Category Archives: pop culture

The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and you will be disappointed if I give away the ending, that’s just tough because the book was written 35 years ago and you should have read it by now.

If I’m honest, I only chose to re-read Douglas Adam‘s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or The Guide as it will now be referenced) because it’s short. At the moment, my life is timetabled into so many compartments (work, email, sleep, work, not writing, reading articles posted on Facebook, looking at videos of cats on the internet, email, sleep) that adding even the most pleasurable of activities needs a flow-chart, Venn diagram, spreadsheet, and series of calendar apps just to formulate if I have time to finish a task such as reading a book.

Yet, this is a very worthy project, and Emilie does not take “I don’t have time to read” as an excuse. So, I cleared the chocolate wrappers, budget reports, and file folders containing single receipts from 2007 off the desk of my day job. I told my colleagues not to bother me. “Please turn down the Christmas music”, “No I don’t want to come to the office party”, “I don’t have time for mulled wine, mince pies, and discussions about how Cindy in Accounts really shouldn’t wear her hair like that.” I was doing something important. I was organising my time so I’d know if I had time to re-read a book. Not a moment for office frivolity.

After seven hours and thirty-two minutes of focused analytics and statistical analysis, I came to the conclusion that I would indeed have time to read the book…if I held all calls, cancelled my appointment with the chiropodist, and cracked on with it.

Realising that I had left my copy of The Guide in a box in my father’s closet in a house on a different continent, I opted to download the Kindle version. The beauty of this platform is that it doesn’t waste time with silly things like page numbers. Instead, it gets straight to the point and tells you how long you can plan on reading.

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Three hours and thirty-nine minutes later, I was quite happy that Emilie is a tough task master and forced me to make time for a novel I’d already read. Twenty-six years after the first reading, the book seemed to change slightly from science fiction to a handy list of contemporary technology. Back then, it was sci-fi and every piece of it was weird, wonderful, and completely fictitious. Reading it in 2014, Adams seem like a fortune teller, able to foresee gadgets of the future:

[…] he also had a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ‘pages’ could be summoned at a moment’s notice.

 “And you are not,” said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, “a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker […] which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard.”

And of course, we currently have the infinite probability drive…don’t we?

Actually, the deeper revelation I had while re-reading this book was not about the miracle prophecies – as most science fiction will get lucky and predict something if it sits on a bookshelf long enough – but it made me realise how miserable my life has become. This realisation was completely unfathomable when I first read the book as a sixteen year old living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1988 – ten years after the story was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, nine years after it was first published into a book, and six time zones away from where it was written.

I am no longer a high school student with a future ahead of me and enough free time to read a book while swinging softly on a hammock in my parent’s back garden. Instead, I sit at a dreary desk on an even drearier winter’s afternoon, sun down at 4 pm, cheap tinsel lining the cubicles, and the soft seasonal tunes of Bob Geldoff insulting an entire continent playing in the background. As I re-read the pages in which the Vogons vaporize the Earth to make way for an intergalactic motorway, I realise that if this were to happen in ‘real life’—while I might be a bit unnerved and discombobulated—I don’t think the personal distress would last for long. Granted, if the Earth were vaporised and I was on it, I wouldn’t be much of anything. But, let’s say I was rescued by a passing spaceship and I cast my eyes down at the dark space where the Earth (and that infernal desk to which I was chained) used to be, I can’t imagine I’d feel much at all. Or, maybe—like Arthur Dent—it would be too much to take in.

England no longer existed. He’d got that – somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he though, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger.

He passed out.

As a teenager reading The Guide, I thought I was irreverent, interesting, and terribly witty. I thought I would grow up to be a maverick author who plays by her own rules, and I would be lavished in kudos, awards, and cash for recognition of writing a society-changing novel. The reality is very different. It’s the end of 2014, I live in Dundee, Scotland; I’m middle-aged and any notion of actualising anything less than mundane disappeared long ago.

How similar my life is to that of Arthur Dent – pre-destruction of the Earth – is what first struck me about the book: wandering through existence, not taking in the grandeur of the Universe, an unrewarding adult life obstructed my view. Of Arthur, The Guide states, “He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought.” I, on the other hand, work in fundraising, which no one thinks is interesting. Because it isn’t. Arthur, upon being picked up by an inter-stellar ship in infinite probability drive, is most concerned with finding a cup of tea, and he spends much of the story allowing the plot to unfold around him. I can imagine that, if placed in a similar situation, I would become preoccupied with finding a cup of coffee.

Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he reaslised what it was.

“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.

Other than stumbling upon the manufacturing of Earth 2.0, Arthur’s presence is of no consequence. Towards the end, he finally becomes important as he is the last surviving member of the human race who was on Earth moments before its destruction. He has stamped upon his brain an imprint which will answer the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Yet, there is a giant hole in this argument, for there is another member of the human race on board that ship, Trillian. So, despite a last minute attempt to make Arthur relevant, he is – actually – quite inconsequential.

