Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Re-Reading Project: Practical Magic

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was–lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, or science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame.

Anytime I set rules or guidelines for myself, I always have to break them at some point. October is the month in which either the whole Re-Reading Project would derail, or I’d throw pretty much all the rules out of the window. It wasn’t supposed to be Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman this month. In fact, Practical Magic doesn’t technically fall within the parameters of the Re-Reading Project (books that have influenced me, which I originally read before the age of 16). I didn’t read Practical Magic till I was 17, so it breaks a crucial rule there, yet it was one of the *first* books that got added to my list, when I conceived the project last year. I just didn’t think about the fact that it didn’t obey the rule that I used to select *every other book* in the project. When I outlined the books I’d read, I slated Practical Magic for December, last, because I’m re-reading the books in roughly the order I originally read them, a nod to the fact I was ignoring (that this book didn’t follow my rules). Then, I considered swapping it for October, but I thought that was a little too cheesy. I mean, it’s a book about witches during October? I can do better than that, right?

Normally, I start reading each month’s book on the 1st, to give myself plenty of time for re-reading and reflection, no matter what may come as the month goes by. Some months, I’ve really needed all the time I could get. On October 1st, I was leaving Philadelphia and driving to Georgia and my copy of the book I was “supposed” to read in October was in storage. Why I didn’t bring this book along with all of the other books I hauled 3,000+ miles, when I knew I was “supposed” to read it, I’m not entirely sure. But, I know it wasn’t an accident. Even as I was packing for the residency in August, I was unconvinced that the book I was “supposed” to read in October was the right one. So I didn’t think about it and left it in storage.

As soon as I got back to New Orleans, I snagged the last three books for the Re-Reading Project from storage, including the book I was “supposed” to read this month. Looking at them all side-by-side, I was tempted to read the book for November (because it’s the shortest and I was overwhelmed getting back to my real life), but I decided to leave it for the craziness of next month (NaNoWriMo season). And I looked at Practical Magic and thought, “hmmm, I’d really love to read that right now.” But I reminded myself that it was too “on the nose” for October and I started reading the book I was “supposed” to read.

Now, I love this book. It’s a great book. I own several copies because it’s somewhat rare and it’s so special to me. There are even a couple of cool parallels between the book I was “supposed” to read in October and my experience at the residency. But, because I started late and I was slammed as soon as I got back to town, and for reasons I didn’t want to face, I was only 46 pages into this 400+ book by the time October was two-thirds gone. I started to think I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book and the re-reading review on time. And then, finally, I threw the rules and the “supposed tos” out the window and I started re-reading Practical Magic.

That’s a very long intro, without having actually talked about the book itself. Well, here we go.

Like the book mentioned above, I have had several copies of Practical Magic. First a battered blue paperback with a black cat on the cover. Later, a pretty trade paperback copy. Fairly recently, I bought this gorgeous hardback copy and this is the one I read this time around.

Practical Magic I saw the movie first, in the theater when it came out in 1998 (I was 16). It came out, appropriately enough, in October. My family had just moved to Louisiana in July and I was miserable. I hated Louisiana, I was angry that my parents moved me halfway through high school and I’d had to leave all of my friends behind. My heart was broken because I didn’t know when I’d ever see the boy I thought I loved again. And I was channeling all of these feelings into a novel about a teenage witch (my first finished novel, which will probably never see the light of day). So, as you might imagine, Practical Magic was a movie that felt very much for me. It’s a movie I still love, a perfect storm of amazing actors, music from Stevie Nicks and a zeitgeisty moment.

Maybe this is where my odd preference comes from, to watch the movie first if I know a book is being adapted. To this day, I find it fairly easy to love a movie and a book as separate creations, but only if I watch the movie first (with rare exceptions). Because, as much love as I have for the movie Practical Magic, it has very little in common with the book. The book has been changed in the ways Hollywood loves to change original material (i.e., in some smart ways, but mostly for flash). I’d probably hate it if I’d read and loved the book first. It would be very hard not to.

The book is subtle, lean and incredibly detailed at the same time. It can cover years in a few pages. Sally Owens’ first husband Michael is only in the book for 6 pages, but he feels very real, a fleshed-out character. It’s a book about the certainty of “old wives” cures and the uncertainty of love. While the movie may take delight in depicting the Owens women as witches, in the book, they are only ever referred to that way by other people and not really directly. They are women who know things and who can do and make things, using inherited knowledge of human behavior, anatomy, botany and husbandry. And while we so commonly understand these traits to be associated with witches, Hoffman never makes any of the magic in the book flashy or outlandish. It’s all possible, it’s all real, it’s all practical. The subtly is one of the best things about the book and that is almost entirely lost in the movie. I will say this, there is at least one aspect of the movie that I always think about whenever I think about the story – I’d forgotten it wasn’t in the book at all till now! Because the 1998 movie is such a product of its own time and it veered so far from the source material, I think it’s entirely possible for a the book to be adapted into a movie again, into a more faithful version that could be a good film in its own right. If I wanted to make more comparisons between the book and the movie, I could, but I’m going to focus on the book (and me) for the rest of this.

