07 April 2014

Alone in the Abbey

I'm picking up on some writing again - building my portfolio back up in preparation for the possibility of a Masters in Creative Non-Fiction.  This is the beginnings of a piece that, so far at least, I feel has the most potential - still rough potential, but potential nonetheless. 


You don’t even notice she’s there if you aren’t looking.  Walking through the gallery, I only slowed because I recognized the painted spires as Westminster.  Then I stopped, out of duty to my love of all things England.  I admired the height of the spires, the detail in the saints.  I remembered how crowded it felt there - surrounded by the living and the dead.  Rubbing shoulders with the literal and the spiritual.  Accidentally rubbing lips to the stamen of a lily I'd bent over to smell, the powder of which stuck to my lipgloss and turned my lips an alarming shade of golden yellow for an undefined period of time that still makes me cringe to think about.  (How many people saw?!)

"In the Choir of Westminster Abbey" by Max Emanuel Ainmiller,
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
In the middle of my memory bursts this image of the woman.  There in the bottom corner of the painting, alone, sits a veiled woman dressed in black.  Her face is uncovered but she is so small that her face is indistinguishable as she sits near one tomb and stares at what the plaque seems to indicate as the tomb of Edward III.  She is not close to him.  Her grief is polite and distant, but more clearly directed toward the fallen king than to the occupant of the tomb she is closest too.  The light in the painting is all around her but shadowed nearest her - illuminating the feet of the tomb and most prominently the stone carvings of the saints to her right, but not her.  It’s as though Ainmiller intended to hide her from the common viewer of the painting - out of respect, perhaps.  To allow her the privacy to mourn.  Or maybe he is proving a point - how easily forgotten and pushed aside are those who truly and quietly feel.  

At first I envy her the luxury of mourning alone.  The thought of walking through and being in Westminster alone must, even then, have been a supreme privilege.  What must it have sounded like?  Did she hold back tears for the simple dread of having them echo back to her at horrendously magnified volumes?  Did she sit in as much silence as possible, avoiding even the rustle of a dress?  Or was the sound of resonating sobs comforting - as though highlighting the strength of grief that had to be politely restrained elsewhere somehow justified and relieved the pain?

Or perhaps, as I once did in finding myself alone in Milton Abbey, she sang.  I was on Study Abroad in England - a unique trip where we hiked from one place to another.  One day - a particularly long day - ended at a small Abbey.  The Abbey is on the property of a school, now - a boarding/day school that is in the middle of nowhere.  Our group toured the Abbey alone.  John, our director, told us to take as long as we wanted in the Abbey.  I pulled out my journal and wrote, and wrote - I realized that people were leaving but didn’t feel so inclined yet.  I wanted to be the last one there.  So I stayed.  And then, long after I knew I should have left and joined the others, found myself blessedly and spookily alone in the chapel.  Not a worker, tour guide or student in sight - just me.  I waited in absolute silence for a bit, then, knowing I may not ever get the chance again - sang.  I picked two songs - “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Lead Kindly Light” - hymns seemed appropriate for such a setting.  It felt wonderful and sinful all at once, hearing my voice echo hesitantly through the chapel.  I wanted to hear what it sounded like and was scared to all at once - what if someone heard in an office connected somewhere and came looking to see who had intruded?  I knew I should have joined the others - knew that there was a possibility of causing stress from my selfishness, but for a moment it was me and the gods. 


I don’t think she sang, though.  She is clearly grieving.  Perhaps not even finding herself worthy to approach the tomb of what I’m guessing is her son. Instead she sits surrounded, stared at by stone and wood and glass representations of saints who, unlike her human counterparts, are not capable of turning away and allowing her some privacy.  It’s eerie.  It’s both sacred and scary, this painting, this moment in time.  This glimpse into the life of someone clearly prominent in their day if allowed to gain such personal and private access to Westminster - and yet still painted as so very, very small.  So insignificant and significant all at once.  Perhaps this is a bit of what Moses felt when he realized that man is both everything because he is God’s and nothing because of essentially the same reason.  Privileged in solitude, minuscule in it. Swallowed in stone and saints - magnified with the invisible, unpainted breath of the living.

