Category Archives: literature

The 2017 Reading Project – February

In the January post, I indicated that I’ve added layers to my 2017 Reading Project (books I’ve “always” meant to read). The layer I added in February is: all fiction by writers of color. I allowed myself one exception since I was in the middle of re-reading a novel by a white British author when February 1st came around. As soon as I added this layer, dozens of books came to mind, books I’ve read reviews of recently, or have been meaning to read.

Some highlights of my February reading:

Clover, Dori Sanders – I heard about this book, originally published in 1990, because of Call Number, a CrateJoy book subscription box created by a librarian named Jamillah in order to help readers build a personal library of books by black authors. This book was the first selection. Clover’s voice is so compelling as she experiences the death of her father, living with her father’s new wife, a white woman, and her extended family’s grief. This is a coming-of-age story, as well as a story of a family coming to grips with death and a new family member at the same time. Clover’s relationship with her Aunt Everleen, especially as she butts heads and then becomes allies with Sara Kate, her stepmother, was moving.

hilda-and-the-troll---web_1000

The Hilda series, Luke Pearson – These large-sized comic books are mad and amazing. Hilda cannot resist an adventure and I love that best about her. What I also love about her (and this is going to sound weird) is that she’s not drawn or depicted as stereotypically “girlish.” She’s got blue hair and gigantic boots. She’s just this little being who’s very compassionate and curious and always saves the day (after she messes everything up). The art is incredible.

kindredKindred, Octavia E. Butler – This is my always-meant-to-read selection this month. Butler was recommended to me a few years ago, and of course her novel Parable of the Sower has come up recently (alongside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984) as being particularly relevant in our current political environment (/crisis). I listened to the audio version, narrated by Kim Staunton. My experience was similar to The Handmaid’s Tale in that I really enjoyed Staunton’s narration, even while wishing I’d read the book on the page (next time). Kindred is the story of Dana, a 1970s writer in California, who is somehow yanked back in time to a plantation in Maryland, where she saves the life of a young white boy. She returns back to her own time and her husband Kevin, only to return again and again to the plantation and the boy, Rufus, as he grows, each time protecting and saving him. Kindred reminded me of Outlander a bit, except set in more recent times (both the “present” and the “past” storylines are more recent), and of course the story of American slavery is still all-too relevant. Dana’s 1970s didn’t feel much removed from my 2017: her life felt very modern and distant from the past she journeys to. As Dana spends longer stretches of time on the plantation (as a slave, though she has special standing in the house because of her relationship with Rufus, the boy she saved), I was horrified by how she adjusts to slavery, how she is able to justify the actions of the plantation’s masters, even as she’s horrified at this herself. I was so scared for her, sad and angry for what she was suffering as a slave and what she was losing in her “real” life back home, and it was terrifyingly easy to imagine an 2017 version of Dana, of myself, in the story.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling with illustrations by Jim Kay – Here is my one exception. New large-sized editions of the Harry Potter series, illustrated anew by Jim Kay, are being released and I figured it was a great excuse to re-read. Mary GrandPre’s original illustrations have set a really high bar – so much of what we see in our head is because of her! – but Jim Kay has done a really fascinating job of adding new
dimensions, a slight twist to scenes and characters. It’s really remarkable.

Rad Women Worldwide, Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl – No princesses this mont28502749h, just rad women. I think the subtitle says it all – Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History. This book is so visually arresting that I recommended it to several people just by reading it publicly (which I did on purpose), but I’ve also recommended it to a lot of people – friends and teenagers, boys whenever I can. Girls and women need to know about these amazing women, but so do boys and men. I’ve been loving what I’ve been thinking of as “kick-ass women encyclopedias” and I’d included Wonder Women by Sam Maggs (read in December) and Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath (January) in that list, if you’re looking for more.

Mooncop, Tom Gauld – This graphic novel just showed up randomly, so I read it. It is literally about a cop on the moon, though I’d say it’s also about loneliness and human nature. This Goodreads review by Jan Philipzig says it best: “Sparse, subdued, existentialist, melancholy, wryly humorous, and maybe even a tad romantic: I liked it quite a bit. 3.5 stars, I’d say.”

