October has passed in a flash – my son turned two, I traveled to my hometown for a weekend, and in between Halloween festivities I’ve also been sick for the last three weeks. This has all conspired to equate to an October hardly full of scary reads.
However, I managed to get through one book that I think counts as seasonally appropriate — and I enjoyed it tremendously.
“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is not actually as stupid as you think it’s going to be. That’s saying a lot, considering it came along at a time when every publisher in the world seemed to be going — “Ooh! Let’s put [insert horror monster/element here] together with [insert literary classic or historical figure here] and it’s sure to be a bestseller!”
This trend, of course, happened thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith, the author of the very book I’m discussing here. Mr. Grahame-Smith, a writer of considerable talent and cleverness, had previously given the world an utter treat of a novel called “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies,” and it launched a million imitators. Some were okay. Most were not.
At the height of this craze, Mr. Grahame-Smith turned his attention and considerable writing skill to perhaps the most famous of presidents, our own axe-wielding Abe, and managed to create a tale that is not unlike Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Through the device of a modern writer given Abe’s Journal and papers, and historical records and speeches, we’re taken back in time to see the REAL history of slavery, The Civil War, and Lincoln’s enduring legacy — and this time, vampires have been added, and it’s pretty darn brilliant and totally works.
And there’s an appearance from a quite famous literary figure who fits right in. All I’m saying.
I enjoyed this book, and I didn’t really expect to. I’m also in love with the ending, which made me smile.
[Note: Nope. I'm not watching the movie. Don't ask me.]
Have a safe and happy Halloween, friends!
Omigosh, you guys. I’m so sick. It’s been a week of hacking cough, sleepless nights, cough drops, and now I have (literally and seriously) no voice left. Like, I can’t even make a sound. Only whispers.
BUT — on a bright note, I managed to get through a couple books while I’ve been down for the count. I’m not going to write lengthy things here, but thought I’d check in.
Melissa Gilbert’s memoir, “Prairie Tale,” about her life thanks to Little House on the Prairie, is a wonderful read – there’s celebrity gossip, candid confessions, and enough behind the Hollywood curtain secrets for four books. I devoured it. Then I read just enough of Russel Brand’s “My Booky-Wook” to know I didn’t need to finish reading it. I still don’t get his appeal. Whatever. Then I read “Bread Givers” by Anzia Yezierska, which is a wonderful saga of an Orthodox rabbi and his daughters, all of whom get married off to men they don’t love in the name of tradition, and the youngest daughter who decides she’d rather try and make it on her own. Superb book!
Excuse me, I’m going to go take some more medicine.
(Hi! It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been around, enjoying the last days of summer. I’ve also been reading – but not books from my list. Recently, on a trip to my hometown, my Mom and I stopped in a used bookstore that we love – the only one in my hometown, mind you – and I got two amazing books, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” and “Middlesex.” Both of these books are awesome and I devoured them. I also got Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” and didn’t like it – so I donated it. Just sharing, so you know what’s up.)
I’m pretty sure every high school student in America reads “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” so I’m not sure how I missed it, but better late than never, right? I picked up my Dover Thrift Edition a few years ago, and it’s been on my bookcase ever since. Admittedly, I picked it up the other night because it’s short – only about 70 pages – and I wanted to get back into the swing of things. To my surprise, it’s a completely engrossing read and I finished it in one sitting.
As the title explains pretty darn clearly, Mr. Douglass lays out the story of his life from being born a slave to becoming a free man and fighting against slavery. He talks about the cruelty of his masters and the facts of being a slave – you will go hungry, you will get beaten, and you can be traded away for any and every reason, never to see your family again. Mr. Douglass rose up, found a way to learn to read and write, and stood up to his master and gained his freedom. It’s brutal to read at times, but inspiring.
I’d recommend this interesting and fast read to everyone – especially young people. It’s an uncomplicated look at a darker time in American History, and one we should learn from even today.
Short and snappy – It’s summertime outside!
