Sister Magic IS Practical Magic!

In Which I Discuss Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995) & How I Came to Love Practical Magic, directed by Griffin Dunne (1998)

Practical Magic Alice Hoffman   Practical Magic Sandra Bullock Nicole Kidman

by REBECCA, November 12, 2012

Many moons ago, I’m thirteen or fourteen, and I get this book called Practical Magic from the Saturday morning library book sale for twenty-five cents because the first sentence of the blurb reads, “For more than two hundred years, the Owens women had been blamed for everything that went wrong in their Massachusetts town.” Magic, witches, persecution, stuff going wrong: sounds great! And it is great. The writing is beautiful, the multi-generational family drama well-wrought, the characters interesting, and the atmosphere exquisitely . . . well, atmospheric.

Fast forward a couple of years: I’m sixteen, and the movie version of Practical Magic comes out, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I see it; it’s awful; I forget about it.

Fast forward a few more years: I’m nineteen or so, in college, and home visiting my parents over the holidays. My sister and I have recently grown into being friends, since I left the house and she’s grown up a bit, and Practical Magic comes on TV during a lazy afternoon when my parents are at work and my sister and I are slobbing around in our pajamas. She thinks the movie looks good; I tell her that I’ve seen it and it’s terrible, but that the book is good and she should read it. We watch it anyway.

And we love it. It’s funny! It’s sad! It’s magical! It’s a love letter to everything about being sisters! And I couldn’t have really appreciated it until my sister and I became best friends.

Practical Magic houseAfter realizing that my sister was actually the magic ingredient in my enjoyment of the movie Practical Magic, I went back and re-read the book. And, actually, the sister-magic is far less pronounced in the book than in the movie—perhaps that’s why my enjoyment of the book didn’t hinge on that relationship. But it was just as good as I remembered it being; and rarely has the title of a book quite so aptly described what was inside.

Since watching Practical Magic with my sister ten years or so ago, it’s become something of a favorite sister-movie for us, and so I don’t watch it critically any more—sure, I can still see why it’s not a very good movie, but it’s got just the right mix of feel-good stuff to make it a win. Especially the actors, who are pretty perfectly cast (except Aidan Quinn). Yeah, I’m talking to you, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest!

Alice Hoffman’s novel, however, is a legitimately good book. I think it often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, because it gets lumped in with the rest of the Alice-Hoffman oeuvre (many of which I know I’ve read, but can’t tell apart from one another) as well as with a sub-sub-genre of women-oriented, garden-magic-y books that spiked in the mid-nineties. And that’s a real shame, because Practical Magic is definitely Hoffman at her best. Themes and characters that are teased or made precious in her other novels are perfectly modulated here. That isn’t to say that I don’t like other of Hoffman’s books—there are several that I enjoy a lot. But Practical Magic reads to me as if it were the one book she most wanted to write, so when she did, it all came together perfectly.

House from Practical MagicFor those of you who have seen the movie (whether you loved or hated it), the book is significantly different. The biggest difference is that the film cuts out most of the second half of the book, in which Sally’s kids are teenagers and Gillian comes back to live with them, which is some of the best stuff in the book. Sally and Gillian’s response to the girls growing up is the centerpiece of the second half of the book, and really emphasizes the story of three generations of sisters: the aunts, Sally & Gillian, and Antonia & Kylie.

Hoffman’s storytelling is the perfect combination of practical and magic itself, beautifully crafting gems that reveal each character:

“One beautiful April day, when Sally was in sixth grade, all of the aunts’ cats followed her to school . . . There was Cardinal and Crow and Raven and Goose. There was a gawky kitten named Dove, and an ill-tempered tom called Magpie, who hissed at the others and kept them at bay. It would be difficult to believe that such a mangy bunch of creatures had come up with a plan to shame Sally, but that is what seemed to have happened, although they may have followed her on that day simply because she’d fixed a tunafish sandwich for lunch . . .

On this morning, Sally didn’t even know the cats were behind her, until she sat down at her desk. . . . Sally shooed them away, but the cats just came closer. They paced back and forth in front of her, their tails in the air, meowing with voices so horrible the sound could have curdled milk in the cup. ‘Scat,’ Sally whispered when Magpie jumped into her lap and began kneading his claws into her nicest blue dress. ‘Go away,’ she begged him. . . . A panic had spread and the more high-strung of Sally’s classmates were already whispering witchery. . . .

A boy in the rear of the room, who had stolen a pack of matches from his father just that morning, now made use of the chaos in the classroom and took the opportunity to set Magpie’s tail on fire. The scent of burning fur quickly filled the room, even before Magpie began to scream. Sally ran to the cat; without stopping to think, she knelt and smothered the flames with her favorite blue dress. . . . Sally stood up, the cat cradled in her arms like a baby, her face and dress dirty with soot. . . .

Sally cried for two hours straight. She loved the cats, that was the thing. She sneaked them saucers of milk and carried them to the vet on Endicott Street in a knitting bag when they fought and tore at each other and their scars became infected. She adored those horrible cats, especially Magpie, and yet sitting in her classroom, embarrassed beyond belief, she would have gladly watched each one be drowned in a bucket of icy water or shot with a BB gun. Even though she went out to care for Magpie as soon as she’d collected herself, cleaning his tail and wrapping it in cotton gauze, she knew she’d betrayed him in her heart. From that day on, Sally thought less of herself. . . . Sally could not have had a more intractable and uncompromising judge; she had found herself lacking, in compassion and fortitude, and the punishment was self-denial, from that moment on” (9-13)

So, whether you read it for the sister-magic, the cats, the eccentric aunts, the glorious descriptions of food, the New England architecture, the small town life, the gorgeous old house, the romance, the coming-of-age, the actual magic, or the lovely prose, I have no doubt you’ll find something in Practical Magic to tickle your fancy.

What are your favorite sister-magic books? Tell me in the comments!

Re-Read: Nowhere High Series. So ’90s!

A Review (kind of) of the Nowhere High series, by Jesse Maguire

Ivy (Ballantine), 1989-1992

Nowhere High series Jesse Maguire

By REBECCA, October 17, 2012

Sometimes I feel like Crunchings & Munchings really exists so that I can talk about all the ’90s-era books series that I loved so much as a kid but that never really slotted into “classic YA” enough that anyone talks about them (I won’t speak for you, Tessa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ’90s figure pretty heavily into your C&M joy too). In that tradition, then, today I bring you the Nowhere High series—a series that, as far as I know, none of my friends growing up ever read, making it impossible for me to describe any of their hair as being “the color of eucalyptus tree bark—sort of silvery brown” and have them know what I was talking about (6). Anyhoosier, the Nowhere High books were a staple of my ’90s childhood, but much to my shock, when I tried to look the books up to write this review, I saw that there were a seventh and eighth book in the series that I never read. I must get my hands on them immediately!

The deal is this: when TJ McAllister moves to rural Pennsylvania from L.A., he finds himself on the wrong side of a group of pants-snatching, mud-slinging dudes after his first day at Ernest Norwell (“Nowhere”) High. TJ soon meets Caroline Buchanan (Caro), the girlfriend of the school badass who doesn’t seem to care about anyone; Josh Hickham, one-time pants-stealer but artist at heart; Darcy Jenner, boarding school reject whose passion for pranks doesn’t fit with her good-girl image; Alison Laurel (Mouse), Caro’s childhood best friend with a passion for music and thrift store magic; and a few other misfits. They commandeer an abandoned railroad station on the outskirts of town and turn Split River Station into more of a home than most of them have. They are, so the cover of book one tells me, “Hanging out and holding on . . . together.”

This series has many of the things that I love about YA fiction combined with many of the things that I love about ’90s movies:

Foxfire gorgeousness!1. A hideout! Number one wish from middle and high school?: that I could have had an amazing abandoned railroad station hideout with my friends! (Well, maybe, like, number two wish.) Split River Station is awesome, and throughout the series all the characters run away to it, hook up in it, and break down in it.