When I first read Practical Magic, I latched onto the young Sally and Gillian, and was bewildered when they were suddenly middle-aged women. I could no longer identify with Sally once she was the mother of two daughters, but instead, I transferred my feelings of kinship to the daughters, Antonia and Kylie. I thought I’d been in love when I first read this book, though my first love wouldn’t come for a few more years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing that first emotion because I was young, but I choose to redefine it now that I understand more about what love feels like and what it can do. Which brings me to now, re-reading Practical Magic and realizing that I am only a few years younger than the adult Sally and Gillian are in the book. Suddenly, their younger selves and Sally’s teen daughters resonate with me only in a nostalgic way and the characters who come alive to me are the middle-aged women, worn out by grief and love, as they each learn new things about themselves and find love again. The wounds and scars that love inflicts and heals is the subtext of the book that I can translate now, as an adult woman who is suffering grief over lost love. When I first read the book, I could only identify with the characters whose phases I had undergone (the maidens) and re-reading it now, in the mother phase, I felt like I have been, at some time in my life, every woman in this book.

Except the Aunts (the crones). These are the most truly witch-like characters, the women who raise Sally and Gillian and who are ancient by the time the main action of the story takes place. Their names aren’t revealed until the very end of the book, which I loved noting this time around. Throughout the rest of the book, they are only mentioned in plural, together, sisters whose identities can’t be separated. Until they are revealed to us, separate. In fact, each of the three generations of Owens women in this book (main characters) are brought to us in sister pairs, one dark and one light, the moon and the sun. While they always remain true to themselves, we get to see each of them them wax and wane, reverse roles, set and rise.

More than the personal discoveries I made as I re-read, I was startled to (re)discover connections between Practical Magic and my decade-in-the-making novel, The Winter Circus. Because Practical Magic came along, for me, at such a seminal period of my personal and writerly growth, I absorbed it into my being and then promptly forgot that the roots of my work are buried in this book. I read Alice Hoffman books all the time and she’s at the top of my “favorite authors” list, so I’ve never forgotten that her style has influenced me as a writer, but I did forget how very concrete the connection is, from her writing to mine, especially with this book.

I last read Practical Magic fourteen years ago — Kylie is younger than the number of years since I last read it. Re-reading it now is like looking at old photographs of myself and thinking, “oh, if only you knew, one day…”

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Filed under Atlanta, books, literature, movies, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, pop culture, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

The Residency Road Trip: Atlanta and the road home

There was a bustle of activity as Anne, Hiro and I all got ready for our various days. And then I set off for Atlanta. It’s about a twelve hour drive, but it took me waaaay longer. First, there was rush hour traffic. Then, I had to stop regularly to stretch and charge my phone and eat. Trips like this are definitely marathons, not sprints. On the way, I listened to a very long audiobook which was thankfully very engrossing. Still, I was pretty wrecked by the time I arrived in Atlanta and I felt like I’d sleep for two days straight (minimum).

But I only slept for maybe 10 hours. That’s all. When I woke up, one of my first stops was to the local library, the one I’ve been going to since I was a kid. It’s kind of a tradition to go by during most visits. Over the next few days I worked, ran errands with my mom, read and watched a lot of t.v. A lot. The fall season started while I was away at the residency and I don’t have a t.v. at home, so I took full advantage of the fancy On Demand. Mums and I went by two great bookshops we love and at one of them, I saw the books of not one but two friends of mine from Louisiana:

Amy Connor's The Right Thing

Amy Conner’s The Right Thing

Ronlyn Domingue's The Mercy of Thin Air

Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mercy of Thin Air

 

 

 

 

 

I made the apples in whiskey over ice cream dessert and I’d brought some of the two pies Anne and I had made. Other than that, I enjoyed my mom’s great meals and didn’t cook at all.

Emilie + Ricardo

Milonga La Portena ATL And I went to tango, of course. At this point, I feel like I have many friends in the ATL tango community, but when I first started dancing there, I sought out a friend who’d moved there from Baton Rouge and I still enjoy dancing with him whenever I’m in town. Ricardo knows Kristin, the friend I ran into in Philadelphia (really, tango is a small world), so we took a photo together to send her (and technology makes it even smaller). Then, we were tagged in a photo dancing together (not sure to credit for the photo, but it was likely one of the organizers of Milonga La Portena, the event).

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in ATL and while I would’ve loved to keep dancing and relaxing there, it was beyond time to get home. All told, I’ve been gone about 6 weeks, which may be the longest I’ve been away from New Orleans since I moved here in 2007.

