Category Archives: Rachel S.

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Art imitating…other art

I’m pretty in love with this list on BuzzFeed that gives book recommendations based on favorite movies. This could have been really simplistic, pairing books up with movies whose plots were super similar or were even based on one another. However, the compiler of this list really thought about it, basing the recommendations much more on sentiment, overarching theme or general takeaway more than anything else. Some of them are more plot-based, but there’s clearly real thought going on here.

Though I’ll admit there are only three pairings here where I’ve both read the book and seen the movie (Pulp Fiction and The Sisters Brothers, Amelie and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and finally, Midnight in Paris and The Paris Wife) I’ve really enjoyed all six of those things so I’m going to go ahead and assume that the rest of the thirty matchups are equally helpful. And I’ve definitely got some books and movies on my to read/to watch list now.

I’m really curious about Q by Evan Mandery—not only is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a great film, but Q’s cover is just really lovely. I’ve picked up The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson in bookstores more times than I can even remember but for some reason, have never purchased it, even though I’ve said time and time again that I specifically love books about quirky, offbeat families. I’ll have to give it a real shot next time!

I love the Amelie/The Elegance of the Hedgehog matchup. Yes, there’s the obvious Parisian connection, but though both have whimsical covers and conceits, there is a truly dark undertone to both pieces that gives each an unforgettable quality.

I’m a sucker for book recommendation lists, so this was the perfect Friday afternoon treat. If you could pair a movie with a book, what would it be?

2

Books near and far

With a three-day weekend fast approaching* and deliciously devoid of any plans whatsoever, I’m imagining what sort of cozy fall activities (e.g. reading in a sweater and eating pie in a sweater) I can get up to and where. My mind immediately jumps to a rotation of coffee shops and a selection of books. Only I need some new books to read, so I’ll likely stop by my local bookshop as well.

And it’s a bit serendipitous and a bit cruel punishment that they’re so far out of reach, but I just scrolled through this list of 19 Magical Bookshops Every Book Lover Must Visit and spent the next couple minutes just staring at the sofa that accompanies the listing for Hatchard’s in London, imagining reading in the window on that particular seat. While it’s pretty lovely for the Brits that this list doesn’t just focus on London or even, it seems, large cities in general, that doesn’t really help me over here on this side of the pond—though how cool is the Honesty Bookshop?!?

I know there are lists everywhere for super great New York City bookstores, and I feel lucky to live in a place where independent bookstores can and do thrive if done correctly. That’s of course not always totally the case outside of any metro area. What I’d love is to hear about or see photos of small time bookstores across the country. If I collect enough of them, then there I’ve got my idea for the cross-country road trip I’ve always wanted to take…

 

*Thank you, Christopher Columbus! I mean. Um, I know you were meant to be a terrible person, horrible, really, so maybe. Hm. Well. Yes, yes, I mean I’ll still take the day off.

1

The Blog Post with No Pictures*

Flipping through the internet today, I came across a Vanity Fair interview accompanied by a book trailer for B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures, his children’s book with, well, no pictures. The video itself is completely adorable and the conceit of the book—emphasized in this interview—touches on something that though it should be obvious, gave me a bit of an “aha” moment.

Why do children’s books exist? Of course the first and most obvious answer is as a form of entertainment, as yet another vehicle to occupy a child, give them a venue for using their imagination. They are learning tools and foster creative thinking. However, children’s books are rarely without pictures—in fact you’re far more likely to come across completely wordless picture books than you are to come across anything geared toward a young child that has no illustrations at all.

Yet. That doesn’t mean that the words can’t be visual themselves. The words in Novack’s book are all different colors, sizes, fonts. Though that’s certainly an added bonus, that’s still not even the point I’m trying to get at here—and I think the point the author has as well. Reading for a young kid is about more than everything I’ve mentioned above. Reading as a child serves to foster a literary attraction that can exist and survive long into adulthood. By giving the words printed in a book an interactive agenda (and I really just mean the words—there are tons and tons of interactive Pat the Bunny style books that have their place, too), does this help to create a space where kids feel compelled at an early age to respond and discuss what they’ve read? Without the help of pictures or texture? Making adults say silly things is really fun (as the video clearly demonstrates), so does a book like this not then make the words themselves the funny part of the book, a book which in and of itself is having a conversation?

Of course, I don’t have a child and when I was little enough for picture books to be my sole literary companions, I would never have stopped to think about these things, but the idea will at least be one I’m thinking about for a little while. What say you?

 

* genius title credit to Sharon Pelletier

2

Schoolday reading

With the summer season coming to a close (I know, I know, it’s a harsh reality, but we all have to accept it), I was thinking fondly on how excited I used to get to go back to school. Clean, fresh notebooks, brand new pens, new seat assignments and, of course, finding out what books we were going to be reading that year.

I remember in elementary school when there was a whole separate class called “Reading,” and that was amazing. I relished in having read a little ahead of the class and knowing what was coming next and learning about the culture surrounding each book. I think my favorite thing, however, was when we read aloud, a paragraph per student, which was excruciating when it got to those who didn’t care or couldn’t read as well (by “well” I meant with emotion as a performance because I also fancied myself a budding actress. Naturally.), but was empowering when it was my turn and I got an especially long paragraph to say.

Reminiscing about some of my very favorite books we read in grade school, my mind immediately went to Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins which immediately led me to the rest of the books in the series and will forever be remembered initially as the first time I learned what a cormorant was.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is another one that struck me hard and I think was the catalyst for my fervent love of middle grade and young adult fiction that centered on WWII, the Holocaust and wartime in general. The memories are coming back to me in floods now and my next immediate thought is of The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig about a family exiled to Siberia. I don’t remember too much about the plot (though I did just look it up), but I do remember declaring that it was my number one favorite book for a while…and of course it turns out that it also took place during the early 1940s.

And then there are those books that I remember pieces of, but have no idea what they might be. Struck with a thought, I just searched “wearing broccoli around your neck,” and weirdly, that worked. Apparently a fourth grade favorite of mine was called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. I should have known that searching “everything you touch turns to chocolate” would provide me with a book titled The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling. Should have figured that one out, Rachel. I think I just liked that book so much because it’s actually a dream of mine to have chocolate whenever I want it.

It’s funny the way certain parts of stories, especially stories from childhood, stick with us even if the rest of the book doesn’t. Vivid scenes, like the making a cape of cormorant feathers in Island of the Blue Dolphins or the main character in In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson learning how to play stickball (also when I learned what stickball was, myself). Is it because there is so much new information that we’re learning for the first time or because a kid’s imagination works in overdrive, much more easily able to relate fantastical stories to his or her own life?

Whatever the reason, it was a nice little trip down memory lane—and a relief that my images of broccoli necklaces and chocolate mailboxes were based on something real and not a sign that I’m going insane. What books immediately come to mind for you when you think back to grade school? Were there any that you remember hating? Loving? Maybe it’ll jog my memory, too!

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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?

1

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.