Thursday, October 27, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes!

Happy Almost-Halloween! Truly, Halloween is my favorite holiday, so in the spirit of all that is spooky and eerie and slightly creepy, let’s talk about one of my other favorites.

I have a thing for witches: Wicked Witches (either cardinal point on the compass will do), White Witches, Macbeth’s witches (toil and trouble bubbling away), witches from popular culture (Samantha, how I wish I could twitch my nose like you), witches from movies (yes, even when they shack up with Jack Nicholson’s devil), Salem’s witches (pretty sure I need a trip to Salem at some point in my life), witches who lure children into their candy houses, witches who can make poisoned apples, and most of all, witches in books. I think it is all about the accessories -- black hats, black cats, black pointy boots -- I am almost certain I could really rock the witch look. Not to mention, witches span generations -- you can be a young, hip witch, or an old crone -- no need to change your look as you age.

So, where did this fascination come from? I am really not sure, but as far back as I can remember, I have loved witches.

When I was little, I had a series of books by Patricia Coombs about a little witch named Dorrie and her black cat, Gink (I always feel like I have won a prize when the witch also gets to have a black cat). They had the most wonderful illustrations, but Dorrie’s  magic was always just a little off. It didn’t matter to me -- I wanted to be just like Dorrie. I remember pretending to be her and even making a mess of my room based on those illustrations. What can I say, I was an only child until I was twelve. ;)

After Dorrie, I read The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. Most vivid in my mind was the description of a school for witches. Coupled with Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton which had a correspondence school for witchcraft, The Little Broomstick fueled my imagination, and I spent hours pretending I ran a school for witchcraft. Somewhere in the boxes of my childhood, I still have the class schedules, newsletters, and sheets of spells I created -- all on a dot-matrix printer.

There was The Witches by Roald Dahl -- oh, how I loved that book even if the witches were the antagonists.

As I have gotten older, I still seek out books about witches.

There is an entire pantheon of young adult novels featuring witches.

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins (Another school for witches is the setting of this book.)

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong (I promise you, you will never look at werewolves the same way again.)
My personal favorite in the young adult genre: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. If Tennessee Williams had written a supernatural story set in a small South Carolina town, this would have been it. Dripping with atmosphere and Spanish Moss, this book is truly a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction.
Then, there are the more serious adult books about witches which have been equally entertaining.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe -- a dual storyline of the Salem witch trials and modern times with some real spell casting thrown in.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent -- another story of the Salem Witch Trials -- a little more historically based.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness -- a perfect romance featuring a witch and a green-eyed evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a vampire. Who knew DNA was so sexy?
For those times when chick lit needs a little bit of witchy librarian and a sexy watcher, there is A Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft by Mindy Klasky. Who could resist that cover? I certainly couldn’t. Plus, there is a black cat. Bonus points!
However, I have saved the best of the best for last. The one book about witches that I measure all other books about witches by. The one witch book that has earned a coveted place on my Top Ten Books I Have Read in My Lifetime. The one witch book that inspired an entire trip.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice.
I read it for the first time in April, 1991, and it haunted my dreams the entire time I read it. Judging by the dates when I read it, I should have been studying for my AP European exam (don’t worry, I did fine on it), but instead this book, my first Anne Rice book, held me in its grip and did not let go until I finished it. To this day, I can conjure up the images elicited in the book -- confederate jasmine blooming in an overgrown garden on a twilit night. Sigh.

Set in New Orleans, it traces a family known as the Mayfair Witches from their very beginnings in England to the present day. The house they inhabit is as much a character as the people themselves, and Anne Rice actually lived in it -- 1239 First Street. When I discovered that it was a real house, I knew I needed to visit it. In April of 2004, my husband, Charles, and I went to New Orleans. Of course, we had to go see the house. Imagine my surprise to find it was for sale. Unfortunately, the 3.75 million dollars Anne Rice was asking for it was a bit too much, but that didn’t stop me from taking a bunch of pictures.

 And there you have it -- your literary Halloween treat. Happy Halloween!

Now I am off to cuddle with my own black cat, Bagheera.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You Can Never Replace...

Like so many others, my mother shaped my reading. She didn’t just teach me to read, she taught me so many other things…

She taught me to take care of books. No folding corners to mark a place. No creasing the spines of paperbacks. No laying a hardcover open on the table.

She taught me to love books. She placed into my hands not just my first books, but some of my favorite books.

She taught me that no matter what I was interested in, there was a book about it out there.

She taught me the sheer joy of walking into a bookstore or a library and being assaulted by the sight and smell of so many books.

