Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reading to Escape, part 3: Transported Beyond the Tomball Library

The Tomball library was a block and a half from our house, which for this indoor child felt like 10 miles when I walked there in the summer heat. This new location was completed when I was in elementary school, and I remember going to the opening reception, at which I wanted to pick up more cookies than was polite. They were small cookies, and until Mother hiss-whispered, “Sarah!, that’s too many!” at me, nobody had spelled out that it was impolite to put more than 2 on your little fancy napkin. (Guess I should have figured that out by the size of the napkin, but I never scored high at spatial relations.)

The high-ceilinged, well-chilled building was huge compared with the old library that had been crammed into a little frame house and had a couple of roaring window units that probably could hardly keep the humidity out of the books. This new library probably wasn’t as big as I remember because it only had 2 toilets total, one for men and one for women. The bathrooms impressed me too, because they were new and large with echoey tiles on the floor and walls, but my sister ruined that for me when she said sister-snidely after one library visit, “I could hear you singing in there.”

In the first year or two the books rattled around on all the new shelves, but I liked that because the volume and density of the books felt less intimidating to little me.

I usually went right to the youth section, except for occasional detours for a couple of feel-good favorites from the children’s section. (There was one I really loved about a hamster or some other rodent, I can’t remember which, that took his lunch to school, a lunch that included bread & jelly and a boiled egg and salt, and he ate on a paper placemat…never mind.)

Gradually I ran out of material and bravely (guiltily) ventured into the adult section. It seemed huge, and once I found Harold Robbins I tended to stick with that aisle. I picked up best sellers and then looked for others by the same authors, but it took awhile before I really browsed much beyond Robbins and Victoria Holt (whose Gothic romances balanced Robbins’ smut nicely). When I went too far afield I always seemed to make direct eye contact with a nonfiction book about The Devil that my brother Dave had read a couple of years before, which (both the book cover and his having read the book, and I think he read it twice, looking for more meaning) both impressed and scared me. My dad had asked him if it was any good and Dave said something both dismissive and inconclusive that, as usual, intimidated me Dave-style.


I used the periodicals section if I had to do a school project , but since I got so stressed out over homework (I had trouble rewording factual sentences from National Geographic without plagiarization terrors) and I was grossed out by the scratched, sticky protective magazine covers on Time and similar magazines, if I was over there on a non-homework day, I was probably just sitting in a chair with a hardback book, feebly trying to make this my home away from home.

Near the seating area were revolving racks of skinny, tousled-edge romance novels with lurid red covers toward which I somehow had an innate snobbery. I don’t know what made me pick up one – supreme Tomball ennui, probably, and it was probably during yet another long summer. I don’t even think I surveyed the selection on the rack, I just grabbed one with dismissive wrist posture and thought I could glance at a couple of pages, put it back – after a mental checkmark, I have checked these out – and keep feeling superior.

I’m not even sure I took a bathroom or water break – I sat there and finished the book. Probably took me at least 3 hours. I had felt bits of romantic giddiness before but not the swoon that sweeps up through your whole body. Yes, I had been swept away by the book and would have liked to be swept up by the male lead character. Of course he would have terrified/ignored me in real life but the point was, I had been taken completely out of my real life, but taken someplace that felt intensely real, or at least I really wanted to be in that place, which at that town in that year was almost the same thing.

The book had what for several years was my favorite plot (yes, I now see psycho-sexual-social problems with it), marriage of convenience followed by love. (And some of the Harlequin and/or Silhouette romances, at least in the late 1970s/early 1980s, had forced marital consummation, very disturbing by modern standards.) I think this one was set in South Africa, even more exotic than the Australian ones I later grew addicted to, both types generated by foreign writers documenting their experience and their fantasies. Later my preferences transitioned, I am proud to say, to men and women who were platonic friends or stated enemies first and transitioned to romance, or who were consciously attracted to each other early on but then got blocked by situations of varying credibility. (The preferred modernistic version would be women less dominated by the men, both man and woman dominated by the power of their love.)

I also later discovered a Dutch Harlequin author whose men were at least highly educated (usually doctors) and gentlemanly, and not abusive unless you would consider a blunt marriage proposal after absolutely no verbal foreplay (and/or what Americans call “dating”) to be abusive – the men were not critical but neither were they flattering to the women, and the heroines were rarely pretty and slim…while the men were always tall, strong and wealthy. Often widowers with kids…confirmed bachelors…yep, marriages made in heaven – but somehow the author made it all gel, at least for 20-something Sarah.

