2021 reading goals

2021 reading goals

Hope you all had a lovely and safe New Year!

Now that the Year-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named is over, I’m looking forward to making 2021 better—it shouldn’t be too hard. And part of that is more books.

While I’m not big on the pressure of New Year’s resolutions, joining the Goodreads Reading Challenge has been the one goal I like set for myself at the start of each year (or, at least since 2016 when I joined the site). It’s a great way to not only track what you’re reading but keep an archive of what you’ve read over time. It also helps you to push yourself to read a little more than you might do normally. Highly recommend joining!

My 2021 reading goals:

  • Read 60 books. In 2016, I set a goal of 20 books. Since then, the most I read in a year was 70. Last year I did 50. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to read more in lockdown; part of that was due to a demanding writing job that left me drained at the end of the day, to the point where I didn’t want more words in my face. So now I’m trying to get back to where I was. It’s surprising how easily you can get competitive with yourself every time you meet a reading goal. Even if you don’t use Goodreads, I recommend making a goal for yourself! No matter what the number.
  • Finish A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin!!! I’ve been reading this off and on since 2019, and it’s past time I finish it. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long when I actually like it more than the previous book in the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Feast for Crows) that took me less time. It’s all the extra details, they’re a bit much. I just want to see what happens but instead I get descriptions of food and ships and food again. I’m kind of just in it for Dany and Tyrion at this point, but I like them enough to push through. And I’m still hoping for a new book from Martin, sometime.
  • Read more Flannery O’Connor. Besides a few of her short stories in college, I haven’t read much of O’Connor. A friend and mentor of mine says O’Connor is her favorite author, and since I super-trust her taste I’ve been meaning to give this classic American writer more attention.
  • Read more Stephen King. As big a King fan as I am, there is still SO. MUCH. of his work I haven’t read. Mainly, because he has SO. MUCH. work. If ten of the books I read this year are King’s, I’d be happy with that.
  • Start reading War and Peace. I say start on the chance I run into a Dance with Dragons situation with this brick of a book, but I’m going to try to stay on track and read a little every day. I mostly want to read it because the musical based on it piqued my interest. I’ve always been intimidated by Russian literature, but I think I’m underestimating myself. Here goes nothing.

The first new book I’ve started this year is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, her 2020 prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy that I bought immediately and then let sit on my shelf for six months. Looking forward to revisiting Panem!

Here’s to books and better days! Thanks for reading.

5 musicals based on books

5 musicals based on books

Books serve as the basis for so many films and TV shows that it’s easy to forget that book source material is frequently found within the medium that should suit it least: musical theatre.

Musicals are big, loud, in-your-face (and ears) live performance. You get dressed up, leave the house, and likely socialize a bit when you go see a musical. Reading, on the other hand, is a quiet, usually solo, more internal activity you can do anytime, anywhere, from a bridge to a cafe to your own couch.

But the reason these two very different mediums can work quite well together is simple: Music and stories both speak to the soul. Combine them and, with the right artists and creators doing the adapting, you often get something quite beautiful.

Here are some of my favorite musicals based on books (though this is nowhere near an exhaustive list—I might have to do a part two):

1. Les Misérables

She’s dramatic. She’s heart-wrenching. She’s almost three hours long. She’s the musical phenomenon that swept the world. You know her, you love her. She’s Les Misérables: the Musical! Who would’ve thought that the very long, very dramatic, and often very bleak novel by Victor Hugo—alternately titled in English The Miserable OnesThe WretchedThe Poor Ones, and, taking the cake, The Wretched Poor—would make for a smash a hit musical?

Well, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil did, and they got it right. We like stories about hope, even (especially) in dire situations, and about the human spirit overcoming even the worst of odds. And when you set a story like that to sweeping violins, imposing drums, and powerful voices, you’ve got something worth more than the sum of its parts. Sure, the bulk of the characters in Les Mis only wind up overcoming their struggles in death, but their deaths are made significant by the music and words that frame them, giving pedestrian casualties of war and poverty poetic meaning—the ordinary made extraordinary (emphasis on the “extra.” Have you heard “One Day More”??)

The musical retains the bones of the story from the novel and smartly keeps it character-focused. The book is padded with tangents on philosophy and French history, which can be a lot to sift through when you just want to find out what the characters do next. That said, even translated from French into English, Hugo’s writing is beautiful. The sentiments captured are universal and lovely—and this is part of why the musical is so good, because it retains this beauty and does it well.

2. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

The mouthful of a musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is an underrated gem. It’s unique, exciting, unpredictable, existential, and based on a short section (volume 2, section 5) of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. And, like the other musical based on an epic novel mentioned two seconds ago, it’s entirely sung and on the longer side. Which, really, is the best kind of musical, no? (Just me?) The music itself feels so new it borders on the avant-garde, while at the same time having the welcoming quality of being, to quote the lyrics, “scruffy and cozy like an old dressing gown.”

A soap opera-y little slice of War and Peace as a whole, Great Comet‘s story revolves around young, naive Natasha, who’s betrothed to one man but seduced by another. There are some hot guys, a promiscuous sister, a crazy old man, a distraught BFF, a wild troika driver—oh, and Pierre, who mostly just whines about how he’s not doing anything with his life (relatable)—all set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia. And there’s a comet, too.

One of the coolest things about Great Comet (and there are many) has to do with its use of Tolstoy’s text. A decent amount of the lyrics are taken verbatim from the (translated) text of War and Peace, interwoven with original lyrics by the composer Dave Malloy, and the characters regularly narrate/sing their own actions. Like, “I blush happily,” and, “I burst into sobs,” and, “A smile lurks at the corner of my mouth.”

This, combined with onstage and cabaret-style seating for audience members, breaks the fourth wall in a novel (pun intended) way: Whereas most musicals and plays are about watching a story unfold in front of you at arm’s length, Great Comet takes you by the hand, puts a glass of vodka in it, and says, Come, gather ’round, sit inside this story with us as we tell it to you. Ironically, something about drawing your attention to the fact that a story is being told gives the musical an intimacy that feels almost like a fireside tale—like a story being read to you.

3. Wicked

Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, among others, doesn’t get enough credit for jump-starting the “What if the fairy tale was told from the villain’s perspective?” trend. Probably because it was the musical adaptation of one of these novels that popularized this trend more than the novel itself.

Wicked the musical and Wicked the book are very different. One is dark, political, sometimes sexual, and pretty grim. The other is…well, compared to all that, a little cheesy. But it’s fine, because it works. Stephen Schwartz (composer of Godspell, Pippin, and lyricist of Pocahontas‘ iconic “Colors of the Wind”) made a musical that’s far more optimistic, cute, and PG-rated than its source material, but it makes sense that it’s a lighter fare.

Since the source material itself comes from source material—L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and because that source material was made into a 1939 film so well-loved that’s it’s still ubiquitous in pop culture today, I think Wicked the musical is required to reference that frequently, which has the affect of making it a little cheesy. You can’t take people who have an image in their heads of a doe-eyed Judy Garland singing about rainbows and put them in front of the Wicked Witch of the West Herself sitting on a stool smoking a cigarette all, “I’ve seen some shit, kid.”

Not that that exact thing happens in the book, but it’s that kind of energy.

Like Les Mis, the bones of the story from the novel make up the musical’s plot (which, if you didn’t know, is The Wizard of Oz told from the point of view of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and guess what, she’s actually kind of a cool normie who’s not so wicked after all). But unlike Les Mis, instead of just leaving some stuff out, anything else taken from the book is changed or heavily watered down. Again, not complaining, because Wicked is fun, has its emotional moments, and despite the trendiness of musical that was originally aimed at a younger generation, the music holds up almost 20 years later.

4. Jesus Christ Superstar

Based on the best-selling book of all time, Jesus Christ Superstar is deservedly the more revered of the two Bible-based musicals by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (the other being Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which is bright, circus-y, and aimed at kids). The rock opera started as a concept album in 1970 before making its way to Broadway a year later, and the album had been such a success that the show already had a fanbase when it opened.

JCS stays true to the events that take place in the New Testament’s four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—Jesus has disciples, including Mary Magdalene, he teaches, the Roman priests make a plot against him, Judas plans to betray him, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion—but the musical also humanizes the Biblical figures and colors in the motivations (Webber’s take, anyway) of Judas and Jesus that aren’t fully revealed in the gospels.

