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Archive for March, 2011

When We Talk About Love

I watch the TV show Bones because I am crazy for two different people.

I mean it’s also great television, or I wouldn’t still be keeping up with it, you know? I love Tempe and Seeley; I think it’s a smart, blunt, funny, gruesome show. It gets a little too human once in a while (I just like the dead bodies and Bones’s complete inability to figure out how to be a real person), but mostly I enjoy it to the hilt. I like Angela’s ludicrous magic art-science solutions and Hodgins’ crazy eyes and the faces Cam makes and the Gormagon killer.

But mostly, I watch it out of love.

I started watching Bones with my girlfriend at the time and our mutual friend Em. Now, I liked Fe (short for Favorite Ex) pretty completely, but it’s Em I want to talk about here. I respect her in a shy, cautious, adoring manner, and loved that she seem reasonably fond of me. She’s very smart and very outspoken and very independent.  Although she has a romance-novel streak, her entertainments are typically very intellectual.

And as I said earlier, Bones is a smart show.

So we three, and sometimes others, would sit and watch it. This was a highlight of my week, sitting with Fe and Em and being shushed every time I tried to say something. I seek community, no matter how tiny, and I felt accepted into a group those days–because Fe and Em are so tightly connected, so linked to each other. Those evenings ended when Em moved into the Archaeology Dork house, and I didn’t keep up with Bones as I should have. Wasn’t the same.

Two years later I met Jim.

He watches Bones too, and I idly started watching the newer episodes with him because I remembered the Gormagon plotline from when I watched with Fe and Em, and remembered liking it–but mostly because I really, really like Jim. And when I have a partner, or want to be friends with someone, I tend to try to access the things they do, look at the things they like, see if I can love the things they love. It’s a way of falling for someone, and showing them that.

 

And whether it’s reading Rumi or watching Bones, I usually end up in love with something other the person I’m after.

 

 

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Despite the titles of the past two blogs, I have no desire to force a gender on my kids. This is something Jim and I have gotten into over the past few days; as you might expect, he’s got some pretty solidly thought out ideas about why and how a kid should be raised up without feeling like they need to like princesses if they are a girl or trucks if they’re a boy–or even to feel like they have to be a girl or a boy.

So: here are the third of three sets of books I will read my children.

1. My Father’s Dragon. This is actually a set of three books–My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland. They’re very simple, and very sweet. The illustrations are black and white, very round-cornered and old-fashioned. There’s one or two seriously pleasing maps and a cat who talks, and a baby dragon named… well. I won’t spoil it for you. It is absolutely perfect to read as a going-to-bed book.

 

2. The Children of Green Knowe. So far as I have been able to find out in the past fifteen years, I am the only person who has read this book. It’s a very beautiful, very quiet, very English book. It’s hard to say much else about it, because part of its strangeness is what the reader slowly realizes. I first heard it read out loud, and done right, it’s utterly enchanting. Plus, I refuse to remain the only person who has ever read this.

3. Redwall. Every child should be given the chance to drool over imaginary meals they will never, ever be able to recreate. And repetitive plots are soothing to small children, and this series is particularly prone to going over the same territory over and over. Plus they’re a blast to read out loud–so many different voices to do! And at least one of them was a major family bonding episode for my parents, brother, and me; we took a long car trip and listened to Cluny the Scourge take over the Abbey. Perfect.

4. Peter Pan. This is the book I would choose to read to a sick friend my age, to a kid I was babysitting, to my own child. I have a recording of it that I listen to on a regular basis. For those of you who have only seen the movie–read the book. It’s a spooky, strange, surreal and beautiful book; I want my children to dream of Neverland and look out the window for Peter and the second star to the right. I want to share that experience with them.

 

So there you have it. A round dozen book I consider to be indispensable to becoming a lover of books at a young age. There are dozens more, of course–I was a brutally focused reader even as a child, and I have so many books I loved and was touched by. I don’t have the time, or the space, to possibly cover them all.

 

But I invite you to share your lists, if you have them.

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I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’m the oldest child in my immediate family (and the oldest girl among the cousins, but that’s another entry). I have a brother who is twenty-two months my junior. When I was much younger, I used to watch my mother read with and to E; I was much more my father’s child, and a more independent one in general. I’m too like my mother for anyone’s good.

Anyway. Continuing the list.

1. The Wind in the Willows (thanks to a commentator for reminding me of this one). We had a handsome and very small version of these with great pictures. These books are at the heart of my love for badgers and talking animals, although they definitely weren’t the only books that grew that. I love the simplicity of their names and the absolute weirdness of their adventures; Rat (Rattie to Mole) was my favorite. Frog cracked me up. I like how he always gets his comeuppance; a good lesson for a rambunctious kid.

2. Continuing a theme, Frog and Toad are Friends is one of my most wistfully beloved books. I remember hardly anything about it, but I remember the look and feel of it, and it’s a good story for children wondering if they’ll ever have a best friend. If my son is anything like me, and like my brother, then he’ll want that reassurance until he gets his confidence up. Plus, then he and I can watch the weirdest movie ever together, and we can have a nice little bonding moment when he has nightmares. Just like I did.

