Category Archives: The Re-Reading Project

Quarterly Progress Report: 2015 Q1

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

Updates on 2015, my life and goals so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

My end of 2014 homework

This is the fifth time I’ve wrapped up the year with some homework, originally assigned by Jamey in 2010. This is my chance, as the year winds down, to reflect on the past and plot the future, to remind myself everything that’s happened and everything I’ve achieved. It’s become my favorite new year tradition.

The 14 Struggles and Successes of 2014

1. I re-read. This time last year, the Re-Reading Project was a scribbled note at the back of my journal. After deciding to re-read 12 influential titles (all originally read before the age of 16), I stuck with it and, throughout the year, I re-read 21 books and 10 friends joined me, writing essays about books that are important to them. I didn’t finish my planned book for December, the only title from the original 12 that wasn’t re-read this year. However, I consider the Project a smashing success because of all of the amazing experiences I’ve had re-reading and all of the tremendous guest essays. Plus, as I suspected, re-reading pushed me to read more. Last year, I read 67 books and this year, I’ve read over 100. And it looks like I’m going to continue it next year, with a different handful of titles.

2. I moved for the second time in six months. This time, I moved to a brand new part of town. I’d always said (and thought) that I hated Mid City, because I inevitably got lost around here and I have a great sense of direction. From day one living here, I stopped getting lost and started finding my way in multiple senses. I’ve made a cozy, impermanent, perfect little home here for myself and while I’ll probably have to move again soon, I know now that I absolutely love Mid City and it’s been an invaluable lesson.

3. I applied for writing residencies and submitted my work like it was a full time job. Because it was, for the first time, my main job. I even got all organized and efficient about it, too.  (I gave up my t.v. in this second move and hardly missed it, I was so busy reading and writing).

4. I ate and cooked healthier. This has been a slow process, several years in the making, but I had a few conversations last year with tango dancers about juicing and hypoglycemia that pretty much pulled everything together for me. I read a few books that blew my mind. And I started eliminating as much sugar and processed food from my diet as I could on a limited budget and without the energy and time to change everything completely. It started with small changes (no sugar in coffee, especially the sugary iced coffees I love) that grew into bigger changes (lots more veggies, mindful of “sugary” fruits, more nuts and grains). I’m now a regular at the closest farmer’s market to my house, I make most of my meals at home and I’ve noticed that cutting down my sugar intake has made me taste and enjoy food so much more. So when I do eat some sugar, it’s a real treat. Sometimes, it’s hard and I really have to make sure I eat small meals/snacks regularly or I crash badly (but this was always true, I just didn’t know how to manage it). The end result is I’m healthier than I’ve maybe ever been and I’m still working to be healthier.

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5. I read the first chapter of my memoir at Peauxdunque’s  second Yeah, You Write, alongside amazing writers.

6. I assisted with the organizing of the New Orleans Tango Festival, which was an exceptional, educational, entertaining experience. I got to meet, dance with and just hang out with so many incredibly talented dancers. Next year’s festival is already gearing up and I am so excited, even though it’s still six months away! Opportunities like this one really helped make me a better dancer this year.

7. I traveled a lot this year. I went twice to D.C. and got to dance at two different milongas. I spent more time in Atlanta and got to take lessons with teachers there. I danced in Philadelphia and in the middle of nowhere on a airfield. I even spent more time in Baton Rouge. While all of the trips weren’t necessarily motivated by tango, I managed to dance wherever I went. All of this travel, while related to the turmoil of this year in many ways, reminded me how much I really love visiting different cities, the openness it brings to my life. I want to make travel a priority in the future. Until D.C., I hadn’t flown in a few years and I haven’t been out of the country since 2007, so I think that’s gotta change soon.

8. I attended an artists residency, Soaring Gardens. I wrote about this quite a bit on the blog, so I’ll keep this one short. Except to say that my month staying at Soaring Gardens with the artist Anne Canfield was everything I needed and utterly transformative.

9. I “lost” NaNoWriMo. This year’s novel was a silly and fun murder mystery that came to me while I was in Pennsylvania. I was excited to write it, but it never came together. I only wrote a few thousand words on that project, but I’ll never consider this NaNoWriMo (or any other) a failure. I always learn something trying to write 50,000 words in a single month. This is why I totally won this year: during November, I started waking up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. to write for a half hour, 40 minutes, an hour, before work. I wrote over 10,000 new words on the memoir. I kicked ass during those early morning writing sessions, getting more done in an hour than I’ve gotten done in whole days set aside to write. What’s even better is that I’m still writing for an hour most mornings.

