A Story I Can’t Stop Thinking About

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I’d heard people talking about the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, obviously, but I didn’t get around to seeing it until, funnily enough, flying home from San Francisco yesterday.

Did it live up to the hype?

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The Sisters Who Travel Together

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Continuing with my travel essays series, this week I bring you: how a week in the tower room of a French chateau with my sister taught me the secret to family harmony.

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Book Review: The Infernal Devices

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“Heroes endure because we need them. Not for their own sakes.”

I finished The Mortal Instruments series a couple of months ago, and while I most certainly enjoyed it, it definitely had its highs and lows, a mix of 3, 4, and 5-star moments. I put off reading The Infernal Devices because I thought my experience would be the same.

I was wrong.

“You and I, we’re alike. We live and breathe words. It was books that kept me from taking my own life after I thought I could never love anyone, never be loved by anyone again. It was books that made me feel that perhaps I was not completely alone.”

I loved these books.

They were more well-written, more well-plotted, the setting more richly-imagined, with the characters more finely-drawn. They surprised me, had me looking forward to waking up each day so I could start reading, had me fighting sleep every night so I could keep reading.

“It is the only way any of this can ever mean anything. Otherwise it is only—”
“Pointless, needless suffering and pain? I don’t suppose it would help if I told you that is the way life is. The good suffer, the evil flourish, and all that is mortal passes away.”

The Infernal Devices is a prequel trilogy to the Mortal Instruments. It takes place in Victorian London, and tells of the demon-hunting ancestors of characters I’d already come to know, with a few (immortal) characters actually appearing in both sets of books. The basic plot set-up is similar: girl with no knowledge of the supernatural world is suddenly thrown into danger, she learns of her mysterious heritage while helping to fight demons, and along the way meets a cute boy.

Or two.

“And I came to see that I could not bring someone home when they were already there.”

The real draw to this series, of course, is the thing all my favorite books have in common: well-written characters.

“You cannot buy or drug or dream your way out of pain.”

The secondary characters were all fine and good, but Will, Tessa, and Jem absolutely captured my heart. Their relationships were so perfectly constructed. I will always, always, prefer relationships that start as friendships, the long and drawn out sexual tension, to be culminated in some beautifully-written scenes where … but I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Spoilers after the jump…

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What (I Think) Really Happened in Tana French’s In the Woods

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THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP

This is the second best book I’ve ever read. (The first best is Tana French’s follow-up novel, the Likeness–I’ll get around putting my love for that beautiful novel into words at some point I review that here).

The fact that this book has anything fewer than five stars on Goodreads and Amazon is one of the main reasons I tend to disregard reviews from people whose tastes I don’t know when deciding what to read next. This book is perfect: the characters, the beautiful sentences, the plot, the themes. Perfect, I tell you.

The premise is chilling and engrossing: In 1984, three children disappear into the woods outside a suburb of Dublin. Hours later, only one little boy is found, with blood on his shoes and slashes on his back and no memory of the previous hours. The other two children are never found. Twenty years later, Rob Ryan, the found boy, is a detective, investigating the murder of another child in those same woods. And though the mysteries are well-spun yarns, it’s the characters that get to me in this novel, especially how beautifully drawn Rob and his partner Cassie are. That, and the beautiful sentences.

Reasons to read this book:

1. The aforementioned beautiful sentences:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palette, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.

2. The voice of your narrator, Rob Ryan:

The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

3. The relationship between Rob and his partner, Cassie:

The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.

4. Its ability to maintain its sense of humor through its devastating, sometimes gruesome story:

I recently found a diary entry from college in which I described my classmates as “a herd of mouth-breathing fucktard yokels who wade around in a miasma of cliché so thick you can practically smell the bacon and cabbage and cow shit and alter candles.” Even assuming I was having a bad day, I think this shows a certain lack of respect for cultural differences.

5. The sheer truth of its sentences:

We think about mortality so little these days, except to flail hysterically at it with trendy forms of exercise and high-fiber cereals and nicotine patches. I thought of the stern Victorian determination to keep death in mind, the uncompromising tombstones: Remember, pilgrim, as you pass by, As you are now so once was I; As I am now so will you be…. Now death is uncool, old-fashioned. To my mind the defining characteristic of our era is spin, everything tailored to vanishing point by market research, brands and bands manufactured to precise specifications; we are so used to things transmuting into whatever we would like them to be that it comes as a profound outrage to encounter death, stubbornly unspinnable, only and immutably itself.

6. The incredible themes, and I think this is what a lot of people who posted negative reviews missed. They’re somewhat subtle, but so finely spun once you find them. I can’t get into them without getting spoilery, so SPOILERS after the jump.