Anyway, back to my Tomball Library breakthrough…the setting was exotic, the heroine was short and hen-like (think Jane Eyre) and the man was powerful and enigmatic – they lived on a farm but it was quite successful, more of a ranch, and the setting was exotic enough (African hills in the distance, employees of varied colors) to provide escape from Tomball, which of course was rural in its own right. I think there were some incidental issues with stepkids and an old girlfriend of the husband, standard stuff but new to me since this was my first Harlequin (wow!, hard to remember that freshness). I was a virgin reader, and this book was just comfortable enough that flat-chested, shy me didn’t feel horribly intimidated by it, but sweeping enough that I felt blessedly carried somewhere.

Afterward I walked back home, floating on a cloud of swoon, and for reasons I can barely remember felt compelled to share my discovery with my new stepmother. Disclaimer: I know she tried and/or wanted to be a good parent to me, but we were such different people and my first mother had been so different… I can’t remember (maybe I don’t want to know) whether I was so excited by my discovery of Harlequins that I just wanted to share it with the family matriarch, or whether I more simply (?) wanted to let her know where I had been for 4 hours.

Ooooommmmmppppphhhhhh. She said in a very critical tone something about how I didn’t need to spend all day reading. Somehow I took this as a criticism of sensuality and escape (which concept was worse?) and not just a criticism of time away from chores (which we both knew I would probably not have been doing anyway).

More to the disclaimer: She was very driven for all her working years – she had 6 kids and her first husband had died suddenly, then she threw herself into a church secretarial job, working many hours as secretary, church daycare assistant, doing church cleaning and other duties. (Work equals virtue, right?) I have only seen her read books in the last few years, and sadly she may have waited to be a reader until her comprehension had already diminished.

But back in the 1970s, she was probably wanting to help me out of my introversion and social discomfort, and didn’t always know a better way to do that than criticizing my solitary activities. In a way her critical speech was a good thing for me since I needed signs to help me understand that, well, frankly, this woman was not my mother and I would need to look elsewhere for Sarah-centric mothering, or learn to do self-comfort, haha at that developmental age – yep, both scenarios were problematic, but at least during the next few years when I continued to defer to my stepmother I had the reminder to brace for criticism (or to blame myself if I hadn’t braced…well, everybody who goes to therapy has some kind of trigger, I had many).

AND, YES…maybe the adjudged criticisms, my guilt about Harlequins, made them sweeter to read.

**

I didn’t have access to Harlequins at my first college in Santa Fe – gosh, I stood out at that highbrow place for even having a tiny TV set, but I read my copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” over and over. And I watched All My Children almost every day between classes…and the school library’s idea of fiction was Gertrude Stein (as a modern writer). Which I checked out, but couldn’t read. I left that worthy school at the end of the semester. (I would love to be there now! As a full-time student, studying the classics in seminar fashion, like the ancients – what’s not to love about that, when you are middle aged and more confident in yourself.)

In my next college in Georgetown (Texas, not the East Coast), I worked my way through the Harlequins at the city library, which didn’t take long, and then bought more at the grocery store. One of my favorite non-Harlequin library books from the tiny town library (I think it was on Main Street), was one I have never seen or heard of anywhere else, the second novel from Kathleen Winsor, whose first book was mega-breakthrough “Forever Amber” (notable in the 1940s for its length and sexuality), which I never read. Her second one was about the difficulties of being a writer with a first bestselling book, which I saw as a roadmap for…something.

After moving to Dallas I checked out Harlequins from 3 different libraries, bought them at the grocery store, and at a small used bookstore - a place so small and friendly that when I told the manager I was writing my own formula romance (which Harlequin turned down, as they should have, it was not worthy) she immediately said they could have a signing party for me, and seemed to believe in me as a professional.


Years later I found out that the same store was soon after bought by my recently-rediscovered childhood friend Henry and his wonderful partner Jeff, who turned it into a gift shop, which probably made more money than the bookstore ever did. When I saw from the sign that the store had stopped selling books I probably never walked in it again, so it took me another 2 decades to reunite with Henry. (But he is kind of the platonic Love of My Life, so there!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reading to Escape - part 2, other kids' lives

(Love this opening image because she is reading books and wearing orange - THOUGH LOOKS NOTHING LIKE ME!) Now, back to the Sarah blog...

I always had a library book with me during the school day, and despite whatever noise was going on, if I finished my in-class assignment early I would take out the book and read. I would never say I coasted through school – I was obsessed with grades so I spent a lot of time on my class work – but given some of the unfortunate others in my class that were part of our main stream…let’s just say I almost always had time in class to read my book.

I never read nonfiction – probably didn’t read it voluntarily until my 30s, except for biographies or autobiographies. (Correction: I used to do the summer reading program at our library where you had to read a certain number of books including science and social studies – I remember forcing myself, in great boredom and other discomfort, to read a book about flower stamens, and one only a little less boring about life on an Israeli kibbutz.) I only wanted to read about people – people with more fun lives than me – which meant biographies or FICTION.

