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The Re-Reading Project: Fahrenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

I read Fahrenheit 451 right after I read Lord of the Flies, in 1996 (and I read Animal Farm within the next year). I’m ashamed to say that I remembered little to none of the actual plot, though I remembered liking it best of the three books. I didn’t even remember the cover of the copy I first read, until I did an image search for the various covers and recognized this one:

Fahrenheit 451 cover 1996

Recognizing this, admitting this, seems to go to the very heart of Fahrenheit 451 and this project. Originally, seeing that I read these three classics within a year was part of my impetus for the Re-Reading Project. I remembered having passionate reactions to reading these three books in class, hating Lord of the Flies and loving Fahrenheit 451. But in the intervening years (and decades), the details eroded away and left behind just a residue of the strong feelings, an emotion, for the books.

My memory is a funny thing. It’s not as sharp as it once was, certainly, but there are some instances and moments that I can remember with almost mythic clarity, as if watching a film. I say that I have a visual memory – working at bookstores, I often forget the authors and titles of books, but I can take you straight to the last place on the shelf that I saw it. This kind of memory makes it difficult for me to quote books, t.v. shows and movies, even if I enjoy them. But it helps me to remember faces, textures, gestures.

So for all of these years, whenever someone would mention Fahrenheit 451, I wouldn’t remember the main character (Guy Montag) or the plot (fireman charged with destroying books and the people who hold onto them is awakened to the power of books and literally becomes a book himself). What I would remember is a synesthetic mash of emotion and feeling that couldn’t be separated from who I was in 1996 when I read it and who I had become since. In a way, all of my quarterly “reviews” reflect this inability to write truly objective reviews. I am too aware of my own experience, location and personality as filters for the media that I’m consuming.

I own a copy of Ray Bradbury‘s collected short stories, a massive book since rumor is that he would write a story each and every day. I once made a goal of reading one story per day to honor this spirit and commitment of his and perhaps managed four in a row before I got overwhelmed and distracted. I’ve come to know him more for his risky, bold, playful and strange stories and I use the idea of him writing a story every day to inspire myself and other writers. Imagine the permission he must’ve felt as a writer because every day was a blank slate for a new story. He could write anything and perhaps, this was the reason he wrote so many fabulous stories (more than 600). With that level of production, he couldn’t help it.

So this is what I took into my 2014 re-reading of Fahrenheit 451: foggy, synesthetic ideas from 1996 and Bradbury’s stories and rumored intense diligence as a writer. I was shocked by what I found because my emotional, nostalgic feeling for the book was absolutely correct, but the concrete reality of it, now that I have more of an understanding for the world in which it was created, the world which it was protesting, is stunning.

Since I no longer had a copy of the book, I bought a used copy of the 60th anniversary edition published the year after Bradbury died, with an introduction from Neil Gaiman. The introduction was the perfect way to re-enter this world and I could (and probably will) re-read it several times. This edition also contains supporting materials to provide context for the story.

Fahrenheit 451

And while Fahrenheit 451 is such a 1950s tale, it is both amazing and terrifying that it still serves to caution us about our relationship with technology, each other, independent thought and creativity. The “parlors” with wall-sized tvs and participatory entertainments in the book are basically a reality in our current age. It’s an uncomfortable irony that I finished Fahrenheit 451 on a day when I spent time with my parents, glutting ourselves on t.v. I don’t have a t.v. at home and as I love the medium, I often catch up with shows when I visit them. On commercials, I would reach for Fahrenheit 451 to read about Guy Montag’s increasing frustration with his wife Millie’s inability to tear herself away from the “family” in the parlor.

But Bradbury wrote for t.v. and film, so maybe I can be exonerated. Anyway, the wall-sized t.v.s and “families” in the “parlors” are not the inherent evil in this story. It’s the lack of free and individual thought, which media consumption can certainly contribute to, that is the real problem. As Montag learns in the the book, people gave up reading and books and individual thought long before it was taken away from them officially. That is always the danger.

I appreciate the opportunity to re-learn the lesson from this re-reading and I imagine I’ll need refreshers from Fahrenheit 451 and many amazing books, throughout my life. And then there are always these lessons from Bradbury (the first one of which I flunked and which at least one of my friends is taking well to heart). I suppose it’s never too late and I’ll be applying these lessons to the best of my ability during my upcoming residency month.

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The Re-Reading Project: Lord of the Flies

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.

“Hi!” it said. “Wait a minute!”

The undergrowth at the side of the scar was shaken and a multitude of raindrops fell pattering.

“Wait a minute,” the voice said. “I got caught up.”

The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.

The voice spoke again.

“I can’t hardly move with all these creeper things.”

The owner of the voice came backing out of the undergrowth so that twigs scratched on a greasy wind-breaker. The naked crooks of his knees were plump, caught and scratched by thorns. He bent down, removed the thorns carefully, and turned around. He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgments for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles.

“Where’s the man with the megaphone?”

I’ve reproduced so much of the opening here, because it only felt right to get to the moment where Piggy is fully introduced, in addition to Ralph, as they are the two primary characters of the book. In a way, the whole Re-Reading Project has been leading here, to Lord of the Flies by William Golding. When I first decided to do the project, this was the first book I knew I had to re-read, because it is the one book that I can remember actively hating. I read it once, freshmen year of high school. I liked other required reading: Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, CandideNative Son and even The Scarlet Letter and Grapes of Wrath. I geeked out over The Swiss Family Robinson. But I hated Lord of the Flies. When quizzed about why, I would cite an enormous plot hole that I felt the book contained. As the years passed, I couldn’t remember the specifics of this plot hole or why I hated the book. I wondered what I would think of it now, as an adult. Which led me to wonder the same about other books and thus, the Re-Reading Project was born.

For all of that, I was dreading this re-read as much as I was anticipating it. I’d hated this book for so long and I expected to be bored. I’ve never owned a copy of the book (I read a library copy, I believe, in high school), so last month I started keeping an eye out for a copy at the used book sale and bookshops. Then, right on time, I found a copy on the take-a-book-leave-a-book bookshelves at a coffeeshop I frequent (with a bonus cover from Marathon Man by William Goldman tucked into the back). It was the same version I remembered from school, the iconic one with the boy’s savage face peering out from the leaves.

