A House Made of Stories

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When you love books as much as I do, you eventually start making lists: books to read in each season, book characters you’d be friends with, book places you would visit if you could, and the order in which you would visit them, and the book methods of conveyance you would take to get there…

Recently I imagined, if I could build a house, what book rooms I would put inside it, to live in. Would I rather have Mr. Norrell’s library, or Celia Bowen’s circus tent? The Gryfifindor common room, or Sara Crewe’s school bedroom from A Little Princess? My (sort of) final list is below, and I’d love to hear what rooms you’d build your own house with!

  • Bilbo’s kitchen (and larders) from The Hobbit
  • The Gryffindor common room from Harry Potter
  • Mr. Norrell’s library, from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
  • Quentin’s Brakebills bedroom, from The Magicians
  • The Gothic Bathroom from Little, Big
  • The secret garden from The Secret Garden
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My Top Three New York Bookstores

I’ve spent my first month in New York getting to know the city, and what better way than by visiting every bookstore in every Manhattan neighborhood? Here’s a quick list of my top three, with directions in case you want to visit, too!

1. The Strand

Not just a tourist attraction (Though be warned, they’re there. In droves. Dawdling in the middle of the aisles, blocking you in…), The Strand is probably my favorite New York bookstore. The Strand boasts “18 miles of books,” and features tall, maze-like shelving filling four large floors. They sell both new and used fiction, nonfiction, classics, children’s books, and rare books, plus there are carts of $1 – $3 books outside. In fact, there are so many shelves, that after three visits, I’m still not sure where everything is located. It’s the kind of bookstore you can get lost in for hours.

My favorite part of The Strand is their huge rare book room located on the third floor (and accessible only by the elevator). Unlike most collections of rare books, most of theirs are out in the open, letting curious browsers like me actually pick the books up and flip through them. Though there are books in there that can run into the thousands, there are also a lot of great finds under $50.

The Strand also has a really nice website, where you can reserve books, or order them and have them shipped to you.

The Strand is located in East Village, right by Union Square, at the corner of E. 12th Street and Broadway.

Visit The Strand

2. Argosy Books

Argosy claims to be New York’s oldest independent bookstore, and they’re the kind of cozy, cluttered, refined bookstore that old book lovers dream of, the kind with lots of dark wood and tall shelves and desks piled high with books to rebind. The kind that smells like old paper and leather. Argosy specializes in old and rare books, maps, and prints, though they have a basement of cheap, modern used books as well. The first floor is a warren of old and unusual (but mostly affordable) fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, and prints, while an ancient elevator (the kind that actually has an operator!) will bring you up to the print and map floor or the rare book room. While their rare book room is truly amazing, be warned that you’ll have to take up a curmudgeonly employee with you, and there is nothing you can afford up there. Nothing. Not a thing.

Argosy is located in Midtown, on E. 59th Street between Park Avenue and Lexington.

Visit Argosy

3. Books of Wonder

Yeah, it’s a children’s bookstore. And yeah, I got some weird looks in there. But this is probably the single most magical bookstore in all of New York, so who cares? Books of Wonder sells new, used, and rare children’s and teen’s fiction (along with some things I’d consider adult fiction, like The Lord of the Rings and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), as well as original and print copies of children’s book illustrations.

The decorations and displays are beautiful and magical, there are two walls of gorgeous, framed original illustrations for books such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Maurice Sendak classics, there’s a full wall of rare books both affordable and not (I bought a copy of the original Stardust signed by both Gaiman and Vess for only $100), and the staff is helpful and friendly. Plus, there’s cupcakes.

My only gripe with Books of Wonder is that all their rare books (even the affordable ones) are locked up, and they’re the kind of books which I could spend hours flipping through and looking at the illustrations.

Books of Wonder is located in the Flatiron District, on W. 18th Street, between The Avenue of the Americas and 5th Avenue.

Visit Books of Wonder

Magicians

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King, in preparation for starting his newly-released The Magician’s Land. I have ridiculous love for these books, front to back and inside and out, but there was one section from The Magician King that really stood out to me. Replace “magic” with “poetry,” or “writing,” and you’d get a pretty good idea of how I feel about writing.

