Introducing PopDNA

So I haven’t posted in awhile…

Here’s one of the things I’m working on now: a podcast!

PopDNA is an exploration of pop culture through the lens of classic literature. All literature is generational. No work is ever created in a vacuum. Many of the works of pop culture we know and love can trace their roots back to the stories and themes found in classic literature. This is the premise of PopDNA. Listen to my introductory episode here.

 

 

As for the other thing I’m working on… it’s not ready yet!

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Confession time: I started but didn’t finish a lot of books this year, maybe more than I have in any other year. I have no qualms about ditching a book if I’m just not finding it engaging, but I try to give it at least 100 pages before I call it quits. Well, that happened a lot this year, and I think it may be because a few of the books I did finish were especially stellar, so many others paled in comparison. These are the books I read this year that I just couldn’t put down.

 

  • The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)

So, apparently everyone in the world read The Girl on the Train this year, but I didn’t know that when I found it while browsing the book section at Target last spring. I hadn’t even heard of it before, but I thought it sounded good. A psychological thriller/murder mystery with an unreliable narrator, that also happens to take place in England–what’s not to like? I read the whole book in two or three sittings over a couple of days and absolutely loved it. I figured out the solution to the mystery about ten pages before the protagonist did, which I think is the perfect spot. When I finished I went on Amazon to see what other readers had thought of it, and that’s when, seeing the thousands of reviews it has, I found out that it was the blockbuster novel of the summer. Looking back now, I’m glad I hadn’t heard of it before I read it, because I went into it with virtually no expectations, and in the process found one of my new favorite books.

 

  • Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)

This book was part of my self-assigned summer reading challenge and turned out to be my favorite of those five books. Rhys’s 1966 novel is a companion to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and tells the story of a character we only see briefly in the source material: the first Mrs. Rochester. Antoinette Cosway lives an idyllic, though by no means charmed, life in the early 19th Century West Indies before she is married off to the young Edward Rochester, a man she barely knows, and removed from her home to the cold and harshness of England. What I loved about this book were the spare and beautiful descriptions of the Caribbean islands and its compassionate portrayal of a woman who kind of got a raw deal in Jane Eyre. I was so engrossed in Wide Sargasso Sea that, finding myself with a spare hour in downtown Tacoma one day, and not having the book with me (shocking, I know!), I went to the Tacoma Public Library, found a copy in the stacks, and sat down and read from the place I had left off previously, finishing the book.

 

  • Landline (Rainbow Rowell)

Rowell is best known for her YA fiction books, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, which have come to me highly recommended but I have yet to read. But if this novel for adults is any indication, I’ll love those as well. The landline of the title is a telephone that can make calls into the past. A successful 30-something TV writer whose marriage is on the rocks uses the magical phone to talk to her husband’s college-aged self in the past in an attempt to save her marriage in the present. While I was reading Landline, I kept trying to make comparisons to other books or movies, but it’s really a completely original premise. What it reminded me of most in the end, purely for thematic reasons, was It’s A Wonderful Life; it happens at Christmas time, and it’s the story of one person who, with help from a mystical or supernatural element, is trying to rediscover their purpose and make things right with the people they love most in the world.

 

  • The Selection Series (Kiera Cass)

You didn’t think I’d create a list with no YA sci-fi/romance on it, did you? I’m almost positive the original pitch for the first book in this series, The Selection, must have described it as “The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games.” (And honestly, is The Bachelor really all that different from the televised spectacle of The Hunger Games? The recent Lifetime channel series UnREAL seems to suggest it’s not. But I’m getting off topic.) The Selection shows a softer side of a dystopian future, one in which young women compete on national television for the chance to marry the prince (because the US has somehow become a monarchy called Panem–I mean, Illéa), and wear lots of beautiful dresses and eat lots of delicious food in the process. Of course, by the third book in the series (there’s a trilogy and a sequel trilogy that’s one book in right now), the story has become about so much more than the Selection. This is kind of silly, but one of my favorite things about the first trilogy is that the main protagonist is a redhead. Represent!

 

  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson)

I’m actually still reading this book (I’m about halfway through), and may or may not finish it before 2015 ends, but I wanted to include it here because it’s already one of my new favorites. I loved the 2008 movie starring Amy Adams and Frances McDormand, but surprisingly had never read the 1938 novel until now. It had been on my radar for awhile, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to Powell’s in Portland that I picked up a copy. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has the lightheartedness and wit of a 1930s Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant comedy film and the precise timing of 24. I don’t think I want to say too much else about it until I finish it, which I think I’ll go do right now!

 

2015 was a great reading year for me, so what about you? What were your favorite books you read this year?

~

Image source: http://inbloomconsulting.com/inbloom-in-2015/

Best Gift Ideas for Book Lovers (Besides Books, Of Course)

70-christmas-decor-with-books

It’s that time of year again, the most wonderful time of the year: it’s crunch time for Christmas shopping! If you still have a few loved ones to shop for, and they happen to be book lovers, chances are you’ve bought them lots of books in the past. But maybe this year, you want to do something different, but still get them something they will love. Lucky for you, there are all kinds of gifts that are perfect for book lovers (and that aren’t books)!

 

  • Bookmarks

An oldie but a goodie. This may seem like an obvious choice, but even for those of us readers who end up using whatever random scrap of paper we can find to hold our place in a book (or even dog-ear the pages–guilty!), bookmarks are a thoughtful and well-appreciated gift. There are options for every price range, too, from those beaded-tassel numbers we all remember from elementary school, to custom, jeweled works of art. You could even hand-make them if you’re feeling crafty.