Kick-Ass 1-3, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. – A friend recommended these and I’d liked the movies a. I have to admit: I’m really conflicted. The art is incredible, of course. The story is unique, compelling. There’s a Kill Bill-level of violence that’s just insane. But. Two things. One – these books should really be called Hit Girl. They’re really about her. She’s the interesting character, the one who keeps rescuing Kick-Ass over and over. There would be no story without her. And two – something happens in Volume 2 that angered me so much, because it involved casual and devastating violence that was entirely unexplored in the story. And it should’ve been explored. It just seemed lazy to me that it wasn’t, and also a damn shame. I finished the series, but I could never quite recover from that disappointment.

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward – Using James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as lens, or a seed, the essays in this anthology meditate on race in America now. I was moved – angered, inspired, saddened – over and over as I read one essay each day. I was finishing the anthology when I saw I Am Not Your Negro, so the essays I’d read inspired by Baldwin were literally in conversation with Baldwin in my head as I watched the film.

Zombillenium Vol 1-3, Arthur de Pins – Not entirely about zombies, this trilogy of comic books about a theme park run by monsters for human guests is funny, weird and often really, really dark.

Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile – I listened to the audio narrated by Miriam Hyman. Audio books are really making my commute so much more pleasant. I loved living with these characters for a few days. Charley Bordeleon moves from California when she inherits a Louisiana cane farm, feeling alien in a place that is fairly familiar to me. Not entirely, since I don’t have experience on cane farms, but it was still a cool experience to “know” some of the characters from my own experiences in Louisiana. It would be easy to view Charley’s brother Ralph Angel as “the bad guy” in the family dynamics, but since we get chapters told from his point of view and we know his intentions and his struggles, he’s impossible to dismiss. The idea that some family can’t be reunited or see each other’s side really resonated, but of course it was so sad. Charley’s struggle to work the farm and the way she gathers support and partners was probably my favorite aspect of the book.

Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel Jose Older – I’m a big fan of Daniel’s, having read both his young adult novel Shadowshaper and Long Hidden, the anthology he co-edited last year in preparation for a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival and his appearance at the library. I’ve been anticipating diving into his adult fantasy series, Bone Street Rumba, the third of which was just published in January. This first book does a ton of world building, offering a glimpse of an otherworldly and gentrified Brooklyn, and introduces a fascinating cast of non-corporeal and somewhat-corporeal characters. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, considering where this first book left off.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead – I loved Whitehead’s novel Zone One (another zombie book that’s not really about zombies) back in 2012., so I’ve been wanting to read his newest novel since it was published. The tension in Zone One was unreal and Whitehead definitely used his skill for tension in The Underground Railroad. I read it in about two days, completely gripped by the story of Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation and her desperate journey for freedom after that escape. I was entirely captured as a reader, and as a writer, I was just in awe of the skill with which Whitehead delivered this masterful novel. [He came to New Orleans shortly after I read the book, so I got to see him read from the book and discuss it, which was an incredible experience.]

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah – I listened to the audio of this memoir, which was a little less than 9 hours, during a spring cleaning binge and I was completely blown away by Noah’s narration. There’s just nothing like hearing someone tell you their story. And Noah is incredible at accents and voices. He says in the story that he picked up numerous South African languages during his childhood and this ability to speak to people in their language got him in and out of a lot of experiences. He uses that skill here, speaking and even singing in a variety of languages and accents. He’s an incredible writer, too, invoking scenes so vividly that I felt like I was sharing my house with a host of people whose lives were foreign to me, but who felt so familiar by the end of the story.

I read (or listened to) 32 books (and one issue of a comic book) in February, and these are the highlights.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2017 Reading Project, books, literature, what I'm reading, Writers and Poets

Quarterly Progress Report: 2015 Q1

Alright now, it’s been a while. You and I both know this, so I’m just ‘fessing up. Since I’ve been pretty quiet this year and because two of my favorite regular posts are the annual end of the year homework and the quarterly reading reports, I thought I’d just smash them together to create a quarterly progress report. Whether this will be a one-timer or a series remains to be seen – let me know what your thoughts are, if it’s something you’d like to see again or not.

Updates on 2015, my life and goals so far:

1. This blog: I’ve been writing and maintaining a blog fairly consistently since 2008 and it’s been a lot of fun. I started out writing 10+ posts a month, sometimes as many as 20-25 during NaNoWriMo in November. The world of blogging has changed so much since 2008, as has my personal and professional life, so there have been different iterations of this blog in that time and that’s the beauty of it, I think, watching it stretch and mutate to become what is most necessary and fun for me at any given time. I think the blog will be undergoing a new iteration soon and I’m in a phase of figuring out what I need from it. I’m crowdsourcing information from a group of other bloggers (look for their links on the right, under Band of Bloggers) and I would genuinely love to know your thoughts, whether you’ve been reading for a long time or catch the occasional random post, whether its in the comments or privately (my email is on my bio page).

2. My low-key New Year’s resolution: During the last few years, my email inbox has become a terrifying place, unproductive and chaotic, a black hole into which good information and correspondence have disappeared. Last year, I had more than 2,000 unread messages in my inbox (not in folders, inbox). Without quite intending to (at first), I started doing something about this late last year, picking up steam as I went. I stopped subscriptions to a lot of email newsletters, switched from daily to weekly in some cases, and deleted dozens of emails in batches. When 2015 started, I had fewer than 200 emails in my inbox, going back to 2012 and I have been steadily dealing with these, as well as developing better and faster data and correspondence management techniques that work for my personality and schedule. As I write this, I have fewer than 25 emails in my inbox, the oldest one is dated 3/1 and I intend, moving forward, to keep it that way. This might seem like an incredibly tedious, nerdy and anal retentive task to update you about however, this took so much patience and I feel such a sense of accomplishment that I just had to mention it.

3. Reading and re-reading: After the blowout success of last year’s Re-Reading Project, I had plans to keep going with new titles and more guest posts. I think a project of the same magnitude of last year’s, especially without having a list of titles in advance or any prep done, was just too overwhelming. The book titles I’d planned to read at the front end of the year were all massive and depressing and I just couldn’t do it in the depths of the winter. I haven’t re-read a single book this year. And on the reading front… well… I’ve been slacking off there, too. I’ve read some really amazing books this year, which I’ll tell you about in the Q1 Reading Report soon. I started off with 10 titles in January, a really decent number. But then I only read 5 in February. As for March…I haven’t finished a single book in March, which is an entirely unprecedented experience in my life (to my recall). I *have* been reading, of course, but mostly articles and excerpts of other work (Delanceyplace newsletter is one I kept, as well as the Smithsonian newsletter and NPR’s book and music podcasts). I’ve been reading one massive encyclopedia-esque book since last year and browsing some other books. Also, I sat down and read through the first 60+ pages of the memoir and have been recently re-reading the blog as part of my impending revamp. I’m sure I’ll finish at least one actual physical book this month… [I actually finished reading 2 books since I began writing this post.]

4. Home sweet home: In early 2014, I moved for the second time in 6 months and spent the rest of the year in a tiny temporary apartment. It was a hot mess when I first moved in and after some renovation and the repurposing of things I’d had forever, as well as things I inherited from friends when they moved, it became my home. It was in an area of town I’d never spent much time in and had always gotten lost in before, yet I started digging the neighborhood almost immediately. It was never supposed to be permanent, but it suits me so utterly, which has taken me by surprise. It was looking like I’d have to move again (3rd time in 18 months), so I started 2015 completely devastated, having realized how much I loved the place and how hard it was going to be to find a new home. Then, on my birthday, I got the news that I could stay for the foreseeable future. Very often, I look around my cozy apartment and think, “I’m so glad I live here.”

5. Eating right: One of my proudest moments of 2014 was when a friend looked in my fridge and said, “Hey, what’s with all this green stuff?” It’s only gotten “worse” (or better, more like) since then. I am now cooking and preparing the majority of my meals, eating at home far more often than I eat out. While I did eat canned soup for lunch pretty much every workday for three months (winter sucks, y’all), most every other meal was prepared using fresh and local ingredients. At the farmers market on my way home from work last week, I was telling the tomato vendor about the great sandwiches I’ve been making with her tomatoes and her market neighbor’s bread, as well as the kale from the vendor at the far end of the market. I told the baker (who’s become a friend) how the 8 people at the recent Peauxdunque retreat ate off one of her loaves of rustic white bread for two different meals (breakfast, paired with homemade apple butter and dinner, alongside my spaghetti). I let the citrus man talk me into a second bag of grapefruit on the promise they’d keep well in the fridge for weeks (and his grapefruit are so sweet I never use sugar on them). While I’ve been cooking quinoa without incident for a while, I was so excited to cook dinner for a friend that I cooked waaaay too much and then had to share several more meals with friends just to get all the quinoa eaten up. Happy accident. This has become my hobby, entertainment, passion, all in one, which makes for a very good investment.