 

“Quentin wondered what he would do if magic went away. He didn’t know how he would live in that world… Everything would simply be what it was and nothing else. All there would be was what you could see. What you felt and thought, all the desire and longing in your heart and mind, would count for nothing. With magic you could make those feelings real. They could change the world. Without it they would be stuck inside of you forever, figments of your own imagination.”

 

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A Quote from “The Midnight Witch,” by Paula Brackston

“To show what cannot be seen, one must first represent what can be seen.”

Though it’s no great work of literary genius, this quote from the novel really stood out to me. I’m always struggling in my writing with how to represent those “big ideas,” and this quote will serve as a great reminder that the only way to show those big things you can’t see, hear, or feel, is by writing about what you can.

A Quote from Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”

I am currently reading Mark Helprin’s novel “Winter’s Tale,” and loving every single word. I can’t believe I’ve never discovered this book before. A love letter to New York City, to Northern winters, and to writing itself, every paragraph is magical and surprising. And the writing! Sentences so beautiful they make me cry. Really. Pick this book up.

Yesterday, somewhere in the middle of a paragraph about the beauty of skyscrapers and the philosophy of newspaper magnates, I came across this quote. It’s yet another one that I think I need to print out and hang above my writing desk.

Images and people have to be strong enough to stand by themselves. For when they do, they have the capacity and power to be interlinked, and to serve.

That’s what I want to be, what I want my writing to be. To be strong enough to stand by itself, to serve.

Photo Credit: Raceytay

Photo Credit: Raceytay

What the Living Do

My favorite book of poetry is probably Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” Last semester, I had the privilege of studying the book as part of my poetry writing workshop. “What the Living Do” was first published in 1998, towards the end of the AIDS epidemic. The first half of the book of poems is focused largely on Marie’s childhood and her experiences growing up in an abusive family, while the second half focuses on her brother’s struggle against AIDS and his eventual death. The themes of love and loss play a role in almost all of her poems.

Marie writes in very long lines, often paired into couplets. The combination of her long lines and the progressive arrangement of her poems makes “What the Living Do” read almost like  prose. It would probably be a good cross-over book for someone who enjoys novels but has difficulties with poetry. Marie usually writes in the first person, and sometimes uses irony, dark humor, or sarcasm to keep her poems from becoming too depressing. She always tackles issues head-on, and is brutally honest about herself and others. I especially like her honesty in the poem “The Memorial,” about a memorial service for a dead friend: “I didn’t think: This is Billy’s bones and flesh… I thought: Michael is taking charge when Billy said I was in charge of the ashes.” Isn’t that just how we humans are?

“What the Living Do” is full of emotion, and was difficult for me to read without crying. I was especially stunned and saddened by the last line of the poem “One of the Last Days,” which recounts a conversation between Marie and her dying brother. Marie tells her brother how much she loves him, as much as he loves his partner, and he sits up in bed and smiles quietly and says “Maybe you’d better start looking for somebody else.”

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary

One of my favorite stories has always been Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.” Although it’s been years and years since I’ve seen the movie, I reread my copy of the book almost every year. I love the beautiful descriptions of the gardens and Misselthwaite Manor, and stubborn little Mary and spoiled Collin and especially Dickon, with his wide smile and his animal friends. Yet beneath the roses and the sunshine and Jump the fox, there’s a much darker narrative thread moving, one of death and fear and broken relationships, and a house with “one hundred rooms, all locked up.” And, of course, the Magic, of which Collin becomes Grand Master.

Every time I close the book, I wonder whatever became of the three friends at its center. Did Mary grow up to marry her cousin Collin? Did they become Lord and Lady of Misselthwaite Manor? Was Collin’s miraculous recovery real, or would he be a cripple for the rest of his life? And what about Dickon – dear, sweet Dickon, who was several steps under the others in the class structure, and would have been just the age for conscription during World War I – What happened to him, and his relationship with Mary?

After finishing “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells,” a collection of “gaslamp fantasy” edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, I was finally inspired to sit down and begin writing my own version of the story of Mary, Collin, and Dickon, all grown up. I’d like to include the first scene here. For those of you who know the story, is my continuation of it realistic and satisfying? And for those of you who don’t, how much of the back story can you guess from this one scene?

