that moment when a book becomes everything

Lately I’ve been nostalgic for the books I read in my youth. I don’t know why, but I can’t get them out of my mind. Are you ever jealous of someone who is reading one of your beloved novels for the very first time? They’re just stepping into the world of authors like Lorrie Moore or Jamaica Kincaid or characters like Thomas Cromwell or Harry Potter. Oh, to enter the wizarding world anew! If you’ve never had that feeling, my guess is you aren’t a serious reader. You probably didn’t find that book when you were younger, the book that sweeps you away and leaves you losing hours in the comforting hush of libraries, digging through musty used bookstores, piling up books in every nook and cranny of your house, sniffing a brand-new book like it’s a drug.

I think that may be what it’s about. I’m reminiscing about what it was like to discover the world of literature. It really is a world. It’s a whole other world you have no idea is out there until you find yourself in the midst of it. And then your brain’s soft explosion leaves you changed forever. There is always another place you can go to even when you are stuck in bed with a fever or frustrated with the way of the world or really just hating life. You realize that as long as you have these places in your mind, you are safe.

Do you have safe places in your mind? Sometimes when everything is crappy, I open one of my Harry Potter books for an hour or so, and then I feel much better. But often my recollection does just as well. And this translates to real-life experiences. When I’m flying and turbulence hits, I go to the number-one happy place in my head, which took place ten years ago. My family was in southern California for a wedding, and we spent a day at the beach. No one wanted to go into the water but my three-year-old niece and me. So I pulled her onto my back and we threw ourselves against the waves, laughing and laughing with each one, until we wore ourselves out. I think it’s years of serious reading that allow me to conjure up that memory so clearly, perhaps embellish it a bit to fit my present need, and forget (mostly) that the plane might plummet to the sea, leaving me the lone survivor floating on a piece of wreckage in a storm surrounded by sharks. In the middle of the ocean. (My imagination stoking unlikely, if not impossible, fears is, of course, the other side of the reading coin.)

Anyway, I’ve been so nostalgic lately that I actually listened to a Judy Blume audio book on my phone the other day while painting the bedroom. It was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which stood up fairly well, better than I expected. And it made me feel like youth was better than I remembered it to be, like maybe middle school wasn’t such a horror after all. It just felt like that at the time, and now that I’m more than twenty years away from it, there are things I can appreciate about it and, dare I say…miss? Don’t you miss that thrill of discovery, of a whole world you’ve yet to traverse?

I think there’s another element in here: the book series. Sometimes a writer creates a world I don’t want to leave, so a series can be the ultimate delight. I miss them, and they are mostly to be found in genre fiction, of which I read little. Young adult fiction is rife with series, and I remember being so immersed in them that I felt like a character. Going on to read the second or third or twelfth book was very much about seeing what I would do next as Nancy Drew or Claudia Kishi or Ramona Quimby.

I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of Nancy Drew* as a kid, so the first story I wrote was my own version of Nancy Drew. Then I wrote other stories based on books I’d read or movies I’d seen. It was an obvious way to keep those worlds going, and that very desire may have been what got me started as a writer. At some point, I moved away from that to create my own narratives, but they were still very influenced by what I’d read and seen. For instance, I created a fashion book (at age 10, I believe) full of childish designs with descriptions of how and where they were to be worn. In the lengthy acknowledgements, I thanked my boyfriend, Adam Curry, MTV VJ and host of Headbangers Ball, which I was not allowed to watch.

There were other series I loved and that still stick with me. One was The Baby-sitter’s Club. I wanted it to be my life, and I so adored it that I actually watched the movie when it came out in 1995 even though I was eighteen. I have to confess that I’d watch it now. In fact, I’m tempted to find one of the books at the library and see if it stands the test of time. I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed, however, and the Stoneybrook that still lives in my imagination will be silly and dull.

When I think of all those beloved books I read as a kid, I can smell the old library where I met many of them for the first time. My sister and I spent every other weekend at our dad’s, and he would take us to his library branch, which was in a strip mall, but no less special for its sad location. Rather, it stands out to me as a magical place. Next to the TJ Maxx was a room full of books and every book could be mine for a couple of weeks. There was no way I could get through them all. There were always more good books waiting to be taken home and devoured.

I think of that place, gray and plain as it may have been, and the many books I cherished. I look at kids of that age today, and I think, wait until you read this one or that one; your whole world will change. I realize they will also discover fabulous books that didn’t exist when I was young. And I feel good about life and the future.

*Did you know there are Nancy Drew games?

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reanimating diana: young woman as mythic hero

artemisI’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.

As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.

As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.

And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.

Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.

There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?

Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.

It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.

The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.

Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.

What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.