6. Writing is my life: I’ve streamlined my life a great deal in order to write as much as possible. I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., get to the coffeeshop when it opens at 6:30 and write for an hour before work. Sometimes I meditate before my writing session. After work, I come home and cook dinner and prep the next day’s lunch, occasionally meditate, maybe talk to some friends or watch a movie and go to bed pretty early. I still dance tango once or twice a week, but that’s been pretty much all of my socializing outside my house. (Except for occasional literary events like Delta Mouth and the Tennessee Williams Festival). Except for going to the farmers market, I do nothing else regularly. This hibernation worked very well for me during the winter when it was miserably cold and got dark so early. I’ll probably be shaking it up a bit now that it’s getting warmer. But I know that, despite not being a morning person, I really treasure my hour of writing in the morning (even if the hour is actually only 15 or 20 minutes because I’m running late), so I will work hard to maintain that habit.

7. Traveling: Despite my craving for stability and structure, I really love the way travel shakes things up, energizes me and throws everything into a bit of chaos. I’ve already traveled twice this year. First, 36 hours in Portland, Oregon for ValenTango (and to see my brother) last month. Then, two days on a “ridge” near Nashville for Peauxdunque’s annual writing retreat last weekend. I’ve also recently spent a weekend in Baton Rouge, which was an odd and wonderful “staycation” experience in a city where I once lived for several years. It was a blast from the past that united family, friends from several eras of my life, a literary reading, a tango house party, a visit to a museum and several drives through campus. I hope to visit Atlanta soon and maybe carve out some time for a New York City adventure. Let’s see.

That’s the nuts and bolts about what’s been going on the last three months. You’ll be getting a Q1 Reading Report soon and perhaps a reinvigorated, reconfigured bragging on post (or series…). In the meantime, don’t forget to comment or drop me a note about what you’ve enjoyed about this blog and what you might like to see more of here and from me.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Baton Rouge, food, literature, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading, writing updates

2014 Q4 Reading Report

Oh goodness, is this Reading Report overdue. I meant to post this early in January,  but here it is the end of the month and this is my first post of 2015. Ah well, better late than never, right? I read some great books during the last quarter of 2014, as you’ll see below. And I also tweeted about some of my reading as I read, so you’ll get some bonus photos, to make up for being so late.

October

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult – I listened to the audiobook on the long drive from Philadelphia to Atlanta at the tail end of the Residency Road Trip. One of the most surprising things about this book, considering how sad the premise is, was that it was easy to get engrossed in the story behind the sadness. It was interesting on a legal, moral, emotional and very human level. I cared deeply about the characters, even when they were being totally annoying or foolish. It felt like a play that came alive in my car as I drove, which was really helpful considering I was on the road for over twelve hours.

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes – Bought this at a sale at my hometown library. I was aware of it from how well it sold at the bookstore while I was working there, but I didn’t really know what it’s about before I started reading. It’s an incredibly grim subject matter (especially considering the book I read previous to this one), but it’s not a story that’s grimly told. Somehow, the book manages to have the blithe lightness of a romantic comedy, while very intelligently and responsibly addressing a controversial, highly charged subject. I flew through the pages, and got really invested in how things turned out.

Lean Mean 13, Janet Evanovich – I listened to the audio of this one on my way back to Nola from Georgia. I think this is the perfect way to engage with the Stephanie Plum books. I’d started to get impatient with the silliness and formulaic quality of them while reading them, but those very qualities make them such perfect stories to listen to while on the road. Not too distracting, but very entertaining. They keep me great company in the car. The lady who reads the books for the audio is very good as well.

Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay – Coming back from the residency, I was such a happy dork picking up all of the books the library was holding for me, especially when it came to this one. I’d been looking forward to reading it for months and it didn’t disappoint. Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State is beautiful and brutal and she brings those qualities to bear on these essays, which are also funny and silly and insightful and so, so unerringly smart. She’s one of my new favorite writers.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith – Was very eager to read this one after reading the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. I wanted to listen to the audio, like I had for the first, but it was unavailable, so I had to be content with old-fashioned reading, which was nice in its way, of course. I just soaked up this second mystery and the dynamic between Cormoran and his assistant Robin Ellacott. Once more, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the quick and tidy wrap up at the end — both endings have felt a bit easy and unfinished. But the journey to get there was delightful.

Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman – Read the ReReading post here.

House Proud, Valorie Hart – I introduced Valorie, a friend of mine from tango, during her talk at the Louisiana Book Festival last year. As preparation for that, I pored over this beautiful design book featuring Louisiana homes, including Valorie’s own home with her late husband Alberto Paz.

November

Gates of Thread and Stone, Lori M. Lee – If I remember correctly, I learned about this one on Goodreads, in a discussion about The Queen of the Tearling and Kiss of Deception Once more, a fantasy Y/A novel, really engrossing and interesting, the first of a series (why do I keep doing this to myself? At least the sequel to this one comes out relatively soon – in March). It reminded me a bit of the books by the German author Kai Meyer, which is a really good thing.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, Barbara Cohen & Bahija Lovejoy – Read the ReReading post here.

Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise, Wendelin van Draanen – I love these books, love Sammy Keyes and her friends and their hijinks. She’s really grown up in the last several books, finally discovering the identity of her father and having an adventure with him during the titular cruise of this book. While grabbing the link above, I realized another book in the series is already out – and it’s the last one! I’m looking forward to reading it and a bit sad I won’t be reading any more new adventures, but I have a suspicion that she’ll be in a good place by the time we say goodbye.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler – I knew I was going to love this book just from the table of contents. “Say Whatever You Like,” “Do Whatever You Want” and “Be Whoever You Are” happen to make fantastic mantras. Anyway, this book was, of course, hilarious, but also very insightful and inspiring. After writing about the day she was born, Amy Poehler recommends everyone go ask their parents about the day they were born, which made me realize I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of the day I was born. Just one of many brainstorms and moments of inspiration.

Dark Places, Gillian Flynn – Whew, boy, this book in INtense, just like Flynn’s other books. Unlikeable women who are utterly human (and sometimes monstrous in such human ways) are Flynn’s specialty. It’s a lot to ingest and I usually need a break between books, but I stand in awe of this women’s storytelling ability. I always feel a little creeped out looking at her author photo – she looks so sweet and normal, to write such breathtakingly dark and weighty books. Of all writers, she’s probably the one I’d both want to have coffee with *and* avoid in dark alleys. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover or an author by her photo. 🙂

Worn Stories, Emily Spivak – This was a pretty cool book. Dozens of essays about articles of clothing and what they represent to the writers/wearers of the clothing. With pictures! It was an accidental find and I was curious. I thought I’d flip through, read a handful and then move on, but I ended up reading every last word. Some were twee and light, but most were (surprisingly, to me) interesting and impactful. It started out as a blog, before it was a book, and the blog continues.

December

Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones – I used to be a poet, once upon a time. Sometimes, I still find myself moved by poetry more than almost anything else. These days, while I may read a handful of poems occasionally, I almost never finish an entire book of poetry. I forget, each time, how emotionally weighty poetry tends to be. So I look at a slim volume and I’m like, “Oh, I’ll zip right through this!” But I don’t. I linger and dwell, sometimes for years and never finish a book. So, this is probably the first book of poetry I’ve finished in a long time. I “zipped through,” even though I felt like his poems were eviscerating me with razor wire. But I couldn’t stop. True to form, I obsessed over the lines and words, sometimes getting hung up for a few days before going back and moving on. [You’ll note I tweeted about picking this book up at the end of October, but I didn’t finish it till December.] I had a deadline to finish – this book was requested by multiple people at the library – and I couldn’t bear to return the book without reading it all.

Rooms, Lauren Oliver – Another of my favorite writers, though she’s so fast that I can’t really keep up. This is an adult novel from her, a gothic family story that reminded me of both The Family Fang and Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, my favorite play. The way Arcadia uses various portions of the house and estate, as well as time, really echoed here, in Rooms.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer – Oooh, this book was really important for me to read. I found myself sweating and trembling occasionally as I read it. Why is asking so freaking difficult? Why is owning your right to be and ask for what you want and need so hard? I am so very different from Amanda Palmer – in personality and demeanor and comfort zones, but I admire her so much and it turns out that she has been battling a fight that I’ve struggled with a long time. Need to re-read this every year, or maybe every six months.

