Virginia Festival of the Book — The Original Playlists: Poetry Anthology

Anthologies are strange creatures. How do you decide the focus? How do you choose content? How do you secure rights to the materials? And how in the world do you get this work into print? Anthology editors offered perspective and insight into the craft of a collected work, and it was a delightful conversation in the University of Virginia Bookstore.

Nickole Brown, who works at Sarabande Books and is the editor of a number of anthologies, was very concise in the series of steps anthologizers must take. With Saraband, a non-profit publisher (which leads most poets to group all poetry publishers in that category), successful anthologies require much forethought, effort during the process and energy after the finished product hits the shelves.

Brown identified two different types of anthologies: theme-based or collective anthologies. “Each anthology presents its own set of issues,” she noted. She had done both, including a collection of her own poems. Choose a theme-based anthology cautiously she warned: “You think you like the topic, but by the end you might not, so you have to really, really like it.”

Her advice? “Create the anthology you can’t find.”

Gathering the materials is the next challenge. Soliciting poems is different than “open-call” submissions found in many writing magazines. Some editors have poets create pieces for specific anthologies, which sounds more like a slam-dunk than it is — anthologies take on lives of their own, and content or focus can change in the process.

Heather McHugh, editor of Best American Poetry 2007, said the selection process changed when she found “poems started making decisions for me.” Her idea of making "a book of poems I liked" evolved when poems “started with grabbing my ear like a grandmother in the Balkans, then grabbing my heart.”

The selection process also does something to the editor, she noted: “Your taste is corrupted or perverted by reading that much poetry.” Inundation alters a reader’s ability to read and pass judgment. However, that inundation also allows for exposure to incredible work and connects it to other excellent poems in a number of ways: style, sound, theme, title andmore.

What happens to the poet contracted for a poem that winds up not making the anthology? This kind of thing enters into academia when publishers want outrageous prices for printing excerpts in scholarly essays, McHugh said. Authors “can’t afford to buy the permission,” she said, “so they don’t read closely and quote” extensively or thoroughly. This skimming affects scholarship, she noted.

Technology limits bad poetry and affords the inexpensive publishing of good poetry, the panel agreed. “Quality and the making of print books self-limits bad poems,” Brown noted.

McHugh agreed, noting, “I think there are too many poems, but I’ve been teaching for 35 years.” She also pointed out, “There’s great stuff online and not in print. The Web allows for flexibility and exposure.”

I enjoy thumbing through anthologies of many different types of literature — poetry, stories about time travel or horror, horror stories, essays, even Chicken Soup collections from time to time — and I’ve often wondered how they got that way. This panel presented some interesting information on the challenges and rewards of gathering materials for anthologies.


Virginia Festival of the Book — Tales that Keep You Up at Night

What scares you? Chances are, it’s the same thing that scares your favorite author. Three Virginia horror writers discussed that — and much more — in the Christian Inspiration area of the Charlottesville Barnes & Noble.

For Beth Massie, who’s been writing for decades, she was “creeped out” by a lot of things as a child (including an older sister’s efforts to scare her as a youngster). Now, she writes for a number of reasons, including an opportunity to “delve into human emotion down to the bone” and the “rush” of being scared, as well as her sensitivity to everything around her.

She added, “There are lots of things in the world that bother me. The things that haunt me in real life give me the seeds for my stories: racism, homophobia…. If it’s well done, it does not desensitize. It sensitizes.”

“You’re probably weirder than you look,” Justin Evans has been told. After hearing someone talk about the truly frightening ending of A Good and Happy Child — and how, the night after his wife read multiple iterations of it, she woke up screaming — I can only imagine what scares him.

He tried writing a spy novel, which fell flat. Even he recognized it: the lack of interest in the subject. Instead, he turned to what did interest him, spending long hours on Lexis-Nexus after work reading about demonic possessions and exorcisms described by Jesuit priests. He admitted, “It came out horror because it was the only way it could be expressed.”

Mindy Klasky was enamored by The Lord of the Rings in seventh grade and write a sequel in iambic heptameter that involved a character that was uncannily similar to herself. That alone scares everyone, including Klasky as an adult.

Years later, during a particularly trying law school class, she wrote another fantasy story about a teenage girl — which, in her own words, was grim. The stories continued on a progressively grimmer path as her main character grew up. After a while, she needed something more fun — and began a series about an unsuspecting librarian who discovers she is a witch. Now she can’t really define what she writes and she finds herself in many camps: fantasy, paranormal, romance, science fiction…. “Genres are getting more blurred,” she noted wryly.

After reading about Queen Betsy and some of the steamiest S-E-X in fiction, I’m sure fantasy is standing on its head with many new genre-bending authors. It’s a thrilling thought and, unlike these authors, not in the least bit frightening.

For those of us who love the rush of being frightened by what we read, these authors prove there's much to be gained from good horror literature.

Virginia Festival of the Book — Dracula vs. Frankenstein: A Monster Mash of Fact and Fiction

Do you have a collection? An interest? An obsession? If you are, you are very much like two of the presenters at the Virginia Festival of the Book: Susan Tyler Hitchcock, a Frankenstein expert (among many things), and Paul Bibeau, a fan of vampires.

Bibeau was literally scared into his obsession, with a tormenting older sister who knew her brother’s Achilles heel and popped out of dresser drawers and from behind doors wearing glow-in-the-dark fangs. Years later, his new wife would find herself spending her honeymoon in Romania looking for Vlad the Impaler’s castle (which Bibeau knew was not in Transylvania). His obsession led to his book Sundays with Vlad: From Pennsylvania to Transylvania, One Man's Quest to Live in the World of the Undead.

Hitchcock was a fan of Mary Shelley’s creation since her youth. Not only did she collect all things Frankenstein, she became the expert who could teach “Technology in Literature” to engineering majors and knew from research the 1818 novel by the then-teenager was the first novel that featured machinery and technology. Among her books is Frankenstein: A Cultural History.

The two authors were pitted “against” each other in the discussion “Dracula vs. Frankenstein,” which was rollicking good fun and a treat for the mind as well as the funny bone. These two very knowledgeable and passionate authors discussed the origins and paths of their very famous subjects.

These two legends present vastly different characters: one recognized as evil and one ambiguous in his intentions. Mary Shelley never villainized her creature, nor did subsequent tellings of the tale, plays and stories based on this unfortunate creation. In fact, Hitchcock agreed with Carole that the created human being was more a creature to be pitied. It was instead his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who rejected his creation at the moment of his birth, that caused the creature feel disconnected and unloved, and to lash out in response.

While we loosely use the word “monster” to describe him, Hitchcock noted that he was not an evil creature. Unlike Dracula, whom even Bram Stoker identified with the Devil, Frankenstein “allows us the hope of goodness. He was not made bad.” In fact, she said Sara Karloff, daughter of the man whose performance in the first movie defined the character for generations to come, noted that her father never called hima “monster,” just “the creature.”

“To know [Frankenstein] is to know ourselves,” Hitchcock noted.

Bibeau, in contrast, noted the “deep-down” evil in the myth of Dracula. Whether Stoker was familiar with the legend of Vlad the Impaler is up to debate or just used the name as his inspiration, Americans have made him their own. “Americans are always looking for the legend beneath the story,” Bibeau noted. “Why couldn’t the Romanians take the legend of Vlad the Impaler and make money on it? Because he belongs to us.”

Interestingly enough, the two creatures, though created nearly a century apart, have been almost inseparable from the beginning. At the time Shelley wrote her “ghost story,” a fellow storyteller conceived The Vampire. In the mid- and late 19th century theater, these two stores were paired in performances.

Stoker’s Dracula was a novel very much based in the fears of the time, Bibeau noted, and was very much a treatise on immigration. At the turn of the 20th century, it was said “the sun never set on the British Empire.” While this put English culture in every country, it also allowed for other cultures to affect England.

“In 1897, when Stoker’s book came out, it was the story of immigration and the slipperiness of culture, and fears if tainting Anglo culture.” Think about it, he noted: the foreigner Dracula had a library full of English books and was planning to purchase land in the middle of London. Though he respected and valued this culture, his presence and ownership diluted the “purity” of Anglicanism.

Stoker equated Dracula with the Christian Devil, Bibeau noted. "In his notes, he wrote 'Dracula 'equals' Devil," he said, and an author can't really get more specific than that.

What fear did Frankenstein stoke? “The fear of possible negative consequences of doing something beyond our [capabilities],” Hitchcock noted. The fear remains in a world where sometimes science gets ahead of humanity; choose your poison.

Myself, I love “scary” stories with inexplicable creatures that incite fear. I have loved and feared both of these characters since my childhood and I was thrilled to hear these two authors discussing them in such an enlightened and joyful manner. It was one of my favorite events and I look forward to reading their books.

My friend Collin has an obsession with zombies, and I can’t wait to see how far he will take it. In fact, Carole, didn't he mention Max Brooks?

Virginia Festival of the Book--Author Introductions

Here in Charlottesville, authors are everywhere. Actors/authors/activists Alan Alda and Mike Farrell just passed through the lobby of the Omni Hotel where I'm blogging and attending sessions causing quite the fervor.

Most authors at festivals generally want to talk to people, even if their nature as writers is to be fairly introspective. Authors realize that they need to be available to their readers to sell books. It's a lot of work to travel from festival to convention to book signings. They get introduced countless times, and maybe they get used to the widely varying introductions they receive (not to mention the sometimes truly bizarre questions they receive).

Over the years, I've heard lovely introductions from people who are true fans to just horrible introductions from people who act like they would rather be doing just about anything else to condescending introductions from people who seem to believe it is they who should be getting introduced rather than the author.

Some examples (you decide which category they fit):

"One of the panelists is a former student of mine who has been obsessed with this subject since he was a small boy, and the other has published 13 books for whatever that is worth."

"Um, I'm horrible at pronunciations, so I'll probably get this wrong. In fact, I'll just let the author say her own name."

"We'll have a panel discussion and then we'll take questions from the audience, but hopefully, we'll be out of here in time for the Michigan game."

"I haven't actually read any of the author's books, but I've heard some people say that they are good."

"I'm sorry to those of you who have tried to reach me in the last few days. I have been finishing the book written by the author, and I just couldn't put it down."

What memorable introductions have you been privy to? We would especially love to hear from authors who no doubt have heard it all.

Virginia Festival of the Book - Families Coming Together: Fiction and Memoir

One of the great joys of Charlottesville is poking around the incredible number of bookstores that this town boasts and supports. Used bookstores, independent bookstores, and large chain retailers — C-ville has them all. Many of the events of the Festival are held in these bookstores.

One of my favorites is the New Dominion Bookshop on the Pedestrian Mall. I scored nine new Newbery medal winners before our Friday session began. Nine! As a family, we've been reading Newbery award winners for years, and we strive to own them all. We love to scour bookstores in places we visit to see what we find, and we get excited when we find one of the hard-to-find titles. Scoring nine is really quite the feat. Because there are more than 80 (the first Newbery was awarded for the 1922 book The Story of Mankind) titles that have earned the award, we collect them in paperback. To date, we have acquired more than 50. More about Newbery books in a future post.

An unexpectedly warm day, the bookstore is quite stuffy particularly in the cozy loft area where we gather for our first panel session of the Festival, but we cheerfully fan ourselves as we wait for our first panel discussion to begin.

Novelists Carleen Brice, first-time novelist of Orange Mint and Honey, Kim Reid, first-time novelist of No Place Safe, and Emilie Richards, author of many books, including her latest Touching Stars, discussed the individual choices they made when deciding whether to publish their stories as fiction or memoir.

Reid said that she was encouraged to publish her book as a memoir, but she acknowledged that it leaves you vulnerable. "It's hard to put your business out there."

Richards and Brice both confessed that their works of fiction often reveal issues that they are working through, oftentimes issues they were unaware of. Brice's story features many examples of surrogate families, and she realized that the conflict she wrote between her main mother-daughter characters was really a conflict she hadn't resolved with her father. "You're reading your own words, and you realize, 'Wow!' I guess I'm working through something!" Brice laughed. "Any work of fiction is going to involve stuff that you tell on yourself."

Regarding memoirs, Richards acknowledges that the genre is the "best fodder as research for novelists."

I myself have edited memoirs, and I've been fascinated by the various scandals that have emerged in recent times involving false memoirs, such as A Million Little Pieces and Love and Consequences.

Why did these authors feel that their message would have been diluted if they had published their powerful stories as fiction? Do you think that abusers of this genre have caused irreparable harm to it by casting a dark cloud of doubt over the authenticity of all memoirs? Check out this NPR article "Faking It: What Motivates Fake Memoirs?" and let us know what you think.

Virginia Festival of the Book - Publishing Day: Successful Self-Publishing

Is everyone today writing a book? That certainly seems to be the case. In our workshop Saturday morning, the session to find out what's involved in self-publishing was full of earnest writers seeking an avenue for taking their books from mere manuscripts that they have labored hard to create to completed books that they can try to get in the hands of their ideal audience.

Whether they are motivated to self-publish by the indifference of large publishing houses, the interest in maintaining control over their books' destinies, or their desire to keep any money that their books may actually make, authors are increasingly choosing the self-publishing route.

Charles Randolph Bruce and Carolyn Hale Bruce, authors of the Rebel King series, Robert Marston Fanney, author of Luthiel's Song, and Jeff Winner, author of The Strand Prophecy discussed the rewards of self-publishing and why they ultimately chose this path. Moderated by book designer Mayapriya Long, the panelists discussed how many of their initial decisions were made because they simply didn't know any better at the time.

I confess that I used to think of self-publishing as the path that authors take when their books just aren't good enough to get picked up by a major publisher. I've reconsidered my position as I've learned how the internet has leveled the playing field greatly for small authors to compete. Always one to root for the underdog, I now think, "Good for them! Don't give away 55 percent of your money just for the privilege of being associated with a publisher."

The panel made the point that the line between self-published books and trade publications is blurring. Judging from the awards they have garnered individually, self-publishing is no longer a self-imposed exile from the rest of the publishing world. Their stories were inspirational, but by no means without caution.

My takeaway from today's session is that the hard work of writing the book is likely nothing compared to getting your books out of your garage and into readers' hands. If you aren't willing to put in the effort, don't bother. You have to go from being a writer to running a business--your own business.

"I wish we had started this when we were younger," Carolyn Hale Bruce revealed, "I would have been better able to haul boxes of books in and out of the van as we travel to various events, but we love every minute of it."

Fanney concurred that he enjoys the entire process, but Winner confessed that writing the books as a collaboration with his twin 12-year-old daughters was the most amazing experience he could imagine. "The rest is just business," Winner shared. "And you really need to learn your business."

I bought the first Rebel King book to judge the quality of the writing, book design, and printing. Look for a review soon!

What experience have you had with self-publishing? Is there a book you would like us to review? Let us know.

Virginia Festival of the Book--Three Cups of Tea and Greg Mortenson

The lights were bright and the theater was full, but Greg Mortenson was exactly how readers would expect him to be as he addressed 600 people in UVA’s Culbreth Hall: humble, knowledgeable, and passionate.

Standing on the Charlottesville stage was the man who lived in his car and wrote to Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey on a rented typewriter. His message was consistent and steady: education is the answer to fear and ignorance.

The subtitle of his book, however, was not consistent, he noted. Publishers had to teach him “a little about book publishing” by insisting the word “terrorism” be in the subtitle of his book, not the word “peace,” as he wanted. Instead of arguing, he said he bargained like a Pakastani: if the book did not sell as well as the publisher hoped, use “peace” in the subtitle of the paperback.

The hardback sold 20,000 copies, so the publishers agreed to the new subtitle. The paperback spent 58 weeks (and counting) on the New York Times bestseller list.

“Terrorism is based in fear,” he said. “Peace is based in hope…. Three Cups of Tea gives a message of hope.”

In his presentation, he stressed the importance of educating all children — but he was sure to indicate why girls had to be in the classrooms. He cited an African proverb: "Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community."

Studies show that in communities where girls are educated to the fifth grade level, infant mortality drops, “population explosions”, drop and the communities have improved basic qualities of life and health. One girl in particular made a huge difference in her community: after a health care course costing $800 (the cost of Starbucks for less than a year), she returned to her community and literally ended maternal mortality.

The benefit is as subtle as it is direct. The number of jihadists dropped in areas where women had received educations. In Muslim countries, man can go on jihad only if their mothers gave their permission — and “educated women were not allowing their sons to go on jihad,” Mortensen said.

While his good work continues, it is by no means near completion. Thousands of schools were destroyed in Pakistan in 2005 from devastating earthquakes, and more than 400 schools educating girls have been destroyed in Pakistan in the past 16 months alone. Only a fraction of them have been rebuilt. U.S.-identified terrorist organizations have built camps with “schools” that teach boys religious extremism, intolerance, and hatred. Neither Rome nor schools can be built in a day, but Mortensen’s organization, Central Asia Institute, cannot even alleviate the educational situation within the camps until the schools are built — because to do so would be aiding a U.S.-identified terrorist organization, and they would be closed down (at best). So he works as quickly as he can.

“To overcome ignorance, you have to have courage,” he told the audience. He shows courage everyday — courage evident on the stage Thursday afternoon.

Virginia Festival of the Book—Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea

Chris and I promised ourselves last year that we would take time off from work and attend the Virginia Festival of the Book, and here we are. After a pleasant car ride filled with great girl chat that bounced from topic to topic as effortlessly as changing the radio station, we arrived at the cabin in time to drop off our stuff and head to the Festival. And not just because we wanted to—I actually was on a mission.

Perusing the schedule a few weeks ago, Chris said that she wanted to see the author of Three Cups of Tea. A few days later at work, the director of communications said she was going to try and get Greg Mortenson as one of our main speakers at our annual convention. A light bulb went off in my head. I told her to put me together a packet of information, and I would try to put it in Mortenson’s hands while I was at the Festival.

Here’s the thing. I had no idea whether this was going to be a book signing or not. If it was, all I had to do was get in line, and I knew I would have at least a minute or two of his time. If it wasn’t, I had no idea what I was going to do. I had visions of getting arrested as a stalker because I approached him in the parking lot after his appearance.

Luckily, it didn’t come to that, but things didn’t start off too well. He was on the schedule to appear at UVA’s Culbreth Theater at 6:00 p.m. Tickets would not be given out until 5:00. We tried to time it to get there right at 5:00. The traffic was ghastly getting onto and through campus, so when we got close, Chris hopped out to get in line, and I went to park the car. By the time I found a space in the garage, Chris called to say that the tickets were all gone.