Luckily for me, the 8 hour drive felt like nothing after the extended 12+ drive to Atlanta. I left pretty early and listened to another audiobook on the way, so I was back in New Orleans in the afternoon. After unpacking the car, I ran a few errands and guess what one of my first stops was? If you thought, “the library,” you know me so well. As I unpacked all my bags and boxes from my journey, I watched a movie and settled back into my lovely apartment, so very glad to be back.

My first full day back in New Orleans, I was back at work and tango, and my first weekend home was spent attending intensive tango workshops with Carolina del Rivero and Donato Juarez. And, I’m settling into my kitchen, making some of my favorite meals from the residency:

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I’m getting caught up with everything and everyone, slowly but surely, while also trying to hold onto the writing and meditating habits I developed during my time away. It will take some time to find the right balance, but it feels good to be home. Looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year brings!

 

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Filed under Atlanta, musing, New Orleans, tango, The Residency Road Trip, travel

The Residency Road Trip Leg Three: Soaring Gardens to Philly

In my last update from Soaring Gardens, it was Day 28 and I was trying to both enjoy my last bit of time there and get on the road. I’d planned on being in Philadelphia by about 3 and I didn’t leave the house till after 3! I was running so late. There was so much to do and I ended up talking with Joanne when she arrived to work on the alle. Here’s a picture I took after locking up the house, just as I was about to get in the car and take off.

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I stopped to take some pictures on my way out, leaving by a different way than I’d come home from tango the night before, so I could say goodbye to all the sights. Swung by the post office to drop off some last postcards and then I was officially on my way.

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My drive through Meshoppen was enjoyable, but just as I was arriving on the outskirts of Tunkhannock, there was a long line of eighteen wheelers that were forced to go less than 20 mph because we were going down a steep incline. The rest of the trip went downhill from there, emotionally as well as geographically. After the logjam outside Tunkhannock, I was funneled through the wrong lane in a toll passage and many miles later, when I exited the interstate outside Philadelphia, I was asked for my ticket at a toll stand. But, I didn’t have one, so I had to pay the flat rate. I’m mostly over it by now, but I was pretty pissed at the time. All told, it definitely could’ve gone worse, but it wasn’t how I wanted my exit from idyllic, peaceful Soaring Gardens to go. It wasn’t an easy transition back to the real world.

However, I had a safe and welcoming place to land in Philadelphia. Returning to Anne’s house after our weeks together in creative isolation felt very comfortable and I enjoyed catching up with her husband Hiro, seeing how his month had gone since I’d last passed through town. We had a great dinner together, polished off a bottle of Malbec and then Anne and I decided to have a bake off. 🙂 Sort of. We’d meant to make apple pies while at Soaring Gardens, since we had all those apples, but there was never enough time. I make a mean apple pie and Anne has a killer family recipe, so we had a collaborative think tank night of apple pie making. Anne taught me how to make spectacular homemade pie crust, as well as a butter crumble top (ah-mayyy-zing) and I shared my secret apple pie ingredient. We both signed nondisclosure agreements first, of course.

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While the pies were baking there was, naturally, a cutthroat game of rummy. Which Anne won, of course. But I couldn’t be too sad because then there was pie.

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The next day, I had an early morning coffee meeting with photographer JJ Tiziou. Last year, around this time, JJ’s Kickstarter campaign, Everyone is Photogenic, was winding down. I heard about it via Upworthy and for me, JJ’s project was a perfect storm, distilling many of the personal and universal issues that were coming up as I began work on the dance memoir. I responded as both a writer working on a parallel project and as a human being who needed to hear this philosophy. I pledged support to the project and received backer updates from JJ that would drag feelings and thoughts straight out of my soul (any single one of these feelings and thoughts could’ve sparked a full-out essay). I started emails to JJ several times, but never sent them, feeling too shy. Unfortunately, the project didn’t get fully funded, but it was a game changer for me (and you can read on JJ’s blog all the things he’s learned and what’s happened since the project “failed”). I couldn’t stop talking about it and I would get occasional backer updates from JJ about his work.

Another project of his called How Philly Moves is about showcasing dancers in Philadelphia. A while back, I started to plot a tango-inspired road trip and one of the cities I had on my list was Philadelphia. If it all panned out, I thought I should visit with Damian Lobato and JJ. The road trip as I envisioned it didn’t work out, but the Residency Road Trip did and, coincidentally enough, I was going to spend time in Philly. So when Anne asked me if there was anything I wanted to do or see there, I said, “Dance tango, of course, and you know, there’s this photographer who lives there named JJ T–” She laughed and said, “I know JJ. You should definitely reach out.” There just wasn’t enough time on the way up and there was too many unknowns (I was driving for 12+ hours to get there). But knowing I’d come through Philly again and stay for a few days, Anne encouraged me to stop being shy. So, I did.

