Monday, May 30, 2011

Castle Of Twilight - Like A Mashup of Poe and Arthurian Legends

The Castle of Twilight is a dark novel written in 1903 by Margaret Horton Potter (real name Margaret Potter Black). Potter is pretty obscure these days, but did have a wave of popularity back in her day. Potter was born in 1881 to steel manufacturing millionaire Orrin N. Potter and his wife Ellen Owen Potter. As a young woman, Potter was considered part of Chicago high society. Over the course of her career she only wrote 9 novels, her first one at the age of 17. Unfortunately, not much is known about this first novel  - as the story goes, Potter wrote the novel about, what else, shenanigans in Chicago high society but only thinly veiled the character traits of actual people she knew. People got all worked up over the novel and one organization  took it upon themselves to buy up all existing editions and "suppress" them (a kind way of saying getting rid of the existing ones and not letting any more be made - makes you want to find out what was in that book, huh??). In 1902, just a year before The Castle of Twilight was published, Margaret married lawyer John Donald Black, son of John C. Black, then President of US Civil Service Comission.

The one picture I could find of Margaret Horton Potter

Though few of the details are known, something occurred to have Margaret have some sort of mental breakdown. On May 5th, 1910 she was legally declared insane and ordered to a sanitarium. Life started to spiral down for her from there. Even after her release from the mental hospital later, the court still signed over her estate to be managed by an executor and her husband filed for divorce in October of 1910, claiming she was a habitual drunk. (I'm guessing being a lawyer he probably didn't have too much trouble getting his way). To top off this real life tragedy, on December 22, 1911 Mrs Potter was found dead at the Chicago Beach Hotel. The coroner ruled it an "accidental" morphine overdose. She was just 30 years old! 

Her close friends claimed that Potter was using morphine for pain related to a heart condition she had. Her brother stated that 4 months prior to her death, she mentioned being "sick of life" but he didn't believe she meant to end her life. I don't know ... all seems like a lot of strange coincidences....

Chicago Beach Hotel

Given the dark, sad tone to The Castle of Twilight, it makes me wonder if Potter had some melancholy sort of inner demons she was trying to work out that maybe caused her to implode? Castle tells the story of the 14th century ruling family of Le Crepuscule Castle, a 12th century castle that sits right on the Breton Coast of England, the sea mists and crashing waves adding to the dark, contemplative natures of the castle inhabitants.

To me, it seemed everyone's issues seemed to be a result of Eleanore, the widowed "lady of the house", mother to Laure and Gerault (heir to the castle). Eleanore has a bummer mix of depression and over-zealous religious tendencies. She basically just wanders about the castle in black robes telling whoever will listen how much her life sucks and pushes her religious zeal onto her kids. Strangely though, she gets upset when her daughter takes to it and decides to become a nun! She claims God has stolen her daughter from her! Can this woman find nothing to be happy about??

Laure, Eleanor's daughter decides to become an noviate or "starter" nun at the Virgins of Magdalene Convent. Only being 17 though, Laure quickly finds that even after taking her vows of poverty, chastity and all that and changing her name to "Angelique", she's still just a teenage girl at heart, feeling the need to get her groove on. Into her life comes ladies man/troubador, Bertrand Flammecouer, whose character is described in the line, "As long as he should be the center of interest, he was never bored." Reading that, I pictured Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, who was more in love with himself than anyone else could possibly be : -P 
Laure falls prey to his charms and sneaks out of the convent in the dark of night, running away with him to wherever he should lead (*She and Lydia Bennet from P&P should compare experience notes lol). 

So Eleanore doesn't want a nun for a daughter, but doesn't want her running off with Rico Suave... Guess since she can't chew out her impetuous daughter, she starts in on her son with "Why don't you find a nice girl and settle down?" Weeelll... turns out her son is still mourning the death of his cousin Lenore he was in love with, a death he feels partly responsible for. I can understand how that could be hard to shake off! But for his mother's sake, Gerault goes traveling and months later comes back with a wife. Weird though, of all the women in the world, he runs into a girl from the next town over also named Lenore! For some reason though, Gerault, being a knight and falconer, decides to add "cradle robber" to his list of titles, bringing home a child bride barely into her teens but noted for her "golden beauty" by whoever sees her.  So the story questions, does he love her? Can he love her? Is he a total douche?

