3 Books That Changed My Life

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Inspired by this Reddit thread (which was inspired by this), I want to do justice by a couple of books that I didn’t see mentioned (enough, or sometimes at all). All of these changed my life:

East of Eden. I received a beautiful, thick paper, serrated-edge copy of this from my best friend in college. Beneath the front flap, she’d written the number one, and her name, and mine. Pass it on, she’d implied.

And then it sat on my bookshelf for the next seven years.

I probably had some other excuse at the time, but I don’t think I was ready for it at twenty-one. Steinbeck called it his life’s work. Every time I tell people this, I feel a little embarrassed, and now I’ll tell anyone who cares to know: it made me cry. It made me cry in that awfully rare way which is not really from sorrow or joy or anger, but from recognition of all the things we can’t properly articulate about life and people. Somehow, Steinbeck did.

(Lisa: I passed it on.)

Fahrenheit 451. I read this book over a few weeks as a junior in high school and appreciated it not at all. I read it again, at twenty-seven, in one day. I’m convinced it’s meant to be read that way, or else it loses its effect. Everything about it is breakneck, an exhortation to consciousness and understanding of the world that should occur in a single sitting. Bradbury was a poet, a storyteller, and a genius gift to the English language.

Where the Red Fern Grows. The truth is, I can’t really remember the plot, or the characters, or the writing. I only have one memory of it: I was seven and it was nighttime and I came to the end of it and I began to bawl for ages. It’s the only time from my childhood I can remember crying over something that wasn’t a physical hurt, or an unkind word, or a disappointment. The book uncovered some well in me that was deep, right at the center. I understood something new, but my only way of expressing that was to cry the way an infant does when it has no words.

It’s one of those silly childhood things, and then it’s not.

On Edge of Tomorrow and Female Badassery

Tom Cruise is nobody’s sidekick. If ever an actor stood alone in film–battered, bloodied hero by the denouement–it would be he. Set him in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, the same battle repeating over and over, and you’ve got the perfect formula: a man alone, bettering himself as warrior, as tactician, as a paragon of self-reliance.

But Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill–the novel off of which Edge of Tomorrow is based–fathoms a world where a young woman can be both ultimate badass and mastermind. It’s a world where Keiji Kiriya, a green recruit into the Japanese army, does not mind–takes honor in–calling himself the sidekick to the Full Metal Bitch, Rita Vrataski, valkyrie on the battlefield.

Sakurazaka’s Rita has the near-mythic battlefield prowess of G. R. R. Martin’s “The Mountain,” her presence a flowering of alien body parts, a poetess with a battleaxe. “In her Jacket,” Kiriya says, “Rita was invincible.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Rita’s first death comes about thirty seconds after she appears on screen. It’s a moment of dark comedy: two Mimics slain, her battlesword hung loose at her side as she comes over the dune to find Tom Cruise’s William Cage on his back in the sand, useless. The Full Metal Bitch. She has the masked face of war: traces of pity or wistfulness or maybe just exhaustion, or maybe that’s what we want to see, because really she’s unreadable, unknowable, a veteran of battle. And then she’s dead.

And unlike the novel, this becomes Cage’s unspoken quest: to keep Rita alive, loop after loop to get her off the beach, out of the battle. Sure, there’s the overlay of defeating the Mimics, saving humanity, but it’s Emily Blunt’s divinely inspired cheekbones, the cobra pose she dips into on first seeing her protege again and again and again, that separates Edge of Tomorrow’s William Cage from Sakurazaka’s Keiji Kiriya.

Where Cage charges himself with saving Rita, Kiriya can admit that Rita Vrataski outthinks him, outguns him, and–most of all–deserves the spotlight.

And Emily Blunt does fill the screen. During a training montage, she caps Cruise over and over again with unhesitating surety,–a resetting of the time loop–expending a bullet into his head a dozen-odd times over a broken leg, a broken spine, a useless arm. She slips expertly into Rita’s skin, tossing aside hecklers, proving herself with the battlesword, Mimic bodies cleft to pieces, and especially in her softness, the deep underlay of feeling that must contend with her warrior’s persona.

Blunt easily carries her own. But that’s as far as she’s allowed to go, and maybe that’s something, to be Cruise’s equal, a partner on the same footing. At least, the film gets this impulse right: that its heart must be between the two of them, as Sakurazaka’s novel intended, and does right.