IMG_2949

As I re-read, I very quickly found the source of at least 60% of my teen self’s dislike for the book. It is very British and I don’t remember learning anything about British culture while reading the book in school. Now that I’m a lot more fluent with British history, speech patterns and school structure (thanks mostly to yes, the Harry Potter series, as well as British writers like Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes) I have a more solid understanding of what the heck the characters are talking about and the social structure the boys imitate unconsciously (and abandon) throughout the book. It’s a book about a bunch of boys who talk and behave like aliens, at least if you’re a teen girl in the 90s.

Also, it’s a little boring (more so if you’re a teen girl in the 90s with no context). Though I’m a woman in my 30s now and I understood a lot more of what was going on, I was still often bored. A good indication of boredom: it took me a week to read a book that’s less than 200 pages (I recently read a 400+ pg book in 24 hours). That’s a pitfall that parables are prone to, as the characters are relatively flat and are meant to represent personality types or ideologies. I didn’t really invest in any of the characters, either as a teen or as an adult. They’re not real people and are not meant to be, but represent aspects inherent in all people and cultures. But, after years of watching Survivor, I was fascinated by the conflicts that developed between the characters and later became insurmountable. As the story progresses and the stakes are raised, the story becomes more gripping.

At times, the descriptions are absolutely breathtaking. Golding could certainly write. But even when the action picks up and the boys are terrorizing each other, details are omitted or it’s hard to follow what is being done, to whom and by whom.

I had remembered (spoiler?) that Piggy died, but I had conflated the way in which he died with Simon’s horrific murder. I’d forgotten entirely that one of the littluns (with a purple birthmark on in his face) disappears, with barely any mention. Here’s another issue I had (have?) with the book: too many characters who are essentially background sketches. Because the book is a parable, the characters are only brought into focus when/if they’re needed and it’s unclear exactly how many boys are marooned on the island and how long they are there. It could be a week or six months. The only reference to time is the growth of the boys’ hair, but this is mentioned fairly early in the book, in Chapter 4. So, Chapters 1-3 are the first few days or week after they’re marooned and then we fast-forward a few weeks/months and the rest of the action takes place thereafter.

The lack of specifics was very frustrating to me as a teen and fairly frustrating to me on the re-read. I’ve grown to believe that the more specific the story, the more universal it becomes and I kept reaching for something to ground me in the story. But, as a parable, it consistently refuses to provide specific markers for its readers. In a way, this has worked well for Lord of the Flies, as it has remained a timely commentary about the darkness in the human heart for 60 years and has been listed on numerous Top 50 and Top 100 reading lists. But it won’t ever be a book I’ll turn to for entertainment or enjoyment.

One last thing that I find interesting about Lord of Flies now, almost twenty years after I first read it, is that it’s considered dystopian fiction, a genre that’s having a bit of a heyday now (as with the vampire resurgence brought about by Twilight, a lot of people like to pretend that the dystopian trend is brand spanking new, but it’s really not). A lot of new dystopian fiction is being published for young adults (though adults like me read it also), and Lord of the Flies is still taught to young people, and has influenced writers for decades.

What makes Lord of the Flies dystopian, I wonder? The barely referenced nuclear war that happens on the margins of the main story? The attempt by the boys to build a society for themselves on the island? The failure of this society, which is based on the society they have left behind? The main argument of the book seems to be how quickly humans can devolve from civilized beings into ungoverned creatures. There doesn’t seem to be a cure for our base nature, except for civilization, yet the book seems to be saying that society and civilization are doomed to fail (the boys are rescued by Naval officers who find them by chance while fighting their own adult war).

Dystopian fiction appeals to young readers, and is important for them to encounter, because it allows them to question their society and government by depicting an extreme example that is often not too far removed from their own reality, a world that they did not set into motion but must be governed by regardless. Dystopian fiction, especially what is published now, often depicts young people at the mercy of society and then fighting back, taking charge. This fiction allows young readers to realize that society is constructed and mutable, and hopefully wakes them up to their own responsibility in designing better social structures.

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The Re-Reading Project: Strangers

November 7-December 2 1. Laguna Beach, California Dominick Corvaisis went to sleep under a light wool blanket and a crisp white sheet, sprawled alone in his bed, but he woke elsewhere–in the darkness at the back of the large foyer closet, behind concealing coats and jackets. He was curled in the fetal position. His hands were squeezed into tight fists. The muscles in his neck and arms ached from the tension of a bad though unremembered dream. He could not recall leaving the comfort of his mattress during the night, but he was not surprised to find that he had traveled in the dark hours. It had happened on two other occasions, and recently.

Dean Koontz is, hands down, one of the most influential writers on me as a person and a writer. Which was kind of an awkward thing to take into graduate school, my devoted passion for genre books and authors, particular an author who some have disparagingly referred to as a knock-off Stephen King. He seems most often compared to Stephen King because they’re both prolific authors, writing popular horror around the same time, often mining the same themes and tropes (in fact, Strangers and The Stand have always seemed to deal with many of the same elements and themes). This long-running comparison between them, at least by the fans of each writer, may be the reason that I never finished a Stephen King book till I read Carrie for a college course in 2001 (I read On Writing the next year and they remain the only books of his I’ve read). Anyway, Stephen King has the better track record when it comes to films and t.v. versions of his work and I think that actually has a lot to do with how they’re both perceived in the public consciousness.

I last read Strangers around 1997-1998, so I’ll say I was 16. While it was the last time I read it, I must’ve read it at least once before that and I’ve always remembered it as my favorite of Koontz’, after Lightning. Since I’d re-read Lightning more recently (2009), I decided to re-read Strangers for this project. Also, Strangers helped me identify a theme of Koontz’ that I started to see in most of his books: the coming together of strangers to form a family unit. While it is most obvious in this book, you can find variations of it in pretty much all of his work.

His first hardback bestseller, Strangers was published in 1986. It features 12 primary characters (according to Wikipedia, I’d say at least 4 of them are secondary characters), most of whom have 3rd person chapters from their perspective. The first half of the book focuses on these characters as their lives are falling apart because of a variety of disorders and maladies they can’t explain. It’s not till the second half of the book that almost all of the characters come together and start to figure out the puzzle of what happened to them collectively.