The Breakfast Club2. A rag-tag bunch of misfits! My favorite thing about the series is that the characters are all so different that none of them would be very likely to be friends in high school—you know, The Breakfast Club vibe. “Looking around the cafeteria, [Caro] saw that the rest of the school was neatly divided into groups” (40-41). When they’re together at Split River Station, though, none of what is expected of them by social group matters. So Josh can just do his art, Darcy doesn’t have to be nice, Mouse isn’t a freak, Caro is more than her looks, and TJ . . . well, TJ is a freaking mensch and I’m sure he would be whatever social group he was in.

3. Small town life! Many of the best ’90s books and movies are about kids chafing against their small towns. And it seems to me that it’s mostly in small towns that the high school stereotypes are the strongest, since there isn’t much mixing or variety, so it makes sense that they are the settings for much angst. It’s the same in this small town in Pennsylvania. Everyone knows each other so it’s hard to get past reputations, and new kids stick out forever. In a way, actually, the first book in the series, Nowhere High, reminded me a bit of a 1989 (mid-Atlantic) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, one of my favorite books of all time.No, really! I mean, obviously, it’s not anywhere near as good as The Outsiders, but there is a sense of desperation in the characters, and that shade of hard-edged girls and by-turns distant and violent guys that seems familiar from Hinton’s world. Especially Holly Vickers (such a good name!), the twin sister of one of the school bad boys—she smokes, chews gum loudly, fights, bullies people into dating her, and uses enough hairspray to fell a llama.

Nowhere High Jesse Maguire4. Early ’90s fashion! So, I’m going to do a whole post sometime soon about my favorite descriptions of fashion from YA lit (send me your nominations!) and Mouse in Nowhere High definitely ranks. Caro wears “a tank top, a big khaki shirt to go over it, and a pair of jeans. . . . She clipped on some earrings, pushed a couple of bracelets on, and pulled on a pair of boots” (62). Khaki shirt! Clip-on earrings! Mouse shops for the school dance at a thrift shop and she is clearly a master:

“Alison had unearthed a peasant blouse, heavy with old lace on the neck and sleeves, and an ancient cocktail dress with a stiff strapless bodice and a sequined skirt. Curious, Josh watched as she carefully folded the ugly bodice down and held the blouse up over the skirt. Then she took an old fringed shawl in green, gold, and brown, and with a quick twitch of her fingers, flung it about the skirt at a rakish angle—and suddenly there was a striking outfit” (143).

Supernatural Sam Dean Castiel5. Good, old-fashioned, interpersonal drama! Friends, I never thought I’d say it, sprung full-grown from the bookheads of Anne Rice and J.R.R Tolkien that I am, but I am a little para-super-extra-ed out. I’m sick of prefixes in general, as a matter of fact, and so returning to this mundane saga of pretty basic teenage problems was something of a palate cleanser. People have fights, feel inadequate, want to make art, get pregnant, fall in love, hope, eat, and not a whole heck of a lot else. It’s like I’ve been so supernaturaled-out that when I was rereading the series I kept thinking, like, oh, now TJ and Josh are going to turn out to be creatures and—no, wait, and ah, I bet Caro’s eucalyptus hair is really a Medusa—oh, yeah, not this time. And I didn’t miss it at all.

So, what are your all-time, top-five, desert-island ’90s reads? Inquiring minds want to know.

Re-Read: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

A Review of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards

HarperCollins, 1974

By REBECCA, August 6, 2012

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews Edwards

hook

Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter meet Professor Savant one Halloween night, and aren’t sure whether they believe him that there is a place called Whangdoodleland, where the last of that kind rules over a kingdom of otherworldly creatures. But, the more they practice the Professor’s methods of using their imagination to get closer and closer to Whangdoodleland, the more convinced they become that they can travel there and meet the Whangdoodle. Once they’re in Whangdoodleland, however, they realize that imagination is a dangerous tool that can be used against them just as easily as they can use it for their own purposes.

why am i re-reading this?

Julie Andrews as Mary PoppinsI’ve been feeling a little lazy and uninspired in my reading lately. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat of this interminable summer; maybe just a little slump brought on by a borderline-shameful bout of attention-span-ruining tv on dvd watching; I dunno. Either way, I decided it was time to go back to my roots and pull one of my childhood favorites off the shelf. I first read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles as a very young kid (it’s middle grade, I should mention) and had no idea that the author who created this super creative world was none other than the rather stern, besmocked, rosy-lipped Mary Poppins that my sister made us watch repeatedly. What?! Someone who can act, sing, dance, and write? No fair! Inspiring!

I have really strong memories of the world of Whangdoodleland from reading it as a kid. It’s filled with awesome creatures and gorgeous landscapes:

“Their first impression of the forest was that it was dark and gloomy. But as their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw that it was unusually colorful.

The plum-colored trees had brown, gnarled trunks. Most of them were embraced by a vivid pink ivy, growing and twining around the tall columns and twisted limbs. Garlands of the honey-cream flowers hung from the branches, linking one tree to another. The floor was mossy and bedded with ferns the color of amethyst. Huge pearl-white and crimson orchids grew at the side of the road, which pointed straight as an arrow into the dark interior.

Then they saw the eyes. There were thousands of them—large, unblinking, tortoiseshell-yellow orbs staring down through the leaves from every part of the forest” (169).

Julie Andrews Edwards The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesBut my favorite thing about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was that Professor Savant wasn’t able to get to Whangdoodleland without the Potter kids because the only way to get there is to have a boundless and malleable imagination—an imagination that only children have. So, Savant engages the kids in what is, to them, a great adventure; at the same time, though, he is placing them in great danger because he is dependent on the resource of their imagination. Lindy is seven, Thomas is ten, and Ben is thirteen. By the logic of the book, Lindy has the deftest imagination and is better than her brothers at surrendering to it entirely. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are when Ben, on the cusp of losing his childish ability to view reality as something different, is unable to do what he needs to do to keep himself and his siblings safe. At the start of the book, his maturity makes him responsible and trustworthy; someone Lindy looks up to. But, in Whangdoodleland, he’s something of a liability, and Edwards does a great job of capitalizing on those moments.

did the book hold up?

Mostly. I had forgotten that the mythology of mystical creatures in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is that these creatures used to have a lot of power when people believed in them, but

“as the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old—the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things as dragons, goblins and gremlins didn’t exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Whangdoodles disappeared along with them” (34).

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles Julie Andrews EdwardsThis sets up the stuff about kids’ versus adults’ imaginations and their relative power really well. One of the tropes that I often like in middle grade fantasy is the way that fear gains power the more you believe in it—the nightmare of imagination’s power. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has a splash of this for sure, but it wasn’t quite as dark as I remembered. The Prock, a skinny, slinking man who I always thought of as a sinister villain when I read the book as a kid now appeared to me as a totally reasonably watchdog of the magic of Whangdoodleland. He tries to stop the Professor and the Potters from getting to Whangdoodleland and meeting the Whangdoodle because he fears that if they can get there then humans could potentially overrun Whangdoodleland.

The scenes where the Professor trains the Potters to get in touch with their senses and imaginations totally hold up (plus they are constantly eating picnics and scones and stuff, yum!) and I found myself wishing, just as I did when I was a kid, that I could go on grand adventures via my imagination.

The only thing that felt a great deal different on this reading was the quest that the Potters go on to get through Whangdoodleland and meet the Whangdoodle. It didn’t seem quite as tense and suspenseful as I remembered, and the little clues they get along the way didn’t seem quite as clever. Still, though, the meeting with the Whangdoodle was just as delightful as I remembered and the ending just as good.