02 April 2014

Single and Settled

In my corner of the religious world, being married is quite often seen as the design and existence for the first part of your life.  From a very young age (at least as a girl), you are asked to start considering what you're seeking for in a spouse.  You make lists of things that you want.  If you're like me you had your "responsible" section of the list and the secret unwritten dream list.  The responsible list has things like good education and goes to church and not destitute.  The secret unwritten dream list included things like taller than me and lean and brunette and likes to read and travel and knows how to dance and maybe looks a bit like Gilbert Blythe.

Growing up, I was pretty sure I had my life figured out.  Always a practical planning individual, I knew that I wanted to graduate from college, go to approximately 3 years of college, get married in my senior year, teach for about 3 years, and then have babies.  I knew that I wasn't the world's most attractive girl, but I'm not hideous or stupid or weird (ha!) so I figured that the dating slump I was in from high school could be blamed on the small population of eligible religious counterparts and that going to BYU would fix all my dating woes and find me "eternally tied".  After all, I was the good girl.  The one who went to early morning church classes before high school every day.  The one who actually participated in class.  The one who had direction and faith and never really experienced teenaged rebellion.  It was just karmic justice, right?  The perfect guy would fall into my lap like an angel from heaven sent to rescue me from the hell of single life.

Only it didn't happen (obviously).  And the funny thing was, the older I got, the more I looked around and saw so many people (both men and women) who are perfectly attractive and righteous sorts of people who were still single and I realized: wait a second.  Beauty and brains and obedience are no guarantee of wedded bliss.

And then I realized something else: people don't know what to do with me in the church.  Do they accept my singleness, or does that suggest they think I'm hopeless?  Do they ask me about my dating life or not?  It's easy to start feeling like a bit of a cultural leper.

Outside of Mormon culture, the average age of marriage is 27.  I turn 27 next month, which means that by all national trends, I've still got a hope of being within the range of average for about two more years.  My non-Mormon friends don't understand what all the fuss is about.  But inside the church, adults and married couples my age aren't sure what to say to me.  So here are some of my thoughts on the inherent challenges of being an older single Mormon and some suggestions:

The biggest challenge I feel is the expectation of being consistently unsettled.  I am counseled to continue in my education, to develop my talents, to serve in my church, to get to know people, and, essentially, to do everything that every human should be doing in or out of a marriage (minus things related to sex.)  But I'm also told that I have to be ready to drop everything for that perfect guy.  Love your job - but not too much!  What if you love it so much you aren't willing to leave it for marriage?!  Love your hobbies - but not too much!  If you love them too much you won't have time for dating!  Get to know people - but get to know the right people!  Get to know single people or people who set you up!  It's hard not to feel like the "object and design" of your single existence must, like the earth around the sun, constantly rotate around a singular purpose, and if your eye isn't constantly fixed on that purpose, then you are clearly losing your focus.  So that in mind -

1. Recognize that for an older single - particularly those out of educational settings - dating is an entirely different ballgame.  Dating in college is a bit easier.  Life is still a bit flexible.  Dating outside of college means that both parties will have to, of necessity, be a little more creative in how they connect.  This doesn't have to be a bad thing - in many ways it is a realistic set up for marriage as you have a couple having to decide where their priorities are.  It can work.  But if you married young, you probably just don't get it.  It's not as easy as it sounds to find someone after you graduate - and you can't stay in school forever.

2. Recognize and honor the ways that singles can contribute uniquely to communities, workplaces, and the church.

3. Recognize that it's not a crime or a sin to take advantage of the perks of being single.  At least for Mormons who believe that marriage is forever, being single is a very brief period of time in the grand scheme of things.  There are some advantages to this that, frankly, you're kind of ungrateful not to take advantage of.  If I had married at 21 like I'd planned, I would have gained a loving (I hope!) spouse, the responsibilities of a home, and eventually the responsibilities of children.  From what I hear, those are pretty amazing things.  I want them.  But since I don't have them, I get the opportunity to travel without my budget impacting the chance for my kids to participate in sports.  I get to teach.  I make decisions and don't have to stress too much about how those decisions will impact others.  I get to read uninterrupted.  I get to pee and shower without anyone interrupting me whenever they want.  Heck, I get a lot of time alone -something a quick trip to Facebook confirms to me - is a great luxury later.  While I've got it - I'm going to enjoy it, and I'm going to proclaim that this isn't selfish.  This is gratitude.  It's just the way single life works.  It is acknowledging the good that I have in my life instead of mourning what I don't have (and don't have lots of control over.)

4. Please don't set up single people with other single people just because they're both single.  Those dates are always the worst disasters.