I said something unladylike, and then I heard Chris say something like “Yes, I would—thank you!” “Did you just get tickets?” “No, I got one ticket from some guy who had an extra. I’m going to stand around and look pitiful and see if I can get another.” I locked up the car and scooted down three flights of stairs, crossed the street, all the while keeping an eye out for someone trying to unload a ticket.
I get to the theater and find Chris. No luck on the other ticket, and we realize that there are lots of people standing around looking mighty unhappy because they don’t have tickets. Chris and I decide to split up—she’ll go hear his talk, assess the effect of his message on the audience, and report back on how inspirational a speaker he is. I was relieved to see that it was, in fact, also going to be a book signing. Having been to many a book signing, I knew the drill. While everyone else was standing around grumbling that they didn’t have tickets. I headed straight for the signing table and got in line.

Let me just say, I was FIRST in line. This is important. I’ve never been first in line for a book signing—I’m usually number 68 or thereabouts. First is a big deal, particularly in this case. I’ll be able to explain why my association is interested in him and why he should be interested in us before he’s talked to many other people. He’ll be as receptive as he is going to be.

So far, so good. I’m in line—I have my books. I’m ready. Unfortunately, I have to wait in this line for two hours. At this point, the talk doesn’t start for a half hour. I figure he’ll talk for an hour (he actually talked for ninety minutes—a real bonus for those inside the theater, not so much for us dogged few in the queue.
Slowly, I’ve been joined by others in the line. At least 100 people have been turned away because there are no more tickets. Despite this fact, they are hanging around, hoping that circumstances may change and they’ll be allowed in. People have come from quite a distance just for this event, and they have to turn around and head home that same night. They don’t want to have made the trip for nothing.

The Festival volunteers have it tough—they have to break the bad news to folks who really don’t want to hear it. I, on the other hand, am okay. I’ll get to do what I set out to do, but I can really sense the disappointment of the folks around me.
After forty-five minutes in line, one of the volunteers comes up and says that we have to move the line outdoors (mercifully, it’s a lovely evening) because two other events at the theater will make the lobby too crowded. She implies that we can mosey outside and line up there if we like. As first in line, I say louder than I normally speak, “You mean we’ll move the line but maintain the same order, right?” She looked at me as if to say, “What’s the big deal?” Obviously, she’s never been first in line! I wasn’t about to give that up. When she moved the sign outside, I followed her and everyone else followed me. It could have gotten pretty ugly if things were handled differently.

We lined up outdoors and began to chat to one another. The woman behind me had driven from Richmond, she has been to the Festival before. She wasn’t thrilled about missing his talk, but she knew that these things happen. The two women behind her were from Burke—they both worked at the same elementary school. One of them works to raise money to build schools on tribal lands in India. From India herself originally, she was very disappointed not to see Mortenson speak and more importantly to speak to him. I assured her that the best place to speak to him would be at the book signing.

While the frat house next to the theater blared “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” (The Band’s version, not Joan Baez), we waited…and we waited…and we waited. The extra 30 minutes he spoke seemed particularly long for those of us standing outside. I had fallen rollerblading with my daughter the weekend before, so my right leg really wasn’t too happy with my waiting around.

Finally, we hear applause from inside the theater, the volunteers let us in, and we head down the hall to get our books signed. Now, I’ve been standing there all of this time—you would think that I would have my little spiel ready to go. I really don’t want to babble when I get up there. As I walk down the hall, my mind goes blank. “What am I supposed to say?” I ask myself a little desperately.

Now all I can think is “Geez, I’m first! Who wants to be first?” But then I take a deep breath, gather my thoughts, and walk across the room where I’m greeted very graciously by Mortenson. I actually say what I came to say without babbling, he takes the folder of information, and expresses interest. Whew!

I leave with signed books for Chris and me, step outside, and meet Chris coming up the stairs. She says the presentation was amazing. The Festival is off to a great start!


Off to the Festival

For the next few days, Chris and I will be attending the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, so look for our posts on the various events we attend.


The Emperor’s Children — Review by Carole

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The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud is a book much lauded by critics for the past year and a half, and I have to say that I don’t get what all the fuss was about. I read this book for the book club I’m in with my sisters-in-law, and if it’s for book club, I finish the book, but in this case, it wasn’t easy.

I didn’t like ANY of the characters in the book. Usually there is someone you are interested in enough to follow through. Not in this case—I kept thinking “What a completely self-absorbed group of individuals!” But then I thought that someone would experience some personal growth, he or she would evolve into someone I could care about. Wrong!

One review I read recently on Summize (after I read the book) complained that the book was just a lot of navel gazing. I would agree to a point, but I can get behind a certain amount of navel gazing if it’s for some ultimate purpose. In this case, metaphorically speaking, it was mostly to determine that their navels were in fact better than other people’s navels.

The one element of the book that had redeeming value, in my view, was the analogy to the Emperor Has No Clothes. The theme of the book one of the characters is chronically writing, it is also the allusion expressed in the title. Who, then, is the emperor? Who are his children? Every time I tried to explore this analogy, it fell apart on me. I wanted it to be so much better. I love allusions to fairy tales and other tales from my childhood, so I was open to this. Massud let me down.

The book was also lauded for its lovely language, but I found the sentences convoluted and complex for no particular reason. I finally came to the conclusion that perhaps it was to hide the fact that the story was weak.

I didn’t hate this book like I did Middlesex (see my rant on this as my most hated read of 2007), rather I found The Emperor’s Children to be a waste of time. I recently finished Crossing to Safety and Julia’s Chocolates (review to come soon) and enjoyed them both immensely for different reasons; those reading experiences serve to highlight how frustrating it is to encounter a book that is a waste of time. Too many wonderful books then suffer from lack of attention because of my distraction.

In Chris’ post “When You Can’t Go On,” she asks when do you decide to stop reading a book. She and I are pretty dogged in our reading efforts, but some bookos just aren’t your thing, and that’s okay. For me, The Emperor’s Children fell through the cracks. It wasn’t so bad that I stopped reading it. Instead, when I was finished, I wish I hadn’t bothered. In many respects, that’s worse than a truly awful book.


People of the Book — Discussion by Chris and Carole

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Before Chris and I started Get Your English On, we would often read a book together and discuss it. A very small book club, if you will. We haven't done that in a while — the blog and our day jobs keep us pretty busy — and we decided that we missed doing it. Along comes Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, and we were off and reading. Actually, it took us a little while to clear our respective piles of books so that we were both able to read the book at the same time. We set March 1 as the day to start.