The book was a bit dated when I was reading it in 1997-1998, but nothing like it is now. Similar to what I discovered when I re-read Lightning in 2009, I found that Strangers reads like a period story now, very much a product of its time. The story would be very different if it was set now, but I enjoyed that aspect of the story. It was a bit of a time capsule, a reminder of the way things used to be, and how drastically technology has changed the way we connect to other people since the 80s.

IMG_2908 I re-read my original paperback edition, putting some serious creases in the spine on this go-round because it took me about two weeks to read it. Yes, I have to confess, I was disappointed to find upon re-reading that I was bored for most of the first half of the book. I didn’t particularly care about the two main characters among the twelve (Dom and Ginger), who just seemed too good and uncomplicated, despite their troubles. Koontz takes about 300 pages to ratchet up the tension and I think probably 150 or 200 would’ve been more than fine, even with as many characters as he had. But once the characters started coming together, I reinvested in the story. My memories of what happened were sometimes very distinct and clear and others times very imprecise. But I remembered very early the gist of “what happened” to the characters and it was satisfying to see that I remembered correctly. However, after the long build-up about what had happened to these characters, the resolution was way too quick, almost an afterthought.

I read and collected copies of all of Koontz’ books, up till about 1997 and Sole Survivor and then I didn’t read another Koontz book through most of college, according to my reading records. I re-read Oddkins in 2004 and then read The Taking the same year, and was blown away. I started listening to the Odd Thomas series on long road trips and really enjoyed Innocence last year. I think he was a prolific, but inconsistent, writer when I was a kid and first fell for his books. But now that I’m adult and comparing the early books I loved with his more recent titles, I think it’s safe to say that he’s become a better writer over the years. His characters can still tend to be a bit too black and white, “good” or “bad,” but he will always know how to tell an interesting story, build lots of tension and entertain the reader.

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Re-Reading in the World

Re-reading has understandably become a big deal to me this year. It comes up at cocktail parties and in every day conversations. Actively re-reading a certain subset of books that have been important to me has changed how I think of books I’m reading now for the first time. And also helping me decide which books I really want to read. I think it’s helping me be a bit more selective.

So here are some spots where it has come up in articles I’ve read recently.

In a March article, Hephzibah Anderson writes about re-reading as the ultimate guilty pleasure while reviewing two books about re-reading particular titles: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. Here’s one line that particularly struck me, as I’ve moved into the second half of my Re-Reading Project”

 “…though the words on the page stay the same, our readings of them change.”

Truly. It’s been a really fascinating thing to contemplate, how my readings of these books compare to my memories of them.

And this entire paragraph resonated deeply with me:

For children, it’s a comfort. As we become accustomed to a world in which change is the only real constant, the familiarity of the book at bedtime is something to cling to. Adults aren’t immune to those feelings, either. To quote the septuagenarian writer Larry McMurtry: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change.”

In the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, Tina Jordan has a rather sad essay about re-reading one of her favorite books, The Mists of Avalon, in light of the allegations that Marion Zimmer Bradley committed sexual abuse, from the author’s daughter. As Jordan  mentions, the author died in 1999 and can’t defend herself, but there seems to be a lot of evidence that something unsavory happened. Jordan re-read The Mists of Avalon, intentionally trying to discover if she could divorce this new information about the author from the experience of reading the book. It turned out she couldn’t.

“Reading Bradley’s work through this new filter made me queasy — and I won’t be doing it again.”

I’ve been wanting to re-read Bradley’s The Firebrand, which was a book I really loved in my teens. I even considered it for this project, but I read it one year too late for my “under 16” stipulation. Who knows if I will ever re-read it now, or if I will be able to “forget” about the allegations about the author and enjoy the story? Who knows what the adult me would’ve thought of it without the knowledge of these allegations?

As a writer myself, this is a tough question. Who I am as a person, what I think and what I do, are all utterly a part of who I am as an artist. But I think it would be possible to not like me as a person and still appreciate my writing. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate since I’m both a novelist and now, a memorist.

Well, as I was searching for a link to Jones’ essay (it’s not live yet, probably next week), I found a happier re-reading essay from her, about re-reading the Harry Potter series over the summer of 2011, which is something I’ve tried to do every year. Enjoy.

 

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Stand

 “Sally.”
A mutter.
“Wake up now, Sally.”
A louder mutter: lemme lone.
He shook her harder.
“Wake up. You got to wake up!”
Charlie’s voice calling her. But for how long?
Sally swam up out of her sleep.
First she glances at the clock on the night table and saw it was quarter past two in the morning. Charlie shouldn’t even be here; he should be on shift. Then she got her first good look at him and something leaped up inside her, some deadly intuition.
Her husband was deathly pale. His eyes stared and bulged from their sockets. The car keys were in one hand. He was still using the other to shake her, although her eyes were open. It was as if he hadn’t been able to register the fact that she was awake.
“Charlie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

My dad introduced me to the horror and thriller genres. He was always braver than I, but we would watch The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Tales from The Dark Side. We also loved when Stephen King’s books were made into mini-series. I hadn’t yet read any of his books  at that time, but I LOVED being scared out of my wits by It and The Tommy-Knockers on t.v. We never missed the chance to watch The Running Man if it came on TNT or even Silver Bullet with Gary Busey in his pre-scary-mugshot days.

In spring of 1994, The Stand premiered as the newest sweeps week miniseries. I absolutely ADORED the miniseries (I had a crush on Gary Sinise), and my dad and I agreed that we should probably read the novel now. He picked up a copy so that I would have something to read on my Library Club field trip to Washington, DC.

Great jumping cats! What a doorstop of a book!

But as the buses pulled out of the parking lot of Mansura Middle School, I propped myself up with a pillow and put my Walkman headphones on (Jurassic Park film soundtrack blaring). I followed the Campions–Charlie and Sally and baby LaVon–out of Nevada, running from the superflu that accidentally managed to escape its test tube and kill every single person on the base. But the Campions–they were infected, too.

When I read the book 20 years ago, I found myself more interested in the first “act” of the book–the spreading of the illness, meeting characters like Stu from Texas, Frannie from Maine, and Larry “Baby Can You Dig Your Man” Underwood from NYC. I cannot leave out the two characters who represent absolute “Good” and “Evil”: Mother Abagail and Randal Flagg. (King often likes to have absolutes in his stories, almost like the old westerns with the White-hat-hero and the Black-hat-villain).