5. Please don't be afraid to ask if you can set someone up, especially when you know them well.  At least for me, I'm not bugged.  I never turn down the opportunity to meet someone new.  It may not go great, but, to quote Carrie Underwood "It's not like I'm not trying, 'cause I'll give anyone a shot once."

6. Share your life with us.  I'm old enough and mature enough not to freak out when you get married or pregnant or whatever.  Really.  There was a time when I was younger (about 21-22) when every marriage/pregnancy from a friend or former roommate felt like a slap in the face but I'm totally over that.  I'm actually super happy for you because, from what I understand, marriage and babies are awesome and everyone should totally do them! (Have them?)  In return, ask me about my life.  Not just my dating life.  Ask me about my job.  Ask me about what I do for fun.  Ask me about books or movies or other things.  As an added bonus, this will make it easier for you to help out with #5 should you have the desire to help me find that perfect-for-me-man-specimen.

7. Don't be afraid to invite us places.  I recognize that sometimes there are couples events and date nights and you need those.  I support those.  Heck, I'll babysit for you if you want.  No big deal.  But every so often, being invited to hang out with people my age is awesome.  I don't care if you're married or not.  We can still hang.  You'll talk about potty training and I'll talk about smelly junior high classrooms.  It'll be a party.

8. Don't be afraid if we're happy where we are.  You know those newly engaged couples who see nothing but sunshine and hearts and sugar and want nothing more in the world than to spread that love to the rest of the population?  They're cute and a little annoying but they mean well, right?  I love when people are happy in their relationships.  I've seen enough stress in marriages of my friends and family by now to know that marriage is hard, so it's great to see when couples work and are happy.  It gives me hope.  It gives me something to work for and want - which is great, 'cause sometimes (lots of times) dating is discouraging (you're rejected more than you're not, after all.)  But in that same token, don't assume that because I don't have your brand of happiness that I am wrong to enjoy mine.  It's important for me to be happy with my life where it is.  I can be happy with new states of life too.  This is part of everyone's life, really.  What if you knew, for example, that at some point in your future you were going to be transferred across the country to a new job and a new neighborhood but didn't know when?  Wouldn't it be really sad if you missed out on the chance to enjoy your current job and current neighborhood just because you were going to move sometime?  What a wasted opportunity.

9. Trust us to do what is best for us.  Those of us religious single adults have learned to rely pretty heavily on faith and trust in the timing of the Lord.  We cultivate close relationships with Him and work to do His will.  Please trust our ability to receive revelation for what is best for us and understand that we may not want to justify why we do what we do, why we live where we live, how we spend our time, etc. to you - because that's really between us and God.  Please don't treat us like we still need to be babied through responsibility and the gospel.

10. Don't be afraid if we've accepted the possibility that marriage may never happen.  For most people this isn't resignation, it's determination.  It's the acceptance of God's hand in all things and acknowledging that if marriage and family aren't in the cards, then we still have to be OK.  We have to be MORE than OK.  We can't crumble into a pit of despair.  We can't live in lukewarm - we have to do something awesome with our lives!

Ultimately what most older single adults I know want, including myself, is to be treated like adults.  Like professionals.  Like competent religious participants in congregations.  We don't want to be defined solely by things that are largely out of control.  We want to be included, respected, and loved.  We want to be content with life - just like everyone else.

17 March 2014

Others! Others!

Disclaimer: I am a Mormon.  This is a post about current Mormon cultural issues and so may or may not make sense to those of you outside that circle.  I have other less culture specific posts in the works, never you fear.

I love Lost

I love the mess of characters.  I love the symbolism and the drama.  I love the way I never knew what was going to come next.  When someone like me who is notoriously good at predicting stories (almost to the point of annoyance) finds something that takes me by surprise, I'm always tickled.  I love how much I loved the characters - all of them (except maybe Michael, that dork).  I love how all the mysteries and mythology of the island really didn't matter in the end because the people mattered more.

On the off chance that you haven't seen the show, one of the primary story lines in the early part of the series revolves around the "Others".  After our initial group of castaways lands on the island when their plane mysteriously splits in two, they set up camp and try to do what they can to survive while they wait for rescue.  As they explore their new surroundings, they learn of a group on the island known as the "Others" who are highly dangerous.

As the two groups converge, our initial information about this group of "Others" seems to be pretty accurate.  They kidnap a pregnant girl and a child, for example.  Not exactly a happy "welcome to the island" pot luck.  Clearly, the "Others" are the bad guys in the story.