Once in a while a book comes along and effortlessly charms the reader. That’s this book. It’s the story of a middle-aged concierge and a tween girl who work/live in a fancy French apartment building, and both pretend to be boring and dull when in reality they’re the most vibrant people in the whole place. One day, a Japanese man moves into the building full of haughty tenants, and things begin to change. It’s one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and witty as can be at the same time. It’s absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t put it down.
When I began this “read all the books I own and have never read” project, this is exactly what I was hoping for – that somewhere in my collection would be a gem like this, a book I will probably love forever. The adventures of Bathsheba and her lovers in the rural countryside make for a simple and fascinating portrait of a woman who has power in a world where most women don’t. Having never really encountered the works of Mr. Hardy before, I had no idea what to expect (and also, the summary on the back cover of my edition is REALLY not accurate) but I feel like I have a new favorite. I’m going to hunt down the movie adaptation pronto – apparently Julie Christie is in it?!
Maybe my reading of Ms. Morrison’s works is colored by the fact that, having heard her speak recently, I can hear her voice reading her words. “Beloved” is a sensational piece of literature – an absolute masterpiece. Ms. Morrison never dumbs anything down, and expects a lot of her readers, and this book is no exception – things aren’t always spelled out clearly, and there’s a lot of things that happen that could be debated – but that’s the magic. Loved it.
Oh, and it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So there’s that.
Two books I didn’t love – “Extreme Encounters” by Greg Emmanuel and “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” by David Sedaris
My tolerance for terrible things has gone significantly down since the birth of my son. I used to love Law and Order: SVU, but now I can’t watch the show purely due to the sheer amounts of kids and parents that bad things happen to in the plots. I tell you this, because it probably explains why I really didn’t enjoy “Extreme Encounters.” While a clever idea for a book – and I’m always a big fan of Quirk Books’ releases – this one just isn’t for me. Greg Emmanuel has collected loads of information and relates first-hand accounts of what it would be like to be a part of The Running of the Bulls, get Frostbite, have a blow dryer dropped in the bathtub while you’re in it, and sink into quicksand – all of which sound terrible, as expected. If incredibly morbid non-fiction is your taste, go for it. It’s just not for me.
First, my confession; I’ve never read a book by David Sedaris, despite being a book nerd and being surrounded by people all the time who talk about how utterly amazing he is. So, when I found a first edition “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” at a thrift store at the end of last year, I thought I’d stumbled upon a great find.
I just finished the book, though, and I’m not at all impressed. This small collection of short stories of animals behaving like humans barely held my interest, and struck me as too cutesy and twee to even be finished.
Fortunately for Mr. Sedaris, the responses of my friends when I posted my disappointment with this work on Facebook were overwhelmingly along the lines of, “That’s my LEAST favorite of his books. Read something else by him! Really, he’s great! We promise!” There are two other Sedaris works on my bookcase to get through, so I’ll read those with an open mind. “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk,” however, is going to get donated as quickly as I can get to Open Books.
Michael Pollan’s advice to reader/eaters is simple, but more complicated to actually accomplish than it should be.
In a country where we’re fantastically good and producing food, very little of it is actually pure food that our Great-Grandmothers would recognize.
Have you looked at the ingredients in that loaf of bread from the supermarket lately? Thanks to Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” I did, and (combined with a newfound interest in the effect of GMOs and the like) promptly realized it was time to change my and my family’s food rules. So we signed up for a farm share, and I’m doing a ton of canning, and we’ve have stopped eating as much meat and are experimenting with more things like beans and rice. I’m trying to steer us largely Organic, and though I’d like us to be GMO-free, I’m coming to realize that it’s basically impossible to do so. The folks in the food industry lobby have made it really hard to discern what is and what isn’t real food anymore, and it’s scary to think about.
Yeah, this book is that powerful.
If you’re at all interested in the history of the American Food System, read it. If the idea of a book about the history of food production bores the crap out of you, shut up and read it anyway. Combine “In Defense of Food” with Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and I promise you’ll be looking at the food you eat in an entirely different way.
This one’s a keeper.
It also won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in case you don’t believe me.
