I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so. At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming. Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write. Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck: 1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness. Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers. 2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/"The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice. Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea. 3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something...extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing. Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor. 4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good. Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing -- good or bad -- I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity. 5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage. Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel. 6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself. Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But...so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was. 7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on. Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round...or maybe not. And that’s okay, too. 8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost. Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on. 9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected. Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed. 10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you. Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people -- as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Typing THE END on your first novel is nearly as epic as saying I DO. Similar to an exchange of vows, after the champagne has been chugged and the celebratory cheers have faded, you wake up to a reality loaded with questions. Most notably: Where do I go from here? This isn’t a paper Jenga on my desk. How do I get my book published? These were my questions, at least. My published author friends answered: find a literary agent. This is no reinvented love story. Many of you are at this juncture now, so we can be honest with one another. When you have your first manuscript in your arms and are querying agents, you aren’t particularly picky. The focus is on the end result — getting the book to a publisher. So you rush the agent “dating” process. I was guilty of that. I viewed finding an agent as yet another hurdle on my way to the printing press. I welcomed every agent suitor. Sure, I scanned credentials, but querying from El Paso, Texas, everyone in New York City looked flashy and impressive. Every agent had a Bestseller in his or her clientele list. All sounded enthusiastic in email and on the phone. Frankly, I didn’t want to sit around pondering if I emotionally clicked with my agent or not, so long as they took my novel to Publisher’s Row. I was holding my first “book baby” and eager to get it to the next developmental stage. "Why not fly to New York to meet the prospective proxies?" one of my friends asked. I laughed. Like, spittle-flying laughter. I had mortgage payments, utility bills, student loans. I barely had two quarters left at the end of the month to buy gum from a candy machine. Fly to New York to meet these people? Only on Santa’s sleigh. So I did the best I could from afar. I gratefully signed with an agency, and we sold my first and second novels, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico and The Baker’s Daughter, to Random House/Crown in a two-book deal. But within twelve months, the blush of first love rubbed off the bloom, and I discovered that my first agent was not my match. In fact, we were remarkably unmatched. I now empathize for the swept-off-their-feet celebrity nuptials that end in tears and divorce. Your agent relationship is akin to a marriage. Emotions, finances, and trust are all tangled up and can be easily wounded if you aren’t careful. Similarly, that agent can be one of your most loyal and cherished people on earth. Your literary spouse of sorts. I spent nearly two years silently observing and developing friendships with a select handful of admired agencies until I was ready to “date” seriously again. This month, I celebrate my one-year anniversary with my new agent and it still feels as if we’re in our honeymoon phase. I recently saw her at one of my book events. To use a canned metaphor: we went together like peanut butter and jelly. She’s editorially brilliant and has the business prowess of a tiger, yes. But more importantly, she gets me and my writing. She believes in my work even when I doubt myself and encourages me to set my sights past the moon to the brightest star. She pushes me, using compassion and insight to buoy me forward, never backwards. She’s someone my husband loves. Someone I will introduce to my children when I have them. Someone I can’t imagine not having in my career or my life. This is what a good author-agent relationship should be like. Still, I am but one author with a subjective experience to share. So I polled fellow author friends on what makes a good literary agent, in their experience. I ended up with the three essential C’s. 1. The Click. Definition: that intangible zing through your core alerting you this is no ordinary meeting; the kinetic energy between two people; the magnetic draw that makes you want to not just go into business with this person but invite them into your life. Testimonials: Beth Hoffman (author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt): There was an immediate "click" between us. We chattered and laughed as if we'd known each other for years. She has integrity and exudes confidence and professionalism...I trust her completely. Matthew Dicks, author of Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend: My agent falls only below my wife in terms of important women in my life (when my mother-in-law is in the room, I assign her the #2 spot, but it's a lie). She is one of my most honest critics and also my biggest fan... In short, my agent is my friend above all else. Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories: I live in rural VT and [my agent] is my lifeline. I love her energy and her smarts. I trust her deeply... Sarah Pekkanen, author of These Girls: Like dating, authors need to find someone who feels like the right fit before taking the plunge into a committed relationship. I definitely found that in my agent. Before we even met, she cracked some very funny jokes—a sense of humor is high on my list of desirable qualities... Lydia Netzer, author of Shine, Shine, Shine: Having an agent that will be honest with you is wonderful. Having an agent you can be honest with is even better. 2. Chutzpah. Definition: the quality of being gutsy, both personally and professionally; someone who will go to the mat with you every time, as a partner, a cheerleader, a Mr. Miyagi to your Karate Kid. (I’m showing my age here.) Testimonials: Christina Haag, author of Come To The Edge: Guidance, honesty, expertise, and chutzpah... She brings an excellent mix of instinct and business smarts to the table; she's able to nurture a project, as well as fight for it. Jenna Blum, author of The Stormchasers: 1. Unforced, enthusiastic love for the writer's work. 2. Consistent and fast responsiveness. 3. Belief in the writer's career, not just one project. I've been with my agent almost a decade and she is my right arm. I can't imagine being without her. And she's got the fiercest French accent ever. M.J. Rose, author of The Book of Lost Fragrances: While loving your agent is also great - this is 100% a business deal and your agent does work for you - you hired him or her - so it's a partnership and important to have an agent who respects that and whom you feel comfortable in that role with. Sarah Pinneo, author of Julia’s Child: Not merely a lover of books, but a true business woman. She represents dozens of authors, yet still encourages me to copy her on every communication with my publisher, and she's always on top of the flow... She knows how to talk to authors at those vulnerable moments when their insecurities are sticking out like porcupine quills. Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss: Key to a great relationship: Respect, honesty, loyalty... I want someone romantic enough to be in this crazy book world and hard-nosed enough to help me survive it. 3. Character. Definition: moral and ethical quality. (That came straight from Webster’s Dictionary. No expounding necessary.) Testimonials: Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter: A need for mutual respect and ETHICS as well as a sharp literary sense helped me to the right person. Kristina McMorris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves: An agent who: expresses passion for the author's voice versus a single book, which sets the stage for a long-term relationship; treats the client like a partner, welcoming ideas and input in all areas; reads a client's manuscript within days or weeks; communicates clearly and promptly, and above all, is a genuinely good person. Marilyn Brant, author of A Summer in Europe: Find someone you can trust professionally, communicate with effectively, and feel confident loves and respects your writing style. You want an agent who knows how to steer you well in both strengthening your manuscripts without changing your voice and in matching each of your novels with an editor who will also appreciate it and champion it within the publishing house. There you have it. Like matrimony, your literary representation must be your better half in the publishing community. Never settle for mediocre. Take a cue from the love gurus and matchmakers: look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I’m worthy of a respectful relationship. I’m worthy of my one, true agent and nothing less.” Image: Shelley Panzarella/Flickr
1. When you read a book, it is a story within the story. The French call this mise-en-abîm: the condition of being between two mirrors with an abyss of yous staring back. My grandmother had a dressing room wallpapered in mirrors. As a child, I liked to stand in the center and slowly move my arms up and down. Like synchronized swimmers in underwater flight, an infinite number of mes moved as one. It made me question my reality like Alice through the looking glass. Was I me? Or was that me once reflected? Twice reflected? Three times? Maybe they thought they were me just as much as I did. Maybe those mes had their own adventures. It was the first time I felt fully confronted by the unsettling nature of existence and its possible layers of life. Being a reader is similar. You turn the page of the fictional story while an hour of your own passes. The characters breathe, laugh and cry, and so do you. When you finish their tale, you close the book and set it aside, dreaming of their ever-after, while stepping out into yours. But you don’t leave the story as you found it. No, it’s forever changed. The evidence is there: a chocolate smudge, a tea stain, beach sand, dandelion spores, a stray hair, a note, a name, a message. The story has been splintered into a duplicate image, a reflection of you in bits between the pages. 2. My eighth-grade English teacher decided it’d be a good idea for us to do an introductory unit on Shakespeare. The directions were simple: pick a play and read it. My family owned a weathered volume of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare on the highest shelf of our bookcase. I’d never cracked the spine, favoring colorful copies of Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High still smelling of press glue and Scholastic shipping peanuts. TCPS was my dad’s college copy from the United States Military Academy at West Point. It looked similarly militant, bound in tar black and as thick as a Bible. Nonetheless, I was excited. It was an emblem of maturity to read Master Shakespeare, and I knew exactly where I was headed: Romeo and Juliet. So I climbed the bookcase and freed the old whale from its dusty catacomb, carried the thing to my bedroom and plopped it open on my desk. What I first remember was how thin the pages were—like edible rice paper. It was this gossamer taction that made a pulpy envelope stand out. It bulged the fine print from fifty pages deep. There, between the Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well. I pulled it free and felt the weight of age, ripe for the booklouse taking. The bottom edge had yellowed where it’d spent decades with a foot outside the covers. It was addressed to my father. The seal torn open. A moment of distinct deliberation. It was not my letter to read. However, simply putting it back and moving on to “Two households, both alike in dignity” seemed an insurmountable task for a curious thirteen year old. I carefully unfolded the letter and recognized my mother’s handwriting. Dated November 1, 1976. Two years before my parent’s marriage and four years before my birth. My stomach double-dipped. “My Love,” it began and went on to speak of longing across great distance, present obstacles, and promises of eternal devotion. Such things I’d only ever heard in epic ballads and fairy tales. I knew my parents loved each other, but up until that day, I’d thought it rather orthodox—their love story. Nothing like the ardor of Penelope and Odysseus, the fire of Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, the potency of Scarlett and Rhett, or the yearning of Daisy and Gatsby. Understand, I kept a journal list of eulogized paramours. Marianne Dashwood was my literary kindred, both of us basing our amatory knowledge on illusions. Yet here was reality, and I reimagined my mother: young, beautiful, unmarried and besot with an equally young, handsome lieutenant hundreds of miles away. No bestselling romance couldn’t equal such ripe character fodder. I tried to move on to Romeo and Juliet, but my mind was far from Verona. It'd taken root in an austere military dorm where my father must’ve run his fingers over that very page, read the words and felt his heart hiccup, then quietly tucked it away beneath layers of sonnets and what some consider the greatest love story ever told. I had cried every time I’d seen Romeo and Juliet performed, but the first time I read it, my emotions seemed corked. They were tapped later when my father kissed my mother as she served steaming plates of rice and beans. Perplexed but knowing my penchant for pathos, she merely shook her head and said, “Sarah, eat your supper, love.” 3. I’m drawn to used bookstores like a fruit fly to summer cantaloupe. I seek out these harvest stalls and spend hours flittering about the book rinds, deciding which to crack open and possibly drown in. In Norfolk, Virginia, my one-bedroom apartment was on the city’s only cobblestone street appropriately named Freemason. Within a week of moving in, I discovered a used bookstore two blocks over called Bibliophile Bookshop. Its entrance was blockaded by hundreds of dog-eared books, a “4 for $1” cart outside, and a salty-haired proprietor who kept the door open in the balmy harbor July and played concertos on his radio. On one such sticky afternoon, I buzzed the stacks. You’ve got to go deep for the good stuff. All the pretty, contemporary titles are placed at the front for the quick buyer, who is not me. I dig, burrowing down to the pappy volumes that smell like they’ve been dipped in lake water. It was here in the dredges that I found my piece of gold. A vermilion cover plucked from the pile; its inner pages hung on by sinewy threads. The thing looked a bloody mess. I could barely make out the title from the pockmarks, scuffs and stains: Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross. Two strong female names that deserved attention. But before I’d read one word penned by Ms. Cross, a penciled dedication brought me to a full stop. Unmarred by all that had injured the rest of the book, it read: To Edith, Always remember. Love, Mummy. The kind of simple inscription anybody might write. It was the “Always remember” that resonated. Always remember what? I laxly flipped Anna Lombard pages, my imagination spinning its own tale of what Edith’s Mummy wanted her to remember. Then something fell out. My instinct assumed I’d broken the last bit of binding and the rest of the pages would soon flutter to the floor. I was wrong. At my feet was square, sepia photo with scalloped edges. I saw the back script before the image: Mummy & Loretta before she passed. 