Our expectations for this book were pretty high, having loveloveloved March and Year of Wonders. Seeing her in person two years ago at the Fall for the Book Festival was fascinating—she talked about her current work in progress, a book based on a true story about a Muslim who saves a valuable Jewish haggadah from destruction.

When the book came out, Chris was able to see her again and talk to her about the book. We gleefully dove into the book, checking in with each other periodically to see where the other was. Chris and I take great pains not to discuss anything that gives away the story if one of us gets ahead. Don't you hate it when people simply cannot restrain themselves from telling you what they know?

The book is actually a literary investigation with book conservator Hanna trying to determine where this book as been. She discovers several disparate elements either on the pages themselves or tucked into the folios. A white hair, a wine stain, dried salt, and an insect wing. What could they possibly do to inform Hanna about the people involved with this book? Brooks' approach is to alternate between Hanna's investigation in the present and a time in the book's past.

When we finished, we chatted at length about it. Here are some of our impressions:

Hanna’s character compared to the people of the book; her character’s actions—did they ring true? Did she lack dimension?

Chris: Of all of the characters in this book, Hanna's character was the least interesting. It was flat and ugly, weaving through so much that had nothing to do with the haggadah. The others all were speculations in comparison to what they gave the book. Hanna's was modern, scattered and the least likable. Her relationship with her mother was very unpleasant, which arrested in her teen years as a form of rebellion. Her mother did not deny her a father; Nature took care of that. What Hanna's mother did was deny her a family, compatriots in her battle against her mother. When she did meet them, she turned away from her mother entirely. I wonder if, had she not met the Sharanskys, if she would have broken with her mother. And yet, when the most devastating event of her professional life occurs, she forgives them.

Carole: I agree that Hanna's life in the present day isn't nearly as rich as the other People of the Book — the people from the book's past really capture our attention. Hanna often left me with more questions than answers. I agree with Chris too that her reactions to people are inconsistent. She can't forgive her mother, but she too easily forgives others. Her relationships with people, romantic and otherwise, did not ring true for me. I wonder if Brooks treats Hanna more superficially than the characters from the past deliberately to establish a strong contrast.

It really struck me how the people of the book were often young girls in extraordinary circumstances who had been strongly influenced by their fathers, compared to Hanna’s fatherless life.

Chris: Many of the other female characters were affected by their relationships with their fathers. One character can thank her father for nurturing her talent; another was a Kabbalist because her father loved and lived Hebrew, Judaism, and mysticism. Can we say Hanna was who she was because of her father, or his absence, or his genes? I can't say because Hanna measures herself only in relation to her mother, or being her mother's opposite. What a sad and mixed-up woman, especially at the end when she changes her name as a way to abandon her mother and meld with the father and the father's family she was denied.

Carole: Hanna's influence by her father seems to be felt merely by its absence and as something by which to punish her mother. When Hanna does learn more about her father, I don't get the sense that she is open to his influence.

The need for the forgery at the end; Hanna’s reaction to that betrayal compared to her mother’s betrayal of trust. Which one marked her more significantly?

Chris: Had I been raised by Hanna's mother, I don't know which one would have affected me more personally. Being the polar opposite of her mother seemed more important to her than being who she was. In that light, I can see why Hanna was more marked by her mother's betrayal than her father figure and Sarajevan lover. However, it seems weird. Her livelihood was taken from her, her reputation was destroyed, and she left the world she loved the best, stumbling instead headlong into her father's world, which again was the opposite of her mother.

Carole: I didn't feel the need for the betrayal of her mentor and lover for the story to unfold. I thought that was an extraneous element that served only to give Hanna more depth as a character, but ultimately, I didn't feel like she had the richness of the People of the Book.

Brooks’ deft handling of sexuality throughout the book—subtle yet extremely provocative.

Chris: In short, I can say I was surprised by Hanna's quick bedding of the Sarajevan who saved the haggadah from destruction. She was freaked out by the war-torn country but went to his place every night rather than the relative safety of her hotel?

I also found the Austrian's observation of his wife's infidelity very moving and bizarre: the details by which he identified her infidelity were so subtle, only a man who loved his wife enough to memorize her would have noticed. However, his carnal attraction in light of this and his need to be with his mistress confused me (and shows me I am nowhere near that level of, um, sophistication).

In the same vein, I expected the Venetian rabbi's unspeakable problem to be sexual in nature. His shame and the author's almost loving caress of the rabbi's desires instead suggested to me an unnatural appetite more along the lines of "a love that dare not speak its name." However, it is a good lesson: that of which we are most ashamed usually isn't the worst thing someone else can imagine.

Carole: I was actually shocked when I came to the part of the book where Hanna sleeps with the librarian. I actually went back and read the previous few pages to see if I had missed something in Hanna's character to indicate that she would do something like that. Brooks just says that she doesn't form lasting attachments, but sheesh, learning someone's last name might be nice.

I was taken with how Brooks says so much without going into every groan of desire, every libidinous thought. Her subtle revelations of her characters' desires were much more sensual that going into graphic detail.

Favorite characters?

Chris: The character I liked the most was Little Bird. She was her own woman, despite everyone's insistence to the contrary. Her family saw her only in relation to their own needs. She, in contrast, continued to be herself. She loved her family and would not abandon her brother, even if the tefillin she gave him was his undoing. She helped bring her nephew into the world, protected him, immersed him (in the single scariest passage of the book!) and kept him safe (we presume).

Carole: That passage did have me riveted — I was praying that she didn't do what I was most afraid of her doing. I also liked the African girl's character who had learned her painting skills from her father--she never dishonored his memory despite the betrayals she faced in her own life. By putting herself in the painting and writing the words, she transcends those around her and brings honor to her family.

Chris and I agree that Geraldine Brooks remains on our respective short list of authors who have not disappointed us. Each of her books has been quite different from the others she's written. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.


Blasphemy — Review by Chris

Years ago, as I drove through town, I heard a 30-second commercial describing a new novel. The premise was fascinating: what if Hitler's advisors had not all been caught? What if one lived — and planned to take control again? The Third Reich had come up with some crazy schemes, including establishing "doubles" of Hitler's advisors to take the fall in case they were imprisoned. What if it really happened? The prisoner Herman Hesse in Spandau Prison had baffled authorities for years, claiming to not be him, adopting activities and habits foreign to the prisoner before his imprisonment.