 

  • Personal Library Kit

For anyone who knows the pain of lending a book to a friend and never getting it back, this might be a perfect (and fun) solution! Complete with stick-on card pockets and check-out cards, date stamp, and ink pad, this kit has everything a book lover needs to start their own lending library. You can also buy refills!

 

  • Bookplates

Another way to keep track of your books that’s fun and has lots of creative options.You can get fancy customized versions from sites like Etsy. I really like these ones I found on Amazon.

 

  • Reading Journal

For the reader who likes to keep track of the books they read and record their thoughts about them, the reader who would be a margin-writer if they could bring themselves to actually write in their books, but would never deface a book in that way, a reading journal is perfect. Journals come in all different variations. There are journals for recording books you intend to read, books you’ve already read, books you own, and anything else you can think of.

 

  • Reading Light

For the reader who stays up way past their bedtime!

 

  • Book-related Gear

The internet is a magical place, full of every kind book-, author-, or literature-related item you can think of. I have a Madeleine t-shirt from Out of Print Clothing, I’ve eyed some of the shirts and tote bags on Litographs, and, of course, everyone’s favorite site, Etsy, has loads of artists who make beautiful, one-of-a-kind book-related items.

 

  • Bathtub Caddy

If the book lover on your list also loves to take long, luxurious baths, this is the perfect gift. With a stand for their book so it doesn’t fall in the water and cup holder for tea or coffee–or wine!–this is the perfect accessory to help them unwind after a long day.

 

  • E-reader Case

If your book lover has an e-reader, what better gift than a spiffy new case or cover for it? Here are a few of my favorite options, available for many different devices.

 

  • E-reader

If your book lover doesn’t already have an e-reader, this is the perfect opportunity to get them one! Personally, I prefer the Kindle Paperwhite, but of course there are lots of great options. New e-readers are being developed every year and becoming more affordable and more versatile. Shop around and try to think about what would be best for your book lover’s lifestyle; would they want something they could also use as a tablet? The Kindle Fire or Nook Color might be right up their alley. Or for something super simple and user-friendly that’s purely for reading books, try the classic Kindle.

 

  • Gift Card to their Favorite Book Store

Okay, maybe this one is cheating, or a bit of a cop-out, but if your book lover is like me, they will love getting the chance to pick out their own books or book-related accessories! If your town or city has a local, independent book store, that would be a perfect gift certificate. Or, if it’s already 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve and you have nothing, go to Amazon’s or Barnes and Noble’s website and buy a printable or e-mail-able gift card. Easy!
Happy shopping, and Merry Christmas!

 

*Image credit: http://www.booknparty.com/blog

Apparently, I Have a Complicated Relationship with “Twilight”

This morning I read a piece of news about something I would have never guessed there would be news about: Twilight. So of course I dug out some old posts I wrote about my thoughts on the book and reposted them, just for fun.

***

October 31, 2010–Twilightbook “Upon Re-reading Twilight

Two years ago, I wrote this. [Ed. Scroll down to read the older post.] If you don’t want to follow the link, don’t worry. I’ll explain–no, wait, there’s too much–I’ll sum up. The link was to a previous post on this blog in which I expressed my thoughts on first reading Twilight, including a fun anecdote in which the moment I read the last word on the last page, I immediately sprang up, grabbed my car keys, and booked it to the nearest store to buy a copy of New Moon, the sequel to Twilight. In the post I also express a half-awareness of the book’s “guilty pleasure” status, yet I remain shameless (mostly).

And now, two years later, I’ve had time to read the book a couple more times, to see the movie (could have been better, could have been worse), and to distance myself for awhile from the entire phenomenon (as long as I wasn’t within 50 feet of a preteen girl, or the mother of a preteen girl). And I would have to say that my opinion of the novel has not altered fundamentally, though time has given it cultivation and nuance.

You know how there are some books that could be page-turners because they’re such great stories, but you don’t want to read them that fast? They’re so good that you just want to take your time, to soak in the prose and study every detail of the characters. For me, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is such a novel (so far), but Twilight was not.

Stephenie Meyer has stated on several occasions something to the effect of, she does not consider herself a writer, but a storyteller. I wholeheartedly agree with her. Keeping in mind that Twilight was her first novel (and I would imagine speedily written, having rather famously appeared to her in a dream a la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), her prose and her characterization do leave something to be desired. But where she is not lacking is in her ability to tell a compelling story–just try to not stay up far later than your intended bed time while reading this book–and to set a mood.

Twilight is probably one of the moodiest books I’ve ever read. I was entirely captivated by the setting, a gloomy, romantic, fairy-tale-enchanted-forest kind of setting. Every tree in the town of Forks is dripping with angst and mystery. (Forks is a real town, by the way, to which I’ve been, both before and after it became a mecca for Twilight fans–I live about four hours away by car. The real Forks isn’t nearly as interesting as the fictional one.)

Meyer could not have picked a better location to set her tale, though. Forks is right in the middle of Washington state’s Olympic National Forest, one of the only remaining old-growth forests in North America. It’s the kind of forest where you would expect to find a cottage full of dwarves, or maybe a vampire.