 

Mistress Mary

                In the spring of 1918, Dickon came home from the Western Front. Mary froze at the upstairs parlor window, one hand on her chest, when she saw him coming up the long drive, his shoulders slumped under his bright thatch of red hair. She flew down the wide stairway and out of the front door without waiting for the maid to open it, her lacy skirts caught up in her fists and her newly-bobbed blonde hair standing out in a halo around her face in the early April sunlight. She threw her arms around his shoulders, causing him to drop the patched carpet bag he was carrying, as Collin stepped out of the front door and started down the drive towards them, leaning heavily on his mahogany cane.

“Collin! He’s come home,” Mary called up the drive. “He’s really come home!”

Dickon had first stopped by the cottage in the village where he had grown up, to see his mother Mrs. Sowerby, and  Martha and her Tom and all the young ones. But the line that kept him tethered to Misselthwaite Manor had grown more and more taunt the closer he’d come to home, until he’d been unable to resist its pull. His reunion with its Lord and Lady had seemed, just an hour ago, like a bright, unimaginable dream, but the head gardener’s cottage, which had been his since old Ben had died seven years back, and the hedges of roses and cool groves of fruit trees he had tended, had been firm and secure in his mind.

Collin’s cane made a decisive “tock” on the cobblestones as he stopped beside Mary and Dickon. Collin trembled in the unseasonal heat as he took in the new stoop to Dickon’s shoulders, the sharp edges of his cheekbones under his map of freckles, the emptiness inside his deep blue eyes. Dickon stumbled out of Mary’s embrace, and Mary stepped back from him, twisting her skirts in her long white hands.

“Lord Craven,” Dickon ducked his head like an under-servant, his blank gaze unchanged. “Lady Craven,” Dickon nodded to Mary.

“Oh, Dickon!” Mary gave a strange little laugh, almost like a sob. “Don’t be silly. Have I changed so much in four years? You’ll call me Mary as you always have!”

“Dickon,” Collin reached out to shake his calloused hand, deciding against a brotherly pat on the back. Collin noticed with cool relief the entire absence of any unnatural affection he’d once held for this rustic man-child, back when they were three children in their hidden bit of garden, opening to the first flutters of secrets they’d had no business exploring, with the roses hedging them in, and old Ben on his ladder, peeking over the wall. Back when the Magic had come when he’d called. Easy as breathing. Easy as laying down his cane to walk. The madness that had overtaken them all, those few years, and the grueling hours of research and practice that were Collin’s life now, had so little in common that calling them by the same name seemed an untruth.

“I suppose you’ve been to see Martha, and Tom, and your mother – she’s well?” Mary was saying. “And our children! You’ll want to meet the children, surely!”

At a third story window, the indistinct faces of two small children stared down at the meeting on the drive. Dickon thought he caught a glimpse of light red hair, haloed, as Mary’s was, in a sudden ray of sunlight, before the nursemaid appeared to usher the two curious faces away.

Collin frowned. “Really, dear, I don’t think that’s necessary just yet. I’m sure Dickon would much rather rest a while after his travels.” He turned to Dickon. “Your post as head gardener has been reserved for you, of course. Mary would have allowed nothing else.” He gave a tight-lipped smile. Mary’s face was as white as her dress in the sunlight.  “But we hired an older man from the village to carry on while you were gone. I’ll allow him to stay on a few days more, while you settle into your duties again.”

Collin fished in his pockets for the key ring he carried, pulling it out to remove one small rusted skeleton key, which he handed to Dickon. Dickon squinted at it, as if unsure what it was for.

“It’s the key to your cottage,” Collin explained. “We kept it locked up for you, the way you left it. No one’s been in all these four years.” He cleared his throat and drew his shoulders up with an effort, and smiled. “Go on now, and get settled in. Get some rest.”

“I am,” Dickon said, still staring in wonder at the small key, “Very tired.”

A Wider View – A Review of “Out of Oz” by Gregory Maguire

“We crave finality… not seeing that this, too, the tying up of all loose ends in the last chapter, is only a storytelling ruse. The device runs contrary to experience, wouldn’t you say? Time never simplifies – it unravels and complicates. Guilty parties show up everywhere. The plot does nothing but thicken.” – Michelle de Kretser

With this quote, Gregory Maguire introduces his final book in the Wicked Years series: “Out of Oz.” I was struck by the truth of it, and, after finishing the novel, even more so by how appropriate it is to introduce “Out of Oz.” In the final book of the series, Maguire employs his usual snarl of plot-weaving up to the very last page, leaving his story, and Oz, continuing past the written page and into forever. While I applaud Gregory Maguire for fore-going traditional tying-up-of-loose-ends for a more realistic storytelling style, as a reader, there was so much I was left wondering!