10. I finally got meditation. Meditation has always been something I understand would be good for me, but it’s been a recipe to fail in the past. I meditated a little, though not formally, while at the residency. Mostly, I journaled like crazy and spent a lot of time in my own head, sitting still outside. In November, while I was *not writing* my murder mystery for NaNoWriMo, I also completed a meditation challenge. It finally clicked for me this go-round and I had a breakthrough about what meditation looks/feels like and how it can help me.

11. I worked on my novel again and while it’s still unfinished (those pesky last 30 pages of the third draft are killer), it’s in very good shape. Meanwhile, I’ve made some great progress with the memoir this year. I blogged more than I have in a long time and published a few reviews and interviews. And, a short essay I wrote will be published in an anthology. I’m looking forward to seeing all of my work in a tangible form that can be shared.

12. I asked for help. I’m not good at this or, I haven’t been in the past. It was very, very hard, but when it looked like I wouldn’t be able to go to the residency, instead of giving up, I launched a GoFundMe campaign. I was utterly blown away by the generosity and support I received. Even when people couldn’t donate anything or much, their notes of encouragement bolstered me. Beyond the fundraising campaign, I’ve received so much help this year (financial, emotional, physical) and after I decided to stop being a basket case about it, I started to accept it as graciously as I could, because everything this year would have been harder or impossible without the help I received.

13. I survived. Historically, I have not managed change well. 2014 was full of transitions, a constantly shifting field. Most of it was positive. Several changes were incredibly sad. Good, bad, positive, sad, it was a lot. I moved for the second time in six months and spent the whole year uncertain how long I’d stay, not just in my apartment, but in New Orleans itself. I fell in love and while the relationship didn’t work out, it changed everything. I wrote my first poem in almost a decade and started journaling hardcore again. I attended two funerals, the first of my life, and I worked hard to support people I cared about through their grief. I freelanced and took on a new role as a salesperson, but I didn’t work on a single movie, though I considered positions on two huge films. My sister’s second son was born, as were the children of friends in the tango community. Three of my friends’ 12 year old sons are now taller than me (no matter how much I grow as a person, I’m just not physically getting any taller). Friends graduated, got married, changed jobs, left town. This year, I struggled to survive all of the changes. Next year, I look forward to thriving. I have ideas and dreams and I’m working on making them plans and realities.

14. I put my writing first. While I’ve never actually given up my writing or stopped completely, I’ve let jobs, relationships, living situations, etc. structure my life and then I fit my writing in between whatever else seemed like a bigger priority at the time. This was the year, for better or for worse, that I decided that my writing, my own goals and plans, had to establish the structure of my life and everything else needs to support my writing. It was really messy and difficult, but I know it was a lesson worth learning. Where I live, who I love and spend time with, what I do to make money, none of this can change who I am: a writer. So all my decisions from now on are going to be made with that in the forefront.

2013 was a rough year and 2014 was, if anything, even rougher. But in the midst of the struggle, as Maurice recently reminded me, is the sublime. I’m ending 2014 stronger than I started it, confident and determined. I’m ready to let go of 2014 and very excited for 2015.

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Filed under Atlanta, Baton Rouge, family, food, freelance work, Friends, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, tango, The Re-Reading Project, The Residency Road Trip, travel

The Re-Reading Project: The Book I Couldn’t Re-Read

This time last year, I had a small sheet of paper taped into the back of my journal with a list of twelve books jotted out. My plan was to re-read one of these twelve books each month in 2014 and write about the experience, what I remembered from my original readings and what I discovered reading them now. I’d first read almost all of these books before I was 16 (when I moved to Louisiana) and while I’d read most of them only one time, I counted them all as favorite, influential books.

In January, I quickly fell in love with the project and read 9 kids’ books. I was in the middle of moving for the second time in six months, so I think I was a little nostalgic for childhood and a semblance of stability. It was a lot of fun, in the middle of chaos.

February found me in my new home and brought me company in the project: my friend Maurice re-read an influential book of his own and wrote a guest post. I re-read a Japanese fantasy translated into English.

March brought a guest post from my sister Aimee, re-reading an author she introduced me to and who I would re-read later in the year, as well as a post of my own about re-reading a speculative anthropological romance novel.

As April opened, I re-read a gothic romance while on a train to visit my new love and my friend Missy re-read a philosophical horror novel I’d never read by an author who also wrote a series of books I almost re-read this year.

In May, I confessed to my history as a reader of romance novels and I re-read my first “real” romance novel, by a writer I’ve never read again, and then re-read a romance by a writer whose mysteries I still read, conflicted though I may be about enjoying them.

June saw me at my love’s house, re-reading a young adult trilogy by an author who disappeared for ten years and then became wildly popular again as two of her series were made into t.v. shows. My friend Mary re-read folk tales right around the same time her book of poetry inspired by folk tales was published.

July brought me heartache, but I pushed on and re-read a horror novel by the author my sister introduced me to at age ten and my friend Noel re-read another horror novel by a more famous horror novelist.

August took me back to school, re-reading three books I was assigned as a student, one of which I hated and one of which I loved, and I got on the road for the Residency Road Trip. Blogger Lisa re-read another canonical tome that impacted her.

September was an oasis of calm, of thinking, reading and writing and I re-read a speculative science thriller and my friend James re-read a magical realistic family saga by an author who died this year.

In October, I returned to “real life” and New Orleans, wrapping up the Residency Road Trip and settling back in. I struggled to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October and at the last minute changed it to a magical realistic romantic tale as my Peauxdunque cohort Emily re-read a romantic Civil War saga.

During November, I conducted my own private NaNoWriMo and happily re-read an adventure tale based on an ancient Iraqi folktale while another Peauxdunque cohort, Joi, re-read a gothic horror novel about suburbia and family (not written by Gillian Flynn).

December finds me in a familiar place – swimming through chaos and uncertainty. My friend Rachel re-read a satirical science fiction novel and I struggled, once more, to re-read the book I’d originally scheduled for October: a fantasy novel published in 1992 by an author who has switched to writing mysteries. (If you can guess what the book is from that description, let me know.) I’ve always remembered this book as one of my favorites, though I might’ve only read it once (it’s recorded in 1996, when I was 14, but I find it hard to believe I only read it one time). I was excited to re-read this book all year long – it was one of the first titles that went on my list. Several times, as I read other books, I thought of this book. There’s an artist protagonist, so I thought it would be perfect after living with an artist for a month at the residency. But, as I dove in, the book never really caught my attention. I was fifty pages in when I started again this month, so I had a head start and I still couldn’t get invested. It finally got a bit more interesting when I passed the 100 page mark last night, but I’m a firm believer that there is a time for every book in a person’s life. And I finally had to admit that I’m just not meant to re-read this book this year. Maybe next year.

This year, I re-read and wrote about 21 books (rather than the 12 I’d originally intended) and my friends wrote 10 fabulous guest essays about books they re-read. Interesting stats: of the ten guests, eight are women and two are men. Even more interesting: I’ve only read 2.5 of the 10 books my guests re-read (the .5 is for Mary’s folk takes because while I didn’t read her edition, I’ve probably read most of the stories), though I have started reading, but never finished, half of them. I didn’t assign any of the titles my guests picked, though we did discuss them in advance and I sometimes scheduled them according to what I was re-reading (Noel in July most notably).

It turns out that the Re-Reading Project is going to continue, with a new slate of books and in a different form. Let me know if you’re interested in re-reading and writing about your experience and stay tuned. In the meantime, you can use this post as an index (or scavenger hunt, if you prefer) for all of the essays for the 2014 Re-Reading Project. 

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Filed under books, Friends, musing, New Orleans, The Re-Reading Project, The Residency Road Trip, travel, what I'm reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He passed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Guest Post: Flowers in the Attic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The image of that swan bed.

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

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

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

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

Agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joi and FITA

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

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The Re-Reading Project: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

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

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

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

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

7 D and 7 S cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Re-Reading Project: Practical Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Residency Road Trip: Soaring Gardens Week Two and Three

After my Week One post, it turns out, I’m addicted to chronicling our stay here at Soaring Gardens, so I kept photographing our meals and other miscellany of note. Here’s a recap of Week Two and Three of our stay. Enjoy!

 

~Week Two~

Day 8

Today, I spent most of the morning reading and doing some housekeeping for my job back home, just so it won’t be a complete mess when I get back. It was chilly in the house, but warmer outside because the sun was out, so I read outside to warm up. I’m reading a book about tango and it got me thinking about the book I’m here to work on, so I was taking notes and underlining like a madwoman (in a hammock). I wrote a bit on the bench by the studio (the office from Day 7) and a car kept going by on the street up the hill, slowing down near the house. I went up to find out what was going on. The driver was looking for the neighbors and I was able to direct him there, but just before he drove off, he looked at the studio and said, “That’s a weird house.” He was already gone when I rebutted, “It’s a studio, actually.” Very strange. 🙂 In the afternoon, I walked on the front lawn, listening to music and still pondering the book’s structure. It was a very contemplative day. Anne rehashed her chicken and red sauce dish with some eggplant and linguine and that made a nice dinner.

Day 8 dinner

Day 9

Woke up from a very strange dream this morning. That’s happened a bit while I’ve been here. I told Anne about the dream while we ate breakfast and she suggested it might’ve been related to our conversation over dinner last night, which made sense when she said so. After breakfast, I had an errand to run at the neighbors’ house. Mrs. Neighbor had come over and introduced herself on Day 2, our first full day, but I’d only seen Mr. Neighbor from afar as he walked their dogs. I walked up to their house (which used to be the barn for the house where we’re staying, when it was all one big farm) and introduced myself and he said, “Are you the writer, or the painter?” and then he asked me how my work was going and we had a lovely conversation about books, their dogs and Korean movies. Afterwards, I went back and got some work done. In the afternoon, Anne and I went into Meshoppen, following Joanne (the gardener)’s directions to Marty’s Market, which she said has a nice meat selection. We got a nice big steak and some fat chicken breasts, for meals we’re planning later in the week, as well as some sauerkraut and mushroom pieroges, and other necessary items. For dinner, I cooked the chicken, mozzarella and spinach sausages Anne brought with some kale and purple sauerkraut and Anne made the pieroges.

Day 9 dinner

Day 9 dinner

Every day, it’s been getting colder and I’d been feeling worn down. By the end of the day, when Anne and I watched Wall-E (instead of our usual evening rummy game), I was full-out sneezing.

Day 10

I slept pretty late and when I finally got up, it was a rainy, rotten day. But I felt a bit more energetic than yesterday and Anne had left me a get-better treat:

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Because it was cold and wet and I was sick, I set up in the studio (very warm and beautiful), making a nest for myself and my notebooks on the floor in front of a window. I wrote and read there in the late morning and afternoon and when Anne went on a hike, I spent a half hour or so dancing on the great wood floors in the studio. The sun came out in the late afternoon, so I read on the studio’s porch and admired the view.

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I worked at the table in the kitchen while Anne made dinner. My work was administrative, mostly correspondence, and I found out the identity of the mystery apple baker. It was Suzanne, one of the residents at the house last month. For dinner, Anne grilled the steak, made some sweet potato fries (with aioli) and veggies. It was very, very good and the wine on the table was one of the best so far, a Malbec. I put together a simple sweet treat for us after dinner.

Day 10 dinner

Day 10 dinner

Vanilla bean ice cream with toffee milk chocolate bits

Vanilla bean ice cream with toffee milk chocolate bits

 

 

 

 

That evening, I vegged out, watching tango videos, in anticipation of taking a class I found in a nearby town. More on that later. I went to bed early-ish and Anne worked late in the studio. No rummy this evening.

Day 11

I was feeling more energetic in the morning, so I decided to walk down the road a ways (passing no traffic, except for threIMG_3900e guys on two 4-wheelers). Instead of taking the road back, I cut through a meadow (seen in the pic) and then walked through the woods alongside the road, trying to stay close to it. But I couldn’t actually see the road (or hear it, without traffic) and winding through fallen trees and underbrush, I was further away than I’d thought by the time I decided to hike up to the road.

This fallen tree looks like a sea serpent!

Doesn’t this fallen tree look like a sea serpent?

And it was a hike because the road climbs up. But, I have a good sense of direction and I’d been careful to always keep the road on my left, so I came out  of the trees just one property over from the house. I was exhausted, though. And thirsty! I’d overestimated my energy level after being sick the last two days. So, I recovered on the swing in the mudroom and read some more of the book about tango, then ate lunch.

After lunch, Anne and I went by Four Seasons to pick up some fresh produce and we had a very interesting exchange with Tina, who runs the farm stand. First, I told her that Diane said hello. Diane was originally supposed to be my housemate and we were both scheduled to be here in August. I ended up here in September with Anne and Diane stayed at the church, a second property nearby that’s also part of Soaring Gardens. Tina said hi back to Diane and then asked if we’d gone by the church yet and met the couple staying there. We hadn’t known anyone was there, but she said they’d just been in, saying they hadn’t found the house yet. So, after dropping Anne back off at the house, I grabbed a bread pan (Tina mentioned they needed one) and the directions to the church and I headed off on an adventure. The church is just a few miles away and I was finding my way fine, except that the dirt road that the church is on apparently changed names recently. So I passed it twice and went almost all the way to Meshoppen looking for another likely white church on a dirt road. Finally, I called ahead and confirmed that was the church alright, so I headed back and had tea with Janet and Greg. They followed me back to the house so they could check it out and meet Anne.

Farm stand haul: purpley-green tomato, black raspberry jam, Amish butter and cherry peppers

Farm stand haul: purpley-green tomato, black raspberry jam, Amish butter and cherry peppers

After they left, I wrote for a little while in the studio with Anne and then went into the house to make dinner. This meal was inspired by a conversation with Joanne in the garden earlier in the week when she told me about making chicken breasts stuffed with ricotta cheese and veggies. I couldn’t stop thinking about putting this decadent dish together and our trip to Marty’s Market was partially inspired by my wanting to cook it.

Day 11 dinner

Day 11 dinner

I stuffed the chicken breasts with ricotta, mushrooms, basil, slices of tomato and cherry peppers (both seen in the pic above). I sauteed the rest of the mushrooms and Anne made a tomato/cucumber salad to go with it. Please note that the chicken is garnished with some of the cherry pepper and the pieces baked inside made the whole breast nice and spicy. Since it was pretty cold, we opted to dine inside tonight. Our dessert was sinful: a chopped local red pear over the last of the ice cream, with melted dark chili chocolate. 

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After dinner, we both worked very late in the studio. I think I’ve figured out the structure for my tango memoir, after some tailoring the past few days and I researched and made notes for the timeline of the first section of the book. I worked till about midnight, then read for a bit while Anne finished up. Then, we met for a super late and long game of rummy. And, I won for the first time! It was pretty exciting. Here’s the proof, our score sheet, which Anne illustrated:

Emilie's 1st rummy win

Day 12

Today was a rainy, dark, cold day! I ended up working in a new space: the corner of the dining room where there’s a little table and a comfy chair. I spent the morning and early afternoon there, breaking for a tasty lunch, which consisted of a thick slice of the purpley-green spicy tomato (stuffed in the chicken last night) on cheese and a peanut butter and black raspberry jam sandwich, utilizing the last two pieces of the pumpernickel.

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Jayne’s Orchard opened today and we’d been planning on going by, so even though it was a gross day, we went. I was a bit melodramatic and put on four layers: a thin turtleneck, a thermal with a hood, a thin sweater and then my raincoat. My excuse is that I just got over being sick, but really I’m just a wuss when it comes to being cold. It was worth going out in the chilly, rainy day. We scooped up some corn, honey and the most amazing apples at the orchard. We bit into them the second we were in the car – they just begged to be eaten.

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The sun actually came out a bit after we’d gotten back from the orchards, so I took my tango book out to the studio patio and soaked up what sun I could. After about an hour, I went back to the house to make dinner, something easy that would use up some of our leftovers and some of last bits of everything. So, I made a pico de gallo (most of our remaining grape tomatoes, the last cherry pepper, a jalapeno, cilantro, red onions and fresh raw corn), cooked the last chicken breast (marinated in Crystal and pepper, with some cilantro) and heated up the last of the steak from two nights ago. As I was cooking, Janet and Greg popped by to return the bread pan and before they left, I gave them some of the McIntosh apples and directions to the orchards. When Anne came in from the studio, she cooked some spinach and heated up the corn tortillas. The sun had made a full appearance by this point, so we took it all outside.

Day 12 dinner

Day 12 dinner

Day 12 dinner (also)

Day 12 dinner (also)

Afterwards, Anne and I jointly concocted what is probably one of the most decadent (and still somewhat healthy) desserts ever. Using some of the maple syrup Anne brought and a little of the whiskey I’d brought, not to mention some of the Amish butter, we cooked one of the McIntosh apples from the orchards, along with some blueberries from Blueberry Haven. Then, Anne took the leftover ricotta cheese, mixed in some half and half and a tiny bit more syrup and we combined the two for this amazing dessert:

IMG_3940After putting everything away and cleaning the kitchen, we went back for the second shift. Me, back to the dining room corner and Anne back to the studio.

new spot

We played another late game of rummy and I won again! I think the secret to beating Anne is playing when I’m hyper late at night and Anne is exhausted. 🙂

Day 13

I stayed up very late finishing a book, but still woke up fairly early because the sun was shining brightly through my windows. After breakfast, I set up in the office and worked on my Jurassic Park Re-Reading post most of the morning. I’d told Anne that I thought I’d have a big late lunch since I would be at the tango workshop around the time we’d normally be cooking and eating dinner. She said she’d join me and cooked some salmon, made a tzatziki sauce for it and served it with corn on the cob. It was delicious. In the picture below, you can’t really see the salmon on the front plate, so look at the plate in the background.

Day 13 dinner

Day 13 lunch

After lunch, it was hard to pick an outfit that would be warm and give me the freedom of movement I need to dance. It was a chilly day and I knew it’d get colder once the sun set. Finally, I settled on dance pants under a dress with a pashmina and a coat. No picture of that, unfortunately for y’all. 🙂

I left early because I wasn’t sure if I’d get lost on the way, plus I had some errands to run in Tunkhannock, since I was passing through. I guess I should say that I was aiming for a place called Factoryville. When I’d been pining for tango a few nights ago, I did an Internet search and found out there is an event every Sunday in September called Tango in the Tent. Factoryville is only about 45 minutes away, and the dancing takes place on the grounds of a small airport, of all places. I was extremely lucky because I found out that the class today was being taught by Johana Copes and Joaquin Besga. So, of course I had to go!

My errands went quickly and I didn’t get lost at all, so I was a bit early to the class. Mike, one of the organizers, showed me and another early bird around the house and the property behind it. It was the magic hour around these parts: the sun starts going down and gets very hot and everything just blazes up in color. Here’s a photo, to show you what I mean:

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It was just ridiculously beautiful. There were small planes landing on a runway on the right side of the photo above, as well as tangueros and tangueras arriving, all dolled up for dancing. Pretty much the instant I arrived, the hosts (Mike and Karen) found out I’m from New Orleans and told me about hosting Alberto and Valorie here a few years ago. The world really is very small and the tango world is even smaller. Thousands of miles from home, in an entirely new tango community, there are connections to home through this dance I love so much.

The night was fabulous: a good class, new friends, live tango music and tasty food. It was so good to dance again – it’s been weeks since I danced last, in Atlanta, and even longer since I’ve danced with my home community in Nola.

It was so dark when I headed back to the house! Earlier in the week, knowing that I was going to be coming back in the dark tonight, Anne and I drove back from Marty’s Market via the route I’d take and noted landmarks I could still use in the dark. And when I headed down to Factoryville, I was very careful to note the landmarks and mile markers again. Anne was on standby to come rescue me if I needed it, but I had absolutely no trouble making it back. All of our advance scheming paid off!

I was buzzing after my wonderful evening, so Anne made us a late, light snack and listened patiently as I talked all about tango, tango, tango!

Day 14

Slept in a bit today and then spent the day working in the office and reading. I finished the book about tango I’ve been reading the past week or so. I’d gotten a late start and got caught up in my day, then realized that Anne and I had decided to keep doing a big, late lunch instead of our dinner feasts. I didn’t have anything defrosted or planned for the meal, so while Anne headed off the the farm stand, I made a big egg and veggie scramble. When she got back, she cooked the greens and made a salad.

Day 14 lunch

Day 14 lunch

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I redeemed myself a little bit by cutting up the last of the peaches and putting it on some ice cream for us. Great dessert. After the late lunch, I joined Anne in the studio and worked there the rest of the day.

~Week Three ~

Day 15 

Spent the morning working in the office. Janet and Greg came by again and brought dark chocolate nonpareils with them (kind and evil, all at once). Since I haven’t included a photo of the office yet, here’s what I see on the desk as I work:

This coffee mug is becoming a bit like the gnome in Amelie, isn't it?

This coffee mug has become a bit like the gnome in Amelie, hasn’t it? 🙂

For the big, late lunch, Anne made BLTs with some bacon she got at the farm stand yesterday, and a cabbage and apple salad. For dessert, we had ice cream with some nonpareils sprinkled on top.

Day 15 lunch

Day 15 lunch

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After our meal, I spent the rest of the day working in the studio again: basking in the sun on the porch off the studio as I wrote in the afternoon and enjoying the quiet companionship of a shared workspace in the evening. After our work was paused for the day, my short rummy winning streak came to an end. I played well, but still somehow managed to get some pretty low scores.

Day 16

Felt pretty sick again today. Anne asked me earlier if I had a cold or allergies and I said, “Honestly, I think it’s a bit of both.” But it’s very strange how I’ll have full-out cold symptoms and no energy one day and then next, I’ll be a bit better, and then feel sick again the day after. I’m definitely dealing with some allergies, though. And it’s tough for me to stay warm, unless the sun comes out and then I just try to soak it all up. My cheeks have been pink for the last few days because of the sun bathing (and maybe the cold, too).

Anyways, I did some work for my job back home early in the morning and then read a bit, finishing one of the nonfiction books I’ve been reading. In the afternoon, I wrote on the bench underneath the studio’s porch (see Day 7), enjoying the sun. Then, I went put together today’s big late lunch, making meatballs and using the spinach and mozzarella ravioli again, cooking them both in a cream of artichoke. We finished off the cabbage and apple salad with it.

Day 16 lunch

Day 16 lunch

Maybe I’ve got tango on the brain, but doesn’t that salt and pepper shaker set look like a couple dancing?

Climbing the hill

Climbing the hill

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At the top of the hill

In the late afternoon, I went on a walk down the road a ways and up a hill. I wondered what I would see from the top. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill and started back to the house, the sun had lost a lot of this brilliance and it was starting to getting dark.

