It’s been a while, I know.
Originally, I wanted to post about forthcoming book events that I had (there was a signing back in March, and a talk at my alma mater), but in preparing myself for those I neglected to actually write anything. Then I thought I might post a reflection on the events, a ‘thanks’ to everyone who came out and showed their love and support and helped the events to actually happen, but time slid away from me again there. But enough of my excuses.
It’s May. Spring is fully under way, and my semester is at a close. I’m on the precipice of being able to spend quiet days at my desk with the window open and a cup of tea (or beer, depending on the time of day) as I write. Very much looking forward to that.
The title of this post isn’t just a commentary on how long I’ve been silent. Amid everything else, I’ve been diligently working on the reading challenge that I posted on my Facebook page back in January (12 of 23 done already), and one of the categories is “A book from your childhood.” I decided to knock this off the list by grabbing Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, which always tops my list of favorites, but which I hadn’t read since middle school. My copy is an old paperback; the cover is worn and white around the edges, the spine has a number of heavy creases in it, and the first few pages are in serious danger of falling out. It’s a book that’s clearly well-loved, and was read and reread and skimmed through over and over long before I picked it up a few weeks ago.
I was expecting a strong nostalgia factor from the experience, but I was unprepared for the surge of feeling that this book provoked in me. I won’t resort to cliches and claim that it made me feel like a kid again, because that’s not quite accurate. Rereading the novel provided me instead with a profound clarity; as I revisited the world of daemons and Dust, I was--as an adult with a full understanding of the philosophical ideas that Pullman is presenting--able to see how my own nascent adolescence had been impacted by his words. Pullman’s trilogy is a song of praise to free will, free thought, and free expression, a manifesto to peace and knowledge and freedom and the idea that no one, be they man or angel, has the right to impose his will on anyone else. These ideas spoke to me as a child, and in ways that I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time, but they wormed their way into my brain and stayed there, working their magic.
I can’t worship Pullman as a hero; based on everything that I’ve read by and about him, I think the thought of someone idolizing him would irritate him. It flies in the face of everything he’s expressing in His Dark Materials. If I ever have the good fortune to meet him in person, all I can do is shake his hand and thank him. No worship, no adoration, just respect and appreciation. I think he’d approve of that.
I like to believe (or perhaps ‘hope’ is more accurate) that everyone has a book that’s had a profound impact on them, even if, like me, they can only appreciate it in hindsight. If, as you were reading this, something sprang to mind immediately, leave a comment and let me know. I’m always looking for book recommendations.
I’ve had the great fortune to come face-to-face with many of the contemporary creative minds that I admire: I met Brian Jacques at a book signing when I was thirteen, Shara McCallum held a poetry reading at Juniata when I was a student there, I had a drink with Sir Terry Pratchett while I was pursuing my Master’s (he was a guest lecturer in my program), and last year I attended a talk by Neil Gaiman. On Friday night, thanks to the generosity of my aunt and uncle, my cousin and I attended a screening of Blazing Saddles, which was followed by a live Q&A with Mel Brooks himself.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from seeing Brooks in person. It’s hard to know what to expect from a man whose career has been defined by writing and portraying zany characters (Peter Sellers, for instance, claimed that he had no identity outside of his characters, and Gene Wilder often insisted that he wasn’t funny). What I got was two hours of storytelling and musing from a man who was energetic, enthusiastic, witty, and honest. It didn’t feel like a performance--even in an auditorium of hundreds, it felt like an ordinary conversation. He was simply himself, without pretense. More than once, he chided himself for having said something without thinking, and sternly told his audience that his comments were not to leave the theater--”if anybody asks, just say, ‘he was good’” was the repeated plea.
In a recent lecture, I told my students that one of Shakespeare’s most appealing aspects is his ability to seamlessly blend the high with the low; his plays are filled with wordplay, witticisms, and references to classical literature and myth, but also rife with double entendre and toilet humor. Much the same can be said about Brooks. True, Shakespeare’s work covers a greater range of genre and form, but part of the enduring appeal of Brooks’s work is the presence of both high and low content. It’s why Max Bialystock can slap Leo Bloom one moment and reference Dostoyevsky the next. It’s why Blazing Saddles can contain a lengthy farting sequence and still provide provocative commentary on racism. Shakespeare used his plays to express universal human experiences, and remind audiences that a king is no less susceptible to ruin than a fool, a fairy queen no more immune to love than a mortal. Brooks reminds his audiences that no one should be immune to parody, and that joy and laughter can always triumph over racism, oppression, and hate. Even Adolf Hitler, a universal figure of the worst parts of mankind, can be made an object of laughter.
