books that changed my life: undergraduate edition

My father suggested I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. He'd found it engaging, insightful and accurately Southern, which intrigued me. He gave me his copy and in the weeks before I began college I couldn't put it down. There was something about the way Berendt wrote, the way he described the kinds of people who'd filled my girlhood, eccentric, crazy but also alarmingly friendly men and women, ready to share others' secrets but not their own. I loved the detail in his writing, and the way the South seemed to come alive in his words. I had not been to Savannah but I've been wanting to go ever since. Perhaps one day, I will get there. Of course, the story itself is salacious in all of its gossipy, spectacular glory complete with voodoo priestesses and courtroom drama. Berendt captures the contradictions of the South wonderfully. If you've seen the film I suggest you try to the book and if you're not familiar with either, you should definitely check out the book first because many of the most colorful characters are missing from the film. I fell in love with this book and slipped suddenly and unknowingly into my past and out again. I was able to understand things about the South because Berendt was an outsider who could see what I could not, who could say what I could not. It was the first time I was able to see how important distance is when it comes to understanding, particularly when one is trying to reach understanding about their past, about their home and how the two are all tied up together.

Last Night on Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski is, I think, the last collection of his poems published while he was alive. It was the first Bukowski collection I read and houses some of my favorite Buk poems like Young in New Orleans, Are You Drinking, Dinosauria, We and Death is Smoking My Cigars. It isn't entirely surprising that a lot of these poems are about death and dying. And though I know Bukowski was a drunk, a womanizer and a gambler, he was also honest about being all of those things. His poetry influenced me as a young poet, both in style and approach. It made me feel as though I had something to say and that I could say it, no matter what it was, as long as it was honest. Later, my advisers would ask me if I considered my work confessional and I could see why they categorized it as such, but it was more Bukowski honesty than confession. Admittedly, he was probably not the best mentor for a girl like me or perhaps he was so wrong he was right. Either way, like most lost 20 year old girls in the middle of something they don't understand, I struggled to make sense of the world around me and my place in it. Bukowski helped me fill in the blanks. There was something remarkable about how I took to him but I think most people who loved him feel that way. But that's a story for another day. I still love the sincerity, the rawness, and the unabashed honesty in Bukowski's work. But reading him always reminds me of a certain time in my life that would have been very different without this collection of poems.

The Art of the Personal Essay ed Phillip Lopate began my love affair with narrative as a writer. Though I'd included my family in many of my poems and fictions and loved reading essays, I never considered writing them. Then I took a course in Fall of my senior year and we read Lopate's collection. During the course and long after this collection of essays impacted how I thought about my experiences, how to record them, how to live them. My writing opened in ways I hadn't imagined, probably couldn't imagine. Much later, in my Ph.D. program I would learn more about narrative and others' work would stand as a bookend to Lopate's beginning. This collection, though, melded my creative and scholarly writing, the kind of writing that would fill my dissertation. Lopate's own essay, "Portrait of My Body" influenced me greatly as well, though it isn't included in the collection here I highly recommend it.

I read The Awakening by Kate Chopin my senior undergraduate year. It created a paradigm shift for me in the way I thought about what it meant to be a writer, a woman, a mother, a Southerner. Chopin is an amazing writer. As soon as I finished The Awakening I tried to read everything she wrote. "The Story of an Hour" and "The Storm" are probably her best well known and some of my favorites. But The Awakening changed my life. I was suddenly, acutely aware of all the advantages I had that Edna did not:all the opportunities to which I had access. And yet, Edna represented many of the things I wanted to be in that she was a rebel, a maverick. She did and said what she wanted though she ultimately paid for refusal to fit into society. The novel is about expectations.The expectations of society, relationships, individuals, place and what happens when there are discrepancies between any of the above. I am not sure if I can completely explain exactly how or why this novel changed my life. There's something incredibly elusive about its influence; yet it's always there in my recollections. Before I read the book, I was a certain way and after I read it, I was completely different in significant but intangible ways. I wrote a poem about Edna and when I find it I will post it here for you.

Up next: the master's edition: vampires, Irish writers and more