There was an article in the March 2010 issue of Discover Magazine that was actually about Dutch scientist Frans Vera’s concept called “rewilding,” but there was a lot about old-growth forests in it: “Today thick, dense forests are considered synonymous with unspoiled nature,” but old-growth is “a human artifact: an unnatural, unbalanced outcome created when people…corralled wild horses and cattle. Without free-roaming herds of grazing animals to hold them back, closed-canopy forests took over the land wherever humans did not intervene.”

It’s an intriguing concept, though one that takes away a little of the romance of all those Grimm tales, and maybe some of the enchanting mystery of Twilight. In the Grimms’ tales and in Meyer’s tale, the woods are dangerous, haunted by wolves or witches or other unknown terrors. But, if Vera’s theory is to be believed, the dark and dangerous woods were created by human activity; we gave the monsters a place to hide.

What a poignant metaphor that is! Twilight doesn’t spend a lot of time delving into any kind of psychological exploration, and it barely scratches the surface of the primordial roots of vampire tales throughout human history, but who wants that kind of boring stuff in a fantasy novel?

And Twilight is that: pure fantasy. It’s the kind of novel that’s a lot of fun if you don’t think about it very much, and maybe even more fun if you do.

***

August 18, 2008– “Paging Bram Stoker”

“Dang it!” I muttered as the light turned red and I screeched to a halt. I turned down the volume so that The Killers’ Hot Fuss came through my mom’s car stereo a little softer. I had to get to Target. I had just finished reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. It was a paperback copy, so it had the first chapter of its sequel, New Moon, at the back. I had read that, too, right to its cliffhanger ending, so now I had to go buy the book at Target for $8.79.

I still had several hours before the store closed, yet there was a sense of urgency pushing me, compelling me, even as I sat at an intersection literally two minutes away. After an eternity the light turned green and literally two minutes later I was in the Target parking lot.

I almost ran to the back of the store, for once not even glancing at purses, clothes or shoes, even bypassing a rack of DVD’s with a sign displaying their price, a tempting $7.50. I was relieved to find a copy of New Moon in stock in paperback. For a minute I entertained the idea of buying the third and fourth books in the series, too, to avoid repeating the agony I had just been through. But when I looked, I saw that the third book, Eclipse, was completely out of stock and the fourth, Breaking Dawn, its debut being only a couple of weeks old, was only available in hardcover. So, I picked up just the one volume and wandered around for a bit, trying to look casual, trying to convince myself more than the preoccupied shoppers around me.

Finally I meandered to the check-out lanes, grabbing a 20-ounce Coke and a package of Iced Tea Icebreakers on my way. There, standing in line, a morsel of guilt sneaked its way into my mind as I thought of my new copy of I Capture the Castle sitting at home on the coffee table, only the first two chapters having made it to the other side of my Post-it bookmark from the rest of its pages. “I didn’t used to be like this,” I thought. “I didn’t used to abandon classic literature for teen vampire novels. What’s wrong with me?”

~
That was almost a week ago, and I’m doing much better now. Even though I finished New Moon less than 48 hours after I bought it and then ordered the third and fourth books from Amazon (you save 5% by buying them together), I’m still waiting for them to come in. I’ve managed to pass the time, though.

I Capture the Castle is a lovely and delightful book, I’ve found, unlike anything I’ve ever read yet somehow deeply familiar. (If I had an older sister and a younger brother and a retired-author father and a twenty-nine-year-old stepmother who used to be an artists’ model and we all lived together in a rundown Norman castle in England in 1948, this very blog might be remarkably similar to the first-person narrative of Dodie Smith’s novel.)

Also in this time of waiting, I’ve had a chance to think about the dilemma I discovered in the check-out line at Target of reconciling vampires and classic literature. The solution is ridiculously obvious, as I’m sure most of my readers (meaning three out of the four of you) have already thought of and are now furiously shouting at your computer screens: “DRACULA!!!!”

Yes, Count Dracula, the infamous, ever ubiquitous title character of Bram Stoker’s classic novel is perhaps the prototype, or at least a reference point, for the multitude of vampires in current pop culture. I first (and last) read Dracula as a high school senior determined to become well-read in classics beyond my Austen-Bronte-Alcott safety net, years before I discovered Buffy. (I was born half a decade too late to be in its initial target audience, so I’ve been borrowing the DVD’s from a friend.) Vampires were completely off my radar, so I came to the novel with only a vague idea that vampire stories were weird and maybe a little creepy. I didn’t like Dracula.

Fast forward three (gulp!- almost four) years and I’m hooked on a series of teen novels about vampires that are certainly a little weird (in a good way) but that I wouldn’t really call creepy. They are fantasy, suspense, romance, but not horror. I find my Target check-out line guilt unfounded, for they are to me what I’ve discovered I Capture the Castle to be, though in a vastly different, rather darker package: escapism.

Image: “Twilightbook” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Twilightbook.jpg#/media/File:Twilightbook.jpg

Five Bookish (and Fun!) Halloween Costumes

Books and costumes: what could be a more fun combination?

It’s officially October, so that means it’s time to start thinking about Halloween costumes if you haven’t already. If you’re looking for a costume that reflects your love of books, I’ve come up with a few ideas to consider. From classic fairy tales to children’s literature, and even authors, book-related costumes are fun, and can be simple and inexpensive to put together!

  • Little Red Riding Hood

The most important element of this costume is, of course, the red cape. You can get one fairly inexpensively, or spend a little more on a higher quality piece. I got one at a party supply store for about $10 a few years ago and it’s worked wonderfully, although I did cut a few inches off the bottom to keep it from dragging on the ground.

