When I was just a tike (somewhere around my son's age, say between 6 and 8), my brother babysat me for what would end up being the last time. It was supposed to be a pizza and movie night, special treats provided by our not so well to do parents so that our night in was as fun as their night out. Pizza was ordered, movie was ready, but my brother had other plans. Whatever kid friendly fare was supposed to be on (I still can't get this memory to make sense in my mind, I know that we wouldn't have owned a VCR in 1984, but I can't imagine this movie played on network television), my brother had decided that we were going to watch John Carpenter's Halloween. And watch we did. That would have been bad enough. But my brother lived to torture me at the time, so he went on, post-film, to explain that the story of Michael Myers was based on an actual boy and actual events, events that had taken place in the south Chicago suburb in which we lived, and a boy who had never been captured. Oh! Look at the time! We need to get you to bed! Cut to me, in bed, and my brother, on his way out of my room whispering, "What was that?" He grabbed the wooden nunchucks that he had fashioned in wood shop (who lets a troubled teenager make nunchucks in shop?) and said, "I'll be right back." I pleaded with him to stay, but he wasn't having it. Cut to noise from the kitchen. Cut to my brother stumbling into my bedroom with his shirt and his nunchucks covered in fake blood. Cut to me screaming. And screaming. And screaming. Cut to me at age 35 having a serious love/hate relationship with the horror genre. Love for all the reasons that people love to be scared, it thrills and chills and (ultimately) relieves. There's chaos followed by catharsis. We made it. We survived. Hate for the reason you'd guess. It scares the hell out of me. Stephen King's Danse Macabre was written in the early 80's and serves as a great lead in (or, if you're just now getting to it, follow up) to his excellent writing memoir, On Writing. In Macabre, King explains and explores the horror genre; why we love it, why we hate it, when it succeeds, when it fails, and why it succeeds and fails when it succeeds and fails. King knows his stuff, he's a nerd, he's a fan, but he's also enough of a scholar to have some perspective and enough of a teacher to help us see it. Breaking the chapters into commentary on films, television, and books and then further exploring themes and morality (yes, King argues, there is a morality to good horror fiction and an utter lack of it in bad), King is like a favorite professor, showing you things you never knew and giving you a taste for more. Perhaps the real testimony to the greatness of this book is the number of films and books I now want to discover or rediscover. How have I never read Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House? Will my childhood fears continue to keep me from watching Halloween again (that's right, kids, I haven't seen it since)? You can be sure that I have Jackson's book on order at the bookstore. Whether I see Halloween again or not, this is the first time that I've ever really wanted to. Danse Macabre is a reminder that the horror genre is a chance to face our fears with the knowledge that we'll come out safely on the other side. But my fear isn't really what I might see on my TV screen, it's who I might see out the window when I'm done. Because that story is a true story, the bogeyman is out there, and a viewing of Halloween might just be a way of letting him in.
Finished up the books that I was reading (George Martin's Feast For Crows -this series gets less interesting by the sentence) and decided that I'd get a three day head start on Chris Hoyt's picks for March. What Should Kester Read? selections
Danse Macabre by Stephen King
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
The Evolution of a State by Noah Smithwick
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Postmortal by Drew Magary
What else is Kester reading? selections (Lenten reading)
The season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday on the 22nd. Lent is a season to assess what needs sweeping out; in our habits, schedules, and lives. But Lent is not a celebration of emptiness for emptiness' sake, it is a time to fill up on what truly matters. We give up food or films or facebook with the intention of deepening our faith, and our connection to God and to humanity.
One of the practices many churches and Christians embrace is the reading of a specific book through the season of Lent. Needless to say, it is a practice that I fully embrace. So, for those of you looking for Lenten reading; here are a few suggestions:
Free of Charge by Miroslav Wolf. Wolf's underlying thesis is that we are at our most human when we are giving and forgiving. His book is about how to be more gracious in a culture stripped of grace.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Warning; this is one dense read. That said, it is also one of those "besides the Bible" books that changed my life. Bonhoeffer lays out what it means to follow in the way of Jesus, a way that always comes with a cost.
Our Sound Is Our Wound by Lucy Winkett. Winkett's book on contemplative listening helps to clear up the misunderstanding of stillness as time wasted and then fleshes out what active listening can mean for a world filled up with noise.
Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. Barton explores the spiritual disciplines not as a set of rigid rules, but as activities that open us up to God's transforming love. Her Invitation To Solitude and Silence is also excellent.
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I'll let Merton speak for himself; "Every moment and every event of every man's life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the soil of freedom, spontaneity and love."