Combining historical fiction – both of World War Two and the birth of comic books in America – Chabon weaves a stunning tale of the lives of two cousins; Ambitious Brooklyn Boy Sammy Clay and talented Czech artist Josef Kavalier. Together, these two poor kids create the characters that will build them (and the company they work for) a comic book empire, while dealing with the ramifications of the war on Josef’s family members back home, and Sammy’s self-discovery of his sexuality. There’s a free-spirited female artist, Rosa, who inspires a comic book character, as well as Josef, and winds up forming the third point of an unusual “love triangle.” There’s tragedy and humor and delightful interludes where we hear the story behind these comic book creations. There’s also magic, and scheming, and Salvador Dali and Orson Welles even make appearances.
You know you want to read it. You won’t be sorry.
Unfortunately, I also live in the city of Chicago, which is currently presided over by a mayor who slashes school budgets to the point where our CPS schools have to have toilet paper drives, while at the same time giving millions of dollars to build a new stadium for DePaul University and a hot dog company.
Yeah, the state of the American education system is pretty terrible.
Jonathan Kozol’s landmark book, “Savage Inequalities,” shed light on this in the smartest way possible; by actually visiting some of the poorest, most depressing schools in the country, and comparing them to rich and vibrant schools that are often only a few miles away. Is it due to the underlying racism that still exists in America that predominately black and latino schools are in terrible shape, while largely white schools in wealthy suburbs are flourishing? Who knows. It’s the truth, though. Kozol’s book is remarkable, and makes the reader angry for all the right reasons. Our children, regardless of skin color, economic class, or location of residence, should all have access to education – and education in a safe, clean building with the necessary supplies like pens and paper and, you know, toilet paper.
Rafe Esquith’s “Lighting their Fires” made me angry for another reason. Esquith, an award-winning teacher in L.A., is best known for teaching his inner-city kids Shakespeare, and achieving remarkable results. His most famous book, “Teach like your hair is on fire,” is an inspiring read, and one I’m glad to have read and enjoyed. However, since reading that, I’ve come to realize that his books are often filled with an awful lot of his patting himself on the back. In “Lighting their Fires,” he takes a group of students to see a Dodgers game (to which they got free tickets because they’re so remarkable, thanks to Esquith) and the behavior of the baseball fans around them serves as the catalyst for Esquith to sound off on his methods – many of which were already explained in previous books. “Lighting their Fires,” frankly, annoyed me. I plan to expose my son to great literary works, baseball, and the whole world – but I’m okay if I don’t meet celebrities and get book deals for doing so. I applaud Mr. Esquith for making a difference, but it’s starting to come off as humble-bragging.
Kudos, however, to any book or show or person that draws attention to the state of the American Education System. (The documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” is amazing. Just throwing that out there.) When something is broke, fix it. It’s time.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman – AND Mr. Gaiman comes to Chicago’s Music Box Theater
After 27 days on the road/in the air on a book tour that has so far caused him to lose his luggage and get stuck at the San Francisco airport after the crash of flight 214, he’s tired too.
The English-born, now-Massacusetts-residing author came to Chicago’s beloved Music Box Theater last night to read from his new book – “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” – to a sold out crowd of 800 fans.
Happily, I was one of them.
The doors opened at 6pm, and by then the line of Gaiman devotees stretched three city blocks down Chicago’s Southport corridor. As I traveled via CTA, I squeezed into the theater at 6:50 and literally walked right in and found a good seat a few rows from the back of the house. (If you’ve been to the Music Box, you know there really isn’t a BAD seat in the whole house.)
The event started a little late – Around 7:15 Mr. Gaiman took the stage to rapturous applause, and kicked off by clearing up that though this is, indeed, his last signing tour, he’s not going to vanish. He’ll still do readings and things, but he’s just done with signing. Two nights prior to Chicago, he’d signed 1,700 people’s items in Ann Arbor, which lasted until 3am. (I had two friends who were there. Fortunately, one of my friends is muy pregnant, which got her to the front of the line fast.)
He read to us from “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” his newest novel. The man has a perfect timbre for public reading. He could have read the whole book, and no one would have stopped him. Then he answered questions from the audience. No, he’s not taking over as the head writer of Doctor Who – though they’ve teased him that if he comes back to write another episode he can create his own monster. Also, he will not be taking over for Matt Smith as the next Doctor. (“I think you need an actor for that.”) Yes, he’s still friends with Tori Amos. He’s currently reading the latest Stephen King book. He’s not going anywhere after the show for drinks because he’s getting on a tour bus and going to bed – only to wake up in Nashville for another reading/signing. He spoke about sex and writer’s block and his son getting kittens.