As for the clothes you RedRidingHoodwearVeganCookies under the cape, it could be anything you want, really, since the cape itself is iconic enough for the character to be recognizable to everyone. You can really have some fun with this if you want to. For example, a couple of years ago I went for a “Warrior Red Riding Hood” look, with dark pants and pirate-y boots, and a “wolf skin” (faux fur) collar, and I carried a toy sword. Last year I was “Hipster Red Riding Hood,” complete with fake glasses, flannel shirt, Converse sneakers, and a box of gluten free cookies for Grandma.

This year, since I’m trying to stick with the more literary source material, I chose to go a more traditional German/Bavarian/fairy tale route, with a full skirt, peasant blouse, black vest, and simple flats. I’ll add a small basket and a ribbon or some braids in my hair and I’m good to go.

  • Harriet the Spy

I watched the movie of Harriet the Spy on VHS about 20,000 times as a kid, and when I found out it was a bookHarriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover first, I checked it out of my school library at least once a month. I felt like I really identified with Harriet, the aspiring writer with a big imagination, so I can’t think of any children’s book character I would rather be!

This is a fun costume, and really easy, because it consists almost entirely of items most people probably already own. For clothes, all you need are jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers (preferably Converse, but any will do). You could add a yellow raincoat if you wanted, as well.

What really makes Harriet’s signature look is her belt of spy supplies: binoculars, a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a composition book and pencil. Just hang these from a belt with string or shoelaces. If I’m going for the book version of Harriet, I’ll need some fake glasses, which I have from last year’s Hipster Red Riding Hood look. She doesn’t wear glasses in the movie, though, so if you’re putting together a Harriet costume, I’d say the glasses are up to you!

  • Faline

Animal costumes are always fun, so I chose one of my favorite animal book characters, Faline from Bambi. Like most people, I’m more familiar with the Disney film than the novel, though I did read it when I was in fourth grade. As a result, I’m drawing more from the movie’s depiction of Faline for inspiration.

Of course, all we really have to do for this one is dress like a deer. You could get really fancy and buy or make a deer costume, but I’m just going with tan pants and a brown shirt with black shoes. The real “deer-ness” of my look is going to be in my makeup and this deer ear headband I found on Etsy.

For makeup, I looked up several tutorials on YouTube, but ultimately I decided to just do some dramatic eyes and a little bit of black on my nose. In looking at some images of Faline from the movie, I noticed that she has a lot of earth tones and long black eyelashes. I luckily have a lot of eyeshadow shades in the neutral brown/gold family, so used those colors to create a dramatic eyeshadow look, then lined my eyes in dark brown, doing just a little “flick” at the corners to create doe eyes. When I actually wear the costume, I’ll add some false lashes, too, because who doesn’t love those!

  • Beverly Cleary

I wanted to put together a costume based on an author, and since I work with kids, I immediately thought of my favorite children’s writer. Most of the photos of Cleary I found were taken in the 1970s at the earliest, but I wanted to dress the way she might have looked when she was my age, which would have been in the mid-1940s or so. This is a really fun era for fashion, and a lot of popular looks now have a sort of ‘40s-inspired vibe, so I thought it would be relatively easy to put together.

Beverly_Cleary_1971

The first piece I chose was a dress I already own. It’s a fit-and-flare, A-line silhouette with slightly puffed sleeves, and the fabric is a dark print. Very WWII-esque. I also wanted to get some horn-rimmed glasses like the ones Cleary wears in her earliest author photos, and I found some that had approximately the right look at a thrift store. I’ll add my high-heeled mary jane style shoes and a string of pearls and the outfit is done.

For hair and makeup I went to YouTube, which has loads of great tutorial videos for pretty much any look you could ever want. To top it all off, I can carry a copy of Ramona the Pest (which I know is a little anachronistic, since it wasn’t published until 1968, but oh, well)

  • Library Fairy

This was a costume I put together last year on the fly, and I ended up loving it. I was inspired by a couple of DIY “book fairy” costumes I’d seen that other people posted on the internet, and also by my love for libraries and fairies. After all, libraries are magic, so this makes perfect sense!

I thought that a fairy who lives in a library would probably dress like a librarian, so I went with the traditional image of a librarian and wore a plaid skirt and a cardigan with black tights and oxford shoes. I wore my hair in a tight bun and then added the glasses from my Hipster Red Riding Hood costume (those fake glasses really come in handy!) and a stack of books to carry. Of course, no fairy is complete without wings and sparkly eye shadow.

***

I work for a children’s museum, and we’re having Spirit Week in the days leading up to Halloween, so I’ll get the opportunity to wear up to five different costumes. Two of the days, Storybook Day and Animal Day, I’ll be able to use my bookish costumes. The others I may not use this year, but I have the ideas and some supplies saved up for future costumes!

(In case you’re curious, the other Spirit Week themes are Outer Space, for which I’ll go as Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope; Pirates, another fun and easy costume; and Superheroes, for which I’ll go as Batgirl.)

Happy Halloween!

Images:

  1. Rhonda Watts
  2. Rhonda Watts
  3. “Harriet the Spy (book) cover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover.jpg#/media/File:Harriet_the_Spy_(book)_cover.jpg
  4. “Beverly Cleary 1971” by Unknown – Photo of Beverly Cleary, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beverly_Cleary_1971.jpg#/media/File:Beverly_Cleary_1971.jpg

My Seven Top Five Favorite Modern Day Adaptations of Shakespeare Plays

william-shakespeare-in-sunglasses

Is there really anything left to be said about the work of Shakespeare? We can’t seem to get enough of this guy, and all the stuff he wrote. He basically is English literature.