Doing the Devil’s Work, Bill Loehfelm – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

Fearless Fourteen, Janet Evanovich – Listened to the audio on my trip to Atlanta to visit my parents for Christmas. It was perfect company, made the trip go smoothly (it’s always rough counting on the radio between Mobile and Montgomery).

My Sunshine Away, MO Walsh – Review forthcoming in 225 Magazine.

So that wraps up 2014. I read some really awesome books in 2014 (A little over a hundred! Roughly, 22 nonfiction books and 74 fiction, plus some other stuff.) In this first month of 2015, I’ve already read a six-book series, a screenplay and two books of essays, all really good stuff, so stay tuned for 2015’s Q1 Reading Report in early April.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Friends, literature, musing, New Orleans, poetry, Quarterly Reading Report, review, what I'm reading

The Re-Reading Project: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

 These are the words written long ago by Buran, daughter of Malik, a poor shopkeeper of Baghdad. She put them down so that her children, and their children, and their children, and all those who came after them would know of the remarkable events that had given rise to their illustrious line.

And wonder of wonders, she wrote all these words in her own hand, forming each beautiful Arabic letter with perfect precision and grace, for her father had taught her to read and write when she was very young, even though it was not the custom in her time for girls to learn such things. Read these words, then, and open your eyes wide in amazement at the marvels that Allah has wrought.

I’m not sure when I first read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy. I know I read it in 1996, around the same time I read Jurassic Park, Fahrenheit 451 and The Lord of the Flies, but I recently found a note that I’d read it a year earlier in 1995. I read it again in 1999 and 2001, but hadn’t read it since then, until I re-read it for this project. So I read it at least four times before the age of 20 and while I’ve carried it with me from home to home, I hadn’t read it as an adult.

It’s impossible to really know how this book has influenced me over the course of my life, but I can easily say: quite a lot. It was first published in 1982, the year I was born, though I read the 1994 Beech Tree edition (including this latest time).

7 D and 7 S cover

A note at the end of the book says that it’s based on a folktale that “has been part of the oral tradition of Iraq since the eleventh century of the common era.” I would’ve only known Iraq from the Gulf War, which had taken place just a few years earlier, so the opportunity to read a book like this, about a girl very different from me (one who with a different religious and cultural background, who also would’ve lived in a completely different time than I lived) was huge. It probably did a lot to shape my curiosity about different cultures.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is the story of Buran, the fourth of seven daughters. Her father Malik is known as Abu al-Banat, the father of daughters, and this is believed to be the cause of his unluckiness in business and his family’s poverty. Malik’s brother has seven sons and is very wealthy and arrogant. After her seven cousins are sent to far-flung cities to try their hand at business, Buran convinces her father to invest his meager savings in her and to allow her to dress as a boy and try to make her fortune. She travels via caravan from Baghdad to Tyre and in just a few years, amasses an enormous fortune, which she sends home to her family so her sisters can make good marriages and her parents can prosper. In Tyre, she befriends Mahmud, the prince, still in the guise of a man. There’s a section from Mahmud’s point of view as he begins to suspect the friend he knows as Nasir is actually a woman and devises tests to prove this is the case. During the last test, Buran/Nasir flees from Tyre and on her way home to Baghdad, she meets each of her male cousins, all of whom have fallen low.

Essentially, 7 D and 7 S is an adventure story with a girl protagonist. Buran is very smart and very brave and she travels all over modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, making a fortune in business. While her actions go against cultural tradition, she is pious and respectful of her family. As she grows and learns, she becomes more independent and knows her own mind, and she essentially becomes the head of household. Her father defers to her judgement in business and while at first her parents urge her to marry, her father doesn’t force her to. Her father is very crafty about starting the gossip that eventually brings Mahmud to Baghdad in his search for Buran (though he doesn’t know her true name), telling her over and over, “How could such a thing be kept secret?”

That’s one of my favorite parts actually, Buran’s independence when she returns home and her partnership, of sorts, with her father as he comes to understand her intelligence and strength of character. For such a slim novel, it really covers quite a lot of ground and does some amazing character development. However, one thing I was always disappointed by, more so on the re-read, was that Buran/Nasir’s success in business is mostly relayed in hindsight and from Mahmud’s point of view. We don’t get to see her establishing herself in Tyre and making the decisions that ultimately make her successful. It’s a flaw of the story, but one that’s easy to understand – the main points of the tale, especially for young readers, are first, Buran’s independence and courage, and later, the romance that eventually develops between Buran and Mahmud. Plus, the wheelings and dealings that made her successful in Tyre would’ve made the book a lot fatter (and maybe more along the lines of the plotting and machinations in Game of Thrones, which actually sounds pretty awesome).