But then the show gradually lets you in on the real story of who these "Others" are - primarily a group of families and scientists who have been living on the island for quite some time.  They have book clubs.  They have a school.  They may have some rather icky issues with their current leadership, but on the whole, you find that the plane-crash group and the "Other" group have quite a bit in common.  They have similar fears (black smoke monster).  They eat the same food (thank you, Darma Initiative.)  They have similar goals (to protect themselves, to protect the island, to get off the island.)  As the story progresses, the lines between who is part of which group blur: if they're going to make any progress in either safety or escape - they have to work together.

It's no accident that this group is initially called "Others".  The world of Lost was designed to represent a kind of American mythology - and we Americans are no stranger to fear of Other-ness.  We start with the Native Americans, we move on to slavery and various groups of immigrants.  We go to the Japanese, back to the black population, move towards Islam. . . it's easy to put up a wall between our experience and the experience of them.

I bring this up because of the increasing dialogue in my corner of the world, particularly on issues relating to gay rights and the rights of women.  Today, for example, the LDS Church released a statement stating that they would again deny women entrance to an all male meeting that will be held in a few weeks.  Although I do have some concerns and questions about the role that women play in the LDS Church, I don't agree with the movement discussed in this article.  But whether or not I agree with it does little to excuse the vicious commenting that often happens on articles like these.  Take for instance, the following comment from "Fitness Freak" on the above linked article (all errors sic.):

Religion doesn't work the same as politics. Not everybody gets a say. In the case of the L.D.S. church, just ONE person does that. Its' NOT a democracy! (which is a GOOD thing, BTW) Maybe the women who (apparentally)don't like those rules should form their own church. Thats' whats great about our country - ANYONE can form their own church. Frankly, I have to wonder if they just do it for attention?? 

Or this one from Kelly WSmith: 

I think it is interesting that they don't want to be limited to the Free Speech zones, where the "apostates" protest against the church, as they claim, "We are members, not apostates". 

Hello? You are speaking against the church, that qualifies you as an apostate. These people need to wake up as to what they are really doing here.



This really isn't the time or place for me to go into all the nitty gritty details of what I think about the Ordain Women movement (which I do have some concerns about).  What I really want to say here is this: 

Like the two groups on Lost, it is easy - so easy - to set up walls between us and them.  Those reprobates.  Those Democrats!.  (Those Republicans!)  Those apostates who aren't happy with _____.  Those rebels who support _________.  How dare they!  They should just leave.  They are not one of us.  Disagreement is apostasy!

But when we step back from what we don't agree with, what we don't understand, what we don't personally struggle with, we recognize that aside from some differences in experience, those others are more like us than we think.  They are parts of families.  They are homemakers, businessmen, educators, artists, craftsmen.  They are sinners trying to do a little better every day.  They are students in the great school of life, just like everyone else around them.  Perhaps they struggle in areas that you do not, perhaps they question where you don't - but that does not make them wrong or sinful.  Just different.  Their path is different.  That's not wrong.  That's everywhere.

We have got to stop dismissing what we don't personally feel or see or want as evil.  I believe very strongly in the power of personal revelation.  I believe that it is totally possible for God to tell one person to vote Democrat and another Republican.  I believe that it is totally possible for God to tell one family not to watch a movie and another family to watch that same movie.  I believe that it is just as possible that God has led these women for one reason or another to protest or agitate or whatever other word you want to use to describe what they are doing on April 5th.  These women are not the Other.  They are ours.  They are our neighbors and our friends, our grandmothers, our daughters, our nieces, our aunts.  They are our husbands and fathers and sons too, by the way.  And they don't just come in the form of the group gathering on the 5th.  They come in the form of anyone who has doubts or fears or questions about their faith and are unsure of where to even begin to get the help they need (probably because the normal channels have, for whatever reason, been less than helpful for them.)  It is not our calling to judge others, but to love them.  It is unkind to dismiss trials and doubts with flippancy.  ("Well, I've never felt that way" or "I don't need more responsibility!" or "Why don't we get cushioned seats, then?!")