While the academic study and theatrical staging of Shakespeare both require close reading of the texts, I (and every English teacher and lit professor I’ve ever met) maintain that these works were written to be watched, not read. Shakespeare’s plays were the primetime network lineups of the 16th century; this was theater for the masses, the pop-iest of pop culture works of their time.

This is why I love when movies place Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary times. Whether they use the original text or not, casting these classic stories in a modern context comes as close as I think we can get to how original audiences would have viewed and related to them.

I made a list of my five favorite contemporary Shakespeare adaptations, but then I thought of a couple more I needed to add. Then when I saw I had seven, I thought, why not add three more and just make it a top ten? That would make sense, right? Well, perhaps, but I didn’t do that. So take them in what sense thou wilt.

1. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

The movie that introduced many a ’90s teen and preteen girl to her first crush, Leo DiCaprio (this came out a year before Titanic), is a young, colorful, music-infused interpretation of what many call the greatest love story ever told. The script uses the original text, which somehow doesn’t seem out of place in the fictional town of Verona Beach, California (“in fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”).

2. Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013)

While West Side Story placed the plot of Romeo and Juliet in the world of New York street gangs in the 1960s, Warm Bodies sets it in a zombie apocalypse. Based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, this retelling follows a zombie boy named “R” and a human girl named Julie, who share a star-crossed connection against all the rules of their respective societies. Instead of meeting a tragic end, though, they (spoiler alert) live happily ever after.

3. Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000)

My favorite scene in this movie is the “To Be or Not To Be” speech, in which Hamlet (played by a gloriously angsty Ethan Hawke) paces the aisles of a Blockbuster Video (it is the year 2000, after all) while speaking the most famous words Shakespeare ever wrote. The genre label of every sign on every shelf reads: “Action.” It’s brilliant. Also, Julia Stiles as Ophelia will break your heart.

4. 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999)

Julia Stiles sure likes Shakespeare. This quintessential 90s teen movie places The Taming of the Shrew in a modern high school, complete with cliques and popularity contests, first loves, and of course The Prom. Fun fact: though the movie takes place in Seattle, the school where it was filmed is Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington.

5. She’s the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006)

This is how I prefer to think of Amanda Bynes, as high school soccer star Viola, who, like her namesake in Twelfth Night, disguises herself as a boy to better navigate a new environment. When Viola’s school cuts their girls’ soccer team, she transfers to Illyria High under the name of her twin brother Sebastian so she can play for their boys’ soccer team. The plan seems pretty solid, except it gets a little complicated when Viola falls for the team captain, Duke Orsino. (No, he’s not really a duke in high school; they just made the character’s first name Duke.)

6. Scotland, PA (Billy Morissette, 2001)

Who decided to take the story of Macbeth and set it in a fast food restaurant in Pennsylvania in the 1970s? It’s genius. Instead of aspiring to rule Scotland by any means necessary, Mac and his wife Pat’s ambitions are to manage and eventually own the burger joint they work for, by any means necessary. Their boss, Duncan, is the only thing standing in their way…

7. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2013)

There’s a rumor going around that Joss Whedon can do no wrong. If the rumor is based just on this movie, it might be true. Using a script from the original text, this movie is amazingly acted and beautifully filmed in classic black and white. It’s hard to top the 1992 version starring Emma Thompson (my personal she-ro), which has a more traditional setting, but Whedon’s modern interpretation comes pretty close.

Classic Literature Characters I Would Want on My Team in a Zombie Apocalypse

PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesCover

We still have a year to wait for the release of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film adaptation, and I don’t know about you, but that’s way too long for me! (ICYMI, the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a mashup of Austen’s classic and elements of zombie fiction. In it, Lizzie Bennet and her sisters are as renowned for their zombie fighting skills as they are for their beauty and accomplishments.)

Upon rereading the novel recently, I started wondering, what other classic literature characters might make good zombie slayers? You know you’ve thought about it, too. Here are my picks.

The Leaders: Jane Eyre and Atticus Finch*

With a ragtag band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world where all political and social order has decayed, keeping a sense of humanity and morality is crucial for the future of the species. Charlotte Bronte’s most famous heroine’s strength of character and steady moral compass and To Kill a Mockingbird’s hero’s ability to mediate conflicts and enact justice will make them both very good leaders for the team, and having two leaders will ensure that neither becomes a dictator. Plus, if it’s Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck, he’s easy on the eyes, which doesn’t hurt at all.

The Brains:

  • Marian Halcombe

If you’re going to pick a literary detective, you’d probably think of Sherlock Holmes, right? That would be a good choice, but I think Marian is a better one. She’s the real heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. She’s resourceful, loyal, and good at thinking on her feet. She deserves most of the credit for solving the novel’s central mystery, and she’s something of an early feminist when she notes, “No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women… they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?” Who doesn’t want an awesome woman like that in their corner?

  • Friar Laurence

I’m thinking that if he can create a potion to make Juliet appear to be dead so convincingly as to make Romeo kill himself (idiot), he can come up with one for living humans to use to disguise themselves as the undead, and thus move freely among them. Or maybe he could even create something that could cure the zombie infection altogether. (Side note: I would not want either Romeo or Juliet on my team, and definitely not the two of them together. They’d be no help, and would probably die trying to save each other and endanger the rest of the group in the process. Plus, they’re both super dumb and whiny.)

