Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Many Adventures

When flipping through the last few pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain, yesterday afternoon, and preparing to gather my thoughts for this blog post, I had to stop, and laugh for a moment. This book - this precious bundle of pages - is my favorite novel, of all time. Most people who learn this information are a little surprised, expecting something a little more... I don't know... romantic? British? More stereotypically fitting of the "classic" title? No. This book is my most beloved.

And I was laughing because I realized, that the first time I had ever read this book, was exactly a decade ago.

That's right. This little precocious reader first became acquainted with young Tom Sawyer at the age of eight, after having received his book as part of a Scholastic Book Orders (remember those?) bundle the year previously (it's companions being 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I have actually yet to read, and My Side of the Mountain, which I hold in the utmost esteem). Upon my first reading - over a cumulative week of quiet-learning periods at our Montessori summer school - I found myself unfamiliar with about half of the words inside of it... and yet, still safe and snug in the flow of the story. Despite having only just graduated the 2nd grade, I not only followed, but rejoiced in, Tom's escapades, and wound my way through all of St. Petersburg, Missouri, with him, Huck, Joe, and Becky, while my classmates sat coloring, doing math pages, or practicing for spelling tests.

Little did they know what sort of trouble I was up to. Safe inside the pages, I was far from quiet. I was fighting in the forests and in the streets, filling the cat up with painkiller, creeping into graveyards in the dead of night, paying witness to murder, lying, plotting and scheming, running away from home to become a pirate, getting trapped inside a labyrinthine cave, from which I might not ever escape... and none of my desk neighbors would ever know the difference, unless an unchecked laugh made its way through the silence of the class. And so, the daughter of a Sunday School teacher - who was not even allowed to walk through the grocery store alone - found herself a world filled with possibilities, opportunities for behaving badly, and no one could stop her.

I've read this book every summer since. My vocabulary and comprehension have grown, as is to be expected, and my tastes in literature have varied as well, and yet, to me, this book always remains the same.

This book has stuck with me throughout three different elementary schools, middle school, and high school, and has traveled with me to campgrounds, slumber parties, Sun River, and even church camps, over the course of the past ten years. I have read it EVERY SUMMER, without fail, and even a bunch of times interspersed throughout the years as well. Every crack in its spine, ridge in its covers, stain or rip on its pages, marks another trip inside the wonderful mind of Mark Twain, and another encounter with the mischievous champion of childhood, Tom Sawyer. I. Love. This. Book.

And yet, it made me cry yesterday - no, seriously cry - after I was done laughing. I realized that yes, this is a book I've been reading for the past ten summers, since I was eight... but that means, I'm eighteen. I'm going to college in less than a month. I'm growing up, shipping off, moving out... saying goodbye. I'm far passed the age for digging for buried treasure, or believing in witches. I'm trying hard to become an adult now, there's no time for dwelling in the adventures of years past. I've got to be a big girl, no more kidding around. But... does this mean, I've outgrown Tom? Is a book I've spent a decade loving now simply something I have to leave behind?

It was a major Toy Story 3 moment. Looking down at the bent cover, the well-studied artwork, and dented and creased spine, I contemplated my future, trying hard to ignore my past.

Then, with a flick of the pages, I couldn't ignore it anymore, when the crackling, yellowed paper issued the scent of freshly cut grass, reminding me of reading the book on our back patio in the summer sun, while my dad mowed the lawn. Then came the scent of hot sand, when I took Tom along to Long Beach. The scent of strawberries, when the cousins came over for a Fourth of July party and we had strawberry shortcake, and I accidentally spilled a little on a page of my book. I smelled bug spray, and sun lotion, and chlorine from a pool. I smelled the peanut butter sandwiches my mom packed for me the entirety of the 1st grade, and the mix of perfumes from the Stadium girl's locker room. This book has been with me everywhere. If it has already stuck along for the ride this far in my life... why should I give it up now?

So I decided Tom and I were in for another ten years, at least. I can't think of another book that has impacted me in such a way as this novel has. This post isn't a review, and it's not a recommendation either. It's an overly-long post, filled with effusive praise and fond memories, made while reading my favorite book in the entire world.

