Some books that changed the way I think, or at least the things I think about

I haven’t updated this blog in a while (why do so many of my blog posts begin this way?) but while I’ve been in Texas for the holidays I’ve been tasked with the cleanout of my childhood bedroom. Not so much cleaning it out as making room for some of my parents’ things – my mom uses my room as an office when I’m not there, and given my predilection for keeping every book I’ve ever owned, she was running out of bookshelf space. And despite my dedication to the cultish but effective principles of Marie Kondo, books are the one thing that I can’t truly purge my environment of of 100%.

I did a decent job and cleared out half of one set of shelves (I really wish they still made these – they’re from Ikea, they bolt to the wall, they’re strong as hell and hold a bunch of books). While I was deciding what to keep and what to take to Half Price Books I thought it might be fun to do a little post talking about some of the books that have been especially meaningful to me over the years.

Here’s a picture:

Preparing for a special end of year blog post. #texastime #books

A post shared by Jennifer Udden (@suddenlyjen) on

They’re not in any particular order. The only thing these books have in common is that they got me thinking about things I’m still pondering today.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: MASTER OF THE SENATE by Robert Caro
What is power? What does the exercise of power mean for a person, for a country? 

I read this in 2002. Tucked inside the title page is a receipt from The Brazos Bookstore, which tells me that I bought it on April 28th, 2002, along with THE PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK and EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (My total was $63 – at the time, I believe I was working at an Eckerd’s, now CVS.) I read it right away. This was towards the end of my sophomore year, and my high school, which was then called Jones Vanguard, was still in its original home at Jones High School. We would move the next year to a new campus amid a lot of controversy and bad feeling, but the new campus was darling – a former elementary school, with a green lawn between the buildings that we hung out on during lunches.

To this day I haven’t read the other books in this set of biographies. I don’t know why. I own a paperback copy of the first volume, but haven’t even cracked the spine. MASTER OF THE SENATE exerted a powerful hold over me nonetheless. It was the first time, I think, that I had read about someone with drive that intense, ambition that ruthless. It inspired me to the point where I tried to become a Senate page – but, my family being Democrats in a red state, I didn’t stand a chance. (I did get a very nice letter from Lloyd Bentsen, my congressman at the time, saying he couldn’t help me out, but wishing me the best of luck.)

At the time I had a fabulous history teacher – Mr. Dewey, who taught an entire semester course on the year 1968, covering the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war and a yearly recitation of Alice’s Restaurant. He was then (and is now) a union man, and a lot of the things I think about politics were formed in his classes – AP US History, 1968. (Government? I think I took Government from him, too.) That summer I took world history in summer school so that I could take both AP World History and AP European history, and took more politics classes in college and eventually declared a major in politics. But this was the book that started it.

Kevin Brockmeier – THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD (Spoilers)
Death & the afterlife

To this day, I cannot describe the plot of this book without getting choked up. I bought it in an independent bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee (I can’t remember the name) the weekend I drove up with my mother to clean out a storage unit that contained my grandmother Marge’s possessions. She’d died earlier in the year, and we rented a Uhaul trailer and hitched it to the minivan and drove to Knoxville. One of the more terrifying experiences of my life, driving on winding roads in the Smoky Mountains with a uhaul trailer attached to my car!

At any rate, we stopped into this bookstore and this book was on one of the front tables. I haven’t read anything else by this author, but this book was so heartbreaking and perfect that I don’t know if I can bring myself to.

It’s told in two alternating story lines – one is set in a city where the dead go after they die, a kind of holding area where you stay as long as someone alive on earth remembers you. The city’s population grows and grows and then abruptly begins to vanish, shrinking by the day as more people wink out of existence, into the place beyond the city. Finally the population shrinks down to a few hundred. And the other storyline follows a woman on an Arctic expedition who begins to think that she is the last person alive on earth.

Yep, I’m crying. I read it in the car, weeping silently while my mother drove. When we got closer to Houston I switched to Wilkie Collins’ WOMAN IN WHITE for levity, but I will never forget this book. I recommend it all the time, to people looking for all kinds of books. Want a literary with fantasy elements? THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD. Want a dystopia? THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD. Want a good read? Etc.

