing in the latest adventures of Hap and Leonard.

A year after giving me Captain’s Outrageous, my younger brother took his own life. It didn’t make sense then, and it still doesn’t. I stopped reading Joe Lansdale, although I kept the book. I won’t get rid of it. Occasionally, the blue-green cover catches my eye and makes me stop to wonder at this painful and wonderful gift. This reminder that, despite everything else, for a moment, because of this book, I understood my brother in a truly honest way. The way I will always prefer to remember him. 

Stevenson.

I am old enough to have gone to school back when nice handwriting was a thing. And at age ten or so, mine was a very terrible thing to behold, as sloppy and messy and unreadable as that of any doctor. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t do it.

My stepfather decided after one too many tearful conversations between my parents, my teacher, and me, to do something about it, so he set me the task of copying out in cursive longhand a book. A page a day he said, and gave me one of his “special for work” big unlined notepads—a block of typing paper, I realize now, but it mattered back then that it was “special”. A page a day is a not too onerous amount although it seemed a Mt Everest of writing at the time, and he thought my problem was that I didn’t write anything of any length and never fell into the rhythm of it.

And so this was the book he picked off the bookshelf, after a good half hour of back and forth. Something I hadn’t read, something a little challenging, but still fun, he said.

Oh I hated every minute of that task. Hot summer afternoons were the worst torture, the last thing I wanted to do was sit inside for an hour and copy from those yellowing pages, the complicated language, the endlessly long sentences. But my stepfather was a hard man, and sit there I did. Every day, for nearly a year, sometimes copying a page three times over until it was judged done well enough.

But somewhere late in that year, I realized, I was looking forward to it each day. To returning to the world of Davey and Alan Breck, to find out what happened next. I don’t know to this day if it’s as good as I remember, because every time I pick it up I am once again that little girl sitting at the desk, so engrossed in the adventure I don’t even notice that I’m hard at work. I realized I loved this story to pieces.

And I remember the pride I felt when I finished copying out this book, and realized something else: My handwriting no longer sucked. At the local fair the next spring, along with the jams and huge tomatoes and dioramas and granddad’s prize Angus Bull, there on the wall was a little calligraphy display of small posters by the best students of each class, mine up there right along with the rest. 

My stepfather and I did not get along. Not at all, not then, and not later. I left home when I was 15, after he raised his voice and his fists at me one time too many, and I picked up a chair and swung it at him, breaking his jaw. We sort of ended in a state of armed peace many years later, but I don’t think we were ever alone together in a room, or had a direct conversation ever again. 

But two things he gave me, along with my only truly good memory of him: He gave me Kidnapped. And killer handwriting.

Coffin.


"This book reminded me of you" you muttered as you nudged the book forward towards me. You said the book was me. I didn’t understand how a book could contain an individual’s essence. But I kind of understood after reading it. Now whenever I read a book, there’d be times when it starts screaming at me- producing the character of one of my loved ones. 

Streatfeild.

You giving me this book and its sister, Ballet Shoes, was the last kind thing you ever did for me.