For one, the Bible makes Judas out to be a stock villain. Webber wanted to give more nuance to Judas, showing him as deeply conflicted over his predestined betrayal of Jesus. He’s a sympathetic character in the musical because he believes what he does is for Jesus’s own protection. The story is told more from Judas’s perspective than Jesus’s, and it’s more of a political tale than a religious one.

Another artistic liberty taken is in the romantic feelings Mary Magdalene expresses for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and the musical initially got a Da Vinci Code-like backlash from some of the Christian community who didn’t agree with the implication, or of Jesus being shown as more human than divine.

But Webber’s version of the story—one that’s about religious freedom versus political oppression, that’s about the clashing of opinions between a follower and a leader—is well-suited to a rock soundtrack. You don’t need to be Christian or religious at all to appreciate Judas soulfully singing tormented soliloquies or Jesus belting out his feelings in 70’s rock falsetto.

5. The Phantom of the Opera

Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, or Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, has been adapted so many times in so many mediums that the adaptations alone have their own Wikipedia page. (To be fair, this is also true for Les Mis, but the Phantom page has a lengthy list of musical adaptations, whereas Les Mis only has the one.) But the most well-known without a doubt is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical that, in 2006, became the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

The Leroux novel was published in serialized portions between 1909 and 1910, so it reads a little choppy as a whole. And while the world and suspense created by Leroux are intriguing, the writing itself is average (IMO), which is why the fact that Webber’s Phantom was originally a book can fall by the wayside. Webber took what was a Gothic suspense story and made it a melodrama about a love triangle, passion, the tortured downside of being an artistic genius, and the mysterious inner workings of a grand Paris opera house. He blew it wayyy TF up and turned that shit up to 11. And if there’s any medium you can do that with, it’s musical theatre.

With the musical you have to suspend your disbelief, because if you apply too much of a realistic lens, it winds up being a story about a stalker and a traumatized chorus girl—which is basically what the novel is. Everything about the Phantom musical is over-the-top. That’s what makes it such an experience. This is one story that works better as an ostentatious, extravagant piece of theatre than as a quietly read novel.

*FYI the book of a musical is its own thing. Also called a libretto, the book of a musical is the dialogue and direction that connects the songs. In other words, the script.

“I think I’m in a tragedy.”

“I think I’m in a tragedy.”

©Columbia Pictures

Have you seen 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction lately? It’s really cute.

So here I am, giving it a shout-out.

(It’s on Netflix, if you’re interested.)

IRS agent Harold Crick starts hearing a voice in his head narrating his life and thinks he might be a character in someone’s book. He seeks the help of a literature professor who tells him he needs to figure out whether he’s in a comedy or tragedy.

Harold, who lives a very routine, boring, and lonely life, starts branching out of his comfort zone to put this question to the test and see what might happen, good or bad. He learns guitar, pursues an unlikely love interest, and slowly loosens his rigid way of life in favor of some chance and fun.

Once he hears the voice narrate about how he will die soon, along with learning that the author narrating his life has a penchant for killing off her protagonists, he’s saddened by his impending death, mourning the life he could have had now that he’s learned to truly live.

I won’t say how it ends.

The cast is great—Will Ferrell should do more subdued roles like this. His Harold is super sweet and you can’t help but like him a lot. He and love interest Maggie Gyllenhaal have a lovely chemistry; I actually said aww out loud a couple times. Add Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson as the glum, chain-smoking, death-obsessed author, and it’s a solid ensemble.

©Columbia Pictures

And it’s got lit. jokes.

When Harold tells the literature professor that the author narrated the line, “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death,” about him, the professor is intrigued. The phrase “little did he know” tips him off that this is a third-person omniscient narrator—meaning one that knows more than the characters—and Harold might be telling the truth about the voice he hears. Because if the protagonist were just narrating what he knows of his own life, if Harold were making the voice up, he wouldn’t use an omniscient phrase like this.

“I’ve taught classes on little did he know,” Hoffman’s professor says, smiling knowingly. This seems like a jokey stab at how absurdly granular lit. theory can get, and I know from countless college lit. analysis classes that it’s hilariously accurate.

Another funny stab at the lit. world: the author has an assistant whose sole job is to GET THE WRITER TO WRITE THE DAMN BOOK. It’s a trope based in (some) truth that (some) authors drag their feet finishing a project after having accepted the advance; they feel trapped and locked in by the deadline, lose their creative mojo, and come down with the dreaded writer’s block.