Thank you Mark Twain, and Tom Sawyer. Happy Tenth Anniversary.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bump in the Night

I'm here, in one of the most beautiful places found across the entirety of Earth (according to me, at least), with the sun shining brightly, and the day passing as lazily as only the greatest of vacation days can. However, in a vacation home I've come to know almost as well as my own house, and surrounded by my very happy -and finally relaxed - family, you could swear that the world had grown a little colder. Maybe the sunshine shifted a little, causing the warmth to turn into a glinting shine that blinded your eyes, just for a moment. Maybe - once again, just for a moment - the breeze shifted, and you would have sworn that the rustling of the pines was, instead, the quiet hissing whispers of some unseen observers.

Maybe a curious girl - terrified into nightmares at the age of three by Ernest Scared Stupid, the same girl who went on "The Haunted Mansion" for the first time at the age of four, and the second, at fourteen - has decided to take a peek at one of her father's favorite Stephen King's collections, Night Shift. I'd thought that I'd grown out of my past poultry-flavored tendencies, and could successfully sleep through the night without fears of being attacked by vicious, spade-clawed Boogeymen, or sneaking, sloppy zombies. The only time I've become afraid of breaking that insomnia-free streak, was in reading this collection of short stories, from the master of horror himself.

This grouping of some of King's most famous short stories was published in 1978, with the majority of the stories first having been ran in publications as varied as Penthouse and Cosmopolitan, to Cavalier (who,  in running nine of them, was the real heavyweight). While the book itself was dug out of the dust cluttering some of my Dad's old college gear, the tales held within have lost little of their original appeal... or terror. With well known stories like "Jerusalem's Lot," "The Ledge," and "Quitters, Inc." as well as lesser known, but nonetheless thrilling tales, like "I Am the Doorway," "Gray Matter," and "I Know What You Need," this collection of all the aspects of horror, fantasy, suspense, and even sci-fi, found in King's best works are put on display, at their very most chilling.

While anyone who knows me would readily attest that I usually choose to abstain from partaking in the very scariest of movies, television shows, etc., I was never solely afraid of them. As a kid, I really did enjoy books from R. L. Stine's Goosebumps franchise, and I watched Are You Afraid of the Dark? so often, that even now, so many years later, I can recount some of my favorite episodes. The problem was, my imagination was just never great at delineating where fiction met fact, and no matter how I loved shivering to the tune of a haunted castle or a possessed doll during the daytime, I could never seem to sleep at night without both legs firmly tucked inside the covers (later, an encounter with Bram Stoker's Dracula, from the local library, led to a still-ongoing nightly necessity, of locking all windows and closing the blinds. But that was Dracula).

Regardless, reading King's stories led me back to those good ol' days, back when there were some Nancy Drew novels that still scared me. The horror - the kind that draws you in and makes you wait in dreadful anticipation, fully absorbed in the terrifying monster before you, unable to recognize any others that may be sneaking around the corner to catch you from behind - felt good to meet again. It keeps you on your toes.

(The best part is, age -and further fantastical reading - has given me a weapon: where I once quaked beneath covers at the slightest bump in the night, I find I am now able to OUT-THINK any demons my own mind may invent. I can use reality to my advantage, and prove my own monsters to be false, thereby slaying them with a sword crafted from the foundation of their existence. And poof! No more nightmares.)

 Besides, there are plenty of other things to better be afraid of... for instance, in this climate, a repeat of the red-hot sunburn of late July. Now that's scary to think about. :)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Stuck in Airplane Mode

After a long, difficult, busy summer, with everyone in the family working on their various projects and running to the frenetic beats of their own various drummers, we've finally been able to take a good, long vacation.

Last week, it was a glorious six days in my favorite climate and location in the entire world: Disneyland, California. I'll move there someday. Hopefully, at some point in my life, I get to work for Disney. Anyone who knows how much I love anything related to Disney knows exactly how little I'm kidding when I say that. Anyways, we all supremely enjoyed ourselves in the Happiest Place on Earth, and then returned home.

The day after we left Cali, we arrived in Sun River, Oregon, and this almost-as-equally-blissful venue is where you may currently find us: soaking up the remnants of the summer sun, reading in the hammock, lounging by the pool, etc. The rustic-yet-chic attitude of the entire resort is incredibly appealing, and I can sincerely say that I'd love to retire here, simply because of the relaxed, lazy, and enjoyable surroundings.