7 D and 7 S definitely holds up all these years later. It was a quick, entertaining and inspiring read. Both authors wrote other books, but nothing since this one. Barbara Cohen wrote a handful of children’s and teen titles and died in 1992 (before the Internet got going properly, so there’s very little information about her online). Bahija [Fattuhi] Lovejoy wrote three other books about Iraq and Baghdad, in the 60s and 70s. I’d dearly love to know more about how they came together to write this book, but can’t find anything online.

The first thing I did when I finished this time around was try to find reference to the Iraqi folktale that the book’s based on, but to no avail. I’m not the only one whose looking, though and I’m going to keep an eye out for collections of Iraqi/Arabic folktales. Shahrazad is mentioned several times, so that makes me wonder if 7 D and 7 S might not be based on one of the tales she tells in the Thousand and One/Arabian Nights. I think this is something I’m going to have to research further.

While researching about the authors and the original folktale, I found a bunch of the reviews of the book online. It was nice to see the ones from folks who have fond memories of this book from their youth, like I do. The frustrating reviews were those that compared this book (usually unfavorably!) with Disney’s Mulan. Frustrating for so many reasons, including the fact that both the original folktale and 7 D and 7 S predate Mulan and also because I think it’s interesting when myths, folktales and fables from different cultures resonate with each other (surely Disney’s Mulan is based on a folktale – so many of the movies are). The other really annoying reviews were from folks who said that the book was inappropriate for young readers because of a) the nudity (Buran looks at her own naked body after having been disguised as a man for a while) and b) a few references to Mahmud’s consorting with his father’s slave girls (hate to say it, but probably appropriate to the era of the story) and c) the descriptions of how Buran/Nasir and Mahmud feel about each other (completely relevant and not at all gratuitous). We’ve got bigger problems in our society if female nudity (in privacy) and mild sexual feelings are considered problematic reading material. You can probably tell by now that I get really peeved about what’s considered appropriate for young readers by parents and educators. Too often, the “appropriate” books are the ones that are whitewashed and sanitized and don’t speak any truth at all to young readers. My reading was never censored by my parents when I was growing up and I ignored any other adults who tried to censor what I read – I feel like this, more than any other single aspect of my youth, has made me the intelligent, respectful, curious person that I am today.

Books like Seven Daughters and Seven Sons made me more socially aware and curious, inspired and entertained me. And they still do, well into my adulthood.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under books, literature, movies, musing, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

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…”

Leave a comment

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

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Friends, literature, review, The Re-Reading Project

The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At the time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

1982. Dublin, Ireland. I was a young, naïve kid obsessed with books and movies and tennis, and my buddy, Joe—home from his tennis scholarship in the States—was all MC Hammer pants, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Bolivian marching powder references, and going on and on and on about this book you’ve got to read! We’d shared a love for reading since meeting the year before at the tennis courts of a local club, and loved nothing better than to plow through some Kundera, or lengthy John Irving tome, and head to the city center to catch the latest French or German movie at the art-house cinemas.

Before he left to return to school in Kentucky, he passed over his tattered copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, telling me how it was going to change my life.  With Joe back in America, the end of the summer meant more of my dull retail job and the unraveling months of a failed relationship with a heart surgeon’s daughter. So, I picked up the book and read the first paragraph and was mystified by the language and the exoticness. I flung the book into the corner of my bedroom and forgot all about it until near Christmas, I told myself, “If Joe recommended it, then it has to be good.”

Second time around, I dug in the pile of dirty tennis clothes and towels in the corner of my bedroom and uncovered the musty copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read the first paragraph, kept going, and read on into the night. The wind shook the leaves of the banana trees, the old suits of armor clanked in the darkness, and I read on. When Remedios the Beautiful ascended into heaven I knew something magical had happened. And on I read, until around four in the morning, I became Aureliano Buendia, his eyes mine, and the pages turned until the last fantastical sentence sent me into silence for a long time.

