Category Archives: movies

The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Flowers in the Attic

It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captive by green. But we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow.

If you know me, you’ve heard me say that I read my childhood, rather than lived it. I started binge reading at 9. Books were brought to the dinner table, on family outings, and on car rides, where I read until I puked from the motion sickness. Benjamin Franklin is (falsely) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy,” but I say books are the real proof of a divine being.

My interests were varied. I loved stories about families living in “olden times” (Little House on the Prairie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond), graduated quickly to racier subject matter like Teens With Issues – I read Go Ask Alice before I was old enough to know that neither pot or acid cause drug overdoses. I was always especially drawn to both tragic characters (any female in a Bronte novel) and heroic ones (Pippi Longstocking, anything about Amelia Earhart). Reading was the perfect escape for a kid who was herself not the most adventurous.

My first encounter with Flowers in the Attic had me thinking it was going to be scary, as it was in the horror section. I had seen a classmate hiding it in a textbook, clearly unable to put it down. And that cover. Originally, you’d open the house cutout to reveal four creepy children, beautiful, with platinum hair and bright blue eyes rimmed with red, and a ghastly lady looming over them like a malevolent cloud. With a quick perusal of chapter titles like The Wrath of God, I was sold, even if I was kind of scared of that photo and possibly any kind of horror in general. My friends who had snuck the book off their moms’ bookshelves promised all kinds of messed up stuff going on in this book. Spoiler: there’s incest! I suspect I devoured it in one long sitting that included hiding it under the covers and losing a night’s sleep.

When Emilie told me about her Re-Reading Project, I immediately knew I had to pick it up again. It’s been decades since I first read it, but I read it over and over again throughout my adolescence and later teen years, so I always recalled it having all of the elements I love most in a good book: religious fanaticism, discovery of dark family secrets, forbidden love, starvation, general suffering, adolescent ennui, arsenic (any romantic poison), kick-ass female heroines (bonus that the main character was my age).

I dove right back in and lo and behold, I found myself unable put it down. And this is while on break from reading Dark Places, people! Here I had thought everything was so profound in this book only because I had been a teenager when I was so obsessed with it, but damned if I wasn’t again drawn in, crying in all the right places. After seeing the recent movie treatment on Lifetime (and recalling the horrible “tragedy” of a movie that came out years ago where Kristy Swanson, aka the original Buffy, played our heroine), I might have lost a little faith, but really, these movies fail to capture what is special about the book. Seems they can’t make up their mind whether to go full camp or full-on dramatic treatment. So, as a sidenote, I implore film and TV to just leave FITA alone. Unless you’re a genius.

I immediately recognized that so many phrases and images have stayed with me:

The Dresden Dolls (when the band came out, I wondered if they named themselves after the book and this is partially true).

-Singing to myself Dance Ballerina Dance while enduring many an endless ballet class.

-Whenever I see the colors red and purple, I think of Carrie because these are her favorite colors.

-The lines from when Grandmother comes in to discover Christopher staring at Cathy nekkid.

-I’ll always wish I could throw a Christmas party as grand as the Foxworths’.

-I’ll never look at powdered donuts without thinking they could mask the taste of arsenic pretty well.

-The image of that swan bed.

-Corey playing the banjo and writing depressing lyrics at the age of 7.

It certainly left a lasting impression on my developing mind (and made me appreciate my mom oh-so-much more!)

As a writer, I can’t help but notice the writing is pretty tight, the vocabulary is rich (surely it expanded my vocabulary), and VC Andrews uses adequate metaphors (not the most complex) and what may be obvious, but forgivable, foreshadowing.  There’s a trustworthy narrator who has enough distance from the subject matter. The author avoids sentimentality (barely, but just enough), quite a feat given the circumstances. Of course no one can deny her storytelling prowess.

As VC Andrews says herself, “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.”

Agreed.

I wondered, too, just who is the intended audience, keeping in mind, it was a best seller back in the day.  Bored housewives? (I swear, this is not the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1980s. The writing is far superior.) Horror fans? Those seeking a modern day Wuthering Heights? All of the above?

My thoughts on character during this read primarily had to do with Corinne, the mother who locks her children in the attic of her ancestral home after she’s left a “penniless” widow. As a kid reading this, I just dismissed her as a bad person, and now that I’m closer to the mom’s age than the childrens’, I wanted to give her much more consideration. I wondered at first if she might be portrayed a bit two-dimensionally, a stock evil character? As a teenager, I was pretty disgusted with her weakness; the idea of a woman that wouldn’t just woman-up and go to work to support her family, but now I wondered if I might be more sympathetic to her “handicap” as a pampered housewife and mother, a grown woman of privilege. Not really.