She taught me that sharing one’s delight in a book could be just as enjoyable as reading it by oneself. Actually she may have wished she hadn’t done that since I would frequently call her to read funny bits out of books -- I can still hear her saying, “Well, I won’t need to read it now,” and my response, “Oh, no, there is so much more.”

My mother died August 25.

It was as horrible as it was unexpected.

Every Saturday night we would eat at my parents’ house, and we would sit on the couch and chat. In recent years I would on occasion say, “You better just plan on living to be 100 because I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Sadly now I know.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of May, and after a masectomy, she began her first round of chemotherapy on July 29. On August 6 she was admitted to the hospital with severe abdominal cramps -- an infection had entered her intestine and because of the chemo, her body had no white blood cells to fight it. The next day she had a heart attack and her body began to go into septic shock and her organ systems failed. She slipped away from us, leaving a gaping hole where she once was.

The first day in the hospital, my dad asked me to go to the house to take care of the dogs. The coffee table was a repository of my mom’s life. She rarely cleaned it off, and we would tease her about the accumulation of things on it. That day, sitting there was Mom’s new copy of Gone with the Wind. She had bought it just a couple of weeks before when we went to the Atlanta History Center to see an exhibit on Margaret Mitchell and the original manuscript of the novel.

Of course I already had several copies of GWTW -- one of my favorite books of all-time -- but I found myself picking this copy up and beginning to read it.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…”

I hadn’t read it since high school.

I only read a little bit of it while my mom was in the hospital. Instead, I sat by her bedside day after day and talked to her. She was completely sedated, and I have no idea if she could even hear me while I prattled on about On the Banks of Plum Creek.

When she died, I returned to GWTW. I made that conscious decision because if Scarlett could get through her mother’s death maybe, just maybe, I could get through my mother’s. It was comfort reading plain and simple and while I read my mother’s copy, I wished I had Scarlett’s mourning to wear. Black seemed the only appropriate color at the time.

There is a book called The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen where one of the characters always finds books when she most needs them. Those books are actual characters with personalities. At the time, I found it a delightful idea -- after all, who hasn’t felt like certain books just appear when you most need them?

Never have I believed that more than in the weeks since my mother’s death.

I can almost picture the books, wherever books may reside waiting to be called forth, jostling for position.

“It’s my turn!”

“No, it’s mine!”

Because, believe it or not, every single book I have read since August 25 has had a dead parent in it.

I didn’t go looking for them.

It’s as if they have found me.

And they, knowing my personality, obviously, didn’t let on they are about a parent dying to begin with. It’s October, and I have always believed in theming my books to the season. So, yes, all the books have been masquerading as supernatural stories.

There was The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch.

Hoodoo, haints, old Savannah society. Oh, and the main character’s mother has died precipitating the move to Savannah.

There was Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon.

Girl begins attending strange supernatural school in Maine. Oh, and her parents have died under mysterious circumstances.

And then there was The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore.
Girl moves to Alabama to live in crumbling Southern mansion and begins seeing ghosts. Why is she in Alabama? Yep, you guessed it -- her dad has died. Let’s face it -- nobody does death and grieving like the South -- except maybe the Irish or the Russians, but that’s a post for another time. :)

So, I thought I might escape the supernatural for a little bit and picked up Howards End by E.M. Forster. Can you guess?

Yes, there is a mother dying in it, too, with the quote, “You can never replace a mother.”

Thank you, my dear books, for reminding me I am not alone in my grief.

My Constant Companions

I am pretty sure some sage author once said something along the lines of “books have been my constant companions.” I turned to the Internet to find such a quote, but it is eluding me.

Suffice it to say, for me, books have been my constant companions. I can measure my life by what books I was reading at any given moment and any given year. Reaching down from the top shelf in my glassed-in bookcase, I can retrieve my journal of books I have read since 1984 and within moments I am transported back into years long gone.

In fact, I did such a thing this morning when I began musing on the quite-possibly-foolhardy notion of starting a blog about my experiences with books. Flipping through it, I discovered I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time soon after my youngest son was born. Prophetic? Quite possibly when you find out what he is like these days.

Books contain a certain magic, a certain smell, a certain “otherness” nothing else can compare to. Books, throughout my life, have offered escape, have offered solace, have offered a glimpse into worlds I wish I could inhabit. Books have made me cringe, given me nightmares, caused me to lie awake at night wondering what was outside my window. Books have patted me on the back and said, “You’re not the only one who feels that way.” Books have made me break into peals of laughter and have made me sob with heartbreak.

Because of the hold books seem to have on my life, it’s not enough to want to peddle them to my middle school students, my friends, and my family. So, here I am -- ready to share a bit about how my life is tangled up with books.

Welcome and Happy Reading!