Category Archives: review

2014 Q4 Reading Report

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

October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November

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

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

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

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

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

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

December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Image 1

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.

Meta author photo

Meta author photo

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: 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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2014 Q3 Reading Report

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

July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Cold Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Photo on 9-15-14 at 4.54 PM

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

 

 

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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: One Hundred Years of Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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The Re-Reading Project: Fahrenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451 cover 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451

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

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

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

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The Re-Reading Project: Animal Farm

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

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

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

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

Animal Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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