My 14 year-old-self was almost bored by the time the “good” survivors had established the Free Zone of Boulder and the “evil” survivors had moved in Vegas to do the bidding of Randall Flagg. Though many people didn’t, I loved the Deus Ex Machina ending, perhaps because I remember my childhood being filled with stories like that–Death Stars exploding and DeLoreans making it up to 88 mph and four nerdy guys crossing the streams and killing the giant-marshmallow-deamon.

In 2009, a comic book version of the tale landed on shelves and as this was around the time that I had taken an interest in comics, I picked these up, too. While I found them enjoyable, I think they take something away from what I like most about reading a Stephen King novel–using the power of my own imagination to imagine the horrors that he describes.

Now, 20 years after hefting open the giant tome on a charter bus ride to DC, I purchased the Kindle version for my re-read. I enjoy the feel of turning pages, but my decade-long job in a coffee shop has done a number on my wrists. I chose this time to let the weight of the story itself supersede the weight of the ACTUAL book.

I’ve probably read about 15 Stephen King books and short stories since The Stand, but the narrative-style in this novel still grabs me. Chapter 8, in particular is quite astounding. The way King describes the ever-so-easy spread of Captain Tripps (the name of the super-flu), in the course of a 6-page chapter is absolutely one of the neatest things that I have ever read.

There are so many movies, novels, comics, and video games these days that focus on post-apocalyptic dystopias. The zombie and pandemic genres have really taken off in the past decade or so and it’s an interesting reflection on what we as audience members crave to ingest. A friend of mine once said that a good zombie story isn’t about the zombies at all, but rather how the humans react, respond, and survive.

During this reading, I found myself still interested in the same characters as before, but some that I initially ignored now spoke to me more clearly. For example, Glen Bateman, a community college sociology teacher and amateur philosopher sums my friend’s zombie-story-philosophy idea rather well and always says interesting thing.

As I’ve grown older I find myself drawn more to nostalgia, and while 20 years ago I was more interested in Fran’s journal full of her crush on Stu, I now love that she also ended each entry with a list of “things to remember,” like bands that were popular and ads that were predominant and slang terms that kids would use to describe things that were cool. I suppose now, with the digital archiving of Twitter,  as long as the servers hold, we will have access to our own “things to remember.” But what if the archives don’t hold? Fran’s journal seems that more important.

Speaking of Twitter, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how different things are now than when The Stand was published. While things weren’t exactly stone-age in 1978 (Star Wars and Ataris, man!), social media, smart phones and the Internet were quite a few years away. Most homes now don’t even have landlines and we use wireless Internet, and our televisions are tuned into satellites.

What happens if all of that were to just go away?

Other forms of media have addressed this possibility.  One of my OTHER favorite novels these days is World War Z by Max Brooks, and I think it makes a fine companion read to The Stand. I think that King addresses the issue just as coherently though, and years before our “softening through social media” (as a character like Ralph might suggest).

King has said that The Lord of the Rings books inspired his writing of The Stand, and even goes so far as to quote from the books when Larry and Rita, his first companion traveler, leave New York City.

“The way leads ever on…”

I see this more now. There are characters that are somewhere in the gray areas and some that start off not-so-great who end up being pretty swell–Larry Underwood for example. However, Good vs. Evil and an epic battle between the two can still be considered the underlying theme.

20 years since I picked up this book. So much has happened. The Twin Towers. Saddam and Bin Laden are dead, but we still have Drones. No world peace, yet, it would seem.

20 years of my own life passed. High School and College. My dad passing away. Marriage.

20 years of technological achievement in filmmaking to create new stories or make old ones come to life anew–The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. LOST (the latter FREQUENTLY drew from The Stand by the way).

E-books. Heck, between digital publishing and Project Gutenberg, more people have access to THOUSANDS of published works with a few clicks or typed search-parameters.

20 years and perspective and experience.

I think more now on Bateman and Ralph, and what lessons we learn from them. I think of Stu and Frannie still, but not in a giggly-romance sort of way. I think of them as the helpmates they became to each other.

I was initially going to write about Harold Lauder and how his ledger of those who wronged him reminded me so much of that man in California who killed all of those people, but I will just touch on it by saying that we should all recognize rising above that. No one owes us anything, but we owe to ourselves to be the best individuals that we can be.

These are the things that I have taken away from this reading of The Stand.

My original copy was a paperback and it has long since been demolished by re-reading and lending. I am glad that I have an e-copy in my Kindle Library, right along with The Shining and It. On my bookshelf however, I have a wonderful hardcover reprinting, with added notes and forwards and the additional text that was added after the 1978 first-printing. It sits next to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park.

Noel’s Things to Remember:
— The internet was once REALLY slow, and if someone picked up the phone you were going to have fightin-words.
— There were things called “memes” and things called “.gifs” and places called Reddit and 4chan and Tumblr where we filled our time when we should be writing blogs about novels we once read.
–Good narrative is important, and a good story along WITH it makes for a tale that can be revisited.
–Happiness is there or it is not, but Security, and Trust, and Contentment, even during adversity–those are what we NEED.

Amen. May I be here to take The Trip(p) again, in another 20 years, with even MORE perspective.

Noel's photo

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Noel Smith needs to read, write, and go out more. She enjoys Pop Culture, Disney Theme Park and Company History, and watching Criterion movies with her husband. She’s slightly clumsy, so she chose to improve her posture with the hardback of The Stand while she re-read it using an e-reader. She thanks Em for this chance to write again, and misses their days watching Curling matches and quality films such as Breakin’. The rest is for Jim.

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The Re-Reading Project: The Forbidden Game

Jenny glanced back over her shoulder. They were still behind her, on the other side of the street but definitely following. They matched their pace to hers; when she slowed to pretend to look in a store window, they slowed, too.

There were two of them, one dressed in a black T-shirt and leather vest, with a black bandanna on his head, the other in a long flannel shirt, black-and-blue plaid, unbuttoned. Also unwashed. They both looked like trouble.

