SNOW FALLING by Jane Gloriana Villanueva

As regular readers of this blog have gathered by now, a lot of the storytelling I’ve gravitated toward since leaving college syllabi behind has been new, uncharted, unexpected. The shows I’ve been watching are no exception, and one of my absolute favorites has become the CW’s Jane the Virgin, a show that has guided me through yet another new genre: the telenovela. Jane the Virgin navigates a tricky balance, and in doing so accomplishes one of my favorite things to encounter in fiction when done deftly and intelligently. It manages to be an earnest and sincere telenovela itself, while also being about telenovelas, educating the viewers and at times mocking with gentle adoration and self-awareness toward the conventions of this genre. It populates a labyrinthine and often outrageous plot with characters so warm and lovable you can’t help but gasp along with the overzealous narrator, who, like the audience, really just wants a happy ending for his beloved cast. But alas, as he often reminds and warns us, the dramatic twists of a telenovela do not promise happy endings for everyone.

For those that have not seen an episode of the show, it centers on Jane Gloriana Villanueva, an aspiring writer living with her mother and grandmother in Miami whose life is thrown into chaos when she becomes accidentally artificially inseminated with the child of her boss, the owner of a luxury hotel. That may sound like an overwhelmingly plot-y premise for someone new to the genre, but I promise, the depth of character development (and the helpful notes from the narrator) keeps you moving through the story with ease. But be warned: while at times one of the laugh-out-loud funniest shows I’ve ever watched, it has also been one of the most emotional. These highs and lows never feel unearned or simple, and experiencing them is really worth your time. Having said that, the rest of this review will contain spoilers for the show, so in short: watch the show, then read this book.

Those of you still with me were probably as heartbroken as I was when the fate that, to be fair, the narrator has spent seasons preparing us for, was finally realized: Michael and Jane did not get to have their happy ending. You all, I was NOT OKAY. So much so that I almost wasn’t sure I could continue with the show. I was sure that while I admired the ambitious storytelling choice, the show couldn’t retain the sense of joy that gives it its beating heart after such a tragic turn. And yes, the show is different for Michael’s absence, and the grief that Jane felt for his loss cannot and has not been ignored. But the joy and love, and even humor, that has always held me to this show has definitely remained, in a storytelling feat that, frankly, amazes me. Nevertheless, when I found out that Snow Falling, the book that Jane writes to work through her grief and give herself and Michael the happy ending they deserved–the book that ultimately becomes her first published novel–was something I could really buy and read, I was ecstatic. I needed the catharsis of that happy ending, too.

By the look of the book, you would think it’s the real deal, with Jane being listed as the author complete with bio and photo (and with completely wonderful in-universe blurbs from her thesis advisor, writing mentors, and of course, gregarious and garrulous father). The book is actually published by Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and ghost-written by actual romance author Caridad Piñeiro (who also gets an adorably cheeky blurb on the cover). The plot itself is basically a pared down version of the show, but set in Miami during the 1900s. It was nice to get to experience the story in this way; the more spare story, as well as the inner narration for each character that books allow more easily than television, kept the plot points from being redundant. The tighter focus on the three main characters of this particular part of the broader Jane the Virgin plot was refreshing, but the cameos of the other characters were also fun and introduced with the right balance. The historical setting is a nice touch, as well, although I wouldn’t have minded it playing a bigger role.

Piñeiro deserves a lot of credit for capturing the spirit and voice of the show and adapting it to her medium. The book both feels like the show and reads like a romance novel, mostly. My one complaint is one I share with Slate’s Marissa Martinelli: the book has occasional inserts from the narrator speaking directly to the reader in an imitation of the narrator on the show. While the narrator is one of my favorite elements of the show, and I can understand why Piñeiro/the publisher/the network/whomever wanted to feature this characteristic, I found it a bit distracting here. For one thing, it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to hear the voice of the narrator from the show, but as I kept reminding myself, this is supposed to be Jane telling the story, so every time the narrator popped in, I ended up doing this mental gymnastic move trying to make myself hear Jane’s voice instead. I think another reason it was distracting is that, well, all books have narrators that speak directly to the reader, whether it’s a character of the story doing it in first person or, like the narrator of the show, an omniscient third-person voice. This book is written in third person, too, making the extra pop-ins from the narrator who is already speaking to us throughout the whole reading experience feel a little strange. But it’s not a big deal, and the only reason I’m even talking about it this much is because it’s nerdy fun to compare and contrast conventional modes of storytelling.

