Five TED Talks to Help You Fall in Love with Reading (Again)

IMG_2325Who doesn’t love a good TED Talk? They’re usually reasonably short, endlessly fascinating, and you always feel super smart and inspired afterward, or at least I do. There are TED Talks on pretty much any topic imaginable, but the ones I like watching the most are about (no surprise here) books, literature, and language. Here are a few of my favorites.


 

1. “My Year Reading a Book from Every Country in the World” –Ann Morgan

A few years ago, I embarked upon a Summer of Reading Dangerously, but this is seriously hardcore. In this talk, Ann Morgan recounts how one day she was looking at her bookshelves and realized that all her books were almost exclusively written by British and North American authors, most of whom were white.

She was not OK with this (nor should be anyone), so she decided to challenge herself to read one novel, short story collection, or poetry collection from every country in the world (as recognized by the United Nations, plus Taiwan).

Morgan soon realized what a daunting task it would be to find a book from 196 different countries that had been translated into English, so she turned to the internet for help. She started a blog and in her first entry, posted an appeal to the world for suggestions. Soon support and help from all corners of the globe came flooding in, and Morgan came to realize that her story was about so much more than just her personal project:

“It’s the story of the power books have to connect us across political, geographical, cultural, social, religious divides. It’s the tale of the potential human beings have to work together.”

 

2. How Books Can Open Your Mind”–Lisa Bu

Lisa Bu’s childhood was shaped by the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1970s. When she came to the U.S. as a young adult, she delighted in reading many books that had been banned in China, including Jane Eyre and the Bible.

Her short-and-sweet talk is a celebration of the liberating and enlightening power of books. She describes how she likes to read books “in pairs” to compare ideas, and how being bilingual opens up opportunities for new connections between books, people, and cultures.

“Books have given me a magic portal to connect with people of the past and the present.”

 

3. “Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is.”–Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd probably has the coolest job in the world. He designs book covers for the Knopf publishing company. He explains in his talk how a book designer’s job is to ask the question: “What do the stories look like?” The book cover is your first impression of the book, so it has to be a good one.

With laugh-out-loud humor, Kidd tells several stories about the inspiration and idea development behind a few of his famous book cover designs, including Katharine Hepburn’s memoir Me and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. His story about how he designed the cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park will make you both marvel at the genius of it and cackle at your computer screen.

As much as I love my Kindle, he also makes a good point about ebooks: the art of the book cover is lost in electronic format, which is one reason why ink-and-paper books will never really go away.

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku, if you will, of the story.”

 

4. “The Danger of a Single Story”–Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Celebrated Nigerian novelist Adiche delivers this powerful and inspiring talk about the vitality of representation in literature. She tells of when she began writing stories as a child, when the only stories she had read were about British and American children, so the children she wrote about looked and acted and talked like white British or American children.

But when she discovered African literature, her whole world opened up: ”I learned that girls like me, whose skin was the color of chocolate… could also exist in literature.”

Ultimately, Adiche’s story is about not relying on a “single story,” but reading many stories to enrich and expand our views, and ensure that every child can see that people who look like them can exist in literature.

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

 

5. “Adventures in Twitter Fiction”–Andrew Fitzgerald

TwitFic? Or TwitLit? Either way, it’s a thing. Fitzgerald’s talk explores the fascinating ways people have used Twitter as a storytelling tool, format, and publishing platform.

He starts with a comparison to the days of radio–a brand new medium in the 1930s that quickly transformed the way people consumed stories. Then he gives the examples of the New Yorker Fiction Twitter account “broadcasting” a fragment of a Jennifer Egan short story every evening, 140 characters at a time, and a story by Elliott Holt called “Evidence,” told from multiple characters’ perspectives, through multiple Twitter accounts, and many more examples of fanfiction, history, and current events storytelling, all using Twitter.

It’s exciting to think that new formats and platforms can help people distribute their stories more widely, and fascinating that those very platforms can become part of the story.

“A new medium defines new formats, which then define new stories.”

 

Word Nerd Bonus: “The Joy of Lexicography”–Erin McKean

Did I say Chip Kidd had the coolest job in the world? I’ve changed my mind. Erin McKean actually has the coolest job in the world. As she delights in telling the audience, McKean is a lexicographer. You guys, she gets paid to find and study new words and basically just be an expert on dictionaries.

In her talk she gives a brief and entertaining look at the history of the dictionary in the English language, noting the many limitations of dictionaries in book-form. She argues that for our language to continue to grow and thrive, we need to look beyond what will fit on printed pages to define what words and language mean to us.

“Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word more real than any other way. If you love a word it becomes real.”