The game store was a few block ahead. Jenny quickened her pace a little. This wasn’t the best neighborhood in town, and she’d come here specifically because she didn’t want any of her friends to see her. She hadn’t realized, though, that Eastman Avenue had gotten quite so rough. After the last riots, the police had cleared things up, but many of the vandalized stores still had boarded windows, which gave Jenny a creeping feeling between her shoulder blades. They were like bandaged eyes turned toward her.

I’m fairly sure that The Forbidden Game trilogy were the first books of L.J. Smith‘s that I read, probably around the time they were published in 1994. By the time I started tracking my reading in 1996, I was already an earnest L.J. Smith fan and had read most of her books. Between 1994 and 2000, I re-read all of L.J. Smith’s book compulsively and if I remember correctly, The Forbidden Game was my favorite series during this time.

Emilie's original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

Emilie’s original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

Most of L.J.’s books feature teenagers dealing with extraordinary circumstances or creatures with minor adult supervision. Sometimes, as in The Forbidden Game, they are relatively normal teenagers. Later, L.J. would write about the psychically gifted, a coven of modern-day witches, vampires, and more in her other series. But The Forbidden Game is like Labyrinth meets Jumanji meets Norse mythology. Maybe it’s because I just re-watched Labyrinth (on a huge screen outdoors in a field by the river with food trucks nearby, perfect), but I totally suspect now, as an adult, that L.J. might have modeled Julian from The Forbidden Game on Jareth from Labyrinth.

In 1998, I was 16 and I moved from my hometown in Georgia to Mandeville, Louisiana (a suburb north of New Orleans, across Lake Ponchartrain). This is my cut-off for the books I’m reading during The Re-Reading Project and it was also a pivotal year for L.J., who stopped publishing for more than a decade. Stranded in unbearably humid Louisiana as a surly teenager, I re-read all my L.J. books and sought out other L.J. fans online. The Internet was relatively new to the casual home user and I explored webrings (remember those?) and e-mail during that first summer away from everything I knew. I also wrote my first book and I was heavily influenced by L.J.’s books when I wrote it, especially The Secret Circle. By the time I went off to college in 2000, L.J.’s fans still didn’t know what had happened to her and were still waiting for her to publish the last book of a 10-book series which was supposed to wrap up before the new millennium. All of this feels like ancient history to me now, but that last book, Strange Fate, still hasn’t been published, which I’ve written about here before.

At the end of my earlier post about L.J. Smith and Strange Fate, I’d noted that she’d been fired from writing The Vampire Diaries and that new books were being written by a ghostwriter. There’s a really good Wall Street Journal article I just found while researching for this post that talks about what happened and how L.J. is using fanfiction to write and publish her version of new Vampire Diaries books. It’s a very bizarre (and cautionary) story. It also explains why she stopped writing for a decade.

So while I’ve never read the two stand-alone books that L.J. first wrote, though she was only publishing actively for less than ten years (particularly 1994-1998), she managed to create several series that had an enormous impact on me as a person and a writer. But, in college, I mostly put the books away. While I’ve always had them on my bookshelves (till now, they’re in storage), I haven’t re-read them. Starting around 2008, all of her books were republished in shiny new omnibuses and both The Secret Circle and The Vampire Diaries were made into t.v. shows. New books were published for both series (which I haven’t read). Out of nostalgia mostly, I bought the reissues of all the books and even some of the new books, but I still didn’t re-read them. I was afraid that the experience of reading them could never be the same as it was when I was a 14-16 year old and that somehow the books would be diminished.

But when I started thinking about doing The Re-Reading Project, I knew that I would have to re-read something by L.J. Smith. I thought for a long time before I decided on The Forbidden Game, since it was my first series of hers and my favorite. So I dug both the original copies and my big omnibus edition out of storage. They were in a box that a friend helping me pack one day had labeled:Emilie's Formative Years

When the time came to read this month’s selection, I was once more in D.C. I’d read an engrossing thriller on my Kindle during the flight and started a Gillian Flynn book once I arrived (wait for the Quarterly Reading Report!) and I found myself dreading The Forbidden Game a bit. It was too big to fully ignore, but silently reproached me every time I passed it while carrying my slim, engrossing Gillian Flynn novel. Finally, I picked it up and began reading.

Forbidden Game 2010

At first, all my worse fears came true. I was bored. I thought Jenny and her boyfriend Tom were about as interesting as cardboard. Julian, the bad guy, was a little too reminiscent of Jareth. All of Jenny’s friends, the background characters, were marginally more interesting, but they also felt a little too purposefully cast (Audrey, the globe-trotting rich girl, Michael the schlubby funny guy who somehow won her, Zach the sullen anti-social computer nerd/artist, Summer the ditzy but sweet flower child and Dee the athletic black girl). But, as the story progressed, I was turning pages faster and faster, remembering why I’d liked the book and the characters and finding new nuances and details that the younger me wouldn’t have noticed, particularly in each of the character’s fears as they encounter them. I don’t remember being particularly interested in the second book when I first read the series, but that was the one that came alive to me now, especially the difficulties that the friends face now that they’ve returned to the real world without one of their own. The third book is interesting for all the ways that Jenny has changed, especially in her relationship with Dee and with Julian, and also because of the “road trip” aspect of the kids having to finish the game in a different state. The details of how they get from California to Pennsylvania are hilarious. In a pre-9/11 world, they fly across the country with, among other things, a crowbar in a duffel bag. Since I had just flown for the first time in a long while and was baffled how I was going to wash my long hair for 10 days with less than 3 ounces of shampoo, that was something I especially noticed.

Except for that and a few other small things here and there (the clothes! and the phone situation in book 2), the books aren’t as dated as I thought they’d be. While reading them now, at 32 years old, could never be the same as my experience reading them as a teenager, I was pleased about how enjoyable re-reading them was, both as an exercise in nostalgia and for their own sake. I prefer the original covers, which give you an idea of what the game world and Julian look like, over the rather static picture of an updated Jenny alone, which is why I included them above. Plus, a book as heavy as the omnibus can really kill your wrists (but it did lay open very satisfyingly).