Seeing Queen Latifah calmly but sternly hound Emma Thompson into actually writing something instead of brooding and pondering death made me LOL, and it made me want a similar assistant of my own to keep me on task.

While it might not dive super deep, and while you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit, Stranger Than Fiction is a charming film about our relationship with fictional characters.

Fiction is based in reality. Characters are often based on or inspired by real people. We want our fiction to have an element of realness, and sometimes we want our lives to have a spark of fiction. This movie blurs those lines, trying to answer the question from each side: “What if characters in books existed in real life?” and “What if I was a character in a story?”

It’s a love letter to writing, storytelling, and how fictional characters can seem so very real to us.

Harold Crick: You have to understand that this isn’t a philosophy or a literary theory or a story to me. It’s my life.

Professor Hilbert: Absolutely. So just go make it the one you’ve always wanted.

Stranger Than Fiction
Bangor, Maine: Where IT’s at

Bangor, Maine: Where IT’s at

Last month, I paid a visit to Stephen King’s house and some other King-related spots in Bangor, and I might as well have been stepping into Derry, Maine and the pages of It. Besides the house, here are all the other cool King things I saw in town.

First stop on the tour was the Paul Bunyan statue that inspired the scene in the novel where the statue comes alive and attacks Richie. (The statue’s also featured for a second in It: Chapter Two, though not this exact one since it was filmed in Canada). This was one of the scariest parts of the book for me—inanimate objects coming to life was always a big fear of mine as a kid—and it was kind of creepy to see in person.

Next up was the sewer grate at Jackson and Union that, according to King lore, served as inspiration for where little Georgie gets murdered by Pennywise. This was just down the street and around the corner from King’s house, and I could imagine him walking around the neighborhood when writing the novel, cooking up wonderfully demented ideas.

I saw two grates at this intersection: According to the internet, the round one is allegedly the One, but the square one looks more like the original cover. Who knows—a demented, supernatural clown luring you into either would be equally bad. In any case, I was the weirdo taking pictures of ordinary-looking sewer grates, though I’m sure that neighborhood is used to King fans being extra.

Speaking of stepping into the pages of It, the other side of the Jackson/Union intersection looked straight out of Derry. This could’ve been Bill and Georgie Denbrough’s quiet, tree-lined street, their white, clapboard-sided house uphill from the sewer grates.

The neighborhood was adorable. It’s the kind of place so quaint and sweet that it might make a horror author on a stroll wonder whether everything is as idyllic as it seems. I kept thinking, Ugh, I want to live in a cute sleepy town with sinister stuff lurking under the surface!

The next and maybe coolest stop on my tour was the Thomas Hill Standpipe. Just down the street from the sewer grates and only a few blocks from King’s house, the standpipe is an iron water tank with a wood frame jacket that controls Bangor’s water pressure and holds 1,750,000 gallons of water. In the novel, it’s where Stan first encounters It/Pennywise and sees horrible visions of the victims who drowned in the tank (there have been no IRL drownings, I checked. For reasons.)

As I rounded the corner in my rental and got past a cluster of trees, I was shocked by how this huge thing just came out of nowhere, located smack in the middle of a quaint little neighborhood. Part of it was the fact that, unlike most water towers, it’s not perched on legs—it’s squatting flush on the ground next to you, hunched at the top of a somewhat steep hill.

That was the other part: I should’ve known that the Thomas Hill Standpipe located on Thomas Hill Road would be situated on a hill, but I thought it was such a weird spot to put a gigantic water tower (if it were to break, I imagined the houses on the hill below it being washed away in half a second), and being sat at the top of a hill added even more to its hulking presence.

The viewing deck up top is only open to visitors a few times a year. While I’m sure the view from the top is spectacular, you pay with the journeys up and down the dark, narrow staircase, one of the places where Stan contends with some creepy shit. Just look at it.

Summit Park across the street slopes downhill from the Standpipe and is allegedly where King wrote a large chunk of It on a park bench. This was a a very small park, and there was only one bench, with FREAK spray-painted across it. This may or may not have been the same bench that King frequented in the eighties, but I could still imagine him sitting there writing, coming up with Stan’s ghosts. The Standpipe looms even larger from the park, since the park is downhill. And I’m not ashamed to admit that when the sun started setting, I thought, Yup, it’s Getting Out of Here o’clock.