That afternoon, I purchased and read Spandau Phoenix, the first novel of Greg Iles (whom I still suspect is the invented alter ego of John Grisham). I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Ever since then, I have been searching for the next best surprise thriller.

I wish I could say Blasphemy by Douglas Preston was it. It was very exciting in places, but it's no Spandau Phoenix. Still, it was a good read.

The story is simple, but complex. Scientists testing a supercomputer come across something odd when they create a mini black hole. They are positive that it's a mistake and try to disprove it.

Meanwhile, the Navajo nation has finished its negotiation with the federal government for the use of Navajo land for this project. The tribal leader is no longer in need of the talents of a Washington lobbyist, who does not like being unceremoniously dumped. He makes a call to kick up some dust to bring the Navajo tribal leader back to his, er, coffer (and hopefully paying lots more money for his services).

The CIA is suspicious. World-renown scientists running a $45 billion computer won't say something is wrong, but obviously something isn't right. So one lone, smart bureaucrat sends his own investigator, a former company man who left his agency. It also just so happens this guy, reeling from the loss of his wife, was educated as a mathematician along side one of the scientists in this suspect project — a former lover for whom he still carries a flame.

Toss in a crazy, lonesome and desperate Pentecostal preacher; a laid-back Navajo medicine man; a reservation police officer who wants to handle things his way; and another, more ambitious and desperate preacher with bigger bills to pay.

Oh, and God. This story would be nothing without God. (At least, the "old-fashioned, American" version.)

Preston paints his characters with realistic paint and strokes. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and the line between them is as sketchy as usual. They are not unrealistic, hackneyed caricatures. They are real and rich. If not, this story could not have gotten past page three.

One group of characters, though, does not surprise or enrich: bureaucrats and politicians who, in an election year with a president up for re-election, follow familiar paths. Anyone who has worked with these kinds of people, or even watched enough television in the vein of "West Wing" or "Commander-in-Chief," won't see many surprises. There are a few, though, and they are very worthwhile.

The story is pretty foreseeable, but not predictable. Not all the way through, that is. Near the end, when the energy is whipping into a storm, astute readers may be able to see where the story is going. This is not necessarily bad. Having an idea of how a story will play out isn't the end of the world because the writer still has to provide the action. In this case, the action is exciting.

Then comes the idea of God and religion.

The masses of "believers" are very present in this book. I do not think Preston is unfair in his portrayal of them, based on some of my own experiences. I just am very afraid of the potential of this group, as presented by the author. If this is likely, I am very fearful for our world.

I also wonder just how skeptical I am about what I consider psychobabble. In the past couple of decades, I have encountered books where people use what I consider insincere language to paint a picture of their faith systems. The words are commonplace and banal, and they skate across the true nature of what their conversation should be. The religious world of Douglas Preston shares this weakness, and that was one of the most singularly disappointing elements of this book.

Having said that, I enjoyed the read. It was quick, exciting and full of ideas that could keep the dinner table humming with conversation for a very long time.

However, I can't take it seriously. It's an action-adventure story that gave me what I expected with a couple of surprises along the way. It's not a serious discussion of life, love and God. It's a novel. And a good library read.

Those who have read this, please leave comments on what you thought about the characters and actions of the "faithful." I really want your thoughts.


Crossing to Safety — Review by Carole

Wallace Stegner's lovely book Crossing to Safety explores the friendship between two couples that forms during the Depression and continues through the decades until death intrudes. Larry and Sally are a young couple starting out their married life in 1937. They pull into the college town where Larry will begin teaching college; they meet Charity and Sid and suddenly they are part of a bigger world than they previously inhabited.

Stegner's turn of phrase and compelling imagery put you in a time and place that you have to shake your head when you look up from your book to remind yourself that you are not really there. "There" could be a midwestern college town in Wisconsin, a mountain camp in Vermont, or a piazza in Italy.

The quote that inspires the book is from Henry Adams, "Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man." Several key scenes explore this notion. Best-laid plans and all of that. It's each character's reaction to the loss of order and the onset of chaos in their lives that keep you turning the pages.

I think my very favorite part is where Larry as narrator relates to us that this is the story of a friendship. As a writer he recognizes that this is the point where the story should encounter some drama such as an affair or something, but he tells us that this isn't that kind of story.

Not a new book, Crossing to Safety was new to me. I hadn't read Stegner before, and I will definitely give his other books a read. I’m still mulling over the significance of the title. If someone who has read it wants to give me some insights, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Who is Crossing to Safety? Where is that?


Finn — Review by Carole

Jon Clinch’s Finn captured time, place, and character with great clarity, but it was to a time that I’ve never wished I’d lived, a place I’ve never wanted to be, and a character I wouldn’t ever want to associate with. But I think that is to be expected when you set out to write a book about Huckleberry Finn’s father.

Clinch descriptions of Finn throughout the book are so vivid that I could practically smell him as he poled his skiff down the river or lay naked on his sagging porch. Not that I would want to—we should be grateful that books do not encompass all of the senses (or as Chris suggested “no scratch-n-sniff, please!”). I’m not sure my olfactory glands could take it.

The element that I like best about a re-telling is that we get to know a character that was only developed to a certain point in the original story. The father in Little Women is seen as a fully realized person in Geraldine Brooks’ March rather than just a largely absent character; Anita Diamant's Dinah in The Red Tent tells her own rich story rather than getting a mere mention in the Old Testament; and Mr. Darcy becomes so much more in numerous sequels, prequels, and re-tellings than just the proud and prejudiced character Jane Austen presents us in Pride and Prejudice (More on Mr. Darcy in future posts—suffice it to say that my daughter and I want I Heart Mr. Darcy t-shirts!)

Finn tells a side of Mark Twain’s story by both embellishing on the original and by forging new paths. I wanted to learn more about how Finn became as he is, but I was disappointed to learn that his problems stemmed largely from his father’s disapproval. His father doesn’t approve of anything his son does or doesn’t do—he hates his rather shiftless lifestyle, his excessive drinking, and his passion for black women (phrased ever so much differently in Finn—note that if you are offended reading things that are not politically correct by today’s standards, this book will bother you).