In Honor of the Royal Wedding: My Favorite Royalty-Related Books

mugI was originally planning to live-blog the Royal Wedding, just like I did for William and Kate’s wedding seven years ago, but as I sit here at 3 a.m. in my sweatpants and tiara, with my tea in my Queen Elizabeth II 1977 Silver Jubilee mug that I got at a garage sale, I’m thinking more about the social and historical significance of this event than the event itself.

You see, I’ve read a lot about royalty. My typical-little-girl obsession with princesses never really went away; it just sort of evolved and deepened and acquired nuance. Royalty is fascinating, and it has evolved quite a bit as well over the centuries. Many people think it’s an outdated concept, that the world has moved beyond the need for these rich, gracious, and apolitical figureheads. But many others argue that monarchies, especially constitutional monarchies, are good for a nation’s culture and economy.

I’m intrigued by these deeper questions around the political science of modern monarchy and royal individuals, but I also still just really want to be a princess and wear a tiara.

Here are just a few of my favorite books about royalty, both real and fictional:

(Edit: as I was compiling this list and writing this post, I slowly realized that the idea of royalty represented here is pretty Euro- and Anglo-centric, which, especially considering the background of the bride today, seems like a glaring oversight. Therefore, after I finish this post, I’m going to begin to research and read about non-white, non-European royalty. Maybe I’ll even edit this list in the future to reflect what I learn!)

  • On Royalty – Jeremy Paxman

This selection seems a little on-the-nose, but I can’t ignore what may be the definitive contemporary work on the modern British Royal family, the recent history that led to its current state, and its connections to and impacts on the rest of the world. Plus it’s wickedly funny, and there’s a photo of the Queen wearing a hot pink coat on the cover, so what’s not to love?

  • Queen of Fashion – Caroline Weber

The subtitle of this book is “What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution,” but it’s really about the fashion choices she made (and that were made for her) throughout her life, and how those choices affected her nation and ultimately history. It’s such an interesting lens through which to view one of my favorite historical figures, an often misunderstood and stereotyped historical figure. The extremely powerful last chapter describes what she wore to her execution: “Though imposed by her enemies’ restrictions and her own meager resources in the Concierge, Marie Antoinette’s white outfit just may have been the most brilliant fashion statement of her entire career… Even before she reached the guillotine, this aspect of her history, her body, her being, had been erased–leaving her only white.”

  • Someday My Prince Will Come – Jerramy Fine

I see so much of myself in this memoir, it’s comical. Fine’s childhood obsession with princesses and overwhelming desire to be one mirrors my own, but she took hers waaaay farther than I would ever think of doing. She actually planned the trajectory of her life and career to put herself in the path of the “prince” she felt destined to marry to fulfill her royal destiny. (I put “prince” in quotation marks because the man Fine envisioned as her royal soul mate was Peter Phillips, who is a grandson of the Queen but technically bears no royal title. Fine even discusses this irony and laughs a little at herself in the epilogue.)

  • The Queen of the Tearling trilogy – Erika Johansen

If you’ve read anything about this trilogy on the internet, you may already know that the ending of the final book really pissed off a lot of people. I don’t want to spoil anything, though. After all, this is a royalty post, so I’ll just focus on that. The first book of this epic fantasy trilogy details princess Kelsea’s struggles to claim her throne after the death of her mother and establish herself as queen within a kingdom that’s falling apart. There are the inevitable comparisons to the Song of Ice and Fire series in discussion about the Tearling books, and I suppose that’s fair; both deal with political intrigue and violence in fantasy kingdoms. But what makes these books different is their focus on one sole protagonist and her struggle to balance political power with social justice.

  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver – E. L. Konigsburg

Who would have thought that Eleanor of Aquitaine, a controversial twelfth century duchess and queen, would make the perfect subject for a children’s book? I devoured this middle grade novel when I was ten, and looking back I can see that it was partly responsible for helping evolve my pretty pretty princess phase into a more in-depth interest in real-life royalty and the history behind it.

  • The Princess Diaries series – Meg Cabot

I credit Meg Cabot for my middle school fantasy of discovering that I was actually the heir to the throne of a small European principality and therefore a princess. I love that Princess Mia’s struggles are just like that of an average teenager, except she also has that whole royalty thing to deal with. The movies take a pretty stark departure from the books, but they’re still good. The second movie even has a royal wedding in it, which brings me full circle. See what I did there?

All right, folks, I have book club this morning, so I’m going to take a nap for a couple hours. Congratulations to Prince Harry! Even though it didn’t work out between us, I’m still happy for him. And Meghan is now officially my favorite princess. Ok, time for sleep. Goooojg’pWgj;hg;

 

25 Little Pick-Me-Ups that Cost Nothing*

*Ok, so a lot of these ideas involve using items that you would have had to buy at some point, but if they’re items you already have, you don’t have to spend any more money, ok? Also, I know this isn’t entirely about books, but self-care is important for everyone, as book lovers well know!