To conclude, he read us a section from his upcoming children’s book – “Fortunately, the Milk.” The book sounds like a complete joy, and I’ll absolutely be picking it up for my husband and son to bond over once it’s released in September. It involves breakfast cereal, pirates, dinosaurs, vampires, and aliens. I’m there.
Mr. Gaiman concluded around 8:40, and took a short break. At 9:15, the signing began – and the organizers announced that the event would begin with people with disabilities, pregnant folks, and then they would go row by row starting from the front of the theater to the back.
Which meant, for me, that I was probably 650th in line – of 800 people. Clearly, I was going to be there a while. Fortunately, upon admission we’d each been given a copy of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” and cracked it open, thinking I’d read a while and see how fast the line was going.
Please note that I am an incredibly fast reader. I finished the entire book by 10:40, which is when the organizers took to the mic to let us know it would probably be 3 more hours before the last few rows would get their things signed.
I love Neil Gaiman – but not enough to stick around until 1:30am to get in line, and then to try and take the bus home. So, I packed up my stuff and swapped my book out for a pre-signed copy, and headed out.
It was a lovely evening, and well worth the $30 ticket. (The book came with the ticket, and as it’s opening retail cost is $25.99, I think it was actually a steal.) Also, we got a 20% off coupon from Unabridged Bookstore, who hosted the event. Book coupons are always good.
Re: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”
Guys, this is a simply beautiful book. The story of a man who recalls mysterious events from the summer he was seven years old, it’s 165 pages of ethereal beauty and absolute wonderment,and it goes by like a dream. There are magical people and evil monsters and the child narrator is absolutely believable. It reminded me of Gaiman’s “Coraline,” in which a regular kid realizes that the things around them aren’t normal. Gaiman said that this book was written by accident while he was missing his wife, and there’s a sense of missing someone, a longing, that pervades the book. There’s very little I can say about the book without spoiling something grand for those of you about to take this journey, so I’ll keep it brief. Every word is gold.
And I got to read the entire thing in the Music Box Theater, which is an experience I will never forget – and likely never be able to repeat.
I pledge my undying allegiance to HBO’s super-hit show, “True Blood.” From episode one, I have been totally hooked on the adventures of telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, her brother Jason, vampires Bill, Eric, and Pam, bar owner Sam, fabulous fry cook Lafayette, and the rest of the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana.
But I’d never thought about reading the books they were based on. Enough people had told me that the books and the show aren’t the same, and I thought I’d keep my loyalty to the show.
And then I found “Dead Until Dark” for a dollar at a used bookstore, and I bought it.
In need of a light and fast read, I picked it up the other day — and finished it in under 12 hours. Like the pilot season of the TV show, things happen frequently and fast once Sookie meets and falls for the enigmatic southern gentleman charms of one Vampire Bill Compton. Harris’ writing won’t be winning any major prose awards, but who cares? “Dead Until Dark” isn’t supposed to be poetry. It is a steamy, twisting, supernatural adventure – and it’s fabulous.
For the record, you don’t have to have seen the show or read the book to easily follow/understand the other. They’re the same, but they both stand alone. Series creator Alan Ball (writer of “American Beauty”) has done a masterful job at bringing the dark fun of the book to the small screen, with almost all the books characters in tow. My adoration of the show absolutely colored my reading of the book. It’s hard not to see the brilliant performances of actors like Nelsan Ellis, Ryan Kwanten, and Kristin Bauer once you’ve watched the show.
I love “True Blood.” I mentioned that, right?
(The book also reminded me of one of my favorite characters from the TV show, who doesn’t survive season one.)
Will I read the rest of the books? Who knows? I’m currently enjoying the new season of “True Blood,” and might read another of the Harris books during the (almost year long) season break. It doesn’t matter – I definitely enjoyed “Dead Until Dark.”