1941. On the flipside were two women sitting on a park bench, faces mapped with laugh lines, arms pretzeled to each other. One of these women was Mummy. I studied the faded expressions, and despite rational deduction that both were now deceased, I agonized over to whom the message referred. Who was the “she” that passed? Loretta or Mummy? It ached to think it was the latter—Edith’s Mummy who wrote that she must “always remember”… something, which had to be of great meaning, sentimental or profound, for her to have said so. I tried to read the first chapter of Cross’s novel but couldn’t sympathize with the main character, Gerald Ethridge, and his faithful love to Anna Lombard. My head and heart were already immersed in another narrative: Mummy and Edith and Loretta. Women who lived real lives and left the tangible proof of their story here—in my hands. I wanted that book. I still want it. Years later, I can’t get it or them out of my mind. But I didn’t buy it for the proprietor’s $8 price tag. I worried that if I took it from that place, moved it with me to another city or state or country, whatever it was that Mummy wanted Edith to remember, wouldn’t be. Maybe Edith or her kin were somewhere still in Norfolk. This book with all its treasures belonged to them. So I lodged the photo as securely as I could deep inside, wrapped the cover over and placed it on a high shelf where I thought it’d be safe from further ruin or imprudent hands. Someplace where if the right person saw the crimson spine and title, they would remember whatever it was they were to always. 4. Some will say it’s narcissism and perhaps they are correct, but I leave breadcrumbs of myself in every book. Train and plane tickets are my favorites. I use them as bookmarks and then purposely abandon them. Recently, I let a friend borrow Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. When returning my copy she asked, “Were you in Dallas last September?” She was surprised when I said I wasn’t. “It’s just—I found this in your book.” She thumbed through my copy and retrieved a ticket stub. I eyed it and remembered that I’d transferred planes in Dallas on my way home to Virginia. I read the novel on the flight, I explained. She sighed. “Mystery solved!” I laughed and then felt bad. I hoped her imagination hadn’t been as relentless as mine—that she’d been able to fully engage in Berlinski’s novel without my story nagging at the edges of her dreamscape. But my friend is very much like me, so she’d probably stayed up pondering my mysterious travels more than the fictional Dyalo village and the Walker family trials. I made a mental note to siphon my books’ contents before lending—for the sake of my friends’ reading experiences more than myself. And yet, my habit continues. I was at a café reading and eating grilled chicken skewers not too long ago. At the end of the meal, I slipped my sauce-splattered receipt in the back of the book. For safe keeping, I told myself, but truthfully hoping that one day, years from now, I’ll rediscover it and remember the taste of sweet rosemary and hickory smoke, the heated blue of El Paso summers, the person I was when I first ventured into that novel’s territory. These bits of my day-to-day are life fragments, evidence that I was here. My library isn’t simply a collage of ink and paper. It’s stuffed with these secret stashes. And I use a variety of items: empty envelopes, expired coupons, recipes, gum wrappers that make the pages fruity fresh, photographs, baggage claims, postcards, birthday cards, To Do lists, sticky notes scribbled by my husband with messages ranging from Gatsby’s out of dog food to I love you, have a beautiful day. All stuck in the pages. I’d never consciously appraised this book littering behavior until the Berlinski episode. I wondered if I was alone in my bizarre fascination, then I was introduced to the Forgotten Bookmarks blog. Michael Popek, a used-bookstore bibliophile, posts all the lovely discoveries he finds in his shop’s acquisitions. I spent more time than I care to admit scrolling through his online treasure chest, captivated by the notes, tickets, letters, photographs, drawings and recipes—the layers of stories in the stories at large. As an author and reader, I’m routinely juggling viewpoints, seeing through the eyes of my characters, others' characters and my own. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic existence. So I question where I stand in the mise-en-abîms: At the top of the watery abyss looking down or at the bottom looking up? Or maybe I’m one of the many reflections between, moving her arms in rhythm with the others, yet uniquely me with a story indelibly my own. [Image credit: Stephanie]
1. The revamped V (for those who don’t tune in: V stands for Visitors) on ABC has me completely hooked. Crazy but true, I DVR Giada De Laurentiis cooking shows in the same click as human-munching reptile aliens. And I’ve got my husband addicted too. He’s been away in Salt Lake City since the show’s March return. During the commercial breaks, we dial each other like high school kids. Me: “The kid just got lizard licked!” Hubs: “Whatever, that’s a hot alien. I’d let her lick me.” Me: “That’s her candy coating. Underneath she’s got snake eyes.” Hubs: “Still, she’s hot.” Me: “You’re despicable. Don’t you have any human pride?” These are the not-so-adult conversations between us. I grew up in a sci-fi loving home courtesy of my dad who’s a product of the Final Frontier generation—Shatner and Nimoy and the Lost in Space Robot. A child of the 80s, I was suckled on Star Wars and Quantum Leap. However, as I grew into adulthood, I became something of a sci-fi snob, rolling my eyes and shaking my head at laser beams and the Galactica crew heroics. I acquiesced to my dad’s 24/7 Sci-Fi Channel whenever I visited home, but beyond that my interest in extraterrestrials and spaceships was nonexistent. Until now. Like I said, I’m completely bewitched. Some of this could be blamed on my aforementioned childhood. The original V miniseries aired in 1983. I watched it, snuggled beside my dad who attempted to cover my eyes during the “bad parts.” To this day, my mom denies this memory—because she would never, never have allowed such a thing. And maybe so, but obviously she wasn’t invited to the daddy-daughter sci-fi party. I distinctly remember burying my face in my dad’s arm when Diana (the V leader) expanded her jaw and swallowed a guinea pig whole. My dad yelled, “Dadburnit, she’s a snake!” (Note: This