I wanted there to be a reason that perhaps I might pity Finn, but alas, he’s just a horrible person, and I haven’t even mentioned the two crimes around which the plot revolves. For that you have to read the book. When you do, let me know if you found redeemable qualities in Finn, the character, that I missed.

When You Can't Go On

When do you decide to stop reading a book?

That has always been a challenge for me. When I was much younger, I always finished every book I started. If I did not like the book, I finished it anyway. I saw it as a test of strength and will. Every book deserved to be finished, I thought. I also purchased (and read) books by the bag. People shuddered when I entered a book sale. They knew I would clean them out of house and home, so to speak. Once they were mine, I read them. (Okay, I did not read the book on shorthand, but that was the only one.)

Then I got older and had less time to spend reading. That single fact changed my opinion on whether I would finish a book.

Don't get me wrong: I do not surrender a book easily. First of all, I do not pick up any ol' book these days. In fact, I return to the shelves more books than I carry out with me, even today. (Really!) I have to be intrigued enough by the premise to read the first page. In turn, the first page has to make me want to turn to the second page. If I can put it down without hesitation, the book stays on the shelf.

Some books captured me from the beginning (The DaVinci Code and Life of Pi come to mind, the latter of which I had to hide from myself because I was studying for finals).

If the premise is exciting enough, I will invest a few pages to see if it's worth it -- more if I really want to like the book. The Dead Father's Club got about 50 pages, but I couldn't get into the rhythm of the boy's speech. Lisey's Story got a few more than that, but with that book I always felt like an outsider. I think I spent about 60 pages on Memoirs of a Geisha (which I tried to read three times, once after hearing it would be made into a movie); someone told me it was good after the first 100 pages, but I couldn't bring myself to waste that many pages when good books were waiting to be read.

Recently, What-the-Dickens got about 42 pages, and that was generous. I have read a lot of youth fiction and juvenile fiction lately, so I think I have reasonable expectations. This book was dull. The characters were mysteries I didn't care to examine and unlock. Who cared where Gage came from and where the kids' parents had gone in their abandonment. The storyline was a story within a story, and they were not set to distinguish them from each other.

I was reading it on the stairclimber one afternoon last week, and not only did I keep moving the book to check the time, I also closed the book with six minutes left to go. Now, that is bad. The last few minutes of the stairclimber are the most crucial for books; if I can keep reading, I can keep working out -- and being surprised that the time is up is the sign of a fab book (such as A Thousand Splendid Suns and Doomsday Book).

So, What-the-Dickens is going back to the library with no regret.

When do you stop reading a book, and why?


Doomsday Book — Review by Chris

Time travel is not for the feint of heart. Neither is the past. People of every age think themselves more advanced than the previous age. Personally, I'm not sure if that's necessarily true; however, medicine and scientific advancements have, over time, eradicated some diseases and assisted in the overall health of many.

The Doomsday Book takes on time travel, health, welfare, England's National Health System, American bell ringers and scholars with heart. It's a riveting and compelling book that keeps readers guessing to the very end, and a book one is sad to see come to its very satisfying end.

When thinking about the Middle Ages, people often think of European royalty, knights, chivalry and other romantic notions. Well, there was a lot more to it: dirt, hunger, cold, disease, ignorance and oppression, for instance.

Kivrin Engle anticipated that as a history student at Oxford in 2053, and she wanted to experience it firsthand by being sent to the early 1300s, during the Little Ice Age -- the first woman scholar to be sent there. And there's a reason for that: on a scale of 1 to 10, the Middle Ages was long rated a 10 due to the Black Death (but later adjusted down). Sending her a few decades before the Black Death was first recorded in England seemed a little safer, and Medieval granted her permission to travel. She trained for years, learning the different languages spoken, taking horseback riding lessons, growing her hair to match the style of the time, studying religion and government, and more. Also, as a woman traveling alone at a time when that simply wasn't done, she created an alibi and learned how to support it. She would not go back unarmed, so to speak.

Kivrin also was fitted with a couple of modern enhancements: a voice recorder placed in her palm activated by pressing her palms together, as if in prayer, and a language translator embedded in her head to help her understand what was being said and how to respond.

However, the drop is rife with problems from the start. The department chair leaves on vacation and the acting chair, who just happens to run Medieval, moves the drop up by weeks. Everyone scrambles to meet the new deadline, from the doctors inoculating her against the bubonic plague (just in case) to Kivrin herself tearing up her nails on an archaeological dig near the town to which she will travel.

One scholar in particular is very troubled: James Dunworthy, a Twentieth Century scholar with whom Kivrin has studied. They have become very good friends, and he feels personally responsible for her health and welfare. He brought his own trusted technician to work the drop and he was on hand every step of the way of her studies. He is appalled by the cavalier approach Medieval is taking, especially Mr. Gilchrist, the acting chair overseeing the drop.

Both Kivrin and Dunworthy knew she had no idea what she was getting into.

Time travel allows for some "drifting," but drifts are usually no more than a couple of weeks at the most. The historian traveler might be surprised, but the drop is not compromised and the historian will be collected on time. All the historian has to do is get back to the net, the exact same location where they arrived, at the appointed time.

The trouble starts when Dunworthy's tech, Badri, seeks him in a pub he's visited with his friend Mary to wait for the fix. "Something's wrong," Badri says and drags him back to the lab.

Something is terribly wrong — for both Badri and Kivrin. Only Badri falls ill before he can tell Dunworthy what the problem is. Dunworthy is beside himself with worry. Kivrin falls ill before she can fully ascertain what went wrong with the drop. It's better for both Kivrin and Dunworthy that way — and for the reader as well.

Kivrin and Dunworthy both encounter people they never expected, but realize later they cannot have lived without. They realize just how important these people are and how important they were both to them personally and to the situations in which they find themselves. I will always love Finch for his ability to simultaneously freak out and handle crisis with great aplomb. Colin was a godsend, Agnes was a jewel and Roache gave me faith. Gilchrist was maddening, Mary was unflappable, William was miraculous and Mrs. Gaddson was unbelievable.

Of course, Kivrin and Dunworthy cannot really live without each other, either, and by the end of the story know the true meaning of friendship.