[S]he watched Remedios the Beauty waving goodbye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

Joe and I are still in touch, less so lately, but always connected by words, images, and music. Every few years I return to Solitude and take that journey once again to Macondo, to the language and the poetry of Marquez, to Melquíades and his gypsy troupe, and to the long, simmering days and nights of the familiar territory of Gabo’s imagination.

This past spring, I went back to Macondo, to the firing squad and the twenty adobe huts, to the humid, stinking jungle and the mysterious time of mass amnesia, and this time I noticed things were clearer, more defined, sharper than in previous readings. Before, the confusion of Buendias, their maddeningly similar names, the hodgepodge of relatives jostling to have their voices heard, all came across to me in a more understandable manner. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m an older, slower reader now, and the rush to turn the page I experienced as a boy no longer takes place, but I was more at home in the mysterious surroundings of Marquez’s world. And maybe it’s because Gabo, el maestro, has departed our world and returned, himself, to the universe he wrought so magnificently from his imagination. I like to think of him there, in the pages, an active participant in his own narrative, condemned, as is Aureliano Buendia, to live out his afterlife in the pages of his greatest book, “condemned to one hundred years of solitude,” and without “a second opportunity on earth.”James Claffey

***

James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue.

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, poetry, review, The Re-Reading Project

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, literature, pop culture, review, t.v., The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

The Re-Reading Project: Animal Farm

Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes. With the ring of the light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.

As soon as the light in the bedroom went out there was a stirring and a fluttering all through the farm buildings. Word had gone round during the day that Old Major, the prize middle white boar, had had a strange dream on the previous night and wished to communicate it to the other animals. It had been agreed that they should all meet in the big barn as soon as Mr. Jones was safely out of the way. Old Major (so he was always called, though the name under which he had been exhibited was Willingdon Beauty) was so highly regarded on the farm that everyone was quite ready to lose an hour’s sleep in order to hear what he had to say.

I was fifteen when I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was a strange year of reading – classics in school, YA and Harlequin romances, horror and mysteries. I was omnivorous in my reading and that’s pretty much remained the case. It’s more fun that way.

While I remember liking Animal Farm in school, I think I knew even at the time that I wasn’t fully absorbing it. It seemed more accessible than a lot of what we were reading in class, but even then I could tell I was only skimming the surface. Still, I liked it so well that I held onto my copy all of these years. It’s been on all of my bookshelves, though like many of the Re-Reading Project books, I hadn’t re-read it since I was fifteen. When I put 90% of my books into storage earlier this year, I kept out the books for the Project.

Animal Farm

After re-reading Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm was refreshing. I read most of it while getting my car serviced for my Residency Road Trip. I’d remembered the broad strokes of the book fairly well, I found, but I’d forgotten (or never noticed) the subtleties of the story (what did become of Snowball? he “ran off” so much earlier in the story than I had remembered).

Along with Lord of the Flies and the last classic I’m re-reading this month, Animal Farm is classified as (among other things) dystopian fiction, though it’s clearly part of a far different wave of this sub-genre than the current offerings. It’s also classified as political satire and Orwell himself called it a “fairy story,” which makes sense if you define fairy stories by their portraits of ambiguous morality and the trope of depicting animal characters in place of human ones.

Perhaps I read Animal Farm too quickly for it to make much of an impression on me, because I found myself appreciating it more than enjoying it. I could see the incredible influence it’s had on other books, films, pop culture, etc. since it was published. As quick of a read as it is, it also feels like something Orwell could’ve written in an afternoon. While I know as a writer that this effortless feeling is in fact very hard to achieve, it can be a little too easy to dismiss the result. I realized that Orwell’s essays, many of which I read while in grad school, are probably much more impactful to me these days.

But an interesting thing happened a few days after I finished my re-read of Animal Farm. While watching the film Snowpiercer, I kept flashing back to various parts of the book, thinking: “Wow, I wonder if the director/graphic novelist consciously pulled from Animal Farm or if it’s so deeply entrenched in our global culture that it just popped in unconsciously?” On reddit and IMDb, there seems to be a pretty heated debate about whether or not comparing Animal Farm and Snowpiercer is appropriate. And then there’s this very smart comparison and breakdown of both Snowpiercer and Animal Farm. The author uses specific examples and real world examples to illustrate what I suspected instinctively as I watched the film.

Serendipity is an interesting thing, leading me in this case to re-read Animal Farm and watch Snowpiercer around the same time and both were enriched by the other.

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, literature, musing, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading