When I was 22, my boyfriend at the time bought me tickets to see David Sedaris read at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis.
This was right after "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" came out and aside from reading and re-reading this book, few things brightened my life at the time.
Having just graduated from college, I wanted nothing more than to go to grad school, work, and eventually mold the world in my image. But instead, having been rejected from every graduate school I applied to, I was the campus telephone operator for Saint Louis University.
I spent my days in a drab basement telling frantic callers, "I'm sorry, I cannot just CONNECT YOU to Korea" or "Yes ma'am, I understand your husband's testicles are firm and tender, but there's nothing I can do, YOU HAVE TO TALK TO THE UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL, may I connect you? Please?" While this job was a goldmine of stories to share at the bar or my email list ("Confessions of Switchboard Operator"), it wasn't exactly life affirming.
In an attempt to extricate myself from the daily drag of explaining to people how telephones and civilization worked, I applied at the local independent bookstore. They had a "YA Banned Books" section, and all the workers were either aging activists or black clad non-conformists who smoked cigarettes and judged your book selections. I needed to be one of them.
On the night of the David Sedaris reading, I noticed, as my boyfriend and I entered the lobby of the symphony hall, that the bookstore had sponsored the reading that night. I double checked that I had my copy of "Corduroy and Denim" in my purse, and made a mental note to charm the bookstore owner who was guarding David Sedaris' book signing table.
After laughing and crying through the reading, I waited until the crowd thinned, and made my way to get my book signed. I was the next to last person in line, so David Sedaris was taking his time with each person. When he got to me, I handed him my book, noticed my sweaty handprint gracing the matte cover, and blabbered something high pitched.
At some point, he asked me what I did for a living. Glancing at the tall, lanky, bespectacled bookstore owner, I dropped my voice an octave and said, "Well...I actually applied to his bookstore for a job. Just yesterday." I think I tried to follow up with something clever, but the bookstore owner just offered a tight lipped, mouth-only smile, and looked for something to distract himself.
David Sedaris stopped waving his pen over the title page of my book and looked at the bookstore owner.
"How could you not hire her? Look at her! She's adorable!" he said, then signed my book: Good luck in your new job, David Sedaris.
22 year-old Louise stifled either vomit or tears, while the bookstore owner looked like he wanted to punch David Sedaris.
I did not get the job.
I tell this story mainly because it makes me feel special, but also because it accounts for why I chose "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" as one of the handful of books I deemed worthy of moving to Japan. It is one of those "comfort books" that I turn to whenever I need to escape.
My husband and I went from a one bedroom apartment in Honolulu where the walls were basically supported by bookshelves and load-bearing piles of books, to a pocket sized apartment in Japan where even one chest-high bookshelf is a luxury. We brought a little more than two dozen books with us to Japan, the rest of our collection being either donated (oh my darlings) or sent to my mom's house in Texas.
So here are a few of the books that made the cut. My "comfort books," the books I turn to over and over again that make me laugh, make me cry, and remind me that as odd-ball as we can sometimes feel, there's always someone out there who can commiserate.
A collection of genuinely chilling stories assembled by the master storyteller himself. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
Like Stephen King's "On Writing" (another book I brought to Japan) the stories and introduction are like lessons on what makes good scary storytelling. And Dahl champions women as having the edge on men as great ghost story writers to boot!
While my spooky reading usually leans to "real-life" accounts and urban legends, this book is the perfect companion to a dark, lonely night, and a hot cup of tea.
"Ringing the Changes" by Robert Aikman and "Harry" by Rosemary Timperley are not to be missed.
2. Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
We're a big fan of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" at xoJane. I own so many copies of this book, I can barely keep track.
The story of Francie Nolan coming of age amidst familial and social turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century captures a longing for more, more, more that many young women experience even now. I may have said it before, but this quote in particular is what I turn to time and again for inspiration and guidance:
"Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
3. Bossypants by Tina Fey
If you've ever read anything I've ever written, you know I quote "30 Rock" freely. Think what you will of Liz Lemon or Tina Fey (even I have my reservations, least of which is that I believe Tina Fey would yell at me), but "Bossypants" is one of those books that just makes me laugh.
I came to this book at a time in my life where I knew what I wanted to do, but was lacking the guts to go for it. I didn't realize it at the time, but fear dictated a lot of choices I made. While I won't say this book made me fearless, I will say that it helped me LIGHTEN UP a little and find some goddamn pleasure and ownership in the stuff that makes me happy, like writing.
You really can't make everybody like you, and that's something I grapple with daily (so I write on the Internet weeeeee!). But reading about Tina Fey's experiences in life and in the writer's room, inspired me to, if nothing else, have the confidence to make ME like me.
4. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 1-3, collected by Alvin Shwartz with drawings by Stephen Gammell
I mean really, do you have to ask why?
"Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," "More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," and "Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones" are more than books, they are dear friends.
Can't figure out what to write for Creepy Corner? Just a glance at Stephen Gammell's grotesque imagery reminds me, "Oh yeah, that's what scares me." Want to feel like a kid again, my imagination blissfully whirling out of control? Read "The Drum" or "The Haunted House" or "Harold."
Every time I crack open one of my worn "Scary Stories" books (I have the old and new editions, as the old ones started to fall apart), I am transported back to Mr. Hayes' 3rd grade classroom where every day for the month of October, he'd turn off the lights, and read a story by the light of flashlight from one of the first two books.
Nostalgia, good old fashioned chills, and good storytelling. The stories may be meant to "chill your bones," but they also warm my heart.
5. The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook by Editors at America's Test Kitchen
Inspiration, nostalgia, scary stories...cookbook?
This cookbook is the last gift my father-in-law gave me before he succumbed to that asshole, cancer.
My FIL's domain was the kitchen. Towards the end of his life, I am honored to say I was one of the few people he allowed in his domain. Even though I couldn't eat it (because gluten), my husband and I always made him a french silk pie of his very own when we visited. The taste and enjoyment of sweets was one of the last pleasures the cancer left him.
He was so excited when he found me this cookbook. "You can finally make something delicious for yourself," he said.
Like a second father to me, all my FIL's love, care-disguised-as-crank, and kooky commentary ("you know how much SPAM you can buy on Amazon for 12 dollars?!"), is wrapped up in this cookbook.
So there's your little peek into my bookshelf. I don't know what I would do without them. They are home, friends, and companionship when Japan feels a little lonely.
What are your "comfort books"? What books go with you everywhere? Have a good story about meeting your favorite author?