Four books that have changed my life

This is an article I wrote for Sydney’s Sun-Herald in late 2008.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
It’s embarrasing to admit this as an author, but until I’d read this book, there was no way I’d trouble myself with a 700 page novel. I love reading, but there are limits to how much time I’ll spend reading one story. In fact, I only started flicking through Toltz’s novel to see what it takes to spark a bidding war between major international publishers – I’d heard that this Australian story had done just that. But the flicking soon became reading and, before long, I was absolutely hooked.

A Fraction of the Whole is the weirdest, funniest and most brilliant father-son story I’ve ever read. It follows a family of three Australian men – a father, a son and an uncle – through most of their turbulent, bizarre and, somehow familiar, lives. But it’s not just about filial frictions, it’s also about ideas and where they lead us. And then there’s the humour. There were times when I tried to read sections of it aloud to my wife, but couldn’t because I was laughing so hard. It’s not a perfect book, but I’ve read nothing better.

Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M Axline
I can’t think of any higher praise for a book than to tell you that this one made me sick! Actually sick. But in a good way … I guess.

I was so deeply moved by this true story of a troubled five-year-old boy (Dibs) undergoing ‘play therapy’ with his psychologist, Virginia Axline, that when I finished reading it, I had some sort of melt down of my own.

I guess when you strongly relate to the characters in a book, their journey shines all sorts of unexpected lights on your own issues. For me, this was like going through intensive therapy myself. When I finished it, I felt as though something inside had shifted. It took me a week of sick leave to get used to the change. I reckon any book that has a physical, as well as an emotional, effect on you, is a very powerful read. In those terms, this was the most powerful book I’ve ever read.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
The last time I looked, this Pulitzer Prize winning book was still the biggest selling novel of all time, so I’m not exactly Robinson Crusoe in loving it. And what’s not to love? This gentle, wise and poignant story of racism in 1930s Alabama is a monument to human decency. In the character of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee created a father-figure for many generations.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The power of this book is in the narrator’s voice. Like a lot of adolescents, teen narrator Holden Caulfield, is judgemental, confused and a little lost. But he’s also honest, gentle and innocent. The voice Salinger has created for Caulfield is so authentic it’s as if he’s sitting right next you, telling you (and only you) his sad, difficult, but quietly uplifting story. The final, simple scene remains one of the most touching I’ve ever read.

March 29, 2009

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