Check out this awesome art that a 3rd grade class did after reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles:

Sidewinders!

Prock!

Swamp Gaboon!

procured from: my home library

So, what about you? Any childhood favorites you’ve been meaning to dust off?

A Cookbook Library, with recommendations for the new cook.

Welcome to our first guest post! I’m super excited to introduce someone who wants to share her home library with you, and what a tasty library it is.  The kitchen can be an intimidating place if you’ve just decided that you want to start cooking more of your own meals, and what better person to give advice on the best cookbooks to give you a stress-free start than a cookbook author and food writer?  Read about her library and check out our previous home library posts here and here.

Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories. as well as a
freelance food writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in
Gourmet Live, Better Homes & Gardens, iVillage, ReadyMade, DRAFT, Time
Out New York, and other print/online publications. She contributes
regularly to Serious Eats as Slice’s New Jersey correspondent. Casey
is the author of the forthcoming cookbook Classic Snacks Made from
Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand Name Treats
(Ulysses Press, 2013).

(Spoiler alert, she’s also my sister. -Tessa)

My cookbook library parallels my career in food: I didn’t leave grad school with a grand plan to be a food writer and cookbook author, just someone who cooked to clear my head and get away from the stress of my *real* writing job. As cooking grew from a distraction into an obsession and then a vocation, my small stack of cookbooks morphed into a full-on research library.

And as I meet and befriend more colleagues–aka, other writers in the food world–my dining room bookshelves get stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey with work form people I know personally and want to support.  Sadly, the earliest cookbooks that kickstarted my kitchen confidence are no longer in my collection. Better Homes & Gardens Microwave Cookbook, I salute you and your recipe for spinach deviled eggs, even though I don’t remember actually using a microwave in any of my protozoan attempts at cooking.  And the binder in which I slavishly stored recipes ripped from the pages of Bon Appetit or printed from the internet has been relegated to an out-of-sight cabinet after I realized I was creating more recipes for the web than using what others had already developed.  As a somewhat OCD home organizer, I like to have my cookbooks divided by category:

  • general purpose: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New Doubleday Cookbook
  • chef-written cookbooks (subdivided by genre, like Italian, farm-to-table, Southern, etc.)
  • cocktails
  • breads and pizzas
  • breakfast (sort a bridge between bread-specific and general baking)
  • baking and dessert
  • ice cream
  • meat and grilling
  • canning and preserving

and so on.

baking!

canning! and MEAT

But the built-in shelves that came with the house are small and oddly sized, Making it near impossible to group all themed books together. Some need to be turned on their sides just to fit onto the shelves; other don’t fit neatly into one category, like my lone stir-frying book that hangs out with an overly large jam book and The Flavor Bible, a cool but genre-defying book that tells you what flavors match up with others. Sounds dorky, but sometimes it’s fun to page through and see that scallions and Dijon mustard are a good pair.  Think of them braised in a wine sauce. . . .

the trouble with built-ins.

But I digress. Over the years, my rationale behind the cookbooks I buy has shifted dramatically from impress-the-guests books like The French Laundry Cookbook and The Babbo Cookbook (both of which I still do cook from, honest) to a more well-rounded selection that covers all the bases from bread baking to curing meat to pressure cooking to regional Spanish cuisine. I read my cookbooks like they were novels and I turn to them often for reference and comparison.

If you’re building your own cookbook library, here are my top recommendations for filling your shelves:

For Cooks Just Starting Out

Jamie Oliver got a lot of flak for his “Food Revolution” TV show, but he’s still a smart and enthusiastic chef who knows of what he speaks.  Jamie’s Food Revolution and its follow-up tome, Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes, are like soothing guidance counselors for novice cooks who might otherwise turn to a frozen pizza or Lean Cuisine for dinner. Tasked with the idea of prepping a complete meal, whether it’s for yourself or a whole family, sounds daunting.  but Jamie breaks it down step by step–prepare, cook, and serve–covering all the bases in a conversational way.  He doesn’t ask you to dice the onions into 1/2-inch cubes, he just wants you to “roughly chop” them, knowwhatImean?  Before you know it, there’s a platter of parmesan chicken breasts with crispy posh ham on the table.  Meals in Minutes takes the concept one step further, pairing main dishes, salads, and veg together in one group so you can prepare an entire meal, start to finish, all at once in the kitchen. It’s an ingenious way of looking at things, since that’s the way most of us actually prep our food, and helps new cooks realize that cooking is a really intuitive process.

For Cooks Who Want to Know

Yes, Alton Brown’s recipes are available on the Food Network website, but if you’re a Good Eats junkie like me, you’ll be thrilled by the trilogy of books that covers every single recipe from every single one of the 249 episodes in the TV series. If you’ve never watched an episode, I nonetheless suggest you leaf through one of the tomes the next time you’re at the bookstore–I think these books make a better basic reference series than most of the chestnuts that came before them. Sure, The New York Times Cookbook can give you an eggs Benedict recipe, but Good Eats will explain the provenance of the name, tell you the history of the English muffin, teach you how to poach an egg, and give you a near foolproof hollandaise recipe.  All in one chapter. Isn’t that infinitely more useful, educational, and entertaining?

For Dessert Freaks

My friend Shaina Olmanson’s new cookbook Desserts in Jars takes a novel concept and explores its versatility six ways to Sunday. Newbie bakers can tackle their first yeast bread with the simple pull-apart cinnamon breads; pie crust-ophones like Tessa can tackle mini strawberry or peach bourbon pies, where rolling out pie dough doesn’t have to be perfect; and everyone should get a spoon for the recipe I’ve been jonesing to try ever since I picked up the book, sweet corn panna cotta with bacon-blueberry sauce.  Shaina’s got four kids, so she knows how to make recipes work for any age or experience level.  She’s patient and explanatory in her writing style, but her desserts have oomph.

For the Next Generation of Little House on the Prairie

Maybe you’ve always wanted to try your hand at canning, but are squeezed into a tiny studio apartment or don’t have a way to bring 10 pounds of tomatoes or strawberries back form the farmer’s market with you.  As the force behind the small-batch canning site Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan is the expert at the possibilities of preserving no matter how small your space.  Now she’s got a whole cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, with canning recipes that don’t require a forest’s worth of fruit.  Take a stab at Marisa’s simple raspberry ma, rhubarb jelly, or gingery pickled beets, and you’ll see how crazy satisfying canning can be–not to mention you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to buy Smucker’s in the first place.  And as she says, “Most people believe that you need a ton of special equipment in order to get canning. Truth is, provided your kitchen is stocked with some basics (I’m talking post, bowls, and measuring cups here, not Viking stoves) you can do a wide variety of canning with what you’ve already got.”

Oh, and what would any library be without its resident cats?  Lenny is still upset I took away some of his sleeping space, since he used to nestle in-between books before the space was filled.  But he’ll still relax against the cookbooks and gaze out the window at birds.  Harry prefers the other side of the bookshelves, where he can chill with the art history books.

Len-Len.

Har-Har. (pronounced Hair-Hair)

Re-Read: The Child Queen & The High Queen

A Review of The Child Queen and The High Queen, by Nancy McKenzie

Del Ray, 1994

By REBECCA, July 27, 2012

The Child Queen Nancy McKenzie  The High Queen Nancy McKenzie

hook

Guinevere lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Elaine in Wales; she’s adventurous and really only wants to ride her horses. Her cousin, Elaine, however, wants nothing more than to be chosen as the bride of the newly-widowed high king—Arthur of Camelot. When a chance encounter places Guinevere in Arthur’s sights, neither girl gets what she wants: Elaine is bitter and bereft, and Guinevere terrified of losing first her freedom and, later, her love for another horse-lover. You guessed it: Lancelot.

why am i re-reading these?