It’s an incredibly emotional and beautiful read. Highly recommend.
THE DIAMOND AGE by Neil Stephenson what does it mean to be part of a group? of a society? 

This is the first hard scifi I remember reading, I think when I was 14 or 15. It blew my mind. I remember finding it a little difficult to get through but I’ve read it several times since then (this is my Houston copy – I purchased a copy for New York reading my second year there) and my poor mass market copy is looking a bit raggedy. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it though.

If pressed to pick my favorite parts, I basically can’t. The magical book that learns and grow, the Neo Victorians. This was my first encounter with a 3-D printer in fiction, and in November my client Emma Newman’s PLANETFALL came out. There is a thread that connects these two, from now to then.

LABYRINTHS by Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER.
Mind bending stories 

I was recommended Labyrinths by an ex-boyfriend of my aunt’s. He turned out to be a gigantic d-bag but he pointed me towards Borges, which I suppose I will always have to be grateful to him for. Coincidentally, IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER was recommended to me by a guy I wanted to go out with – an English guy I met on a canvassing trip for the Democrats in advance of the 2004 election. He ended up having a girlfriend and didn’t mention it the entire time we were having dinner.

At any rate, my love for weird structures and twisty literary fantasy can probably be traced back to these two books. The library that doesn’t end, a book that is a different genre in every chapter. I’ve since read (mostly) everything I could get my hands on by these two authors. I’d be hard pressed to pick my favorite Borges story, but this will always be my favorite Calvino. INVISIBLE CITIES does have a special place in my heart.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger
Just rip my heart out and leave me to die 

I read this one in college, in one big gulp in the library atrium at Mount Holyoke College. I forget what year, and which class I skipped to finish it. Probably in my top ten, all-time favorite books, though it’s another one of those heart-punchers that I haven’t had the heart to reread. And this was before I knew that Henry and Clare were based on Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Or maybe this was before I read GAUDY NIGHT. At any rate, I love this book. From a SFF perspective, the inventiveness of the time travel and the real problems it presents are delightful and exciting. From an emotional perspective, it’s one of my absolute favorite fictional relationships. I can’t quite … describe what I feel about this book, or point to any one thing. I just remember sitting in the library and feeling like I was being carried by a wave, and that it was very important that I not resist, because it was important that I go where the wave wanted to take me.

And yes, I cried.

Charles Dickens – OUR MUTUAL FRIEND

You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper.  

I’m including this half for the book, and half for the amazeballs 1998 BBC adaptation. Dominic Mafhan’s Mortimer Lightwood saying “Eugene, Eugene, this is a bad business,” Keely Hawe’s otherworldly beauty as Lizzie Hexam, David Morrissey as Bradley Headstone angrily punching that gravestone – amazing! Check it out if you haven’t seen it. This is my favorite Dickens because, of the books of his I’ve read, OUR MUTUAL FRIEND has my favorite set of side characters. Silas Wegg; the lovely and illiterate Boffins; the greedy and social climbing Lammles; Mr. Venus (and his sweetheart who did not wish to be regarded in that bony light.) It’s a rich and cohesive world of characters and though I’m sure others can say more intelligent things about it, the fact that this is the only Dickens I can quote bits of is my highest compliment.

Margaret Macmillan – PARIS, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World
Oh, where to begin

I was reading this when I was on one of my trips to look at colleges in the Northeast. I remember nothing else about my interview for Mount Holyoke (where I ended up going) other than being asked by the interviewer what I was reading. I may have even pulled it out of the bag to demonstrate. As I mentioned on Instagram, this was the book that started my obsession with World War I. There are 23 books on my “wwi” shelf on Goodreads, which includes diaries, novels, military history, and books of history that focus on the various belligerents (I’m looking at you THE BALKANS by Misha Glenny.) But Paris 1919 was the one that started it all. Something about the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles caught my imagination and my interest, and the more I learn about the first World War the more parallels I find with the world today. My latest book in this series is A MAD CATASTROPHE by Geoffrey Wawro, which looks at the Hapsburgs and Austria-Hungary’s role in World War I. Highly recommend, especially for his hilarious righteous indignation about the inefficiencies and poor decision making of people long since dead.




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