  • Victor Frankenstein

Mostly just because he has lots of experience with reanimated corpses. I don’t really care for his character that much.

The Brawn:

  • Sir Gawain

If you’re going to choose one of the Knights of the Round Table to be on your zombie fighting team, you would probably think of Lancelot, right? But here’s the thing: he’s a jerk. Gawain is much more heroic and more truly chivalrous. While I prefer T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which portrays Gawain as a bit surlier than Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur does, both sources showcase his bravery and skill in battle. Plus, the earlier story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proves that he’s good at cutting off heads, an essential trait in any zombie killer.

  • Abraham Van Helsing

The professor and vampire hunter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an expert on vampires, so zombies should be a piece of cake. And while in the original novel he’s not portrayed as particularly warrior-like, I prefer to picture the character loosely based on him as played by Hugh Jackman in the movie Van Helsing.

  • Robin Hood

One of the many things I’ve learned from The Walking Dead is that swords, bows, and arrows, unlike bullets, are all reusable weapons, which is a very important advantage in a world most likely left with no manufacturing. If one of our most important weapons is the bow and arrow, I want the best archer in literature on my side. (If this post wasn’t restricted to classic literature, I would want Katniss Everdeen, too.)

  • Macbeth

Dude will cut anybody.

Just For Fun:

  • Frank Churchill

I’ve always felt that Frank is one of the most underappreciated of Austen’s characters. Sure, he’s kind of a jerk, he’s inconsiderate and deceitful, and he uses other people to his own advantage… OK, maybe he deserves the dislike. But you can’t deny that he’s funny and good at keeping a crowd entertained. He could invent some games for the group to play in between zombie slaying or entertain us with song. I hear he has a lovely singing voice.

  • Beatrice and Benedick

These two would be sure to share some witty banter and raise everyone’s spirits, and their playful romance would give us all hope for humanity’s future.


*Note: The recent revelation in Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman that Atticus may not be the completely upstanding hero he’s been considered for the past half century certainly shades my opinion of his ability to lead fairly. For now, I’ll stick with my choice, but I may re-evaluate when I finish reading the new novel and have a chance to process.

Image: “PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesCover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesCover.jpg#/media/File:PrideandPrejudiceandZombiesCover.jpg

The Summer of Reading Dangerously

danger When it comes to books, I like what I like, and I very seldom step outside this comfort zone. I read the novels of Jane Austen on a continuous loop, as well as occasionally breaking out a few of my favorite Victorian classics. There’s a certain flavor of YA sci-fi romance that I devour like a junkie, I dabble in the more pulpy mysteries and thrillers, and I’ll even sample a humorous memoir, a la Tina Fey’s Bossypants or anything by Chelsea Handler, now and then. But there isn’t a lot outside of these genres that I’ll pick up with anticipation, or that tingly feeling you get when you pre-order a book from Amazon. (Best feeling in the world.)

I try! I really do. I have bought so many books outside of those parameters that truly spark my interest, but then end up gathering dust on my shelves. I don’t know why, exactly. It could just be that they’re not as comfortable as my usual fare, maybe even a little dangerous… So this summer I’m giving myself a few reading assignments. In trying booksto broaden my horizons, I’ve chosen books that are outside of my usually preferred genres, and in trying to save money, I’ve chosen books that I already own! I was also very mindful about choosing books from diverse authors and featuring diverse characters, as this is an issue that needs greater awareness from everyone. I may be posting about my experiences with these books as I read them, but for now here is my list with brief descriptions and my pre-reading thoughts. Feel free to join me in my summer of reading dangerously.

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

“Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period.”

This book is a staple of middle school reading lists, yet I somehow missed it. I remember reading portions of the play in eighth grade, and seeing some half-hearted acting from the other thirteen-year-olds in my English class, but I’ve never read the source material. I’m excited to read this one because I believe, even having never read it, that it is one of the most important books of the 20th century. It’s the words and stories of ordinary people that give us the truest sense of what the world was like during earlier times in history.

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.”

I think it may be the science element that made me shy away from this book. I can’t tell from the description or from skimming the pages if it’s going to be heavy-handed on the science, or more focused on telling a human story. The ideas presented appeal to both my mind and my heart, what with the almost sci-fi story point of the “immortal” cells, the historical element, and the social justice issues that are implicit in this story, so I’m sure I’ll find something to love about it. I guess I’ll just have to dive in and see!

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.”

This novel initially intrigued me because of the culture clash aspect of it. I love reading about immigrant experiences in America, but I’ve never read a story from the perspective of an African coming to the modern US. I’m curious about, and think it’s important to understand, the differences in the transplant experience for newcomers from all parts of the world, as well as their common struggle to become a part of this nation while retaining their cultural and ethnic identities.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

“Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.”

Sherman Alexie spoke at my college once, and I didn’t go to the lecture, but a girl in my poetry class did. The next day in class she told us a story about this really rude guy who had cut in front of her in line at a coffee shop. She continued, “Then later I went to the Sherman Alexie thing, and that rude guy got up on stage and started talking.” This story may have clouded my judgement just a teensy bit, but I’m willing to put that aside and read this novel, which is great by all accounts I’ve heard.

