“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the cheerleaders.”

Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott. She’s the most obscure writer I am fanatically obsessed with and therefore one of the writers I am most eager to promote to anyone looking for new authors. While I cringe at the idea of calling anything the “Next Gone Girl,” (or “Hunger Games,” or “Harry Potter,” for that matter) I will say that Abbott’s style can be compared to Gillian Flynn’s in that they both seem to prefer the crime/suspense/thriller area of writing but approach it in a refreshingly nuanced and skillful manner. Their writing is definitely high in psychological tensions and low in grizzled detectives being honey-potted by mysterious vixens. One trait that I feel should notably set Abbott apart though is her preference for young groups of female teens and preteens for her protagonists. I don’t mean the typical strong role model Katniss Everdeen type that seems to be to go to template for teenage girl hero either, as much as I enjoyed the Hunger Games. Her protagonists can get decidedly more… complex, or messed up if you don’t feel like being polite. This is definitely true of the book of hers I’m choosing to review in depth, Dare Me.

I chose to review Dare Me becuase, of all her books, this seems to be the easiest on to find at any random bookstore. I had to seriously scrape around for some others, but this one is usually front and present on the bookshelf. Other books of hers proved difficult to get without ordering them first, but this one was everywhere. They even usually have the cover turned out. Personally, I think it’s popularity has to do with how the cover seems to shows some sexy lips asking you to make them perform unspeakeable acts. (What can I say? the average bookstore visitor is a pervert.)

Fetching, no? Really, it was that cover and the plot description, which was usually something along the lines of “Cheerleaders get a new coach, shit gets real, scandal ensues.” Right off the bat, I felt almost kind of repulsed by the book, as much as I knew I loved Abbott. I figured this would be one of those books that fetishizes cheerleaders, both for aging readers with certain…. tastes, and for girls and apparently even grown women that idolize the very concept of cheering as the thing to define their entire life. Some ladies act like it led to their whole life’s peak. Sad. I certainly never fell for that line in high school, and I’ve got no patience for it as an adult. In the end though, and I feel like I speak for a lot of other readers here, I took a chance on the iffy subject for a beloved writer and ended up utterly blown away by the story.

I recall one recommendation for the book called it a cross between Heathers (a cult classic about high school cliques,) and Fight Club (a decidedly darker movie, arguably still about cliques, but manly ones.) I laughed out loud, but only because it was incredibly true in a way I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll try to dispense with the pop culture references though and delve deeper into the book’s actual substance, because that’s what reading Abbott always makes me hungry to do.

I feel like Abbott enjoys writing young characters because she loves playing around with ambiguity in her work. These cheerleaders can’t always answer exactly how they feel about the outrageous events in the novel and how far they push each other because they themselves aren’t sure of their exact motives. So much of the narrative is young girls being jerked around by pointed texts, teenage girl gossip, and emotional gut reaction they all too often didn’t even understand themselves. I really don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so I’ll just say that hearing all the doubt and need tremor through narrator Abby’s account of events made me infinitely more sympathetic to those annoying girls with juvenile glittery hair bows tying up their hair in before the big game.

Abbott makes it very clear that the girls take so earnestly to cheer-leading when they realize how safe and certain of their own bodies they can feel. She also explores how readily the teen girls fall into the hive-mind like mentality the need to master to perform daring, synchronized feats of climbing, jumping and flipping, how it gives them something secure and powerful to fall into. The mentality becomes evidently more and more easy for the girls to slip into, on and off the cheer mats, and with that comes the danger. As one benched cheerleader remarks after seeing her team perform for the first time by the sidelines, “It’s like we’re trying to kill each other.”

I still can’t say I look anymore kindly upon some of the more grating cheerleaders I had to rub up against in the high school mosh pit after reading this book. They didn’t have a mysterious homicide to deal with after all, (to my knowledge anyway.) Still, Abbott picked a prime spot to plunge into and explore how dangerous that early, fluid stage of developing one’s identity can be. People remember their awkward teenage years, when they tried to find where they fit in with stupid looking clothes and stupid teasing. They don’t seem to remember, perhaps because they never even fully realize, like protagonist Abby, just how dangerous that phase could truly be.

The only thing that keeps all these girls in Dare Me from eating each other alive is how good the feeling of piling on top of each other during half-time, which I suppose almost makes the book sound as bad as the cover, but trust me. This story takes the sexy-lacquered up cheerleader face veneer and cracks it in half to spill forth a whole mess of anxieties, heartbreaks, and self-destructive death wishes.

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What’s Coming

He y’all. With last post being about the past, I decided that before I get back to traditional reviews, I should swing from the past to the future perspective and discuss books I’m happily anticipating. I’m talking about up and coming releases here. Book releases are my favorite type of big events to celebrate, because they can usually be celebrated by going out really quick to grab a book then quickly returning home to your favorite comfy chair and reading for the next twenty-four consecutive hours. Sure, there are some fancy parties you can go to in fan costume or cocktail dress, but those are strictly optional affairs for people with time and money. I, all too often, have neither, but I’m still looking forward to getting my hand on these newcomers, and hopefully I’ll give you an excuse to cancel all your plans for however many nights you choose and celebrate a new favorite of yours coming out with all the pomp and circumstance of some pj pants and some hot cocoa. Like an adult.

1. Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances (Neil Gaiman.) This one’s coming out on February 3rd. I’m pretty glad to see another short story from him coming out. I’ve got an American Gods t-shirt at home and everything; his novels are certainly now jokes. However, I feel his short stories always seemed, to me, to more sharply focus his talents. His short stories are usually dleightful little supernatural incident garnished with a slightly… disturbing (a the title! I get it!) or jarring air.

2. Funny Girl (Nick Hornby): Also coming out on February 3rd. With Nick Hornby, the attractor factor for me is the delightful cast of characters. I read About a Boy at a relatively young age. I sometimes experimented with reading grown up books if I thought they’d interest me, but at that point it could be a real hit or miss. I figured, it’s about a boy. I know boys. This could work. Luckily for me Hornby not only knew how to actually write kids, but all his chrarcters so well. I was really able to connect with each of the characters and sympathize with them through their struggles. Funny Girl also branches a bit into the historical genre, so that tickles my fancy too.

3. Dead Wake (Erik Larson): When it comes to historical fiction, they don’t get much better than this. Mr. Larson is the brilliant mind behind In the Garden of the Beasts and Devil in the White City. This guy is just magical when it comes to writing compelling historical accounts, at finding the human core of each event he covers. This one’s about the sinking of the Lusitania, which I don’t think I’ve read about since my high school history class. Luckily, Larson’s books are always ten million times more interesting than any history textbook. Even the ones with lots of pictures.

4. Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why (G. Willow Wilson): This one’s coming out March 25th. Really, I just hope we get to hear as much from Kamala Khan as possible.  The comic is, in my opinion, solidly written and enjoyable as far as Marvel fair goes, and is one of the big successes forcing the old superhero giants like Marvel come out of the Dark Ages and depict people other than straight white men as heroes and complex, fully formed human beings, with or without giant fists of fury and shape-shifting powers.

5. The Winds of Winter (George R.R. Martin); This one, this is just a rumor aided by someone saying George Martin said he hoped to finish the book this year. I just keep hoping, you know? Gah, I just can’t stand it! I’ll wait for you forever GOT, baby, but you see this? You see this entry right here? I need you baby, but you never answer my calls! Oh God just make it happen already! Yeah, this whole article may have been a pretense for me to bemoan into the void my hunger for dragons and white walkers.

Click Bait List! Like like like me!

Okay, the more I look back on my past entries, the more I feel some more facts about what books I liked and when, and of course how they changed me, could be awfully helpful to you. The colorful picks I’ve been making basically ensure it is your due. I told you why I wanted to do this blog, but didn’t give much else in the way of back story. I figure knowing what sort of books I’ll get around to writing sooner or later will give you some idea whether you’d want to stick around. I really, really hope you want to stick around.

So, keeping in mind that I certainly don’t want to write my whole memoir on this one  blog in one go, and you probably don’t want to read it either, I’ll keep it simple. To make sure I pander to as many people as possible, I’ve decided to do this in the internet’s favorite form, a click-bait list! I’ll lay down all these literary phases of my life, and maybe you’ll see one, laugh, and secretly feel less ashamed for that “Team Jacob” lower back tattoo you swore to forget. Okay. Here we go.

Maddie’s Life in Books

1. 0-5 yrs old: Most of these were picture books. Whatever had the best pictures or made my parents make the funniest noises when they read to me were my top preferences. I remember Goodnight Gorilla being a frequent request. I also liked flip-books, like the Spot series. Flaps and soft spots gave me something to grab at and try to destroy with my grubby little hands.

2. 5-10 yrs old: I can read myself now, thank you very much! The first book I remember as my own book I could read to myself was Benny’s Big Bubble. It was about a really big bubble, which popped. Some of the text’s subtleties escape me now, years later, but I remember being captivated by it. When I got old enough for those first “chapter” books that are like, 25 pages long as opposed to ten and had fewer pictures, I remember loving the Bailey School Kids series, which revolved a bunch of intrepid little attendants of Bailey Elementary school trying to prove every adult they met was a vampire, werewolf, or Santa Claus. This may or may not have reflected my hobbies and/or personal convictions of the time. I definitely also checked out most of the kid books on Aliens and the Loch Ness monster the kid’s non-fiction section of my local library had.

3. 11-12 yrs old: I was starting to dip my toe in the shallow end of the Young Adult section, very tentatively. I definitely started reading the Harry Potter Series in earnest by this point. I balanced this out with a love for cartoons, includign the aforementioned Peanuts and even Archie. Also, I had a thing for historical fiction too, possibly spurred by my discovery of the Dear America series and my American Girl doll Kit Kittredge’s, who would creep up to me as I slept and whisper of the things she’d had to do to live through the Great Depression. Nightmares of shanking hobos and living out of boxes frequented my nightmares featured heavily during this period.

4. 13-17 yrs old: Oh god. The teen years. I knew this was coming, but I just wasn’t ready for this. My obsession with…. T-t-t-t-twiglight… there, I admitted, swelled and then eventually receded during this period. I did get rather fond of the Paranormal Romance/ Adventure genre that I feel boomed to life in this era. I did, for the most part, prefer the Paranormal and Adventure to take precedence over the Romance, in my defense. They weren’t all vampires either… some of them were fairies and werewolves. Also, for some reason an intense love for John Green’s decidedly more realistic work snuck in there somehow. DFTBA Nerdfighters!

5. 18 yrs. old to present: Here I am now! Okay, while I will be fair and say I started reading Sandman and The Walking Dead in my later high school years, my love for the comic/ graphic novel genre. Sometimes I look at manga if it doesn’t look too scary. I’ve started to get into more compelling, cerebral crime dramas that don’t necessarily involve Bigfoot. Poetry has made a re-emergence in my life, and I’ve even started reading classic texts I hadn’t yet read in school for my own enjoyment. I’m talking a wide range too, like from the Tao Te Ching and stuff on philosophy to the funny stuff like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I still love all thing fantasy, sci-fi, and just plain eerily supernatural, as my love for Neil Gaiman, among others, demonstrates. I’m also still not above tales of giant bubbles foreshadowing our own fallibility and mortality as human beings with lots of pretty colors. Stay true to your roots, you know?

Alright, there you have it. A serviceable outline of my life and lit interests. Hopefully now you’re even more excited for what I’ve got coming up next. I am, and I don’t even know what it is yet. I promise to come clean about Twilight, talk about some classics, and dig up that bubble book if I can. Over and out!

Family Inheritance

Hey guys. I promised myself I’d do an entry on some of the more adult and sophisticated books that have influence my life lately, (no, not erotica with top hats and monocles,) really flaunting my English major flair for sophistication, but fate had other plans. Those plans were hiding in plain sight on my old bookshelf. I’m talking about books from my childhood and in one case, from someone else’s too.

I’ve picked up some old books over the years, picking through used bookstores and whatnot, so it’s entirely possible I have some older books in my stores than this, but it’s still one of the more beat up books I own. My dad’s usually pretty good about this sort of thing, but I can tell this was one of those books he took all over when he was younger. He even drew on the title page, to prove his artistic prowess.

Photo Courtesy of Yours Truly

Photo Courtesy of Yours Truly

Yup, that’s Snoopy. More specifically, that’s a drawing my dad made of Snoopy as a wee-one. Looking at the 1960s comics, it is a pretty spot on picture, not to brag about my prepubescent father’s drawing capabilities or anything. I can tell he had serious passion about snoopy, because asking him to draw anything nowadays doesn’t go down nearly as well, except perhaps for football plays, just little circles and lines, you know. I’m not really sure I can say he’s the one who introduced me to Charlie Brown, since Snoopy and Woodstock and all the rest are just about everywhere anyway, but I started reading books upon books of old Peanuts cartoons because I found my dad’s old stash, including this book, which was his first.

It’s one thing to laugh at Snoopy doing a silly dance on a greeting card, and quite another thing to laugh at as many strips featuring Snoopy’s antic’s as I did. I now know that Snoopy has three brothers named Spike, Andy, Olaf, Marbles, and Belle. That information is in my head now because my young brain decided it wanted to hold onto that story more than whatever algebra class I had that day. Thanks dad.

Luckily, my dad  also handed me something more useful when he introduced me to the Peanuts, something I forget when I don’t read the original cartoons for a while. Flipping through this ancient tome made me remember how and why I could relate to Charlie Brown and his friends, and how that childhood connection went beyond, “I see them on TV every Christmas,” which I did, of course.

Charlie Brown was actually seriously down on himself, a lot. Like, to an unhealthy degree. If this cartoon took place any more recently, I think his parents would have put him on Xanax or something. Maybe I’m making this sound too sad, but that’s what made me connect to Charlie Brown. I remember feeling such solidarity with Charlie Brown every time the little red-haired girl or when his team lost a baseball game and blamed the whole thing on him. He knew my troubles, if no one else did, the utter inner anxiety over peer abuse, being utterly unloved and un-valued by and… okay this is going to dark let’s move on. I had a relatively decent childhood with a minimal amount of therapy, people, just to be clear.

Linus, you know, the kid with the blanket, also reminded me of myself because of what a weird little philosopher and theologian he was. Seriously, you might vaguely remember the Great Pumpkin as a funny Halloween reference, but every stinking year Linus would drag someone out to that pumpkin patch to have some personal crisis of fate revolving around belief in a higher power being tested by their apparent apathy or disdain for his efforts and devotions. Heavy stuff for a kid, especially one who still carries around a blanket all day. I’m an adult woman who wheres an Adventure Time BMO hat around campus then go off to my English 350 theory class to talk about Foucault or whoever, my emotional maturity being utterly dwarfed by my intellectual pursuits.

And finally, dear Snoopy. (I could go on but you don’t need to know my emotional connection to Rerun, which is the name of a real Peanuts character. I promise I’ll stop flexing the trivia muscles now.) A dear fellow blogger of mine, Stephanie with her writer’s block blog, actually touched on one of the main reasons I felt endeared to Snoopy. He’d always sit on the very top of his dog house and somehow balance what must’ve been a ridiculously heavy typewriter on the roof. My fourth grade teacher once gave me an old poster with that image and the quote above, “It’s exciting whe you’ve written something you know is good,) and that poster is still on my bedroom door, even now. I tried to take it to school even but it seemed to have melded into the house’s infrastructure by then. I found solidarity in Snoopy that let me play pretend in my head, and write those crazy day dreams down.

See? I’ve got surprisingly deep feelings about a simple series of kiddie cartoons. We usually do really. I never thought I’d go this far back talking about books that changed my life, but here I actually found some connections that were kind of profound. I guess sometimes it pays to go home for a bit. You might find something  too, actually, if you look back to your cartoon and picture book days. It seems like this stuff seeps so deep into our consciousness we’re bound to find some surprisingly deep connection to a text not much more complicated than Goodnight Moon. Good children books do tend to have a deeper meaning than kids realize, and leaving it to snowball in your head then forget about creates some pretty interesting surprises to dig through during a weekend at home.

Photo also courtesy of Yours Truly

Photo also courtesy of Yours Truly

Raising Discworld

Alright, I’ve waited long enough to mention Terry Pratchett, and I don’t feel like waiting much longer. I usually don’t wait so long, when discussing books, before trying to introduce whoever they think they know literature to the Discworld series. This is almost inexcusable really, on my part, because despite author Terry Pratchett having written several Young Adult and even children books that are considered a part of the series, I didn’t start reading it until college. Believe me though, I’m trying to make up for lost time and make sure no one makes the same mistake I did on top of that.

It’s a funny little story, really, what turned me onto Discworld and Terry Pratchett in earnest. I was discussing with friend of mine how we’d both read and loved the book Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, (another great one I promise for later,) and I explained how that made me go out and read every scrap of text ever written by Gaiman, and she countered by saying actually she went out to read all of Terry Pratchett’s books.

At each other’s recommendation, we both switched and started reading the other author. For my part, I was delighted by he new discovery, especially since the series went back all the way to 1986. That’s the sort of moment book lovers live for, isn’t it? It’s sort of like you think your alarm clock is about to go off but then you check and you have hours yet to go back to sleep and dream about Golems helping an ex-convict run a post office. (Note: That’s the actual plot of Discworld’s Going Postal, not a random dream scenario I made up. It’s that sort of series.)

Anyhow, the great thing about discovering Discworld as a series is that there’s no need to read them all in order. While the books take place in the same world, and there is a general chronological order, each book has different protagonists and different flavors to them, so you can pick and choose to your delight, bouncing all over the timelines. Some people have even made up complex flow charts to show which books are associated with which characters or story arcs, although they constantly need updating since Pratchett still hasn’t stopped with this series. Reading the series can get as complex as these maps or as simple as picking the book that mentions your favorite character on the back.

I decided to try harder than I normally do to review a single book from the series, otherwise this entry would just get ridiculously long. Looking back on everything, I decided to focus on the latest Dscworld novel, Raising Steam, because it is the most recently released full novel, and it features Moist Von Lipwig, who was the first protaginist I met in the series, and an intersting indicator of the turn this series’s course has taken.

Lipwig is an outlaw turned industrialist. Considering most of the early to mid Discworld books seemed to exist in a sort of medieval era, with wizards and dragons, the word industrialist might seem out of place. Pratchett, though, in sticking with the series for almost thirty years, let the thing evolve rather ingeniously. The most recent accounts of life in Discworld do show a budding modern industrial society, with the city of Ankh Mor Pork (a primary setting for many of the books,) resembling something like early Victorian London.

Raising Steam pushes Discworld that much further into the modern age by allowing the steam locomotive to be invented. Allowing really is the key word in this situation. As if becoming more and more aware of how quickly their series is evolving, many characters, especially Patrician Lord Vetinari, speak of  letting the locomotive be invented, whether it is finally time to let mad mechanics tear up the Sto Plains with railroads.

Moist Von Lipwig is put in charge of the new railroads and he answers with a firm affirmative to all these questions, putting the advancement and betterment of his new industry, along with the public good, above all else, as has become his custom over three books. Lipwig truly is the best character to guide Ankh Mor Pork and Discworld fans through this brave new revolution. Not only does the familiar face help in such new, though not unprecedented, territory for the series, but readers will know that Lipwig always manages to find a way to make sure his venture makes the lives of people better, not just his company. Perhaps this benevolence, not to mention the happy ending it spawns, don’t paint the most realistic picture of the industrial age, but Pratchett is still entirely capable of exposing uncanny and spot on parodies and critiques of our own society in this silly, happy ending one, so I’m more than willing to let that slide.

Terry Pratchett has a gift for making wonderfully quotable aphorisms that always seem to ring incredibly true no matter what they’re about, and he certainly hasn’t pulled back in Raising Steam. I already have several Pratchett quotes written on my giant Franny and Zooey quote wall, (an idea that wasn’t even mine, but my science major roommate!) but as per usual reading this book made me want to add a few more, but really he’s starting to dominate that wall, so I’ll just deposit them here instead, in hopes of whetting your Pratchett appetite.

“That’s the trouble, you see. When you’ve had hatred on your tongue for such a long time, you don’t know how to spit it out.”
― Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam

“Bandits and governments ‘ave so much in common that they might be interchangeable anywhere in the world…”
― Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam

“Uncertainty is always uncertain, but the difficulty with people who rely on systems is that they begin to believe that nearly everything is in some way a system and therefore, sooner or later, they become bureaucrats.”
― Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam

(And Thanks to goodreads.com for helping me check those exact quotes.)

Hero Worship, Vampire Mentors

I’m lucky enough to live near a little old place in Naperville called Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s an independent bookstore known for constantly bringing around guest authors to present  their new book. Sometimes they even get pretty big names, ranging from Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting,) to Lois Lowry, (The Giver.) I’m not able to go as often as I’d like, as I usually work during these events, and calling in sick to work four nights in a row would eventually look bad. Luck struck me though, just those few days ago, when I got to see none other than Seth Grahame-Smith promoting his new book The Last American Vampire.

Now to some of you, the ones that bothered to use Google, might’ve recognized the name as the man responsible for the classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the book and film version of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Most people are surprised when I explain to them that there was in fact a book, and a freaking spectacular one as I continue to insist, that inspired that movie they generally remember as an utterly ridiculous CGI besmirching of a perfectly good president’s name with a bizarre Gothic back story. I will address those accusations a bit later, but not before I explain why this guy and his books are so important to me.

You see, to some, maybe even most of you, this guy is just some bizarre niche writer, but to me he is the man who provided me with the definitive Spider-man Handbook , the Ultimate Training Manual  in middle school, when I truly wanted nothing more than to become that famous wall crawler. I might still have it somewhere, but it would be seriously worn down, possibly even some weird stains on the dog-eared pages from attempts at making my own web fluid. Really, though, the thing that made me come back to that book again and again that it would continue to make me laugh even after the umpteenth time I read it, often enough in class too, when I was supposed to be quiet and should have been perfectly capable of doing so reading the same joke about dying from exposure to a radioactive spider bite again. The guy was a god in my mind at that point for sure, but then in high school I went a bit dark and gothic, especially on the rebound from my Twilight phase, and found his book How to Survive a Horror Movie. I died laughing, yet again, and carefully navigated my way through a high school rendered slightly more interesting when I felt like I should keep my eye out for creepy omen kids or a friend trying to invite to read Latin out of this old book they found in the sewer. Those two books made Seth Grahame Smith a permanent spot on my favorite book shelf for most of my puberty.

Then he did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and that was as close as I ever came to reading a Jane Austen novel for fun in my teen years. Yeah, I guess I might be confusing some people right now so just let me pause to affirm to people that I am actually a grown female women, not a slightly immature teenage boy. Shame on you with your traditional gender role images and whatnot. Anyhow,  I soon also came across Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and found a surprisingly serious and historically accurate book. Seriously, this  was a character driven horror/action/drama about Abraham Lincoln avenging the death of his father and his first love by killing every single vampire he could lay his hands on, and ultimately becoming president to stop the vampire scourge.

If I’ve hurt my credit so much  by discussing this possibly unsettling connection to this, allow me to further intrigue you by saying that after I suggested the book, my mother of all people fell in love with it.  She legitimately cared for the characters, and was compelled by the prose.  My mother is many wonderful things, but a fan of history and bloody vampire horror mash ups is not one of them. She didn’t even get into Twilight as much as my dad did. So trust me then, this book is special, and that’s why I was so excited to visit the man the myth the Smith himself, (ooh, that’s good, I’ll copyright that and make him pay me to use it.)

So yeah, all that’s the set up to why I was so weirdly excited to this man and his new book, The Last American Vampire. I was hoping this sequel to his Lincoln  book would redeem the fate of that poor silver screen attempt. Of course, I also had teeny tiny part of myself that wanted to run up to him and say “Oh my God, Spiderman  guy! You’re so funny and now I fight crime on the weekends because of you! You changed my life!” That was a speech I’d carefully composed in my 7th grade Health Class spiral notebook, but not one I ultimately decided to give. In fact, at the start of his talk, Sethie (I’m allowed to call him that now because I met him,) explained how he’d written a number of books at the beginning of his career just for the money, the Spider-man and Horror Movie books included, and didn’t feel too much of a prideful connection to them.

I said nothing, but inside my inner child shrieked like she’d just seen Santa Claus stab her favorite Beanie Baby, Derby the Horse, into a pile of bean bits and fabric. Sure, I knew deep down that beanie baby came from China and Santa probably just had his elves order a shipment of Derbys from a factory that employed only orphans, and Santa might not have been necessarily proud of that, but Derby was everything to me. I was no longer sure I could even speak to this man, who probably didn’t even know Spiderman or Peter Parker personally. He was going to sign our books though. I had to! Agh, such conflict built in the social anxiety/ hero worship part of my brain that when I inevitably just walked up, said hi and sat down, my brain took a moment to realize it was over.

So, yeah, I awkwardly greeted a guy that I knew in my grown up mind I should feel anything but intimidated by, and got my new book signed. I did not mention Spiderman and then sat back down to start reading the book. Maybe someday I’ll find the courage to tell that guy the ridiculous level of influence he had on my puberty years with his early-year drivel, but for now I’ll be catching up on his latest books, this Last American Vampire  and his Unholy Night book, a take on the birth of Jesus.

Yeah, I didn’t go too much into detail about the book itself, but if my emotional heart-pouring above and the kick-ass cover below won’t convince you to read and love the book, I don’t know what will. I can’t say I worship the guy like a God in my adult life, but damn if he doesn’t know how to make a book that makes interviewing a vampire sound infinitely more bad ass than Anne Rice, Tom Cruise, and Brad Pitt have made us feel it is over the years. Plus, c’mon, just look at the cover. Look at it. Rar.

 

The Unwritten

Alright, I debated with myself which book exactly I should cover in this entry, as I just recently got an awesome new title I’ve been waiting on by an author I’ve read quite a bit of, but all in all I decided it wouldn’t be fair to you guys to write about that until I finish the book. Don’t you worry ’bout a thing though child, because that will probably not take to long. Just a matter of days, really. Instead, I’m devoting this entry to a title I think will help further establish myself as a rather omnivorous reader with a pretty wide variety of tastes. I do this less to seem pretentious and more so no one gets whiplash when I go from covering, say, Walking Dead, (which you better believe I will. I’m on the 15th or 16th volume now,) to Gillian Flynn or some other writers in that delectably cerebral crime/thriller genre. I’m not even sure that’s most extreme I’ll get on the spectrum of crazy conflicting genres, but yeah. Just a heads up.

This’ll be the first graphic novel series I review, but by no means the first one to change my life. In fact, it’s generally classified as a taking place in the same world of another series very near and dear to my heart, Bill Willingham’s Fables, which is a lot like the series Once Upon a Time on ABC which you may have heard of, except better in every way and it came first and honestly I’ve looked into this an the case for a copyright infringement lawsuit seems kind of ripe to me, although I don’t see it happening. Basically, Fables tells the story of a bunch of fable and fairy tale characters living undercover in New York City. There’s this Dark Lord or whatever  and Snow White kicks ass, but that’s an entry onto itself that I will elaborate on later. God, I’m am really just teasing you guys this entry. At least four references to books I really want to cover soon and I haven’t even formally introduced the star yet. My bad. Here we go:

The Unwritten takes the concept of famous, revered fairy tale characters becoming real and, instead of focusing on the lives of ancient ones like Snow White, Prince Charming, or Beauty and the Beast, focuses on the immortal fables and legends humans are birthing right now, or at least now and only a one century or so into the past of literature. Nothing medieval, I mean. Our protagonist is Tom Taylor, whose dad made him the basis for the character in his bestselling series, the Tommy Taylor books. Think Harry Potter, with the wizard school, magic, and crazy loyal fandom attached to it. Actually, as a bit of a wink to the audience, some book critic in one episode does reveal that J.K. Rowling and her books exist in this world, but they apparently pale in comparison to the literary Juggernaut that is Tommy Taylor. They also make similar references to Neil Gaiman and Dianna Wynne Jones occasionally. If any other lesser series tried to make a joke like that, I’d use reach through the book to whack the living crap out of whatever writer thought they could make such a wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke like that to the readers when the series was only just beginning, but Unwritten is just so dang marvelous that I only nodded and smiled. Writers Mike Carey, Peter Gross, and Ryan Kelly aren’t trying to pander or parody here, they’re writing a love letter to literature here, and one worth reading to.

Anyhow, through a series of strange events, Tom finds out that his dad made him the real life “Tommy Taylor” not just to screw with him or see if his son would go all Gone Girl on him, but so Tom could harness the belief and manic loves his fans have for the series to become a sort of savior, a literary savior. He can walk between the real world and the literary one to “save” books and stories whose narratives may have become twisted or damaged throughout history, and of course there’s a sinister, secret cabal out there too, trying to control the entire narrative course of humanity. Seriously, this is the best sort of story for any book lover to read. I’m not going to explain much more than that, so you can go experience it for yourself, but here comes the personal part.

The Unwritten explores a whole lot of themes  and ideas I’ve been dwelling over myself a lot lately. Really, it’s stuff that I start to think about whenever professors start whispering at me that I should really be coming up with a concept for my thesis now, and its fodder I like to angrily throw at skeptics whenever they ask what the point of an English major. Stories and narratives permeate our everyday lives in the most intense and sometimes intimate ways. We see the world and everyone on it through the frames and filters of stories that we’ve heard, that we tell ourselves. People  make dumb jokes or even sincere remarks about how everything we do is to impress an attractive member of the opposite sex and procreate, but I maintain we do just about anything, hope for just about anything, because of a story someone told us somewhere along the line that locked itself somewhere in our hearts and gave us a view of something brilliant, some order or reality we wanted to explore and share with everyone. I’m not gonna say anything about whether those stories are true or not, because with things that close to your heart, with your “raison d’etre,” it shouldn’t matter. With ideas like the ones we cluster close in our hearts, the last thing that matters is whether or not the are a part of the “real world” in a literal way that’s weird to think about unless you happen to be a scientist, or perhaps a historian, (who, I should be clear, also have their own stories in their hearts and eyes, even if it doesn’t seem like it.)

It’s a topic that I know is very popular among writers, especially some of the ones I mention in this entry, and plenty others say much more poignant and well worded things about it than I do in all likelihood. If the world was full of writers, I don’t know if I’d feel such a connection to the topic, or such a need to basically preach about it, (and arguably make a blog  about, I just realized,) but that is not the world I’m sitting in a chair and typing from. If you happen to be receiving  this post from such a world, kudos to you. I bet it’s really hard to find a good accountant there. I, meanwhile, continue to live with a bunch of  mostly polite but often dismissive folks from the STEM (Science tech engineering and math, perfectly nice disciplines in and of themselves) who really do need to remember that their bones are held together just as much by the stories they were once told as kids or forced to read in school as they are by ligaments and muscles. Forgetting how many stories swirl around in your supposedly objective or clear-headed world view makes it very easy for just about anyone, evil cabal, Dark Lord, or other, to come in, grab that power, and pull the whole world around by it. And dear old Tommy Taylor will not be able to help you, not unless you read his books.