I wouldn’t consider my own work satire. I labor too long over my words to be truly funny. But Brooks’s worldview has definitely impacted my own. While his intent in lampooning Hitler was to bring the dictator down, to remove the fear and hate that his name still inspires and replace it with laughter, his parodies are, for the most part, born out of love. His love of what he called “dopey Westerns” during the Q&A allowed him to make Blazing Saddles. His reverence for Hitchcock gave direct rise to High Anxiety. His films show that it is indeed possible to have fun with and even criticize something while still respecting it. It’s that attitude that allowed me to write Morningstar Ascendant, and to a greater extent led to the project that I’m currently working on (more on that another time), and I think it’s an attitude that, like his films and like the man himself, serve only to brighten the world.
It is, indeed, good to be the king. Long may he reign.
P.S .- Incidentally, if anyone knows how I can track down Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Susan Cooper, or Guillermo del Toro, do let me know.
This isn’t a real blog post. I’d say it’s a demi-post at best. I just felt the need to get up on my soapbox for a moment. It seems to be the day for that.
I’m not an overtly political person. I’ve been a proud Independent since the day I turned eighteen, and that’s not about to change. People often mistake my lack of party identification or my reluctance to discuss politics as signs of apathy, when in fact they’re quite the opposite. I’m extremely passionate about voting and the democratic process, which is why I do my utmost to make myself informed and uninfluenced by party bias when I step into the voting booth. Voting is the ultimate expression of democratic freedom, and I get a bit riled up when people a) insist that voting doesn’t matter, b) refuse to vote in some misguided protest attempt, and/or c) vote blindly along party lines (my dislike of binaries is a whole separate issue, and will likely be the subject of another post). Men fought and died to establish this right for the people of this country, a right for which, over the last 200+ years, additional groups have fought and died to extend to each and every citizen equally.
It should never be taken lightly.
Whoever you end up voting for, I sincerely hope that you vote. Obviously, since I voted myself, I have a preference on which candidates prevail in their respective races, but I cannot begrudge my fellow citizens for choosing differently from myself. Democracy entitles each of us to our opinion, after all, and voting is how we express those opinions. My only hope is that you did not take this freedom lightly, and that you weighed and considered your options carefully before casting your ballot (not just for president, but for all offices up for election, because all of them matter).
For my part, I strode into that church basement in a Wonder Woman t-shirt (red, white, and blue) with a literary anthology under my arm (just in case of a line), and, while I didn’t get a sticker, I walked out feeling proud that I had participated in the third presidential election of my adult life. I went home and poured a celebratory beer, because today I was an active participant in the forging of history. True, I am but a single vote amid millions, and it is unlikely that a single vote will make any difference, but it takes those single vote to make those millions. You know, ‘E pluribus unum’ and all that jazz.
Cheers, America. Happy voting.
Halloween fast approaches, and that means that everyone’s tastes get, if only briefly, a bit more macabre. While I by no means restrict my enjoyment of the dark and the gloomy to this single month, I always welcome October with open arms, because for that all-too-brief period, the world as a whole joins me in my ghoulish revelry.
I love horror, even if I’m not particularly gifted at writing it. I’m something of a snob where it’s concerned, and draw a very clear line between the good and bad within the genre. Personally, I like horror that unsettles me, stories that cause me, afterwards, to move past a shadowy doorway just a bit faster, or take that glance behind me even when I know I’m alone.
Much of the horror that I like operates on a principle that Stephen King describes in his nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. King claims that the most terrifying image is the closed door, because the human imagination creates a thousand unspeakable horrors lurking just on the other side, most of which are more terrible than whatever is actually there. The best fear lies in not knowing, in the potential for, quite literally, any monstrosity imaginable, and good horror preys upon this, forcing its audience to wait in dread anticipation of what will happen next.
