On Rereading a Childhood Favorite: The Wrinkle in Time Books


A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books growing up. In anticipation of the new movie, I decided to reread it. In fact, I reread the whole trilogy.* Let me tell you, rereading the series as an adult, and especially as a writer, was a very different experience. There were things that jumped out at me in L'Engle's books now that I never could or would have noticed as a child.

I still enjoyed the stories and, unlike Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, they hold up fairly well. I didn't end up hating any of the characters I once loved, for one thing, which happened when I reread Prydain. (How did I not notice Taran was such a whiner?) But I saw weaknesses in the construction of the stories and finally figured out why the last book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, bothered me so much when I read it as a youngster.

A Wrinkle in Time

 The first line of  A Wrinkle in Time

The first line of A Wrinkle in Time

Let's start at the beginning, literally, with the first line of the first book (see the picture). It's the butt of many a writers' joke, a cliché if ever there was one. I read that line and put the book down because it made me laugh so much.

I also thought the first chapter ended on a perfect note. It left me with just enough questions to entice me to keep reading--exactly what a writer wants a first chapter to do.

Then things got dicey. The whole first half of the book is really set up. The story--the action--doesn't kick in until literally the mid-point. Decades after reading the story, it was the action part that I remembered. That was the part I was eager to relive. And I wish L'Engle had spent more story time there. The Camazotz** scenes were vivid. They've stuck with me for thirty-plus years, but they were a minority of the book. That part of the story felt rushed, and I would have liked some deeper world-building there, too. And then the book ended. It felt very abrupt and key questions felt unanswered. A very disappointing note to end on.

A Wind in the Door

Book Two is the strongest book of the trilogy, structurally speaking. As personal as the stakes were in Wrinkle (rescuing Meg's and Charles Wallace's dad), the stakes here felt higher: Charles Wallace's life. And as with Wrinkle, science formed the foundation of the fantasy in the story. In this case, microbiology rather than quantum physics. The theme of harmony in the universe was a bit heavy-handed, but the story started quickly, moved quickly, and ended well--and unlike Wrinkle, everything was explained but not everything was happily ever after.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The third book in the trilogy is the one I just didn't get as a kid. Reading it now, I still think it is, to quote the vernacular, a hot mess.

The story takes place nine years after the events of A Wind in the Door. Meg is married to her high school sweetheart and very pregnant. Charles Wallace is in high school. In this story, though, Meg and Charles Wallace seemed to have less agency than in the previous books. In fact, Charles Wallace "disappears" repeatedly. The disappearances are explained in the plot, but they make him seem like a link in a story anthology rather than a character in a cohesive story. And the story itself is a mishmash of vignettes that seem to tell the same tale over and over again. As a kid, I had trouble following it. As an adult, I was able to follow what was going on, but I kept thinking, "WTF is this?"

Planet diverges from the previous books in other ways, too. It is not based in actual science. It is essentially a time travel tale, but one with very little plausibility (not that time travel ever seems truly plausible, but there wasn't even an attempt to connect it to science here). Even the first chapter got on my nerves. (Never a good sign!) So much melodrama!

First published in 1978, Planet was clearly L'Engle's attempt to make a statement about the futility of nuclear weapons. But I can't help thinking her story would have been better served by a less circuitous plot and greater agency for her main characters.

If the Wrinkle movie is as good as it looks in the trailer, maybe we can ask Ava DuVernay to just rewrite this whole last book from the ground up? I mean, just look at this beauty:


*Officially, the series is a quartet, but only three of the books center on Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace. Those are the books I consider the trilogy.

**Interesting aside: Camazotz is the name of a Mayan god. His name is sometimes translated as "death bat."

The Best Book I Read This Month: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult


Leaving Time is not a book I ever would have picked up on my own. This is one of those cases in which my book club pushed me outside my comfort zone to good result. I did not love this book, but I did enjoy it.

Leaving Time tells the story of 13-year-old Jenna Metcalf's search for her missing mother. It alternates among four narrators: Jenna, Serenity the Psychic, Virgil the Private Detective, and Alice, the missing mother. Of the four narrators, I liked Alice's chapters the best. Alice was a zoologist who studied elephants, and I loved not only her voice but also the elephant stories that she told.

Another plus was the chapter length. The chapters are relatively short. For someone who didn't have a lot of focus, like me this month, that was a blessing.

But what really "made" this book for me was the twist that comes near the end. Picoult plants seeds for the twist starting early on in the book, but the reveal is still something of a surprise and very well done. (I won't say more. I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who might read the book.)


Coming to a Bookshelf Near You . . .

I signed the contract today, so I guess it's official: I sold a short story!

My story "Wheels on the Bus" was accepted for inclusion in Smoking Pen Press's anthology A Wink and a Smile, part of SPP's Reading on the Run series. The story is a revised, slightly longer version of my 2017 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge entry.

I don't have a publication date or purchase information for the anthology yet, but you can bet I'll post when I do.

UPDATE (2/3/18): You can read more about the anthology here:  http://smokingpenpress.com/fyi

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed


The best book I read this month is a remarkable work by historian Annette Gordon-Reed: The Hemingses of Monticello. To be perfectly honest, I am still reading it. It's a massive work--662 pages, not including the notes and other back matter. I've got a little more than two hundred pages left to go, but I will be reading every word.

I'd heard about the book and the acclaim surrounding it (it won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award) when it came out in 2008, but it took me until this month to actually pick it up and read it. My book club was reading a work of historical fiction, America's First Daughter, which told the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings through the eyes of Jefferson's oldest daughter, Patsy. My book club loved the book, but I didn't, for reasons I still can't entirely pinpoint. I put it down about 200 pages in. I still wanted to know more about Hemings and Jefferson, though, so I picked up Gordon-Reed's book.

I was not disappointed. Gordon-Reed tells the story not just of Sally Hemings, but of Hemings's family--from her grandmother, who was brought over from Africa, to her children, some of whom passed as white. In doing so, Gordon-Reed also tells the story of Jefferson and slavery in colonial America--not from the usual white plantation owner perspective, but from the perspective of the enslaved and of society at the time. She points out how our modern perceptions of life in that era are narrow and do not account for the varied realities of enslaved people, but neither does she skimp on the harshness of  those realities.

It's an eye-opening read. Every paragraph is packed with information. (Hence, the slow reading pace.) Gordon-Reed did a remarkable amount of research, and it shows in her work. We have no writings left by Sally Hemings or her mother. If Jefferson wrote about Sally, those letters and papers have been destroyed. (Many historians believe that Jefferson's daughter Patsy and her children purged Jefferson's papers after his death, removing all references to his relationship with Sally Hemings.) So Gordon-Reed pieced together their story from public records and scraps about Sally left by others and by examining patterns of life in colonial Virginia, pre-Revolutionary France, and the early United States. The conclusions she draws and inferences she makes are well supported by a wealth of facts and details.

What I particularly liked, in addition to the plethora of historical details, was that Gordon-Reed paints a picture of Sally Hemings as a woman with agency, not as a helpless victim of circumstance. The same is true for many of the other Hemingses. That agency was possible partly because of the Hemings's white forebears and partly because of the value Jefferson saw in them as a family. He treated the whole Hemings clan very differently than he treated the other enslaved workers on his plantations.

I will say that Gordon-Reed is far kinder to Jefferson than I would be. From the other reading I've done, he seems to have been a manipulative narcissist. She does not go that far in her assessment of him, but she does make the point that Jefferson was not the broad-minded, forward-thinking Founding Father that our textbooks so often paint him as. He was very much a man of his time, especially when it came to his views of women and race.