If Zion is ever to become one heart and one mind, I'm telling you right now that it will not look like a group of people who all receive the exact same answers all the time.  It will not be a group of people with identical paths and identical worries and identical questions.  It gives me physical pain to see so many comments on so many discussion boards demanding that these women leave the church if they hate it so much.  Declaring that clearly their revelation has been false.  How dared anyone make that judgment on another?  Note that even Satan was not cast out of heaven for presenting his plan.  It was only when he rebelled against the plan that God had accepted that he was asked to leave.   Maybe some of those supporting gay rights issues and women's rights issues are in an outward rebellion against the church.  But for those that aren't , for those who will ask for entry to a meeting and then calmly leave when they are denied entry - who are we to tell them that they are not allowed to play in the sandbox?  Is it not true that Christ suffered for their pain and therefore legitimized it, even if you don't personally understand or experience it?

God does not banish the Other, because there are no Others in the Kingdom of God.  And when God has a child that struggles, He says, as he does to all of us, "Come, learn of me" because he is the master teacher.  And maybe, just maybe, we all have some learning to do.



30 January 2014

If You Take a Joni to A Bookstore: A Guide/Warning

If you take a Joni to a bookstore. . .

She'll probably go straight for the table with the pretty books.
She'll buy herself one.
You'll remark that she already owns five copies.
She'll gasp, and go find another copy of the same book (this one is probably also pretty and has a ribbon in it), because five copies is not enough.
You'll suggest finding a new book.
She'll go over to the bestsellers.
Bumping into Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks, and anything with Fifty Shades in the title, she'll bemoan the ease with which trash gets published and the falling state of the American intellect.
You'll steer her (probably by the shoulders) to the fiction section. . .
. . . where she'll notice that a book is out of place.
She'll pick up the book and go put it back where it belongs, where she'll notice another book that's out of place that she'll pick up to put it back where it belongs.
This cycle will continue for about twenty minutes, until she notices that there are books that are faced out (covers out so people can see them) that she doesn't like.
She will then switch around the books she doesn't like for the books she does like.
You will remind her that she doesn't get paid for this.
She will remind you that it was your suggestion to go to the bookstore.
You'll suggest that now would be a good time to actually find a book.
She'll start judging books by their cover and wind up with about twenty that she will ask you to carry around.  Because she's read lots of classics and has a thing for hardbacks, this will be very heavy.
You will suggest e-books.
She will contemplate the benefits of hitting you.
Eventually, after much deliberation, she will determine to buy three books, and to write down the titles of the rest.
You will drive home to the sound of her turning pages and laughing and debating out loud which book to read first.
When you get home she will go inside and put her pretty new books on a special shelf on her bookshelf (that she probably doesn't share with you).  The shelf is for books she intends to read.  It doesn't have room for more.
So you will have to go to the furniture store to buy another bookshelf because fewer books is not the solution to this problem.
And while you put this bookshelf together, she will read.


05 December 2013

My Booklist

As a change of normal philosophical pace, I've had several people (students, friends) requesting my book recommendations lately.  This is awesome because I rather selfishly enjoy thinking that I have good enough taste in literature to warrant making recommendations, and also because it gives me the chance to go through my books again and remember some favorites.

To make this list I've separated books into modern and classics categories.  I've also only included books that I've read.  For example - I own a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It's on my reading list.  People I know and love have said it's awesome and I fully expect it to be awesome.  But I haven't read it yet, so I won't put it on the list.  The classics I've included shouldn't be new names to anyone, but they're the ones that I'd recommend first if someone were looking to dive into some of the standards.

Also, this is long, but books are awesome, so. . . deal with it.

I'm sure I've missed some great books that I'll go back later and wonder how I could have missed putting it on this list, but in no particular order, here are the books I think that everyone should read at least once in their life:

