Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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Amy Tan, astrophysics, Book Review, Education, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Parker J. Palmer, physics, Potpour-reads, Stephen Hawking, Teaching

Teaching, Physics, and The Joy Luck Club

Potpour-reads: Palmer, Hawking, and Tan

For a variety of reasons, from end of semester madness to poor time management and general laziness, I find I’ve fallen behind on SIX book reviews. Despite the loftiest of plans, I’ve decided that, no, I’m not going to sit here and write full-length reviews for each of these. Instead, I’m separating the books into two “potpour-reads” posts, each with brief thoughts on three books. That should get me caught up in time to finish The Outsiders and, perhaps, write a good old-fashioned review for that one. (Or perhaps not? Who knows, anymore!?) Anyway, I’m calling these “potpour-reads” because these six books span a variety of topics and genres, without rhyme or reason, and I have no intention of trying to make them “fit” any particular perspective. So, let’s grab-bag it, shall we? Thanks, Jeopardy, for the idea!

The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer

This one was selected as a group read among some fellow faculty members at the college where I teach. I was apparently somewhat over-eager in reading the entire book right away, not realizing that we were going to take it in very small bits and pieces (we chose the book last October and have, so far, only discussed the introduction – but I read the entire book in February, I think. Maybe it was March? I could look it up, but I’m not going to). This one was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list because I knew we would be reading it as a group, so it should have been a pretty easy “win” for me. And it was, except that I waited months to sit down and write out any thoughts on it, and at this point I’ve pretty much forgotten most of it. On the bright side, given the way my colleagues are tackling the book, I’ll definitely be able to go back and read it chapter-by-chapter, as they are, for discussion. This will allow me to more thoughtfully digest and discuss it. My first impressions of the book were moderate, to be honest. I found a lot of what Palmer says to be quite relevant to what I do in my profession, especially in considering the ups-and-downs of any classroom. That said, much of the book’s points seemed repetitive to me, and there is a kind of forced optimism about it. I am one of those bizarre educators who think that teaching is a calling, not a career, and that is the kind of audience this book hopes to reach. Still, given the kind of semester I was having while reading the book, I couldn’t help but pick apart every pie-in-the-sky suggestion or anecdote. The chapters were also very long and not diverse enough in theme. I did appreciate how each chapter begins with a kind of philosophical thought about education, from profound thinkers of the past. It certainly added to my reading list, if nothing else. I wish I could remember more about the book so as to give it a richer review (and it probably deserves one), but it has all simply fallen out of my head. Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I first read this book in high school and understood about 10% of it at the time. I re-read the book after Hawking’s passing because I knew I hadn’t understood much of it that first time and because I felt the need to sit with Stephen Hawking now that he has passed on from our world. Ironic how that always seems to happen, with those we know personally and those we don’t. I would like to say I understood a good part of the book this time around, but if I’m being honest, I think I can allow myself a generous, oh, 44%. I certainly understood more of the words this time around, and some of the concepts, but much like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this book tends to go over one’s head, especially if one’s background in science ended with college general education requirements more than a decade ago. Still, I have always enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s narrative voice and his sense of humor. He does make one want to learn, and that is more than I can say of a lot of science writers. A Brief History of Time does an extraordinary job of awakening the awe in its reader, of making even a jaded adult reader feel that childlike wonder again, which I think is part of why Hawking wrote the book in the first place. Because it is a feeling he never lost, despite how much he knew about quarks and black holes and all that. Interestingly, what I did not remember about this book is how wide-open Hawking leaves the door. He explains a lot of what we know for sure, yes, but he also delights in everything we do not know, which far outweighs the thing we do know. This is a book I will probably return to time and again, although I think my next step will be to read the supposedly even more accessible, A Briefer History of Time, which Hawking wrote after realizing that almost nobody understood this first one. Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I read this one for my Classics Club challenge. It is book 13 of 50 completed for that list, and I’m glad to have read it, finally. Here’s what I can remember about the book (and this is the kind of review I’m destined to write when I try reading during difficult and busy semesters, and without taking any notes. What was I thinking?). Anyhow, again, what I remember: I enjoyed the book. Yahoo! My first impression was that it felt a bit cold, but ultimately, I think that is part of the point. The story covers the relationship between mothers and daughters, all of whom are connected in the narrative’s present-day San Francisco Chinatown. The mothers are all immigrants and they try to navigate lives of split-identities, part of them still in their hometowns in China, part of them here in the United States. Their daughters often struggle to understand, and the daughters and mothers each fail to communicate those differences effectively. There’s a kind of gulf that seems both impossible to bridge and yet deeply, psychologically understood. An ancient “knowing” still exists in the daughters, one that helps them to understand and appreciate their mothers, all the while existing in a society that doesn’t quite belong to them, and even less so to their parents. As more and more of the mothers’ histories becomes clear, the daughters find themselves even more intricately and confusingly interconnected. I found The Joy Luck Club to be interesting in its exploration of the immigrant experience, and I especially appreciated that the four mothers’ experiences in China were so wholly different; these different backgrounds opened up new worlds to me, one who is admittedly rather ignorant of Chinese culture and history. There is a sensitive treatment of mythology (superstition?) as well, though I know some readers have taken issue with how the mothers’ beliefs seem stereotypical and perhaps offensive. To be honest, I cannot speak to this debate because I simply don’t know enough about it. If the debate has merit, though, then perhaps one concession might be that it made this reader, at least, want to know more about these people, and their cultures and histories and stories. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0. 

