So, I've been reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, finally. They're awesome, as I knew they would be. So far Hound of the Baskervilles is my favorite, which was predictable. I eat up that gothic shit. But all this reading has forced me (FORCED ME, I TELL YOU) to rewatch Sherlock, the latest BBC take on Holmes. If you haven't watched it yet (dear, imaginary reader), you need to get on that. The writing is smart and funny and the acting is superb across the board.
Take Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, for instance.
I remember sitting in Mr. Bennett's 11th grade English class with a book. It was thicker than most of my textbooks, but I was carrying it around anyway because I wanted to read it during study hall.
"What have you got there?" Mr. Bennet asked me. He was an aging hippie, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, shirt sleeves rolled up, the kind of teacherly dude who sits on the edge of his desk while he teaches.
I showed him the book. It was Wizard and Glass, the fourth Dark Tower book by Stephen King. "Stephen King," Bennett mused slowly. "Well, I guess I should just be glad you're reading something," all drippy with condescension. It occurred to me that I didn't like him all that much.
I was a long-time King fan by then, see. I was eleven years old when The Shining mini-series starring Stephen Weber premiered on TV. I wasn't allowed to watch it, being a well-known fraidy cat in my house. I was the kid who had to have her own magic wand to banish the monsters in the closet. I was the kid who was so afraid of her own nightmares that I used to force myself to stay awake all night rather than risk them. My sister and I spent a week with our cousins in Oklahoma one summer, and we watched an episode of the X-Files one night. In it, some demonic little boy killed everyone in his family. Or something. All I remember is being so freaked out I spent the rest of the week staying up all night and reading my way steadily through my cousin Erika's collection of picture books.
So anyway, yeah, my parents weren't about to let me watch The Shining. But they didn't count on my sister.
She was three years older than me and an X-Files addict. I don't remember her ever being scared of a movie or tv show, or anything at all, really. She watched The Shining and loved it, and it just so happened that summer we were in the golden age of being too old for baby-sitters and too young for jobs. Our parents trusted us home alone, and for the most part, we behaved ourselves admirably. One day, my sister showed me a scene from The Shining. It was all talk, that scene, just Jack and Wendy having a late-night conversation about the hotel.
"See?" my sister wheedled. "It's not even that scary!" She's the type of person who loves to share movies she's enjoyed. It's like a compulsion.
"Okay, let's watch it," I said bravely. So we did--we spent that whole day in front of the television (for shame!) and watched the six hour miniseries straight through.
I loved it.
Oh, it scared the shit out of me. After we finished watching and my sister moved on to other pursuits, I stayed glued to the couch, too scared to move lest a ghost in the scariest wolf mask ever, seriously, jump out at me. I think I fell asleep on that couch and didn't move until my parents came home. I haven't left a shower curtain closed since.
But I loved it. I could write a whole entry about why I love the miniseries and hate the Jack Nicholson movie. Some of it is just how great the miniseries is. Mick Garris can make a shot of a window with a half-open curtain skin-crawlingly ominous. The music is haunting and beautiful. The acting--even little Courtland Mead as Danny--is pretty much spot on. Especially Steven Weber as Jack Torrance. In the miniseries, like the book, which I read and loved later that summer, he's a good guy, a bad drunk, just trying to do right by his family and ignore the wolves outside his door. It's sad what happens to him. He's terrifying because King makes you love him first.
Seriously, the shit this guy does with his face...love.
In the Stanley Kubrick film, Jack's a creep from the start. There's barely a change in his character from the beginning to end of the movie. Plus they made Wendy a weak, simpering sort of woman. Not a fan.
ANYWAY, END TANGENT. Later that year, my sister and I went through these stages again with It. First we watched the movie (after she watched it with her friends and loved it so much she just had to show me). I had to pause it part way and turn on--I remember this so clearly--Kids Say the Darndest Things on TV, because I was getting so freaked out. And while now I find that movie to be pretty comically terrible, I still maintain that Tim Curry as Pennywise was perfection. After the movie, I read the book, and I think that really got the ball rolling.
I love It. I've probably read it almost once a year since I was twelve. There are entire passages of that book that live in my memory. I get nostalgic for The Barrens. Every so often, I want nothing more than to hang out with Richie Tozier and Ben Hanscom. Part of my heart will always live in Derry, that malevolent little town.
He gets a bad rap sometimes, King. People don't give him much credit, it seems. Mostly they're people who haven't really read any of his books. If they did, they'd find how fantastic he is at characterization. So many of his characters feel so alive for me--Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscom, Henry Bower, Nick Andros, Randall Flagg, Eddie Dean, Annie Wilkes, Tom Cullen, Harold Lauder...He's written some of my favorite villains. Some of the most likeable heroes. Hell, he can give a place as memorable a character as any person. His books explore fear and monsters, but also hope and friendship and creativity.
I like to think about King sometimes when I'm feeling stuck with my writing, or uninspired. I feel like he'd be a good ass-kicker. He wouldn't be impressed with any of my stupid excuses for not writing. Why would he? The guy's written about a hundred books. I should know; I've read them all. He's got another Dark Tower novel coming out this year, and then, I just learned, a sequel to The Shining. Holy crap. We'll find out what happened to Danny after the Overlook burned.
Dudes, I could go on and on. It's awesome he's out there. It's amazing that we still get a new Stephen King book every year. Fuck. All this makes me want to go crack open It. I won't, though. I've got my own writing to do first.
So I finished Lev Grossman's The Magician King. I'd been afraid that I wouldn't remember anything from The Magicians, since I read that one years ago. And Grossman doesn't give you much; there are no handy pockets of exposition. And there were definitely a few references I couldn't remember at all, or only vaguely. But somehow it worked anyway; I remembered enough.
The book picks up where the first left off. Quentin, Julia, Eliot and Janet are the kings and queens of Fillory, a Narnia-esque magical land from a book series they grew up reading. It's kind of novel (hah!) to have characters in a fantasy novel have the same literary canon that we do (with the addition of Fillory, of course). They make references to Harry Potter and Narnia and Tolkein. They have specific ideas of how things are supposed to work. Take quests, for example:
"He'd read enough to know that a state of relative ignorance wasn't necessarily a handicap on a quest. It was something your dauntless questing knight accepted and embraced. You lit out into the wilderness at random, and if your state of mind, or maybe it was your soul, was correct, then adventure would find you through the natural course of events. It was like free association--there were no wrong answers. It worked as long as you weren't trying too hard." Dude, I can't even tell you how many quest stories I've tried to write. It seems so easy from the outside because there are no rules, there doesn't have to be a map. But then you have to make shit actually happen, and it gets all complicated and hard. Anyway. The tone of this book is unique. Quentin loves magic the same way any of us fantasy-lovers would if we found out it was real. If I could go to Narnia? Shit. I'd be all over that. So it's easy to identify with Quentin. He can get a little douchey at times, but we get it. He does stuff because it looks cool. He wants adventure because he loves the idea of adventure. It's a specific idea of adventure, too; when he gets stuck on Earth for a few days, even though he's traversing the secret paths of this underground magic community, he's meeting river dragons and hanging out in a palazzo in Venice, he doesn't even realize he's having an adventure. All he can think about is getting back to Fillory. A quest is just more...questy on a ship, amirite?
Quentin's whole journey is only part of the story. Grossman switches between Quentin's perspective in the present and Queen Julia's past. Because Julia was different--she wasn't accepted into the magic school with Quentin and the others. She learned magic existed, and was shut out from that world.
She didn't take it very well.
I loved Julia's chapters. They're darker than Quentin's. She suffers from depression. She throws her old life away, family and all, in her pursuit of magic. I feel like it was handled well. She acknowledges that she's destroying her family, breaking their hearts, by leaving. But we can also understand why she does it. Grossman never condemns her. When she eventually finds her own magic "school," her own community, we know things aren't going to end well. In the present, we know she is struggling with, well, humanity. Quentin notes early in the book that "she didn't speak much these days. And for some reason she'd mostly given up using contractions." She only seems to get worse as the book goes on--she retreats into herself, acts all cryptic, that kind of thing. It might be frustrating if Grossman didn't give us insight into how and why she became this way.
Yep, today we're actually talking about something other than my tumultuous week! Will wonders never cease. I never read A Wrinkle in Time. I know, blasphemy, right? I feel like I tried it once when I was young, and never got into it. I was always far more into The Baby-Sitters' Club and Sweet Valley Twins and oh man is my face red right now. But I always just loved series of books. Animorphs. Nancy Drew. The Boxcar Children. Probably the most difficult books I read were Brian Jacques' Redwall books. Which I still think are awesome, by the way. But I've digressed wayyyy from my point, which was that Madeleine L'Engle's memoir A Circle of Quiet was really my first introduction to her writing. It only took me 26 years... I actually finished the book a few weeks ago. It was exactly what I needed at the time. I started it just after my grandmother died, and I was in the mood for something, well, quiet. Ruminative. It didn't hurt that a lot of these ruminations were about writing, and I love reading about writing. Some choice quotes from the book: "I'm incapable of saying anything intelligent about anything I've written. When anybody ask "What are you writing about now?" if I try to reply, the book-in-the-works sounds so idiotic to me that I think, 'Why am I trying to write that puerile junk?' So now I give up; if I could talk about it, I wouldn't have to write it." (I am totally stealing this line. I never know what to say when people ask what I'm writing. I usually just say "fiction." Then they either give me an Exasperated Look or ask if I write about vampires. What. Why. No.) Quoting Carl Van Vechten: "An author doesn't write with his mind, he writes with his hands." (Dude, so true! When I started working in the restaurant, I thought it would be so fantastic--I'd plan out scenes for my book all day, then skip home and have 2000 new words before the sun went down. But it seems I can't focus without the act of writing. I got a few revelations here and there, but for the most part, I got a hell of a lot more work done when I started getting up to write at 5am. Drat.) "I still tend to think of myself in the mirror set up for me in that one school. I was given a self-image there, and not a self, and a self-image imposed on one in youth is impossible to get rid of entirely, no matter how much love and affirmation one is given later." (Not about writing, I know. I'm unpredictable. I just copied this down because it's true.) "If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing. I'm glad I made this decision in the moment of failure. It's easy to say you're a writer when things are going well. When the decision is made in the abyss, then it is quite clear that it is not one's decision at all." (This resonates with me most clearly when I'm dragging myself out of bed at 4:51am to write before work. Either I'm insane, or I'm a writer.) "...I have found that the longer we have been married, and the more deeply I love [my husband], the less I "see" him visually. "Close your eyes," I'm in the habit of telling my students of all ages, "and think about the person you love most in the world. Do you really see him visually? Or don't you see on a much deeper level? It's lots easier to visualize people we don't know very well."" (Love this! It's so true! In my mind, Fiance isn't his face or his body. That's all there, I guess, but all that physicality is so overshadowed by what I feel for the guy when I think about him. It truly doesn't matter if he hasn't shaved in three months, if his clothes are a mess of food stains from cooking for twelve hours, or if his hair is veering into JewFro territory. I hardly even notice.)
Lovely, right? I didn't agree with everything she wrote, but when it comes to the writing stuff, this lady and I are on the same page. (Geddit? Geddit? Har har.) Two enthusiastic thumbs up.
I know you've been waiting with bated breath, O Imaginary Reader of Mine! So here we go, the rest of my top ten books read while I was 25!
The Bitch in the House, edited by Cathi Hanauer. This book is a compilation of essays written by women about marriage (or choosing not to marry), children (or electing not to have them), relationships (or being alone). It's about being capable, calm and friendly at work, and then going home and feeling like all you do is nag. It's about making an open marriage work. It's about making choices and living with them. Anyone who reads this will relate to some of the essays, and have your mind opened by others. I want to give this book to all my women friends and make them talk about it with me.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. Oh man, now this book I want to give to all the teenage girls in my life. Or I would, if I had any...When I started the book, I was a little worried. I mean, how many books are there with a female protagonist who gets hot over the course of a summer? But Frankie won me over in no time. Sure, she blossomed or whatever, and sure, it gets her noticed by the hottest guy in school when she goes back in the fall. But this girl is a feminist. She is her own person, and that person is a believable teenage girl. She can be giddy and flirty and overwhelmed by her crush, and still recognize that he and his guy friends don't treat her like an equal: they treat her like a girl. Just a girl. And she uses her considerable creativity and intelligence to prove herself worthy of their full respect. She makes mistakes and actually pays for them. I unreservedly love this book. I bet you would too.
Locke and Key: Volumes I-IV, by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. I fell in love with Joe Hill's writing with his book of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. I'm not usually a big short story fan, but his caught my attention. I also loved his novel Heart-Shaped Box. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at a local library a few months ago. He was completely endearing and down to earth. He answered the inevitable questions about his father, Stephen King, with good humor. This was the first time I really heard about Locke and Key, his series of comics. Series of graphic novels? I'm not sure how to differentiate, I'm ashamed to say! But no matter; the concept intrigued me: a house full of keys that each had a different power. One opens your head up--you can put information in or take memories out. One turns you into a ghost. One takes you anywhere...and on and on. This series is phenomenal, dark and funny and moving, and illustrated incredibly. I can't wait to see what happens next!
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. This book has so much that I love: creepy old, abandoned house; creepy old photos; creepy children; creepy mystery...the unexpected cliffhanger, not so much, but I'm definitely excited for the next installment!
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray. I wouldn't have thought a book about a kid dying could be so funny. I loved the relationship between all the boys. Their dialogue was often hilarious and felt very true to me.
The Borrower, by Rebecca Makkai. On religious intolerance, the love of reading, and road trips.
Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray. Celebrating female friendships and girl power with humor. Hurrah!
So, something you should know if we're gonna hang out is that I love books. I fucking love them. And I love talking about them. I have book recommendations for everyone, including you. But Laura, you've never met me! you remind me. Ha! As though such paltry details could stop me.
I had fun listing my ten favorite books read while I was 25. But just listing them doesn't do them justice! You need to know why I loved them so much! You're in luck, 'cause I'm gonna tell you.
The Unbearable Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Have you read Aimee Bender before? She wrote An Invisible Sign of My Own and Girl in the Flammable Skirt. She writes characters so odd that they're unforgettable. Seriously. I read a lot, and my retention skills aren't the best. But I remember her characters. In AISoMO (because that's soooo much simpler...), her main character develops the ability to taste emotions when she eats food. Specifically, the emotions of the person who made the food. Bizarre, right? And awesome! I don't even want to tell you more because I don't want to give things away. But it's a truly original concept at the heart of this book, and I for one read it in one sitting. That was a great afternoon.
Wonder When You'll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis. This one deals with some issues close to my heart: body image, madness, and circus performers. I wish I had written this book. But at least someone did.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. I debated whether or not to include this one in my top ten. It is out there, this book. How to even describe it? Part of it describes a series of films. Not feature films, more like...Blair Witch Project. Except good. And real. These were my favorite parts of the book. The film is about a house that is bigger on the inside. But not in a good, TARDIS-y way. A creepy, you-could-get-lost-in-your-own-home-and-never-escape kind of way. The other part of the book is the increasingly insane ramblings of a narrator who's discovered the film part of the book. To be honest, I skimmed some of these parts. But the parts about the house and the family who moved in were so great that this still made my top ten, so there you go.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It's like Jane Austen with time traveling! It's hilarious. It's fun. I loved this book from page one. Read it read it read it!
Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. This was another read-in-one-sitting book. It's about two teenagers working out who they are and challenging each other to step outside their comfort zones. It's about reality intruding on fantasy. It's...fun! It made me want to run right out and experience everything my city has to offer. I love books that make me want to do things.
Okay, so I'm gonna break it up into two posts! Consider this post the first. Are you reserving these books through your local library yet? I'll wait here.