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The Accidental Writer

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 Tana French (whom I LOVE) on accidentally becoming a writer (from this interview):

“She didn’t quite know how, though, as she hadn’t ever tried writing in the past. ‘I thought I could never write a proper book, I’d never done it before. But I thought I could write a sequence. Then I had a chapter. The next thing I knew I was turning acting down,’ she says. ‘I wanted to find out what happened. I don’t outline or anything, I don’t know whodunit … I really wanted to know what on earth happened to this guy, and the only way to find out was to write it.’ She tentatively sent the finished manuscript to an editor friend, to find out if she should ‘shove it under the bed or keep going’, and shortly afterwards ended up with a two-book deal. Then came the awards, the sales and the critical acclaim.”

As I go through the querying process, I’m reminded that every brilliant writer had to get their start somewhere. I’m nowhere near Tana French levels of genius–I imagine if she had had to query, the first agent to read a sentence of her writer would have jumped on it–but like her, I’m just going to keep going.

70th Anniversary of D-Day

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I know there’s a lot going on today–Friday! TFIOS!–but I still think the best thing about today is that it’s the 70th anniversary of D-Day. An important turning point of the last indisputably “good” war America fought in, a day so many sacrifices were made.

Ten years ago I was studying abroad in Dijon when two friends and I decided to hop the night train to Paris and then on to Caen so we could be there on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. It was an interesting trip to say the least–trips you don’t plan at all always are–but we do have some good memories of that day. (And some super unsophisticated photos, like the above–I used to think it was cool to date-stamp every photo, though it does come in use here, in case you think I’m lying.)

There were a lot of old men in uniform that day, and I just stared at them, thinking of the stories they could tell. My Papa is 94 years old and has dementia, yet he can still recall that day with amazing clarity (He didn’t land on those beaches, he disembarked at Le Havre, which is probably why he’s still with us).

Little did I know at the time that in a few short years I would spend an entire year of my life living and working in Saint-Lô, a little-known yet extremely important Normandy town in terms of World War II history. Little did I also know that I’d be inspired to write a novel that revolves around the events of that fateful day and what happened to a town caught in the crossfire–a town later dubbed “The Capital of Ruins”.

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To the memory of the victims of the bombardment that destroyed the town of Saint-Lô, the 6th of June, 1944

Whatever I or anybody else writes, we can never do justice to what happened that day and the horrible ways in which so many people died. But we can try. I think that’s the beauty of stories, as opposed to historical texts; the attempt to take us into the lives and minds of the people who lived and died on that day, what they thought, what they felt.

Tonight, I’m going to rewatch Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, whatever my dad feels like watching (he’s a huge history buff). I’m going to drink some Calvados and be thankful for my Papa and every other soul who was there on that day, fighting for freedom.

Do you mispronounce the words you read?

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My father is an avid reader (which is presumably where I got it from). And my grandma loves to tell stories about how he was always mispronouncing words he’d read in books.

“I’d like some soo-ed (suede) shoes for Christmas.”

“Lisa was in my room and now it’s in chay-ose (chaos)!”

We always laugh at these stories. But then a few weeks ago, I was talking about this place I used to visit in college, called Purgatory Chasm. And yes, I pronounced it with the “ch”. Everyone laughed. I swore never to do it again.

Then yesterday I said something about a myriad of choices. And I pronounced it “my-rade”.

I’ve been reading that word for years. And apparently never paid attention to the fact that the i comes before the a (I’m not dyslexic, either).

I don’t think it makes me stupid, just in possession of such a large vocabulary some trivial things (such as pronunciation) tend to slip from time to time.

Do you ever mispronounce words you read in books?

Aspirations (or On the Brilliance that is Tana French)

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I have what you’d call an eclectic taste in books. I’ve read obscure books, trendy books, YA, middle-grade, crime thrillers, memoirs, you name it.

Not everything I read is perfect. There are a lot of things that make up a perfect book, for me at least: a character-driven story, at least one character you fall irrevocably in love with, the ability to live inside the story, beautiful sentences, themes that make me think really hard about something in a new way. But even if it’s not perfect, as long as you have a well-told story, you have my attention.

The perfect story has all these things and more. It’s one I’ll think about constantly and will read over and over again.

Tana French has written four such stories.

It will take me more than one post to get into the absolute perfection that are the Dublin Murder Squad novels. I don’t even think I have the right words (and I’m someone who spends a great deal of time searching for the right words). Not only are these books unputdownable, the settings remarkably drawn, the characters so real you can taste them, the sentences are so beautiful they make my eyes hurt.

Not one of these novels has a 5-star Amazon review (not that I trust Amazon reviews—more on that later). But at least a few other people have recognized just how beautiful these stories are.

Tana French is everything I aspire to be as a writer. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I’m having a hell of a time on the journey.

I’ll leave you with just a small selection of her beautiful sentences…
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