The books you read in high school

What were the books you read in high school that made an impact on you, negative or positive?

One of the most memorable books I ever read in school was Z for Zachariah, a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Robert C. O'Brien which had as the main character a young woman called Ann, who lived alone after a nuclear war in a valley, where she encountered a male survivor called Loomis.

I was 14 or 15 when I read Z for Zachariah, and it made a huge impact on me. First, it made me realise how awesome feisty female characters in books are, and second, it was the beginning (though I didn't know it at the time), of my lifelong love affair with speculative fiction.

Another memorable high school tome was The Grapes of Wrath, which filled me with rage for a good many years at the injustices of the world: "...and in the eyes of the people there is failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."

Even reading those lines again makes me inexplicably angry, possibly because it reminds me of the awakening of my previously non-existent social conscience at the time. Like most teenagers, I then promptly devoted more years than I care to remember listening to rock music and drinking illicit Jim Beam with my two equally moody best friends while we honed our skills in sarcasm and bitchery - rather than channel that energy into something more useful, like trying for actual social change.

Anyway, another book I remember, and not for great reasons, is the Catcher in the Rye. I'm sorry, JD Salinger, but I intensely disliked Holden Caulfield. I just could not relate to him at all, probably unsurprising considering that the novel was a bildungsroman about a 16-year-old boy who's kinda a toerag. But I have known others who felt exactly the opposite way, mostly men, so perhaps this is the kind of novel that would fare well in a boys' school.

Then in 7th form, I discovered The Great Gatsby. I remember we also studied Othello that year for Bursary (it was the final years of university entrance, before it was replaced by the NCEA), but Gatsby, oh Gatsby. The latest film incarnation of him (out next year) is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and all I can say to that - holy hell, YES!

He was the perfect hero for a young girl to fall in love with. I mean, who could forget that scene in the book when he's standing looking longingly across the water at the green light on Daisy's dock? What a foolish young man he was, chasing after a futile dream - a girl who would never love him the same way that he loved her.

"There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams, not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."

It was such a perfect lesson on the power of a man's delusion. Like youthful girls who create a suit of armour out of sighs and dreams for the next boy that comes along, whether or not it fits, Gatsby had turned Daisy into a powerful personal narrative about true love conquering all and he would make her fit into his image of the perfect woman, whether or not she was truly right for him, damnit!

We read some great NZ fiction too. Notably Patricia Grace's Mutuwhenua and Sia Figiel's Where We Once Belonged, both wonderful books. Mutuwhenua is the first novel ever published by a Maori woman, and I remember being struck by the complete honesty of the story, which details the story of Ripeka, a young Maori woman who leaves her whanau behind to marry Graeme, a Pakeha schoolteacher.

Where We Once Belonged was hilarious, and Figiel captured the voice of young Alofa very well. I loved the use of Samoan words throughout the narrative, and especially the descriptions of food. I would not learn about Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa till a couple of years later, at uni, but my first thought then was about 13-year-old Alofa, and how she would piss her pants laughing if she thought of some older white lady watching her and her peers from behind the frangipani bushes while taking copious notes.

What books did you read in high school and what did you think of them?

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