One of the thousand reasons I never considered myself smart in grade school was that I shunned the Newbery Award children’s books. They were always on a special shelf at the town library, which was proud to have them – but I couldn’t make myself like them. I remember one had details of an Eskimo boy chewing whale blubber, and another had a Middle Eastern girl embarrassed by her farts, inevitable since her diet had so many chickpeas. Now, who wouldn’t rather read a late 1950s/early 1960s teen romance, with hardly even a kiss at the end, but lots of description of 50s clothing and dates at coffee shops and soda fountains?

I am proud of and grateful for my family, but frankly the family element of a lot of books I read was a big part of my escape. Families where both original parents were living – where the younger siblings were not too bratty – where although dating didn’t come easy, there was usually a bad boy (safe-bad) to be rejected and a boy-next-door to be accepted. These books sound really old, don’t they! They were possibly nowhere in circulation other than the Tomball, TX library by the early 1970s.

One of my dad’s early dates with my stepmother was a Christmas concert, to which of course I took my book. Basically I took a library book to everything but church – trust me, if I could have gotten away with it, I would have been reading during church services too. Dim concert lighting? No problem – I would squint and just not read as fast. On this particular date that I remember, my youngest stepsister-to-be Debbie came along. Debbie was friendly but shy-me soon ran out of dialogue. I remember her saying, “I’ll just let you read your book,” and thought, uh-oh, I hope I didn’t seem rude. But really, I DID want to read my book. The heroine and her mother were baking a family specialty for her birthday, brown walnut cake – I think they used burned butter – it sounded kind of like a cake my maternal grandmother used to make, but better… I think the heroine was in the school play, there was some kind of drama going on, centered around her birthday – her life was not without conflicts but the book was very upbeat in a Midwestern kind of way. Actually this book was not set in the 1950s!, a rarity for me. I remember loving it. I wish I could remember the name of it…

As an adult I almost never reread books, but back then I read lots of my favorites multiple times. Yes, I guess this was partly due to the poor selection… But in retrospect it was a good thing I absorbed them so thoroughly, since today I could not find those books if I tried! (And I HAVE tried to locate a couple of them online.)

**

A few of my favorites, murkily remembered:

A motherless girl spends her last few years of high school with a relative in Florida, visits an orange juice stand shaped like an orange (actually I have seen such a thing in the real Florida, but that’s irrelevant), finally comes to appreciate the relative she lives with (uncle? aunt? step-somebody?) and make a new life for herself – gains a nice sweet dark-haired boyfriend who at first was “just a friend.”

A girl in a largish family spends all the money from her summer job on herself – she buys grownup clothes like a black sheath dress, a linen jacket, linen pumps – just as she is about to make a deposit on an apartment for after high school, she comes to her senses, re-embraces her family (she will live at home during college), and returns the unworn professional outfits to the boutique where she bought them.

(I have saved the best for last:) A plump, surly teen loses weight, learns French, and gains savoir faire while on a study program in France. When she returns to her family in New York City, she has become poised enough to sing a solo on her father’s TV program (I kid you not), something she had whined about for years but was never truly ready for, before. As she sings on live TV, she half-closes her eyes and thinks with sweet sadness about the French boy she left behind.

**

OK – excuse me for digressing, but here is a final image as silly as some of those plots. The official title is, “teenage girl holding book.” Holding – not reading! Excuse me, this is soft porn! (It came up when I searched for Young Girl Reading Book.) The photo, not the book, is porn…there’s no telling what is in the book. She certainly doesn’t know.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Reading to Escape - a rough Part 1

I do have high reading & writing skills – I won’t be overly modest about that, it’s been tested – but unlike a lot of kids/people who intimidate me, I didn’t know how to read before I started school. In fact I’m not even sure I knew the alphabet before starting school – I remember it seeming new in First Grade. (I didn’t get bored until maybe the end of Second Grade. Before then I was avid for what Tomball Elementary had to teach me!) In Second Grade I learned to read – words, sentences, not a lightning flash of comprehension but no big road block either. In my memory, it seems that as soon as we had learned to read short Dick & Jane sentences (yes, I think that book was still in use…at least in 1968 in Tomball) there was a “who can read the most books” contest. Pressure…2nd grade version. For the first few weeks, other kids (girls, and nerdy ones at that, of course) were in the lead, but then I pulled ahead. I didn’t stay in the lead for weeks at a time, but I emerged as a contender.