Queen of Camelot Nancy McKenzie I first read these around the time the came out, so I was around 12, and I read them about a million times for the next few years, when I was going through a bit of an Arthur-Guinevere phase. I loved the intricacy of the history/mythology of Arthurian stories and how differently each author would characterize the familiar figures, all of which stemmed from reading these books by Nancy McKenzie, collectively called The Tale Of Guinevere and King Arthur (apparently she doesn’t get an honorific) and re-released in one volume called Queen of Camelot (in which she does). In high school, I was a really big historical fiction fan, among other things, and I think that McKenzie’s books were something of a gateway drug for me: it was the richness of this other world that captivated me, much in the same way that world-building in fantasy or science fiction can transport me. As a result of reading these, I went on to be totally obsessed with all of Sharon Kay Penman‘s books, which I highly recommend for any historical fiction fans out there.

I wanted to re-read this duology because I’m not so much into historical fiction anymore, and in nearly all realms I absolutely couldn’t care less about royalty. So, I wanted to see if this world still worked its magic on me, or whether I was distracted by the . . . romanticization of the mythos of it all.

do the books hold up?

They do, actually. The things that I most appreciated about the books remain untouched by a broader view of the world and literature! Those are:

Gustave Doré Idylls of the King

Gustave Doré’s gorgeous illustration of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

1. Arthur is an amazing character. Now, I am not swoony about princes/kings in the slightest—in fact, I can think of few things less appealing than being partnered with someone who is not only used to being deferred to all the time but also is licensed to go to war at any moment should others fail to defer. And, granted, Arthur is used to being deferred to, and he does go to war. But, he is a wonderfully complex character driven by a simple trait: pragmatism. I know that may sound kind of boring, but I think the majority of pragmatic characters are portrayed as being in some way lacking in compassion, complexity, desire, or subtlety—as if the only way to maintain a pragmatic worldview is to be devoid of emotion, which I think is totally inaccurate.

Rather, Arthur is the finest version of the character: he had greatness thrust upon him young, and with it came an immense sense of responsibility, the sense (rightly so) that he has the opportunity to change the world. He is even-keeled, passionate, and honest, about both his desires and his expectations. And in this way, McKenzie cuts through the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triad that has always seemed like something of a Gordian knot to me in other renditions: simply put, both Guinevere and Lancelot love and revere Arthur more than they do each other. And, in this telling, that reverence is rightly placed.

2. Extremely deftly-constructed characters with psychologically-complex motivations. My favorite thing about The Child Queen and The High Queen is that McKenzie’s characters are motivated by their own psychologies and, thus, they read into the motivations and actions of other characters in ways that are accurate for their own characters. So, Elaine is childish and selfish, which means that she assumes childishness and selfishness of others; Guinevere knows Elaine is childish and selfish, but she, herself, is mature and stoic, so despite her knowledge of what Elaine is, Guinevere misjudges her in a critical moment. Further, a lot of the discussions between Arthur and his knights and Guinevere involve Guinevere explaining the behavior of Arthur’s perceived foes in ways that he and his knights don’t see, etc. (Of course, there are moments of this that read as your typical “men are warmongers; women show them another way” trope, but it’s realistically done, given the time period and military traditions).

Gandalf

I like to imagine that Merlin and Gandalf are best friends who discourse on the peskiness of humans while playing magical chess across the ages.

3. Freaking Merlin, y’all. Do I believe in fate? No. Do I love the shit out of some wizards, prophesies, curses, and destinies? Hell yes, I do. I’ve always found the relationships between wizards and their chosen mortals really compelling. And kind of hot. They’re such a power struggle, you know? Merlin can see the future, so he thinks he knows what he’s talking about; Arthur knows people and has might, so he thinks he knows what he’s doing. Merlin has ultimate knowledge, but he chooses (?) to use it to keep this really hot, honorable guy safe and make his name live throughout the ages? Arthur is a super strong, charismatic king who can do anything he wants, and he goes practically catatonic with despair when Merlin is harmed or he thinks he dies? It’s hot. Anyhoo, Merlin. Creepy, for sure. And awesome.

4. Mordred! I hope I’m not spoiling the story for anyone, but it turns out that Arthur was tricked into getting a bastard son on his half-sister (it happens, okay?). In many renderings of the story, Mordred is framed as a traitor who ruins Camelot and Arthur’s dream of a united kingdom. In The High Queen, though, Mordred is a super interesting character who is actually kind of a bastion of proto-radicalism in terms of envisioning an actually united kingdom—as in, a kingdom that includes the tribes that other kings have previously thought of as “barbaric.” Mordred wants trade and mutual learning with these tribes rather than war or assimilation, and Guinevere shares his vision. It is this political difference—or perhaps more accurately put, a difference in what Mordred and Arthur believe people are capable of—that finally drives a wedge between father and son. And it’s so well-handled. McKenzie spends a really long time building up their relationship and showing why they have this difference of opinion.

Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Accolade, by E.B. Leighton

The most significant difference in my re-reading of The Child Queen and The High Queen was my memory of Guinevere. When I first read the books, like I said, I was 12 and in the books Guinevere is 15 when she marries Arthur, so I felt like we were pretty akin. At the time, I really liked her—I mean, sure, she speaks in an oddly formal way, but, I mean, it’s the 5th century; and, sure, she’s said to be the most beautiful person who ever lived, but she’s not vain or anything. So, when I re-read the books, I imagined to still identify with the compassionate, generous, smart Guinevere I remembered. It was kind of strange, then, to find, at least in The Child Queen, where she’s between 8 and 20, that Guinevere reminded me less of a really together, precocious girl, and more like Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game: kind of preternaturally strategic and able to bury her feelings. I don’t mean this as a bad thing; she simply felt different to me as a 30 year old than she did as a teenager. And, of course, now that I’m an adult, I wanted to sit Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot down and say, “hey, friends, you don’t all have to be miserable, guilt-ridden, and horny all the time; you can just all three be in a relationship together and everybody wins!”

All in all, this was a delight to reread and I’d definitely recommend The Child Queen and The High Queen for anyone who is interested in historical fiction, epic fantasy, or anything to do with Arthuriana.

what are my other favorite re-tellings of the Arthurian legend? i’m so glad you asked

The Mists of Avalon Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1984). Such a totally different vision of the mytho and the characters than McKenzie’s, The Mists of Avalon is told from the perspective of the women who are rarely mentioned in stories that foreground Arthur and the knights of the round table.Okay, I know, I know, it’s obvious, but it really bears reflecting on: this book is so good and magical that a dear friend of mine has read it like 20 times but has still never read the last chapter so that she can believe that it doesn’t end. Done.

The Winter King Bernard Cornwell

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell (1997). Book 1 in the Warlord Chronicles series, The Winter King is all about the military and political aspects of King Arthur’s campaigns. I really like military history and am interested in this era’s military-political history in particular. This is definitely more about Arthur, Lancelot, Mordred, and the other dudes, but what it lacks in characterization it definitely makes up for in plot and action—super exciting.

Excalibur John Boorman

Excalibur, directed by John Boorman (1981). This star-studded cast is only barely outshined by the intense weirdness of this adaptation, which literalizes the magical elements of the myth, such as humans disguising themselves as animals. Pretty freaking delightful.

procured from: my home library

And you, gentle reader? Were you a closet Arthur geek? An out and proud Arthuriana lover? Never quite saw the appeal? What are your favorite versions of the story? Tell us in the comments!

Check It Out, Part 2: A Recently Moved Library

Moving my library from a whole room to one wall of an apartment

By REBECCA, June 29, 2012

In the last post, Tessa let us snoop through her home library. Like Tessa, I’m also a huge nosy nelly when it comes to people’s libraries! Well, fair’s fair: here’s mine.