I’m not sure when I’ll re-read any more L.J. Smith books, but I’m no longer afraid to. Perhaps I’ll go back and finally read The Night of the Solstice and Heart of Valor, her first too books. If you look at her website and her Wikipedia page, L.J. Smith has plans for new installments of this series too, in addition to Strange Fate. She plans a fourth book for both the Dark Visions series, as well as The Forbidden Game (called Rematch!). I suppose I could always re-read each series when and if each of these new books is published. Should be interesting to see if it comes to pass and how old I am when it does.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Children’s and Household Tales

The wolf thought to himself, “What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful—she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act carefully, so as to catch both.” So he walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said, “See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here—why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.”

Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought, “Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time!” and so she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers. And whenever she had picked one, she fancied that she saw a still prettier one farther on, and ran after it, and so got deeper and deeper into the wood.

When I was a girl, the tales my mother told at bedtime weren’t fictions. They were the lens through which I saw the world, the overlay I superimposed over my experience. I dropped bread crumbs in the deep dark woods behind my house. I told my little brother and sister about the witch who lived in our rotting barn. I heard her cackle, a high wheezing sound like the wind during hurricane season. At night, when I looked out of my window at the dizzy moon, I heard the howl of the wolf.

I can still hear my mother’s voice, telling the tales she told me when I was little. I loved those stories, and I was thrilled when my father gave me a beautiful edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales – collected with Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen –to read by myself. At six or seven, I stayed up, late at night, reading and rereading those stories.

Mary and Grimm

When I had my own daughter, three years ago, I looked forward to telling her the tales of the Brothers Grimm. But when I picked up my book to reread them, I had an altogether different experience than the one I had as a girl. The awe and wonder I once felt for these tales quickly faded as I noticed their underlying assumptions about gender: Why does Little Red Riding Hood fall for the wolf’s scam?, I wondered. Is her head filled with nothing but flowers and sunbeams? And how convenient that the huntsman happens to pass by just in time to save her from the belly of the wolf.

Another of my childhood favorites, “Rapunzel,” was similarly disappointing, this read, especially the moment when the title character accidentally reveals her affair with the prince. Apparently lacking the intellectual capacity to deceive her captor, Rapunzel slips up while the enchantress climbs her hair, saying: “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son—he is with me in a moment.”

Scattered throughout the book are a few stronger heroines. There is Grethel from “Hansel and Grethel,” who pushes the “godless witch” from the gingerbread-house into the oven. There is the miller’s daughter in “Rumplestiltskin,” who despite weeping a great deal in the beginning takes a semi-active role in defeating the little man at the end. (Both my daughter and I take great pleasure in the moment when she guesses his name, and he cries out miserably, “The devil told you that! the devil told you that!”) And there is the heroic sister in “Seven Ravens” who travels “to the very end of the world,” where the sun and moon try and fail to devour her on her way to save her seven brothers. But by and large, the magic and simple beauty of these tales is marred by the overabundance of wicked old women and foolish damsels in distress.

So how did these tales, which likely began as stories told by women to women and children, become so problematic? When I finished rereading Children’s and Household Tales, I decided to find out. It turns out Little Red Riding Hood – titled “Little Red-Cap” in my translation after the German “Rotkäppchen” – is first referenced as a 10th century oral French story folklorists call “The Story of Grandmother.” In this early incarnation, instead of needing rescue, Red cleverly escapes the wolf on her own by telling him she has to relieve herself. But in the first version of the tale to appear in print, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (1697), male author Charles Perrault includes no such happy ending: Red strips for the Wolf, gets into bed with him, and is eaten. In a moralizing message at the end of the tale, Perrault uses a double entendre likening “gentle wolves” to predatory gentlemen “following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes.” The Brothers Grimm, it seems, added the now-popular ending of a heroic huntsman cutting Red and her grandmother from the belly of the wolf in their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812).

A similar pattern of the heroine gradually weakening over time can be seen in the history of the Rapunzel tale. In all versions of the story, the basic pattern is the same: a mother craves a plant while pregnant, eats it, and the owner of the garden takes the child as payment. Then the child is placed in a magical tower, where a prince falls in love with her and climbs up her hair. In the first version to be published in print, “Petrosinella,” by Giambattista Basile (1634), a gossip tattles on the maiden’s nighttime activities with the prince, rather than the maiden betraying herself, and the maiden plots her own escape using three magical nuts. In the next known variant, Persinette (1698), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force has the maiden betray her own affair with the prince by complaining to her captor that her dress is getting tighter, but adds the bit about the power of the maiden’s tears to heal the prince’s blindness at the end. The Grimms’ version (1812) has the weakest heroine,  with “Rapunzel” making the foolish mistake of admitting that the prince has been “with her” and only being reunited with the prince when he stumbles blindly upon her in the wilderness.

The gradual weakening of the heroines of these tales –from the stronger girls of earlier variants to the “tender young creature[s]” of the Brothers Grimm – makes me wonder what has been lost, over the centuries, as these stories have been told and retold in print. What details might we reclaim from the past, or add for the future, so that our children will see more than tender young creatures, wicked witches, and wolves in the world?

***Mary McMyne Wolf Skin

Mary McMyne is the author of Wolf Skin (Dancing Girl Press, 2014)a chapbook of poems that retell European folktales from alternate perspectives, such as the huntsman from Little Red Riding Hood, the witch from Rapunzel, and the woodcutter’s wife from Hansel and Gretel. She teaches at Lake Superior State University, where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing. Her stories and poems have appeared in Word Riot, Pedestal Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Apex Magazine, New Myths, New Delta Review, Poetry International, and many other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. Her criticism has appeared in American Book Review. A recipient of the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award for her fiction, she is currently at work on a novel set in 12th century Germany, which speculates about the historical roots of several well-known fairy tales.

 

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The Re-Reading Project: Lion’s Bride

December 3, 1188 Gates of Constantinople

“I have it!”

Thea whirled to see Selene running through the city gates toward her. The child’s red hair had come loose from her braid and was flowing wildly down her back, and her narrow chest was lifting and falling as she tried to catch her breath. She must have run all the way from the House of Nicholas.

Selene thrust a large straw basket at Thea. “I told you they wouldn’t see me do it.” She glanced at the long line of camels and wagons that had already begun moving down the road. “I couldn’t get away earlier. I think Maya was watching me.”

“You shouldn’t have taken the risk.” Thea set the basket on the ground and knelt to hug Selene. “I would have found a way to do without it.”