Because the competitive Sarah reared up – that Sarah who had already been oriented to competition simply (or not so simply) by being the little sister of two intelligent, book-loving older brothers. A historic letter of my mother to her mother quoted me as saying that when I got a little older, I would be The Oldest Child! – apparently I couldn’t wait for that ascension – not only did I want to rule but I wanted to be the smartest of my siblings. I wanted to correct their mistakes. For example, a zillion years later I am still smarting that my brother Dave – snarkily, adolescent-style – corrected my pronunciation of “salmon.” (I argued with him, but of course I lost. I still check dictionaries sometimes to see if the pronunciation I thought was right is at least secondary. Dave still acts superior though, so it doesn't matter.)

Anyway, books…early reading, and reading since…what reading seemed to mean to my family…the horrible periods of time that I couldn’t read because of no access to books, or even worse, no ability to concentrate…the times I couldn’t stop reading... This big subject could almost use its own blog, my gosh.

To try to help myself get started – yes, I am intimidated by this topic – I looked for a section I remembered from one of my draft novels. OK, yes, it is a romance novel, but I don’t always refer to it as that, don’t want to pigeonhole it, would prefer it considered in a special category. (I would like myself considered in a special category! In all things. Unique is the way to go.)

Even if not a published writer, I have written a lot of stuff in my 48 years and it feels good that I have something available to borrow when needed…don’t have to create after a long day at work, can ethically steal (great phrase!) from myself.

Although actually this excerpt below was hard to clean up – when I last worked on it, in 2002, I was not yet on anxiety meds and could only write creatively if I put a huge number of question marks in every sentence. It made me too anxious to make actual final word decisions when I was in the creative mode – I left that for the editing phase, which never came – I mean, which hasn’t come yet. If I live to be 100 I know I will have time/resources-energy to finish this particular book! Given 50 years to procrastinate that ship will finally dock, I think.

My blog readers might find a few questions marks cute, but not dozens, not in 2-3 paragraphs…so I must draw on the anxiety-suppressing meds I swallowed this morning (hours ago), and persevere.

DEEP BREATH. (And yes, big gulp of Chardonnay.) I am going to take out question marks, delete mysterious phrases, add missing words, and basically smooth out the sentences. This is not to submit to a Manhattan book publisher – this is for a Tuesday night blog post. And the finished product will almost surely NOT please me anyway. I wrote it years ago! I have evolved since then and so has my writing. Why didn’t I just do this from scratch...is editing really easier than creating? Is the editor part of my brain still awake? OOOOKKKKKAAAAYYYY. Geez – it is such a short excerpt – but so hard to contemplate an unfinished novel – where is my wine glass…

***

Beth was hard on herself that she didn’t have more pop cultural knowledge as defined by, for example, Wheel of Fortune – not that Wheel of Fortune was the height of culture, but game participants and viewers were assumed to have a certain degree of cultural knowledge. She read a lot of library books but too much teen romance (1950s teen romances, which the library had a lot of, plus a few recent Judy Blumes) and Harold Robbins. She had read the newspaper – at least skimmed it – for 3 World Events topics during a high school social studies project. Had clipped a couple of recipes since… Maybe the problem was not enough primetime TV (the family still had TV rules, just having finally gotten a TV hadn't busted open the floodgates) and not enough nonfiction. Beth knew she mostly stayed in her own world – not the junior high world. Not the hometown world. Lots of visits to fictional worlds, but…

She had done what she could to move her level of knowledge up toward an adult notch. Not at an adult notch, but aiming that direction. One day she came home and announced, “Mother, I checked out some books from the adult section,” and her mother had said OK. Having already – if unknowingly – started her last year on earth, although having a not-bad day, Mother did sound a little weak and distracted. Beth didn’t clearly see that sad future either, but she immediately felt some guilt because she didn’t think a complete, coherent approval had been approved from her mother. Mother probably assumed Beth, who was an early and good reader, needed more challenge book-wise.

Yes, Beth felt guilty over having sneaked Harold Robbins and his smarmy writer compatriots past her mother this way, but once she started with Robbins she didn’t want to stop and the ability to continue without confrontation felt more important than complete honesty. She was far from articulating what would later become a prime philosophy of hers, “It’s OK to tell a white lie when you know people don’t want the truth.” But she knew that when the grandmother-age librarian lady usually stationed at the desk, who unfortunately attended her church, balked at stamping the Harold Robbins check-out cards and worse, suggested that she read some kind of smarmy series about somebody with freckles – sounded like an extra-boring Anne of Green Gables – she should hold her head high. “Mother knows I am checking these out.” There wasn’t much that grandma-lady could say that to that.

Of course the next time Beth checked out another book that – in Beth’s mind – would prove to be a valuable resource in understanding about pornography, prostitution, and transvestites in general – the Grandma librarian would ask again about the Freckles series. But Beth would hang tough.

Beth suspected her junior high peers weren't reading these books. They knew more than Beth about almost everything in the pop culture. But they were strangers to Harold Robbins. Yeah.