We met at an awesome spot called Milk & Honey Market where we had coffee and talked, about my time at Soaring Gardens with Anne, photography and writing, my dance memoir, tango and the gaze (in photography and dance). After all those unsent messages, I got to tell him, finally, how awesome I think Everyone is Photogenic is, both the project and the philosophy. JJ had a gift for me, some swag from the How Philly Moves project, which he’s doing a new iteration of (in case any of you live in Philly). And before he left for another appointment, JJ and I took a selfie together (technically, two):

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Later, JJ shared the second photo with the backers of the Everybody is Photogenic campaign and when we talked about the picture, I told him: “In the past, I might’ve cringed at it being made public, because my eyes are shut or any other reason I’d find to hate it. But, now…this is what I saw instead: I used to laugh just like that in photos when I was a kid all the time. That kind of laugh, for me, translates to being completely relaxed and in the moment and *not* thinking about how I look or how I should look, etc. So, I love the photo.”

I stayed behind at Milk & Honey to do some work for a few hours. And, enchanted with this vending machine, I bought a chapbook (“The Art of Destruction” by M. Elias Keller):

Book vending machine + self portrait

Book vending machine + self portrait

Day 29 late lunch

Day 29 late lunch

Back at the house, Anne and I made another meal together before we dispersed for the evening, one that’s become a favorite of mine. I’d decided to check out a class and practica with Lesley Mitchell and Kelly Ray. It was a serendipitous choice, made initially because Damian Lobato (who has taught several times in New Orleans) didn’t have a class on the night I was in town. I’d heard good things about Lesley and Kelly and I wanted to dance in the city, so I went for it. I couldn’t initially find the studio and was walked to the door by a woman I passed on the street and then I arrived at the same time as a tanguero, who led me upstairs and back into the studio. Like Blanche Dubois I, too, depend on the kindness of strangers. And I’ve always found that they are, generally, kind. Once I arrived in the class with the stranger who would soon be no stranger, but a dancer partner, I realized that the lady assisting Lesley was a friend of mine named Kristin, who I hadn’t realized had moved to Philadelphia. Small world, this global tango community. When the class was over, we squealed and hugged and it was wonderful to find a friendly face in a new place. She, Lesley and Kelly, as well as all the dancers at the class and practica, made me feel so very welcome. My dance stamina has been *ruined* by the last few weeks away from regular dancing, but they wouldn’t let me sit down! And they were such wonderful dancers that I just had to keep going. It was one of those lovely, satisfying tango evenings dancers live for.

I made my way back to Anne’s, thoroughly exhausted. And even though we were both tired and I had a long drive ahead the next day, we stayed up talking about our respective nights and played one last game of rummy (do I even need to tell you who won?). It was so nice and also a little sad. For the time being at least, our late night chats over a nightcap and rummy have come to an end. It was a nice ritual while it lasted and helped make the residency at Soaring Gardens everything that it was.

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Filed under food, tango, The Residency Road Trip, travel, weirdness, writing updates

2014 Q3 Reading Report

My 3rd Quarter in reading was excellent. So far, the Re-Reading Project has really added so much to my annual reading. Even the books I’m reading for the first time have an extra edge now because I think about them in terms of whether I’d ever re-read them. Or, am I so invested in reading them that I’m willing not to read or re-read something else? It’s been kind of a game-changer. So much so that I’m considering continuing it into 2015. Not monthly the way I did in 2014, but sporadically. We’ll see… In the meantime, here’s my 2014 3rd Quarter Reading Report.

July

The Secrets of a Scoundrel, Gaelen Foley – Since I’ve outed myself as an occasional reader of romance novels in May’s Re-Reading posts, I might as well confess that I bought Foley’s newest the week it came out and spent an evening with the last book in her Inferno Club series. I’ve read a lot of romance authors in my time, but Foley is the only one I consistently buy new, as soon as they come out and read right away. I always consider it a mini-vacation, some entertaining reading that is for no other purpose but to enjoy. She’s writing great middle readers books with her husband under E.G. Foley and I’ve been having a lot of fun sharing these with the son of a friend. She’s a terrific writer, whatever name she publishes under and whatever genre she’s working within.

Dorothy Must Die, Danielle Paige – Another confession: I’m a sucker for a good book cover. This one is terrific and really illustrates the “hook” of this book: Dorothy has returned to Oz, gone mad with power and must be brought down. So, basically, I had to read it because I was curious about where this story would go. And it’s a really weird one that never went quite where I was expecting. I was a tad bored at times, but mostly I ripped through the pages. It got really good right before the end and then (damn) I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why do I keep doing this to myself? There’s a prequel available digitally, called No Place Like Oz.

Strangers, Dean Koontz – Read the Re-Reading post here.

