I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 46

As we are now full into fall and harvest season, my favorite time of year, and Halloween/All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain, my favorite holiday, is this weekend, I give you an autumnal scene and an accompanying quote. May they inspire you as they have me, fellow ink-slingers.

Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen to you and your life will never begin.

— Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

Losing My Religion

Very early on in life, I abandoned a religion that I felt had abandoned me as a woman.  A few stories in particular illustrate my reasons for doing so:  those of Lilith, Eve, and Mary Magdalene.  They showed what I found to be a very warped, incredibly negative view of women and when I saw through the intent to control that seemed to have motivated their telling, that was reason enough for me to quit my religion.  For the longest time after I did, I had no viable replacement, but that’s for a later post.  For now, suffice it to say that I had to lose my religion in order to find my faith and that my faith holds a very different and much more positive and richer view of my sex.  Now, on to the stories that caused that to happen.

I discovered the story of Lilith back in college.  For those unfamiliar with her story, Lilith is Adam’s first wife according to the Babylonian Talmud.  She and Adam are created simultaneously and for this reason, she views herself as Adam’s equal. Neither partner agrees to submit to the other, but for some strange reason God doesn’t like this and what happens to Lilith and Adam because of their behavior is very different.  Lilith refuses to “lie beneath” Adam, which can be read both literally and figuratively.  The literal interpretation just made me laugh and think “Really?  Really?”  Lilith is actually referred to as “wanton” because she likes being on top and apparently we are to take from this story that her preference of sexual position is somehow bad (read:  only “dirty” girls like to do things like that).  Interpreted more broadly, Lilith told Adam to shove it when he tried to boss her around.  Though that’s something most of us would give a loud cheer for these days, in the story, it’s the reason why Lilith is kicked out of Eden.  Yep, either way you read that story, the outcome is the same:  the Almighty banishes Lilith because of her so-called wicked ways.  As if that isn’t bad enough, once she’s gone from Paradise, Lilith actually becomes a demon (the name literally means something close to “night terror”); she’s known as an evil hag, a sort of vampire that goes around stealing babies at night and drinking their blood.  So to recap, Lilith refuses to submit to her husband and because of that, she is demonized.  But does Adam get punished for wanting to be on top?  Quite the opposite.  Once the evil Lilith is gone, lonely Adam is given a new woman who’s supposedly OK with being dominated.  He’s rewarded by God for his behavior, sending the message to men that this is how they’re supposed to behave, that being controlling is something to model.  Sorry, but no.  Well, Adam’s woman troubles don’t end with his first partner.  The supposedly submissive Eve doesn’t seem to want to do as she’s told either.  Imagine that.  Eve craves knowledge, which is forbidden by God, and because she seeks it and, moreover, encourages her partner Adam to do the same, she is blamed for the sin of the entire human race.  Are you kidding me?  Eve is a terrible person because she wants to better herself and is trying to help her husband become something more too?  Why is wanting to be enlightened presented as a “bad” thing?  Because we’re supposed to want to remain in the dark?  The message that sends to and about women is crystal clear and downright awful:  women are at best sinful creatures who will trick men into doing rotten things and at worst horrible monsters for standing up for themselves.  It also tries to sell us a very negative view of men in my opinion and of relationships.  Well, I wasn’t buying any of it.  Lilith was no demon in my mind.  She was a wild woman—like me.  So was Eve, I think.  They were part of a sisterhood that included Mary Magdalene.

For a while I toyed with writing the “real” story of Lilith, where she wasn’t some harpy but a woman wronged, a woman who didn’t get thrown out of Eden, but rather chose to leave, knowing that she deserved better.  I’m sure she went on to find herself some other(s) who was(were) quite different from Adam.  Maybe they even had a relationship like Jesus and Mary Magdalene had.

Mary’s was another story that struck me.  I think the Bible cheated us there too in a different but no less cruel way when Mary’s gospel was omitted.  You know that Dan Brown book The Da Vinci Code which basically centers around the not-so-secret idea that Mary Magdalene was actually the mother of Jesus’s children, that she and/or those offspring were the real “holy grail” that was taken out of the Holy Land?  Well, he got it from the gospel of Mary Magdalene.  I know some of you are going “What?  There’s no gospel of Mary,” but there is and I linked to it in that last sentence.  It’s just one of the non-canonical ones.  In her book The Path of the Priestess, Sharron Rose writes that the gnostic Christians believed Jesus and Mary Magdalene had what was essentially a tantric marriage.  Oh, how I loved that story—Mary as Jesus’s partner, a spiritual woman who embodied the divine feminine!  It was what Lilith was not permitted to be.  But instead of that beautiful tale of spiritual awakening happening through a partnership between the man and woman where Mary helped Jesus in his ministry, the official story that the Bible gave us was that Mary Magdalene was just some prostitute and Jesus was kind to her because she did things like wash his feet.  Why was that the preferable tale?  I couldn’t help seeing this in the same light as Lilith’s story; it seemed designed to project a very particular view of women, one as servants rather than partners and to me, that seemed wrong.  I think not just men and women but people in general are meant to help one another.  I wanted that other story, the one where Mary Magdalene was something more, where she had a much richer story of her own to tell.  That story came from a very old tradition that predated the religion I’d grown up with, one that has its parallels in cultures across the entire globe and that is known collectively as the sacred feminine.  It projected not only a spirituality that resonated with me but also a view of relationships that seemed ideal to me as well.  I read the gnostic story of Mary Magdalene as not only a deep spiritual truth but also a redemption of Lilith, and of Eve, and of all of us wild women out there who rebelled against the false constructs pushed on us and instead heeded the call back to our true selves.