3. Winnie the Pooh. There’s not even anything to say here. Everyone should have this read to them. It starts a love for poetry early, and a joy in language, and encourages imaginary friends. I want my son to have an imagination as big and complicated and vivid as his mom’s.

4. Speaking of imagination… The final book on my list this evening (though I’ve got more coming up) is Alice in Wonderland. This is a nice segue book for a kid who’s starting to read by himself–read him Wonderland, and let him work his way through Looking Glass alone if he wants to. Plus it has such a wicked archaic gleefulness to it, such an investiture in total nonsense; kids have a streak of that anyway, and I want to urge him to keep that through to adulthood.

Four more to come later this week.

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When I started this blog I made a pretty conscious decision not to make this a blog about literary criticism or discussion, aside from in a very general sense–see my discussion of books I’ll read my kids from yesterday, and keep an eye for an entry called Things I Must Believe, which is about the things we have to believe are true to keep sane. Mine happen to be mostly literary.

Aside from those, though, I decided not to talk about books too much. I’ve used Young Wizards and Neil Gaiman to talk about my beliefs, but I wanted to get away from the English-major modality in which I’ve been thinking and writing for over four years. If people are going to know me at all (which probably they won’t), I want to be know for more than just talking about books. Even though that’s what I do with my friends and partners and parents, I wanted to spend some time thinking more about gender and sexuality and other interesting things I never had time for because I was busy write-write-writing about books.

But I’m going to make an exception today.

See, the last time I went back to my parent’s house for the day, I pulled half a dozen books from the big bookcase in the spare room. (For those interested, my family has between eight and ten good-sized bookcases in the house; this is the tallest but not the biggest.) Most of the books I’d either read or wanted to read for ages; one I pulled and didn’t recognize, but the cover looked amusing and vaguely trashy-fantasy/sci-fi-ish. It looked like it was probably one of my dad’s books; he’s as into genre fiction as I am.

So I dump all these books on the table, and my father wanders in to flip through them because he’s nosy. He holds up the book I hadn’t recognized and says, Are you borrowing this?

Yeah, I said, rummaging through my bag.

Then I have to get you another one by the same guy. And he runs off to his room to fetch it. In an altogether too gleeful a manner for a fifty-something year old guy. And comes back with a very solemn-looking and sizeable book with the full moon on its cover.

The reason my dad was so excited was because I’d picked up The Cat Who Walked Through Walls by R.A. Heinlein. Remember when I said my dad is a genre-fiction guy too? Well, his genre is Science Fiction, where mine is Fantasy, and Heinlein is (if you have been living under a rock for fifty years) the greatest of the scifi greats.

And I’d never read him. Not once–and I even made a run at Tolkien for my dad’s sake. I thought Heinlein was dusty and dull and boring, dated unpleasant futuristic scholk. Don’t ask me where I came up with this because I don’t know. I’d never touched Heinlein, not a single novel, not one short story. And then just last week I read Uptown Local and Other Interventions by Diane Duane. And found out that Heinlein had loved Ed the shark (who will show again in an entry or two). And I thought, okay, he’s got to have something, maybe I’ll pick up this book I found on the shelf and give him a chance.

I fell in love.

I haven’t been this sucked into a book since I was reading the Tamora Pierce books as an eleven year old or the first time I read American Gods. I can hardly tear myself away. I’ve finished Cat Who… already; the other one is sitting open on my shins right now, fifty pages in already. (The other book is, by the by, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress–considered by some Heinlein’s greatest work. It’s going to be all I can do to not stay up until midnight with it.) I can’t believe I went so long without them. I’m entranced, my breath is taken away. This is what it was like to discover Charles de Lint, to have a whole world open up in front of me, one that will take months or years to get through. I don’t panic, seeing so much left to read–instead I can hardly bear the thought that I can’t spend all my time sunk deep into that world, and yet rejoice that there will be so much time left to spend in it. I am something close to crazy with this. I don’t think most people completely grasp my book mania; I cart a novel almost everywhere and am able to go on about them for insane amounts of time. I like almost everything I read, and have a hell of a time trying to decide on my favorite.

So when I say that these two novels are the best ones I’ve read in the past two or three years?

You have to understand that that really, really means something.

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…Well, and my son too. My dad read me the  Narnia series as a kid, and it remains one of my most treasured memories. But as a girl with a lot of aunts, I see the mother-daughter relationship play out in my family constantly, and it’s something I want to take my place in.

And so: a partial list.

1. The full Chronicles of Narnia, beginning with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and then backing up and proceeding chronologically. You can say what you like about the Christian undertones (and overtones and overall tones), but you miss those as a kid. All you hear is the talking animals and the epic fights and the children who become kings and queens. And it’s a simple-language book, for the most part; the words aren’t obsessively complex. And it takes a while–seven books will carry you for a long time.

2. The full Little House on the Prairie series, read from the yellowbound and yellowing copies that belonged to my mother when she was my age. When I took a Children’s Lit class, every girl in the room had memories of wanting to be like Laura. (And despising Mary.) I want my kid to be linked to me and my mother and her mother through these books.