While I was in grad school (for literature) I, naturally, amassed a hell of a lot of books. Also, since I was writing my dissertation, I constantly had approximately 2 billion books checked out of the university library (not to mention many YA books checked out of the public library to keep me sane), so I had to have two bookshelves just devoted to my library books, one of which you can kind of see below. Sometimes when I was working on my dissertation, I would imagine that if the books I was writing about could really talk to each other, they might say things that were way smarter than what I was saying about them. So: I would make them embrace:

So, last summer when grad school came to an end and it was time to move from a house with an office into an apartment, I got rid of about a third of my books. Most of the non-fiction I stuck in my old bedroom at my parents’ house (thanks, mom and dad!), and the rest I donated to the library. Below are some of the books I brought with me to Philly (note the awesomely hideous chartreuse that I painted my office in an attempt to stay alert).

It was really cleansing to get rid of stuff—a lot of those were books that I’d picked up at book sales in middle school, or had three editions of from reading them in different college classes. Now that I’ve whittled things down to only books that I know I’ll want to read again, I feel happy every time I look at my bookshelves, knowing that it’s full of old favorites or new things I’m going to read soon. I’ve also adopted a strict policy of only buying books that I’ve already loved and know that I’ll want to re-read, or new books of authors I always love.

I’m fascinated by the color-coded bookshelves that some people do, but I would never be able to find anything. My home library is divided into categories; within those categories the books are alphabetized by author.

The categories are:

A. The shelf I keep empty for library books and books I’m borrowing from people, so things don’t get mixed up

1. YA fiction

2. Graphic novels & Art books

3. Non-YA, Non-Genre fiction

4. Sci-Fi & Fantasy

5. Poetry

6. Literary theory/criticism & Philosophy

7. Literature (that is, books that you might read in an English class, which is a totally meaningless and assholish distinction, content-wise, but I had those books separated by period all throughout grad school, so now that’s how they’re organized in my memory).

Here’s a closer peek:

My friend S— gave me this wicked witch, who likes to keep lookout over my YA books

A bit of sci-fi/fantasy, featuring one of my favorite authors and the octopus I got at the Camden aquarium the other day

A dash of “adult” fiction

Poems!

And some snips and snails of “literature.”

In my old house, my office was the second bedroom, so it had a closet in it. I took all the hardware out of the closet, and took the door off, and almost all the bookshelves you see above lined the closet, shelving my fiction and making this adorable, cozy nook that I would read in. I can’t find a single picture of it, although I know I must have one somewhere, but I do have this picture of my cat when she jumped in a bag I was trying to fill with books to take to the library. As you can see, it was carpeted, so naturally I sometimes read or slept in there. It was my favorite room of the house.

I don’t currently have any subscriptions, but I used to have a subscription to Martha Stewart Living and I saved all of them (you can see a few here, left, from an old picture). Then, when I moved, I recycled them all; the recycling bin was really full, so they were all kind of floating on the surface. I had this fantasy that some lucky recycler would go to stuff last night’s pizza box in the bin and be rewarded with five years of lifestyle hoarding! I also recycled about 95% of seven years’ worth of grad school articles; perhaps predictably, I did not have a fantasy that someone would come across those and be really excited about them.

Here are my cookbooks, in some milk crates in the closet in my kitchen. I am seduced by the prettiness of cookbooks, but I can’t really afford them, so I really only get them when I get them as gifts (oh, yes, do feel free!).

So, there you have it: the pruned garden of my library. And here are two more pictures of my cat, because she’s named Dorian Gray, and is therefore literature. Tessa and I think that Dorian and Tessa’s cat, Turkey, are best friends, even though they’ve never met, because they’re both so furry. You’re welcome!

Where do your books live? Want to do a guest post and show us—let us know. Finally, to echo Tessa, feel free to judge my books in the comments!

Check it out: a librarian’s library

by Tessa

I think most people are a little nosy when it comes to other people’s domiciles, (in western PA we call it being “nebby” or a “nebnose”).  Maybe that’s just me trying to make myself feel like less of a creep. But there must be a reason that looking in someone’s medicine cabinet is such a well-worn cultural trope.  In this spirit, I’d like to take you on a tour of my home library, so that you can know me better.

As a confirmed lover of cataloging and organization in general, my home library has many different sections.  I once helped a friend organize her books by color, and it was lovely, but not something I’d want for myself.  Here’s the main book hoard:

It’s true that I have run out of room, and it’s true that my cat refuses to play with that purple contraption in the bottom right corner.

What sections will you find on this bookshelf?

1. personal memoir

2. general adult-marketed fiction, mostly contemporary

3. books in spanish

4. children’s fiction

5. YA fiction

6. favorite fantasy series

7. fiction from college years (Thomas Hardy, mostly) and non-contemporary authors: Malory, etc.

8. graphic novels

9. Steve Erickson

10. picture books

11. short stories

12. art books

13. McSweeney’s publications

WHEW

Here, snoop closer:

But wait! I also have 3 other places where I store my books (not to mention the whole other bookcase in my childhood home)

 

I know, though, that this is NOTHING compared to Rebecca’s bookshelves, or other people I know.  I had to make myself stop buying so many books, out of sheer practicality.

I’m kind of attached to my Norton Anthologies.

I bought many poetry anthologies in college, until I figured out that I prefer to read poetry in book form. So now I pre-screen any poetry books before buying.

I enjoy cooking from recipes. It makes it easy to shop – I can be easily distracted in the grocery store. The Mario Batali book has a bittersweet chocolate tart recipe you wouldn’t believe.

I subscribe to 2 magazines and regularly read one (The New Yorker).  The other (The Believer) I save, not only because it’s pretty, smells like wonderful ink, and has collectible illustrations throughout, but because I have no time to read it and someday I hope to have that time.

Although I’ve weaned myself from used booksales, I still love to buy impractical and often outdated reference works.  Piloting, Seamanship and Sailboat Handling is one of those books.  Also, the book on Wall-ear Berlin, how to Haunt your House for Halloween, all those sewing books I’ll never use because sewing makes me cry, Freewheeling (road bicycling… I don’t even know).  But How to Think Like A Cat proved to be extremely helpful when I found my cat and rescued him from certain death.

And why haven’t I read more of these books?  Because I always have piles

and piles

of library books all around me.

 

What are your shelves like?  Want to show us?  Do a guest post!  Judge my books in the comments!

Read The Summer Away!—No, Seriously, Make It Get Away From Me

A List of Books That Embrace, Glorify, Make Bearable, and Distract From the Summer

By REBECCA, June 24, 2012 (omigod, it’s only June!?)

Some people think summer is like this

According to the alignment of the planets, Wednesday was the first “real” day of summer. I don’t know what the planets are talking about, though, because it’s been approximately as hot as the outer reaches of the sun for, like, months now over here in Philadelphia. I realize that for many the summer is a wildflower-draped, lemonade-drenched, beach-volleyball-studded, school’s-out-for-summer love-fest. But me? I hate the heat. I hate the sun. I hate sweat. Thus, as you can imagine, it’s extremely necessary for me to have a cache of amazing books that convince me that these fires of hell they call summer aren’t really that bad—or, at the very least, can distract me from it. If you are a sun-worshipper, bully for you! I’m sure you’ll find some favorites here, too, and perhaps you’ll leave some tips about how to better enjoy this five-month-long trip to the cosmic dentist.

But to me it’s more like this

Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

Basically, I want every day of summer to be like Weetzie’s L.A. The food, the clothes, the surfing—so dreamy. “In the daytime, they went to matinees on Hollywood Boulevard, had strawberry sundaes with marshmallow topping at Schwab’s, or went to the beach. Dirk taught Weetzie to surf. It was her lifelong dream to surf—along with playing the drums in front of a stadium of adoring fans while wearing gorgeous pajamas. Dirk and Weetzie got tan and ate cheese-and-avacado sandwiches on whole-wheat bread and slept on the beach. Sometimes they skated on the boardwalk. Slinkster Dog went with them wherever they went” (6). “Duck was a small, blonde surfer. He had freckles on his nose and wore his hair in a flat-top. Duck had a light-blue VW bug and he drove it to the beach every day. Sometimes he slept on picnic tables at the beach so he could be up at dawn for the most radical waves” (28-9).