is probably the basis of my fear of snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles.) It was terrifying! Yet even then, I was completely captivated. There was something about the miniseries that transcended the average “Beam me up, Scotty.” Despite the lizard thing, it was intellectual and deeply affecting. So it comes as no surprise it was inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. A novel chronicling fascism in the United States. According to television lore, the director-producer Kenneth Johnson wrote an adaptation of the book entitled Storm Warnings in 1982. NBC executives rejected it. Too heavy for average American viewers who were lining up at the box office for films like Tron and E.T. So they dumbed it down: made the American fascists into man-eating reptilian humanoids, and the show premiered to rave reviews on May 3, 1983. Johnson later explained that the series was intended to be a political thriller and a Nazi allegory. From the Swastika-like emblems on the Visitor’s uniforms and the “Friends of the Visitors” youth movement to the mass broadcasting of messages mimicking Nazi radio propaganda. Humans in the show were forced to choose sides: collaborate with the occupying forces or join underground resistance movements, like the Fifth Column. While the brunt of Nazi persecution was targeted at Jews, the Visitors attacked anyone opposed to their dogma. Their infiltration of human society begins as a subterfuge but eventually transitions to a full-fledged military coup d’etat. The original series went so far as to incorporate a Holocaust survivor, the grandfather of Daniel Bernstein, who duly noted history’s repetition. V ran roughly three hours and twenty minutes and was so successful in the ratings that the 1984 sequel V: The Final Battle was produced, supposedly to conclude the saga. But viewers couldn’t let go and the network wouldn’t pass up capitalizing on its popularity. V: The Series ran from 1984 to 1985 without Johnson as director. He left during The Final Battle after a disagreement with NBC executives on how the story should progress. 2. Twenty-seven years later, the story is as fresh as it was in 1983. As fresh as it was in 1935. Let’s face it—fascism still scares the hell out of us. The idea of social interventionism to promote the state’s interests is terrifying. Social indoctrination by way of state-regulated education and media propaganda makes our skin crawl. Eugenics for the purpose of social hygiene is monstrous. Discrimination based on culture, gender and sexuality is a nasty battle we fight daily. A hunger for expansionist imperialism, ideologically and physically, lingers on. Turn on the nightly news, tune into reality, and notes of Lewis’s novel and Johnson’s script continue to echo. This may be exactly why V has seen such popularity with the 2010 audience. We live in a world where history repeats itself; where old ideas cloak themselves in various contemporary skins and pretty packages for each budding generation. The series continues to strike a chord because in a non-didactic way, it reminds us that the catastrophes of our past are but a handful of forgetful seasons away. 3. Currently on the show, V spaceships loom over all the major cities. Anna (the 2010 V leader) promises peace, opens cure-all health centers and introduces advances in technology that surpass anything the world has ever seen. Using mass media, she seeks to indoctrinate a devoted following of humans involved in her Peace Ambassadors program. From the outside, the arrival of the V’s looks rosy, but beneath is a diabolical agenda to take over the Earth. The updated series has been hit by a tidal wave of controversy. Rumor has it that it’s an allegorical representation of President Barack Obama’s administration. Many critics have pointed out the subtextual nods. In her review for The Washington Post, Lisa de Moraes noted that the series debuted on the first anniversary of Obama’s election, and that carefully embedded catchphrases like “hope”, “change”, and “universal health care” are frequently used by the Visitors. Glenn Garvin of the Chicago Tribune wrote that the show was a “rousing sci-fi space opera about alien invaders bent on the conquest (and digestion) of all humanity, it's also a barbed commentary on Obamamania that will infuriate the president's supporters and delight his detractors.” Additionally, critical bloggers were quick to point out lines that hold an uncanny resemblance to quotes by Obama staff members. In one episode about a natural disaster that the V’s intervene to solve, Anna tells a news reporter, “There’s tragedy every day, all over your world—so many opportunities to help.” Likewise, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” At the 2009 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session for V, the three producers Scott Peters, Jace Hall and Jeffrey Bell discussed the controversy. Peters explained, “Listen, I think that shows are open to interpretation. People bring subjective thoughts to it. And if you want to ascribe those words to the Visitors or to whatever is going on in our society, that's sort of up to the viewer, but there's no particular agenda to hone in on those specific things.” Bell followed up, “We are talking about the metaphors and allegories here, and at a certain level, I just want to remind people it's a show about spaceships on ABC at 8 p.m.” Peters went on to clarify: The show is about the dangerous side of blind devotion. “ What happens when you don't ask questions about the things you believe in?” he said. “And I think that can be applied across the board whether you are talking about a political issue or a religious issue or a relationship issue, any number of things.” Alien spaceships making us pause in our prime time television consumption and (gasp!) think? Wouldn’t that be revolutionary! The producers' comments may not lay the Obama controversy to rest, but we could use a little social reminder these days—even if it comes as science-fictionalized reptile aliens masked in hot human form plotting world conquest and mankind annihilation. Like the namesake characters, there’s more than meets the eye in V.