She’s actually a master manipulator of the worst kind. “Oh but you are heartless and ungrateful children!” she laments after she comes back after long time away, during which, the kids had starved and the grandmother drugged/tarred Cathy. She’s a manipulator and even gets her Oedipal son to forgive her after that and agree that it’s she who is having a difficult time in life.

I again felt that familiar thrill when Cathy repeatedly stands up to her and in the end, demands that she take dying Corey to the hospital. I never underestimate the allowance for a strong female character. Corinne still pissed me off as a less righteous modern day feminist. Check.

I also found myself thinking, would kids these days possibly not mind being locked up with access to wifi and games (because surely Corinne would have supplied them with all of these modern necessities)? I think when I read it for the first time, I might have thought it wasn’t so bad—they had all these books and toys and treasures and Cathy could dance in the attic. On their first Christmas, Corinne had brought them a TV (impressive that the young teens were hyper aware they needed to not let the twins become idiot box addicts). I was similarly impressed when Chris tells Cathy they must go about life pursuing their dreams (becoming a doctor, dancing); force twins to learn how to read and discover their own talents.

I’m not going to dwell so much on incest here (shocking, I know), other than to say that it comes about organically and similar to how I felt reading it when I was younger, I empathized with the kids and felt they were forced into a completely perverted situation as adolescents. I don’t find it titillating, nor disgusting. I think more people concentrate on that being the biggest deal in the book, completely overlooking the fact that you can’t get more disgusting and depraved than locking away four healthy children in a room for 3 years and 4 months and then slowly killing them off. We’ve got a close first person POV, so that makes it even more profoundly disturbing. Incest, big whoop, a bigger deal when I read it the first time. VC Andrews is hardly the first novelist to write about incest, of course. There’s been incest galore ever since the Bible.

Throughout this read and after finishing, I still find myself haunted by the idea of leaving any creature that is dependent on you, no less children, alone to survive locked up, imprisoned with a caretaker that you know is a monster. To slowly die a horrible death. The sheer horror of that. What is almost inconceivable is given an unflinching treatment with adequate restraint (that is, not sensationalist, nor salacious).

The problem is, despite my love for it, the fact that this novel develops into a series (that I similarly devoured, but now have no desire to do so) does kind of cheapen everything as it devolves into more sensationalist subject matter. Not to mention all of the books that her ghostwriters put out. All of them are formulaic. All of them involve incestuous families with big secrets. The families are either extremely wealthy or extremely poor and there’s aspiration to attain riches (which happens thanks to the cliché long-lost rich relative).

One final observation: Flowers in the Attic is described on the cover of new editions simply as a “tale of forbidden romance.” Forbidden, is putting it mildly and this book is definitely not a romance novel! More like, a tale of tragic neglect and its resulting perverted consequences. To be honest, who needs any kind of statement like that on the cover of a best-selling novel (that was published decades ago)?

I almost feel at this point I could write a thesis as to the literary merit of this book, but for the sake of this fun project, I’ll end here. It would be too easy to dismiss Flowers in the Attic as a melodramatic read suitable for those seeking out scandalous entertainment. Did people similarly dismiss classic gothic novels like Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights (surely this one gave VC some inspiration)? I’m glad I gave it a “second” (or rather, tenth) chance.

Joi and FITA

Joi Brozek lives, reads and writes in New Orleans. With this re-reading of Flowers in the Attic, she’s made the stunning discovery that she’s been chasing a VC Andrews novel her entire writing life. With this in mind, she returns to the beast of a book she’s been unsuccessfully trying to finish for the past decade.

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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.

 

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The Re-Reading Project: Practical Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Re-Reading Project: Jurassic Park

Introduction: “The InGen Incident”

The late twentieth century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly–with so little outside commentary–that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all.

Biotechnology promises the greatest revolution in human history.

Prologue: The Bite of the Raptor

The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent. Roberta Carter signed, and started out the window. From the clinic, she could hardly see the beach or the ocean beyond, cloaked in low fog. This wasn’t what she had expected when she had come to the fishing village of Bahia Anasco, on the west coast of Costa Rica, to spend two months as a visiting physician. Bobbie Carter had expected sun and relaxation, after two grueling years of residency in emergency medicine in Michael Reese in Chicago.

She had been in Bahia Anasco now for three weeks. And it had rained every day.

I first read Jurassic Park late in 1996, within a few weeks of reading many of the other books in the Re-Reading Project. Here’s a tiny snapshot of my reading at the time.

