Movie Night with Book Club.

My book club has gone through a string of heavy, rewarding and highly-involving books; when it was time to pick the next title, we all were craving something lighter. We still wanted to have the next plot somehow connect to the one that came before it — Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, was, amongst other things, about the relationship between brothers and sisters, so when someone brought up Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews we laughingly agreed that it would be a good fit. We decided not only to read the book, but to also watch the film adaptation. Only two of us had read the novel before (neither Heather nor Melissa could really remember the details), and none of us had seen the movie, so we thought it would be a perfect departure from our reading record, which has included such titles as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall, both densely-written books.

You just try and tell me that my book club isn’t the best ever.

I’m too young to recall the hoopla surrounding the book when it was first published in 1979, but I distinctly remember seeing copies for sale in the book aisle of ShopRite when I was a kid; its cover art completely drew me in, even though I had no idea what the story was about. There was an illustration of a house, and in one of the topmost windows was a cut-out — as if it were an actual window — through which I could see the picture of a blonde girl. (Honestly, I thought it was the coolest thing.) When I flipped open the cover, the second page revealed the blonde girl surrounded by a blond boy and two younger golden-haired children. Behind the four of them was an ominous figure approaching them from out of the shadows; all five had pallid skin, leading me to think at that young age that this was a scary book, possibly about vampires.

I was wrong, on both counts.

There is nothing scary about Flowers in the Attic, except perhaps Andrews’s unnecessarily abundant use of punctuation and her inability to write not only realistic dialogue, but a believable narrative in general. Here’s an example from the very beginning:

“Yes, Momma, I know exactly what you mean,” Christopher piped up. “You did something of which your father disapproved, and so, even though you were included in his will, he had his lawyer write you out instead of thinking twice, and now you won’t inherit any of his worldly goods when he passes on to the great beyond.” He grinned, pleased with himself for knowing more than me. He always had the answers to everything. He had his nose in a book whenever he was in the house. Outside, under the sky, he was just as wild, just as mean as any other kid on the block. But indoors, away from the television, my older brother was a bookworm!

For those of you are unaware, Flowers in the Attic is the story of the four Dollanganger children: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie. At the beginning of the novel, which spans three years, Chris and Cathy are fourteen and twelve respectively, while fraternal twins Cory and Carrie are five. When their father is killed in a car accident, their mother Corrine moves them to her childhood home in Virginia, which isn’t so much a house as it is a sprawling mansion. Upon arrival, the children learn that Corrine’s parents have exiled her from the family for marrying her half-uncle; in order to get back into her father’s good graces — as well as to lay claim to her inheritance — Corrine conspires with her mother to hide the four children in an unused portion of the manor while she sweet-talks her father. The novel gets its title from the playground the Dollanganger children make for themselves beneath the mansion’s eaves, since they are locked into a room with attic access and are forbidden to leave. Over the years, Cathy and Chris become increasingly attracted to each other, even going so far as to, um, consummate their relationship.

It would be a flat-out lie to say that any of us enjoyed the book, though I do know that we all burned through it; Amanda says it was because she just wanted it to be over already. Even so, we were determined to watch the movie version when we met up at Heather’s adorable new house.

Before we assembled ourselves onto the vast sofa (which we kept on referring to as “the party raft”), we had to get down to the serious business of food prep. After all, in our book club, what we eat is just as important as what we read… one could even argue that it’s even more important, in some cases.

While Stephanie rolled out the crust for two pizzas (rosemary, red potato and smoked cheese; eggplant and goat cheese), Heather fried up some squash fritters, which she served alongside a zingy mustard dipping sauce. Darlington had baked some scallion-and-cheese biscuits, Melissa had made a mixed-berry pie and Amanda provided the drinks. Earlier in the week I had volunteered to make a mac and cheese because I had a craving, but I had been hankering for a specific version: my aunt’s.

(My aunt Hasmig is my father’s sister, meaning she spends her time hanging out on the Lebanese and Armenian branches of my family tree. The thing is, I was raised to address her with Tagalog word for aunt, which is Tita. But none of that matters though, because her mac and cheese is neither Armenian nor Filipino. It’s just tasty and, better still, can be eaten with your hands once cooled and cut into squares. This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t use a fork and knife, but what I want to know is why would you?)