The Truth About Forever Sarah DessenThe Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

Or really almost any Sarah Dessen book. The Truth About Forever takes place over a summer in which Macy decides to stop playing it safe and start taking risks to be herself. I love this book because it gives a prismatic view of summer: there’s Macy’s new job at the chaotic catering company, her late-night truth-telling sessions with Wes, and lazy evenings with her new friends, etc. My favorite scenes are the casual summer night hangouts at the diner, going for soda at the gas station, walking and talking with nowhere to be and nothing to get back to. SUMMERY!

 

Same Difference Siobhan VivianSame Difference, Siobhan Vivian

Emily is a girl from suburban Jersey who thinks she has her whole life planned, until she attends a summer art program in Philadelphia and realizes that she wants different things altogether. All the stuff at the art program in Philly is awesome (art, fashion, food, hair dye), but the stuff in Emily’s hometown is particularly summery. Lying by the pool, blended drinks at Starbucks, meetups at the local Dairy Queen, and cheering at boyfriends’ baseball games. It all sounds nightmarish to me, but it’s super evocative and summertastic. Check out the complete review here! and C&M’s interview with the lovely Siobhan Vivian here!

The Toll Bridge Aidan ChambersThe Toll Bridge, Aidan Chambers

Piers feels suffocated by his parents, by his girlfriend, and by everything that’s expected of him in college. So, when he sees an advert looking for someone to live in a small cottage and be keeper of a toll bridge three hours away from his home for the summer, Piers jumps at the chance to get enough space to figure out what he wants. I read this book when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I so badly wanted this to be my summer job. Living in isolation with one or two new friends popping by, barely having to talk to anyone, the beautiful English countryside: what’s not to love?!

 

13 Little Blue Envelopes Maureen Johnson13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson

I haven’t read this one yet, but I know Tessa really liked it, so I’ve put it at the top of my summer list. Ginny receives 13 envelopes and is told to buy a plane ticket to London, where she has an epic and (I imagine) romantic summer adventure. Note: anyone who would like to send me envelopes (of any color, really) that somehow lead to my ending up in London is more than welcome.

 

 

The Secret Circle L.J. SmithThe Secret Circle trilogy, L.J. Smith.

The Secret Circle trilogy opens with a series of delightful summer scenes. Still, I think the real reason it seems so summery to me is that the first time I read it, the summer after sixth grade, I was so enthralled that I stayed up all night to finish the trilogy. It was the first time I ever stayed up all night by myself (as opposed to at a sleepover or something, you know). I finished it at like 6am, before my parents were awake, and I made breakfast and was feeling all floaty and witchy, and I took the bus downtown and . . . it was MAGICAL, is what I’m saying. The Secret Circle feels summery the way that Harry Potter feels Christmas-y! Anyway, despite the recent terribleness of the show, this is a must-read summer series. Read more about why in my full review.

White Oleander Janet FitchWhite Oleander, Janet Fitch

Another L.A. book. Astrid is groomed by her mother to observe the world with all her senses—to smell the Oleander, taste the fruit on the trees outside, and really look at things. When her mother is imprisoned for murder, sensitive Astrid is shuttled from place to place, always hyper-aware of the world around her and always mistrusted because of her beauty. Astrid goes through a lot of shit, all against the backdrop of a gorgeously rendered L.A. and its surrounds. While not exclusively a summer book, White Oleander has that summer feeling of lazy days, brunch, and, of course, the California heat.

The Body Stephen KingThe Body, Stephen King.

Okay, so Stephen King isn’t exactly synonymous with bright and sunny. Still, his novella The Body, made into the coming-of-age epic Stand By Me, is total summer fare. It’s the 1960s and four friends set out on a quest to find a dead body that is purportedly in the woods. Along the way, they tell stories, outrun trains and dogs, tease each other mercilessly, and basically do what best friends do. Of course, the premise of finding a body is a touch grim, but if you haven’t read The Body or seen Stand By Me, you have to give it a chance—it’s in the same collection of novellas as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (also movie-fied), and it’s definitely of that ilk. Dude, SO GOOD!

Bonus!: Your Recommendations

I queried the Facebook crowd as to their favorite summery YA reads and they have spoken. Here are a gems few gems from them:

A Summer to Die Lois Lowry

A Summer To Die, Lois Lowry; recommended by T.C. One summer, Meg’s family moves to a little house in the country and has to share a room with her popular sister. Meg envies her sister’s popularity and beauty . . . and then her sister dies! Nothing says summer like a good guilty sob, eh? No, seriously, though, I haven’t read this since I was little and I totally will re-read it this summer!

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Betty Smith

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith; recommended by T.C. Resourceful Francie lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the start of the 20th century. Like the tree that pushes up through the cement in Brooklyn, Francie must transcend her circumstances (code for class and gender) to come of age. I first read this because my mom’s from Brooklyn, so I kind of thought it would be like reading about her childhood but, um, it wasn’t.

Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Patterson

Bridge To Terabithia, Katherine Patterson; recommended by A.R. Omigod, such a perfect summer book! The entrancing creation of a fantasy world, best friends, learning hard lessons. (It makes me cry, too, A.R.)

Bartimaeus series Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus series, Jonathan Stroud; recommended by A.R. This boy-magician-in-training series sounds like a perfect summer read. Indeed, A.R. says it’s his favorite series of all time! I will definitely check it out, although it’ll probably just make me sad all over again about how my letter from Hogwarts never came.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing Judy Blume

Anything by Judy Blume; recommended by S.W. I am in total agreement that Judy Blume provides some stupendous by-the-pool reading. While some may gravitate to Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, I am more of a Fudge fan, myself: Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingSuperfudge, hell yeah!

A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle

The Time Quartet, Madeleine L’Engle; recommended by A.H. A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels are exactly the kind of summer series that I want to read. For one thing, it’s not summer in them (indeed, at many points, it is a dark and stormy night), but always seems autumnal, which will distract me from feeling as though the ten minutes I spend outside waiting for the trolley are going to cause me to spontaneously combust. Great adventure, wonderful and flawed characters, and supergeniuses!

His Dark Materials Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman; recommended by Au.R. Like The Time Quartet, His Dark Materials series is a wonderful summer series that will cool us down (polar bears!) and distract us. Au.R. says that since it’s about Lyra’s budding sexuality and growing maturity it’s a total summer read, and I couldn’t agree more.

Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury (R.I.P!); recommended by E.H. Omigosh, such a summer book! Dandelion wine is the concentration of all of summer into one cup, and Bradbury packs exactly that into this book. Must re-read this summer. (Oh, and the 50th anniversary edition has a forward by Stephen King!)

Legend Marie Lu

Legend, Marie Lu; recommended by M.U.  M.U. says that this is a great, fast read, and I’m psyched about something like that for the summer; this dystopia sounds like the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin

Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. Le Guin; recommended by A.D. I am so delighted by the rush of older fantasy series in response to my asking folks for their summery recommendations! Le Guin’s Earthsea books are another series that I really must re-read this summer, preferably near the ocean.

So, what of you, dear readers? What are your favorite summer celebrations and distractions?

Taste: A Coming of Age Story

How An Early Love For the Dark Arts Showed Me That Taste Matters

By REBECCA, June 11, 2012

Last week, I attended BEA (BookExpo America) for the first time. It was exciting, it was crowded, and I felt like the only person in the entire world without either a smartphone or an ereader, but still! It was great. I got some wonderful books, filled my to-read list to a dangerous capacity, and got to nerd out with the amazing book bloggers Em from Love YA Lit, and Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction!

