10 Books That Made Me Who I Am

“You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” – Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

The first time I heard this song, I’ll admit to tearing up, because as a writer, it meant that I have tremendous power to influence others, for good or for ill. I hope my own writing someday makes someone’s life a little better.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much certain books changed my life and shaped me i. Here’s a small sampling of the books/series that made me who I am today:

  1. Little EngineThe Little Engine that Could – I have a scrap of memory of sitting with my mom while she read me this book. I also remember one night “reading” it back to her (I memorized it) and telling her when she missed/skipped parts (I’m sure she loved that.) To me, this book symbolizes the time and care my mom took to instill a life-long love of reading into me. Plus, as I’m navigating the world of becoming a published author, I still repeat, “I think I can, I think I can,” to myself every step of the way. (I think that’s the 80s version of “just keep swimming.”)
  2. The Bernstein Bears series – This may sound silly, but I’m an only child, so books were my best friends growing up. A recent Huffington Post article reminded me what an effect these books had on my formative years. I have to say I learned quite a few life lessons from them, and I hope they made me a better person.
  3. Sweet-Valley-HighThe Sweet Valley Twins/High series – As I said, I didn’t have siblings, so for me, Jessica and Elizabeth were the sisters I never had. I always wanted to be Jessica, the popular, fun, cool twin. I decided my favorite color was purple because it was Jessica’s (it’s still my favorite color today). In high school, I took French because that was what Jessica studied (it probably would have been wiser to take Spanish, not that I remember any of it anyway). In reality, I was definitely Elizabeth, the bookish, do-gooder twin. I didn’t like the New Adult reboot that came out a few years ago, but the twins live on in my imagination, growing as I do. And yes, I still want to be Jessica.
  4. Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies – This is the first history book I remember buying. I was in fifth grade and obviously a strange child, if I bought history books for fun. But I was born with a love for castles and the Middle Ages in general. (It was only in college that my studies turned toward the Celts.) I devoured this book and the other books in the series (life in a village, life in a town). It gave me my first sense of how different daily life was in other times, and I began to imagine the people’s stories. I should have known then and there that I’d write historical fiction some 25 years later. (By the way, I still have this book.)
  5. interior-castleThe Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila – I’ve been fascinated with religion since I was little. I got a hold of this classic of mystical literature when I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve been a Teresa fan ever since. I like her intimate, personal relationship with God (she goes so far as to describe the union of the soul with God as a “mystical marriage”). I continue studying her and other mystic saints to this day. You’ll see my fascination with mysticism reflected in my writing.
  6. Silverthorn by Raymond Feist – I actually came to Feist’s work through the computer game Betrayal at Kronor, which will always hold a special place in my heart (even though the later novelization didn’t do it justice). I was in love with the characters of Jimmy the Hand, Owyn, and Gorath (*sigh*), so I sought out other books with them and found Silverthorn. It was my first adult-level fantasy and is the book I credit for hooking me on the genre.
  7. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – I’ve mentioned this before, but this book is the reason I write Arthurian legend. Besides wanting to make me write a strong Guinevere, it also opened my mind to the possibilities of the old faith and coincided well with the beginning of my studies of Druidism and other neo-pagan paths when I started researching for Guinevere. This book is part of a very personal change in my life and is one that I will always treasure.
  8. moll-flandersMoll Flanders by Daniel Defoe – Okay, so I saw the BBC miniseries starring Alex Kingston before I read the book, but I did read it. Moll showed me a side of a historical (albeit fictional) woman that I’d never seen before, one who defied all the conventions of her time, grabbed life by the horns and did what she willed. I think she influenced some of my characters even though I didn’t realize it as I was writing them.
  9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – Laugh all you want. Yes, I was a Twihard. I think the reason this book qualifies for me is that I read it around the same time I started taking my own writing seriously. Stephenie was the first author I knew of with a web site and she just seemed more accessible than those I’d heard of growing up. I loved the book (shut up, I did) and when I read her story, I thought to myself, “well, if she, as an ordinary person, can get published, so can I.” Hence, an author was born.
  10. Discovery-of-witches_360A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – I reviewed this book here, back in 2012 when I first read it. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, each time finding new nuances to the language, new layers of meaning and plot. Her character of Diana still speaks to me in ways no other character has. While I may not be a witch or be able to walk through time (that I know of…), I share Diana’s dedication to history and unfortunate suffering with anxiety. I even took rowing lessons because of this book. Maybe someday I’ll find my Matthew, too. Plus, next month I get to live with and learn from the author for a week. That will make it all the more life-changing!

