By REBECCA, September 10, 2012
The other day, I was talking to my dear friend J— on the phone, lamenting that I wasn’t in her new apartment with her so that I could help organize her bookshelves (one of my favorite pastimes, nerd alert). During the course of our conversation, I convinced her that the best course of action was to color-code her books. This is something I’ve always thought looks so beautiful—kind of an outward expression of books’ art—but never quite wanted to do myself, since I have my books organized by genre. Over the next day, J—sent me pictures of her shelves in progress and they were so beautiful that I simply had to do one of my shelves. I chose the shelf where I keep all the hifalutin literature that I, say, read in grad school (you can tour Tessa’s and my bookshelves here and here). It looks beautiful (if Martha do say so herself) and it was extremely satisfying.
More importantly, though, this aesthetic reorganization results in books’ proximity to one another that isn’t governed by author, publication date, or theoretical lens. That is, it forced me to think about books relating to books that I never thought about before. It places, for example, Richard Wright’s Native Son next to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood next to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. As someone who spent seven years of grad school being fascinated with connections among books (and likely driving people crazy by pointing out insignificant resonances) I had never noticed how relevant Hester Prynne’s enforced mark of adultery might be to a reading of Bigger Thomas’ race; nor had I noticed how much the baroque gothic language and obsessive theatricality of Barnes’ Nightwood might owe to the gothic underbelly of obsessive love set in the Parisian opera in Leroux’s Phantom.
So, this got got me thinking: what new relationships might my YA novels develop if they were allowed to cavort by color? What nuances of those books might be revealed by putting them in conversation with unlikely fellows? Here are just a few that jumped out at me:
Sport is one of the sequels to one of my favorite YA reads of all time, Harriet the Spy. As you’ll remember, Sport is one of Harriet’s best friends; he lives with his absent-minded writer father, and loves baseball. In Sport, 11-year-old Sport gets a stepmother and inherits millions of dollars when Sport’s grandfather dies. In a bid for his share of the money, Sport’s mother shows up and kidnaps him, forcing him to stay at the Plaza Hotel.
In Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, it’s the summer after high school and James Sveck is working at his mom’s art gallery, trying to explain to his parents that he doesn’t want to go to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn just as much by reading on his own. James is hyper-analytical and doesn’t buy into any of the life-scripts that so saturate everyday encounters.
Leaving aside the simple geographical fact that when Sport is hanging out in the Plaza, he’s a mere two miles down 5th Avenue from the Washington Square dog park where James walks his dog (and even closer to the gaudy Trump building where James’ father lives), I kind of cannot stop giggling in amused poignancy over what I imagine the encounter between Sport and James would be. Sport, who is old-school NYC—managing his father’s paltry finances in a ledger book, knowing their tabs at each neighborhood shop down to the dime—might, I think, be another person that James could tolerate.
I can see Sport skateboarding down 5th Avenue when he gets away from the Plaza and leaning against the wall of the art gallery where James works. James leaves the gallery to go get John’s daily salad combination and Sport asks him what he’s doing. James would say, “I’m going to procure a daily mix of four gourmet salads for a co-worker.”
“Why?” Sport would ask.
“Because salad is important to some people,” James would reply.
“Oh,” says Sport. “Is it important to you?”
“No,” says James. “We have garbage cans in my mom’s gallery that sell for thousands of dollars, too.”
“Oh,” says Sport. “I guess garbage cans are important to some people, too.”
“Yeah,” James says, “I think probably you’re right.”
Primavera’s voice brought life to the desert from the moment she was born. In love with her uncle’s partner who will never love her back, she follows a dangerous stranger to Elysia, a city that values youth and beauty and art above all else—and that wants to keep her . . . forever. In Same Difference, 16-year-old Emily’s life changes forever when she ventures out of her New Jersey suburb to do a summer art program in Philadelphia. In addition to exploring her own talent, Emily learns to express herself in all avenues of her life.
These make an interesting pair—looking at them together reminds me that although they feature very different protagonists, these are both books about young women trying to figure out how much of who they are depends on where they come from. For Primavera, the safety that her parents found in fleeing Elysia (in the prequel, Ecstasia) feels claustrophobic, and she has to retrace the path of their escape to figure out for herself how to appreciate her peaceful and beautiful home. Emily, who has always felt quasi-satisfied with getting frozen mocha lattes at the local Starbucks and lying by the pool with her best friend, comes to see the limits of that lifestyle when she opens herself up to the people and experiences in Philadelphia, but she also sees how much of her really is attached to her childhood best friend, and her home town. Like Primavera, Emily has to leave home to fully appreciate the marks it’s left on her, and to revise them.
Tessa and I both like Daughter of Smoke and Bone a lot (see our 3-part conversation about it here, here, and here), especially because it’s set in Prague. Karou was raised by chimaeras, and now their whole world is threatened by a particularly attractive and vicious kind of angels and, of course, love. In The Marbury Lens (one of my all-time favorites by one of my all-time favorite YA authors), after undergoing a trauma, Jack arrives in London and is quickly drawn into the terrifying, war-torn world of Marbury, where he has to fight to survive—even if it means fighting his real-life best friend. And as the line between Marbury and London grows less and less clear, Jack isn’t sure if he can ever escape.
I like thinking about these books being friends. Like Jack, Karou has two lives as well: to her friends in art school, Brimstone and the other chimaera are just monsters she draws in her sketchbook; to Brimstone et al, her friends are like characters in a story she tells. And whereas for Jack two worlds blur together, for Karou, when Akiva enters the picture, she begins juggling three different worlds, all of which threaten to collapse. Where Jack is panic-stricken and uncertain how to negotiate these boundaries, Karou has always lived this double-life. These are both bad-ass books that negotiate the ways that each part of our lives influences the other parts, whether we want them to or not.
So, those are just a few of my kissing books. What about you—have you found any important resonances among books based on unexpected meetings? I want to hear about them in the comments. In case you need inspiration, I leave you with this magical video: