Category Archives: Rachel S.

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Silent fans

Of course you all know that yesterday was Harry Potter’s birthday. I mean J.K. Rowling’s birthday. If you want to get technical about it since Harry Potter is not actually a real person (spoiler alert). In any case, this is a fact that I was fully aware of, among many, many other pieces of Harry Potter trivia and minutiae.

This is because I love the series—I grew up with it, read the first book in 1999 and didn’t stop. I’ve actually lost track of how many times I’ve reread those books, but I can tell you it’s an embarrassingly high number, particularly for the earlier ones (even though Chamber is my least favorite of the series, but I had a penchant for having to read the series all the way through every time a new one came out).

What I miss most about the books, I think, is the pure speculation between each release. I lived on Muggle Net and pored over predictive books in Borders for hours, debating with friends about what tantalizing secrets would be revealed, who would die next, who the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher would be. I went to every midnight release and finished every new book in under 36 hours. Argued about which Weasley brother was the best (George, obviously) and scoffed and derided the films for getting EVERYTHING WRONG.

However, unless you actually talked to me about the books, I bet I never came off like a die-hard fan. I’ve never once dressed up, never gone to a themed party, I have no deathly hallows or lightning bolt tattoos. I couldn’t tell you what butterbeer tastes like, never having tried to make it or order it in a bar. I don’t visit message boards now that all the books are out. Sure, I joined Pottermore over a year ago, but haven’t looked at it since.

Does that make me less of a fan? Culture today is so enmeshed in publicly avowing your love for a particular series, character or phenomenon and sometimes I feel I have to prove myself against those who are much louder and more obvious about their passion. I once went to a Harry Potter trivia night and did very well, plainclothesed and silent in the corner. That, I felt, was a victory for me—don’t doubt me just because I’m unassuming!

However much I really feel no need to do any of those aforementioned things, it’s true that I wonder if I’m missing out in some way. What’s your opinion? I personally feel like I love the books just as much or more than anyone with a scar drawn on their forehead, and that’s enough for me. What’s your favorite book to get totally immersed in the culture of fandom of?

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Reading then and now

Reminiscing with a friend the other day about books we loved growing up, I started to feel nostalgic for the times when I would vociferously race through a stack of books in a week—so much so that the librarian, who should have known me well enough by then, would eye my pile and ask, “you’re going to read all of these before they’re due?” YES, RHEA, I AM. (You should know, that my librarian as a child was named Rhea). And I did. Week after week.

I also re-read books much more as a kid and teenager. I don’t know what it is about being young that inspires the passion to go back and dive into the same story you have so many times you’ve had to tape the cover back on more than once (I’m looking at you, The Switching Well), but it’s something that I’ve lost as an adult. And something I wish I could get back.

While furiously looking up the entire oeuvres of Judy Blume, Carolyn B. Cooney, Kit Pearson and Jerry Spinelli, to name a scant few, my friend and I crowed and delighted when we found the exact covers that were the books that we had read back then.

Also fun was actually reading the book descriptions of titles remembered, but plots long since forgotten and wondering how in the heck we ever thought these plausible. Example: a book I remember loving called Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In my memory, it was about a girl who grew up in a Williamsburg, Virginia-esque old timey reenactment town who had no idea she didn’t really live in the olden days and who one day figured it out and escaped to the modern world. I remembered there being a lot of things she thought were mirrors, but which were actually one-way glass. TURNS OUT, the book is actually about that, yes, but the reason she needs to leave the reenactment town is because all of the children are dying from diphtheria and no one is doing anything about it. Her mother sends her out to get real medicine.

I loved that book. To bits.

My point here is basically this: while I dearly love books that I read now, the passion I feel for them is much more subdued than the fiery fervor I had when I was younger. I remember books fondly, and might return to favorite passages, but rarely do I read them cover to cover, over and over. The amount of books, of course, has more to do with the vast spans of time I could give myself as a kid that are less accessible anymore. I miss it, sure, but that doesn’t mean my love of reading is any less today.

What were the books you read over and over? What were some of the best, but most out there plots that you loved?

2

New friends, old books

Last week I went on a great big adventure and travelled the farthest west I’ve ever been in my whole life. Which is only as far as Colorado, but sometimes adventures can be done in baby steps, right? Not only is it a gorgeous state with absolutely beautiful weather (at least while I was there), but I was attending a wedding that was equally gorgeous and beautiful and all those other nice adjectives combined. I was a little nervous, though—I’ll admit it—since I didn’t know anyone else in attendance besides the bride and groom and wow that’s a whole lot of people to meet in unfamiliar territory.

Luckily, people love bonding over shared interests and passions and when they’re even the slightest bit obscure, well then that makes for excitable, easy friend-making. I’ll be honest, I don’t quite remember the start to the conversation, but when I heard someone talking about one of my favorite, but rarely referenced books, I couldn’t help but jump in uninvited to animatedly begin extolling its virtues. The book itself is unimportant, and I’ve definitely talked about it on this blog before, but I’ll divulge anyway lest you die in the frustration of not knowing. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is a well-enough known (I think) book, but continually under the radar. I never meet people who either have read or remember it, sadly.

However! This time I did! And from there, we all got to talking about various other books, books in general and then who knows what else. All I know is that it was the perfect icebreaker as I was left to my own devices at the time. There’s something really lovely about initiating a friendship (or acquaintanceship) over a love of a particular book. So much less dull than “so, what do you do?” or “oh, this is your first time to Colorado?” which can really get old after a while. Similar taste in literature, however, speaks to an entirely more personal, relatable aspect and you’ll either have a great person to bounce other interests and ideas off of…or someone with whom to engage in lively arguments with and both are pretty cool.

I even made another friend over liking another book, but I’ll admit that this other person was two and three quarters and the book was made almost entirely of pictures. And we both also had curly hair and were born in the same month and were wearing tulle skirts, so actually that was the best friend I made on the trip…

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A whole new genre…

Crossing genres is always fun, and so when I saw this Buzzfeed listing titled “If Pop Songs Were Works of Classic Literature,” there was no way I wasn’t clicking to see. The results are wonderful, overly writerly passages based on silly pop ditties and I loved every one of them. Here’s my shot at one:

  SK8rBoi

“One could hardly blame her for her prejudices. She was, after all a blue-blooded, white-collared, silver-spoon fed debutante who had never known anything beyond the ivy-clad walls in which she’d spent her formative years.

“It was hardly Penelope’s fault, then, that it took four years of skipping home from Madame Delphine’s Dance Académie surrounded by the trills and chatter of the very best of her friends, ballet shoes slung over their shoulders, for her to even notice him, the boy in artful tatters and skinned knees whose eyes followed her with a longing that could only be matched by the fervor with which he practiced his art over and over again.

“It seemed unlikely, this, the ballet princess and the gutter punk, and perhaps, maybe it was. But the best stories are the unlikely ones, are they not?”

I wrote that sample off the cuff with no edits, and that’s half the fun. Writing with the purpose of being groan-inducing and completely purple is kind of one of my favorite sorts of writing exercises. It’s really freeing when you intentionally remove not only the self-imposed need to self-edit, but make the whole point of the exercise a chance to poke fun at your most frustrating tendencies (mine are, obviously, dreamy imagery, extra-long and confusing sentences).

So have at it. Do your worst (really) and let me know what you come up with! I promise, it’s fun, and writing for writing’s sake is the best practice there is.

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Teenage Dreams

One of the most important things an agent or editor values in a work of fiction, and something you’ll hear talked about ad infinitum is a resounding and real “voice” to a novel. Able writing, beautiful imagery or ingenious plotting are all well and good, but if a reader can’t connect to the protagonist and his or her voice, then a novel is left feeling flat, distant and, well, forgettable.

In reading queries and even published books, I find that the voice authors most seem to struggle with is the teen narrator—and this, of course makes sense. Most published authors and hopeful queriers have left their teenaged selves behind some (or many) years ago and so a lot of the thoughts and dialogue are supposed, remembered or possibly observed if the writer is lucky enough to hang around teenagers with some regularity. (Oof, did I say lucky?) The most impactful YA novels are those that have really captured what it’s like to be a teenager, the feelings, the impulses and the intense passion that can arise from those years. The slang needs to be perfect and not overdone or cliché and the same can be said for the characters’ predilections, motives and inner thoughts.

The best and worst part of reading good YA writing always hits me when I’ve been cringing at some of the supposed thoughts of teen girls thinking, “oh, god, who does this person think teenaged girls are, this is ridiculous,” and then I realize that the author is right and that’s what makes it so hard hitting. I was visiting my hometown last weekend and dug around my childhood bedroom a bit, unearthing the journal (I was too cool to ever call it a “diary” even though that’s exactly what it was) I wrote in faithfully when I was sixteen. As much as I wanted to punch/hug/kick/shake/comfort/congratulate the girl who was writing those words, I also had to admit that god, sixteen-year-old girls are annoying sometimes and yes, they do write and think and talk like those characters I had been scoffing at only hours before.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

With this artifact, a true relic of my teenaged years in my hands, I realized something like this could really help a writer capture the youthful voice that may be escaping them in a current work in progress—an unmanufactured, unedited transcript of high school. Is this something that any of you YA writers do? If not, and if you don’t happen to be the parent or teacher of a teenager, then how are you able to write in a voice that is so far removed and so easily, tritely overdone and keep it sounding real? It’s something I’ve always had difficulty with, myself.

2

When worlds collide

Inspired by a recent posting on Buzzfeed compiling a great list of some of the most mouthwatering foods in literature (with recipes, thank goodness), I started thinking about food and meals in books. Again. Because, if we’re being honest, I think about food a lot anyway, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.

More than that—because sure, I could list even more foods from books that are great and that we should all eat all the time when reading about them and just whenever we feel like it—I’m thinking about the thrill I (and obviously most readers out there) get when a book references a real place, phenomenon or some other specific and actual thing that I can picture in my head through personal experience. There are so-so books that take place in New York that are elevated in my perception in quality because I can envision the exact locales a character may be wandering around. I’ve bought books that take place in the particular region of South Jersey where I grew up (okay, there was just the one, but it was SO local) solely because of their setting and for no other reason.

As a child, I cajoled my family into taking not one, but two trips to Colonial Williamsburg, not because I was super into the culture, but because I could go to the Governor’s Palace and the same sweet shop that Felicity did in the American Girl books.

Even more recently, I was finishing up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles the other week (sidenote: highly recommend) and coincidentally had to run an errand on the Upper West Side. Coming out of the subway station, I was faced directly with an awning on a residential building that predominately stated “The Beresford.” I stopped, stared, considered and then looked at the actual address of the building (211 Central Park West) and concluded that yes, this was the exact building that one of the main characters in the book I had currently in my bag resided. I had had no idea that it was a real building and it delighted me to no end to be faced with its reality so blatantly. I’ve since told several others about that moment and they were more unimpressed than I’d have liked, but maybe because they hadn’t read the book…

I don’t necessarily fall to pieces when books reference popular songs or television shows, but for some reason, very stable things like food, location and iconography really get me and it’s true that I remember the book more distinctly—and generally more fondly—for that fact. There’s a reason people flock to King’s Cross Station to try and see if they can spot Platform 9 ¾ and why all of a sudden The Frick was flooded with book lovers who wanted to get a glimpse of Fabritius’ The Goldfinch.

Planting these notions and references in literature allows sense memory to take over, whether it’s a smell, taste, sound or sight. The story becomes that much realer, the characters that much more relatable to the point where you can’t forget about it. Intentional or not, it’s a truly fascinating combination of literary artistry and the science of brain synapses firing off and making connections that makes at least certain passages of a book memorable.

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Long ago favorites

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post from earlier in the week, I thought back on my favorite illustrated books as a kid. They were mostly fairy tales (or close to), as are the illustrations in that post. I know the trends in children’s book illustrations change drastically from generation to generation—even year to year—so when I went hunting, it was no real surprise to me, that it took some more serious digging to find examples of the types of books—both in story and design—that I loved the most.

It wasn’t hard, however, to remember the titles of my top favorites, since they still hold a place on my bookshelf (albeit in my childhood home, but they did withstand all the teenage and college year purges).

I remember reading Melisande by E. Nesbit and illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Harcourt 1989) over and over and over as a girl, fascinated as I was by the artwork (and envious of her lustrous hair) and drawn in by the recognizable elements of both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a story that was an original unto itself.

 

Another favorite about another plucky, independent girl was Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Puffin 1992). Mirette has a very French Toulouse-Lautrec poster advertisement look about it and I remember thinking that I would have given anything for her outfits, hair and bravery. Similarly, I loved the Madeleine books as well, but I don’t think I need to post a reference picture for those!

 

In addition to these and the usual Berenstein Bears and Mr. Men picture books that crowded our shelves, I realized I had an odd penchant for inherently sad stories as well. Some of my favorites (when I was in the mood—otherwise I would make my parents skip them when reading to me) were stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales—most notably The Little Mermaid wherein the Mermaid must kill herself with a dagger in the end. I don’t know what attracted me to these books, but I loved them.

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Making it last.

I was sitting in my favorite local coffee shop this past weekend when one of my favorite local coffee shop neighborhood friends stopped by as well. She sat down next to me as I was doing the crossword and pulled out the latest book she’d started reading. I don’t remember what it was, she wasn’t too sure about it either—she’d bought it on recommendation from one of the bookstore staff members and was none too keen on placing full faith in the reliability of said recommendation.

In any case, it was as she opened it up to the title page that I stopped her. There was an adorable stamp of one of those Victorian silhouette portraits and underneath, in simple block letters, it said “FROM THE LIBRARY OF [name redacted to protect the privacy of local coffee shop neighborhood friends].” I thought it was a great idea—not only to make sure that any person who may borrow or pick up the novel in the future would know to just whom to return it, but also as a mark of character.

One of my favorite things about used books—aside from the stories themselves—are the ownership markings, inscriptions, postcards that fall out, shopping lists and notes tucked away for safe keeping or bookmarking and promptly forgotten about. I have used books that I’ve bought solely for the inscription on the title page or for the personal notes scribbled therein. I don’t mean notes on the text—though if not too intrusive to my reading, those can be very fun, too—I mean the way you can just tell this book was owned, read, used and loved by someone before you. That the sentimentality and personality of a previous owner as well as the merit of the book itself can last for generations, too.

After exclaiming at my friend’s stamp, I vowed to get one of my own. I haven’t, yet, but it’s definitely on the list. My friend noted that one of her favorite things is adding her stamp to a book’s title page that already has a previous owner’s name, a library stamp, anything like that what have you. She called it a little catalogue of all the places the book has been and the people whose lives it has touched in any way—insignificant or otherwise. I thought it was a wonderful sentiment and agree wholeheartedly.

Old, used books are great for so many things, their “book smell,” the way they’re worn in, for possibly an outdated cover, but above all, it’s the reminder that many lives, not just yours as the current book’s keeper, can be touched by such a simple thing. What say you? Are you in the same camp or do you just hate any kind of mussing or marring on your literature? Go ahead, rant or wax poetic, Romantic, I’m all ears.

4

WELCOME TO THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY, RACHEL

I came crawling out of the Stone Age today and decided to finally, finally purchase a smartphone of my own. I’ll admit, one of the main incentives was the camera feature, but as I started browsing through apps and all the crazy-seeming (to me) functions and capabilities of my shiny new fancy phone, I realized that the options are endless, particularly when it comes to books.

So endless, in fact, that it’s overwhelming. So, I’m reaching out to you—I’ll have the whole weekend to explore and learn how to use my phone, and let me tell you, technologically inept as I am I’ll likely need it. What are your favorite apps for reading? For discovering new titles and authors? Are there any neat functions that I couldn’t even dream of without having seen them first? What ones do you hate, can you not abide? I’d be interested in hearing that, too!

Technology, though it makes many wary about the future of the printed word, can only, in my eyes, serve to broaden audiences and expand the knowledge of those who are already interested in literature, or really, any old subject. So let’s have at it! Teach me something and I’ll report back.

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Embracing Valentine’s Day for all its corniness

I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day. I liked it in first grade when we spent the day making cards from construction paper for our parents, I liked it throughout elementary school when the holiday meant bringing in cards and cupcakes for everyone in your class and I’ve liked it every year since then, getting cards and hugs and silliness from friends and family is one of my favorite things anyway, so it’s nice to have a day when everyone does it all over the place and you have an excuse to be extra lovey to the people in your life who mean something to you.

I know there are plenty of people out there who disparage the day as a “Hallmark holiday” or some kind of “Singles Awareness Day” and approach February 14th with fury and bitterness unmatched on any other day of the year and this is something I have never understood. Yes, I’ll concede that giant white teddy bears holding hearts and the like do make me roll my eyes, but regardless of the actual token of affection, can’t we just ignore all of that and have fun with cheesy emotions? No?

For Valentine’s appreciators and condemners alike, but for readers only (new members welcome), Buzzfeed has put together a list that pretty much covers all the bases of a romantic evening…only with books instead. If you’re determined to shield yourself from any and all human interaction tonight, then I suggest you buy yourself some chocolate, draw a nice bath, light some candles and have a romantic evening all to yourself. Well. Yourself plus all the characters racing across the pages of an old favorite or an exciting new read.

Besides, I think we can all agree that the best part about Valentine’s Day is that candy is going to be so very cheap tomorrow.