In downtown Bangor, I noticed a canal running through the heart of downtown, and again I had a feeling of living in the locale of It, since It works insidiously through Derry’s water/sewer system (like through the sewer grate and the Standpipe) and a canal like this exists in Derry too.

It’s actually called the Kenduskeag Stream and it flows into a nearby river, but you could’ve fooled me. Stumbling across something in town that undoubtedly inspired Derry made me smile every time, and made me want to stay in town for a while and write a creepy novel of my own. (Really, this is not a bad writing exercise, to base a fictional town closely on a real one and just add a dash of spooky. Like Tyra says to make it fashion. Take Champaign, Illinois—but make it creepy.)

King obviously loves Bangor since he set one of his longest and most famous novels in its likeness. And it seems that Bangor loves King back, with tributes around the city like this bench featuring him and his dog—though not too much; someone gave our man a funny ‘stache.

Probably that jokester Richie.

I went to Stephen King’s house for my birthday

I went to Stephen King’s house for my birthday

Well, not exactly—today is my birthday, and I went to Stephen King’s house last week. But I went partially as a birthday gift to myself, since 2020 has quashed all my international traveling dreams for the time being, and King’s house has been on my list for awhile. Why not go to Maine in the fall, (on a sanitized, less-than-half-full plane), social distance in a small town (comparatively—Chicagoan here), and see some sights?

For the record, I wore a mask and so were most people I saw in towns in Maine, though as you can see, I removed it for this little photo shoot.

Everything about this house was cool, from the detailed, wrought iron gate made to look like spiders and a spiderweb, to the bat and three-headed dragon sculptures serving as miniature gargoyles, to its blood-red color (not to mention the red balloons left by someone—or something). I would expect nothing less from the King of horror. And the fall foliage only added to the aesthetic.

It was a rainy day in Bangor, but it cleared up right before I arrived at the house (thanks, goddesses). I got few minutes alone to take photos before others who made the pilgrimage started showing up in staggered groups, ending with about 7-8 people total before I left, though I’m sure people come and go all day. It was nice to see how calm and respectful King fans are, especially considering the driveway was open and anybody could’ve walked onto the property—warned first, of course, by a “24-hour surveillance” sign.

While most fans hope to catch a glimpse of the author himself, I’ve read that King no longer lives here full-time (I’m sure the most prolific horror writer in the U.S. has a multitude of homes). He and his wife Tabitha are in the process of turning the house into an office for King’s estate, a home for his archives, and as a retreat spot for visiting writers.

The wooden sculpture in the front yard was just unveiled in April 2020. King hired Josh Landry, a chainsaw sculptor based in Maine, to transform the dead remnants of a massive ash tree that was partially removed a few years ago into a sculpture featuring animals and books. The longer I looked at this, the more details I noticed, like that the legs of the bookshelf are made to look like human legs and feet, and the dog at the bottom appears to be a Corgi, a nod to King having been the owner of multiple Corgis, including his current familiar, Molly, aka the Thing of Evil.

While in Bangor, I saw a lot of King-related sights, namely because King based the fictional Derry, Maine featured in some of his novels—including arguably his most ubiquitous, the nearly-1,200-page It—on the town. Check out my post on that stuff here!

P. S. If you’re interested in planning your own Stephen King-inspired trip to Bangor, I recommend this travel blog, Oddities & Curiosities. These guys made a custom Google map showing exactly where all the hot spots are, and I found it really useful. I’ve also heard of guided tours in Bangor for all things King, but I didn’t look into them too much in favor of keeping social distance.

Aside

Whatcha readin’?

I want to review more books on this blog, but I’ve been dreadfully behind on my reading goal for 2020—for a lot of reasons, like being busy with work, moving to a new apartment, a global pandemic, among other things—so now I’m playing catch-up. And in lieu of a review right now, here’s what I’m currently reading (or reading soon).

(Not pictured: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. I’ve been reading it for 84 years. Don’t @ me.)

Look at this cute little stack.

All from the library except the top one. And (unintentionally) all different genres! Sci-fi, horror, contemporary fiction (kind of an umbrella term but, more specifically, like, non-genre bestseller fiction), memoir, and thriller/mystery.