When we were settled on the raft with our heaping plates and overflowing glasses, it was movie time. For a while, we kept shouting out derisive commentary to drown out the dialogue — yes, the film is that awful — but after a time we stopped doing even that. In fact, half of us fell asleep; I think I might have been the first to close my eyes, come to think of it. None of this stopped us from looking up factoids about the film afterwards — Kristy Swanson won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture, the exteriors were shot at Castle Hill in Ipswich — and it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading the sequels. As terrible as Flowers in the Attic was, I just need to know what happens, the same way I just have to finish an open bag of Milanos: it’s unhealthy, irresistible and very regrettable indeed.

Tita Hasmig’s Mac + Cheese
Makes about twelve portions.

1 pound egg noodles
1 stick butter, plus one quarter
½ cup flour
4 cups milk (I use skim since that is what I drink, but if you can even use cream or half-and-have you want something richer)
1 pound mozzarella cheese
bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook egg noodles according package instructions. Drain and set aside.
  2. While noodles cook, melt butter in a large saucepan. Gradually stir flour into melted butter and cook over medium heat; whisk until a roux forms, then stir in milk. Whisk constantly until combined and sauce is free of lumps. Add cheese and salt and pepper; continue to stir until cheese has melted completely.
  3. Grease the bottom and sides of a large Pyrex or oven-proof baking dish, then evenly distribute breadcrumbs across the surface. Add cooked noodles to cheese and stir to combine. Pour noodle and cheese mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the top with more bread crumbs. Cut the last quarter stick of butter into pieces and scatter across the breadcrumbs. Bake until top browns, about thirty minutes or so. Let cool, and cut into squares.

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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

(Yes, this is another reread, but what can I say?)

the-lovely-bones.jpgWhen The Lovely Bones came out in 2002, I was amongst the many who couldn’t put it down until the last line was read. And then… I didn’t touch it again until Keith and I were about to move to our new house; I packed it into a box, along with other items I then gave away. A few months ago, however, Keith came home with a battered copy, and I couldn’t help myself. Just as when I read it almost six years ago, I finished it over the course of something like two days. But did the novel still hold up?

Surprisingly, I think yes, but only with a grain of salt.

I’m not giving anything away with the following synopsis: The Lovely Bones is the story of fourteen-year-old Pennsylvanian Susie Salmon, who, in the winter of 1973, is raped and murdered by a neighbor. Afterwards, he literally breaks down her body into parts for disposal, while Susie’s understandably-traumatized soul shoots up to heaven. From that vantage point, Susie watches her family and schoolmates cope with her sudden and violent death — the evidence of which relies mainly upon a pompom-ed winter hat and the only found remains, an elbow.

Consider me disgusting for feeling this way, but including this incredibly evocative detail is brilliance on Sebold’s part. However, profoundly resonant details do not a novel make. Luckily, Sebold also has the narrative to rely upon; by killing Susie, she does something quite incredible: she gives us a protagonist who tells her story in both the first- and third-person omniscient.

While I remain to this day thoroughly impressed with the concept, I can’t help but wonder: is this gimmicky? Keith, of course, put it best when he said to me, “If it is a mechanism that is driving the story — instead of the story driving the mechanism — then it is a gimmick.”

So. Would the story hold up without Susie narrating from The Great Beyond, without her new-found insight regarding her family’s ongoing lives? I can’t help but think that it would not, though I do firmly believe that Sebold’s narrative choice is a gimmick of the most elegant design. Think about it: an audience attends a magic show knowing it is going to be mystified and bamboozled, after all.

Regardless of all that — and disregarding the novel’s crescendo failing to ring nearly as clearly as I’d like — the fact remains that there is undeniable strength in Sebold’s writing. The below excerpt got me the both times I read The Lovely Bones, and again when I impatiently flipped through its pages to type it here. In it, Susie describes the family dog, who has suddenly appeared in heaven, meaning of course, that he has died.