The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen – Something big was going on in my personal life and I needed a really good, absorbing story to distract me. I was trying to track down a copy of A Game of Thrones from the library (I need to get my own copies), but they were all checked out. Most of my books are in storage, so I turned to a pile of ARCs towering alongside my one remaining bookshelf and picked up a book I’d almost given to a friend to read, but had decided to keep. The next 24 hours and the rest of the world disappeared as I got sucked into The Queen of the Tearling. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s 400+ pages and I stayed in on a Friday night to read it, then I was actually disappointed there wasn’t more to read Saturday night. I didn’t want to leave this world. I’ve had the ARC for months, but it just came out, so after I read the last page, I took to Twitter and saw that a lot of people were feeling the same way I was at that moment: rabid for the next book in the series (groan). There’s also some backlash – mostly people seem to object to the marketing campaign around the book, which compares it to GoT and Hunger Games. The ARC informs me the movie rights have already been sold and Emma Watson will star. The nerd in me is breathless in anticipation.

Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman – I’ve seen a few episodes of the t.v. show and liked it, but mostly I wondered how a memoir about being in prison would be handled. It was a compelling read, mostly because Kerman doesn’t pity herself or expect her reader to. She mostly focuses on the women she was incarcerated with, the community that helped her survive her time in prison. The tone is calm and rational, at times light-hearted, but it still made me enraged by the current prison system: the inherent racism and discrimination (Kerman admits she most likely received better treatment in prison and a lighter sentence because she’s white), the waste of financial resources, as well as the waste of human resources. As I read and finished the book, I couldn’t stop talking about the book and Kerman’s points about the prison system and I ended up having some really fascinating conversations.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh – My new book group selected this book. I fought against it, partly because I’d read it earlier this year and partly because I’d found the “white sections” (focusing on Brosh’s depression, etc.) pretty rough reading. But, I was outnumbered and it was our first book club selection. So, I re-read the book and the “white sections” were even tougher to handle the second time around, but this time, I got to talk about them with a great group of women who felt the same sense of connection with Brosh’s work. My connection with it is often unsettled and uncomfortable, but the other women in the group seemed to mostly take the stance, “Thank God someone is saying this out loud, on paper, for real.” We laughed a lot and it was a wonderful night.

Black and White, Dani Shapiro – My writing style isn’t a thing like Dani Shapiro’s, but as I was reading, I so wished I could write like her. I admire her writing immensely. It’s quiet and stripped down, yet fierce and vibrant. This story, about a famous photographer mother and the daughter she photographed nude throughout her childhood, was so painful and beautiful. It was utterly necessary.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson – Jenny Lawson is basically Allie Brosh meets Toni McGee Causey, hysterical and hyperbolic. Sometimes, I’d get a bit impatient with the storytelling (because it goes around in circles and on and on forever), but mostly I was laugh-snorting out loud and too damn entertained to mind that she wrote a book as if you were having one long, booze-infused conversation with her. With photographic evidence. Like with most comedy, there’s some real pathos buried underneath the humor and I admired The Blogess all the more for letting us see it.

August

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin – Once more, in the midst of a bunch of nonfiction reading, I was longing for a distracting novel and I turned to my pile of ARCs. This one was published in April, but though I picked it up “late,” I found that, as usual, I picked it up at just the right time. It’s a relatively slim book, but covers about 15+ years of a man’s life as he moves from isolated grief to become a central figure in a family and a community. I was continually surprised by how much story was packed into the book, yet it still felt light and easy, even when it was dealing with almost unbearably sad subjects. Writing a story that reads this effortlessly is hard work, I’m lucky enough to have learned, so the easier I skipped through the book, the more impressed I was with Zevin’s storytelling abilities. I could easily see this becoming a movie, something like Big Fish meets Amelie meets Chocolat.

The Young World, Chris Weitz – I’ve stumbled upon some very good dystopian Y/A and fantasy lately, each very good but each the first book in a series. So annoying cause I get hooked on the first book and then I have to have patience till another (and another…) come out. Anyway, this is another of those titles, written by the director of About a Boy, among other movies. The story is so easy to imagine as a movie and since Weitz is a film director, I was curious about why he decided to write it as a novel. I feel like the book answered my question. As the characters are searching for something vital in a library, they have a conversation about the value of books over electronic information/cloud storage. The characters in books have a longer life span than most people who live in our world and pretty much everyone in The Young World. It was the kind of perfect fictional moment that made me want to hug Weitz by hugging his book. So yeah, now I’m impatient for more books set in this world.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding – Read the Re-Reading post here.

The Kiss of Deception, Mary E. Pearson – I was talking books in a Facebook thread and mentioned how much I liked The Queen of the Tearling. A friend of my friend’s commented that she liked this book better. I looked it up out of curiosity and then immediately requested it from the library. I’d read 50+ pages just a couple of hours after I picked up from the library and finished it over what was a pretty active weekend. It has a lot in common with The Queen of the Tearling, but is also very different. Both feature royal girls fighting/embracing their destinies in a fantasy world that may actually be our own world hundreds of years in the future (I got that vibe from Kiss and TQotT drops some serious hints in that direction). Anyway, The Kiss of Deception is very compelling and also the first of a series (alas, more patience on my part).