1. Should we hop in the DeLorean and zip back to the neon spandex-n-matching-scrunchie year of 1989, where would I be on a radical Saturday night? Not painting my toenails lime green, Aqua Net-ing my hair or jamming out to the B52’s “Love Shack.” Oh no, I was too cool for that. I was babysitting. I distinctly remember the swell of girlhood pride when one weekend a friend asked if I’d come over for dinner and then to a movie—the newest adventure of Marty McFly. “Can’t,” I replied. “I have to babysit my neighbor’s daughter. She’s one of my regular clients and her mom always orders Domino’s.” “Really?” My friend said and sighed with such pained jealousy I can still recall it to this day. For me and a million other American preteens of the era, this entrepreneurial spirit was a direct result of an obsession with Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series. My childhood bookshelf was filled with BSC books—row upon row of colorful titles neatly aligned in numerical order. The novels and their characters ushered me through adolescence with money in my pocket, after school club meetings, a deep appreciation for a job well done, and the satisfaction of sharing it with friends. So inspiring were the novels that to this day the sight of block lettering gives me gleeful pangs of nostalgia. It’d been years since I read or thought about the BSC until recently. I ran smack into the news headline: “Ann M. Martin on the ‘Baby-Sitter’s Club’ Prequel” My heart did an honest-to-goodness flip-flop in my chest, and my inner Claudia exclaimed, “Oh my Lord! A prequel!” I was so excited; I could barely Google fast enough, my brain spinning the question, “Is it true? Is it true?” I am here to testify: Folks, it’s gospel. This month, Scholastic released Martin’s newest addition to the series, a prequel entitled The Summer Before, following each of the original four girls—Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi, and Stacey McGill—the summer prior to seventh grade and the start of their illustrious Baby-Sitters Club. In addition, the publisher has reissued updated versions of the first two novels: Kristy’s Great Idea and Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls; The Truth About Stacey hits bookshelves in June; Mary Anne Saves the Day in October, and Dawn and the Impossible Three in December. My original copies are boxed somewhere in my parents' basement. I’ve made mental note to excavate them on my next visit. As for the prequel, it’s ordered and my trusted online bookseller promises its arrival in 8 to 10 days. So what if the target audience is 7 to 12 year olds. The BSC are classics alongside Nancy Drew, The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and so on. Okay, many will debate this claim, but on my shelf, the BSC are as beloved. Allow me to school those who aren’t familiar: The BSC series enjoyed a stellar run from 1986 to 2000, amassing a fervent preteen readership that chomped through all 213 titles as fast as they chewed Bubble Tape gum. The Baby-Sitters Club membership grew from four to eight main characters over the course of its fourteen-year popularity streak, selling approximately 176 million copies. Like any cultural feeding frenzy, it spawned a number of spin-offs including extended versions, a mystery series, character autobiographies, The Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister, California Diaries, The Kids in Ms. Coleman’s Class, and graphic novels. To Mokoto Rich of the New York Times, Scholastic’s Editorial Director David Levithan explained that the publisher brought back the series because of fan requests. “This whole generation of girls who had grown up reading The Baby-Sitters Club were now teachers, librarians or mothers,” said Levithan. “And at any opportunity they had, they let us know they wanted them back. We couldn’t go to a convention without having women come up to us and say, ‘You’ve got to bring these books back.’ ” 2. Again invoking the DeLorean, a typical conversation between my friends and me whilst braiding rainbow friendship bracelets on my bedroom floor went something like this: Me: “What book are you on?” Friend #1: “Mary Anne and the Search for Tigger.” Friend #2: “Oh! That’s where she almost breaks up with Logan.” Me: “Shh—don’t spoil it! I’m still reading Kristy and the Mother's Day Surprise.” Friend #3: “Well, I’m only on Hello Mallory and I can’t get over Stacey moving to New York.” Me: “Yeah, that sucked. I bawled my eyes out when she left.” Friends #1 and #2: “Totally.” Me: “So do you guys have any babysitting jobs this weekend?” As the daughter of a career Army officer, I moved every couple of years during my preteens. The BSC provided me with a group of friendly characters who remained intact, book after book, year after year, and most importantly, place after place. It seemed no matter where my family was stationed, I found other girls who shared this literary friendship. So despite not knowing a thing about each other, we could talk for hours about Kristy’s newest adventure, Mary Anne’s boy troubles, or our own babysitting stories. During its heyday, it seemed everyone on the planet was reading the BSC! (Or at least to a ten year old it did.) These babysitting characters weren’t just make-believe heroines; they were role models. They dealt with responsibility, family problems, health issues, self-esteem, school, friendship, boys, etc. And we, preteens, read, learned, and took heart from their accomplishments and mistakes. Given the current YA vampire and fantasy craze, I wonder if novels staked in the normal can find the ardent following they did with my generation. Even with the updates to technology, fashion and pop culture, will young readers with an acutely developed taste for bloody bites and wizard wands be captivated by the story of industrious teenagers facing the universal travails of growing up? In her interview with the Wall Street Journal, author Ann M. Martin thinks so: “The issues the characters tackled twenty-five years ago are not really so different than the issues kids today tackle… what are the things that are most important to them still? Their families, friendships, issues surrounding school.” I agree, and I think readers are growing somewhat worn out by the fantastical. Yes, unicorns, secret spells, hunky werewolves, and eternal life are delicious to dream on, but that’s not the world around the dinner table or in the classroom. Sorry to burst the bubble, but a family of vampires do not live next door nor is there a Platform 9¾. Reality is, the neighbors are worrying about the grocery bill and their preteen daughter’s plea for Miley Cyrus concert tickets. And trust me, if you run headlong into a magical, unseen platform, the best you’re going to get is the "transformative" feeling of a mild concussion. I believe readers are now at a place where four regular girls facing normal problems might be the compelling connection desired from their reading fodder. In a 2010 American Psychological Association survey on stress in America, researchers found that children ages 8 to 17 suffer from more anxiety-induced headaches, sleeplessness and upset stomachs than they did in previous years. A few of their top worries included school, getting along with peers and their family’s finances. Everyday issues. So while the fantasy genre is an exciting escape, when the book covers close, readers—young and old— must still contend with the microseisms within their homes, within their relationships. The trials and tribulations of being chased by a vengeful vampire can quickly pale in comparison to parent’s divorce, a sibling’s battle with diabetes, economic difficulties, peer rejection, fear of failure, and the secrets we carry, big and small. I argue it’s time to bring back literary heroes and heroines with feet firmly planted in reality. The characters who battle the business of life. The characters in whom we see a reflection of ourselves. And I think Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey are just the young, tenacious women to do it. Welcome back Baby-Sitters Clubbers.
1. If you wandered into my kitchen and saw my pantry packed with cookbooks, you might get the impression I am something of a gourmet chef or crackerjack cook, at the very least. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my own defense, I’m not a bad cook. If I put my mind to it, I’m confident I could don a Betty Crocker crown and whip up steaming bowls of cioppini or decadent pots of crème brûlée. Here’s the crux: I could but don’t despite my complete Giada De Laurentiis collection and many a Julia Child. Understand, I’m a creature of habit and have approximately two dozen recipes I consistently crave and make, adding a dash of this or that for variation. I love a gastronomic adventure, but I’ll go to a restaurant before I try to make green tea foam or fugu sashimi at home. So what’s up with the hidden cookbook library? Is she a culinary poser, you are well within reason to ask. The truth is, I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover, page by page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, the indexes: I devour everything. Like the literary works on my bookshelves, I can give you the plot, characters, themes and favorite scenes; however, ask me a recipe and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I’ve personally prepared. Examining this through a Jungian lens: I think it began when I was wee thing sitting on the kitchen stool thumbing through my mom’s recipe box. On each dated index card, she’d scribble where she got the recipe, what worked, what didn’t, substitutions and always a final note of “Delicious!” or “Satisfying!” Many of the recipes had butter-stained corners, dustings of flour, the smell of cinnamon stuck to the paper, etc. So while my mom baked and sautéed, I sat reading, dreaming, and treasuring my little box of stories. 2. This fascination continued into adulthood. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom gave me Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her? by Betty Rae and Kathryn and Kent Fransen, a kind of cooking guidebook for first-time out-of-the-nesters. The tone is casual, inviting, and full of funny anecdotes. Chapter 1 begins, “The nutritional war has been waged for centuries: children, eager to be tumbling on the warm front lawn after a battered baseball, sit instead, lower lip stuck out, stubbornly refusing to eat a plateful of soggy canned peas.” How’s that for the opening of a story? With recipes like “Salad on a Shoestring” and “Hopscotch Candy,” I continue to pull this one out and reread. It makes me happy, like stepping into old Aunt Betty Rae’s kitchen. I have no doubt many a Southern reader has this very book in her/his pantry. It’s down home spirit is hard to beat, even by slick William-Sonoma standards. Oh, but I have those too. Williams-Sonoma’s Entertaining is gorgeous. Each seasonal chapter, a journey to a sumptuous setting where affluent characters glide past china cups and crystal vases. My feeling is something akin to reading Edith Wharton’s novels. Chapter Spring is my favorite. All mimosa colored and lily of