Modern

1. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield): A great book for any book lover, particularly those who have ever loved the gothic romances of the Bronte era (especially if you loved Jane Eyre).
2. Enchantment (Orson Scott Card): A mix of Babba Yaga, Sleeping Beauty, time travel, and religious conflict that miraculously works.  A fun read, but an engaging one too.
3. Matilda (Roald Dahl): Anything by Roald Dahl could be on this list, but if I could only pick one it would be this one.  Matilda is as great an underdog story as you could ask for, and I love books about kids that are smarter than their adult counterparts.
4. Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn): The wordplay in this book is what makes it fun, but it also made me think, which is the mark of a great YA novel.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon): A crazy fascinating narration and powerful (but not emotionally manipulative) story.
6. Anything Khaled Hosseini writes (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed): They are all insanely beautiful and heartbreaking and wonderful.  I don't know how he does it, but Hosseini's books are all gold.
7. Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine): Every girl needs to read this book.
8. Daughter of the Forest (Juliet Marillier): All of Mariller's books feature a strong female protagonist, but they do get slightly formulaic after a while.  Daughter of the Forest is her best (though the other two in the original Sevenwaters Trilogy were good as well.)
9. Atonement (Ian McEwan): The writing is so ridiculously beautiful in this book that I was half giddy when I read it.  The other half was in a great moral debate over the events of the plot.
10. My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen (Chaim Potok): Potok has such a brilliant way about writing faithful characters who also doubt and question and push that I wish LDS writers could harness.  The Chosen and Asher Lev are my favorites of his novels, though I think Asher Lev meant more to me personally because of its discussion on the clash of art and religion.  Chosen is a winner each time I read it with my students.
11. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer): This book was utterly delightful.  I've never wanted a book to go on forever so much in my life as I did when I read this one.
12. The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Steadman): I started this book after three hours of sleep right before a flight home after Christmas last year.  I was halfway finished by the time I got home.  I finished the book after reading four hours straight a few days later and didn't realize that I hadn't eaten anything all day.  That is the sign of a great book.
13. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart): I loved how this book allowed each protagonist to play to their strengths when it came to problem solving.  I read this with my students the first year I taught and it was some of the best bribery I could have.
14. The Messenger and The Book Thief (Markus Zusak): Zusak's prose is incredible, and his way of emotionally engaging a reader with words makes reading feel like you're skating on ice (to borrow a friend's description).  Book Thief is a non-holocaust holocaust story, and The Messenger is the more moral version of Catcher in the Rye.
15. The Silver Lining's Playbook (Matthew Quick): The way that Pat (the main character) fought his demons in this book resonated so much with me that I felt like I understood myself better after reading it (though I pray that I am never that crazy.)
16. Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card): It's fun, it's got great discussion opportunities, and it's got super smart kids making the adults look bad.
17. Life of Pi (Yann Martel): Beautiful writing, fascinating story, powerful ending.  My students loved this one.
18. Stargirl and Maniac Magee (Jerry Spinelli): Spinelli writes books for kids that don't sound like books for kids.  There's much to be learned and enjoyed no matter what your age.
19. The Giver (Lois Lowry): This book is always the favorite of students when I teach it.  Even the ones who've read it before love reading it again. (One poor kid read it for the third time in my class last year after failing English a few semesters in a row and he admitted after much initial drudgery that it was a great book.)
20. Whirligig (Paul Fleischman): Slightly lesser known but still great YA novel.  Another one that doesn't talk down.  I hate YA novels that talk down to kids/teens and this one tackles big topics and challenges in a respectful and mature way that is still accessible.
21. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro): This book isn't for everyone.  The stream of thought writing style and meandering tone may bore some but I found it fascinating and endearing.  Maybe it's my anglophilia showing through.
22. The Hiding Place (Corrie ten Boom): Another one of those great inspirational stories that manages not to be too sappy or pedantic in its telling.
23. The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros): I don't usually find myself so engaged in stories like this one but the images and phrasing in this is beautiful.  I loved the way the word play taught me new perspectives.
24. Out of the Dust (Karen Hesse): I read this in junior high and didn't quite get it.  I read it again as an adult and enjoyed it much more.  I've never been much of a poetry girl but this book helped me learn to appreciate modern poetic style much more.  I read poetry more often because of this book.
25. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce): It started out as a quirky adventure story and ended with me trying not to cry in a car full of people heading down to Disneyland.  It's rare that a book gets me so hard emotionally that I forget to analyze structure and plot progression, but this book stunned me.
26. The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling): You're probably wondering why it took so long for this to end up here, aren't you?  The thing about Harry Potter is that it's actually as good as the hype.  Maybe better.  Particularly the last book, which was a bold and powerful reminder that the heart of any good vs. evil story is not the adventure and the battle but the relationships that are worth fighting for.
27. The Hunger Games Series (Suzanne Collins): Again - this one really is as good as the hype and, like Harry Potter, remembered that the action matters less than the relationships in the end.  I can see why people would be bugged by the final book in the trilogy (Mockingjay) - especially if they were super invested in who ended up with who in terms of love triangle, but for anyone with half an eye on symbolism, the end of the book is a pretty powerful reminder about what really matters in our technology and Hollywood obsessed culture.  You can read my review of Mockingjay here.
28. The Sense of and Ending (Julian Barnes): A recent and delightful discovery about people and their flaws and our assumptions of them before we know the whole story.  Booker prize winners/nominees are always great and this is no exception.