  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

“Jean Rhys’s reputation was made upon the publication of this passionate and heartbreaking novel, in which she brings into the light one of fiction’s most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Set in the Caribbean, its heroine is Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Rochester. In this best-selling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.”

I feel like I’m almost cheating by choosing this one, as it’s a companion to Jane Eyre, one of my beloved English Victorian novels. Through this book I’ll get to see Brontë’s world through a very different pair of eyes, though. Of course my experience will be shaped by my deep familiarity with the original novel, whose heroine I both admire and slightly fear, in a way; I don’t think I would want to be friends with Jane Eyre. I’m very interested to see if the first Mrs. Rochester will inspire a similar reaction.

 

Well, there they are. I have my entire summer planned! Now the question is which one I want to read first…

The Human Story: An Exploration of “Havah” by Tosca Lee

(This article was originally posted on my other blog, Watts Up With Rhonda, about three years ago and labeled as a review, but it’s not really a straight-up review, hence my calling it an “exploration.” I decided to post it here because Tosca Lee just released a new novel about the Queen of Sheba, which I can’t wait to read, and I was reminded of this book. This is an amazing book and I’m planning to reread it, so I dug up this old piece that I wrote about it. Enjoy!)

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This re-imagining of a biblical tale is, at its heart, the story of God’s relentless love for humanity.

When an author novelizes an already well-known story, especially one as ingrained in both secular and Church culture as that of the world’s first woman, she takes a huge risk. Virtually every reader who picks up the book will have preconceived ideas about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, original sin, and primeval history that they’ll, consciously or sub-, be expecting to see verified. This is the risk that Tosca Lee has taken withher novel Havah: the Story of Eve.

In her author’s note, Lee acknowledges the familiarity most readers already have with the story and explains her choice to use the characters’ Hebrew names in an effort to distance her retelling from our expectations. Eve becomes Havah, though Adam’s name stays the same, and their sons become Kayin (Cain), Hevel (Abel), and Shet (Seth).

The beginning of the novel introduces a problem: how do you describe a place that only two people in the history of the world have ever seen? Lee’s solution is rather simple: there isn’t a whole lot of description, and I think that was the right choice. Describing the Garden of Eden would be like trying to describe Heaven, though to a lesser degree: too prone to cliché and abstract to be really satisfying. It is enough to know that it is a perfect place, where the relationships between God and human, man and woman, are pure and untainted, honest and beautiful. Just enough of this state of perfection is shown to make us feel the loss of it.

The point at which the story changes from that of two people and their Creator in Paradise to that of the world as we know it is, of course, the Fall. This is really the climax of the novel, though it is only 60 pages in. Up until now, we have only been given glimpses of the woman’s desire for knowledge and understanding of God and snatches of her conversations with the mysterious serpent, who seems to be the only other creature who has the same curiosity that she does; it is this curiosity and desire for knowledge that in the end motivate her to eat of the tree.

But I couldn’t understand, solely based on the content of the novel, why two people who have a literally perfect life would so easily go against the wishes and warnings of the One who gave them life. Of course I know that Adam and Eve did sin, but if I hadn’t known the story before reading the book, the book wouldn’t have convinced me.

If the build-up was slightly lacking, though, Lee makes up for it in the riveting moment itself. In the novel, as in the Genesis account, the man is present the whole time for that fateful scene—he witnesses the woman’s conversation with the serpent and sees her grapple with the decision to eat the fruit. He even almost encourages her to sin in the fictional account, putting the decision for both of them into her hands and saying, “We are one flesh. We live or die the death together.”

That’s probably not exactly how it went down, but it is effective in showing that the blame for the first sin is shared equally between the two genders. Gender equality is something that Lee acknowledges in her author’s note was important for her to show in the novel, an equality “designed by God, recorded by the Genesis author and influenced—for good or ill—by the world.”

The man and woman’s equality is marred by the Fall—though still equal, they can never understand each other the way they used to. This state of misunderstanding unfolds with gradual heartbreaking realization, their separation from each other almost as devastating as their exile from the Garden and the continual, tangible presence of their beloved Creator. The lightning storm and earthquake that accompany their flight from the Garden are the violent physical manifestation of the breaking heart of God.

The remaining three quarters of the novel in a way function as a fictionalized account of the first thousand years of human history. It’s fascinating to watch the development of human invention, to see the advancement of ideas and technology in agriculture, in writing, in metal working and city-building. But through it all there is woven a thread of darkness, the shadow of the Fall. This darkness is witnessed in Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel and in the barriers it places between Kayin and his family. The darkness is also seen much later when people begin to corrupt the worship of the One true God, and even to worship false gods.

Havah never forgets that the world is not as it should be, and that it was her decision that made it that way. But she also never gives up hope that the world will be restored. In a dream near the end of the novel she has a glimpse of how that restoration is to come about: she watches as an animal sacrifice burns on the altar, then changes into a man, “Adam made new. As I stare, he plucks from the shrub the small fruit,” the fruit of the tree that gives eternal life.

Image: “Michelangelo Buonarroti 022” by Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_Buonarroti_022.jpg#/media/File:Michelangelo_Buonarroti_022.jpg

On Falling in Love with Fictional Characters: Life Lessons from My Literary Crushes

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I fell in love for the first time at 15.

The object of my affection was completely unaware of my regard, however, not because he was a Hollywood actor or boy band heartthrob, or even my high school’s star quarterback, but because he existed only within the pages of a Jane Austen novel.