My complaint aside, this book was lovely company, and an interesting way to spend time with characters in a universe I already love. I am also excited that it happened at all, and would encourage any other cross-medium explorations like this. It’s hard for me to know how Snow Falling holds up as a romance novel independent of the show, and it’s also hard for me to know if a fan of the show who doesn’t enjoy romance novels would get much out of it. There might be a disconnect there, and I can understand why it’s getting mixed reviews. But at the end of the day, I was sold on this book when I opened the first pages to find a dedication to Michael, a fictional character over whom I am still heartbroken. Now, like Jane, I can always return to the happy ending I wanted for these characters, and like Jane, I find a lot of value in the happy endings that live within the pages of romance novels, helping us to find and appreciate the messier and more complicated joy that exists in our lives.

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TALKING AS FAST AS I CAN by Lauren Graham (and also some thoughts on audiobooks)

As I so often have to say, I want to apologize for the radio silence. I’ve been going through a bit of a challenging time, and a side effect has been that it has been difficult to read for fun. I’ve so missed being able to settle into a good book, and I needed to figure out a way to get back into what I love.

Recently, I downloaded a new app called Libby. Libby connects to your local library through your library card, giving you access to ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve been using it to check out ebooks for my kindle, but I’ve never really gotten into audiobooks. I tried to listen to a novel once, but I found it difficult to keep track of the story and characters that way. I’ve heard from other book bloggers, including the lovely folks over at Book Riot (you might recognize them from my recent conversion to romance novels–they haven’t steered me wrong yet) that it’s easier to start with nonfiction audiobooks. This made sense to me, especially as a fan of podcasts; it seemed to align with the way I already consume a lot of the true stories I encounter. Returning to some of my favorite podcasts has come to feel like keeping company with friends, which has been so comforting lately.

So, I was approaching my audiobook search with this idea in mind; I was looking for a book that would make a good companion, and allow me to ease back into reading. One of the books that’s been on my to-read list for a while seemed suddenly like the most obvious choice, a great way to be in conversation with someone from a world that has so often served as a refuge for me. Lauren Graham’s (or Lorelai Gilmore, of my favorite TV show) memoir Talking as Fast as I Can proved to be as delightful as I expected.

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Anyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to the show Gilmore Girls. In high school I had every season on DVD, and I became a sort of library for all of my friends who were trying to catch up in syndication (I could easily identify where they were in the series from a quick description). I watched it first with my mother, loving how much I saw our closeness and friendship reflected in the compassion and wit that threads through the show, and came to bond with many friends (and my delightfully feminist younger brother) in subsequent viewings. In my many re-watches of the series, some of the jokes and lines don’t age super well, and there’s an unfortunate lack of diversity (especially troubling given that the show is not THAT old, and that some of the humor-missteps carried over even into the 2016 revival). I certainly acknowledge that it’s not a perfect show, but I have to admit, it’s always been the one closest to my heart. When the revival season aired on Netflix last year, it was a bigger deal for me than I ever would have expected a television show could be. And so even though I don’t usually read a lot of celebrity memoirs (no judgment, just not my thing), I figured that this would be an interesting way to get to do what I’ve so often done: return to Stars Hollow when I need it the most.

It’s certainly worth noting that Lauren Graham is not Lorelai Gilmore. As the subtitle highlights, Talking as Fast as I Can details moments from Graham’s life “From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything In Between),” encompassing more than just Graham’s time playing Lorelai. The book doesn’t follow a linear path through Graham’s life, but is instead a collection of essays that include snapshots of her wisdom (and humor) that mostly focuses on her career, from her most memorable milestones as a young actor to her more recent navigation through some of the absurdities of Hollywood life. Throughout, Graham is quick to offer direct advice, often turning her own anecdotes into encouragements and lessons for others who might be pursuing a challenging dream. I especially enjoyed the moments that focused on her pursuit of a writing career, and found her advice about developing a system for committing to write to be direct and illuminating.

Of course, some of the most captivating moments for me were her recollections of working on Gilmore Girls. Graham seems aware throughout the book that this part of her career is the most likely access point most of her readers have, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Where some actors might want to step away from such a strong connection to a character, Graham is refreshingly ebullient as she talks about her love for Lorelai, and her gratitude and joy at getting to return to the character. It makes sense; I could hear Lorelai in Graham’s own sense of humor and voice, although I could also hear their differences. I expected this to be jarring, but if anything, it made it impossible not to be immediately at ease with Graham as a narrator. It was like having coffee with a more down-to-earth version of a character I’ve known for years, someone not bizarrely ripped from my television set but still familiar and comforting.

As an early foray into audiobooks, Talking as Fast as I Can had pros and cons. There were a handful of photographs in the book, it turns out, and I only got to experience them through Graham’s brief descriptions. However, the trade-off is getting to have Graham’s voice tell the story directly, which goes really well with the friend-sharing-anecdotes-and-giving-advice tone that the book takes. It was exactly what I needed to get me through a couple of hard days, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who, despite the unexpected surprise of a ten-years-later revival (and FINALLY getting to hear those last four words!), isn’t quite ready to leave the world of Gilmore Girls behind yet. It isn’t just that Graham is a window back into Lorelai’s world; getting to know her as her own person adds even more depth to the experience of watching the character, and almost becomes another way that the show has become a vehicle for me to bond with a new friend. Graham seems to want to be that friend for her readers (and listeners!), and it’s a joy to invite her in.

Books and Action: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros

So much has happened, I don’t even know where to begin. From the president equivocating about people who brandish Nazi and KKK slogans and imagery, to the devastating hurricanes, to the cruel and heedless move to end DACA, a program which protects 800,000 people who were brought here illegally as children, these past couple of months have been bewildering, infuriating, and terrifying. It’s hard to know what to do day-to-day; as those that follow this blog have probably noticed, I’ve even had trouble reading anything beyond the frantic, awful headlines.

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For those who have been protected by DACA, America is the country where they have grown up, and is often the only home they have ever known. For so many people, “home” is a concept that is layered, contradictory, and sometimes fraught. When I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read in years, and I decided to revisit it. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a book that explores these contradictions of “home.” The titular house where the narrator, Esperanza, lives with her family doesn’t live up to her dreams of a physical space that could meet what “home” means to her at the beginning of the novel: not just a space to live, but a space to identify with, a space to claim and be claimed by. Esperanza talks to neighbors who remember the country they came from, and sometimes discuss plans of returning to; to Esperanza, these faraway places seem like “home” for these neighbors in a way that she doesn’t think of Mexico, where her parents came from. While these homes are a place that live in the past for her neighbors, Esperanza’s imagining of home is a place of security that she aspires to, attached to her hopes of adulthood rather than her memories.

At the same time, Esperanza is building her own childhood memories on Mango Street, a place that feels temporary for so many on it, but that becomes the center of Esperanza’s coming of age. And just as Mango Street isn’t “home” the way that those faraway countries are for her neighbors, it also seems to Esperanza to be separate from America in some crucial ways. As Esperanza notes, “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives.” Upon moving in, Esperanza meets a young white girl who agrees to be her friend, but, as Esperanza recalls the conversation, “only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad.”

The stories that Esperanza weaves, the pieces of home and not-quite-home that come from her neighbors, parents, and friends, were inspired by Cisneros’ work with college students who came from a variety of backgrounds. As she writes of the woman she was when she began Mango Street in the introduction of the 25th anniversary edition, “She learns from her students that they have more difficult lives than her storyteller’s imagination can invent […] I write about my students because I don’t know what else to do with their stories. Writing them down allows me to sleep.” For so many in this country, building a life–building a home–in America is complex and challenging, but there are no alternatives, no place to “go back” to, no choice but to move forward.

While Trump has started to walk back his initial rhetoric, its hard to know what will happen, especially with so many of his supporters still clinging to the aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments of his campaign. Fortunately, there are many ways to help, and this article by Jessicah Lahitou provides some great suggestions. Call your representatives to let them know that you believe the DREAMers deserve a path to legal citizenship. There are also many groups that advocate for the rights and protection of immigrants, and they can use whatever financial support you can offer. And, as this post hopes to encourage, seek to learn more about the experiences of immigrants. You’ll be surprised to learn how different the place you’ve thought of as home can look to someone else; hopefully, like Esperanza, it will make you want to work for the kind of home we should all be aspiring to create, together.

SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli

Between my year working at a used bookstore (with an employee discount, at that) and the bargains to be found on my eReader, I’ve noticed that the way I think about the book as a physical object has changed. I’ve devoured paperbacks with cracked spines and coffee-stained pages along with free ebook versions of classic tomes that would be a hindrance to carry around with me otherwise, and both of these types of books have valued places in my reading life. But I’m come to develop a deeper appreciation for the way a book feels in my hand, the way the cover art complements the prose inside, the way the story is bound and decorated into an art piece. The books that I buy new copies of are books that I know I’ll want to hold in my hands many times over, books that I can picture accompanying me from bookshelf to bookshelf like an heirloom. So when I took my first trip to the newly opened Gramercy Books in Bexley (review of that lovely store to come), I was looking for a new treasure. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli proved to be the perfect answer.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is exactly that: in seven short essays, Rovelli takes the reader through a foundational understanding of how our universe operates, from the scale of our smallest components to the complexity of the vast cosmos. Don’t be fooled by the brevity, though–the lessons are densely packed and almost startlingly informative–I often felt a little knocked over upon finishing a passage, and found myself wanting to reread the paragraphs to make sure I had absorbed everything within.

I don’t want to make it sound like the text was incomprehensible–just the opposite. While Rovelli doesn’t hold back on the science, he is able to convey his knowledge in a clear, even poetic way. It seems that his effort is not to obfuscate or show off, but to illuminate the inherent beauty he sees in the principles he’s illustrating. His prose is deft and adroit, and through it, Rovelli is able to bring the complex, often paradoxical concepts of physics into motion like the gears of a clock. The result is lovely, and almost meditative. I found that as I was reading, I felt grounded into the present moment and my surroundings in a way that I usually really struggle with. Reading about how intricately and perfectly the physical world around us functions helped me to sort through the seeming chaos of my day-to-day. When I started reading this book, I expected to understand the basic tenants of physics a little better. Instead, I came away feeling more connected to the world around me, appreciating the uncertainty I often feel–a rhythm that often feels like unpredictability–as instead a way of being in a world that has made sense out of chance, that has come together into something both functional and beautiful. The reality of space, both within and without us, becomes something of a communal experience in Rovelli’s hands, a way of feeling in company with the universe no matter what your religious leanings might be. As Rovelli writes:

“There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles having brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements. […]

Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities […] A world of happenings, not of things.”

If, like me, you often cry when reading Carl Sagan, I think you will get a lot out of this deceptively slim volume. If you’ve never really thought about what understanding physics has to do with understanding your own life, I still think you will get a lot from this book. I know it’s one I will carry from shelf to shelf, understanding a little more with each reread. The book itself may be a thing, but the experience waiting on the page is a happening, one I am eager to repeat.

 

LABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Cordova

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the feminist young adult literature we’ve come across lately (her original post extolled a book she’d just finished about lesbian pirates: “YA lit just keeps getting better and better.” Thank you for this intro, Rachael Collyer). She’s totally right. The YA lit community (at least a large part of it) seems particularly determined to defy norms, take risks, and blur boundaries, both in genre and in the lives of their characters. I have a theory about this: we currently live in a moment where YA is still often met with disrespect in some literary conversations. I think that this reality makes YA lit primed to disregard convention, to feel more comfortable messing with the status quo. If you’re a reader who still hasn’t given YA a chance, I encourage you to check out the diverse, imaginative storytelling that seems to be part of the genre’s identity, and a great example of this can be found in Zoraida Cordova’s novel, Labyrinth Lost.

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Labyrinth Lost tells the story of Alex, a teenager in Brooklyn who doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of her family, but not for typical reasons. Alex comes from a line of brujas–her mother and her sisters all have their own unique powers, as well as a deep-held spiritual belief in those powers and their worth. Alex isn’t as comfortable with her own identity, and has been concealing her powers from her family and her friends. When her magic is finally revealed, her sisters are excited to finally celebrate Alex’s deathday, a ceremony and party that acts as a coming-of-age celebration for a new bruja. But Alex has a plan, one that she hopes will rid her of her powers and the pain she fears they will cause. When that plan backfires, Alex must venture into a mysterious spiritual realm, and overcome the trials there, to win back the people she always wanted to protect–and she’s going to have to use her powers to do it.

Labyrinth Lost is a beautifully imagined urban fantasy, which is a genre I don’t have much exposure to. It navigates between our world and a completely imagined universe fluidly and effortlessly, and both settings feel vivid and real. I was also so impressed with the way Cordova is able to weave cultural folklore into the narrative. Her mythology is deeply based in traditions like the Day of the Dead celebration, and it was interesting to have those touches weaved into her fantasy universe–so often, fantasy stories are steeped in a Tolkein-esque generic template, and so this was a refreshing and welcome change.

Another element of the book I really enjoyed was Alex’s characterization, and in particular, her sexuality. Alex is bisexual, and the book manages to make this reality part of her character without forcing the story to be about it entirely. The story is not about Alex’s sexuality–it’s just about a bisexual teenager going on an adventure to save her family and discover herself. The relationships that are presented in the book are natural and incredibly endearing; they never feel relegated to tropes or gimmicks. I don’t want to give anything away, but the love story is handled with heart and care, and it is one of the best elements of the book.

Of course, it’s not the only good element. There are epic battles, terrifying villains, and a kick-butt hero, one who exhibits strength and courage in the face of uncertainty and insecurity–a battle that real teenage girls fight, and conquer, every day. I’m glad that there are books like Labyrinth Lost to help them along the way, and I think even if you’re not a teenage girl, you will find something in this smart, imaginative story to bring you along for the journey.

HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

There’s a thing that sometimes happens in horror movies. It’s a little thing, but when it’s working I notice. It happens when a parent, upon seeing supernatural horrors in their home, makes like a tree and GETS OUT (sorry, that’s my favorite joke). It happens when a crowd of people see their first glimpse of the giant monster off in the distance and immediately take out their phones. I love it when people in these movies respond to completely outlandish circumstances exactly the way you would expect them to. This is what initially intrigued me about Hex, a novel about a cursed town with a resident ghoul–that is monitored with the use of a cell phone app.

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Hex centers on Black Spring, a small town in upstate New York that has been cursed for hundreds of years, haunted by the undead Katherine van Wyler, or the Black Rock Witch. Katherine can appear anywhere in the town, at any time, but she has never posed much of a threat to the modern citizens. She can’t see or speak to them, after all–her eyes and mouth are sewn shut. As such, the townspeople have gotten as used to her presence as one could, and even have an app that tracks her current location, keeping her hidden from outsiders–and restrained from doing anything unexpected. For while nothing catastrophic has happened, the citizens of Black Spring are cursed all the same; once you become a resident, you cannot ever move away. This makes Black Spring an unusual community, one that is tightly-knit, provincially-minded, and perpetually on alert for the slightest shift in the status quo. So when a group of teenagers, dissatisfied with the insular community they’ve been imprisoned in, grows restless and begins to post about Katherine to the outside world, the slightest changes in routine become sinister portents. What has kept Katherine at bay all of these years–and what will it take to incur her wrath?