…I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept at my father’s feet after my mother had left, never wanting to let him out of his sight. He had stood with Buckley while he built his fort and had been the only one permitted on the porch while Lindsey and Samuel kissed. And in the past few years of his life, every Sunday morning, Grandma Lynn had made him a skillet-sized peanut butter pancake, which she would place flat on the floor, never tiring of watching him try to pick it up with his snout.

I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.

I should mention that, without fail, I get embarrassingly teary-eyed whenever a dog dies, even if I know that it is fiction. I’m a sucker that way. Still, the writing remains true. In this portion, at the very least.

Deliverance by James Dickey.

deliverance.jpg Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Deliverance. Additionally, at the risk of sounding completely dopey, I didn’t know until recently that the film was based upon the novel of the same name. Recently, Keith purchased stacks of new books; when I mentioned that I needed a new book to read, it was Deliverance that he tossed my way. All I knew of the story was this: the characters encounter crazy hill country people; terrorizing and torture ensures. I was interested to learn how right — or wrong — my cobbled-together plot was.

It turned out I was partially right.

Ed Gendry and his three buddies Lewis, Bobby and Drew take a weekend canoe jaunt down the rapids of Georgia’s Cahulawassee River; to say that they are woefully unprepared for their expedition would be an understatement of the most extreme proportion. Firstly, only Ed and Lewis have any sort of experience with camping, canoeing and roughing it. After a picturesque handful of scenes we learn about the extent of Lewis’s gung-ho attitude towards outdoors living and survival, as well as Ed’s vague sort of ennui with his life. Then, quite literally out of the blue, Ed and Bobby make a chance encounter with a pair of aforementioned crazy hill country people. Terrorizing and torture ensues.

Unfortunately I’m unable to really say much more without giving it all away; I will mention that, for a while, Deliverance reminded me of the film The Descent, which is to some extent about a group of adventure-seeking people who soon find themselves utterly out of their depths. To put it mildly, however, The Descent takes things in a quite a difference direction than Deliverance.

Back to the novel… I couldn’t help but think that it felt a bit dated. Published in 1970, the writing is solidly evocative of that era. Does that mean it’s not any good? Of course not. Malaise and unhappiness are universal motifs; Dickey also writes about change, and how we as people deal with it. After all, Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew originally take to the Cahulawassee River because it is scheduled to be dammed and flooded, and the area to be built up into a residential community. Is that not something we are dealing with still? of Via its thematic elements, Dickey and Deliverance are able to captures something significant, even if it’s a time long gone.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was yet another reread for me; over time you’ll see how frequently I tend to revisit the books I really love. I was inspired to give this another go because I had just watched the film for the first time last week, and wanted to research its level of accuracy as compared to the novel (rating: very accurate indeed!). Also, this past fall I read another novel by Ishiguro which I found to be so terribly disappointing; I wanted to restore my faith in him as a novelist. The Remains of the Day did just that, and thank god.

The writing is just as absorbing and engrossing as I remembered, and the book as a whole was infinitely sadder. This opinion may have something to do with the fact that I first read the novel on a sunny beach in Florida, which is very weird — The Remains of the Day is not a beachy sort of book at all. I think it’s easy to read, as all beach-type books should be, but its plot is not particularly fluffy or fun the way most beach books are. Then again, the idea of pigeonholing books into categories of where they should or should not be read seems entirely ridiculous. (Also ridiculous: the word pigeonhole.)

Something I truly enjoyed about this novel was the way Ishiguro plays around with the concept of narrator and of reliability, as well as the concept of perspective. Because Stevens is so wholly enmeshed in his role as a butler, he is in prime position to describe the minutiae of his profession. That said, Stevens is also completely incapable of seeing past that, though Ishiguro doesn’t prevent this from letting the reader catch glimpses of the circumstances taking place around his protagonist. I’ve always thought that this idea of an intradiegetic narrator is most deftly described by Arthur Golden’s Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha:

Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us — so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

We can discern events and emotions, though we can’t bank on Stevens to be the one to inform us of them. That’s Ishiguro’s big gift here: acknowledging the intelligence of the reader. That, and the pure beauty of the writing.