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Ancient Greece, Annabel Lyon, Book Review, Classical History, Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Oh, how I wanted to love this book.  I had no doubt in my mind, given the subject, the blurb, and some of the reviews (not to mention the great cover art), that this was going to be a brilliant read. Unfortunately, I was a bit mistaken. This is not to say that the book was bad – it really wasn’t, and if you are looking for a quick, easy, superficial book about the time period and some of the relationship between Aristotle and his superstar pupil, Alexander, then this book might be right up your alley. Aristotle and his wife move to Pella to visit King Phillip, an old friend of Aristotle’s. While there, Aristotle meets the young princes. He first begins, on his own, to tutor the elder brother, a mentally handicapped teenager.  n time, Alexander comes to like and approve of Aristotle, so he too (and his friends/lovers) become pupils of the master. There are some mentions of the tensions between neighboring city-states, as well as wars and the assassination of Phillip, which brings Alexander to power but, all-in-all, for the amount of time this book covers, and the lofty subject matter, it probably should have been (and could have been) another 300 pages long.

Two major things about this book bothered me, and really brought down the overall impression of it for me. The first was its disappointing characterization and lack of character development. This book deals with some of the most impressive people who history has ever known and, in particular, one of the most interesting student-teacher relationships of all-time. Yet, the characters fall flat. Pythias and the bit of Plato/Cleopatra the reader sees are slightly interesting, as are some of the minor characters (like Hephaestion and Athea) but Alexander and Aristotle, the two “main” characters of the story seem so far from the story, as if there is almost a physical distance between what is happening the story, and who is playing in it. Perhaps this does have something to do with the author’s possible intent to make this book somewhat of a play (a character list appears at the start, for instance, and the book is laid out in five long parts, rather than in chapters). Since the book is written in prose, though, and not in drama form, this intent is lost, and the characters remain “actors” of characters in a larger story, never fully developed because there is no substantive connection. This would be what an old creative writing instructor would call a case of “telling, not showing.” 

Setting aside the disconnect between the author’s possible intent and what was actually accomplished or decided on, the overall prose is satisfactory and even enjoyable – it is probably the best element of the book in general. Lyon certainly has great technical ability, and she does express emotion and humor very well through prose and dialogue. The language was engaging and the reader can certainly relax into this book, enjoying pages at a time with ease. What was problematic; however, were the instances of “flashbacks” into Aristotle’s past. These sections of the story are segmented into different enumerated portions; however, there is no clear distinction of what is happening when. At times, I could not remember (or figure out) whether I was getting Aristotle’s boyhood, or Alexander’s.

