Tag Archives: Joi Brozek

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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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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