All Hallow’s Read

What a charming idea, yes? Neil Gaiman proposes that we give away scary books for Halloween.

I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween. I don’t like wearing costumes myself; I don’t like doing crafty things like making costumes; I don’t like spending money to buy them; I don’t like having all that candy in the house; and orange and black is just about the ugliest color scheme I can think of. But, wow! The idea of giving away books… that changes everything!

Soooooo, here are my picks:

For Littler Kids

The Tailypo, by Joanna & Paul Galdone. I used to read this book to my son Jake when he was still at the read-aloud age (he’s going on 16 now). He still remembers this story vividly — it terrified him but he couldn’t resist it and we checked it out from the library again and again. It’s a classic bit of Americana: old geezer in the woods is cold and hungry and goes out hunting with his dogs. He shoots the tail off a creepy little beast, cooks and eats it, and the beast comes back in the night, scratching at the door… peering over the foot of his bed… repeating over and over again, give me back my tailypo! Which, incidentally, makes it very fun to read aloud!

As an aside, I think Paul Galdone is one of the best children’s book illustrators ever. We read so many of his books when my kids were young: The Little Red Hen, Puss in Boots, The Gingerbread Man. So delightful, all of them. And needless to say, his scribbly style suits this scary story perfectly.

For Bigger Kids

I believe I was in sixth grade when I stumbled across Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall in the school library. It was the first gothic horror story I ever read and it set me on a binge that lasted for about two years (until I discovered sci-fi, topic for a different post).

Down A Dark Hall is a spooky boarding school story. The boarding school is so spooky, in fact, that only four students are talented enough to gain admission. But what, you may well ask, is the nature of these girls’ very special talent? Well you’ll just have to read the book to find out, bwa ha ha ha ha ha! And if you are an impressionable twelve-year-old, don’t start it on a school night. I promise you, you will be reading under the covers into the wee hours because you will not be able to put it down until it’s done…

For Grownups

The scariest thing I’ve ever read is “The Colour Out of Space,” a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. I wish I could give you a detailed plot synopsis but the fact is, I haven’t read it in 30 years and I’m too scared to go back and reread it. I don’t even want to google it! But the gist of it is, an indescribable color appears on a farm in New England. And the color is, I guess, sentient. It spreads all over the farm and beyond, blighting everything it touches. And that’s it. I don’t know why I find that so freaky, the idea of a color outside the spectrum as we know it, and the idea that a color could be a sentient evil being from outer space. Maybe because I am a very visual person to begin with, and colors have always been extremely salient for me. Or maybe it was the writing style, which as I recall was quite dry and matter of fact. The descriptions of the crops withering and turning that color, livestock dying from eating the grass, the village becoming a ghost town, oy! Truly, the stuff of nightmares.

Happy Halloween, and Happy Reading!

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Thomas Berger: Adventures of the Artificial Woman

Fed up with “real” women, a guy builds himself a perfect robot wife who makes it big in show biz and ends up being elected President of the United States.

Eh? Not the kind of hook that would normally pique my interest, but after all it is by Thomas Berger. I went through a Thomas Berger phase about twenty years ago. He is quite prolific, and I remember being impressed with his incredible versatility: he has taken on everything from westerns (Little Big Man) to detective stories (Who is Teddy Villanova?) to King Arthur (Arthur Rex), and much in between.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a satire, of course. (With a plot line like this one, what else could it be?) The robot, Phyllis, is a bit like Mr. Spock. She has no emotion and no sense of humor, but relies solely on logic to understand the world around her. Thus she is the perfect vehicle for taking potshots at everything from marriage and sexuality to politics and the entertainment industry. For example, on the topic of vice presidents, Phyllis observes:

“I’ve researched the subject. Running mates are normally lifelong members of a party, notable for their loyalty to it. Though they may have been, up to that point, of the faction that earlier opposed the person now nominated for the big job, they are expected henceforth to join hands in partisan unity against the enemy, uncompainingly assuming the Presidential candidate’s exact position on every issue, especially those that were most fiercely debated during the nominating process by these two very individuals. The reward for the resulting hypocrisy is that the ticket-partner of a victorious President generally has an inside track for his own future bid for the White House.”

“Where does that leave our problem, Phyl?”

“We have no party, and thus far I have not expressed an opinion on any issue, so these matters need not be taken into the equation. We can promise a potential vice-presidential candidate that he will have a great opportunity to run on his own eight years from now.”

This is a pretty typical passage. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever and a bit snarky. If you’re looking to escape into a cozy story with finely-drawn sympathetic characters, this isn’t it. Satire needs to be read in a certain way (I am realizing as I write this). You have to distance yourself from the story in order to appreciate it. You can’t get wrapped up in it the way you can with other genres. Or can you? What do you think?

Chaim Potok: The Chosen

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, is an oldy but goody. I believe this was my third time reading it. It’s a profound and very moving story about friendship, fathers & sons, and coming of age. It is also a fascinating look into the subculture of Hasidic Jews.

Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders live just a few blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, but they are growing up in completely different worlds. Danny is the son of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi or tzadik (wise man; messenger of God). The father is so venerated by his congregation that he has nearly royal status; and Danny, as the firstborn, is the heir-apparent. Danny lives in an insulated community: he speaks Yiddish, he studies the Talmud all day long, and he is kept from virtually any contact with the outside world at all. Reuven, on the other hand, is also a religious Jew, but much more worldly. His father is a writer whose ideas are in direct opposition to the Hasidic tradition.

Of course these two boys must meet, and they do. The story begins with a baseball game, and Reuven and Danny are on opposing teams. Danny’s team plays viciously, saying Reuven’s team are apikorsim (apostates) and they are going to kill them. In fact, they almost do — Danny whacks the ball straight at Reuven’s face, smashing his glasses and sending him to the hospital to have a shard removed from his eye. Danny comes to apologize, they make friends, and the rest is history. Their friendship survives a number of obstacles, not the least of which is their fathers’ bitter disagreement over Zionism in the post-Holocaust era.

There is so much to appreciate in this novel. I think what I love the most is the way the author presents opposing views in such a sympathetic way. While Reuven is appalled at the way Danny’s father treats him, the author is careful to show the father’s “side” of the story as well. Yes he is tyrannical, but his tyranny is borne of deep faith, love, and respect for the traditions of his culture. The arguments for and against establishing a secular Jewish state, too, are evenly presented. Potok does a fantastic job of using the various characters’ voices to portray opposite ends of the spectrum without siding with either one, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions.

A great story. Much food for thought, even on the third time through.

Hello world!

Well I think I’m going to give book blogging a try. My real-life book group isn’t very satisfying, so hopefully this will be a good outlet for me to talk about what I’m reading and hear about what others are reading as well. My goal is to post two book reviews per week.