A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.

The Bible: Psalms

I had actually been really looking forward to Psalms because I thought there would be some good poetry here. I’m not a big poetry reader, not because I dislike it but because I am incredibly picky about it. But I like John Donne’s poetry, and Rita Dove’s poetry, and Ramprasad Sen’s poetry, and I’ve been getting a kick out of the “I lik the bred” poetry meme. As it turns out, I’m not a big fan of King David’s, King Solomon’s, or various other poets’ poetry that wound up in Psalms.

The introduction on the audio book version also raised expectations because apparently a lot of these are lyrics, intended to be set to music, and the original text includes instructions on the music. Cool!* If nothing else, I was going to amuse myself by trying to find Christian rock bands who had put the Psalms to music in a modern fashion. But the results are pretty rough. I mean, the music is fine, less rock and more spiritual/celtic maybe, which is disappointing, but the lyrics…

Just, wow, the Pslams are whiney. Either whiney or really blatantly hypocritical. Often, they’re both whiney and hypocritical. Just oof. I was disappointed. There’s just a lot of “these people are being mean to me, you need to beat them up” along with “you hate people who do violent things but love people who obey you, so let’s all do violent things to the people who don’t obey you.”

So just, nope.

Now, keep in mind that Psalms is broken into 5 sections and 150 poems, from a variety of poets discussing a variety of issues, so while I didn’t like the vast majority of it, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few exceptions.

There are some individual verses that ring out with power and touch the heart… but there’s always another verse that pretty much delivers the opposite message.

A couple of verses that spoke to me particularly strongly given the current political situation in the US are:

Psalm 94:20-21:

But you are opposed to dishonest lawmakers
Who gang up to murder innocent victims

Psalm 101:6-7 (by King David):

I will find trustworthy people to serve as my advisors
And only an honest person will serve as an official
No one who cheats or lies
Will have a position in my royal court

So, for a moment, it was a salve to my soul, a bit like watching West Wing.

But then there’s Psalm 106:34-35:

Our Lord, they disobeyed you
By refusing to destroy the nations.
Instead they were friendly
With those foreigners and followed their customers

So there really is something for everyone in these psalms, including the pro-genocide bigots. That is not a good thing.

But if you ever want to have a bible verse to support your position on any given issue, Psalms probably has you covered. You just have to decide to ignore all the context and hypocrisy.

Summary: A book of poetry that varies between emo whining and questionable historical accounts.

Moral: If you alternate between flattering and whining to a powerful being, they might be willing to act on your behalf.

* Especially cool since I have recently run across a lot of interesting discussions of how versatile hip-hop is, and how versatile Shakespeare is in much the same vein as hip-hop, and I just had high expectations.

Next Up: Proverbs

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

61unm4weinl-_aa300_Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015

So 2016 proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for me in terms of politics and social justice. We have some serious problems in the US, regarding unjust inequality of human respect and public safety in addition to inequalities of income, access to education, access to healthcare, and access to overall opportunities.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s a sign of just how sheltered I’ve been that 2016 was a wake-up call rather than just another demonstration of what the world can be like. It was time and past for me to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is only a couple of years older than me and this book is about his experience with being black in a white society. I’m white in a white society and thus a lot of racial issues are nearly invisible to me. I am not at all the intended audience for this book: he writes it as a black man to his black son about his experience with the way their blackness is seen by society. It is beautifully written and it’s an honor to be be allowed to read this somewhat intimate letter from a father to his son about his fears and hurts and anger.

It reminded me of Why Are They Angry With Us?, another book I highly recommend, but while that book was academic and intended for a general audience, Between the World and Me is very personal and intended for a specific audience of one, possibly expanded to include all young black men.

I’m glad I listened to it as an audio book rather than trying to read it as text. Coates reads it himself, which I always appreciate in audio books. But the real benefit of audio books is that they don’t stop unless you actively push the pause button. I found it a difficult book to hear but that very difficulty is what makes it all the more important that I listen.

 

Some topical advice from “The Thin Man”

The stream of “alternative facts” from the White House over the last few days reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which I’d like to share (no spoilers, but mild 1930s sexism):

We went into Mimi’s bedroom. She was sitting in a deep chair by a window looking very pleased with herself. She smiled gayly at me and said: “My soul is spotless now. I’ve confessed everything.”
            Guild stood by a table wiping his face with a handkerchief. There were still some drops of sweat on his temples, and his face seemed old and tired. The knife and chain, and the handkerchief they had been wrapped in, were on the table. “Finished?” I asked.
            “I don’t know, and that’s a fact,” he said. He turned his head to address Mimi: “Would you say we were finished?”
            Mimi laughed. “I can’t imagine what more there would be.”
            “Well,” Guild said slowly, somewhat reluctantly, “in that case I guess I’d like to talk to Mr. Charles, if you’ll excuse us for a couple of minutes.” He folded his handkerchief carefully and put it in his pocket.
            “You can talk here.” She got up from the chair. “I’ll go out and talk to Mrs. Charles till you’re through.” She tapped my cheek playfully with the tip of a forefinger as she passed me. “Don’t let them say too horrid things about me, Nick.” Andy opened the door for her, shut it behind her, and made the o and the blowing noise again.
            I lay down on the bed. “Well,” I asked, “what’s what?”
            Guild cleared his throat. “She told us about finding this here chain and knife on the floor where the Wolf dame had most likely broke it off fighting with Wynant, and she told us the reasons why she’d hid it till now. Between you and me, that don’t make any too much sense, looking at it reasonably, but maybe that ain’t the way to look at it in this case. To tell you the plain truth, I don’t know what to make of her in a lot of ways, I don’t for a fact.”
            “The chief thing,” I advised them, “is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another one, and so on. Most people—even women—get discouraged after you’ve caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.”

So, let’s do our best to take Mr. Charles’ advice and not get tired. We need to keep calling Trump on his lies each and every time. It will be exhausting and often seem pointless, but I think it is important to keep reminding ourselves what the truth is and reminding him that we won’t be exhausted into believing him.

And Then There Were None

By Agatha Christie

So, over the holiday season, Rebecca and I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime. I’d been resisting because Amazon does some really shady stuff with pricing and publishing, but that free two-day shipping is really seductive. The streaming service isn’t so bad, either, and I finally got a chance to see the recent BBC production of “And Then There Were None,” which I’ve been eagerly waiting to be widely available. I remember reading and really enjoying the novel in high school, so I remembered the basic premise – that ten people are invited on a holiday weekend at a remote island mansion, where they are murdered one by one over the course of a few days – though I didn’t remember all the details.

aidan-turnerI have to admit that I mostly wanted to watch the miniseries because I am a shameful sucker for a pretty face, and Aidan Turner is just so damn attractive. He is so attractive that I’ve watched two very mediocre shows (“Being Human” and “Poldark”) solely in order to look at him. He was very good in this, though his character also turned out to be the most problematic part for me.

Mild spoiler from the first few chapters: all the people on the island are accused of murdering one or two people, except for Turner’s character, who unrepentantly admits to killing about 20 African tribesmen. The other characters are appalled, but not enough to my mind, given we are talking about a large-scale massacre. The other characters make stifled British exclamations over it, but still seem to view him as dangerously fascinating. It really did come across as killing 20 Africans is equal in “badness” to killing one to two English people.

and-then-there-were-noneThat was the one sour note for me; it was all very dramatic and fun to watch. Since there was a fair amount of sex and violence, I wondered what liberties the show had taken to ‘modernize’ the source material, so I checked out the book, and it turns out, not much. That Agatha Christy was quite the salty lady! The show ups the ante just a bit on both, but still sticks remarkably close to the original novel.

I’m not going to spoil anything more of the plot – murders! sex! violence! racism! – but Agatha Christy said that she considered this her most difficult plot to write, and her care and eye for detail really shows. Since I already knew whodunit, I could see all the small ways she had revealed that person throughout the plotting, which provided additional enjoyment to rereading it.

The Best of 2016

2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.

  1. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
  2. I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
  3. If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
  4. Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.

And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.