My Ideal Bookshelf – The Imperium Game

The Imperium Game, K.D. Wentworth

Much to the disappointment of my 4th grade teacher, I eagerly leafed through the newest scholastic book ordering form, searching for the newest releases of my favorite series, Animorphs.

When the next set of books arrived, she hand delivered them to me by calling me back to her desk. While I don’t recall how the conversation started, she informed me that her dismissal of the series stemmed from the books being ghost written with no credit given to the actual author.

I did not really understand the concern, likely because I was in 4th grade and did not really connect why this would be so impactful to an author.

I took the books from Mrs. Wentworth and quietly went back to read about transformations and the saving of the human race.

In the last few years, K.D. Wentworth, author and 4th grade teacher, passed away. She left behind eight imaginative and fun novels: The Imperium Game, Moonspeaker, House of Moons, Black on Black, Stars over Stars, The Fair Land, The Course of Empire, and The Crucible of Empire. The latter three were published in hardback and the last two co-authored with Eric Flint.

A few years ago, I began to reread her novels, and I recompleted Stars over Stars, then my life transitioned into something new. I have not gone back to them since, but upon preparing this post, I discovered that Eric Flint had written a third Jao Empire entry, The Span of Empire, which has prompted me to want to finish my reread of her novels.

While each novel was creative and unique, my favorite was her first.

There is something monumental about a first published novel, and I found it inspiring that a full-time teacher wrote and had her words published.

It made me want to be a writer.

Yet aside from that, The Imperium Game was a perfect blend of video gaming mechanics, mythology, and a futuristic setting.

Think Westworld but with gods and goddesses.

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My Ideal Bookshelf – The Hobbit

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

One of the first epic fantasy novels I ever read, and I have since lost track of how many times I’ve read it.

I loved the world that Tolkien built and devoured The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. After traveling the lands of Middle Earth, I would eventually trek through the Two Rivers during the Third Age. I would flee to safety with the Mother Confessor through the lands of D’Hara. I would man the Wall with the Night’s Watch in Westeros.

And most recently, I donned Shardplate to protect the lands of Roshar from the Voidbringers.

Yet, Middle Earth is where my love for epic fantasy began.

A journey that began with a hobbit.

Perhaps, part of my love for The Hobbit stems from the release of The Lord of the Rings films while I was in high school. Starting my freshman year, every winter break, Peter Jackson took his audience to the cinematic worlds of Middle Earth. Aside from Star Wars, there’d never been a set of films that had transported me to such an imaginative and well-developed world.

I would feel similarly about the Marvel Cinematic Universe upon its interconnected releases.

With new series of novels and films to be released in the future, who can say what world I shall travel to next . . .

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

During my junior year of high school, my AP English class was assigned to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

I was not looking forward to it.

Two years prior, the same teacher, in my opinion, sapped any love I might have for John Steinbeck from me with a unit over The Pearl. Although one of his shorter novels, I could not stand it. I did not see the point of the grand story it was trying to tell. But, perhaps, I was still upset by the teacher’s ode-to-love unit with Romeo and Juliet. After both the teaching of Romeo and Juliet and The Pearl, I knew I would find myself loathing both Shakespeare and Steinbeck, not respectively. The musical, Something Rotten, had the lyric correct when it said, “God, I hate Shakespeare,” although for me, the lyric should have included, “and Steinbeck.”

Yet, with time, my opinion on both authors would change.

Shakespeare would not be until college when I studied in Oxford.

Steinbeck would be just two years later.

I remember having a conversation with my mother about The Grapes of Wrath, where she warned me not to tell my grandpa that I was reading it. As a former farmer in Oklahoma, it he had found the portrayal of the Oklahoma family offensive and condescending. I also remember talking to my grandfather about the book. I don’t remember what he said, but I do know that he was not upset or distraught by our conversation. The takeaway here is that I clearly was not heeding the advice of my parents even then.

. . . But, I also remember that coming back from the Route 66 Museum field trip, after finishing the novel in class, I was flashed by a school bus full of girls . . . So, perhaps my memories of The Grapes of Wrath are completely skewed.

Yet, I do remember how much I loved the structure the novel.

A pattern of every other chapter being either about the Oklahoma family or expanding out to say something profound about the way of life during the Dust Bowl.

The odd chapters were poetically beautiful, portraying the time period in complexity, ugliness, and beauty.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss

I’ve been putting off writing about my Ideal Bookshelf, and it’s mostly because of this book.

I didn’t want to think about why this book meant so much to me.

I didn’t want to remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap, dressed in an oversized Purdue Boilermaker t-shirt, and following along as he turned each well-worn page.

I didn’t want to because I have not seen my grandfather in over a year.

And, I miss him.