Diane Hoh’s Med Center: Flood (a Y/A medical thriller)
Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451 (probably for school)
-another Med Center book (Fire)
two Harlequin romances
Jurassic Park
-the first book in L.J. Smith’s Night World series
-another Med Center book (Blast)

Within a few more titles, I’d read two more Re-Reading Project books that will appear later this year and a novelization of the remake of the film Sabrina. This is all to say that I was reading young adult and adult titles, romances and thrillers, fantasy and medical-themed titles, classics and schlock all at the same time. I was voracious and I didn’t discriminate. It was, in many ways, all the same to me.

And, Jurassic Park is a little bit of all that (except maybe romance). It’s a story Michael Crichton had originally conceived as a screenplay about a graduate student and then later a novel told from a child’s p.o.v. and it became a multi-viewpoint narrative mostly featuring adults. It’s a thriller, a medical-themed fantasy, now a new “classic” and will always contain some strong elements of schlock.  It was almost everything I wanted to read when I was fourteen going on fifteen.

I re-read Jurassic Park and read the sequel The Lost World, as a more cynical 21-year-old, almost done with my undergraduate degree and primarily writing, by this point, screenplays. When Jurassic Park was first published in 1990, Crichton was already a successful author, a few of his books had been turned into movies and he’d directed one himself. He’d already written the first feature screenplay version of what would become the pilot for the t.v. show E.R. But most of what we remember him for now would come after Jurassic Park was published. When I re-read the book in 2003, more of his books had been turned into movies and I was fascinated by adaptation, so I was probably interested in that aspect of the book, how it matched the Spielberg movie (a decade old when I re-read the book).

For the Re-Reading Project, I grabbed my original copy of Jurassic Park, a paperback version from 1991, the same copy I read in 1996 and again in 2003. Books like this are a special bit of time travel. IMG_3861They can take you back to former versions of yourself, living their lives in a world that no longer exists. But back to the point…

For all Crichton’s experience with film, Jurassic Park is both a highly cinematic and thoroughly uncinematic book. Cinematic because it has a killer hook (cloned dinosaurs in an island theme park terrorize a small group of humans trying to contain them!) and so many of the scenes are highly visual, easy to imagine and get absorbed by. It’s one of the few instances when the film version is “better” than the book, because while the book was a good one, smart and visionary, and completely necessary for the film to exist, the film corrects many of the “problems” with the original text, most of which probably contributed to its success when it was published.

We open with an Introduction alluding ominously to the “InGen Incident,” but mostly reading like non-fiction. It’s unclear who’s speaking as the tone journalistic, almost academic. Then, we get a Prologue following a doctor, Bobbie Carter, (not a character we’ll ever seen again), as she experiences something very odd on her vacation/visiting physicianship in Costa Rica. Is this the main character? we might ask ourselves. Nope.

Then, we’re into the “First Iteration,” the first section of the novel proper (not really) and we meet a family of three who experience something else very strange on a beach in Costa Rica. After this, we meet some other minor characters, most of whom we’ll never see again, as we track an odd animal and later a tissue sample of this animal, through the wilderness and medical labs. It all feels mildly ominous and a little boring. It’s a dumb way to open a book, especially a thriller, at least in modern thinking. But it bears a striking resemblance to a common trope in medical thrillers whereby an infection spreads from person to person. Did it exist in fiction/film before Crichton used it in Jurassic Park, or did he invent it?

We’re in the “Second Iteration,” 30 pages into the book, before we meet a main point of view character, Dr. Alan Grant, a paleontologist, and then we meet his graduate student Ellie Sattler (smart, sexy but engaged). [Sidenote: we’ve now met almost all of the female characters: Dr. Bobbie, the aging- and weight-obsessed wife Ellen Bowman and some lab techs. Dr. Bobbie and one of the techs have small but pertinent things to do in the lead-up to the main story, but they never return. We’ll meet a young girl (a very annoying, baseball obsessed daddy’s girl who repeatedly gets everybody in hot water with the dinosaurs) later in the story, but other than that, Dr. Ellie is it. She does some interesting things toward the end of the book, but stays annoyingly quiet during conversations in which she would’ve had an expert opinion. The film corrects this by beefing up Dr. Ellie’s role and casting the awesome Laura Dern and also switches the ages of the girl and boy grandchildren so that the girl is the older one, the computer nut who saves the day. There are some conversations in the book about only boys liking dinosaurs and the younger boy remains the dinosaur fan in the movie, too.] Back to the main point – it takes a lot of pages to meet the main characters and they’re never fully developed. The story is more important than the characters, for the most part. The film collapses two male characters into one and builds the character development a bit more by skipping a lot of this preliminary story or building it into the main story as we’re introduced to the park.

Part of what made Jurassic Park such a hit at the time was the exploration of cutting-edge technology (computers and cloning) that’s extremely dated now. Crichton included diagrams and technical charts in the text to make the story feel a bit more real. All of this helped make the book a bestseller at the time, but bogs the story down in retrospect. All of that page space could’ve been devoted to character development (for instance, almost all of the chaos theory element in the book is explained by Ian Malcolm and the way in which he relates this information forms his character). But Crichton focuses so much on the cool technology aspect of the book (which was bound to become dated), whereas the film specifically addresses the human element within the technological crisis (universal and timeless), which makes the film “better.” Mostly because it has weathered the test of time better (almost 25 years for the book, 21 for the film).

Crichton is brilliant with story, not typically a great wordsmith. But he can certainly be philosophical, lyrical, almost poetic at times. And funny. For instance, in the middle of the T-Rex attack, Dr. Grant and Ian Malcolm talk in the car:

The rain pounded on the roof of the car. He listened for the little girl, but he didn’t hear her anymore. The two men sat in the car, listening.

“Was it the girl?” Malcolm said, finally. “It sounded like the girl.”

“It did, yes.”

“Was it?”

“I don’t know,” Grant said. He felt a seeping fatigue overtake him. Blurred through the rainy windshield, the dinosaur was coming toward their car. Slow, ominous strides, coming right toward them.

Malcolm said, “You know, at times like this one feels, well, perhaps extinct animals should be left extinct. Don’t you have that feeling now?”

“Yes,” Grant said. He was feeling his heart pounding.  -pg 189

And later, Malcolm is again needling and philosophizing, this time, in conversation with Dr. Sattler.

“What does one of your excavations look like a year later?”

“Pretty bad,” she admitted.

“You don’t replant, you don’t restore the land after you dig?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged. ‘There’s no money, I guess…”

“There’s only enough money to dig, but not to repair?”

“Well, we’re just working in the badlands…”

“Just the badlands,” Malcolm said, shaking his head. “Just trash. Just byproducts. Just side effects…I’m trying to tell you that scientists want it this way. They want byproducts and trash and scars and side effects. It’s a way of reassuring themselves. It’s built into the fabric of science, and it’s increasingly a disaster.”

“Then what’s the answer?”

“Get rid of the intelligent ones. Take them out of power.”

“But then we’d lose all the advances–“

“What advances?” Malcolm said irritably. “The number of hours women devote to housework has not changed since 1930, despite all the advances. All the vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, trash compactors, garbage disposals, wash-and-wear fabrics…Why does it still take as long to clean the house as it did in 1930?”

Ellie said nothing. -pgs 285

It’s interesting that these are the two passages that struck me on this re-read. While so much of Jurassic Park‘s technology is so very dated now, almost 25 years later, so much of the book’s contents was before its time. Crichton, through Ian Malcolm in particular, was cautioning the scientific world, and all of us, really, because it’s a bestseller accessible to popular culture, about man’s hubris and arrogance.

When I first realized that re-reading Jurassic Park would coincide with my residency month, I was amused because they seemed distinctly unrelated. But I’ve found so much of my experience here echoed as I was re-reading. The nights are very dark here in rural farmland and the cicadas are always humming. Their sound is so constant and massive, it suited the mood of the book perfectly. Also, two of the non-fiction books I’ve been reading concurrently with Jurassic Park were in serendipitous and unforeseen dialogue with it – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (about gene and cell engineering, similar biotechnology to Jurassic Park) and The World Without Us (a book length thought experiment about the human impact on the planet and how long it would take to recover from our presence). [9.18.14 Update: Near the end of Henrietta Lacks, the film version of Jurassic Park comes up when Henrietta’s daughter Deborah shows a VHS tape to the author and cites it in connection to the way her mother’s cancer cells are being used by science.]  I swear I did not plan this. I borrowed Henrietta Lacks from Anne’s house in Philadelphia because I’ve been wanting to read it and I picked up the second title here at the house’s library. But still, I suppose it’s no accident: the unconscious is a powerful thing.

I don’t think it particularly relates to my own creative endeavors (at the moment), but these are topics that I’m fascinated by and also, though none of these books is particularly new (Henrietta Lacks is the newest, from 2010), they have a lot to say about what’s going on right now.