“But it will be easier now.” Selene’s thin arms tightened around Thea’s neck. “You’re taking so many risks. I had to do something.”

My last re-reading experience was a romance novel, The Princess, and in my post, I said of author Iris Johansen, “I thought her early thrillers and romance novels were wonderful, but that annoying Eve Duncan character just kept popping up and suddenly all of Johansen’s books seemed like 300-page cookie cutters with the names replaced. I’m afraid to re-read her romance novels, honestly, though I’ve considered trying in light of this project.” Pretty much the second I finished my post, I knew that I had just challenged myself to re-read one of Johansen’s romance novels. And very quickly, I knew I had to re-read the first of her romances I read. I had to go dig it out of storage, but I accepted my challenge and started reading.

I hadn’t re-read Lion’Lion's Brides Bride since 2005 and that was the last one of her romance novels that I read (except for The Treasure in 2011, for the first time). As I admitted in my last post (quoted above), I was afraid to re-read any of the romances, since I’d been increasingly disappointed with Iris Johansen’s thrillers in the past decade and especially in light of the way The Princess felt to me re-reading it now.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and easy it was to read Lion’s Bride after all this time. Yes, at times is was unrealistic and a tiny bit cheesy, and I could see the blueprint of later protagonists in the main character, Thea. So many times, Johansen uses stubbornness as a shortcut for strength in her female characters, male characters, too. There are very distinctive character types in the Johansen arsenal, whether she’s writing thriller or romance, and I feel like most of them exist here. But, in Lion’s Bride, it was easy to remember that these characters once blew my socks off, because before I read versions of them in dozens of later Johansen books, they felt unique and groundbreaking.

The setting, the Middle East during the Crusades with the Knights Templar and the Crusaders as more villains than heroes, was also incredibly unique. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a romance novel set during this time period. Johansen’s protagonist is a Greek woman who was raised as a slave in a silk house in Constantinople and Johansen used a period and culture where women were very restricted and showed how a woman would attempt to make a life for herself and her sister within it. I found that pretty interesting. Also, Thea embroiders a banner in the book that helps to put her in both a powerful and dangerous position and I liked that Thea used “women’s work” in order to protect and provide for herself.

Lion’s Bride came a pivotal juncture for Johansen, after decades of writing romances and right before she made the leap to thrillers. She might’ve already been paving the way for her transition with Thea and this story.

The first book I ever read of Johansen’s was The Ugly Duckling, her first stand alone thriller. I found it at a garage sale and read it in probably one sitting. This was most likely sometime in 1997, when I was fifteen years old. I’d been reading Dean Koontz books for years, had started reading Harlequins and “real” romance novels the year before and around this same time, I would become obsessed with the mystery/thrillers of Jonathan Kellerman. My mom started reading them too and we would swap them back and forth.

The Ugly Duckling was like nothing else I’d ever read and as soon as I finished, I made my mom take me to the bookstore to see if this Iris Johansen lady had any more books. I found her second thriller, Long After Midnight, and — what a coincidence — a romance novel called Lion’s Bride. I tried to act all nonchalant as I used my allowance to buy them both, but I think this was the first hardcore romance novel I bought new at a bookstore, instead of at a secondhand store or taken stealthily off my mom’s shelves as I did with The Princess. I read both of these two books and then when I went to do some research, I discovered that Johansen had started out writing Harlequins in the 80s. Her third thriller And Then You Die… wasn’t out yet, but she’d already published eight historical standalone romance novels and a trilogy which started out as historical and ended as contemporary. So, while I was waiting for that third thriller, I read lots and lots of romance novels by Iris Johansen.

I loved them, pure and simple. I think these were the books that kept me reading romance for a long time and while I’ve dabbled in other authors over the years, Johansen was the pinnacle of romance for me. Until I read Gaelen Foley’s books. She remains the only romance author who I still read each time a new book comes out.

Johansen’s fourth thriller was Face of Deception, her first featuring Eve Duncan and this was the beginning of my disappointment. I didn’t like Eve Duncan and to date, she’s written 18 novels featuring her. There were long stretches were there weren’t any new books that didn’t feature her. And what had felt unique and interesting in her novels before (both thrillers and romance) was starting to feel repetitive by 1999 when The Killing Game, the second Eve Duncan book came out.

Re-reading Lion’s Bride reminded me why my more recent disappointment with Johansen’s books has been so sharp – because I really, really loved her books when I was very young. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and she lived very close to my hometown. In fact, while doing research for this post, I saw something about her house being for sale and there are all these incredible photos of the mansion. It’s an incredible house, but the only room that makes me envious is the library/office space.

In addition to writing the 18 Eve Duncan books, Johansen writes books about other characters with her son Roy, none of which I’ve read yet. I recently made an attempt to catch up with all of Johansen’s recent books, including the Eve Duncan trilogy Eve, Quinn and Bonnie, where Bonnie’s disappearance/death is finally solved. I thought these were the last Eve Duncan books, but since my attempt to catch up a few years ago, Johansen has published another trilogy of Eve Duncan books and her website says that the character will return in 2015. There may be no finale for Eve Duncan, and as annoying as I find the character, as disappointed as I’ve been by the recent books, I’m probably going to read this new trilogy too, because I just have to know what happens. And I’m actually pretty excited to read the new standalone novel coming out in September.

So, even after all of these years, just when I think I’m done with Iris Johansen, she pulls me right back in.

 

 

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The Re-Reading Project: The Princess

Key West, Florida – 1942

J.T. Montgomery stretched his long legs out in the motorboat, resting his injured calf against one of the crates in the bottom of the boat. He was the remarkably handsome product of generations of remarkably handsome people. His dark hair had been cut too short by the navy but that did not detract from his good looks: brilliant blue eyes, lips that could be as cold as marble or as soft and sweet as the balmy air surrounding him, a slight cleft in his chin, and a nose that on a smaller man would have been too large. His mother called it the Montgomery nose and said it was God’s attempt to protect their faces from all the fists aimed by people who didn’t like the Montgomery hardheadedness.