The second major disappointment was in the lack of deeper meaning from this text, or the potential edification that a text like this could have provided. There were certainly names, dates, places, and events, but none of this really seemed to mean anything. It was almost as if Aristotle and Alexander were living out their drama in suburban Wisconsin – some big cities, some small, but so what? At times, I even forgot where and when this book was taking place, so much so that I expected references to electricity or telephones at any moment. For a story about classical Greek history, this is not a good thing. Sure, it makes the book easy to read and accessible to a larger audience, but so much that could have been, just wasn’t.

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Atheism, Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, LGBT, Novella

Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.

Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.  

Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.

Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.

Notable Quotes

“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).

“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)

“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)

“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).

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Aging, Book Review, Death, Fiction, K.B. Dixon, metafiction, Psychology

The Ingram Interview by K.B. Dixon

Meet Daniel Ingram, retired English professor: despondent, eccentric, and in the midst of writing his memoir, after being kicked out of his current home (a retirement facility) for depressing the other residents. The story itself is the process of Daniel writing his story, so the reader witnesses him interviewing himself (at least, this is what I eventually concluded – as the interviewer is never identified) as he moves out of the retirement center to live, briefly, with an ex-student and attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife so as to find a more permanent place to live. Daniel recently suffered a medical shock, which seems to have jolted his sense of self and needled at that pesky morality issue, wherein Daniel realizes that it may be “now or never”. Surprisingly, that is about the extent of his revelation and, while he mentions his family and other past failures, he has little regret in life and, instead, seems focused on just getting his story written and moving onward to a new retirement facility, to new people, to new experiences. He is a people-watcher, an outsider, and finds little importance in life, outside of what he is doing in each moment. Still, there are moments where he seems genuinely proud of and hopeful for certain people and things; it’s a strange, cold type of non-emotional emotion.  Daniel clearly feels things, worries about things, and thinks about quite a lot, but he uses all of that to one end: writing.

There is only one main character in the book, and that is Daniel Ingram,  interviewer and interviewee. The other characters are present only in relation to Daniel’s interactions with them and opinions of them. Still, though Daniel seems emotionally detached, we are able to learn quite a bit about him, about his fears and ideals, by the questions that are asked and how he responds to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Interviewer mentions the nice weather, and Daniel rants about the inanity of mediocrity, how, even when it comes to weather, there should be some kind of substance (so a beautiful, clear day – 72 and sunny- is worthless – give him 48 degrees any day!). There is something about life in that answer; Daniel wants to feel something, he wants to (or does) appreciate the less-than or more-than average. Another favorite moment is the end of the book, where Daniel’s fears and recovery are finally addressed head-on, and that beautifully moving admission is quickly followed by a comment on somebody’s shoes, and how those shoes speak to the man’s personality. It’s kind of brilliant.

The self-interview as style was unique and interesting. Many writers I know employ this device when creating stories, but few –if any- that I can think of have actually turned the process itself into the actual story. I honestly had an incredibly fun time reading this book (and read it in two sittings of 60-pages each) because of the style; it was interesting and new and reminded me of something I would do for myself, either in preparation for writing a short story or other creating writing piece, or simply as a self-evaluation for blogging purposes or job interviews, etc. It was also amusing to keep up with Daniel’s thought process, which was ever-changing. In the course of a chapter, the questions would range from topics like burglary in the retirement center to the artistic value of a certain movie, to the nature of Daniel’s relationship with his son. This style reminded me of how quickly our own thoughts race through our heads, how we can be sitting in a room, staring out the window, and in the hour that passes, a thousand thoughts about a thousand topics and memories will have passed, and these little thoughts are what we are made of and these moments of reflection are how we grow as individuals.  