What are your life-changing books? Which ones had the most effect on you throughout your life? Have you read any of these? Please share your stories with me in the comments.

The Holy Grail: Part 3 – St. Teresa of Avila & Other Associations

Replica of the Holy Grail at the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. By Lancastermerrin88 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of the Holy Grail at the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. By Lancastermerrin88 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve looked at the Celtic and Medieval evolutions of the Grail story, so now here are some odds and ends, including one theory involving my favorite saint.

The Grail story became associated with the Knights Templar in Wolfram’s Parzival. Here it is mentioned as a stone that fell from Heaven and was used as a sanctuary of the neutral angels during the battle between the armies of St. Michael and Lucifer. This becomes associated with the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy, a miraculous substance said to be able to turn metal into gold and grant immortality to the one who discovers it. This same story also gives us a detailed picture of the Grail temple, a large castle in which the Grail is housed, usually surrounded by forest or sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge.

This castle leads to one of the most bizarre associations I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure there are plenty of others.) In her book, The Holy Grail, Norma Lorre Goodrich claims that the Grail is tied to St. Teresa of Avila, and her mystical masterpiece, The Interior Castle. (For those who don’t know, I’m a bit of a superfan when it comes to St. Teresa of Avila. She’s the patron saint of writers and was an admitted hypochondriac who suffered throughout her life from anxiety, so of course I love her.) I first read The Interior Castle when I was 14 and have read it many times since, along with St. Teresa’s other works and many biographies of her life. The Interior Castle is one of the great works of Catholic mystical literature, one that I know very well.


Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany by Peter Paul Rubens [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

After spending a while on the etymology of the city of Castile (where St. Teresa was born)  Goodrich immediately associates the titular interior castle with the Grail castle: “Her castle of the heart and soul resembles the Grail Castle, which of course, she never would have mentioned because it was neither rejected nor accepted by the Catholic Church” (119). Actually no, she wouldn’t have mentioned it because she probably hadn’t heard of it and even if she had, it has nothing to do with her subject. The Interior Castle uses the symbolism of a castle with many levels/rooms to describe the soul’s mystical ascent to perfection and union with God.

Goodrich goes on to give a rambling, if not entirely accurate, summary of the book, marveling at how someone in the 1500s could have had such a grasp of symbolism. (Religious women of the time were highly educated. Assuming St. Teresa had some natural writing talent, I fail to understand why this is so surprising.) Then there is a strange reference to Guinevere. Speaking of another of the saint’s symbols, Goodrich writes, “To Saint Theresa, as to Queen Guinevere along the Marches into Ireland, the sacred spring dilates the soul as if bubbling from the earth it had no way to drain away, so that explains the saint, the faster the pure water bubbled, the larger the pool expanded (120-121).” I’m not sure what Goodrich is talking about here, but to St. Teresa, water is a symbol of purification and grace. The spring that runs through the castle is part of its lower (less advanced) mansions, where it serves to refresh and prepare the soul toiling toward perfection.

Stretching even further into Arthurian Grail myth, Goodrich says “The Arthurian hero Perceval comes instantly to mind in the saint’s use of the second, more commonly understood symbol, the dove” (122). Um, I LOVE Arthurian legend, but I have never once thought of any of the characters when reading about the soul being compared to a dove. As Goodrich later notes, St. Teresa’s use of the dove is meant to signify the flight of a pure soul from one mansion to another. It is a tender, innocent creature, not a reference to a character added to the legend some 400 years before, even if Perceval is the king of the Grail castle. If anyone was going to be king of Teresa’s castle, it would be Jesus, to whom the soul is “spiritually married” in the innermost mansion.

By the end of her argument, Goodrich seems to back off her direct associations a bit, implying that her only reason for mentioning Teresa is that she is one of the spiritual descendants of the Grail, just like the priestesses who once performed sacred rituals at the Grail castle (126), concluding, “Saint Theresa has written what nobody before her wrote, about such a castle as might have suited the Castle of the Holy Grail, a work so profound and so beautiful that the Grail Questers could not have failed to agree” (128). As far as I know, the only person to ever associate the Grail with Saint Teresa is Goodrich. If she is putting forth a personal Grail theory, that is her right, but it shouldn’t be written in such a way that it sounds like St. Teresa was purposefully alluding to it in her work.

As I step down off my soapbox, I hope you all have enjoyed this brief foray into the world of the Holy Grail.

What are your thoughts on Goodrich’s theory? What other Grail stories have you heard?


The Holy Grail by Norma Lorre Goodrich
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews