Monday, August 3, 2015

Love of My Life


By Lisabet Sarai

I figure my parents must have started teaching me to read when I was four. Certainly I remember my pride when at the age of five, I could make it all the way through Dick, Jane and Sally on my own. Even before then, my dad and mom read aloud to my brother and me, not just stories but poetry, too. Words—beautiful, lively, evocative words—were a part of my earliest experience.

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat.
They took some money and plenty of honey
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up at the stars above
And sang to a small guitar.
Oh beautiful Pussy, oh Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are, you are,
What a beautiful pussy you are.

That’s from memory, laid down close to sixty years ago.

By the time I was six, I had a library card. I read whatever I could get my hands on, diving into alternative literary worlds that seemed at least as real as the one in which I lived. I remember the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron haunted me. Then there was book entitled The City Under the Back Steps (now out of print, apparently), a cautionary tale about girl who’s shrunk and imprisoned in an ant colony as punishment for her deliberate squashing of the ants on her back walk. That (obviously) made a huge impression on me—and I learned a lot about ants. A few years on, I was devouring Nancy Drew mysteries, practicing to improve my powers of observation and imagining myself as a clever detective, and a series called Childhood of Famous Americans, bios of people like Sacajawea, Betsy Ross, Helen Keller and Juliet Lowe. (According to Amazon, this series is still alive and well. It now includes the likes of Neil Armstrong and, heaven help us, Ronald Reagan!)

Science fiction—Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov—came a bit later. I read the Foundation Trilogy in junior high school and was sufficiently influenced by those books that I actually called a local talk show to ask Isaac Asimov a question. Before you shrug and say “so what?”, you should know that I was pathologically shy at that point and would do anything to avoid using the telephone. (Remind me to tell you the lost library book story some time.) My passion for his story overcame my terror. (As it turned out, he was rude and dismissive. I was crushed.)

Another milestone I recall was The Count of Monte Cristo, at 1100+ pages the longest book I’d ever read. That was in 8th grade. And Gone with the Wind—when would that have been? Probably around the same time. All I know is that I cried at the end, devastated that Scarlet’s blindness and pride had robbed her of Rhett’s love. Meanwhile, Stranger in a Strange Land, also consumed during my mid-teens, had a huge impact on my imagination and my developing sexuality. I’m certain my tendencies toward polyamory can be traced to the Valentine Michael Smith’s “sharing water”.

For years, I spent my afternoons sprawled on my bed with nose in a book, as my mother would say. She would prod me to get up, go outside, get some fresh air, play with friends. I far preferred the company of the characters in my most recent read to the kids in my suburban neighborhood. Sherlock Holmes—Catherine and Heathcliff—Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—Frodo and Gandalf—Captain Nemo—the eponymous Rebecca in Daphne Du Maurier’s tale and “She” who must be obeyed, in H. Rider Haggard’s classic—there weren’t enough hours in the day to spend with them, as far as I was concerned. Reading let me explore ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval France and Celtic Britain, wandering in both space and time. How could the backyard or the local mall compete?

I have vivid recollections of many wonderful books, up until my late teens. Anorexia really messed up my memory, perhaps due to a lack of nutrients. Or maybe my mental abilities were impaired by the anti-depressants I took regularly for several years. Certainly I read voraciously while I was bouncing around from one hospital or temporary home to another. What else was I going to do? Dropped out of college, estranged from my family, suspicious of all the people who wanted me to eat, torn by anxiety and self-disgust, I took refuge in books. I hardly recall anything I read, however, though for some reason I know The Brothers Karamazov was on the list. Or maybe Crime and Punishment? It’s all a blur.

I hadn’t really read much erotica until I got involved with the man I call my master, while I was in grad school. He assigned me various texts: The Story of O, of course, and Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy, for a start. I discovered Victorian porn, The Pearl, My Secret Life and Laura, a book I’ve discussed here in the past which might not be Victorian at all, but which had a profound emotional and erotic effect on me.

Then in 1998, I happened on a used copy of Portia da Costa’s debut Black Lace book, Gemini Heat, which inspired me to pen my own first novel, and changed my life.

Since then I’ve consumed enormous quantities of erotica, as a reviewer, an editor, and just for fun. My reading tastes remain catholic, however. Usually I’ll have several books in process, at least one of which will not be erotic. Currently I’m reading The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, a literary novel about family and neurophysiology; Carousel by Aurelia T. Evans, which I guess would be categorized as kinky erotic horror; Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons (though I’ve gotten bogged down in this and haven’t opened it for months); and Sexual Outsiders: Understanding BDSM Sexualities and Communities, by David A. Ortmann and Richard A. Sprott. I still adore a solid science fiction tale; The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Baccigalupi and Anathem by Neal Stephenson are highlights from recent years, enthusiastically recommended. Well-written historical fiction can still sweep me away, too, though I was a bit disappointed by my recent read of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In short, reading is my first and perhaps my most enduring love. The pleasure I’ve experienced writing this post, remembering my favorite books and reliving my first encounters with them, recalls the secret glow I feel after a night of erotic pleasure. Lovers come and gosexual need fades with age—but books will always be there, or so I pray.

When I imagine my future, I see myself, perhaps infirm, perhaps indigent, even alone, but still reading. Without books, I wonder if life would be worth living.