In other words, this brief blog post is all about making excuses: I've been working diligently all summer, and I simply haven't had time to update because I've been too busy enjoying myself. Sorry.

However, that is not to say that I won't be posting soon: my own father was horrified by the six books I packed in my "fun" bag (and little did he know that I packed an additional six in my luggage), so I'll find something to talk about soon enough. 

And it's not like I haven't been working at least a little bit. I just spent the last three hours writing a 2,125 word children's book. And I'm proud of the way I spent my time, because I don't get as much time to write anymore, and I love how the story turned out. So, myeeehh, haters.

Anyways, you can tell even in my short explanation here that I'm exhausted. And vacations are all about renewal, so... I'll blog post next when my brain cells are fully regenerated, and I'm focusing on more than simply when I get to eat next. I'll see you when the sun of my head finally rises off of the couch cushions, giving dawn to another bright idea. Or, whatever. See you soon.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Three Sisters

Have you ever been almost afraid of a book? I'm not talking about horror... though God knows that I haven't slept with my windows open since reading Bram Stoker's Dracula in the sixth grade (not joking here). I'm talking about the kind of books that describe life in such a brutally honest and relatable way, that you wonder whether their author has been snooping through your diary.

The first instance of this came when I was assigned Annie Dillard's An American Childhood for a summer reading assignment, for our Junior AP English class (I talk about it here.) I intensely identified with her funny, embarrassing, and often poignant anecdotes, about growing up, then moving on, and I've read the book several times in the short, busy years since. The nostalgic, regretful, and yet altogether celebratory nature of her writing helped me get through a very transitive part of my life: her words helped me get past the devastating realization that I wasn't a kid anymore - that I'd soon be saying goodbye to the people, places, and things that formed my first eighteen years - but that those memories would stand by me forever, and the very ideas that helped grow my spirit as a child, would continue to push me towards the sun as an adult. I continue to be very cautious about what sort of people to whom I recommend this book, simply because I feel such a strong connection to it, that in handing it out to just anyone,  I would be revealing very personal emotions, that I feel, in the form of someone else's words. (If that makes any sense to anyone other than me.) The Cheerleader is reading it right now, for a summer assignment, and to be perfectly honest, I'll probably read it once more, before I'm off to Seattle.

Anyways, when searching through the large stack of books my mother lent me at the beginning of the summer, I came across The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown. Usually, my mom and I share a good, healthy admiration and regard for the best of the best (usually American) classics... but this stack is different. I've already voiced some of my apprehensions about this group of novels - handpicked by Mom - and what sort of literature it seems she's recently gone after: the goopy, emotional stuff, grown saccharine sweet and almost over-ripe while resting at the tops of the New York Times lists. Most of them are well-written, though. I guess I'm just trying to tread the line between the World Lit and Teen sections of the local library, without wandering into the hazardous Contemporary Women's Fiction stuck in the middle. It's just skewed towards an older audience than me, and it makes me uncomfortable. Besides, all of these women have problems, and as a soon-to-be college freshman, I'm terrified of the future enough already!

The principle that appealed to me about The Weird Sisters, however, was that the story really was about - and the narrative was really shared between - three sisters, much like those in my family. I (#1 of 3) actually read out the characteristics of the three to the Cheerleader (#2 of 3), and she laughed aloud: the nervous, bossy, borderline-Obsessive-Compulsive eldest; the flirty, fashionable, and essentially self-destructive second; and the flighty, irresponsible, yet still-beloved baby sister. If the title of the novel had ended with (And One Weird Kid Brother), I would have accused Brown of peeping in windows. This is where that whole terrifying-honesty-and-truthful-description-of-life-thing comes into play.

The novel is about, you guessed it, three very different sisters, coming home, and together, to assist their ailing mother in her fight against breast cancer, while attempting to both get their lives on track, and clean up each others' messes as well. The differences between us and them are many (we, for instance, are nowhere near the median age of 30, nor are we likely to allow each other to monumentally mess up our lives as badly as these three have managed); however, hidden between the lines are moving messages on the nature of relationships, especially those with our sisters, that I really identified with. And, of course, the eldest sister was someone I really did pay attention to, as the brief, aforementioned generalization of her character totally applies to me as well, and I could see how someone like me could possibly grow up to be someone like her.

