Five Books I Have Loved (One for Each Decade of My Life)

Susin Nielsen got her start writing a spec script for the popular television series Degrassi Junior High. She went on to pen sixteen...

 

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

I first read this book at age 11. I urge parents, especially parents with daughters, to pick up this classic. Harriet is the first female protagonist I discovered who was the antithesis of “girly.” She is strong-willed and sometimes mean. I re-read the anniversary edition and was blown away not just by how much I still loved it, but by how much Louise Fitzhugh had influenced my own writing. In fact the first diary I ever kept says on the inside cover, “Susin Nielsen the Spy.” (actually it says “Susan Nielsen The Spy,” but that’s a story for another day).

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor was one of those sweet, heady discoveries that I made solely on my own, in my early twenties. My love affair with her started after I saw the John Huston-directed movie version of “Wise Blood.” I immediately found the book, then read everything else she wrote in her too-short life. I love the combination of beautiful writing, gothic horror and black humour. All of this from a woman, too (so much of my required reading in school had been male authors; I had to discover a lot of female authors on my own).

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

I read this in my thirties, when my son was small. I’d had a long-time fascination with Virginia Woolf, and I could not believe what Cunningham achieved in this book. But it was Mrs. Brown who slayed me. There is a moment in the story when Mrs. Brown’s young son is watching her intently. Mrs. Brown thinks, “He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.” When I first read that, it was like a punch in the gut. It took my breath away. It described exactly how I felt, deep in my soul, in moments of uncertainty about my abilities as a mother … and somehow Cunningham had articulated it.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I read this collection in my forties. I remember the thrill of getting lost in his writing, his humour – I was reading a modern-day master at work. And I was learning about a different culture and place, which is one of the great joys of reading. His characters are deeply flawed, and yet we root for them. As an aside, I also had the great pleasure of getting my book signed by him at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest in 2012. I acted like a bit of a dork – I was in full-on fan-girl mode – and he was generous and kind.

Shrill by Lindy West 

I read this just last year. West is hilarious, and so smart it makes my head hurt. She tackles a lot of subjects in this book of essays, including being the target of online trolling. She also proudly refers to herself as fat, and discusses how making fun of fat people is the last acceptable frontier in comedy (and she does so with her own wicked sense of humour). It’s rare that a book makes me step back and take a look at my own prejudices and behavior; Lindy’s book did that for me, and I’m grateful for it.

Optimists Die First
Written by Susin Nielsen;