Five Life-Changing Reads

Every avid reader has a favorite book or two… or seventy-six. But some of those notable or obscure titles can be life-changing. So, here’s a list of some of the books that have changed my life – not only as a reader, but as a person!

1.) Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – Most folks probably think of the classic Disney movie when they hear the name ‘Peter Pan,’  but my first thought is always the book. This book was my first foray into a magical, multi-faceted fantasy world that explores joy and sorrow, light and shadow, happiness and fear. It captures both the wonder – and terror – of eternal childhood, of being terrified of losing something, and the bittersweet nature of fleeting youth against the inevitability of growing up. I realized, the first time reading this book, that the “never” in “Neverland” can be interpreted either as wondrous and whimsical, or grim and dour – or maybe a mix of both. I love a fairytale-esque story with a twist of something dark, and Peter Pan was the gateway book for me. The dual-nature of this book is encompassed in one of its most iconic lines, as said by the titular character himself: “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”

20190121_104043.jpg2.) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman – I’ve never been a poetry person… rather, I wasn’t until I took a Major Authors course on Walt Whitman my second year of college. I immediately connected with his poems, especially the titular “Leaves of Grass,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” and “Great are the Myths.” Whitman’s poetry, though written in the mid-late 1800’s, has a universality to it, a timeless quality that can be applied to scenarios and events throughout history and around the world, not only those that occurred in his lifetime.. His poems and the themes he presents are personal and profound, passionate and playful, perceptive and piercing. His poems make me think and feel, to apply his words to my own experiences, and I could pore over this book for hours pondering the meanings of his poems and imagining what his life was like. I recently bought a beautiful copy of this collection (pictured) and it’s got a place of honor on my shelf.

3.) The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – I’ve mentioned this one before, but I’m going more in-depth this time around. This is the first book I ever read (followed a few years later by Native Son by Richard Wright) that made me realize why people were drawn to communism/socialism/unions during the Industrial Revolution in America. It was jarring to read about what conditions were like for workers, especially immigrant workers, in the meatpacking industry in the early 20th century, as researched by muckraker author Sinclair. If you have a rosy view of what America was like during that time, building itself up from fields to cities and growing into the capital giant we are today, prepare to have your image shattered by The Jungle. I was assigned to read it for a class and put it off until the last minute, then plowed through the whole thing in one sitting because I was so engrossed. This was my first real wake-up call that American History wasn’t always blue skies and valiant victories… there are plenty of dark clouds and shameful secrets that, though hard to acknowledge, are important to our nation’s identity.

4.) Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid – I read this book for my senior seminar class in college, which focused on Caribbean literature. The entire class was an eye-opening experience, but I had to do a presentation on this novel, so I got to dive a bit deeper into it than the others we read. This book was my first time reading a coming-of-age novel about a girl from a background/life/place so completely different from my own. Growing up on Antigua is nothing like growing up in a rural town in Pennsylvania. And yet, it’s still possible to find universal threads woven into the unique, deftly-told narrative. At times, my heart swelled for Annie – and, at times, my heart shattered for her. Themes of depression, separation, mother/daughter relationships, growing up, and colonization are all expressed in a timeless and powerful fashion, centered around Annie, a complex and beautiful character. If you’ve never read a book like this, I HIGHLY recommend it.

5.) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I mean… this book/series has probably changed every fantasy writer’s life, right? It’s THE pinnacle of high fantasy, and will never be topped. It’s just so, so… brilliant. Sure, the language and descriptions can be burdensome, at times… but it’s worth the journey, all the way from Bilbo’s first fateful meeting with Gollum in the bowels of the Misty Mountain to Galdalf’s epic “You cannot pass,” to Sam’s final line of “Well, I’m back,” as he greets his daughter and wife. LotR is the reason I want to write fantasy, and so, it has changed my life for the better.

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Hearts, Hearts, My Kingdom for Some Hearts!

My gaming history is not as extensive as some, but, in addition to being a master at the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy (and the Reignited version,) three other prominent series feature in my repertoire. One is Final Fantasy – I have yet to play them all, but X, VIII, and Crisis Core are some of my all-time favorites. I am also a Pokemon master. But the last is Kingdom Hearts, and, since Kingdom Hearts III is FINALLY dropping at the end of the month, I thought I’d make a post about why I love the series so much.

Kingdom Hearts I was released for the PS2 in 2002, when I was ten years old, but I didn’t play it (nor KHII, released in 2005) until around eighth/ninth grade. I remember seeing the commercials for it, though – and being drawn in by Utada Hikaru’s theme song for the original game. Going into it, all I knew was that it combined Final Fantasy-type elements with Disney, an idea that could only have been cooked up by a Square Enix employee and a Disney employee meeting in an elevator.

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I thought it sounded silly – a wide-eyed, big-shoed protagonist named Sora fighting to save Disney-themed worlds from being engulfed in darkness with Donald Duck and Goofy at his side – but eventually picked up the game on special at Game Stop… and that was it. I was hooked from the first opening cinematic.

Now, I made things difficult for myself when I played KH1. I might have skipped over some tutorial stuff… and did not realize you could change your Keyblade until I was battling Ursula. So… yeah. I’m not going to claim to be some expert on the games, but I have since proven to be rather efficient at the series. I’ll admit, I have played, but never beaten, Chain of Memories (both the GBA and PS editions) and 358/2 Days. I hated the battle system in both, so I gave up before finishing them. The only hand-held games I really got into were Birth By Sleep and 3D, both of which I loved. I also own most of the manga series, a figurine, and a couple of blankets with KH designs on them.

50My favorite keyblades are Lionheart, Rumbling Rose, and Stroke of Midnight. My favorite worlds are Neverland (in both Birth by Sleep and the original game) Halloween Town (in both I and II) Space Paranoids from II, Castle of Dreams from Birth By Sleep, and both Prankster’s Paradise and Symphony of Sorcery from 3D. My favorite playable character is Aqua, my favorite villain is Vanitas, and my favorite Disney companions are Peter Pan and Tron, though Beast is a badass too. The boss battle I most struggled with (besides Ursula that first time through) is probably Xaldin, in II. And yes… “JUMP UP ON THE HYDRA’S BACK!!!” is probably the most annoying line in the entire series. I have yelled “SHUT UP, PHIL” many, many times at my television screen.

kingdom_heartsThere’s an earnest quality to the Kingdom Hearts games, which is part of what makes it so appealing to me. At it’s core, it’s a story about the power of friendship against the pull of the shadows, of darkness vs. light, and the mottled, massive gray space in-between it all. It’s unabashed fun that doesn’t apologize for being occasionally convoluted, that doesn’t acknowledge how absurd it is to have Squall Leonhart teaming up with Merlin, or Sora rescuing the puppies from 101 Dalmatians from the multicolored mouth of the whale Monstro, of the heroic trio beating Captain Hook in battle, then flying around the face of Big Ben in search of a keyhole. The artwork and character/world design is fantastic across all of the games, and the music is wonderful, combining original themes and Disney scores. Whenever I hear any version of the theme song, my chest swells with excitement, and I go into new Disney films wondering what a Kingdom Hearts version of that world would look like. It has become the series that I have bought entire consoles for – I bought a PSP just for Birth by Sleep.

I haven’t been waiting thirteen years for the next main installment in the series, like many dedicated fans of the Kingdom Hearts series have. Regardless, I cannot wait until the end of this month, where we will finally, after seventeen years, reach the end of the current saga, and the war for Kingdom Hearts reaches a dramatic and conclusive finale.

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