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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

***

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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2014 Q1 Reading Report

Now that the first quarter of the reading year is firmly over, it’s time for a Quarterly Reading Report. This year, the reports will also serve as an index for the Re-Reading Project posts from the previous quarter. The Re-Reading Project is adding an extra dimension to my reading this year, as I am re-reading selected books from my childhood and early teen years. But it’s also making me want to re-read many more books (I’ve been hankering to re-read the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, which I only read last year). It’s making me think about the books I’m reading for the first time in a new way. And it’s making me want to catch up with series and authors I might have taken a break on lately. I’m not done reading memoirs and nonfiction by any means, but fiction is calling my name in a big way. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the year brings in terms of reading surprises and epiphanies.

January

The Boxcar Children, Gertrude Chandler Warner – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Bones, Cassandra Clare – This is another example of me seeing a movie and being intrigued by the source material. This time, I was intrigued because the movie was so spectacularly bad. It shouldn’t have been that bad, since it had good actors and decent visual effects. Without reading the books, I could feel that the story was off. It didn’t make any sense, the characters were inconsistent and the story logic betrayed itself several times. Once I read City of Bones, I was blown away by how much better the book was than its film adaptation (to be fair, this is particularly difficult book to adapt to film, partly because of subject material and partly because of length). I quickly got over my initial reason for reading (the intrigue about what went wrong with the film) and was completely hooked on the Mortal Instruments series. These books feel Biblical, like Shakespeare and all of the towering giants of canonical literature, but totally modern and relevant, juicy and funny.

Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Sixth Grade Secrets, Louis Sachar – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Ashes, Cassandra Clare – About two chapters into City of Ashes, I requested the next two books in the series from the library. I could just tell that it was going to be one of those experiences where I wouldn’t be content with having just plowed through a massive 500+ page book. I was going to still want more. I was going to want to know what happened next, need to know, as quickly as possible.

Snot Stew, Bill Wallace – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Matilda, Roald Dahl – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

City of Glass, Cassandra Clare – Just to torture me, the fourth book arrived at the library before the third one did, but the third one arrived right on time anyway, right as I was returning the second book. And here’s where I have to make a confession. I could’ve read a few more children’s books for the first month of The Re-Reading Project (I considered Harriet the Spy and The Secret Garden, among others), but between packing for my move and wanting to dive into this book, it just wasn’t going to happen. Plus, I felt like I’d covered enough ground with the eight books I read to justify getting absorbed in this book.

The 2013 Best American Essays, edited by Cheryl Strayed – As I did with the 2012 Best American Essays, I read one essay per day, every day (except for one day I missed), usually first thing in the morning. Even if I wanted to read more, I forced myself to read just one, so that I could think about it throughout the day. After I finished 2012, I couldn’t wait for 2013 and now that I’ve finished 2013, I feel the same way. I’ve collected 2011 and 2003 and I’ll probably do the same with them while I await 2014 later this year.

Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur, Syd Hoff – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

Some Nerve, Patty Chang Anker – This book came up in about a dozen conversations and magazines around the same time and it seemed like precisely the kind of book I needed to be reading as research for my memoir. I’ve gotten pretty good at listening to that “this is a book for you, now” voice. It’s a conversational book, based on experiences Anker wrote about on her blog, but for all the ease with which I sunk into the book, it was also one that challenged me, taught me a lot about voice and being honest.

Alice in Charge, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – I mentioned Alice in one of my re-reading posts and it made me go check to see how long it had been since I’d caught up with Alice, especially since I’d read recently that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor had published the last Alice book.  It was 2009, but I only had four books to catch up on, including the last one. So I checked them out from the library and dug in. Alice is such a strange mix between naïve and mature, a tiny bit sanctimonious but always well-intentioned. I think this is why readers have responded to her for so long, why I feel compelled to finish the series.

February

Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher, Wendelin van Draanen – Ditto with Sammy Keyes. I’d last read one of these titles in 2009 as well, around the same time as my last Alice book, and I also recently mentioned her in a re-reading post. One thing I really enjoyed about this book was seeing Sammy’s relationships change as she’s gotten older. Watching plucky, tomboyish Sammy with a boyfriend is really cool, because while she is growing up, the relationship isn’t changing her essential nature. She’s a younger, way less proper Nancy Drew, mixed with a bit of Harriet the Spy.

Incredibly Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – It was really interesting to read this book now, since the series is set in a suburb of DC and I knew I was visiting DC soon. In fact, I’m returning from my trip as I write this. The whole time I was visiting, I would occasionally think, “This is Alice’s stomping grounds. That could be her and her girlfriends over there walking down the street.” This was the first time I connected with Alice in quite that way, as a girl I might meet walking down the street, since I was already mostly grown by the time I started reading the books and didn’t grow up anywhere near DC.

