Five Books that Altered the Course of My Life

Michael Grady | Oct 8, 2013, 2:53 p.m.

“Ordinary People:” I had, until this book came along, the mistaken notion that drama belonged exclusively to people who lived in historic times, wore big, period costumes or killed each other in exotic, grisly ways. Judith Guest’s story is overshadowed now, by the Robert Redford film. But the book does an excellent job of putting powerful issues and compelling drama into the houses and hearts of people who could live next door. In the Jarrett family, the tragedy they suffer and the collateral damage that follows, you walk down a familiar suburban street into some very dark psychological places. And in Conrad Jarrett’s struggle to restart his life, you understand the challenge of jumping back into adolescence from a dead stop.

“Slaughterhouse-Five:” “How can a crazy person write a book?” I remember thinking, when I first started this story in college, “How do they keep him typing?” There is a rant-like quality to Kurt Vonnegut’s funny, free-associative tale of Billy Pilgrim getting unstuck in time. But somewhere between the alien abduction, the awkward family moments, the bombing of Dresden and Billy’s incarceration on Tralfamadore with porn star Montana Wildhack, you find yourself appreciating the very temporary and fragile quality of life itself. I considered myself a well-read history geek when I came to this book, because I could recite casualty figures from World War II like stats off a baseball card—without a whit of empathy for what those figures meant. But “Slaughterhouse-Five” gives readers a deeper contemplation of life and loss than any battle saga ever could. And its introduction, where a buddy’s wife laments the disconnect between war stories and war itself, remains one of the truest things I have ever read. So it goes.

“Love in the Time of Cholera:” Very early on in this book, two married people have an argument about soap. It is not a dramatic or particularly important argument. It doesn’t feature clever exchanges or witty word play. But it is so utterly real and recognizable to anyone who has been married for any length of time that you have to keep reading. That’s the thing about Gabriel Garcia Marquez—you develop an affection for his writing without being able to understand precisely why. You just kind of go with it, and let its value sink in gradually later on.

Kind of like my English teacher’s question. Agree or disagree, but I bet you won’t find my answers half as compelling as your own.

Michael Grady is Valley-based freelance writer, reporter and playwright.

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