  • A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green: I spontaneously grabbed this sci-fi novel in a local bookstore because I’m a fan of Green’s brother author John Green’s novels—not knowing it was the second book in a duology. Whoops. So, now that I’ve caught up and read book #1 (An Absolutely Remarkable Thing), I’m finally digging into this one.
  • Malorie by Josh Malerman: The sequel to Bird Box, which I read last summer after seeing the Sandra Bullock Netflix movie and learning that it was also a horror novel! I’m excited for this one; only a few pages in and shit is already going down.
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: I know only two things about this novel that lead me to picking it up at the library: 1) It’s gotten excellent reviews, 2) There’s a miniseries with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington I want to watch (that’s also gotten great reviews) but I’d rather read it first.
  • Over the Top by Jonathan van Ness: I haven’t read a memoir yet this year, and normally it’s one of my top genres. JVN is adorable. I love his work on Queer Eye and his commendable work on his own Instagram stories documenting his four cats eating breakfast every morning. If I’m being honest, that’s what pushed me to finally grab this one. *LOLs in cat lady*
  • Someone We Know by Shari Lapena: I’m a sucker for a good mystery and/or thriller, and I’ve enjoyed the other novels by Lapena I’ve read (A Stranger in the House and The Couple Next Door). Thinking I’ll probably crack this open after Malorie.

What are you reading?

100th post!

100th post!

I’m having tons of fun on this blog—it’s something I would do even if it were a shout into the void (though, really, isn’t everything?), but it’s even better to share the love, so thanks for following and/or popping in!

For my 100th post, I thought I’d share my own bookshelf. This one I’ve only had for about a week. I love it. I recently moved and figured that was as good an excuse as any to upgrade from my overflowing four- to a six-shelfer.

Fiction section. The gap on the top shelf next to Hank Green is where his An Absolutely Remarkable Thing should go but I’m currently reading 👀
Nonfiction in the middle. My baby poetry collection on the bottom (though, in all fairness, the Norton Anthology is DENSE). And the one Funko Pop I own, Sabrina Spellman with Salem, next to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, which is *chef’s kiss* if you like creepy things.

Here’s to the next 100! Thanks for reading.

Death of the author and J.K. Rowling

Death of the author and J.K. Rowling

©E. Hull, 1827

Sigh. This is happening.

The concept of “death of the author” was introduced by French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1967, the most basic definition of which argues that an author’s intentions and biographical facts (their politics, religion, etc.) should hold no special weight to readers’ interpretations of their writing. That, once published, the text belongs to the reader, not the author—i.e., art should be separate from the artist.

It’s a concept that’s supes tempting to use to make it easier to cope when one of your favorite authors has outed herself as cringey.

Siiiiiiigh.

Three things first—contradictory, perhaps, but to be fair, this is a tricky subject:

  1. I’m very sad about J. K. Rowling’s recent comments. I’m sad to see this side of her and sad that she’s choosing to die on this hill, in such a weird time, at that. I’m disappointed that she’s using her (highly influential) platform to promote the harmful notion that trans women are a threat to cis women’s experiences. I’m sad she’s alienating so much of her fanbase and colleagues (not to mention sullying her own legacy). Seeing this unfold, and after reading through her 3,000+ word blog post (in which she writes ‘woman’ is not a costume, opposes trans people using the bathrooms of their preference implying they’re predatory, and shows derision for inclusive language like “people who menstruate,” claiming that terms like this are degrading to women, when ironically she’s the one who would like to define women by and reduce them to uterus ownership), this whole thing has felt kind of like mourning to me—I used to really love her and this whole thing is just sad.
  2. Not to be The Onion‘s “Man Always Gets Little Rush Out of Telling People John Lennon Beat Wife” guy, and I know this argument may come off like I’m grasping at straws—and maybe I am—but I think it’s safe to say we all like art created by flawed artists. If we stopped engaging with pieces of art because their creators held a bad opinion, I would hazard a guess that that takes most art off the table for our enjoyment. Am I going to avoid listening to “In My Life” or the Sgt. Pepper album because Lennon was a dick to his family? No. But at the same time I’m not going to justify his bad behavior, nor go around praising him as a peaceful figure. All that said, I understand this isn’t a one-to-one comparison with Rowling, because one of these people has been dead for decades and the other is alive and actively tweeting and influencing.
  3. I will always love the Harry Potter series. It’s been a part of my life longer than it hasn’t, as a 31-year-old who started reading the books at 12. It played a big part in my friendships, my passion for reading and writing. It probably indirectly influenced my decision to become an English major. The culture around the series and its film extensions has been such a source of joy for me and countless others. The same way I won’t give up listening to The Beatles despite Lennon’s behavior, I can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Harry Potter. But I certainly won’t be going around touting J. K. Rowling as a wonderful author or inspiration anymore.