I spent the evening watching tango videos and writing some correspondence. Then, I went to the studio and did a bit more work there. Anne slaughtered me, again, in our evening rummy game.

Day 17

First thing, I drove into Tunkhannock to run some errands I hadn’t been able to do on Sunday (post office, liquor store). Even though this was only the third time I’ve driven “to town,” it’s starting to feel familiar, so I can really enjoy the scenery as I go. On the way back, I stopped at the Welcome Center for maps and postcards and the lady there told me to go by the Fireplace Restaurant for more postcards. It was a bit after noon and the smells in there were amazing, but I couldn’t stay for lunch, sadly. Had ice cream melting in the car and a big late lunch to get to. I did take a different route back to the house, though and pulled over to get a picture of the amazing view.

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I suspect that the hill towards the right of the picture, in the background and all lit up, is the hill I climbed yesterday.

Day 17 lunch

Day 17 lunch

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Back at the house, Anne made BLTs again with the awesome bacon from the farm stand. She made a spicy aioli this time, since I don’t like straight mayo, and it was really, really good. The tomatoes are orange ones, also from the farm stand, that look like apricots when sliced up like that. We cut up the biggest of the McIntosh apples, cooked it with some maple syrup, butter and whiskey, and added it to some ice cream. Maybe the best dessert ever.

I’d gotten mail! One of my good friends in Nola had retrieved my Poets & Writers, which got waylaid before my mail forward went through, and he sent it to me with a sweet card. I have felt so bereft without it all month! Here’s a photo of me enjoying the magazine on the studio porch. It’s turned to the page that announces this same friend’s contest win.

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I spent the evening working in the studio. I have to admit, I was a bit worried about the Scottish Independence vote tomorrow. I have some friends who live there and I enjoyed my time in St. Andrews seven years ago. I’ve always wanted to go back. So, I wondered how this vote would affect the lives of my friends in Scotland, as well as my ability to visit them and travel in the country. Anyway, as has become ritual, we worked pretty late and then settled in for a game of rummy. Anne won, once more.

Day 18

In the morning, Anne and I planned the big meal and a visit to the farm stand over breakfast. She set off, running the two miles to the farm stand (using a more direct route that I’d suggested might cut through near the house and sure enough, it did). I left a while later and scooped her up on the road close to Four Seasons, where we encountered not Tina, but a new lady. We had a great time visiting with her, scooping up some mint and seeing what is definitely the largest potato I’ve ever encountered. In the picture below, you can get a sense of the size of this thing by the scale and tomato (pretty large itself) in the background.

Award winner?

Prize winner?

Back at the house, I decided to go ahead and cook the big meal. I’ve discovered during this month that I really am naturally more alert in the evenings, so I tend to get more creative work done in the studio after the main meal, in the warmer late afternoons and quiet nights. I’m generally more distractable during the mornings, less focused. I always knew myself to be a night owl, but I wondered if it was still true. Guess so.

Day 18 big meal

Day 18 big meal

Yum

Yum

I chopped up a bunch of our veggies and peppers, many of which were on the verge of going bad, and made a spicy salsa. It looks a bit like a mango salsa in the picture below, because I used one of the orange tomatoes (seen behind the potato above). In addition to the tomato, I added some of the blueberries and corn for sweetness, to balance out the Crystal sauce, cherry peppers, cilantro and jalapenos. I seared some salmon and Anne cooked some spinach, which took on a lot of flavor from the salsa when we put it all together. It was very tasty. Anne cooked one of the Honeycrisp apples from the orchard, along with some blueberries, in whiskey and red wine. Here’s a picture before we’d even put it on the ice cream, because it was already so gorgeous (and delicious).

I had more mail, this time a care package from my mom, including a copy of Entertainment Weekly. It was two weeks old, from all the forwarding, but I was so glad to have it anyway! Of course, the cover story is on The Walking Dead and I already have a hard enough time not thinking about zombies while staying at here at the farmhouse, so I skipped that story.

The studio was nice and warm in the afternoon, so I got to work and stayed there the rest of the day, till just before midnight. Here’s a picture of what my workspace looks like in the afternoon – it’s a bit of a greenhouse right there in that corner, by all the windows. It gets downright hot, which is how I like it.

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During our evening rummy game (Anne’s on a winning streak), we had a great conversation about realism, magical realism and surrealism in both literature (my work) and visual art (hers), as well as the work of Haruki Murakami. Anne’s a big fan, but I’ve only read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (and a ton of interviews), so she recommended a novel of his for me to read. We’ve had a ton of these interdisciplinary conversations the past few weeks and it’s all been very fun and useful.