Now before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you: it was not Mr. Darcy. While that gentleman had many fine and amiable qualities, it was Henry Tilney, the facetious, witty and compassionate hero of Austen’s earliest novel, Northanger Abbey, who held my heart.

Henry is intelligent, funny, charming, practical and generous, and he takes a decided (though not suspicious) interest in ladies’ fashion. He is an avid fiction reader as well, remarking that, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” He is, in a word, perfect.

I fancied that I was a bit like Catherine, the book’s heroine, naive but good-hearted, loyal and kind, and such a voracious novel reader that she sometimes blurs the lines between fiction and reality (OK, maybe I was a lot like her). And if that was true, then when I was ready to look for a hero of my own, I would need someone like Henry to keep me grounded, and I would want someone like him to make me laugh.

This was the first time I had ever thought of my possible future husband or romantic partner as anything more than a faceless Prince Charming, a cardboard cutout groom to stand beside me while I sparkled in my beautiful Cinderella wedding gown. Funny that it took falling in love with a fictional character for me to think of the person I would end up with as real.

Throughout the novel, Henry and Catherine have their ups and downs. There are misunderstandings and disappointments, and even after the blissful ending we expect from Miss Austen, there are hints that this happily ever after might still have its rocky bits. Henry (and Jane) taught me that real love won’t be like a fairy tale, but if you’ve found the right person, it can be even better.

Henry made such an impression on me that it was years before I loved again. Six years, actually. From the ages of 15 to 21 I lived in an Austen haze. I would barely read anything else, unless it was in some way related to my dear Jane. Of course I tried the Brontës, as many with Austen hangovers do, and I even went on to the books Jane herself had actually read: Fanny Burney’s Evelina (which I still reread from time to time) and Cecilia (though I didn’t finish that one–it’s so long!) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho (Henry and Catherine’s favorite novel).

But right around my 21st birthday I rediscovered a genre I had loved as a preteen, before I got hooked on Austen: science fiction. I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game for the first time that spring, a novel often found on middle school and even older elementary reading lists, most likely because of the characters’ ages. The synopsis sounds like current YA fiction, as well: In a distant future, the best and brightest of Earth’s children are sent to a Battle School in space in hopes that one of them will become the leader we need to defeat a menacing alien race. Among them is Andrew, or “Ender,” Wiggin, the book’s young and conflicted protagonist.

I’m glad I first read Ender as an adult. If I’d read it at 13 or 14, I probably wouldn’t have been ready to be intrigued by the deeper philosophical questions it posed, or that of its sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Set 25 years later in Andrew Wiggin’s lifetime, but about three thousand years later for the rest of humankind (since traveling across vast distances of space messes with the flow of time), Speaker finds the descendants of Earth scattered across the galaxy on colonized planets, and centers on a group of settlers who must learn to live in harmony with the sentient native species of their world.

Ender himself is the Speaker of the title, and he travels to the colony to “speak the deaths,” a funeral rite of sorts, of two men who were killed by this native race, and that of another whose family is deeply connected to them.

It was this compassionate, quiet, contemplative adult version of Ender who captured my heart. He steps into a house full of children who have just lost their father and a woman who has just become a widow in more ways than one, and despite their hesitance and even outright hostility toward him, never shows them anything but patience and kindness.

Perhaps this spoke so deeply to me because I had just experienced my first real loss myself; it was around this time that my grandfather died. Just as Ender was helping this family through their grief, he was helping me through mine.

Through his compassion, Ender comes to understand the native species of the planet in a way no one else ever has, and is able to bridge the gap between them and the humans to form a strong interspecies bond. He also helps a family face their own demons, and so begin their journey to healing. Ender taught me that love means trying your hardest to understand, and still giving of yourself unconditionally even when you don’t.

The rest of that summer was a strange one for me. I was about to leave home for the first time, I was preparing to go back to college after being out of school for over a year, and I read Twilight. All four books. In less than a week. I can’t say I’m ashamed of it, though I’m not exactly proud, either. But it was in the midst of this fever that I found I Capture the Castle.

Set in a crumbling Norman castle in the 1930s English countryside, Dodie Smith’s wonderfully charming and clever book is the account of 17-year-old aspiring writer Cassandra, who is constantly honing her craft through recounting the events of her days and recording observations in her journal. She laments that living as she does in a quiet village without the means to travel very far out of it, she will never gain the life experience she needs to become a truly great writer.

Cassandra and her family’s quiet life of genteel poverty is interrupted by the arrival of two American brothers, Simon and Neil, who move into the neighborhood. Cassandra, without even realizing, slowly falls in love with Simon, even though Simon has quickly fallen in love with her sister Rose. It’s easy to see why Cassandra is drawn to Simon (and why I came to love him, as well): he is intelligent, generous and kind, has a love of literature and music, and he takes her seriously when all the other characters seem to dismiss her as a precocious child.

Our heroine experiences the bliss of first love and the ache of disappointment all over the course of one summer. The resolution of this love tangle doesn’t wrap everything up with a bow, but it isn’t entirely without hope, either. Cassandra and Simon’s future is left open, in parallel to one of Cassandra’s observations early in the novel, when she muses that blissfully perfect, happy endings in books are like brick walls; they don’t allow the reader to imagine a future for the characters beyond the final page. Their stories simply end.

Simon (and Cassandra) taught me that sometimes you don’t get the happy ending you wanted, but that doesn’t mean your story is over.