As a kid, I saw Arthur Dent as a character who was swept away, but still acted heroically in the face of it all—a bit like a Doctor Who companion. As an adult I have come to the realisation that Arthur Dent is much more ignoble, an object to follow so that a story can be revealed. If we were to compare him to a 70s film, he would be neither Smokey nor the Bandit; he’d be the car, an important device but not one that’s terribly interesting.

A re-reading of The Guide has helped me to realise that unless you’re one of a small host of famous do-gooders like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Maryam Mirakhani, or Amy Poehler, your life is fairly inconsequential. We are all Arthur Dent; our very existence happened at the odds of 7887602006 to 1, and despite the great fortune that we even exist, we do nothing with our lives. Instead, we are pulled haphazardly through the universe unable to completely grasp the vastness of it all.

The second thing I noticed about re-reading The Guide is how much the satire is a dig at being British; something I most certainly would have not “gotten” as a 16 year old American. Now, with over a decade of living in Britain stamped on my passport, I can see the subtle Britishness of the book. And I mean real British. None of that Downton Abbey drivel.* The Guide is “two up two down”, “Tetley Tea and Penguins”, “Rule Britannia”, “spending your Costa del Sol holiday searching for a Greggs” kind of British.

Yes, as a teenager I recognised the deeper satire within the novel, the sentiments that are so very British few teenage Americans would recognize their context. However, there was one thing I did pick up from The Guide as a teenager. Something that has seeped into my subconsciousness. This book taught me the structure of funny. It’s the simple rhythm of the long game. No quick crack falls. It’s the set-up then the punch. Here’s how it works: profound, profound, profound, mundanely simple.

I have carried this rhythm with me throughout life. The ability to find the mundane within the outrageous. The knack for ending a list of the wondrous with the banal. The chance to shut down amazement in lieu of boredom. This book has taught me that being a combination of Arthur Dent and Marvin is okay, because if it’s satire you’re not miserable, you’re just witty.

With a microsecond pause, and a finely calculated micromodulation of pitch and timbre – nothing you could actually take offence at – Marvin managed to convey his utter contempt and horror at all things human.

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Rachel Marsh blogs about being a creative writing teacher and writer at www.rachelmarsh.co.uk, where pretends to be upbeat and completely ignores the fact that she works a day job. At heart Rachel is a truly miserable individual and she blames it all on Douglas Adams.

 *Editor’s  Note: Emilie would like to stress that she doesn’t think Downton Abbey is drivel, even if she was a bit disappointed with one particular plot twist. You know which one.

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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: 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: Fahrenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451 cover 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451

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

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

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

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Re-Reading in the World

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

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

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

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

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

And this entire paragraph resonated deeply with me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Stand

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

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

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

Great jumping cats! What a doorstop of a book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The way leads ever on…”

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

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

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

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

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

20 years and perspective and experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noel's photo

***

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

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The Re-Reading Project: The Forbidden Game

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

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

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

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

Emilie's original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

Emilie’s original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Game 2010

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

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

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

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The Re-Reading Project: The Clan of the Cave Bear

The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river. It didn’t occur to her to look back. Nothing in her experience ever gave her reason to doubt the shelter and those within it would be there when she returned.

She splashed into the river and felt rocks and sand shift under her feet as the shore fell off sharply. She dived into the cold water and came up sputtering, then reached out with sure strokes for the steep opposite bank. She had learned to swim before she learned to walk and, at five, was at ease in the water. Swimming was often the only way a river could be crossed.

The girl played for a while, swimming back and forth, then let the current float her downstream. Where the river widened and bubbled over rocks, she stood up and waded to shore, then walked back to the beach and began sorting pebbles. She had just put a stone on top of a pile of especially pretty ones when the earth began to tremble.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel is the first book in the Earth’s Children series and was published in 1980, two years before I was born. I must have read the first four books in the series sometime between 1990 (when the fourth, Plains of Passage was published) and 1995, because only the last two books in the series appear on the record I started keeping at thirteen. And yet, my copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear is battered and heavily creased, so I must’ve read it a few times before I started recording my reading. I took the picture below before I started re-reading my original copy. It’s even more messed up now, in that way that well-thumbed and well-loved books are:

The Clan of the Cave Bear

It’s a dense book, almost 500 pages, and because the subject matter is both academic and mature, it’s strange to think of my child  self reading it. I can’t imagine any of the kids I know who are around that age reading this book, but I can recall reading and loving these books, taking the things I read in stride, but possibly not understanding quite a bit of it. My precociousness when it comes to reading is what makes me more open-minded about kids reading outside their age range, I imagine, because I don’t think I was damaged by the experience of reading this book so young.