I miss who I thought he was as the facade shattered when he proudly pinned his MAGA pin to his sweater vest the last Christmas I visited Oklahoma.

I miss who I thought all my family was and who I need them to be.

But, this post is about Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, not them.

Yet, my memories and love for this book cannot divorced from memories of visiting my grandparents in their ranch style home on the plains of Enid, Oklahoma. Days spent fishing. Days spent building scrap forts. Days spent swimming. Followed by nights of a bowl of vanilla ice cream, topped with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and book after book read by my grandpa.

My brother and I would squirm in for the best spot on his lap, bringing with us a large stack of books. One, two, three . . . were never enough, and we would always beg for another book before bed.

But, always, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was my favorite.

I felt that as he read the book he truly believed that I could be whoever I wanted to be and do anything I wanted to do.

Realities and convictions certainly change a glimpse into nostalgia.

Still, the book remains a treasure.

At the end of the school year, I would read the book to my students.

It was always my final activity to close out the school year, and it is an activity that I miss now that I am no longer directly teaching in the classroom.

I miss a lot of things.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

As my brother and I wandered a now defunct toy store in Tulsa, we waited impatiently by the front of the store as our mom was checking out. What was being purchased or why we were there, I could not say, but as we were waiting, we came across a glass case with a hardback of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on proud display.

Harry Potter? I thought to myself. What kind of a ridiculous name is Harry Potter for a wizard?

Unable to keep my mockery to myself, I began on my anti-Potter rant.

“Look at me, I am Harry, a wizard.”

“My name is Harry. I fly on a broom.”

“I have a lightning bolt on my head.”

I can still hear my tiny human self’s tone as I continued bashing the, in my estimate, poorly named book about a boy wizard.

As we exited the store, I remember thinking to myself that the book would never be popular, and it would be one that I would never read.

Fast forward to that Christmas with my grandparents in Enid, Oklahoma, I would open a box containing the first two Harry Potter novels and the newly released third entry. I smiled and thanked them, but I was clearly more interested in the Lego set I had received.

Yet, as the endless hours of football played across the two television sets and I grew bored with my new Lego masterpiece, I finally made my way to England, Diagon Alley, and the halls of Hogwarts.

I blocked out my mockery of Harry Potter and became a Potterhead, which marked the first time I was ever wrong about anything . . .

#Ravenclawforlife

My Ideal Bookshelf – Ishmael

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn

I remember spotting all three books in my father’s recycling bin, Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael.

It must have been during my time in high school because of where he and my stepmom were living, but I can’t remember the reason for the books being in the recycling bin. Perhaps, my father had simply moved on from the books’ ideas. Or, was just cleaning house.

Regardless, I asked if I could have them and reread Ishmael and read The Story of B and My Ishmael for the first time.

Perhaps, if my father knew that Quinn’s book would lead me down the path of atheism, he never would have given me the first one of the trilogy.

In all likelihood, he would have burned them for blasphemy.

Perhaps, that’s why they were being recycled.

(I plan to one day cover the hypocrisy of the Republican agenda to that of my dad and family’s lifelong recycling, but now this post is not that time or place.)

Ishmael and the third of the series have a strange fantasy premise of learning from a talking gorilla, which is probably why the loosely adapted film version, Instinct, lacked the anthropomorphized ape.

Yet, the books, particularly the first and last opened up history in a new and interesting way. It challenged the worldview that I had been shown all my life, and it turned it completely around.

I questioned everything from that point forward.

Religion.

Politics.

History.

Family.

Gender.

I once tried to have a friend read Ishmael, but she was never able to get into it. In her view, she already knew what the book was trying to say. I guess as you educate yourself and grow, you naturally begin to look at the world differently.

But, as a teenager trying to figure out my place in the world in small town Oklahoma, it was another chance to discover and to question.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Hatchet

Hatchet, Gary Paulsen

There are a lot of books on my Ideal Bookshelf, which I consider to be gateway books. Neil Gaiman’s 1602 led to Ultimate Spider-Man and the New Avengers and Invincible and more. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World led to A Wizard’s First Rule and A Game of Thrones and The Way of Kings and more. Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival narrative is another one of those gateways. A gateway to escapism, to isolation, to freedom from society’s norms and expectations.

Hatchet is one of those novels that launched me into the world of rigorous reading. Prior to Hatchet, I’d read, but not in the same way. I’d read Hank the Cowdog or The Hardy Boys or Animorphs, but while impactful, these literary works are more “literature” and less “Literature,” a biased distinction I would learn about in college.