The Ecstasy of Surrender, Judith Orloff, M.D. – This book applied to pretty much every aspect of my life the last few months. It took me a few weeks to read because I was trying to absorb as much of it as possible (and I was late returning it to the library because I had to finish it before I left for my trip). If you want to know more,  watch the TED Talk that was the origin of the book, though it’s just a taste of what the book entails.

Animal Farm, George Orwell – Read the Re-Reading post here.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – Read the Re-Reading post here.

An Ember in the Ashes, Sabaa Tahir – I snagged this ARC before leaving on my Residency Road Trip. Something about it called out to me and I felt like I’d need an engaging novel at some point on this trip. Because it’s 400+ pages, I thought it’d be my fiction counterpoint to all the nonfiction I’ll be reading during September. But, I picked it up after I finished my August Re-Reading and I quickly got caught up in it. I read the first 100 pages relatively slowly (in about a day) and then quickly read 300 more pages in a few hours, unable to sleep because I was so engrossed in the characters and the world. On one hand, I’ve never read anything like this and on the other, it reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Queen of the Tearling and The Kiss of Deception, all “dystopian” fantasy stories set in some ambiguous alternate or future world that also feel like ancient myths and legends. The characters are constantly faced with impossible emotional and moral decisions and I care enormously about all of them. The one trouble with reading a book so quickly is when you never want to leave the story and you’re booted out by the last page. Since this book is coming out next April, it looks like I’ll have to wait a long while for the next book in the story (for surely there will be one since two of the major characters are setting out on an epic journey at the end). I’ll definitely be on the lookout for an ARC of the next book so I can pick back up with these characters as soon as possible.

September

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith – I listened to the audio book of this one on the way from ATL to Soaring Gardens and it was the perfect companion for such a long trip, at least for me. As I learned years ago when I spent three weeks driving twelve hours each day, the best audio books for drives are those that are so interesting they keep you awake, but easy to follow while paying attention to, you know, the road. I was *almost* done when Anne and I arrived at the house, so after we made dinner and unpacked, I sat in the library and finished listening to it. I have to say, I was a bit disappointed with the wrap-up of the mystery at the end of the book, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and story for days after I finished. I’m hoping to listen to the next Cormoran Strike book, The Silkworm, on my way back home. [Since Robert Galbraith is a pen name for Joanne Rowling, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, I’d held off reading these books for a while. I was scared I wouldn’t like her non-HP books. But, no more fears here. She’s just flat-out a great writer, whatever she writes, under whichever name. And I think it’s brilliant that she wrote them under a male pseudonym.]

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton – Read the Re-Reading post here.

Blind Faith, C.J. Lyons – I read Lyons’ Broken last quarter and really enjoyed it, so I bought copies of the three Caitlyn Tierney books as my pleasure reading during the residency. Blind Faith is a solid thriller and like with Broken, the writing is great, so I’m carried along with the momentum of the story, racing to figure out what’s going to happen next. Perfect to balance out the other reading I’m doing here at the residency.

Twelve Minutes of Love, Kapka Kassabova – A mutual friend recommended I read this tango memoir after I told him I had started dancing and writing about what I was learning from tango about my relationships. I ordered it forever ago, but wasn’t quite ready to read any tango books. When it was time to pack for the residency, I knew I should bring some of the tango memoirs and academic texts I’ve been collecting. Then, a tango friend started quoting sections of the book once I got to Soaring Gardens and it zoomed to the top of my to-read list. I was reading both with a professional mind (to situate my own writing on the spectrum of already existing work) and also personally. I enjoyed the book quite a lot and also appreciated it, how hard the gossipy, accessible tone must’ve been to achieve and sustain through the work. It was a quick read and teaches you about tango as you read, so the casual, curious reader can enjoy it as well. However, it was all the richer for me as a tango dancer, finding similar moments and realizations within the experiences of a dancer with a very different background than me. There’s a great book trailer you should definitely check out.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot – I’d meant to read this book when it was first published, but it’s taken me four years to do it. Just goes to show that there’s a time for every book in each person’s life. It coincided brilliantly with two other books I was reading at the same time: Jurassic Park (above) and The World Without Us. Though Henrietta Lacks covers a lot of complicated scientific information, it’s immensely readable, very accessible. Beneath all the science, it’s a human story. I was intrigued in particular by the way that Skloot included herself in the story (she developed relationships with Lacks family members over many years) without ever overshadowing their story and that of Henrietta Lacks. The beating heart of the book was always the story of the woman behind the infamous cell line, and her family. If anyone one is interested in what’s been happening since the book was published, as I was, there’s a wealth of information on Skloot’s website.