This is the post in which I confess my early addiction to romance novels. It was the summer of 1996 and I was 14 years old. We lived in a suburb of Atlanta called Marietta. Everybody was going crazy finishing the preparations for the summer Olympics. I was bored and had read all of my books several times, so I snuck an inappropriate book off my mother’s bookshelf. That book was Jude Deveraux‘s The Princess, published in 1987 (when I was 5). Each day, I read for a few hours, memorized the page number and then slipped the book back on the shelf before my mom came home. It took me longer to read than normal because I had to be sneaky, since I thought I wasn’t supposed to be reading it. My mother never seemed particularly interested in censoring my reading (I read my first Dean Koontz at age 10!), but it didn’t seem like the kind of book I should carry around the house for all to see.

The Princess cover

In fact, I was so scared and later embarrassed to be seen reading romance that I later stuck the book into a slipcover, where it has remained, on my bookshelf, ever since.

It wasn’t my first romance novel, not quite. Once, while staying with my grandmother and aunt in Ohio, I discovered a shelf of Harlequin romance novels, all published around 1986 to maybe 1989. They all featured strong, career-minded women (in bold 80s power suits) falling in love with intractable men, often in exotic locales. They were, almost without exception, between 186 and 187 pages long, so I could easily read 2 a day, even though they already felt ridiculously dated just a few years after they were published. Because they were the same size as a lot of the books I was already reading (Christopher Pike, Richie Tankersly Cusick, Lurlene McDaniel and L.J. Smith) and because there wasn’t really any sex in them, the Harlequins didn’t seem inappropriate. My aunt even shipped her whole set of 1980s Harlequins to me after my visit and I must’ve re-read each of them several times before I bought new ones at the used bookstore (10 cents each, even in 1996).

There’s actually not a lot of sex in The Princess, either. More suggestions of sex. But when you’re a precocious bookworm of a 14 year old in 1996, a little sex seems like lurid stuff. I remember thinking this book was very romantic, a cross between Roman Holiday and Candleshoe, with some Anastasia thrown in. I have read lots and lots of romance novels since I was 14 (and I still read every Gaelen Foley book pretty much the second it’s published), but I’ve never re-read my first until now. In many ways, it has stood alone among all other romance novels in my imagination over the years – partly because it was my first “real” romance novel, partly because I don’t think I’ve ever read any others set during World War I and partly because while it is named The Princess, it is more J.T.’s story in many ways.

The fact that we start with him is a bit unusual (not exactly rare, but not typical, as romance novels are usually weighted more toward the female character, in my experience). The Princess (Aria) doesn’t appear until page 9 and doesn’t speak until page 11. We don’t get her perspective until Chapter Two (page 13). They’re both relatively stock types (I might be the only person on the planet who judges romance novels for their characters), but on the re-read, now, as a 32-year-old with lots more experience (with romance novels and in life), I just didn’t like either one of them. J.T. is autocratic and passionate, but I sometimes suspect he has a personality disorder. Aria is a shallow flake whose intelligence is really inconsistent, even taking into consideration she’s been kidnapped while on foreign soil and doesn’t understand a lot of what’s around her. They’re both incredibly mean and then randomly (and unbelievably) open and warm. I don’t buy that they’re falling for each other or that either one of them is learning or changing as an individual person (which are the things that characters usually do in romance novels). I was really disappointed.

Until about page 200, almost near the end of the book. Once they return to Aria’s homeland, I actually start caring a bit about them. It made me wish that the American misadventure of the first 200 pages had been collapsed down to about 50 pages, so we could get to the good stuff sooner. And then, of course, the nefarious plot to assassinate Aria (hardly the main point of the book, though it is the plot) is wrapped up in about a page and J.T. and Aria end up happily ever after in a surprise twist. That’s sarcasm, but not really, because it is surprising that two unlikable stock characters do end up somewhat convincingly in love with each other at the end.

I’m being a little harsh, because I’m grumpy that The Princess doesn’t stand the test of time for me. The same way I was getting grumpy reading the Stephanie Plumb books and the Sookie Stackhouse series. Once you read something that feels new, you really want it to follow through, and not resort to swiftly wrapped up plots and stock characters or easy tropes. Which reminds me of an author who makes me the grumpiest – Iris Johansen. I thought her early thrillers and romance novels were wonderful, but that annoying Eve Duncan character just kept popping up and suddenly all of Johansen’s books seemed like a 300-page cookie cutters with the names replaced. I’m afraid to re-read her romance novels, honestly, though I’ve considered trying in light of this project. But essentially, the grumpiness comes after the thrill of discovering a new author or character, of falling a little in love and being disappointed down the road. And, it’s got to be hard to write something that feels new every time, especially when you’re writing as much and as fast as romance writers generally do.

Jude Deveraux was already a well-established author when she published The Princess (the copyright is held by Deveraux Inc.) and as many romance novelists do, she wrote several books about the Montgomery/Taggert families, characters related to J.T. I was surprised to read, while researching the post, she lost $20 million when she was victimized by a ring of con artists posing as psychics after the death of her young son. Not only did she participate in the indictment of the matriarch of the con artists, but she used her experience as inspiration for her book Scarlet Nights.

And while I never read another Jude Deveraux book after The Princess, I was fully hooked on romance for a while. I could say that I’ve wasted a lot of time reading what are usually only mediocre books, but I think that it was an education. Because, in a genre that relies so heavily on format, stereotypes and tropes, a genre that is generally disregarded, you have to be inventive and inspired to rise even an inch above mediocre. If  you’ve written twenty romance novels and they each have four to eight sex scenes in them, you have to get pretty creative when you’re writing a new sex scene, mostly by writing as if it’s your first sex scene. There are several sex scenes in my novel The Winter Circus and I’ve been told that I’m very good at writing them. I probably owe a lot of that to my history as a romance novel reader. Beyond this obvious takeaway, I think they’ve taught me not to disregard the power of sentiment. How can romance novels (or romantic comedy movies) make us invest, even if we feel like they are silly and unrealistic? Because they’re grounded in very real sentiments that we all feel and they’re unafraid of dealing with sentiment nakedly, as if it is something new.

I’ve considered writing romance novels, of course, but I think what might have inspired me to write them was not so much any romance novel I’ve read or what I know about the genre and industry, but the fantasy inspired by Romancing the Stone (which is still one of my all-time comfort movies and face it, basically a romance novel come to life):

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