But I’m absolutely positive I was influenced by it, even the parts I didn’t fully understand or absorb. The same kid who loved reading about how the siblings set up their new home in The Boxcar Children consumed the highly detailed story of how a traveling group of Neanderthals adopted Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon girl, and made a new cave their home. This same kid became a woman who loved the world-building of excellent fantasy novels like The Song of Ice and Fire books.

The series is categorized as historical fiction, but it seems to me that it would be more appropriately labeled speculative fiction, as it contains some of the same elements. I think people think of a future setting or sci-fi or fantasy tropes when they think of speculative fiction and Auel has instead speculated on the lives of our ancestors. With each book, she took the “known” information and relevant theories of the time and wove this research into a long, engrossing tale of how imagined characters would live during a period of significant advancement for the human species.

There was a significantly longer gap in publication with each book (two years between the first two, three for the next book, then five for the fourth). Our understanding of our early ancestors changed deeply over the ten-year period that the first four books were published. It took twelve years for the fifth book to be released, which represents another giant leap in what archaeologists and anthropologists understood about people and the Earth during the time Auel was writing about. My own life also made a significant leap. I was eight when the fourth book was published in 1990 and when I finally read The Shelters of Stone in 2003 (over a year after it was published), I was 21 years old. I had changed radically, but not so much that I didn’t feel the need to know what happened to Ayla and Jondalar, the man she heals and falls in love with in the second book, The Valley of Horses. When the last book of the series, The Land of the Painted Caves, was published nine (more) years later, in 2011, I had been living in New Orleans for four years and my life once again looked very different. I have literally grown up with these books. When I read The Land of the Painted Caves in 2011, I had just written one of my first bragging on posts and would, a few days after finishing it, change the name of my blog.

Re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear this month (and it took me most of the month: you can see the book in two of the photos in this collage from my writers’ retreat, which took place at the beginning of the month) was almost akin to time travel. I felt like the pre-teen version of myself was cuddled against me, reading along from under my arm. I often felt like asking her, “Didn’t it scare you, the way that Ayla loses her family and her people and is on her own?” and “What did you think about all of the rigid rules that Clan women had to follow?” I wondered what she made of the occasions when Ayla is raped, in a way that is clearly rape, but depicted as happening in a social structure without a concept for sex without consent. I knew that those scenes (relatively few, near the latter half of the book and not especially graphic after the first time) stuck with me as something that I remembered when I thought of the book. While it’s an important plot point and it says a lot about the social norms of the people that are depicted in the book, far more words and pages are devoted to details about the plant and animal life that the clan people harvest for medicine and food.

While there is far more sex (almost exclusively romantic and consensual) in the rest of the series (particularly the third book), this would have been one of the first times I would’ve read about sex. I would’ve read the third book, the most romance novel-ish of the series up till that point, around the same time I read my first actual romance novel, clandestinely from my mother’s bookshelf (I’ll re-read that too, later this year).

I thought I would find The Clan of the Cave Bear really boring (some of the later books are a bit), the writing banal and bland, but that wasn’t the case at all. I was engrossed from the first page, sucked back into this world that captured my imagination so vividly so early in my life as a reader (before I knew I wanted to be a writer, in fact). I suspect, having re-read it now at age 32, that I owe a lot of my interest in archaeology  and anthropology (I almost minored in college) to this series. Not only that, but a lot of my feminist philosophy and social politics probably began forming while I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear as a young girlI found myself referencing the book in numerous conversations as I was re-reading it, which also helped me realize how incredibly influential the book was to me.

Reading The Clan of the Cave Bear so young might’ve most influenced what I would love to read for the rest of my life. I could see that the Earth’s Children is a series that required as much complex world-building as George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire books (and perhaps waiting for the last two EC books prepared me for my wait for The Winds of Winter now). Moreover, I enjoyed that total immersion in a new world that the best fantasy series provide. I could see in Ayla some of what I later loved about Katniss in The Hunger Games, or Ellie Linton from the Tomorrow books. Perhaps because I had just finished reading Ronlyn Domingue’s The Chronicle of Secret Riven for review, I found parallels between the Utopian society depicted in that speculative fiction and the early socialism and mysticism depicted in Auel’s historical/speculative fiction series.

Most of all, what I felt re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear was a desire to re-read the rest of the books in the Earth’s Children series, to delve once more into The Song of Ice and Fire books, and The Hunger Games, the Tomorrow books and Harry Potter. I wanted to stay immersed in a fictional world that felt real and vital, that made me think and made me care deeply for the characters. The Earth’s Children series are the only books Jean M. Auel is known to have published, but I’m glad to say that The Clan of the Cave Bear has stood the test of time for me.