the valley bloomed. Equally charming is Bride and Groom: First and Forever Cookbook by Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening Whiteford. Two sister protagonists narrate the memorable recipes that marked their newlywed years. Chapter 9, Breakfast & Brunch: “Years ago, Sarah’s in-laws took to our Unbelievable Banana Bread with great affection, and as breakfast progressed, their hearts grew fonder for the meal (and for Sara!).” Chapter 10, Sweets: “We simply adore Strawberry Shortcakes d’Amour. Luscious red berries enveloped in their sweet juices, topped with snow-white clouds of whipped cream, all of it sandwiched between a heart-shaped biscuit and dusted with powdered sugar. Seduced?” Yes, indeed. Contemporary cookbooks abound, but my reading interest does not lie solely in the present. The Gold Cook Book by French Master Chef Louis P. De Gouy was published in 1947. His chapter on pigeons is particularly engrossing. “Anyone who never saw the large flocks which appear in the forest when the acorns began to drop in the fall might think we in describing those flocks were over-drawing the picture.” So beautifully described, I nearly forget he’s talking about the scrappy winged beasts picking gum off my grocery store parking lot. De Gouy goes on to provide his recipe for “New Orleans Pigeon Pie.” I’ll let your mind wander on the stories behind his “Banana Balls in a Basket” and “Almond Kisses I French Brown Style.” While the French may have au jus and coq au vin, the British hold their own in the culinary field, as in literature. If I’m looking for a saucy read I pick up anything by Nigella Lawson. Giggles are implicit. Feast: Food to Celebrate Life is a personal favorite. Of her “Finger-Lickin’ Ribs” she writes: Come back to my cave…If you don’t want a proper table-set dinner, and would prefer something oozy and sticky to take up to bed with you, well, that’s fine by me… go all out and tear the flesh from these sticky bones with your bare teeth instead. Quintessential Nigella. She makes my mouth water. Sticking with the Brits, I must also mention Jaime Oliver’s The Naked Chef. The title alone heralds a brassy batch of stories, and he absolutely delivers, “stripping down” recipes and sharing his tales. Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way To The Good Life is in my online bookseller purchasing basket. However, Gordon Ramsey is my current obsession. The author’s cheeky humor permeates his writing and recipes, and I can’t get enough. In my mind, his books ring slightly of Saul Bellow. A Chef for All Seasons is broken into four chapters. Here’s the intro to Summer: For me, summer begins mid-May. In fact, by the third week in May I’m well into the swing, because we are located next to Chelsea Flower Shop in London, and that, as every devotee of the social scene will tell you, is very definitely the start of the summer season here… Let’s start with tomatoes. Like a good novel, the narrator has set the voice and scene, and I’m itching to dive into the sensory delights of Mr. Ramsey’s Chelsea Flower Shop world. 3. As in every home library, there are the oddball picks. Books you’re slightly ashamed to own; nonetheless, there they sit. Ma’s Cookin’ Mountain Recipes whose authorship is attributed to Sis and Jake. No last names. In the introduction, Sis and Jake write, “Many of you folks has got sum mistakin ‘pinions ‘bout us hill people… In this here book, we’re tryin’ to bring you sum of th’ more unusual recipes.” This novella-esque manual includes recipes for “Grandma’s Elixirs for Invalids,” “Possum & Chestnuts,” and “Pig’s Tail Taters.” Nice! Hidden in my pantry nether regions are also The Original Road Kill Cookbook, The Book of Fondues, Pink Princess, Firehouse Food, The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, and countless other quirky titles that at some point peaked my reading curiosity. I haven’t attempted any of their recipes, mind you, but each was a reading feast for the imagination. My cookbook purchasing habits mirror my fiction, and I often choose by author. The ones I like and trust for a good story: Giada, Nigella, Gordon, Jaime, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Ina Garten, Paula Deen. But I do love the debut chefs! Their first books are always bright, cheerful and eager to impress. (Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip is like Jack Kerouac high on meatloaf—yum.) And just like in fiction, I gravitate away from recipe books of particular genres: fat-free, meat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, salt-free. Translation: Story-free. Last and dearest are the cookbooks I won’t find at any bookstore. My Puerto Rican abuelitas’s copy of Doña Irma en Microondas y Algo Más with handwritten paper notes stuck between the pages. My Oklahoma grandma’s Betty Crocker binder. My mom’s copy of With Love From My Kitchen: A Collection of Recipes, Hints, Secrets and Heirloom Treasures of Good Eating with recipes and stories lovingly transcribed from the box I cherished as a child. Personal memoirs. When I miss my family all I need do is open With Love and read. No mixing bowls or baking soda required. The stories rise off the page on their own accord. Of course, I had to put my recipes on the page too. It’s a similar compulsion I feel after reading an insightful, moving novel. I have to write! Each of my tried and true dishes takes up a full page—the 5X7 note cards are entirely too small for the story—and once in a blue moon I’ll cook something new and deliciously worthy of addition. Then, in my mom’s similar fashion, I write a narrative summary: the date, where I got the recipe, the characters who shared it with me, its successes and failures, plot twists, and ultimately, how it all turned out in the end. Satisfying!