Black Sheep, C.J. Lyons – The first book featuring FBI agent Caitlyn Tierney began from the P.O.V. of another female character, who shared the narrative. This book also features a case with another female character central to it, but as Tierney is the returning character and it deals with tragic events from her childhood, she carries the book a bit more solidly. I like this structure, and as both of the cases so far have been unofficial, it places Tierney squarely within the “rogue agent” subgenre of thrillers and mysteries. Rogue agents are generally male, so it’s refreshing to see her operate as both a woman in a male-dominated field (which also includes the criminals) and as a smart investigator. This book also flips the usual script by making Tierney wary of commitment, trying to break it to her boyfriend and mother that she’s married to her job. While it pretty typical (and realistic) that a female agent would have to defend this choice repeatedly, it’s not typical at all to see one portrayed as being ambivalent about marriage and family. Only problem with this book is that it was a tad too short. I’m glad I have the next one to dive into immediately.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman – This was one of the the books in the library at Soaring Gardens. I picked it up idly, but was immediately intrigued and engrossed by the premise: what will the world look like if the entire human race suddenly disappeared? How will nature react to our absence? You might assume this would be a depressing book, and it is in some ways, but not the ways you’d expect, probably. The most repeatedly depressing aspect of the book is the realization that we’re the bad guys, that we speed up survival of the fittest and evolution with technology, create poisons and products that don’t biodegrade and we don’t know how to dispose of safely. While we should make more strident efforts to “save the planet,” it’s not really for the planet’s sake, but for the own. The planet’s schedule is a bit different than ours and it has a lot more time to sort survive than we do. Beyond that depressing aspect of the book, it was absolutely fascinating and unexpectedly jovial (in a dark humor sort of way). This is the kind of book that takes a lifetime to research and write. Or several, as Weisman introduces us to an intriguing cast of characters, many of whom have jobs and passions you’ve probably never considered.

Hollow Bones, C.J. Lyons – This last book in the Caitlyn Tierney series shares the same format, splitting the story between Caitlyn and another woman at the center of Caitlyn’s investigation. I like that all of the “victims” that Caitlyn is helping are strong women in their own rights who are also trying to investigate and survive their situations. A character from the second book recurs here in very satisfying ways. The setting is really interesting, the crime really upsetting (organ harvesting) and the whole story moves at a quick pace. While I’d read more books about Caitlyn’s investigations, I’m also pleased with where she’s ended up in this book.

So that’s the 3rd Quarter. My 4th Quarter is already shaping up to be very strong. For instance, randomly, all three of the books I’ve read so far in Q4 were written by women whose first names start with the letter J. That wasn’t planned, by the way. 🙂

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Cold Mountain

“Though Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather. Inman did not consider himself to be superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.”

Cold Mountain found me precisely at the moment I needed it. I was twenty-one and immersed in the toughest academic year of my life, at Oxford’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. For most American students, the Oxford tutorial system is a nerve-wracking gauntlet, and I was no exception. Producing weekly essays on Chaucer or 13th century mystics consumed my life, and my tutors never tired of reminding me that I was but a pale newbie to the long, long tradition of letters.

Chill rain soaked bustling Cornmarket Street the October day I ducked into the curved, high-columned building that houses Waterstone’s. I’d come to buy a specific translation of Beowulf, a much more traditional version than the one I was in love with—Seamus Heaney’s brilliant, personal encounter with that brutal classic of Olde English. Heaney had brought his Northern Irish heartbreak to bear on the old work, making it new. For the endless term paper I was writing on Heaney’s translation, I’d been urged to get a more “straight-arrow” version for comparison. At the time, I saw this advice as an effort to dampen my rhapsodic enthusiasm for Heaney’s diction (“But he chose word-hoard, don’t you see how radical that is?”), so the assignment had me feeling stymied.

As a treat for capitulating to authority, I wandered into the fiction section, gravitating toward the writers I’d recently been craving. Heaney’s work had me longing for the flinty storytellers of my own country. My homesickness surprised me—I didn’t long for the people back home, for American products, or for Nashville’s familiar city streets. My thoughts roamed instead to ridgetops, cricket chatter, muddy hillsides, country songs, and my grandparents’ peeling front porch. So when I settled onto the floor of the fiction aisle, I pulled down a copy of Cold Mountain.

Charles Frazier’s first novel was still somewhat new and had won the National Book Award. I knew it was set in the lower Blue Ridge. As a teenager, I had traveled there on road trips with my aunt, the mountains signaling to me, for the first time, that my young writer’s imagination was welcome somewhere. This was a powerful discovery—one I did not have words for at the time. The feeling in my chest was good, full of promise, but also dense and toughening, like a shovel striking dark, rich soil. I was thrilled, but kept quiet about it. Even now, the Blue Ridge remains the place that sets my imagination working like no other—a sanctuary, where I go to write whenever I can.