First things first: there are things about this book that are not great. The characters never feel quite whole–especially the women. And there are some odd moments of casual sexism from characters we are supposed to like (and that’s even setting aside the sometimes VERY weird treatment of Katherine). Were I reading this book over a longer period of time, these moments might have been frequent and jarring enough to make me put the book down. However, I downloaded Hex because I was in need of a book to marathon, and since the last book I read in a day was Bird Box, I figured another horror title would be a good fix. Hex was no Bird Box, but I wasn’t in it for deep character development (and if I put down every piece of entertainment that contained casual sexism, I would get to watch, like, four movies). I was in it for the spooks, and Hex definitely delivered those. The witch provides great opportunity for really unsettling surprises. It’s creepy enough when she’s operating in her usual pattern (someone with her eyes and mouth sewn shut can just be standing in the corner of any room I walk into?), but it’s when she does something out of the ordinary that she’s the most effective. As creepy as she initially is, you sort of get used to her…until suddenly, she’s doing something new, out of nowhere, in your face.

I also think there’s a metaphoric thread running through Hex. While trying not to spoil things, I think the book wants you to be horrified less by Katherine and more by the bleak, resigned, insular consciousness of the town, and the creepy paradox of having a collective consensus to prioritize saving one’s own skin above all else. It’s a point well made (certainly as relevant as ever), but I have to admit, the ending it tries to drive home falls a little flat. I’m all here for a Monsters-Are-Due-On-Maple-Street style reveal, but I think if Heuvelt was trying to move in that direction, he might have made his witch too freaking creepy for the novel’s own good.

All in all, I think I would still recommend Bird Box more, and I’m getting the sense that it might stay among my favorite horror novels. But for what it’s worth, as scared as I was while I was reading Bird Box, the visceral, heart-pounding factor didn’t really stay with me while I was thinking back on it. Whereas with Hex…well, to give you an idea, as I write this, I’m alone in the house I usually share with three other people, and it’s raining, and something just thumped strangely in the other room, and I am not feeling that great about my life choices right now. I leave your own to you.

THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us is yet another book that I consumed largely over the course of one day (I’ve been particularly lucky about that lately). I actually read the first chapter of this book a little while ago, and I had to put it away to wait for a time when I felt more prepared for it–the first chapter was already intense and foreboding, creating a palpable and disquieting tension. This tension never really let up once I returned (more ready to face it), but instead of repelling me, it pulled me into the mystery, the book urging me to confront it’s darkened corners and claps of thunder. The Walls Around Us was a story that kept me up at night, turning the pages under my covers, but now that I’ve finished, I don’t think it’s ready to let me sleep just yet.

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The Walls Around Us is a young adult novel that hops between the perspectives of two girls. One of them is a prisoner in a juvenile detention facility, and the other is an accomplished ballet dancer on her way to Julliard. As different as their circumstances are, they both seem to see the world through a prism of regret–or rather, a question of regret, and of debts paid and unpaid. The connection between them is in the form of another girl, one who doesn’t get to speak as a narrator but turns the plot on its axis all the same, and as the story unfolds, the reader discovers how the two disparate worlds, the ballet stage and the prison cell, become connected through her. And maybe, it would seem, this connection is becoming more than just a metaphor.

This story surprised me so much, so I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. The mystery unfolds in a unique and unsettling way, and the two narrators accomplish strong work in this story. They are unreliable, but in the way that reality can so often be. The ending of the book seems somehow both impossible and inevitable, leaving you with both a sense of completion and a lot of questions. This is an element that also exists in the characters. Nova Ren Suma has done an incredible job of blurring the lines between villains and heroes, which is especially effective given the seemingly simple juxtaposition created by the two narrators: one a criminal, the other a ballerina. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but whatever it is you’re expecting at any point in the novel, the real answer is so much more complicated.

The Walls Around Us eschews simplicity at every turn. It’s tinged with the paranormal, but in a way that’s grounded and illuminated by real, tangible horror. It’s a mystery that unfolds in a spiral, rather than linearly. It interrogates consequences, responsibility, and justice. It is about a curse, but that curse lives as much in the realm of memory and morality as it does in the realm of the supernatural. It was brilliant. Someday please read it and email me about the ending.