Poor Lenore seems to be stuck in a situation where she marries as a result of teenage lust and infatuation (though she having no previous experience with men has no idea what her husband wants from her - but ooo she just knows he's hot in that "older, experienced" kind of way). Her bliss is interrupted when she realizes that her new home at Le Crepuscule seems to be a perpetual buzzkill for everyone who enters. No one stays happy in that place! But the story almost begs the question - is it really the people or the place that this invasive melancholy stems from?? Alixe, an adopted, tomboy-ish daughter of Eleanore's, perhaps one of the most balanced residents of Le Crepuscule and someone who is essentially treated as the castle's "red headed step child" watches all the soap operas going on and continually claims she's "so outta here" but something about the place keeps her from going anywhere.. it's eerie how much this story reminded me of some Edgar Allan Poe stories. 

By the way, the style of writing in this novel is beautiful!! Just check out the novel's foreword:

“ I deliver up to you my simple story knowing that the first suggestion of historical novel will bring before you an image of dreary woodenness and unceasing carnage. Yet if you will have the graciousness but to unlock my castle door you will find within only two or three quiet folk who will distress you with no battles nor strange oaths Even in the days of rival Princes and never- ending wars there dwelt still a few who took no part in the moil of life but lived with gentle pleasures and unvoiced sorrows somewhat as you and I; wherefore I pray you, cross the moat. The drawbridge is down for you and will not be raised, if, after introduction to the Chatelaine you desire speedily to retreat.”

This alone reminded me of when I was a kid, reading Robin Hood or The Arthurian Legends for the first time. It's total escapism from page 1! Also similar to the Arthurian Legends, just when you thought things were looking up for a character, yet more tragedies fall... but that what makes for great writing for me - even if there is tragedy, it's written so eloquently, you can't help but keep reading, asking Where did Laure go? Will she come back? Will Gerault and his Lenore #2 work it out? Will Eleanore freakin' cheer up??

I think one of my favorite elements of this novel was how easy it was to picture everything. The characters were realistic, the environments were described in such a way that I could almost draw the places. Plus it was interesting to learn archaic words and customs not familiar today, such as St. Sylvestre's Eve (now called New Year's Eve) and the really cool tradition of leaving the draw bridge down on castles. By ecclesiastical law, from Christmas to New Year, castles were required to leave draw bridges down 24/7 , allowing anyone from criminal to count to enter, the families of the castles were expected to feed their visitors and no one was allowed to fight in any way during this time. I just loved the sense of charity behind this tradition! Really living the spirit of Christmas :-)

In her dedication, Potter mentioned that this story was inspired by a piece of music, presumably Nocturne - Opus 54, #4 by Edvard Grieg, the sheet music featured on the page following the dedication, which you can listen to here:

It's a pretty piece, but it amazes me Potter thought of a story such as Castle of Twilight just from this. At any rate, if you come across a copy, definitely check it out - perfect rainy day book!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sebold Part Trois - Conclusion

First off, a Lovely Bones update. Barry and I did see the movie recently and we both really enjoyed it. I do wish there would have been a little bit more done with Susie in Heaven parts, but I felt the same way reading the book so no big loss there! Still, some very nice acting and overall the film stayed very true to the book so if you've read the book and want to see a visual interpretation or if you're more of a movie person and it helps you to see the movie first, either way, I think you'll like it.

Also, for anyone interested in the special edition slipcovered set of Lovely Bones I mentioned in Pt 1 of this Sebold series... I bought a copy myself and below are just a couple of pics out of several in the special edition part. As I mentioned before, the set comes with a hardcover edition of The Lovely Bones and an additonal box that has the first few chapters of the novel interspersed with images of actual missing children, some cases solved, some not, as well a list of the childrens' names and info (to hopefully help close the still-open cases, one way or the other). Proceeds from the sale of these special editons benefit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. By the way, these images are printed on some sort of plastic or maybe its vellum, but folds out so that the chapters between the pictures are still readable - though it comes with a hardback edition of the full novel so this part may just be for collector's novelty / sense of charity:

Now onto the conclusion of this Sebold series.  Last book in the lot is The Almost Moon, a story (that is rather disturbing at first, until you start reading into the backstory) about a woman in her early 50s who has been taking care of her mentally declining mother for years and one day suddenly up and decides to strangle her to death with a bath towel. As I said with Lovely Bones, I'm not giving anything away here as the very first sentence in the book is "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." From there, the story is basically Helen having an "oh crap" moment once the legal ramifications start running through her head, thus pushing her to spend the hours following the murder trying to figure out how she can stay out of prison.. Yeah, even if you mean well, murder / mercy killing is still pretty illegal, girl!

I've noticed in all of these books that Sebold clearly doesn't like to waste time sugar coating things, making them sound "not so bad" - she just plows right into the story with the attitude of "If you don't like it, you can read something else" which I actually really respect! Now I know, seeing that first line, you might say OMG! What am I reading?? which was my initial reaction (particularly since I began reading this book the day after Mother's Day, making me feel particularly guilty!) but if you give it a chance and let Sebold tell the story, you actually start to understand Helen's (the woman who killed her mother) point of view.

The Almost Moon is a book in which the entire story takes place in the space of 24 hours. Interestingly, this book took Sebold five years to write. ***One reason you should not get into writing books solely for the money, as unpredictable as the writing process is, you better love what you're doing!***  The title refers to a comment Helen's father makes to her one night when she is a young girl, about how some things are like the moon, sometimes you only see a sliver of it (an "almost moon") but you know the rest of it is there, that there is more than meets the eye, more going on in the shadows. Helen, in later years, sees this as a metaphor for her life.

An "Almost Moon"

Helen, after killing her mother, goes back and explains to the reader what had transpired over the years to lead up to such a decision. She starts off by talking admirably about her mother's modeling days as a red-headed lingerie model (judging from the descriptions of the lingerie, I'm guessing it was in the late 40s, early 50s) when she meets Helen's father who is understandably drawn to her {a redhead in lacy underthings?? I don't know, Barry, does that still work these days?? ; - ) } and pretends to be a photographer in order to meet her. They hit it off and consequently marry, Helen's father goes to work for the local water dept. and somewhere in there, Helen's mother develops a serious case of agoraphobia and decides she can't leave the house anymore unless under the protection of several towels or blankets to hide her face from the world she believes is constantly viewing and judging her. SIDENOTE: For those of you that have read Sebold's memoir, LUCKY, she used some of her own mother's "quirks" as character traits of Helen's mother, in particular the chest rubbing during panic/anxiety attacks, she even describes them pretty much the same way in both books.

As if this wasn't enough to cope with, Helen's father  tries to be the stable parent, taking Helen for drives in his Oldsmobile, playing games with her and always wearing a smile. But even he starts displaying some mental quirks of his own, some moments of dark behavior, though the story only really hints at his possible mental illness. At one point, the young Helen is told that her father "went to visit friends and family in Ohio" but its clear he's been temporarily institutionalized. Either way, young Helen feels that she's pretty much left to care for her mother on her own, a responsibility that carries on through Helen's adult life, affecting her friendships, work opportunities, and even her relationship with her husband and daughters. This element of the story had me contemplating how far "family crazy" has a reach. How much mental illness is genetic preposition and how much is a result of circumstances and outside stimuli? I'm sure there's been plenty of dissertations written on the very subject but that's what I was wondering, comparing the personal histories of both of Helen's parents. It didn't seem like Helen's mother got "sick" until after marriage and Helen's father seemed to come a bit unhinged trying to protect and take care of his wife, but it's not clear to me if Sebold was hinting that the father also had issues, pre-dating the marriage, that were just overshadowed by his wife's. Either way, poor kid stuck in the middle of that!

1952 Oldsmobile

Thankfully, Helen finds an honestly stable adult in her neighbor, Mr. Forrest, a character I wish Sebold would have expanded because he seemed so cool! Mr. Forrest is the one man in the neighborhood who has maintained a friendship with Helen's mother, despite her agoraphobia. I found myself thinking I would have loved to have been friends with this guy! He raised King Charles Spaniels, drank port wine and gin and tonics, collected / read antique books, had an intellectual wit to him, always dressed nicely, even to just take a stroll around the neighborhood and on top of everything, drove a vintage green Jaguar convertible! He offers to teach young Helen to drive, she exclaims "in the jag?!" and his awesomely smirky posh reply is "Oh, I'm sorry, are there other cars? I was unaware". He also gives her some pretty cool morale talk that I could definitely relate to:

" There are millions of them. You can't beat them, believe me.{bastards - he teaches Helen to learn the phrase "fucking bastards" whenever she runs into infuriating people, to say it to herself as a sort of vent for the frustration). You can only hope to find a way to live quietly among them Sitting and reading in this window, with all my antiques and books... you wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I'm a revolutionary."

Elegant Man In Mirror by Leon Gordon

King Charles Spaniels

1952 Green Jaguar Convertible

Aside from the discussion of mental illness, there is an underlying story of people trying to live up to what their parents envisioned they would be, and hating to fall short. Helen views images of her mother as a young, glamorous lingerie model, and as an adult, perhaps trying to replicate some of that glamor for her own life, finds work as a live model for college art classes. Once, Helen even wears one of the slips her mother posed in to one of her own art classes, a "rose petal pink" slip Helen always favored in the photos of her mother. It is also something, along with her mother's hair braid, that she keeps as a sort of a keepsake for a mother she can't decide if she ever truly loved or not.

Live Modeling for Art (and Money)

"Rose Petal Pink" Slip

Helen cuts off her mother's gray hair braid  as a sort of memento, after killing her.

Helen's realization of trying to live up to her mother's mystique and beauty:

"...whereas  I felt my mother had possessed, throughout her life, true beauty, I had always believed that I lived on borrowed time. I knew that the same bones that  made my mother a domestic Garbo underpinned my more average looks.  My father, though delicate around the eyes, was also long-jawed and bulbous-nosed, and so I had inherited just enough of his qualities  to blunt my mother's."

Greta Garbo, a famous Hollywood Silver Screen icon,
 known for her unique beauty and reclusiveness.
Helen's mother is compared to Garbo a number of times in the novel.

Along these lines, and, I think, my favorite quote from the entire book:

"As the years went by, I could see more sunspots on my chest and shoulders, and the resilient skin with which I had been blessed had slackened no matter what inverted poses I was able to do in yoga. Flexibility, in the end, did not trump gravity. I lived on the borderline between a Venus just holding it together and Whistler's mother in the buff."

Venus de Milo sculpture,
believed to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch 130-100 BC

Birth of Venus Sandro Bottcelli 1486

Whistler's Mother

I was so tickled by that - even at 29 I can relate! If you wonder about Sebold's topic choices, I've heard her say in interviews that she likes to write about those things that happen but no one likes to talk about that she feels should be talked about, such as the desire sometimes felt to kill an overbearing, demanding parent, or the process of grief when your child is kidnapped and murdered. She also shows that there can be beauty and humor in the midst of utter tragedy and pain. Such as in this book, Helen feels honest remorse for feeling she had to kill her mother but also felt that her mother was racing faster and faster toward severe dementia, and as much of a pain in the ass she felt her mother to be a lot of the time, she cared for her enough to want to save her a shred of dignity, and so snuffed her mother out during a moment when it was clear in her mother's eyes that her mother was not mentally present. To Helen, her mother being mentally absent meant that she wouldn't register pain, or think fast enough to struggle, and in the process, as a final gift and sign of respect to a parent she could give her mother a relatively quiet way out with some dignity still in tact rather than the image she had of the way she felt her mother would have died in a natural situation - drooling and soiled. Helen even takes time to clean the body after her mother dies, later telling her ex-husband "she soiled herself right before, she wouldn't have wanted to be found like that." I don't know that I could pull off a mercy killing for one of my parents, but Sebold is successful in making me see Helen's side. Yet another moment of "you just don't know until it happens to you". 

Well... til next time! As much of an education as these books have been, I'm planning on hittin' up some slightly lighter material next post... stay tuned!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sebold's Novel LUCKY A Powerful But Tough Read for PTSD Survivors

Alice Sebold's memoir, LUCKY, is her account of her beating and subsequent rape in Thornden Park in Syracuse, New York on May 8, 1981. Initially, Sebold had written the first chapter of The Lovely Bones but felt that her own true story might conflict with the story of Susie Salmon, so she temporarily shelved Bones and wrote this memoir.

At the time of the attack, Sebold (pronounced See-bold) was an eighteen year old college freshman at Syracuse University, and a virgin. By Sebold's account, I got the impression that perhaps the attacker suffered from bi-polar disorder or something of the like, since she tells of how his behavior shifts back and forth from a violent, profane evilness to a humbled and remorseful tone, and even at certain times, acting as if he and his victim are on a date. He even tells Sebold to kiss him before he lets her go! When Sebold is able to be examined by trauma specialist Dr. Husa (a woman), Husa breaks it to Sebold that the rape caused so much damage that she had extensive bleeding, a hymen torn in two different places and that there would be stitches required for an internal tear along the vaginal wall. The title of the memoir refers to a police officer's response to Sebold reporting her rape. He tells her that prior to her incident, another girl was killed and dismembered at the same location, so by comparison, Sebold was "lucky". I can imagine how sickening hearing that would be after living through the trauma mentioned above (and I put it gently - there's alot more graphic detail in the book of the damage done).

Thornden Park Ampitheatre as it is today - near here was where the attack took place

One thing that stumped me is why there wasn't more of a fight. Sebold describes how there was broken glass, rock and debris on the ground that she noticed as the rape was occuring - why not grab a good size rock and knock him in the head or shove broken glass shards in his face.... it sounds brutal but at that point it's survival, right? Sebold actually commented on this in the book, saying,

"Those who say they would rather fight to the death than be raped are fools. I would rather be raped a thousand times. You do what you have to do."

I don't know, that struck me as a wee bit harsh. Everyone responds to pain and trauma differently. in Sebold's case, she discusses in the book how in the aftermath of the rape and later the trial and conviction of her attacker, she deals with some of the pain by "dabbling", as she puts it, in some pretty hard core narcotics (particularly black tar heroin), pot, alcohol, and for one brief instant even lesbianism. Can't say I blame her, what with some of the reactions she got when disclosing the details of her rape : her father asking "How could he rape you unless you let him?" or her therapist's snarky comment of "Well, I guess you can be less inhibited about sex now, huh?" OMG - I would want to have that therapist's license for that kind of insensitivity. It's flippin' therapy! That's suppose to be the one place you're guaranteed sensitivity and "kid gloves" treatment!
Syracuse University

The ironically named Haven Hall where Sebold lived while attending Syracuse U.

Syracuse University Hall of Languages

But as far as fighting back, I don't know. Maybe it's the sort of thing where you think of what you would have liked to have done in hindsight. Or maybe you think of what you would hope you would do in that situation but you don't really know until it happens to you. Hard to say. Growing up, I was always taught that if someone comes at you like that, clearly intending to severely threaten or even possibly end your life, you fight as hard and dirty as you can until the person is in the hospital or dead. But again, that's easy to spout in theory - and it sounds good in Rambo movies, but who knows what would actually go down until it's happening.
Poet/Professor Tess Gallagher and her late husband, author Raymond Carver.
Tess became a source of strength and friendship for Alice during the trial.

The other thing that confused me was one instance where I guess the teenage Sebold was trying to show her parents that she wasn't entirely broken in spirit. When she returns to her parents' house the morning after her attack and her father asks her if she's hungry she comments that she's had nothing in her mouth in 24 hours "except a cracker and a cock". I understand if you want to show that you still have your sense of humor after a bad experience - I do the same thing. But that struck me as pretty insensitive toward her parents. As parents, they have to deal with their own type of trauma, coming to terms with the idea of their child being violently sexually violated. That's a stomach churner for any dad. At another time, that probably would have come out pretty funny but right then? The moment's bad enough - don't throw the word "cock" at him just to shake him up!