This idea of dread anticipation fits nicely into the origins of the holiday. The Druidic festival of Samhain (read: SAH-win) marked the start of the “dark” half of the calendar; that is, the period from late fall to early spring when greenery (and therefore food) was scarce. The festival was marked with eating, drinking, and dancing in the light of massive bonfires, a way of celebrating the end of another successful harvest season while simultaneously getting in a last hurrah, just in case winter proved fatal. It was also considered the time where the boundaries between the human and mystical realms were at their thinnest, hence why we associate October with ghosts and goblins. Thus the approaching dark marked by Samhain is both natural and supernatural, at once the oncoming cold of winter and the potential menace of the otherworldly, both the threat of the unquiet dead and the knowledge that nature might cause you to join their ranks.
If you want to observe the season, I have recommendations in droves. I’ve thrown together a Goodreads shelf of suggested readings, and dug out and updated the “horror movie curriculum” I made for a friend back in college. Browse them both, and feel free to suggest any additions to either.
Though it seems to have abated (at least for the time being), I was very glad to see that October started with several straight days of damp, grey skies. There’s no better weather than a nice autumn rain. Summer rains aren’t the same; they tend to sweep in out of nowhere, bringing torrential rain for short windows of time, or else they manifest as black and looming thunderstorms. An autumn rain endures. It can last for days. Even if the rain isn’t falling every moment, the sky is a uniform grey and the air is thick with damp. If you’re lucky, there’s even a light fog every now and then.
I like the rain. I do some of my best writing when it’s overcast and wet. My desk is nicely situated next to a window that overlooks the small courtyard behind my building. On rainy days, I’m often found at that desk, window open, wrapped in a sweater, listening to the sound of the raindrops as I sip my tea and type merrily away. I can’t really explain why it tends to happen that way; it’s not as if the rain keeps me inside or prevents me from doing other activities.
Last autumn it was my ritual to go for walks during dark, rainy nights. There’s a wonderful pub up the street from where I live, dimly-lit with a big, old wooden bar and wall hangings that would make the Addams Family proud. When a night started to look particularly dark and damp, I’d grab whatever I was reading at the moment, take up my umbrella, and make the five-minute trek up the rainy hill, past the big old Victorian houses, and into the pub, where I’d spend hours in the semi-darkness with my book and a few beers.
Those were always nice, relaxing evenings. Hopefully October will afford me plenty of opportunities to have those evenings again.
It’s Banned Books Week, which is something that I always like to observe. It’s hard not to get behind an event that describes itself as a celebration of “the freedom to read,” since that freedom has been the very foundation upon which I've built my life and career. For those that might not be aware, every year, the ALA registers thousands upon thousands of complaints from across the country, all from people who take objection to the fact that certain books are being taught in school, or made available in libraries, or even that they exist at all.
It’s very important to note that these books are not banned and/or challenged because they are bad books (indeed, there are a great number among them that are considered “classics,” like The Great Gatsby) or because they’re particularly seditious in any way, but because they promote ideas that, according to some, should not be promoted. These range from claims that works are “sexually explicit” or “anti-family” to the delightfully nebulous “unsuitable for age group.” There are always the predictable offenders (like Harry Potter, for example, because of its “satanic themes"), but some of the entries are downright laughable.
For instance, Captain Underpants was the 13th most challenged book in the entire decade of the 00s. Sure, it’s full of crude humor and slapstick violence, but the same could be said about The Canterbury Tales or any of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Banning and challenging is not limited to contemporary fiction. Established literary works such as The Lord of the Rings and Catch-22 have made the list over the years, and, in 2015, coming in at number six was the Bible Itself, the cornerstone of much of Western literature and thought. Many of the authors I enjoy and respect have appeared at least once, including Rowling, Pullman, and Hemingway, just to name a few. Take a look at the list on the ALA website; you might be surprised by some of the entries.
Receiving a ban or challenge seems to me like a mark of honor, of having ‘made it’ as an author. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Churchill:
“You have enemies? Good! It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Do yourself a favor and read a banned book, even if it’s not this week.