3. Black Beauty. This is an extremely hefty book for a little girl; I was less than seven when my mother started reading this to me. It’s full of pain and suffering and appalling treatment of animals, but it’s beautiful too. It’s singlehandedly responsible for my early love of horses, and at the root of my desire to work in an old-style English stable; I own three copies. The biggest and heaviest is the one my mother read to me, because of the handsome pictures; someday I will sit in my bed with my daughter and give her her first lessons in horsemanship from that book.

4. Matilda. I will of course keep all the Dahl books in the house, but I have a soft spot for this one. The first way I experienced Matilda was on tape, and it’s wonderful to hear out loud, because it can be light and lovely for Ms. Honey and roaring and wicked for the Trunchbull, and deeply twerpy for Matilda’s parents. Preferably I’ll read to her out of my elderly copy, and she’ll read along in hers if she wants to. I never fell asleep without being read to when I was under eight.

I’ll be along with more later. It’s a long list.

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Let me tell you something: I wrote this so young that I was misspelling my best friend at the time’s name.

That means I must have been within a few months of having met her for the first time, which puts me at no more than thirteen. I’d already been murmuring poetry and stories to the air since I started working at the barn at nine, to soothe myself and my horses. Writing it down was a new thing, at that age, and I had so many ideas, so many wild directions I was going in.

This is the first of those directions. The first step on the first road. The first signpost and dirt path and bridge to the other side and doorway and game track through the underbrush.

It’s also really, really awful. Oh god, it’s so bad.

The first sign of what kind of horror the reader is in for comes in the title: “Year 2017”. This makes me laugh–we’re only six years out from that now. When it was 1999 or 2000, that was forever away. The second thing is that it’s covered in edits, and yet, it’s clear that they were as effective as taking a cup of water and trying to empty the sea.

What follows is all I could bear to type up of it.

It was the late December of the year 2017 in southmost New Mexico. Nearly sixteen years ago, on January 1 of 2002, a scientist established contact with the wolves, who were more intelligent than anyone had suspected. On the same day, a girl was born in a nearby town, and a boy was born on the other side of the same town at exactly the same moment. Neither of them knew.

All you need to know—the entire plot—is inherent in those four sentences. It was super simple: the girl was Lia, the boy was Rowan. Their wolves were Icefall and Shay, respectively. On one level I am so totally humiliated by this. I didn’t understand how to tell a story. How to start and where to go.

But I was learning, moment by moment. It wasn’t a great piece of fiction, but by the end there were glimpses of good dialog and not entirely one-dimensional characters. Later, I would take the plot and gently transpose it onto a different setting, and removed the wolves, and set it in motion to see what would happen.

The best thing, really, is that I didn’t realize it was bad, and no one told me–so I was never discouraged, as a young writer, from doing what I liked, as terrible as it might be. By the time I met and started writing with Melissa, the dearest of all my most darling friends, I was visibly better—and that wasn’t much more than a few months after I began. There’s never a steeper learning curve than the first one, yeah?

Melissa and I were writing these parallel narratives during seventh and eighth grade; totally different characters and plots, but similar in pacing and content. I don’t remember much about hers, but this is mine. It’s called Child of the Dragon; it’s a good 123 pages handwritten. I’m rereading it now, and there are some moments that delight me for the promise they show, and some that make me laugh out loud because they are so very silly. Also, I apparently really liked the word “truly”.

This is also where I started using in media res.

April groaned, and lifted the heavy pail of water, arms straining. She truly hated this job sometimes.

“Need some help, Rill?” Mikel grinned at her, and took one of the bucket’s handles. “Does the mistress even know you can’t lift one of these without my help?”

She shook her head, honey-colored hair just brushing her shoulders. Her eyes flicked to Mikel’s face through her lashes, and he noted with amusement that they were emerald green today. Yesterday they were sky blue, the day before, lilac. The whole village talked about her eyes, saying servants, especially scullery maids, should not be so noticeable, and spreading rumors. Mikel was willing to admit he’d never seen eyes like hers before, but he could not accept the idea the April was anything more than human. Surely a girl with magic or the blood of dragons or demons would not submit to hauling water and scrubbing floors. He had known her most of his life, and though she seemed to sometimes have a flash of wisdom beyond her words, she was in most respects a normal sixteen year old girl.

I love being able to see that I was learning. I don’t write fiction these days anymore, and that’s too bad—it doesn’t come as easy anymore. I’d like to try writing more fiction; I have ideas, and some excellent characters living behind my eyes. I want to let them help me write their stories down.

I think if I were to write that first story again, just the first few sentences, it would be almost unrecognizable. I think there would be the same undertone, the same conflict, maybe even still the same animals prowling through it. Lia becomes a zookeeper’s daughter or a circus-act kid, or, making her older, a conservation advocate—and always a runaway from something; Rowan remains what he is, a loner, solitary and intense and moving steadily away from everything until something brings him up short.

Or maybe he’s a girl now.

It’s an old story, and everyone tells it. But that doesn’t mean there’s not still a way to come at it fresh and vibrant and laughing with glee with the fun of it.

It’s just finding that way again—hunting out that little deertrack leading into deeper woods—that’s hard.

 

(Truly.)

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