My Teenage (Book) Crush

Inspired by this post over at The Awl, I thought about the books I read as a teen, and which ones I had absolute crushes on, and which ones I would be embarrassed by today. Surprisingly, there wasn’t too much cringing from my past reads, far less than I’d expected. Here’s a sampling:

  • Anne Rice: The Witching Hour – I’m afraid there’s still no embarrassment here. Read it when I was 12 and I still love it today. I was never as fond of the sequels (Lasher & Taltos), as the character of Rowan began to disappoint me.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Mists of Avalon – Definitely had a crush and loved Morgaine, but I haven’t picked this one up in eons, though it sits patiently on my bookshelf still. But embarrassed? Not especially.
  • Bram Stoker: Dracula – I still have a crush on this book, though I’m not reading it wide-eyed as I was when I was nine. (That scene where Dracula forces Mina to drink his blood was compelling: ‘The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.’)
  • All the Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore – I suppose if anything was going to be embarrassing, these books would be the ones. I have most of them still in paperback, but like The Mists of Avalon, they’ve sat untouched for years. It’s some nostalgic bit of me that can’t give them up just yet.
  • Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged – Every once in a while I cringe at having read this book, but I do still like it. I don’t take it seriously, and I certainly wouldn’t pull a Greenspan and base actual economics off of it, but some of the imagery sticks in my mind: ‘Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision.’
  • Peter & Leni Gillman: Alias David Bowie – This biography (written in the mid-80s) and other Bowie bios were ones I inhaled as a teen. The library had a whole stock, and most of them were not that well written and relied heavily on rumour. Alias focused more on the mental illness in the Jones family, and it was rather intrusive. This is definitely a cringe-worthy selection.
  • Anya Seton: Katherine – Historical fiction about Katherine Swynford, the mistress of John of Gaunt. Nope, sorry, can’t feel embarrassed about this one either.

Are there any books you feel embarrassed to have read when you were younger? Or are you of the opinion that every book is worthwhile, even if it seems silly years later? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 11: My Trip to Paris (3)

Oh, my third day in Paris was a lot of fun!

Beauvoir / Sartre Grave (Montparnasse)After a nice lie-in, we went to the Cimetière du Montparnasse. There are hundreds of famous people buried here (including the chess great Alekhine, philosopher Baudrillard, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, and Man Ray), but of course, I was here to see the grave of Sartre & Beauvoir.

The cemetery is huge and we covered as much as we could, though we had trouble finding some of the graves we wanted to see. We found Baudelaire’s monument, but not his grave, for instance. However, we did manage to find several others. Mostly I like to visit graveyards to see what sort of grave art has been used. Unlike lots of cemeteries here in western Canada, European cemeteries have far more interesting grave monuments. Mausoleums are almost completely unheard of here. However, in Montparnasse, there were many. We even had to take shelter against one when the sky opened up and poured down on us. (We had, of course, forgotten to take an umbrella.)

Montparnasse cemeteryRather damp, we left the cemetery to go tour the Catacombs. Yes, from one bunch of dead people to another… though the Catacombs are an awful lot of bones, and it’s not even close to the same. Creepier by far. (However, it’s also one of the cheapest attractions I saw in Paris – only €2,50.)

Before that, we had a bite of lunch at a café, and I had the misfortune to eat some crevettes (shrimp) that were a bit off. By the time we got to the Catacombs, I was starting to feel ill. Not the best way to start a tour of human remains. In my journal, I note ‘Well, if you’ve seen one pile of bones you’ve seen them all’, and after awhile it did seem that way. The photo below is the section of bones from the old Les Innocents cemetery. Being an Anne Rice fan (with many references to the cemetery in Interview With the Vampire), I couldn’t resist.

The Catacombs

At the exit, our bags were searched. I hadn’t realized until then that people would try to steal bones. It didn’t even enter my mind. I did remark to my mother that it would be rather interesting to go back in time, if only to tell those people who expected to be buried at Les Innocents and the other graveyards that their bones would in the future become the basis of a major tourist attraction. Immortality? Peut-être.

(And, the perfect ending to my day? Seeing an ad for Vittel featuring David Bowie. Awesome!)

Black, White, or Grey?

I was watching an old Humphrey Bogart film the other day – HIGH SIERRA, from 1941 – and it got me thinking about the portrayals of good and bad in stories. Not only that, I started thinking about some of my favourite stories, and why I like them.

One of the things they had in common? Morally ambiguous characters.

Roy Earle, Bogart’s character in the film, is a hardened criminal. He’s released from prison and hired to help pull off a high stakes robbery of a resort in California. Should be easy, right? As was standard in films, he even looked the part: dark clothes, a scowl, and his lines delivered with the right amount of toughness. Except… it’s just not that easy. Roy Earle is humanized for the viewer with his desire for Velma, the charming young woman with a club foot. He even dreams of marrying her. He adopts a dog, Pard, while waiting around for the heist to go off. And most tellingly, he hooks up with a street-smart taxi dancer named Marie, telling her time and again that she doesn’t mean anything to him, and that if the going got tough, he’d have to park her. However, his actions belie his words and he takes care of her and tries, albeit awkwardly, to make her happy.

It would be hard for a film-goer to have any sympathy for the gangsters portrayed in the 1930s by Cagney, Robinson, and Paul Muni, but Bogart’s Roy Earle was a game-changer in the world of film. Audiences were rooting for the man that, not even five years earlier, would have been portrayed solely as a heartless killer.

If a villain has been written as soulless and unquestionably evil, my interest in the story will quickly wane. Even Lasher, in Anne Rice’s novel THE WITCHING HOUR, wasn’t all bad. His goal was destructive to others, but his desire for that goal was entirely human and understandable. Rowan, the lauded neurosurgeon with her life-saving powers, is not the knight on the white charger. The decisions she makes are just as flawed, just as human, as anyone else’s would be.

Humanizing the villain, giving them an opportunity to be in conflict with themselves instead of just with your hero, goes a long way towards making a story linger after the last page has been turned.