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The Re-Reading Project: Dragon Sword and Wind Child

In her dream, Saya was always six years old. Long fingers of flame rose up against the darkness, lighting the sky above. Fire blazed spiteful and triumphant above what she had once thought most secure–her home, that safe, warm refuge that she was so sure would always be there. The glowing hearth; the single room in which her family lived permeated with the smells of cooking and familiar people; her own wooden bowl; her mother’s soft, plump lap covered in rough-woven cloth–all were consumed by the flames. The child Saya had somehow managed to find her way to the marsh at the edge of the village, but with no one there to lead her by the hand, she could go no farther. Crouched in a clump of dying reeds, she trembled with terror, choking down the hard lump of fear in her throat, unable even to cry.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara. I know it was before I started keeping my reading record at age 13, because the first time this book appears on the record is in 2004 when I re-read it while staying with my parents, at age 22. While I don’t know how old I was when I first read it, I do know that I discovered this book at the Cobb County Public Library, at what is now the main branch, what was at the time the massive new building that replaced my beloved little library in the town square where the children’s books were housed in an attic alcove you had to climb several staircases to get to. Judging by the comments on Goodreads and also on Tales of Magatama, a fan blog, my experience with Dragon Sword and Wind Child is not unique. Many of the comments reference chancing upon the book at the library as a child, as I did.

The original cover is striking and I imagine that it’s what first drew my attention, all those years ago. Translated into English by Cathy Hirano, the book is a retelling of a Japanese creation myth, a story that centers around fifteen year old Saya. While it contains a lot of the familiar tropes and imagery common to mythic tales, it was a mythology completely foreign to me. Though it’s told in the relatively flat tone also common to mythology, it resonated personally with me. The familiar comforted me and the foreign thrilled me. A lot of it would’ve sailed over my head on my first reading, but I always remembered it as a favorite book.

dragon sword and wind childFor many years, copies of the English translation were almost impossible to find, selling for over $100 online. When I wanted to re-read it ten years ago, I discovered that the Cobb County library still had the same copy I read as a child. In 2007, it was released in a new paperback edition with new cover art. While I think the new cover is beautiful, it doesn’t really strike me as relevant to the story as the original.

new dragon sword and wind childThe book never felt open-ended to me, so I was surprised to learn that it was the first in a trilogy, Tales of the Magatama or The Jade Trilogy. The English version of the second book was released in 2011 as Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m curious, but reluctant, too. So far, the third book hasn’t been published in English and I think this is part of what makes me hesitate to read the second book.

By chance, I was visiting my parents at the beginning of February, when I planned to re-read Dragon Sword and Wind Child, so even though I own a copy of the reprint, I decided to check out the original from the Cobb County library and compare them side by side. Unfortunately, I learned that the book had been officially discarded from the library system. Because I’ve been volunteering with my local library, dealing with discards for the book sales, I can understand why this happened, why it was probably necessary, and yet I have to say I was emotional about it regardless. It probably happened shortly after the 2007 reprint. The original hardcover was no longer as valuable and probably had suffered a significant amount of wear over the years. Probably the new cover appeals to today’s children and teenagers more because it looks very manga-like.

Unable to compare the two copies, I dove into my copy of the reprint, which nicely contains an Afterward written by Ogiwara in 2005. It was a weird experience, something like recovering memories after amnesia, I imagine. As I read, I would remember characters and elements of the story right as or right before they were revealed. As an adult, I felt impatience with Saya that I probably didn’t feel as a child. She’s very passive, in fact it’s an integral part of her character: it’s her job to “still” the dragon sword. She’s surrounded by people who know more about the eternal battle between the Light and the Darkness than she does and she constantly looks to them for answers and protection. I had to remind myself that this is true of most children—they have less information than the others around them, they look to others for guidance and they have to make mistakes in order to learn.

One thing that I very much enjoyed about the story, and I’m sure this drew me as a child too, is that the standard Western tropes are often reversed. If there is a “bad guy,” it’s the side of Light, not Darkness (though the Western standard of male = sun and female = moon analogy is present here). Princess Teruhi is the more fierce of the two twin children of the God of Light. Her brother, Prince Tsukishiro, is the more conciliatory of them. There is a hint of the maiden-mother-crone triumvirate at work in the story and (SPOILER!) they all die.

Someone with an expertise in Japanese mythology and literature, as well as world mythology, could probably write a book about Dragon Sword and Wind Child’s place within Japanese literature and the larger mythological canon. I’d love for there to be an annotated edition of the trilogy for Western readers one day – that would be simply incredible. In the meantime, what I know is that Dragon Sword and Wind Child, being the complex and beautiful book that it is, finding me when it did, helped influence my love of fantasy and myth. It’s a big reason why I love books that unite fantasy and mythology, books like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, The Neverending Story, Kai Meyer’s books, Ronlyn Domingue’s Keeper of Tales trilogy and at least one book I’ll re-read later this year. Dragon Sword and Wind Child remains a beloved book from my childhood.

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