Author/Professor Tobias Wolffe, whose own memoir THIS BOY'S LIFE was turned into
a breakout movie role for Leonardo Dicaprio. Tobias and his brother Gregory, also a teacher,
 were additional sources of strength and wisdom for Alice.

While thankfully I have never had to experience rape, I have experienced similar situations of abuse and found that a good amount of what Sebold described, as far as emotions and behavior after trauma, I could definitely relate to. It was particularly her description of the recovery process (which covers years and possibly never quite ends) that I really started to see pieces of my own life and self. There is an excerpt from the book Trauma and Recovery by Dr. Judith Herman ( in which she describes PTSD sufferers ) which Sebold quotes that really struck a chord with me:

They do not have a normal "baseline" level of alert, but relaxed attention. Instead, they have an elevated baseline of arousal: their bodies are always on the alert for danger. They also have an extreme startle response to unexpected stimuli.. People with post-traumatic stress disorder take longer to fall asleep, are more sensitive to noise, and awaken more frequently during the night than ordinary people. Thus traumatic events appear to recondition the human nervous system.

For most of my childhood, I lived in an abusive home where there was almost no break in the constant fighting, yelling, and violence. I never really put the two together but also a norm in my childhood was the fact that nearly every night, I found it close to impossible to fall asleep easily or stay asleep. I jumped at every noise, listened to every sound, trying to anticipate the next threat to my well-being. I grew up to have relationships with men that were sometimes emotionally abusive and even at certain times, dangerously on the verge of becomingly a physical threat. To this day, I'm still a jumpy insomniac who seems to speak at a lower tone than most everyone else around me. I manage a cool exterior but inside I'm pretty consistently a nervous wreck, still keeping my guard up, fearing that some threat always looms around the corner. I was especially interested in the fact that Sebold compared trauma victims (rape & abuse cases) to Vietnam war vets in that they both experience different forms of PTSD. It was yet another brief AHA moment as I thought about how my own father is a Vietnam veteran who came back with PTSD. It made me wonder if his PTSD influenced his violent/moody/mercurial behavior he went on to show for the remainer of my childhood until I was old enough to move out of my parents' home.

Attica Prison, where Sebold's attacker was sent.

I also noticed similarities in the way both Sebold and I went through a phase of seemingly choosing the "bad boy" boyfriend over the "good guy" that inevitably got put in "the friend zone". What is it that makes so many women do this?? I suppose it might be the appeal of "living on the edge" or at least briefly experiencing that sort of thing. I feel bad for guys in this situation, because if the guy plays it too nice, he's boring but if he's overly confident and pushy, he's a dick lol. In the end though, most of us get sick of the game and find a stable, honest guy to love who won't rattle us with headgames. I found such a man. Sebold found such a man in her husband, author Glen David Gold, the person to whom she dedicated her memoir.

Author Glen David Gold

In an interview for NPR, Sebold was asked if she ever felt compassion for her attacker, similar to other interviews where she was asked if readers of The Lovely Bones were ever meant to feel compassion for such a seemingly vile character as Mr. Harvey.Her answer definitely gave me something to think about:

"I would say eventually, certainly not immediately. But you  know, we're all born into this world in very different ways and we have different experiences of it, and I don't know a lot about him, but some things I do know led me to feel compassion for him. There are many people who had much worse circumstances than he did who managed not to go out and rape people. But that doesn't mean you can't have compassion for them. I don't forgive him, but you know, he's a human being. You have to move on. It's just as simple as that. And so you find a way to move on, and having compassion for people just in general is a good way to live in life. "

I don't know if I agree with 100% of that, but it's definitely something to think about, if not aspire to.

In the words of Poet / Philosopher Khalil Gibran (above):
 "All of us are prisoners but some of us have cells with windows and some without."

