Category: For Readers! (Page 1 of 2)

Think Like a Librarian: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo is a collection of short stories set in Japan.  The stories are all written with hats off to Edgar Allen Poe (the author’s name is a pseudonym based on his favorite writer) and his collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

To sum up: if a reader likes the grotesque horror and odd mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe, then they will probably like this collection, which is similar.

As an example, the story depicted on the cover above is “The Human Chair.”  A writer sends a manuscript to his favorite (female) author in the form of a letter written directly to her, about an artisan who crafted wonderful chairs and who developed an obsession about becoming part of his own furniture…and so hid himself inside one of his chairs after it was sold to a hotel.  It gets weirder, stranger, and more grotesque from there, although certainly never obscene.

Each story is stranger and more inventive than the last.

I recommend this book for older teens and up.  Readers who enjoy Edgar Allen Poe, The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock will find much to delight them here.

“What everyone wants to see,” the crow said, “is someone getting eaten.  Preferably someone who deserves it.”  17 tales of monsters & the macabre.

Think Like a Librarian: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

The Vegetarian is a short novel set in contemporary Korea.  Yeong-hye is a housewife who, after a terrible dream, decides to become a vegetarian.  Because her role is so restrictive and other people’s understanding of her humanity so limited by her circumstances, her decision–seemingly so minor–comes to have horrific effects.

Because this is a story about one’s point of view being invalidated, the story is told from other characters’ points of view, in three novelettes.  The first is from her husband’s point of view; he is incredulous that she will not eat meat, and even more incredulous that she won’t start eating meat because he told her to.

The second is from her brother-in-law’s point of view as he turns her into a kind of living art object, only caring about whether she will model for his video art or not.

The third is from her sister’s point of view, as she struggles to decide whether to treat her sister as a person with a will of her own or as an inconvenient bit of living meat after everything else has been stripped for her.

The Vegetarian is one of the world’s perfect book club books; it’s short and easily readable, and it’s almost guaranteed to provoke interesting discussions.  Are the events of the book fully realistic, or do they have any sort of supernatural implication?  Is the book a fairy tale or not?  How should the people closest to Yeong-hye have reacted?  Who was at fault?  Readers’ emotional reactions will also vary greatly; I found the book very Kafkaesque and ironically funny at times (as I do with Kafka).  Other readers have said they found the book tragic and moving.

I recommend this book for adults and older teens; there is no strong language, but shocking situations, including graphic sex and violence, abound.  Readers who are interested in modern-day fairy tales will also find this of great interest; the story reads like a retelling of an old fairy tale that one hasn’t happened to have read yet.  The book should also be of interest to readers who enjoy weird fiction such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.  I read this in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

 

Think Like A Librarian – Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that centers around the horrific in a kind of fairy-tale way.  (I recently talked about the relationship between horror and fairy tales here.)  The writing is clear, elegant, and readable.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who…” is the main format of the stories, although I don’t recall the phrase “once upon a time” actually being used.

The stories do not stay with the usual territory of “once upon a time, there was a woman who stepped out of bounds in the deep, dark woods and got what was coming to her, only to be rescued at the last minute,” or “once upon a time, there was a woman whose home was more of a danger than she thought, and she got out at the last minute with the help of a prince.”

I think it’s fair to say that this book covers territory even further out of bounds than the normal run of fairy tales.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who liked sex, and…”

The women in these stories have to deal with the consequences of their own desires, in a way that goes beyond a mere caution not to have them in the first place.  They don’t always walk away from that reckoning, and they never walk away unchanged, although sometimes they do end up with someone who feels right.

I would especially recommend this collection for women, queer, and non-binary readers who are exploring their sexuality at any age, and who don’t want to be lectured.  I would also recommend this for male readers who are feminists or who are exploring the issue, or who have a broad range of tastes in the horror genre.  This book would make an excellent book club book as well–there are a thousand and one discussions to be had about this book among readers of horror, but also romance and crime stories.

I should give a caution about one particular story in the book, “Especially Heinous.”  The structure is of an alternate Law & Order SVU TV episode guide, and really does include 272 episode descriptions of same.  The plotlines build and interweave with each other, becoming increasingly strange, yet meaningful.  The first few pages are necessarily not as rewarding as the rest of the story.  In other words, stick with it; it becomes something truly memorable.

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

Think Like a Librarian: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a war novel about the Iraq War.  The characters are caught on a Fox News camera doing something bloody, desperate, and heroic, and, as a special treat-slash-promotional opportunity, are brought back to the U.S. for a brief period to go on a “Victory Tour.”

There is nothing like a war novel for irony.  There really isn’t.  If a reader’s tastes run in that direction, sending them toward sardonic novels like Catch-22Slaughterhouse-FiveJohnny Got His Gun, The Manchurian Candidate, and other such war novels will do them no disservice.  These novels are also great for character voice, and Billy Lynn is no exception.  The clear, funny, and painfully human voice of the main character is a masterpiece.

Few elements of American culture are left unskewered, from family to football to Beyoncé.  Dragged out for particular punishment are hypocrites in religion and politics.  It’s a strange world when Hollywood is more sane than the man on the street, but that becomes the believable world of this book.

I recommend the book mainly for older teens and adults with a taste in irony, possibly also for those who need to be able to cope with a situation out of their control and have a black sense of humor.  If a reader is a fan of something like Shaun of the Dead, this will probably be a most enjoyable book.

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FYI: Zenna Henderson and Quiet Horror

(Please note:  This post was originally guest-posted on Shannon Lawrence’s The Warrior Muse blog for Women in Horror Month.  I’m reposting it here so I don’t LOSE IT!!!)

The sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson died in 1983, which was years before I was given the short story collection The Anything Box by my cousins, and devoured it with such a passion that the front cover fell off. I eventually read the stories she was more famous for, her People stories, but I never really gelled with them the way I did with the stories in The Anything Box. 

Here’s the general idea behind most of the stories:

Once upon a time, there was a teacher. (Or a housewife, although in one particularly memorable case it’s a husband.) Something strange intrudes into her perfectly ordered life. She doesn’t know what to do about it. So she tries to pretend it away. This doesn’t work. Jeez Louise, this is weird, she thinks. I mean, if this is true, it changes everything. She tries to make it go away again…and again…but in the end, it’s useless. It’s not going to work. In the end, she either admits that the world wasn’t what she thought it was, or she gets killed.

Violently.

But usually offscreen. The stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s. Slasher films and splatterpunk hadn’t happened yet. But there were definitely gory, shocking horror stories back then. Psycho was written in 1959. Lord of the Flies was even earlier, in 1954. The pulps were still popular, and they practically dripped with blood.

So what was going on?

Zenna Henderson was writing what we would now call quiet horror—a horror where all the important things are happening inside the mind and spirit, not outside with a serial killer and an ax. It may or may not be relevant that one of the places she taught—she was a teacher—was in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. And if that’s not a setting of quiet horror, I’m not sure what would be.

Quiet horror never really becomes terrifying; it never really gets loud or outwardly, obviously violent, although if it does, the character assumes it was all a dream or something so they can more or less stay calm about it. Quiet horror just sits there at a low-key level, humming to itself in a corner, as it were. And often it’s just plain weird. Reality is broken and things have gone off the freaking rails, not that you’d really know it, since everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual. John Harwood’s books, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” Charles L. Grant’s stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Peter Straub’s novels, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Robert Aickman’s supremely odd novelettes, Rosemary’s Baby

On the surface, quiet horror just putters along. It’s not until you take a step back that you get struck by what’s going on.

The essence of quiet horror seems to be the statement, “Wait…what?”

In “Hush!” a woman’s vacuum cleaner comes to life and murders her. In “The Last Step,” a teacher interrupts a group of children playing in the mud as their community prepares to evacuate from an alien invasion, not understanding that the children’s play directly controls everyone’s future, and she’s doomed them all. In “The Anything Box,” a teacher literally takes away a child’s imagination and shoves it in her bottom drawer. And in “The Grunder,” a husband who is becoming physically abusive to his wife is driven to catch a possibly magical fish that might take away his urge to hurt her ever again, rather than have to change.

Each situation, when you step back from it, is monstrous, horrible, intolerable. But on the surface, the characters tolerate their worlds with almost perfect equanimity. Definitely nothing gets as tense—let alone as bloody—as a single throwaway murder in something like the Saw series, even when the vacuum cleaner reaches for the housewife’s throat.

I think this is because Ms. Henderson, like most quiet horror writers, laid the responsibility for feeling horror on the reader. She was willing to provide the story, but if you wanted to get wound up about it, that was up to you. Take it or leave it.

I chose to take it. The quiet horror stories of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box are still some of my favorites.

Think Like a Librarian: True Grit, by Charles Portis

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

True Grit is a Western adventure story first published in 1968.  Readers who are looking for a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys should look elsewhere–this is a story about the quality of stubbornness, and its benefits and drawbacks.

I would highly recommend the story for reluctant teen readers and reluctant adult readers.  The writing is plain and direct.  The characters aren’t symbols or themes so much as they are flaws with legs.  Not much is romanticized or idealized:  it is what it is, and what happens, happens.  You don’t have to question the text much; not much is implied at a subtextual level.

On a more sophisticated level, the book works as a satire of other, more idealistic books in the Western genre and in fiction in general.  “Don’t try to tell the reader what to think,” this books seems to say.  “Don’t tell them that the past was anything other than dirty, deadly, and full of snakes.”  This level of the storytelling isn’t intrusive, and if a read misses it completely, they’ll still enjoy the book–but this aspect of the book would also make it a refreshing choice for someone who reads literary fiction as well.  And the two main characters are both examples of the best characters in fiction.

Not quite a sly wink at the reader, and not quite the most straightforward novel of all time, it’s the kind of book that can be enjoyed by readers across a broad spectrum.  I would not recommend the book for readers who don’t like gritty details that they’ll remember long after putting the book down.  There is some violence, but more importantly, there are a few scenes that might give a few readers some nightmares (especially regarding snakes).

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

 

Think Like a Librarian: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story from 1894.  Unlike a lot of the fiction written in that time period and earlier, the language isn’t laborious to read, and in fact is quite witty.

The book is most famous for its plot setup:  two men who resemble each other meet.  One of the men is a commoner.  The other is the heir apparent of the country in which they find themselves, and about to be crowned.

Something happens to the heir, preventing him from being crowned.  But being crowned is essential; otherwise, the king might lose his throne entirely.

So the second man, who really does closely resemble him, pretends to be the heir and gets crowned in his place, while trying to untangle the politics threatening the true king.

The action is fast and exciting; there is, as in The Princess Bride, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…no giants, though.

In fact, an entire tradition of fiction arose out of The Prisoner of Zenda, called “Ruritanian fiction” after the country of Ruritania out of the book.  Ruritanian fiction involves a fictional, nostalgic European country playing host to a tale of adventure fiction, often involving royalty and inheritance.

I would recommend this book for early teen and up.  The language isn’t simple, but it’s not difficult either, and most of the concepts are presented very smoothly.  The action happens quickly.  There is violence, but nothing is described in graphic detail.  Look to The Prisoner of Zenda for a catchy adventure that doesn’t need a lot of context to enjoy.

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