But what BEA really drove home was how incredibly unique taste is. I talked to a lot of people in lines for the same books as me, but who were excited about them for totally different reasons. And I met a lot of people who were googly-eyed for books that I couldn’t have cared less about. So, of course, I found myself thinking about my own taste in books: how did I learn what I liked to read? when did I start to have strong tastes in books? has that taste stayed the same?

Now, at 30, I have pretty diverse tastes—I love a poignant or angsty book that will make me cry, a gruesome mystery, a lighthearted romp in which people overcome obstacles and dance, a monster story, ANYTHING about gymnastics, etc. But, if there’s one thing that I’ve internalized about my taste throughout the years, it’s that people seem to think I’m, well, morbid. I know what you’re thinking: “lovely, delightful Rebecca morbid? It simply can’t be!” “Duh.” And, well, I guess it’s a little bit true. I am really fascinated by things that other people seem to think are depressing or gross or weird—I mean, I have a Ph.D. in modernist literature after all; obviously something‘s wrong with me.

My Own Private IdahoBut, did I always have a taste for the macabre? Where do such things come from? Who clued me in to this fact? To answer these questions we have to rewind about . . . 22 years or so to when I was a little kid wandering the streets libraries of Ann Arbor. My parents weren’t strict about what I read, and they certainly never censored me (except for that time they found me watching My Own Private Idaho at, like, age ten) so I pretty much had run of the library and gravitated toward what interested me. Which was, I realize now, death, vampires, diseases, ghost stories, the Holocaust, and death. What?!

The thing is: I wasn’t trying to be creepy. I didn’t have any idea that what interested me was uncommon for an eight year old, or that it might suggest to someone that there was something wrong with me (there wasn’t!). I just knew that it interested me. So, it was really kind of shocking when my dad first expressed some . . . concern that perhaps I might not want to exclusively read books where people were dying, or that perhaps I would enjoy trying some literature that wasn’t about the Holocaust. I mean, he had read me The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was little, and those are chock-a-block with death, evil, betrayal, and genocide, right?

The Witching Hour Anne RiceMy dad never tried to stop me from reading what I wanted, but his suspicion that my reading preferences were somehow out of the ordinary was the first inkling I had that there was such a thing as taste and that it was an important expression of my interests—that is, a way of thinking about the things that were important to me. My dad referred to my collection of Lurlene McDaniel books as my “dead teenager books” and asked whether my latest Anne Rice novel was also “all about dead things like vampires and witches.” Duh, dad, witches are totally not dead!

Sure, it made me feel a touch self-conscious, but not in a bad way. In fact, it really opened my eyes to why taste can be so important, especially to teenagers and young adults—and why expressing that taste in how we dress, do our hair, etc., is so essential in announcing to others where we’re coming from. Just as the books we want to read are an expression of what we think is interesting, important, beautiful, desirable, worthwhile, so too is the way we portray ourselves to the world.

Once I started thinking about taste in this way it was easy to look around me at school and see which people’s tastes in books, music, and movies seemed to match their social group, clothes, and personality, and which people’s seemed like a mismatch. It brought up questions like why does J— dress like a boring preppy kid when he actually has really interesting taste in movies? Or, how can T— have such terrible taste in music when she has such awesomely colored hair? I started drawing lines between what people liked and how they liked to be seen. These questions are, of course, hugely reductive! But in a teenage world where there are only a limited number of ways to create a external profile that might express your likes, desires, and interests to an otherwise undifferentiated hormonal, scared, irritable mass, of course it’s important.

None of this is to say that having your taste in books match your taste in t-shirts is any more necessary than matching your shoes to your belt. But as a teenager, it was always an issue of trying to express to the world (or hide from it) what you thought was important, whether it was music or social justice. It was a way to connect with people who might share your values and tastes before any of you even opened your mouths—it was like a hanky code of taste. Of course, this shorthand disappears the older we get and, of course, it’s a code that’s quite easy to misread where it exists at all. Lesson learned when I awkwardly tried to talk dystopia with someone wearing a shirt with “1984” on the front who looked at me blankly and then explained that it was her high school reunion shirt. Oops.

Years later, in college, I was thinking about the way my dad gently teased me about those Lurlene McDaniel books. Home for winter break, I asked him why he had thought it was so strange that I was interested in teenagers dying of diseases. After all, I pointed out, he was a doctor—didn’t he ever think that maybe this early interest was a sign that I might want to be a doctor too? He only had to consider this for about a second before answering sincerely, “no; I just thought you were morbid.” And he’s right. I never wanted to be a doctor or a medical examiner or a historian, or any other occupation that would retroactively contextualize my taste for death, disease, the Holocaust. But how did he know? What was it about me that made my dad so sure that those books were an expression of my interests, obsessions, questions? Easy, I guess: he knew me.

The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler WarnerAnd, of course, what I realize now is that I wasn’t morbid, per se. I was a kid with thoughts, opinions, and questions that simply were not really addressed by fiction like The Boxcar Children or The Babysitters Club (although don’t get me wrong; I read those too). Books that dealt with what a character feels like when someone they really admire dies, or the inexpressible emotions surrounding genocide, or how it feels to be very afraid, or what it might be like to be immortal; books that challenged taboos, pushed boundaries, and explored issues—these were the books that spoke to the deep questions I had as a kid. These were also the topics that I didn’t hear other kids (or adults) talking about on a regular basis. I found them the most nourishing questions and the most satisfying answers. It’s no surprise, then, that I still do.

So, in honor of my morbid little self and in celebration of all the other folks out there who were looked at askance when they answered the question, “and what are you reading there, hon?,” here are a few of my favorite childhood morbidities!

Lurlene McDaneil One Last Wish Series Lurlene McDaniel One Last Wish Lurlene McDaniel One Last Wish

Lurlene McDaniel, One Last Wish series (1992-1995). Each book features a teenager dying from an illness who is given one last wish (by the One Last Wish Foundation, the origin of which is explained in one of the books).

Good-bye, Best Friend Cherie Bennett

Cherie Bennett, Good-bye, Best Friend (1992). Star and Courtney are both sick when they meet in the hospital and become fast friends, but disease makes Courtney uncomfortable so Star plays down the seriousness of her cystic fibrosis. This book, along with A Time To Die (above) made my ten-year-old self obsessed with cystic fibrosis, and since my dad is a lung doctor I’d always ask him to tell me more about it, which he thought was very weird.

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors Piers Paul Read

Piers Paul Read,  Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974). I was totally obsessed with this book in sixth grade. The story is incredible! Also it’s the only reason I know words associated with rugby, like “scrum” and “hooker.”

Jane Yolen The Devil's Arithmetic Jane Yolen Briar Rose

Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1988). Both deal with the Holocaust—The Devil’s Arithmetic finds a young girl sucked back in time to a concentration camp, and Briar Rose is a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in the German forests during World War II. I read each about a million times and Briar Rose remains one of the only fairy tale re-tellings that I really love.

Number the Stars Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (1989). Another Holocaust book, this one features two friends, one of whom is Jewish and moves in with her friend’s family when the nazis come, forcing her friend to go on a mission to save her.

Say Goodnight, Gracie Julie Reece Deaver

Julie Reece Deaver, Say Goodnight, Gracie (1989). Shy Morgan and outgoing Jimmy have been best friends since they were little kids. Now, in high school, they support each others’ dreams—Morgan’s of acting, and Jimmy’s of dancing. But when Jimmy dies in a car crash, Morgan is thrown into a tailspin of grief.

Jurassic Park Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990). Dude, velociraptors are so scary. That sound that they make . . . my cat sometimes makes a sound like that when she’s looking out the window at birds and I’m afraid she’ll tear my throat out.

Flowers in the Attic V.C. Andrews

V.C. Andrews, Flowers in the Attic (1979). Incest, child murder, locking people in attics, love, hate, incest, poison, ballet, sex, hate, incest, love, child murder, parties, sequels.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark More Tales to Chill Your Bones
Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, Scary Stories series (1981-1991). The Scary Stories series bloody terrified me, and the illustrations are the scariest illustrations I’ve ever seen (don’t look, mom!). But, but, but, they’re so spine-tingling! I cannot believe they’re reissuing them with new illustrations—mistake!

Interview With the Vampire Anne Rice Anne Rice The Vampire Lestat Anne Rice The Queen of the Damned The Tale of the Body Thief Anne Rice

Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire (1976) and the rest of the Vampire Chronicles. The tortured musings of Louis’ immortal life were the refrain for most of sixth and seventh grade. It’s like I had never anticipated how horrible life could be until I thought about it never ending . . .

Michelle Remembers Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers (1989). I can go ahead and say that this is the most fucked up book I have ever, to this day, read. When Michelle is five, her mother joins a cult of devil worshipers and offers her to them to try and summon the devil. She is, in no particular order: buried alive, locked in rooms, sexually assaulted, bathed in the blood of babies, put inside a statue where bugs swarm all over her,  forced to watch murders, and more. Michelle “remembers” these things later in life, in therapy (the book is co-written with her therapist). I mean, I think it’s pretty much been debunked as being a true story, but who cares: it’s totally bizarre and fucked up and I must have checked it out of the library like twenty times.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Louis Sachar Wayside School is Falling Down Louis Sachar Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories From Wayside School series (1978-1995). These are the books that first made me realize that we live in an absurdist world. If you never read these as a kid you missed out on a major life-changing experience. They are so, so amazing and I still leave them in my bathroom at my parents’ house so that I can read them every time I go home . . . and pee.

So, there you have it: a tour through the perhaps twisted taste of 8-12 year old Rebecca. And you? What morbid jewels are you hiding in your childhood bookshelf? Tell me in the comments!

The Silver Kiss: A Pre-Twilight Vampire Love Story Done Right

A Review of The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

Dell, 1990

By REBECCA, May 18, 2012

Silver Kiss Annette Curtis Klause

characters

Zoë: feels like she’s floating through life until she meets Simon

Simon: a vampire seeking revenge is drawn to Zoë’s sadness

Lorraine: Zoë’s best friend, loyal but a bit oblivious

Zoë’s mom: dying

Zoë’s dad: sweet and overwhelmed

Christopher: a young boy unnaturally attached to his grisly teddy bear

the hook

Zoë’s mother is dying of cancer and Zoë feels like she’s merely going through the motions, walking through the park alone late at night even though the news reports a string of local murders. Then she meets Simon, a mysterious boy who tries to convince her that he’s a vampire. But that’s ridiculous, right? Because vampires don’t exist.

worldview

Annette Curtis Klause‘s The Silver Kiss is, first and foremost, an atmosphere piece. Zoë’s mother is dying slowly, and Zoë is wasting away right along with her—she can’t eat, she can’t concentrate, and she has nothing to say. So she takes long walks at night and, you know, generally acts like someone whose mother is dying. Simon is a vampire whose own mother was murdered, cursing him to an eternal life of loneliness. When he sees Zoë at the park one night, Simon recognizes her loneliness. She is “pale as the milk of death, thin and sharp like pain” (19).

Stephanie Meyer Twilight Bella Swann Edward CullenThere is no psychic connection (or shocking lack thereof) between Simon and Zoë, no insta-love, and no notion that “vampire” is just another high school clique designation. No romance, really, in the way that we might find it in any of the dozens of vampire-human-love-stories littering Amazon today. When I say that The Silver Kiss is an atmosphere piece, I mean that the feelings of loneliness and despair aren’t there to facilitate romance; they are the story, and the comfort that Simon and Zoë provide for each other is necessary, but can’t stop death or cure loneliness.

Louis Brad Pitt Interview With the Vampire

image: Web Parkz

I first read The Silver Kiss in middle school. So, this was in the mid-nineties, and the only vampire story I had ever read was Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. Maybe I even read them the same year. In any case, it was a totally unique story, and I was really taken with the horror of being immortal. Of course, in Interview With the Vampire, Rice gets at the pain that immortality can bring, but that book has such a sweeping view of history and a lot of awesome stuff happens, too. But in The Silver Kiss I was really aware of how sad and lonely it would be to be a teenager for hundreds of years.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

The Silver Kiss Annette Curtis Klause

Delacorte Twilight-ed the cover!

I think Klause is smart in the way that she constructs this book: there is a plot—a solid, creepy plot—but that plot is the backdrop for the real focus of the novel, which is the way that we can only feel alive when we feel seen and recognized by the people we love and who love us. Simon is stuck permanently at the age that is most dynamic for other teenagers, and he has no one to see him change even if he could. Zoë has the potential for change—she’s growing up; her best friend is moving, etc—but she feels that she has lost the one person who saw her best: her mother. Both turn to each other not out of some swoony, fatalistic romance, but because they see their own loneliness reflected in one another.

Sure, this isn’t the subtlest of relationships, but if you can get past the (realistically, I think) melodramatic language, the comfort they promise each other is poignant and meaningful.

“What puzzled him was why she had panicked when she answered the phone. She must have guessed his thoughts. Her lips tightened, her gaze lowered. ‘I thought it might be about my mother,’ she said. ‘She’s dying.’

It was a terse confession, perhaps in return for his own rambling tale. . . .

‘You’ll let me come again?’

‘Why?’ Her hand went to her throat.

It made him feel ashamed. He stooped to pick up his T-shirt. ‘To talk,’ he muttered. ‘Just to talk.’

‘What have we to talk about?’ It sounded like a denial.

He took a stab in the dark. ‘Death,’ he said.

Her eyes grew large and stricken, but she nodded. ‘Yes.'” (128-9)

Blood and Chocolate Annette Curtis KlauseKlause is also the author of the awesome Blood and Chocolate (1997)—which was made into a very uneven movie with Agnes Bruckner, Hugh Dancy, and Olivier Martinez—about a werewolf who has to choose between staying true to the laws of her pack and her growing feelings for a human boy. I mention Blood and Chocolate because Klause knocked out a vampire book and a werewolf book, both featuring female protagonists, long before vampires and werewolves were YA superfoods, and she did so in the spirit that I most appreciate the conceits: a.) as good old-fashioned genre fiction, and b.) as a meditation on the real conflicts that being different and feeling alone can cause, especially when you’re a teenager.

The bottom line: The Silver Kiss is what you wanted Twilight to be, fifteen years before the genre was glutted. The entire plot line with Christopher (a super creepy child vampire) and Simon is also totally gripping, but I don’t want to give anything away.

personal disclosure

I have a confession to make: as you can see from the scanned-in pic of my copy at the top of this review, I stole The Silver Kiss from the Clague Middle School Library. I know, I’m so ashamed. I apologize to the many other students whose chances to read it were ruined by my inconsiderate actions. Consider this review my way of giving it back to them.

readalikes

Sara Zarr Sweethearts

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (2008). While nothing alike in plot, Sweethearts is also the story of a relationship that is based in deep feeling, but isn’t typically romance-y. Jenna and Cameron were outcasts together when they were friends; but when Cameron disappears, Jenna thinks that part of her is gone for good—for better and for worse. But when Cameron comes back into Jenna’s life, she is forced to face the truth about both of them.

The Hanged Man Francesca Lia Block

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block (1999). Laurel’s father has just died and Laurel is starving herself to avoid facing her feelings and her past. The Hanged Man reminds me of The Silver Kiss in tone: kind of floaty and detached, but beautiful.

So, there you have it! Do you have a favorite pre-Twilight vampire romance? Let us know in the comments!

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