First Unwritten volume Cover.  Courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Unwritten_1.jpg

First Unwritten volume Cover. Courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Unwritten_1.jpg

The Marvelous Mary Oliver

Hello all my returning readers! I can assume some of you are returning now because I’ve actually made more than one post now. Ain’t I so  bright with my deductive reasoning skills? I’ll be sure to over-inflate my sense of self-worth accordingly. Since you’ve shown such grand devotion, I’ll reward you all by giving you some homework! You’re welcome.

You really should be thanking me though, because I was pretty damn delighted the first time I stumbled across Mary Oliver’s Work. This poem is from her newest published collection, so it wasn’t my first but I think it’s more than satisfactory enough to be yours. Vogue picked it up to release in anticipation of Blue Horses.

http://www.vogue.com/2892015/poem-mary-oliver-blue-horses/

You like? Oliver is excellent for those easily intimidated for literary newbies intimidated by poetry. When I first mentioned my interest in her to my father, he congratulated me on becoming a fan of someone with  a “very easy to read” poetic style. Gee thanks dad. I try. I’ve actually learned plenty of big words between you reading me Good Night Gorilla before bed and now. I’m an English major, with honors, thinking about reading Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow at some point. I don’t need your patronizing nor your pity father, and neither would Mary Oliver, by the by, because she happened to nab the Pulitzer Prize for poetry back in ’83, (hence Vogue covering her new release.) You’ll notice the article said she was 79 years-old. So sure, the retirement age can be kind of late for career poets, but you don’t get to stick around  that long without some legitimate chops. I didn’t “meet” Mary Oliver so long ago, but her work left quite the impression on me.

I, probably like many readers, even English majors, couldn’t really describe myself as a poetry aficionado outside of what I was assigned in class. In my free time, I was a prose and novel gobbler. The dead people; Keats, Tennyson, Byron, were very pretty wordsmiths and all but contemporary poems always struck me as the literary equivalent of one of those paintings where the artist paints three lines of green paint then calls it a work of art. You know, I’m sure they put something like thought or effort into it, but I can’t stare at that sort of thing for more than five minutes without feeling like I’m enabling some self-indulgently cryptic artist in cranking out “masterpieces” that skirt around his or her utter lack of skill at drawing, say, hands, or buildings. Maybe a puppy. Keats could draw a fine-ass Grecian urn. Would it seriously spill too much of your cappuccino or overheat your black turtleneck and beret ensemble if you tried to make something out of your scribbles?!

Sorry, that venting was left over from sitting next to a certain morbid individual in my high school biology class who figured she could write such utterly draw dropping poetry, but in reality she’d just caught a bad case of puberty. Wait, that young lady might’ve been me, now that I think about it. Moving on.

Anyhow, I couldn’t claim to be an expert on poetry for longest time, (once the puberty wore off,) but all that changed when I ran into a relationship problem. Relationship problems with my books, that is.

You see, most of the books I’d been with preferred a monogamous relationship. I’d mull over their plot intently, fully exploring their rich cast of characters and so on, but it was never enough for me. I was always stumbling upon some new release or best seller in the book stores or library, then picking it up for just a quick look and falling maddeningly, hopelessly, into the story. Soon enough I’d come home late, mumbling excuses to my other book, acting distant and distracted. In one really bad case I forgot their protagonist’s name, swapping it with my secret tryst text’s main character, and God did we get into such a fight. This is probably why I never did much dating with humans for most of my teen-aged life; that copy of Huckleberry Finn must’ve spread the word around.

Anyhow, I needed a way to satiate my literary appetite without it seeping into my current committed relationship. Sure, they lasted about a week a piece with my average reading speed, but you know already what a monster I am. I started getting into graphic novels, even dipping my pinkie toe into the manga pool. These guys had pictures, were much shorter than novels, and I convince myself they were a different enough medium from a no-pictures grown-up novel that I could easily have one or two on the side and no one would be the wiser.

Except, I soon had a pile of ten or twenty graphic novels or comic books shadowing me day to day and it was just as bad as before. I needed another loophole, and fast. That’s when those fine, slim-figured poetry collections started catching my eyes. Poems, I knew, were short, and I’d enjoyed some Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein in my childhood. Maybe, if it meant finding yet another literary infidelity against that copy of Pride and Prejudice I kept putting off or those fifteen more issues of the Walking Dead I still had to get through, (an excellent combination of texts to find yourself reading really, but more on that in a future post.) I was no longer a teenager, if only just, and shouldn’t a young English major claim to be semi-well rounded in the realm of poetry?

Mary Oliver, as luck would have it, was one of the first poets I would pull off the shelf for a sample, and I fell in love. Her simple, straight-forward verses seemed, to me, to be a still pond. The surface may have been rather plain, but peer in closer and you’d see how such an utterly clear surface could show me the teeming life below. Dear Oliver even made me curious enough to start peering into the depths of other poets. Now there’s already a growing pile of poetry collections that I once swore looked so slim but are looking bigger and heavier everyday. I’m afraid my many literary relationships will soon be on the rocks again, but that’s an occupational hazard I’ve come to embrace by now.

For what it’s worth, those also struggling with multiple commitments might like to know Mary Oliver’s poems are all very open and zen-like about open relationships. I can go a-reading wherever I please then come back to her when I’m all tired and worn down to curl up for a wonderful sense of piece an clarity inspired by singular focus on the most modest of things; birds, trees, the woods on a winter’s night. It’s the sort of soul-feeding focus I can only find when reading good poetry.

Brave New Blog.

A Shakespeare reference? Huxley? Both, really. Just wanted to start off with a needlessly optimistic post title.

You know that cliche from those not-another-teen-movies? Where an English teacher assigns a book that somehow metaphorically resonates with the dear teen hero’s struggle? I used to laugh at that trope, until one day I think it killed my dog. To be clear, my dearest poochie Scout was already very advanced in her years by the time I reached that honors freshman English class, but that always made it seem more kismet to me, you know?

The book Mr. K, (name omitted for being a possible dog murderer,) held up and thumped his chest with was Of Mice and Men. I’d never read it before, but remembered seeing thew name often in the tests and essays my dad brought home to grade. English teacher spawn learn about books that way. I knew I was in for some prestigious reading, but I didn’t know anything to expect about the plot. Those who have read it probably know exactly where I’m going with this already. Those who don’t probably do to, really, since I opened this with the murder of my dog.

Anyhow, I was reading that book in class, enjoying it overall. Maybe, review it if I like, later, but now for the dead dogs. I’ll mention that while I was laughing at the character Candy for having the funniest old-man name ever, I did feel sympathy for him.

Old man Candy had an old, ancient really, dog that he’d raised from a puppy. As an old migrant worker, Candy probably couldn’t claim many other lasting friends or relationships beyond that dog. I was not an aging migrant worker at the time, but I was fourteen years old, the same age as my dog Scout, and I hadn’t lived my life without her, literally. My parents must’ve decided nothing makes raising your first child easier than adopting a non-potty trained puppy with worms? Sounds like them, anyway.

Anyhow, While Candy moaned about how sick his dog was in the book, I had to help my teen-aged black lab by lifting her hips up so she could get off the floor then again so she could go down the one shallow step to go out the backdoor to pee. I moaned both in commiseration with my lifelong companion and because she was too heavy for me to lift properly.

Then, it came. The night where, hand in hand, my parents told me they decided Scout was suffering too much, was in too much pain, and that it would be the kindest thing to do to let her go. I cried and cried, and cuddled with poor lame Scout for a while. When I felt empty, and when my sister found out and then started hogging Scout for her own weeping session, the selfish bitch, I went to my room and tried to take solace in reading, my go to distraction for these sadder moments. This is where the black magic part comes in.

Mini spoiler here for random Steinbeck fans who haven’t read Of Mice and Men yet,(I’m being nice because I assume if you do fall into that category you might have some sort of brain damage, and I imagine life has been tough enough on you already,) but Candy’s friends sort of coerce him into shooting his poor old dog to put it it out of its misery. Candy can’t bring himself to do it , so another guy does. This little event is supposed to foreshadow the book’s ending but I don’t think I got that subtlety right on the test because I’m a girl who’s dog is about to be put down for good in a few days and I turn to a page that describes my literary parallel’s dog getting shot out behind some shack like…Lenny. (Sorry, more spoilers.)

What’s worse, I came in the morning after Scout was put down, and evil, evil Mr. K, (Or should I say KKK?! Naw, seems in poor taste.) insisted we read that exact passage aloud in class. No, I didn’t have to read it myself, but I had to do that thing maybe other girls with long hair do where they lower their head so their hair sort of creates a veil around their face to hide their expression. A couple paragraphs in, I started to cry, silently, and hoped it just looked like I was very studiously staring close at the page.

It all came back. Scout, she was so weak and feeble like Candy’s dog, so naively trusting and willing to go to her death because hey, everyone’s all here and being real nice, helping my walk, and my dear owner isn’t warning me of my imminent demise, so why should I worry? Yeah, I had a tough time that day, and some weird sort guilt afterwards, even when I finished the book and the whole message turned out to be sometimes you have to be the one to end something or someone, when going on would only make them suffer. All I could do was look at my aging Great Grandmother with dementia and wonder when they were going to tell me she needed to get put down too.

More on that later though. The point is, books killed my dog, sort of, and I still love them. I love books enough to know that this wasn’t the last time they’d poke deep into my personal life with a little literary mirror.

I’m also willing to bet that there are other people out there who know what I’m talking about, who found themselves in a similar connection for better or for worst, as the priests say, (unless you try to convince them to marry you to a very tattered copy of Howl’s Moving Castle, the judgmental bastards.) Some of us might have even made connections with the same book, and that’s what I want to explore with this blog.

Not all of these books I’ve read will have gone so far to murder my dogs or other loved ones, and not all our encounters will take place in the classroom, as I loved books way to much to keep our relationship strictly professional, but that’s the emotional core I’m trying to lead you to here.I tell you about books I’m reading, have read, have my eye on, and we all try to come away from the experience more enriched and connected as human beings.

That’s not too much to ask from one tiny blog, right?