Day 19

Had another slow morning: eating breakfast, reading and cleaning up a bit. Very Saturday-ish kind of activities. It was a nice day today, not cold at all, so we threw open the doors and windows to enjoy it. It was especially nice in the kitchen, between the open front and back doors. It was very breezy and just very pleasant.

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Day 19 big meal

Doesn't look like much, but was very good.

Doesn’t look like much, but was very good.

I spent some time with the big meal today, a variation of my beef stew recipe.  I played around with the gravy and it ended up being pretty thin, more broth-like, but it was very rich regardless. The veggies were all still pretty crisp, which I love. I used two different kinds of potatoes, which needed to be used up, as well as one of the cherry peppers and, of course, Crystal (couldn’t resist). Even so, the stew wasn’t spicy, just flavorful. Anne made a beet, cranberry and carrot salad. And afterwards, I made a variation of s’mores, with gingersnaps instead of graham crackers and some chocolate caramels that Anne picked up at the farm stand the yesterday. Surprisingly, this was spicy, plenty of ginger in the snaps.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have a stalker out here, a chipmunk who likes to creep close and then dash away whenever I realize he’s there. There’s no reason to believe that this isn’t multiple chipmunks, but I feel pretty sure it’s the same darn one. I haven’t been able to get a photo of him. Till now. I came across him sunbathing in the backyard and though he knew I was there, he didn’t run away this time.

Alvin? Is that you?

Alvin? Is that you?

The sun came out and I spent the afternoon on the studio porch, writing and letting my hair dry after a shower. It was just absolutely beautiful and I enjoyed basking in it. After the sun set, I went back to the drafting desk in the studio and worked till midnight again. Neither of us was very tired, so we had a big Saturday night: a whiskey nightcap and a *very* close game of rummy (she still won), then Egyptian Rat Slap (I slaughtered her) and then I taught her a family variation of rummy I hadn’t played in years (she picked it up fast and almost beat me). What hooligans we are. 🙂

Day 20

We were hoping the orchard was open this morning, so we took a drive out there. Alas, it wasn’t, but it was a pretty drive regardless. We passed a total of two vehicles roundtrip (if you count a tractor in one of the fields).

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Once again, it’s not too cold, so it’s been a nice weekend to walk around and enjoy the sun, meditate and think. We decided to skip the big meal today and each eat leftovers as we worked. I spent the evening in the kitchen, brewing up a “detox tea” and doing some research for the memoir. The rainstorm that’s been brewing for two days finally started. Anne came in, made a Greek salad for a late light meal and we had some of the tea as well.

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Day 20 light snack. Anne’s with smoked herring on top…

...mine without smoked herring.

…mine without smoked herring.

After the snack, we both worked till pretty late, well after midnight. Our rummy game was very close tonight and I was in the lead every hand until Anne swooped in at the end and stole the game. But I won both of our very quick Egyptian Rat Slap games after that. One of these days, I’ll beat Anne at rummy again…

Day 21

It rained most of the night and was cold again in the morning. But what a mild, pretty weekend! Anne went into Tunkhannock today, so I spent the morning dancing in the studio. Can’t let my tango walk get rusty! It’s been good to have all this time to practice on my own, but I certainly miss dancing with and seeing my tango friends. The days were pretty slow for a while there, but now that we’re nearing the end of Week Three (and the residency), they seem to have picked up speed.

Day 21 big meal

Day 21 big meal

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After Anne returned from Tunkhannock, she used the cookbook she brought to make “Chicken Curry in a Hurry,” along with some cucumber raita. We opened up a Malbec. It was all delicious! Our dessert was two ripe bananas I’d frozen before they could go bad, chopped up with the chocolate sauce we made. Yum!

And then, into the studio we both went, to work on our respective art. We were there, working, most of the evening, till about midnight once more. It’s been a pleasure to share a workspace with Anne all these weeks, and to see her paintings develop and change every day. It’s remarkable how much the two art forms are similar, and all the ways in which they differ.

Tonight’s rummy battle was one of the most heated yet, with several hands that took us into negative scores. Well, me. Anne had to take points off her score one hand because I went out sooner than expected, but overall, it was the worst slaughter yet. Afterwards, we played a full game of my family’s variant of rummy. Well, I say my family’s because I played it growing up and my aunt taught me and my mom, but I haven’t discovered whether it’s an official version or not. Anyway, I beat Anne, but she got better with each hand, so it’s only a matter of time till she’s lethal in this rummy, too.

Hope you enjoyed reading about Week Two and Week Three here at Soaring Gardens. You can read about Week Four next Tuesday, so stay tuned!

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Filed under food, musing, tango, The Re-Reading Project, The Residency Road Trip, travel, writing updates