Sammy Keyes and the Night of the Skulls, Wendelin van Draanen –This book dealt with the Day of the Dead and Sammy spends a significant amount of time in the cemetery, where both hijinks and healing occur. It makes me wonder if Sammy’s grandmother is going to survive many more books. Not that she’s sick or anything, but if she did die, it would completely destabilize Sammy’s existence. In this book, Sammy’s friendship with Marissa was further tested, as well as her relationship with Casey. It’s cool to see Sammy staying true to herself no matter what else changes.

City of Fallen Angels, Cassandra Clare – So… how to say this without spoiling anything? Something big went down in the last book that made me wonder how there was going to be another book in the series, let alone two more (I only knew there were five, the sixth book is published at the end of May). So I was intrigued to read this book, see how the story would continue after evil was pretty well vanquished in the last book (there’s a slight spoiler for you). I’m always impressed with series authors who can build a full and satisfying narrative arc in each book and find creative paths for the ongoing story.

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh – While this book seems (on the surface) nothing like graphic novels like Maus and Allison Bechdel’s memoirs, I’d say that it’s not that far apart. The art is pretty basic and deceptively shallow, would be easy to dismiss except Brosh is a genius at pairing this simple art with universal themes and the perfect words and expression. In what seems like silly, funny comics (and are, on one level), Brosh tackles the curse of creativity, as well as mental health and depression. I enjoyed the webcomics and while I found the book very funny, I also found it a pretty painful read as well.

Dragon Sword & Wind Child, Noriko Ogiwara and translated by Cathy Hirano – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn DomingueReview in 225 Magazine.

March

The Priority List, David Menasche – I saw David Menasche speak at Words & Music last year and while the subject matter of his book (going on a road trip to visit his former students while dealing with the side effects and symptoms of a terminal brain tumor) is pretty grim, he was full of life and good humor. I doubt many people left the room without a desire to read this book. It’s a quick read, sometimes almost too light, considering the subject matter. I admire the instinct to be positive and inspire rather than dwell in negativity, and the book is very powerful.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel – The Re-Reading Project post available here.

The Bookstore, Deborah Meyler – I saw this book while working at the bookstore, ironically enough, and liked the idea of a Cheers-like indie bookstore being the center of this book. At first, I thought it might be too silly to hold my interest, but that was mostly me judging a book by its cover. I was quickly absorbed and read this book so quickly, invested so much in the characters, that I was disappointed when it was over. I could have read another 100 pages, easily.

The Show Must Go On! and The Greatest Show on Earth, Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise – I got an ARC of the second book in this series from the bookstore, so I checked out the first one from the library and read them both in an afternoon. I’m always interested to see how the circus is depicted in popular culture, especially for kids. It was Hilary Knight’s The Circus is Coming!, a picture book, that probably first sparked my own lifelong fascination with the circus. These are charming books, preposterous and goofy, and perfect for kids. They’re  written and illustrated by a pair of sister, which I love too, because Aimee and I always said we’d write and illustrate books together.

Alice on Board, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – During the summer after they graduate high school, Alice and her gang of girlfriends all work on a cruise ship together. She’s still apart from Patrick, stressed out by the distance in their relationship and worried about their future, but having fun and adventures on the cruise ship. Sometimes, I really want Alice to be more assertive that that she’s older, but then I have to remind myself that just like any friend I have high expectations for, I have to let Alice just be herself. It’s not fair to expect her to be anything else.

Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack, Wendelin van Draanen – This book reminded me a little of the Kick Ass movies (I’d just watched the second one), because Sammy is confronted by an adult man trying to be a superhero, who is both inspired by her sleuthing and hoping to make her his sidekick. Sammy’s struggles, with other people and with her own conscience, feel very real to me and I think that’s something I really like about the books. Best of all, it’s amazing to see how far she’s come since the first book, when no one knew her secret living situation and she didn’t trust anybody. She’s brought together a community, a network of support for herself. Which really builds on my suspicion that her grandmother might die soon, or go into the hospital for a while. Something is going to happen that will force Sammy to count on the community around her. She’s resourceful, but the most amazing part of the books is when she lets others help her.

So that was my first quarter in reading for 2014. The second quarter is already pretty strong and I can’t wait to share the report with you. But first, I have to read all the books I’ll be reporting on, which is the best part of all.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Lolita

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

During my twenties (1997-2007 R.I.P., my twenties), I was looking for the greatest books ever written and found a few that I would come to cherish.