See an interesting interview: Alice Sebold discusses The Lovely Bones and Lucky on Charlie Rose show here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES Lives Up To Its Hype

Caricature Of Alice Sebold that appeared in NY Review of Books
after The Lovely Bones won 2002 Book Of The Year 

Well hey there! :) Been a bit I know, but I can explain ; -) So I started to read Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, which is nearly 800 pgs long... unfortunately I got so annoyed with it I only made it to the "Book 2" section lol. I had to give up once the author changed the tone of the narrative (it seemed to go from the character Lucy to the author himself with no explanation to the reader). Can't say I recommend that one. Thankfully, in the midst of wading through that book, my fiancĂ©e's mom sent me some "belated Christmas present" books, one of which was Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I am known for my love of classic lit, but I  gotta say this book pretty much had me at page 1 and didn't let go until the end, which is pretty rare for me when I delve into modern fiction. I enjoyed the novel so much, I went and got Sebold's other two books and have decided to make this part one of a 3 part series, where we can discuss all three books. Hopefully Bones wasn't a fluke as far as enjoyment but from what I've read of Sebold, I think all three will prove impressive.

In The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon proves to be an incredibly brave teenage girl, never seeming to show fear of each unknown she experiences, aside from her brutal rape and murder. Susie is sadly a victim of unfortunate timing and circumstances, as well as a deeply disturbed man's obsession with committing murders and escaping justice.Surprisingly though, Susie does not become consumed with revenge in heaven. Her family, particularly her father and younger sister, feel the need to catch the murderer themselves when the police fail to nail down any leads. Susie tries to help point the way but often becomes frustrated with the physical limitations of her spirit body in heaven. She also fights with the reality of "heaven". When she gets there, Franny - her intake counselor- explains that in heaven, one only has to think something into existence to have it (but no wishing yourself back to life on Earth obviously). While at first this is amazing to Susie, over time she realizes that having all the tangible things she could ever hope for will not give her back the chances she had stolen from her on Earth, chances of falling in love, fulfilling her dream of being a wildlife photographer, never knowing sex, marriage, motherhood. She is forced to live vicariously through the lives of her loved ones she watches from her gazebo in heaven.

I thought Sebold did a beautiful job of mixing together Susie's wonder and acceptance of her new life in heaven, her curiosity of events continuing on Earth, and all the experiences and emotions her family and friends work through as a result of her life cut way too short, particularly showing all the different ways one can express or handle grief. I think my favorite character was Grandma Lynn, Susie's grandmother, because she was so unapologetic for the way she was. Her motto seemed to be "I drink, I like to shop, I like to look good, and I like to look at hot young men" (sort of the way I imagine myself as a grandmother, or just an old woman : - P). She also turns out to be pretty wise as far as teaching the rest of the family coping skills.

This book was recently turned into a movie, which I have not seen just yet but plan to very soon. I did read up about the movie and found that it is directed by Peter Jackson, the director that rose to fame with his work on the Lord Of The Rings films. I think it would take a director with training in fantasy films to bring the heaven sequences to life on screen. The movie stills alone for this film are stunning! Take a look:

Lots of familiar faces in the film. Susan Sarandon plays Grandma Lynn (great casting there!), Mark Wahlberg plays Susie's father Jack, while the stunning Rachel Weisz plays her mother Abigail. Stanley Tucci plays the sick and twisted neighbor George Harvey, Susie's murderer. (I'm not really giving anything away in saying that-Susie's murder takes place in the very first chapter and Harvey introduces himself before the act, the story isn't about proving her murder, but more about tracking down where the guy went and finding enough evidence to convict him, a task that proves pretty elusive). The first chapter describing the rape and  murder is pretty hard to get through, being that it is happening to an innocent 14 yr old character, but I wouldn't let that deter you. The book is so poetically written that it makes the more graphic moments a little easier to stomach.

Below is a trailer for the film adaptation:

And for those interested, there is also a special limited edition printing of The Lovely Bones, a two book slipcased set, the set is called LOOKING GLASS. One book is a hardback copy of the novel Lovely Bones, while the second is an edition of the novel with photographs of missing children cases, some solved, some not - to add extra poignancy to the story. Sebold is a supporter of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, so this set may have been put together to bring some renewed attention to some of the cold cases. I may pick up a copy myself to display in my library.

This set is available at Barnes & Noble, which you can link to here.

So... what would your heaven look like?