I loved Rain’s (Liir’s daughter’s) long, twisting road to becoming who she truly is, her uncertainty with her parents, and her tangled budding romance with Osma. But all those questions I had left at the end! Would Liir ever do magic again? Would Dorthey ever make it home to America a second time, and find love and companionship there? What really happened to Elphaba? Is she dead or alive? Is Rain her second coming? And who was Mother Yackle, really? Or the sorceress who both cared for and enslaved Osma? Would Rain and Osma be able to make their relationship work, now that Osma has become a girl again?

At the end of the novel, Maguire leaves young Rain, green as grass now, hanging over the ocean on Elphaba broom, staring steadily at the edge of the world, prompting the biggest question of all. Will she even make it back home alive? Or, as is suggested by the title and by imagery throughout the book, will she leave Oz forever to explore other worlds?

Reading Faulkner

My Southern Literature class just finished reading As I Lay Dying. It was the first Faulkner novel I’ve read (I know, I know, feel free to crucify me). I got so frustrated with the stream-of-consciousness writing style during the first half of the novel that I came really close to giving up on it. I’m so, so glad I didn’t. The more I read, the more I came to see how beautiful Faulkner’s description and language really is, how heart-breakingly human (more human than reality) his characters are. My favorite character was Jewel – I loved the story of how he worked at night in secret to buy his horse. By the end of the novel, I was crying.

At the same time, for my poetry writing class I’m reading Marie Howe’s What the Living Do (more on this later). As I read through her lovely book of poems, I came across one titled “Faulkner,” which pretty accurately sums up everything I felt while reading As I Lay Dying, while also adding an new layer of meaning to the novel.

Faulkner
by Marie Howe

During the last two weeks of John’s life, Joe was reading
As I Lay Dying for his English class. He had to give an oral report,

and John kept asking me to read it. You’re an English teacher, he said,
you know what they want. OK, I said. But the book drifted

from the kitchen to the bedside table to the pillows of the living room couch.
What’s it about? I asked Joe, late one night.

when we were making peanut butter sandwiches. But I didn’t understand
the story as he told it: the good brothers from the bad brothers,

who was the mother’s favorite, really? And who was building the coffin,
banging and banging the nails?

The afternoon John died, I picked it up, waiting for the food from the aunts,
and the cousins. I tried to read it that night before I fell asleep

and stopped. I don’t know what finally happened.
Caddy smelled of trees, I kept thinking through those days and nights

of the wake and funeral. But that was another book, wasn’t it?
That was the idiot brother talking.

Book Review – Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Summer and Bird, a children’s novel by Katherine Catmull. Summer and Bird is the story of two sisters who are pulled into the world of Down, the kingdom of the birds, where they must confront the secrets of their mother’s past and their own future. If you’ve read The Conference of Birds by Peter Sis, Catmull pulls a lot on the myth Sis illustrates here.

I have to admit, it was the cover that made me pick this one up. The book is beautifully designed, with bird-patterned end papers and a bird design on each of the chapter title pages. I still occasionally read children’s novels, if they’re something really special, and I could tell right away that this one was special.

The book is even more beautifully written – a well-crafted, heart-breaking modern fairy tale that is as much about the meanings of love, family, home, and sacrifice as it is about beauty and magic. The story of Summer and Bird’s family, one whose roots, Catmull writes, “teachers have heard far too often,” is the story of a family who clearly loves one another, yet finds themselves drawn apart and unable to mend. Despite their parents’ broken relationship and their own hardships in the world of Down, Summer and Bird are able to courageously join together to bring the birds of Down to their home.

This is a book I’ve been thinking about ever since I put it down. It had me crying at several points in the novel, and after finishing Summer and Bird’s story,  I find myself paying more attention to the magic of life and love. I would highly recommend this novel for fans (young and old) of fairy tales and writers such as Kate Dicamillo.

Summer and Bird on Barnes and Noble’s website: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/summer-bird-katherine-catmull/1109230112?ean=9780525953463

And on Amazon:http://www.amazon.com/Summer-Bird-Katherine-Catmull/dp/0525953469/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362945525&sr=8-1&keywords=summer+and+bird