In 2004, I came to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with some trepidation. A Russian who wrote a poetic exploration of the soul through the vessel of a story about a pedophile? Hurray! Sign me up. I expected the book to be icky, filled with choppy English and twenty-page long scenes wherein the author described waves crashing upon craggy seashores all while ignoring the dark issue at the center of the book.

Of course, I was wrong.

I bought the annotated edition because I heard that Nabokov wrote allusively like James Joyce or the writers of The Simpsons TV show. In other words, Nabokov had no problem quoting (and remixing!) obscure 17th Century poems while ripping the pop singers and movie idols who were popular with teenagers at the time. This sounded like fun to me because it’s the way my mind works. You mention Nelly the rapper and I might quickly think of Nellee Hooper, the movie Starship Troopers, WWII fascists, and the Greek warriors who died at Thermopylae (those guys in the movie 300) …but I digress.

The annotated edition was a good call because the scholar who added the notes had been a student of Nabokov’s in the 1950s and had complete access to the author. So much access that the annotations and scholarly essays take up about 200 pages. For a geek like me, this is better than free king cake.

Maurice and LolitaBut the centerpiece of Lolita for me during that first read was Nabokov’s skill as a writer. The topic was sensational and gut-wrenching, but I was more impressed by Nabokov’s way with words, his ability to create effects that are usually the province of master painters and opera composers. I was so stunned that I finished the book and let out a sigh of relief. The writing was so unquantifiably wicked that I could relax; I had no reason to even hope I could ever write half that well myself.

Also, I was taken by Humbert Humbert. He’s one of the most villainous characters in all of fiction, but by imbuing him with a (usually) honest eye and quick wit Nabokov reminds us that even monsters are human. Humbert’s evolution over the course of the novel is the reason I read fiction in the first place.

My second read certainly felt different. I found myself squirming during the first sections of the book. When Humbert abuses Lolita the way that he does, I was sick to my stomach. I wondered why. The book isn’t graphic. The words haven’t changed. However, I’m nine years older and wiser. I stumbled into the middle section of the book worried that my favorite novel of all time was no longer that. I was angry at Humbert, wanted to take him outside and pummel him. But then something strange happened. I realized that I was more angry at myself because on the first read I had been sucked into Humbert’s way of seeing the world. As such, Lolita was little more than a prop for me back then. But now that I could focus more of my attention on Lolita I saw the full horror of what she was going through. And then another odd thing happened. I forgave myself. With the new ability to see Lolita and Humbert in all their humanity, the novel took on a new dimension of pathos and complexity. And, can I tell you, it was good. In fact, it was better than the first read.

By the time I reached the last page, I was on the edge of tears. I felt a personal loss. I felt Humbert’s loss. Mostly, I felt Lolita’s loss. But even moreso, I felt more human than ever before.

***

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a writer living in New Orleans. He most recently published an essay in Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas. Maurice is writing a novel.

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The Re-Reading Project: Matilda

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.

Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, “Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick!”

It didn’t have to be Matilda, you know. I think I was an adult before I finally read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (23 years old, in 2005), but I could’ve re-read Danny, the Champion of the World, instead. It’s funny that the two Roald Dahl books I know that I read as a child are Matilda and Danny, the Champion of the World, which have remained my favorite Roald Dahl books. They’re similar in a way, in that they feature a girl and a boy, respectively, who conquer bullying adults through their intelligence and imagination. Danny was published first, in 1975 and Matilda over a decade later, in 1988 (when I was 6 years old). The main difference would have to be that Matilda’s parents are not supportive at all and Danny and his father William are partners in their adventures.

I re-read Matilda, because I was most curious about how my memory of the book and my current reading of it would match up. I can see why this was a book that lived large in my imagination. The hero is a small, intelligent girl who reads as much as she can! She spends all of her time at the library and then in her room, reading books. That may well have been me. I read most of the books in my school library, on my teacher’s shelves and around the house. I started reading adult books very early (as you’ll start seeing soon when I re-read some of those). Matilda is misunderstood and underestimated by almost all of the adults around her, which most kids can identify with as well, even if the reality isn’t as extreme as in Matilda’s story.

matilda-roald-dahl-hardcover-cover-artQuentin Blake‘s illustrations really help the story to come alive, partly because they are imbedded into the text in many cases, working together with the story. Their genius is that they are so perfectly suited to children’s imaginations and also to Dahl’s wry and dark stories.