Frankly, this was a very compelling read. I regretted having to put the book down and found every opportunity to read, even if it was simply a few pages. I could not put it down. The characters were unforgettable and the storyline was exciting. Readers found out about issues as the characters did, and never did the author "leak" story information to the reader with obvious foreshadowing (you know, like "That was the last time she would ever see him."). It was literally a page turner.

I will have to tell my fellow reader at Literature and Latte just how wonderful his recommendation was, and I will in turn recommend it to anyone who loves time travel literature.


A Spot of Bother — Review by Carole

I would love to have a dinner party and invite Mark Haddon, Christopher Moore, and Jasper Fforde. I would just sit back, serve the food and the wine, while witty banter would just fly around my dining room. Christopher would eat anything, I think, and Mark would want something spicy, but Jasper would be more circumspect about what he ate, but I don’t think he would create a spot of bother. I would want to create a menu that put everyone at their ease, perhaps a nice Spaghetti Carbonara in huge quantities.

As they talked about their latest projects, the nightmares of dealing with book tours, what their craziest fans have done (of which I would not be one, but rather a close personal friend of each of them), I would bask in the knowledge that here sat three authors who have never disappointed me. While that is a subject to blog about in itself, my list of names on that topic is quite brief. When I mentally cross reference that list with the list of authors who have made me laugh out loud, these three make the very short list.

Reading Haddon’s A Spot of Bother brought to mind this dinner party scenario. This was my second Haddon novel—The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was an amazing, poignant story that has stayed with me. In the couple of weeks since I read A Spot of Bother, I’ve found myself reflecting on it as well. Haddon’s characters are ordinary people living their lives as best they can. They are not perfect by any means; they screw up; they hurt people they love; and they don’t just neatly learn from their mistakes and fix everything by the end of the book. They remain their endearingly messed-up selves to the end and beyond.

In Bother, George, who is relatively new to the world of retirement, thinks he is dying of cancer. He doesn’t bother to confirm this—he just knows it. He then proceeds to quietly start falling apart, but he doesn’t want to cause, you guessed it, a spot of bother. This happens amidst the preparations for his daughter’s wedding to man that no one in the family can stand, but as I read the story, I found myself liking him more and more and them less and less. George’s wife is having an affair and George’s turn of mind and his constantly being underfoot is cramping her style and she doesn’t know what to do about it. George’s gay son is having his own relationship troubles because he won’t invite his boyfriend to the wedding and thereby admit that he loves him.

One of the charming aspects of this book is that it makes your own life seems relatively uncomplicated in comparison. I was more amused than horrified at the characters’ actions, and that is due entirely to Haddon’s deft handling of character, dialogue, and story.

We’ve blogged about Moore and Fforde—check out our posts and read these authors. See if you wouldn’t want me to add you to the guest list of my dinner party with the guys!


Book of Lost Things — Book Discussion Summary by Carole

I find the premise on which The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is based just heartbreaking—a young boy’s mother dies, despite all of the elaborate rituals and routines that he performs in an obsessive-compulsive way. No matter what David does, he cannot save her. Gone is the mother who read to him when he was young and read with him as he grew up--wonderful fairy tales and adventures yarns and exciting quests. When she dies, he feels these books are all he has left of her. He feels like he has lost the best part of himself.

His father quickly remarries and has another child, which creates a fissure in his relationship with David. They move to the new wife’s country home that has been in her family for years. They leave London to avoid the Nazi bombing raids. The father’s work in cryptology keeps him away from home. The mounting uncertainty over how the war will affect their lives, David’s ongoing grief over his mother’s death, his rocky relationship with his stepmother, his disdain and jealousy over his baby half-brother, and his feeling of anger toward his father create an incredible amount of pressure and anxiety in David. He begins to have blackouts. He turns to his books more and more. He also is drawn to the even older stories that belonged to another boy in the family many years ago. These books begin to speak to David, and he begins to get glimpses of another world.

His father seeks psychiatric help for David, but it doesn’t really do him any good, because David knows that if he reveals what he is hearing and seeing, he will “be sent away.” After a particularly ugly argument with his stepmother, David hears the voice of his dead mother calling him. He heads out into the garden in time to see a Nazi plane spinning out of control heading right for him!

As he attempts to evade the plane, he hides in a hollow tree stump and suddenly finds himself in the fairy tale world he has envisioned.

But this is no Disney fairy tale. This is the true stuff of childhood nightmares.

The Group

Chris and I read this book along with the men in our lives and my teenage children. Everyone was captivated by the premise and found they were unable to put the book down. The conversation was lively, and it was not always easy to get a word in. Perhaps we need to set up a protocol for such things, but this is not a shy crow, and everyone had a great time. This was the first time that all concerned were able to finish the book, even if one of our party had to stay in the car for a few extra minutes to wrap it up. I call that dedication.

Chris originally thought of recommending this book to my son, but she hesitated because the sadness of the boy losing his mother was so pervasive as to be disturbing. I picked it up and read it. My daughter then became intrigued by it, read it, and proclaimed it an amazing story. Then the guys in our house each read it in preparation for this discussion. Alas, none of Chris’ fears materialized. These kids today are a hardy breed—things that leave me sobbing find them unmoved. They often sit patiently waiting for my hiccups to subside, the tears to stop flowing, and my sniffles to abate. I’m often good naturedly teased for my crying at the drop of a hat.

Back to our discussion—we all agreed that the Crooked Man was one of the creepiest antagonists that we had encountered in literature. His propensity to prey on weak children by appealing to their baser, cowardly impulses to preserve his own life, coupled with the fact that he has been doing this as long as there have been stories, makes him truly repugnant. Connolly’s description of David’s visit to the Crooked Man’s lair gave all of us the heebies and the jeebies.

As David travels through this strange land, he encounters people who help him, but time and again, he ends up alone to find his own way. Connolly’s depiction of David’s journey reflects David’s struggles to grow up without a mother and with a father who he sees as abandoning him. Our hearts went out to this boy, but we admired his resiliency. We lamented his losses—and we all agreed that they are many for this young boy—but we cheered his victories.

The ending of the book led to an interesting discussion as to the identity of the woman to whom David returns at the end of the book. In an interview, Connolly admits that he deliberately wrote an ambiguous ending, and he has been surprised at some readers’ interpretations. See what you think and let us know.

Our next book discussion will be World War Z by Max Brooks. We move from the stuff of children’s nightmares to that of adult horror.