Thursday, March 1

Falling In Love With Francesca Lia Block Again

I have a huge TBR pile. It's not even a pile, but a small bookshelf. And the books are really jammed in there. Totally overflowing. But I spent the last month ignoring it in favor of a couple of battered and dog-earred, extremely well-read and well-loved books from one of my three giant and terribly overstuffed bookcases that house the already-read books.

I do this occasionally. One winter when I was sick, I busted out the first series I loved: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. I was surprised how many parts I still had memorized, though I shouldn't have been because I must have read those books a hundred times as a kid. There was more time for reading back then. Entire summers with hours upon hours for books. It was okay to read the same thing over and over. I don't really do that as an adult because I have such a big TBR pile and so little time. I mean, I did it with the Harry Potter books when the last movie came out (and I used to do it when each book came because at the time I worked in an office where I was allowed to sit and read between answering the phone or making copies), but other than that (and being sick and craving the Little House books like a bowl of my mom's homemade soup) rereading is not a luxury I often allow myself. I wasn't planning on this particular month-long binge. It happened because of a new book.

At the end of January, I got this package and nearly wept with joy when I opened it to find this:


That would be the prequel to Francesca Lia Block A.K.A. My Fairy Godmother's Weetzie Bat series A.K.A. The Only YA Books That Spoke To Me When I Was A Teenager. The early 90s while an amazing time for gritty, raw, and real rock 'n' roll music were not a good time period for gritty, raw, and real YA literature like we have now. I was desperate (DESPERATE!) for books that spoke of the things that my friends and I were going through (drug addiction, eating disorders, bullying, not fitting in, unhealthy relationships, self-injury, surviving rape), but not finding them. Francesca Lia Block's books were the rare exception. On the surface, her stories may seem more glittery and gritty because of her incredibly vivid depiction of her characters and especially her setting, Los Angeles, but she paints gorgeous pictures of very ugly, very real things and those unique characters of hers survive them. I could go on (and on and on and on), but what it boils down to is this: Francesca Lia Block's books were like the music of Nirvana and Hole for me. They saved me in my darkest hours. Gave voice to the things I was thinking and struggling with. And most importantly helped me find my voice. I wouldn't be a writer without Francesca Lia Block. Period.

I've kept up with her books, but as a teenager I read the Weetzie Bat books (collected as Dangerous Angels) and Francesca Lia Blocks early novels like every couple of months. I haven't done that in awhile, but once I devoured Pink Smog in a night in a half, I knew I had to (and if you want a fuller review, you'll find one that I wrote for Rookie Magazine here.) Reading Pink Smog was like seeing a bio-pic on some celebrity I've been obsessed with because I love Weetzie Bat as much as Weetzie loves Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. She's totally one of my heroines (as is her daughter Witch Baby), even though... you know... she's not real. But once I saw what shaped Weetzie into the girl with the bleached-blonde flat-top and amazing homemade wardrobe, I just had to spend quality time with her again.

So I re-read Dangerous Angels and then Necklace of Kisses (which is Weetzie at 40 having a midlife crisis), but I couldn't stop there. Even though I was done with the Weetzie series, there was a book that meant even more to me. In fact, if I were to name my all-time favorite book, this one would probably tied with Grapes of Wrath:

The Hanged Man. It's gorgeous and lush and ripe with symbolism as all of Francesca Lia Block's books are. It's beautiful structured. Chapters laid out like a tarot reading, each card perfectly chosen and representative of what happens in that part of the story. Laurel is so damaged, so fucked-up, so much like teenage me except she has different reasons. She's coming to terms with her father's death... and the things her father did while he was living.

As I did my rereading, I quickly realized that it wasn't just for pleasure. I'm taking my first stab at writing a book that has elements of magical realism. In the past, I've drawn on Francesca Lia Block to give me permission to write YA novels that deal with very real, difficult issues and push boundaries. Now I'm studying how she builds her worlds, how she uses symbolism, and especially how she draws these lush, full characters, settings, and stories in such a compact space. The Hanged Man is only 160 pages. I read it in two hours. My books are two hundred more pages than that and I often struggle to get them to that length. So I'm seriously examining how she does what she does.

Sigh. She still definitely remains my rock star and my heroine.

What about you? What books have you reread a lot? What do you take away from them?

14 comments:

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Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby and A Separate Peace are the books I've reread most frequently.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Oooh, those are good ones, Lauren!

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Anonymous said...

This is a really great piece. This is exactly how I feel about FLB. I have 2 copies of most of her books, one copy for me to read over and over and another I am saving for an important young girl in my life in the future!

shelleystoehr said...

beautiful writing, and I love FLB too. Pink Smog was great. I recently reviewed it, and in doing so was able to see how well Block weaves a story.

Jazz Sexton said...

o.o I feel like I just read an entry from my blog. I read Pink Smog a couple weeks ago. While I wasn't enamored of the story, it had its charms. I doing an FLB project this year in which I re-read the books by her that I read as a teenager, and compare my perception of them from then and now. I'm not sure if I want to read Dangerous Angels or Violet & Claire next.

Dangerous Angels was the only YA series I felt a connection to in my teens. It was the first time I read a book with queer characters in it, and the first time I saw myself in a story. Until that point, I didn't know there were gay teens in books.

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