Classics
1. The Anne of Green Gables Series (L.M. Montgomery): These books shaped my childhood.
2. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott): Jo March was my introduction to feminism.  She still gives me hope for finding a balance between independence and dependence in my relationships.
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): In my opinion, most people are either Wuthering Heights people or Jane Eyre people.  I'm a Jane Eyre people.
4. Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): I'll admit.  I haven't finished this one (yet).  But the section I have read (I'm up through the section with the bishop now) is worth reading all by itself if you can't muster up the stamina for the whole thing.  I cannot allow myself to die without having read this book.
5. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas): This book has everything.  Action.  Romance.  Mystery.  Revenge.  Power.  Humor (at least if you've got an eye for making fun of French writing styles now and then.)  It's the book that asks "if you had all the power in the world - how would you use it?"
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith): A powerful coming of age story in a time period I'm maybe a little obsessed with.
7. Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain): Another book you should be ashamed of not having read before you die.  The moral questioning of this book alone is worth the read, but it's an endearing character study no matter how you shake it.  (To be honest, though, I usually stop about 3/4ths through the book.  About the point Tom Sawyer shows up again, the book loses lots of its magic.)
8. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): I wish that I had read this book and appreciated it the first time through when I read it in high school.  I just don't think I was in the right mode to get it when I was in the middle of Harry Potter fever that year.  Since then I've read it several times and each time I do I'm stunned at how much I learn from and adore Atticus Finch, and how endearing Scout is.
9. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien): I can see why people struggle with these.  They're not really stories and the structure is messed up (especially in Two Towers), but if you can push your way through to the end, the result is amazing.
10.  Charlotte's Web (E.B. White): The first story I ever remember being truly obsessed with.  I can't wait to introduce this one to my own kids/nieces and nephews.
11. The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis): The speak for themselves, don't they?  My particular favorites are The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
12. Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder): I will never forget sitting in front of my 2nd grade teacher while she read this to us.  I've never wanted to play with a pig bladder or sit in an attic with dried herbs so bad in my life as when she read this book to us.  And the snow candy?!  Come on.
13. The Lord of the Flies (William Goldman): You don't read this book because it's fun and the characters are endearing.  You read this book because it matters.
14. Night (Elie Wiesel): "And though (it) be but little, (it) is fierce."
15. The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis): Best digested slowly and with pen in hand.
16. 1984 (George Orwell): If nothing else than because everyone should know Big Brother, but also because it is such a potent warning on the danger of obliviously accepting a government.
17. Animal Farm (George Orwell): See The Lord of the Flies.  Same comment.
18. In Memorium (Alfred Lord Tennyson): The only poems I'll include on this list, mainly because poetry and I don't often enjoy one another's company, but In Memorium is incredible.  Those poems say what I can't about my struggles when faith and doubt clash with one another.
19. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Emmuska Orczy): A great adventure story, a great love story, good v.s evil - what more can you ask for?
20. Peter Pan (James Barrie): People make the mistake so often of presenting this story as though it was Peter's, when the heart of this story really belongs to Wendy - that's when this story stops being a fun story about a boy who can fly and becomes a powerful story of a girl facing a big world.
21. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett): I like A Little Princess as well, but The Secret Garden was a powerful story for me as a kid.  I related to Mary with her exterior prickles but inner heart.
22. Shakespeare: My favorites are Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, The Tempest, Richard III and The Winter's Tale.
23. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): I can see why people struggle with Gatsby, but to me this is the grown up version of Peter Pan and I think it is stunning.
24. The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton): One of the first books I read in college that taught me how powerfully engaging the classics could be.  This book (and it's sister House of Mirth) made me think and made me excited about reading for school in a way that most books hadn't before this.
25.  Jane Austen (Particularly Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma):  You can't not read Jane Austen at some point in your life.  Fortunately she's hilarious (Pride and Prejudice), great at creating memorable characters (Sense and Sensibility), and a great student of the foibles and challenges of being a mere mortal (Emma).

What am I missing?  What do you agree with?  Think I'm crazy about?  What do I need to add?  Send your own recommendations my way.  I'm pretty sure my bookshelves can handle more.