14 comments:

  1. Isaac Asimov. Yeah, I had the vague idea that he was an arrogant schmuck. But I read a lot of him in middle school, and as an adult I remembered enough to write a brief parody:

    http://www.jonathancaws-elwitt.com/foudnation.html

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  2. I didn't get my first library card until turning seven. I remember a lady at the library telling me I wasn't old enough to read "Robin Hood". I thought *I can read. What is she talking about?* Several days later, I brought the book back, unable to comprehend it. A lesson.

    My father turned me on to several series of boys' books, some about pioneers, civil war stories, etc. It was a good transition to young boys books from the comics.

    When I broke my leg in second grade, my parents brought comic books to the hospital, where I spent five weeks in traction and only 27 days in school, so was left back to do the grade. When I got back the following year, I was a very good reader and wound up the smartest kid in class for the rest of primary school.

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    1. How did you break your leg? (Can I guess...?)

      Isn't it funny how disasters can turn out to have positive consequences?

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  3. Also like to say that I wouldn't mind doing the "What I'm Reading" topic again. If not quarterly like we did before, maybe twice a year? We received some good recommendations here.

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    1. Yes, I was thinking about that while writing this post.

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  4. "Oh beautiful pussy! Pussy my love!"

    Isn't it wonderful how the meaning of words change over time even as we do? I haven't been reading much lately, but this makes me want to read more again. Above all we have to continuously feed our heads. Why was it so much easier to read when we were kids than now?

    Garce

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    1. Blush. I had the same reaction when I wrote those words.

      I'm not sure that I find it harder to read now than then. Less time to read, yes, but that's not necessarily bad. I savor my reading time.

      I do read differently now, as an author. I can't help but notice issues of craft. And I'm sometimes writing reviews in my head even as I read. But a great story can still sweep me away.

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  5. Time, Garce, time...we had a lot of it, and nothing to do when we were kids. Now we have jobs, bills to pay, people to interact with, etc. It all takes time. I try to read everyday, but find that when I put it off until late, I fall asleep after a few pages, even when I love the book!

    I read all of the time also. The first book I read and reread was a book of Greek mythology for kids, complete with drawings. I read Shakespeare for fun when I was in grade school. I read "The Godfather" when I was in 7th grade, thusly: started it over breakfast, read constantly, even taking the book into the bathroom with me...read through lunch, continued reading until dinner...right after dinner, picked the book up again, read until about 3 in the morning, until it was done. Longest book I'd read up to then, over 1,000 pages. And my first book with sex in it, even though it was brutish and violent, for the most part. But it was sex.

    BTW, even when she'd lost the ability to read, my mom continued carrying a book with her always, when she lived in the assisted living place. She fooled me, so much so that I gave her a copy of my first published book, waiting for her to praise me. She didn't understand that I'd written it, and even when I tried to read it to her, she couldn't follow the story at all. But I still write what Mom liked to read: romance, with naughty bits. Because I was only about 12 when she let me read "The Sheik" and "Sons of the Sheik," by E.M.Hull. She explained it had to be a woman author, because the sex, though all implied, was so hot. Thanks, Mom!

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    1. Hi Fiona,

      Your comments started a song playing in my mind: Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle".

      A child arrived just the other day.
      He came to the world in the usual way.
      But there were jobs to do and bills to pay.
      He learned to walk while I was away...

      You have to make time for life, no matter how impossible that might seem.

      Love the story about your mom. But if I ever lose the ability to read...I'm not sure that I'd want to continue existing.

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    2. Luckily for Mom, she had dementia, so she didn't realize she couldn't read anymore. She still carried books around, since that was her habit, and she had a bookmark in them, as if she was reading. Broke my heart that she would never read my book, making my first published book a bittersweet memory.

      Funny you should quote that song. When I beat myself up over the paltry income I bring in even with my college degree, and I attribute it to having taken so many years out of the full-time work-force to raise my kids, they remind me that we're still very close friends, and that my friends who went back to work always complain that their kids never talk to them anymore. So I guess I traded off future earning potential, for very intelligent children who've grown up to be my best friends, after my husband. I hate putting all of that weight on him, to pay for everything, but since I can't go back for a re-do, I try to content myself with our close relationship. I was there for all of their firsts, ran their scout groups, was a school lunch-mom and classroom volunteer, and Dad got to have them to himself on the nights and weekend days when I was at my crappy retail jobs. Such is life.

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  6. My granddaughter has been a voracious reader since she was not quite five, but I can't interest her in many of the books I loved as a kid. Of course she's reading masses of good stuff that I never had a chance at, and as a nine-year-old doesn't want it read to her by anyone--in fact she hasn't for several years--so I miss sharing books with her. (But she loves to have me watch her play Minecraft on the computer so she can explain everything to me.)

    Hmm, now I know what I'll write about for Monday.

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    1. Try "Understood Betsy" by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Then the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia Wrede, with the first of the 4 books being "Dealing With Dragons." I tutor young kids, and some of the voracious readers are girls, and I've loaned my books out to them, and they loved them. Then the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, which is much more interesting and funny than the Harry Potter books.

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  7. Great post, Lisabet, and interesting thread. Yes, I think we should do "What are you reading now" on a regular basis. I love having an excuse to read "classics" now that I think I should have read many years ago (e.g. Jules Verne sci-fi from the mid-19th century). Sometimes a call-for-submissions is the prompt.

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