What I find so attractive about this book is that there is a very real human spirituality to it. The themes and style remind me of something Mitch Albom would write, if he were more focused on the human element, rather than the religious. Dixon is allowing the reader to take a look at a man, aging and coming to terms with that mortality, but not grasping at any straws, not looking for any type of relief, but just living to the best of his ability, through the last of his days. The narrator, Daniel Ingram, still has to struggle with accepting mortality and the fact that the “better days” are over, but he uses that struggle as another life event, another learning experience, another writing process. This type of spirituality, the intellectual pursuit of life through life, resonated with me in a way that similar topics, addressed through religious revelations and explanations never could. 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Dan Noakes.  He has a weakness for taffy-colored shoes.”

“In thirty years I have never been able to look out on a meadow filled with grazing cattle and not first think – ah, a field of swaying bovines.”

“He has an excellent reputation, Dr. Nesbitt – you just have to ignore the fact that for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to do something interesting with his mustache.”

“Who is Everyman?  Where did he go to school?  What sort of jobs did he have before he ended up with this one?  He used to be one way, now he’s another.  Does he know why?”

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Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Halloween, Horror, Middle Grade, Ray Bradbury, Young Adult

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

“The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of . . . boys. And it was the afternoon of Halloween” (3). Thus, begins Ray Bradbury’s entertaining, eerie, and historically fascinating middle grade novel, The Halloween Tree (1972). At the center of the novel is a group of nine boys, eight of whom come galloping out of their respective houses, doors slamming joyously behind them as they run to greet each other for the start of what should be a raucously fun evening trick-or-treating. When they meet up, however, they soon realize that their dear friend, Pipkin, is missing. And Pipkin never misses Halloween.

Soon enough, the aptly named Tom Skelton, leader of this rag-tag little gang of festive Illinoisans, leads the group to Pip’s house, where they discover their friend disturbingly melancholy. Pipkin is usually the “boy’s boy,” the one who holds the whole group together and who ensures a good time is had by all, every time. But tonight, on Halloween, he seems to be fading fast. What could be wrong with him? And how can this gang of eight help their dear friend before it is too late?

The answer arrives, ominously, at the haunted house near the end of the neighborhood’s main street, where lives a mysterious man named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. This beastly specter invites the boys through a rollicking tour of world history, spanning eons of time and a number of cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the classical French, to Mexican catacombs. Each time and place has one thing in common, though: it is Halloween night and Pip, or some version of him, is there, and he is in trouble.

Bradbury’s prose is swift and exotic, with a lyricism that will be familiar to anyone who has read his adult novels, such as Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. Somehow, the spooky mystery of his stories is echoed by the fluid but ominous style he employs. The reader is both seduced by and weary of the poetic form applied. Is it a soft and simple beauty, or is it the call of a siren leading us to our doom? The boys’ own adventure is wrapped-up in a similar question. Surely, the young men have a marvelous time. They are whisked along by magic, beginning with a tree filled with pumpkin poltergeists and ending with the discovery of their friend buried alive in another country, at another time. How bizarre to be with these boys, exhilarated by their journey and yet tensely aware of the thread of danger weaving its way through the narrative.

In the end, the boys must decide, together, whether they will sacrifice a part of themselves in order to save their friend. What is a Pipkin worth, to boys like these? What is the price of friendship, and is it ever too great?

I stumbled across this one quite randomly at Barnes & Noble about a month ago. I had never heard of it, but it stuck out to me like a Jack O’ Lantern in the midnight darkness of All Hallow’s Eve – beckoning, take me home! And I did. As a fan of Bradbury, and a deep lover of Halloween (I was married on that day, after all!) I was not let down by The Halloween Tree. I think it is sure to become an annual October read. What a ride! Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes

“The Romans cut the Druids, their oaks, their God of the Dead, bang! down! And put in their own gods, eh? Now the Christians run and cut the Romans down! New altars, boys, new incense, new names . . .” (79).

“Every town has its resident witch. Every town hides some old Greek pagan priest, some Roman worshiper of tiny gods who ran up the roads, hid in culverts, sank in caves to escape Christians! In every tiny village, boy, in every scrubby farm the old religions hide out” (85).

“A religion gets big, yes? A religion gets big! How. With buildings large enough to cast shadows across an entire land. Build buildings you can see for a hundred miles. Build one so tall and famous it has a hunchback in it, ringing bells” (91).