Except for reading (re-reading?) the two Charlie books in 2005, I haven’t read any of Dahl’s books since I started recording my reading at age 13. Yet, as an adult, I have been collecting copies of his kids’ books (which I didn’t own as a kid, apparently) and two story collections, Kiss Kiss and Over to You. I’ve become fascinated, as an adult, by Roald Dahl in general. He was a fighter pilot during WWII and his first published story was about his plane crashing during the war. He wrote scripts for Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and one Bond film, You Only Live Twice, as well as his own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they were all finished or re-written by others. His school days were hugely influential in his writing for children: most notably that Cadbury used to send tester candy to his school, leading to his love of chocolate and arguably his most famous story, as well as in the behavior of the adults around his child protagonists, which is often very brutal and ignorant-minded. Without coddling or being sentimental, Dahl stories regularly deal with the injustice and powerlessness that children feel, which may be one of the biggest reasons for their longevity.

In addition to Dahl’s books, his family is his lasting legacy. His daughter and two of his grandchildren write. His grandson Luke Kelly’s Blanket and Bear, a Remarkable Pair was published last year.

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The Re-Reading Project: The Great Gilly Hopkins

“Gilly,” said Miss Ellis with a shake of her long blonde hair toward the passenger in the back seat. “I need to feel that you are willing to make some effort.”

Galadriel Hopkins shifted her bubble gum to the front of her mouth and began to blow gently. She blew until she could barely see the shape of the social worker’s head through the pink bubble.

The copy of Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins that I’ve just finished re-reading (a first edition paperback from 1978 that I bought in one of my favorite used bookstores) has an illustration of this pink bubble obscuring Gilly’s face, but I think the version I would’ve read as a kid was the one on the right:

Gilly 1978gilly-hopkins

I’m kind of fascinated with all of the different covers there are for this book. Pig-tailed or with short-boyish hair, after the first edition, she always seems to be standing defiantly, staring down the reader who would dare to pick up the book. The first cover is more childish, playful, while in the later poses, she has an aura of real menace and strength about her. Usually, she’s blonde, although in two teacher’s guides I found from 2000 and 2004, she’s brunette.

While I know I read The Bridge to Terabithia as a kid, and liked it, The Great Gilly Hopkins had more resonance in my memories. Once again, like with Maniac Magee, what I remembered most was a general tone or mood and not a lot of specific details. I remembered that Gilly was a foster kid, a tough cookie, someone who I admired as a kid because I was shy and she was bold. I didn’t remember that she’s a manipulative bully and pretty racist (at least at first), willing to prey on the weaknesses of everyone around her, much like the kid in Problem Child. Now that I’m an adult, it’s easy to see through Gilly’s swagger to the damaged girl who is, most of all, incredibly smart and ambivalent about people, especially adults. She’s essentially Kanye West for the middle school set, hyping herself up till she believes her own legend. She’s fronting.

Re-reading as an adult, this is obvious from the second page when Gilly thinks “Cripes….The woman was getting sincere. What a pain.” But, it must have unfolded slowly for me as a kid until that last page, the gut-wrenching phone call with Trotter. Gilly has a journey and kids get to go on it with her, realizing that their perceptions of people and events are not always accurate and that life is tough, with mixed blessings and lots of pain. It’s weird because while that seems like a grim lesson for Gilly and the kid reader to learn, while the end isn’t a pat and easy happy ending, Gilly’s growth is beautiful.

It feels raw and real in a way that children’s literature so often doesn’t, maybe because Paterson grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries, and moved thirteen times in thirteen years growing up. Maybe this background helped her imagine and understand the isolation and defensiveness of a foster child.

Considering that it’s four years older than I am, The Great Gilly Hopkins has actually aged pretty well, (except maybe those bits about flower children). I think it must still speak to kids and that it wouldn’t take much to make a movie adaptation feel current. So while I wasn’t surprised, I was pleased to discover that there is a film adaptation due soon, with Kathy Bates and Danny Glover. Even more happily, it’s directed by Stephen Herek, who directed some of my favorite movies in the 90s and who I got to work with a few years ago on The Chaperone. The story’s in good hands.

One last interesting thing is that the area where Gilly lives with Trotter, William Ernest and Mr. Randolph is very close to the part of the country where Alice McKinley from Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series (first published in 1985) grows up. I was already grown when I first started reading the Alice books and while they’re special to me, they tend to feel unrealistic and very dated, which might speak more to where I was in life when I started reading them. Regardless, you couldn’t find two more different girls than Gilly and Alice, but it’d be interesting to imagine a world in which they interacted, since they have no doubt both been influential to generations of girls.

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