  1. Pop in a favorite DVD

When was the last time you watched your favorite movie? If it’s been a long time, pop in that disc or click on that streaming icon and rediscover why this is your fave!

  1. Have a mini dance party

Queue up a playlist on Spotify or YouTube and dance around your living room. Instant mood booster!

  1. Change your bedsheets—and make your bed!

Never underestimate the power of clean bed linens to make you feel relaxed and cozy.

  1. Have a cup of tea/coffee/cocoa

A comforting beverage to warm your heart. Or make it iced if it’s hot out!

  1. Go for a walk

Stretch those legs, get some fresh air, and explore your neighborhood.

  1. Do some yoga

There are some great tutorials on YouTube. Yoga has been proven to help people relax and de-stress!

  1. Take a bath or shower

Use that fancy body wash or bath bomb your mom gave you for your birthday. Follow up with lotion and comfy pajamas!

  1. Read an old favorite book

Do you remember what your favorite book was when you were 15? What about at ten? Five? If you can get your hands on a copy, reread it and feel like a kid again!

  1. Rearrange your furniture or decor

It’s amazing how seeing a familiar space in a new way can help you break out of a rut and find new possibilities wherever you look.

  1. Break out the art supplies

Draw, paint, sculpt, whatever. Maybe you’re not an artist, but that’s ok! Remember a couple years ago when adult coloring books were super popular? Chances are during that time, you either bought one for yourself or received one as a gift, and chances are you’ve only colored like one and a half pages in it. So pull it out, sharpen your colored pencils, and color!

  1. Write something

Write in your journal, on your blog, or on an old-fashioned typewriter. Write a poem, an essay, a short story, a letter, or a piece of a novel. Write about what you had for lunch today, or write about flying gas creatures on Jupiter. Just write!

  1. Organize a closet or room

Apparently, tidying up is supposed to be magical or something.

  1. Visit the library

Libraries aren’t just for books! You can get a library card for free at most public libraries, which will give you access to all kinds of media. You can go “shopping” for new books, movies, music, and more, all for free! Libraries are also quiet—great places to sit and read, write, draw, or just think.

  1. Listen to some soothing or inspiring music

Lay down, close your eyes, and let the music take you away.

  1. Look at photos from a vacation or special event that has good memories for you and reminisce

Good times.

  1. Cook something

If you have the ingredients, try out one of those recipes from your Pinterest board. (You don’t have to actually cook, you could just make a pb&j.)

  1. Sing

Or if you play an instrument, practice your favorite song. Even if you’re not a musician and feel you have no musical talent, just start singing. Seriously. You might feel ridiculous, but I guarantee within 30 seconds you’ll find yourself smiling!

  1. Call a friend or family member

Has it been awhile since you called your mom? Call her! Did you forget to thank your great uncle Ned for that $20 he sent you at Christmas? Call him! Did you just talk to your best friend yesterday but you’ve since had an experience that you need to talk to them about? Call them! (Of course, we all have family members that it would not be a pick-me-up to talk to. Don’t call them.)

  1. Watch or listen to a comedian

Tons of comics have albums on Spotify and Pandora, and you can always find clips and even full-length specials on YouTube. Laughing is good for you, not only emotionally, but physically as well!

  1. Look at/read aspirational photos/stories

Do you know what you want to do with your life? Do you have sort of an idea of what you want to do, but no specifics? Do you have no idea whatsoever? Do you have any goals, be they large or small? One thing that can really help inspire and motivate you is to research people whose lives and accomplishments you admire, and learn how they achieved their successes.

  1. Give yourself a manicure, pedicure or facial

Even if you don’t have fancy salon products, spending some time on primping can be very relaxing. You can find plenty of ideas online for making facial scrubs and masks from common household products. Even better if you have a steady hand with the nail polish.

  1. Sit outside and observe your surroundings

People-watching is extra fun with some coffee or frozen yogurt.

  1. Meditate or pray

Even if you’re not religious, meditation and mindfulness can help you focus your mind and heart for some much-needed perspective.

  1. Talk to a kid

Don’t be creepy about it, but if the opportunity arises, talk to a kid. Seriously. Ask them about their interests, their hopes and dreams, their ideas about life, and see how quickly your outlook improves.

  1. Give someone a hug (even if it’s yourself!)

Hugging boosts oxytocin and serotonin levels, which can boost your mood and fight feelings of loneliness, sadness, and anger. Even if there’s no one around to hug except yourself, wrap yourself in your arms and hold, then take a few deep breaths. You’re going to be fine!

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