Yet, with Hatchet, I would devour more and more wilderness survival novels from Paulsen and others. These stories, while primarily about a male survivor, explored a protagonist that didn’t fit in with the world, a protagonist that escaped. While sometimes these escapes into the world of the wild was voluntary, like in Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain or Paulsen’s The Island, sometimes they were less than voluntary, as in Hatchet. Yet, always, the escape into the wilderness is transformative, life changing.

Perhaps, that’s why I dreamed of my own wilderness escape, developed a fascination with sustainable living.

Or, perhaps, it was something else.

After all, Hatchet was just a story about a kid realizing their place in the world, a place unexpected but a place they belonged.

My Ideal Bookshelf – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

In a darkened theater, waiting for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to start, the trailer for the latest Guillermo del Toro macabre fairy tale, The Shape of Water, plays, and I nudge the elbow of my friend, whispering, “I want to see that.”

After the heartbreaking feature film ends, a discussion follows, which leads to a journey down the Wikipedia rabbit hole until I reach director J.A. Bayona, director of The Orphanage, which was produced by del Toro. Bayona, also, directed the adaptation of the most recent read on my Ideal Bookshelf, A Monster Calls.

I’d been chronicling my thoughts about each book on the figurative shelf until I reached this one.

This one had me stuck and unable to move forward.

And, I am not sure why exactly.

I guess this book has just stayed with me, as did the movie.

How do you tell the story of a child trying to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis?

How do you make that story matter?

How do you make that story linger?

The beautiful illustrations, the core narrative, and the tales within the tale reveal truths about who we are and how we cope with our realities.

When originally read, now, and throughout the course of that time in between, I have dwelled on those truths.

And, as I cope with my own reality and all of its intricacies, I know that I will still keep A Monster Calls in my thoughts.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

It’s always nice finding an author that you can dive into almost any book of theirs and enjoy. Throughout my reading journeys, I have found several of these authors.

In middle school, it was Gary Paulsen, on journeys into into the wilderness to survive in isolation.

In high school, it was Robert A. Heinlein, on journeys into space to rethink the human condition.

These authors would be followed by others: Jasper Fforde, Jon Krakauer, Rick Riordan, Brandon Sanderson, and David Sedaris, to name a few.

And, during my college years, one of those authors was Christopher Moore.

With an insane and inane sense of humor, Christopher Moore’s novels take on everything from the Grim Reaper to Santa Claus to vampires to Shakespeare and pretty much everything in between, including the story of Jesus H. Christ.

Lamb follows Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, as a host of angels commission the inept and misguided Biff to write the untold story of Christ, essentially filling in the years that the good book leaves out. While a hilarious parody in its own right, chronicling debaucherous sex, drug use, and other Bible-worthy shenanigans, Biff’s story relates the shift from the teachings of the Old Testament to the teachings of Christ as he discovers the beliefs of “eastern” religions.

The story is filled with ridiculous magics and other supernatural forces of fiction. And as I read through this highly entertaining fictional account of a religion’s savior, my last shreds agnostic beliefs drifted away on the wings of angels, which according to the world of Night Vale are all named Erica.

My nonreligious convictions have always been a sore spot with living in Oklahoma, surrounded by the devout. When I had tried to express my thoughts, I was told I would grow out of it. Or, I was met with shock that I didn’t believe.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

I don’t really know what to say about this book.

Or, rather, I don’t know how to say what I want to say about this book.

I keep trying to write about why I read it and why it made it to this list, but my thoughts on it never seem to do it justice.

Like Stranger in a Strange Land, I read this one out of an attempt to read the best of science fiction and fantasy by diving through the Hugo and Nebula award winning novels.

My quest ended with The Left Hand of Darkness.

I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers because I had read Have Space Suit – Will Travel in middle school.

On appreciating these two award winning books, I definitely preferred Stranger to Starship. I could never get into Starship and viewed the movie adaptation as a much less pleasant experience than the book.

Being fifty/fifty on my Hugo and Nebula appreciation/enjoyment mission, I moved onto The Left Hand of Darkness.

At least, I think I did.

I think this was the order.

The two by Heinlein, followed by Ursula K. Le Guin, but maybe, I have the order wrong. Maybe, Darkness came before Stranger.

Or, maybe, it doesn’t matter.

Order and continuity usually matters.

But, does it here?

I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness because I had read through and enjoyed the world of Earthsea in middle school.

And, here is where my memory of of this novel becomes fuzzy and skewed. Because, I remember sitting on a chair at a university, waiting for my mom’s class to finish. But, when was this on the timeline of my childhood? Where exactly was I? When was I?

But, I remember reading about an alien world allowing genderless humans to shift into and out of male and female characteristics.

I remember discomfort and unease.

I remember trying to forget it.

But, I remember.

And, I ended my Hugo and Nebula personal reading challenge quest.

And, in ending that quest, another, unbeknownst to me then, began.