The difference is, I won't. And my sisters and I actually like each other. And there's no way we'd let each other stray so far from the values we were raised on as the incredibly misguided women in this book. However, letting those alone, I felt that The Weird Sisters was a vivid portrait of a flawed, yet functional, family, who come to understand the strengths of their relationships in a realistic way. The real treat for me, is that the occupation of the father -a specialist on the Bard - has impacted the women of the story so much, that they randomly spout his words, and quotes from all of Shakespeare's works are peppered throughout the dialogue.That being said, this book was not my style, and certainly not geared towards an eighteen year old, so my mom is bound to enjoy it more than I did.

The difference is, she grew up with ONLY sisters, and no smelly brother to even it all out. :)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Egyptian Beach Party

Desperately seeking a change of pace and the feeling of sand between our toes, the family recently fled to the sunny shores of Seaside, Oregon. However, once the weather turned aggressively, oppressively hot on what would be our second day on the beach, I opted to hang back at the condo and nurse my angry, red, sunburned skin, instead of lugging the volleyball out to fry another day. After trying fruitlessly for over an hour to understand the complex code of button-pushing that would operate our rental condo's DVD player, I tossed aside Disney's Tangled, and dug out a book.

However, my beach reads are not equal to everyone else's beach reads.

Instead of installing myself out on the condo patio with a good slathering of aloe and some bit of marshmallow fluff unstuck from the Teen shelves of our semi-local Barnes and Noble, I chose instead to turn to the tops of recent nonfiction lists for a bit of educated reading (the aloe, unfortunately, had been left at home, so none of that either). Most of the selections were a bit of a downer, or too funny for serious reading - and I'm still patiently waiting for my Mom's edition of Rebecca Sloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to be returned, so I can, in turn, sneak it out from her stacks - so I narrowed my search down to a historical biography (one of my Top 5 fave genres). Fate had previously sent Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life onto the well-stocked shelves of Target, then into my already over-laden shopping cart back in April, and now, it pushed the hefty Pulitzer-winner into my beach bag as well.

The crowded resort town of Seaside could just as easily have been the bustling ancient city of Alexandria. The crystal blue waters in front of me could have lapped the banks of the river Nile. And that heat definitely could have qualified as borderline Saharan. So, I slid on my sunnies, laid back, and made like the most enduringly enchanting ancient historical female of all time (minus being fanned by palm fronds, unfortunately).

The legacy of Cleopatra is lasting, despite the many inconsistencies in the documentation of her history, and the varied portrayals of the ancient monarch's character.  Whether your opinion of her, is that of an educated and strategic thinker, or some kind of hieroglyphics-writing hussy, or even simply as a pop culture fixture, made icon by the likes of the Egyptian craze of the 1920s or Elizabeth Taylor, then you could definitely do for a read of Schiff's complete and detailed history of the long-gone, never-forgotten pharaoh queen. The format is easy to follow, chapter lengths are just the right size, and the heft of the book itself is not at all daunting. Chock-full of information, yet enrapturing and downright beautiful to read, rightly crowned by the New York Times as a "Best Book of the Year" in 2010, Cleopatra: A Life strips away all of the mythology set in place by the likes of Shakespeare and Shaw, and leaves us with a relatable, remarkable woman, who could really rule, despite the odds stacked against her. Her dealings with the encroaching cultures to the West, or the bad behavior of her ambitious, murderous family, make any of your problems seem downright trivial, and the passion with which she lead her country is inspiring, thereby cementing Cleopatra in the public conscious as an intrepid, educated strategist, and a moving example of a female leader.

Whether or not your typical beach reads consist of quite as much substance as this one, I would firmly recommend checking Cleopatra: A Life out, in order to explore the dramatic, beyond-mythical story of the brave Egyptian queen... or just to impress any cute towel-dwelling bookworms nearby. :)

(Oh, and if you're wondering about the title... it was stolen from one of my favorite episodes of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius :) Look it up, kids).