“They went down the steps in single file and with each step down the dark got darker and with each step down the silence grew more silent and with each step down the night became deep as a well and very black indeed and with each step down the shadows waited and seemed to lean from walls and with each step down strange things seemed to smile at them from the long cave which waited below” (125).

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Book Review, History, Non-Fiction, Politics

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is an interesting and frightening review of some of the most troubling moments in world history. What makes it especially disturbing is that Snyder connects each of these moments with a current event or situation, articulating the similarities in clear detail and noting why we should all be concerned about what is happening in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Ultimately, each lesson is a rule for how to resist tyranny, and these rules come together to create a kind of resistance ethos. The historical moments connected to current events make the problems clear, and Snyder’s lessons remind us that, in the end, power rests with the people, even when all seems lost.

The twenty “rules” laid out in this book are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

Even a cursory look at this list gives one an idea of how to go about the process of resisting authoritarianism, as well as subtle reminders of when and how fascism has manifested itself in the past. Of these rules and reminders, all of which are crucial, a few stood out to me.

First, “do not obey in advance.” Snyder recounts an experiment that was conducted to determine how willing individuals would be in causing pain to others if an authority figured (like a doctor) deemed it safe and necessary. The results were not encouraging, to say the least. Snyder reminds us to trust our own instincts and morals, and to put them into deep consideration against the instructions of any authority figure. Just because someone says “temporary pain is necessary for” whatever, doesn’t make it true. Should we ever inflict pain or hardship on anyone else? Really?

Another remarkable moment for me, in reading this short guide, is the call-to-action for defending democratic institutions. “We need paper ballots,” Snyder writes, and he is right. After what Russia did in the most recent election cycles, including in France and the United States, we must rise up at the local and state levels and demand that our representatives ensure the integrity of our electoral process. That probably means eliminating electronic polling machines, at this point, and returning to the paper process. It might take longer, but isn’t the effort and patience worth it, if it means rebuilding confidence in our process?

Snyder also asks us to “be kind to our language,” by which he means, don’t succumb to hyperbole and double-speak. Read books. Learn history (real history), and avoid the twenty-four-hour news cycle that treats everything like “breaking news” and conditions us to be always on the lookout for the next tragedy or event. This particular presidential administration seems masterful in its use of “breaking news” as devices of distraction. I hope that what we are seeing out of the Parkland students’ reactions is the beginning of a new mode of thinking, one which encourages long-term engagement and attentiveness.

“Believe in truth” is a particularly powerful idea right now. A long-feared problem has manifested itself in these last few years, one which has been predicted for a half-century by luminaries such as Isaac Asimov and George Orwell: the destruction of truth and fact; the creation of an environment wherein everything is true and false at the same time, and where opinions are treated as equally valid to fact. This has caused quite the nightmare for those of us who do deal in truth, but I think is even more damaging to those who haven’t yet recognized what is happening. We have to vocally and vehemently re-assert our right to truth and speak up in support of it whenever possible. Truth does exist. Not all opinions are valid. At some point, this is more important than hurting someone’s feelings.

Finally, taking personal action in the form of making friends, creating a private life where you surround yourself with like-minded people, and looking people in the eye, your neighbors and colleagues, is another important reminder. When tyranny rises, as it did in Nazi Germany and as it did during the “Red Scare” in the United States, it becomes only too easy for people to turn on their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. But we can make it harder by getting to know the people around us and building trust with them. There’s no easier prey for the state than a person with no friends or support. This also means, get active in one’s community and support the causes that one believes in. Chances are, when you are there for others, others may be more likely to show up for you, if and when you really need them.

These are just a few reactions to the twenty very important lessons Snyder details in his short but powerful book. I think fans of history and politics will enjoy this one for its blend of past and present, and the clear parallels Snyder draws between “then” and “now.” But I also think it’s a must-read for anyone who cares about the survival of democracy and the rule of law over the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism that encroaches more and more each day.

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