Now that I’ve got my feels out of the way, let’s revisit “death of the author” (DOTA).

The thing is, as tempting as it to cry “DOTA” about J.K. Ro, it doesn’t really work. DOTA is merely a literary theory about separating the author’s background and ideals that could’ve influenced their work from the text itself. It’s also about separating the author’s intent for the text from our own interpretation of it (e.g., Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is widely read as being anti-meat, but Sinclair really wrote it as a rally for socialism). It’s an academic tool. It doesn’t apply to fuckery being spewed by the author long after the text was published.

So, how do we reconcile our love for Harry Potter with the ickiness of its creator?

The answer: I don’t know.

My take: Continue to love and read Harry Potter if you want to, if it’s so deeply a part of your life and formative years that it would break your heart to let go. I fall into this camp. But trying to morally justify Rowling’s opinions only helps exonerate her and could help continue to feed her influence to spread harmful ideas about a marginalized group. Like the thing, with the awareness that the thing’s creator is problematic, and with the awareness that the way you talk about it or promote it could promote those views.

That said, I don’t know what this form of art consumption—the kind where you like the thing but don’t want to endorse the thing’s creator—looks like yet.

In the meantime—and especially if you’re on the side of Rowling—you can learn more about why the “gender critical” mindset is just thinly veiled discomfort with (at best) or hatred of (at worst) trans people from one of my favorite YouTubers, Natalie Wynn:

Why I underline and highlight in my books

Why I underline and highlight in my books

I used to think that writing in books was sacrilege.

Then, freshman year of college, I was reading a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson I had borrowed from my cousin when I came across a highlighted paragraph. “Why would you do that?” I asked her, scandalized.

“Because I might not read that book again, and this way I can remember the parts I liked,” she answered. I hadn’t thought of it like that, as a way to preserve your love of a book, rather than a sign of careless treatment of it. I changed my mind in about .02 seconds and I’ve been marking up my books ever since. (Never the library’s or any I borrow; I’m not an animal.)

It’s nice to grab a book from the shelf sometimes and page through, reading passages I’ve marked. It’s how I source a lot of the quotes for this blog. And even if I start by reading a few highlighted lines, I may get pulled in and wind up reading an entire page or two—or just decide to start over and read the whole book.

So, funnily enough, my intent in underlining and calling out passages to keep love of books and stories alive without having to read them again, often results in my reading them again.

I’ve played myself, but also not.

Happy underlining, folks.

The Beauty and the Beast library

The Beauty and the Beast library

©Disney

Probably my favorite of the Disney Princess classics, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast features a gorgeous castle library and a bookworm heroine. What’s not to love?

I know I wasn’t the only kid whose mind was blown every time they saw the animated library revealed in sweeping angles when the Beast gifts it to Belle. I couldn’t imagine ever having enough time to read all those books, and definitely thought, “But how do you even reach the ones on the high shelves?” If the Beast had been cooped up there all those years, at least he had no shortage of stories to read.

While a lot of libraries were probably used as inspiration, some point out the similarities between the library in the Disney film and that of Admont Abbey’s in Austria. It’s the world’s largest monastery library and is home to 70,000 books. (Also, you might recognize the ceiling artwork as being similar to the ballroom’s in the film’s “Beauty and the Beast” AKA “Tale As Old As Time” scene.)

©Stift Admont
©Disney

Belle spoke for us all when she said, “I’ve never seen so many books in all my life!”

The B&tB library is clearly well-loved: In my google-searching, I came across this insane LEGO set custom-created out of 25,000 pieces by flickr user Sarah von Innerebner:

Okay, I’m off to go dream about having a reading room even one-tenth the size of this one in my home someday. In the meantime, we can make like pre-castle Belle and hit up our (eventually reopening) local libes.

©Disney