I also knew that Cold Mountain is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set during the Civil War. Inman, the male protagonist, walks away from his army hospital bed, and the nightmare of battle, to risk a long dangerous trek home to Cold Mountain. As Inman wanders this brutal landscape (or as he understates it, the “feverish world”), Cold Mountain remains his only vision of possible respite. Back home, Ada is fighting for her own survival, learning to farm the land she inherited from her high-minded minister father. Wrestling the land as well as her own “thistleish” manner, Ada’s struggle concerns the lonesome cost of discovering one’s true usefulness.

“Standing thick in the rows and towering over the vegetables were weeds that Ada could not name and had neither the energy nor the heart to fight. Beyond the failed garden stretched the old cornfield, now grown up shoulder high in poke and sumac. Above the fields and pastures, the mountains were just becoming visible as the morning fog burned away. Their pale outlines stood at the horizon, more like the ghosts of mountains than the actual things.”

I slipped the book back onto the shelf and floated outside into the English rain, my imagination roving. The next week, in another bookstore, I took a break from Beowulf research and read the second chapter. Again, I returned it to the shelf. To be clear, any restraint I now have in the ways of book buying came years after this era of my life. When I flew home that spring, I had to buy an extra suitcase to lug home the books I’d accumulated. Why I didn’t buy Cold Mountain—why I read it one chapter at a time throughout the school year, in corner chairs and cafes of numerous bookstores around Oxford—has remained mysterious to me. It’s a memory I’m fond of recalling but had never examined.

The secrets of homeland, my own place in a tradition—that’s what the novel gave me the first time. I was becoming a fiction writer and just beginning to embrace my southern identity. I won’t take these comparisons too far. The Oxford system is tough, but I wasn’t at war. Apprenticeship as a writer takes unreasonable exertion and commitment, but I wasn’t plowing earth for my bodily survival. Still, Frazier’s novel seemed to touch on these matters in a way that writers sometimes need most—contact with the heart of the imagination. Or maybe not the heart—maybe the far periphery, like the shadowed tree line where thick forest meets clearing. Then and now, Cold Mountain meets my imagination at the crepuscular edge of dreamstate, where writers do their best work.

Cold Mountain reached me in that place, and maybe I wanted to keep it there. Perhaps that’s why I kept slipping it back onto the shelf. As a student, I tried my best with all those rigorous critical studies of European classics. But I needed something secret, too. It’s a reading habit I’ve retained. I’m nearly always reading a book I won’t mention to anyone, like a secret ingredient added to my days.

Approaching Cold Mountain now, it’s lost none of its power to enchant. Proceeding at its own pace, it resists any kind of hurry. The book insists that you enter its world on its own terms, leaving behind the stride of the contemporary world. Its mountain landscape is laden with secret coves, gorges, and narrow footpaths, and Inman’s episodes of dark misadventure feel conjured from wafting mists. Homer’s mythic power shines through, made new in ways I’m sure Heaney and his word-hoard would’ve approved.

This time through, Inman and Ada’s decisions resonated more personally for me. At twenty-one, I couldn’t understand their losses, or their fear, because I hadn’t yet lost anything or anyone that truly mattered to me. Even in the face of dire privation and brutality, Inman and Ada try to choose kindness where they can. They keep going in the face of loss, one foot in front of the other.

When I reread Cold Mountain, my copy was crisp, and binding crackled when I opened it. Shortly after I returned to the states, I bought that pristine hardcover, and up it went, onto my shelves where I could think of it fondly whenever I saw it. I’d think not only of Inman and Ada, but also of those stolen hours in corners of Oxford’s bookstores and the furtive pleasure of recognizing my turf. By then, I was headed down my own road—not the scholarly path, but one much messier and closer to the bone. After long foreign travels, I’d come home a fiction writer and a southerner. Cold Mountain will always play a pivotal role in the story of that grand adventure.

***

Photo on 9-15-14 at 4.54 PM

Emily Choate has held writer’s residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and ISLAND (Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design). A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Florida ReviewChapter 16YemasseeNashville Scene, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.

 

 

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Soaring Gardens Thank You Notes

So, in my last update from Soaring Gardens, I alluded to another surprise for the contributors of my GoFundMe campaign, as well as a handful of folks who have just generally helped me out lately. On my last two days at the residency, I walked around the house and the grounds, staging photos of thank you notes, which I think you’ll all enjoy seeing. This is my way of saying that y’all were there with me at the residency, that I was thinking of you and appreciative of your financial help, as well as all your support and encouragement over the last many weeks. I accidentally left off one of the contributors, so I’ll add a special surprise for her at the end.

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Amanda, I forgot to stage a thank you note photo for you at the residency, so here’s one from Philadelphia. And, as a bonus, I’m going to email you a photo from Soaring Gardens that I never posted here, something I think you’ll enjoy.

Pumpkin, gourds and corn from the orchard, at Anne's house in Philly.

Pumpkin, gourds and corn from the orchard on our last day together in Laceyville, now at Anne’s house in Philly.

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