Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood
Nonfiction - Memoir
2017 W. W. Norton & Company
Finished on January 5, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
In her admired works of fiction, including most recently The Book That Matters Most, Ann Hood explores the transformative power of literature. Now, with warmth and honesty, Hood reveals the personal story behind these beloved novels.
Growing up in a mill town in Rhode Island, in a household that didn't foster a love of literature, Ann Hood discovered nonetheless the companionship of books. She learned to channel her imagination, ambitions, and curiosity by devouring ever-growing stacks. In Morningstar, Hood recollects how The Bell Jar, Marjorie Morningstar, The Harrad Experiment, and The Outsiders influenced her teen psyche and introduced her to topics that could not be discussed at home: desire, fear, sexuality, and madness. Later Johnny Got His Gun and The Grapes of Wrath dramatically influenced her political thinking while the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings became headline news, and classics such as Dr. Zhivago and Les Miserables stoked her ambitions to travel the world. With characteristic insight and charm, Hood showcases the ways in which books gave her life and can transform--even save--our own lives.
I am so glad I trusted my instincts and bought a hardcover copy of this little gem-of-a-book before the holidays. I read Hood's previous book (The Book That Matters Most) last year and enjoyed her writing style so well that I added her entire backlist to my TBR list on Goodreads. Not only was I eager to read more by her, but a book about books is an immediate purchase for me. This one did not disappoint. I only have a few pages marked, but as I read them a second time, I know that I will return to this book in the coming year, making notes of more books to read and recommend to my book club.
My only quibbles about Morningstar is that Hood has a tendency to repeat herself and there are a few times in which she states the obvious (for example, she mentions well-known facts and details about World War II and Vietnam with which most adults are familiar), but her general love of books and her reactions and feelings about specific books (The Grapes of Wrath and The Bell Jar, to name just a couple) are spot-on. In addition to inspiring me to reread The Grapes of Wrath, she has also given me reason to add Majorie Morningstar and Rabbit, Run to my future reading list.
Before Skip gave me that boxed set of Steinbeck, no one had ever given me a book as a gift. But the gift was even bigger than he'd imagined. When I read the first line of The Grapes of Wrath--"To the red country and part of the gray of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth"--some writerly thing broke loose in me. "Spread a page with shining," Steinbeck once advised writers, and I could see that shine as I read. I understood it. I had read big, fat novels before, losing myself in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Those sweeping stories, tragedies and triumphs spanning years and years, had captivated me for their otherness. But The Grapes of Wrath was so American, and the Joads so familiar somehow, and the language so lyrical, and the setting so real, that by reading it I saw what writers could do. And it dazzled me.and
It did not occur to me that somewhere in the library sat volumes of poetry. It seemed to me a precious thing, a poem, and I could not begin to imagine where poems resided. But one night as I played my favorite album, Simon and Garfunkel's Sound of Silence, it struck me that its eponymous song was actually a poem. Wasn't darkness, my old friend personification? And words like silent raindrops fell a simile? The neon God a metaphor? I played the song over and over, a notebook in hand, teasing out its meaning. Then I turned my attention to I am a rock--metaphor! I am an island! When we had to write a paper on our favorite poet, my classmate Nancy wrote hers on Robert Frost and Steven wrote his on Edgar Allan Poe. But me, I wrote mine on Paul Simon.and
Isn't this the magic of books? That a fourteen-year-old girl can exactly identify with the fictional character of a twenty-six-year-old, married, former basketball star from Pennsylvania just as readily as that same girl--Italian American, blue-collar, Catholic in a small town--exactly identifies with Majorie Morningstar, an upper-middle-class Jewish girl in New York City? When I read Rabbit, Run, I understood that Rabbit, and John Updike, knew me. The me I didn't think anyone else saw.
This is why we all read, isn't it? To know the world and ourselves better. To find our place in that world. Even if you did have access to readers and guidance on what to read, even if you grew up in a family that loved to read and owned shelves of books, still, still, one day a book falls into your hands--perhaps it's Beloved or A Wrinkle in Time or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; perhaps it's Great Expectations or Pride and Prejudice--whatever book it is, it falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.There are so many books about books and books about readers, many of which I've read and are sitting on my "keeper shelf" for future readings. Ann Hood has written a gem, which is short enough to read annually, but not long enough to satisfy my curiosity about any other books she has loved and can recommend. Morningstar is a perfect gift for any book lover and I'm so happy I gifted it to myself this past Christmas.