Other favorites include N.T. Wright's Simply Christian and Surprised By Hope, Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer and In The Name of Jesus, Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel and The Importance of Being Foolish, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Elaine Heath's Mystic Way of Evangelism, and Esther de Waal's A Life Giving Way. Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Laird, John Howard Yoder and Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth and Simone Weil; I recommend them all. If yours isn't necessarily a Christian leaning (and even if it is), you're sure to enjoy David Foster Wallace's This Is Water or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek or Ralph Waldo Emerson's Walden. Regardless, pick up a book this season that will call you to use up less time, space, and resources on those things that matter less so that you can commit them to those that matter more. Something that will help you to remember and to celebrate what is best about being human.
The fifth book that I read in last month's What Should Kester Read? was John Crowley's Little, Big and ended up being the best of the bunch as well as one of the best works of fantasy fiction that I have ever read. By happy coincidence, the fifth and final book that I read in this month's What Should Kester Read? was Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human and ended up being the best of this bunch as well as one of the best works of science fiction that I have ever read. Sturgeon's novel is about six extraordinary people with strange powers who are able to "blesh" together into a gestalt consciousness, called homo gestalt, the next step in human evolution. Lone, a telepath, is their leader. 8-year-old Janie is a telekinetic. Twins Bonnie and Beanie can teleport. Baby (a baby) is a genius and Gerry, also a telepath, will eventually replace Lone as the head of the group. This is the story of how they find one another and the blessing and curse that it is for them to be the head, heart, arms and feet of one body. Theodore Sturgeon writes about what it is to be human, by telling a tale of those More Than Human. The tone of the book reminded me of many of the classic American writers of the same period, especially John Steinbeck. If Steinbeck wrote science fiction, this is what it would be like. When the book was released in 1953, the New York Times placed the novel among its year's, praising it for "a poetic, moving prose and a deeply examined raison d'etre." Reviewer R.W. Wallace praised "its psychological wisdom and its deep humanity this novel is one of the finest achievements of science fiction." It winds up on many a "best of" science fiction list, and deservedly so. It is incredibly literary and intensely readable. A truly fantastic book. *Nerdy sidenote: Sturgeon wrote episodes for the original Star Trek series, including the first to feature a visit to Spock's home planet. Sturgeon was responsible for creating the phrase "Live long and prosper" as well as the Vulcan hand symbol. He also introduced the Prime Directive. Sturgeon is a sci-fi legend. It's bizarre that I am just now discovering him at age 35 and that most of his writing is out of print.
The problem with year end "best of" lists is that you inevitably end up compiling said list only to quickly discover something you'd have added, had you been aware of its existence, at the time. With only a month since I compiled my own Best of 2011 list, I have already discovered that something, namely Seth Fried's collection of short stories, The Great Frustration. Thanks to Allan for selecting this. This book is tailor made for me to enjoy. I prefer short stories over novels, so that's something. I like my short stories just a tad quirky, without being over the top (see Vonnegut, O'Connor, Wallace, and Carver) while willing to address serious themes (see same, plus Dubus). I like stories that take me by surprise without seeming like they're intending to do so, maybe with just a turn of phrase that is unusual or unexpected. When I discovered the short stories of Owen Egerton, a few years back, his collection How Best To Avoid Dying provided everything I want in a short story collection. A couple years after, and Amelia Gray did the same. Now I can Seth Fried to that list. His stories are deceptively weird, deceptively because they consistently address the very real anxieties that come with being alive. Whether it's the strange tension that exists within the animal kingdom before the fall of man or the annual picnic right out of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Fried uses the unnerving and unnatural as a way of drawing our attention to how strange our "normal" can be. In doing so, Fried also offers up healthy helpings of hilarity. While the underlying subject matter may deal with a darker drama, the ways it plays out are uproariously funny. Fried's deft handling of the tragic and comic makes for a combination both wicked and winning. These stories were, in a word, a joy.
Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust is actually two separate stories (Miss Lonelyhearts and, you guessed it, The Day of the Locust), but has long been sold as one book and was assigned to me this month as one. Given that Miss Lonelyhearts is only around 50 pages long, I went with it. This was actually my second re-reading assignment of this month, and it was as dark and depressing as I had remembered. Both stories are ultimately about one thing, how difficult it is to get to real love and how many awful things we accept as a substitute. Here's a line from Day of the Locust; If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her. "He" is Tod Hackett, the "hero" of our story. The "her" being referenced is the object of his affection. The rape isn't something Tod actually fantasizes about, so much as the only way Tod can imagine asserting himself or being with her. Tod is a mess. And he's not the only one. Tod inhabits 30's era Hollywood, and the characters he's surrounded with are characters indeed; vividly drawn grotesques searching out any abnormality in their lust for excitement. Miss Lonelyhearts is deceptively lighter in tone; the main character is a man writing as "Miss Lonelyhearts" for a newspaper column. The premise allows for some comic moments, but the story is, ultimately, just as depressing as Locust. Miss Lonelyhearts (we're never given his name) is privy to the saddest kind of suffering and cannot help but be drawn into it. What begins as a joke becomes something equal parts lonesome and loathsome. Both stories are terrific. West's writing is brilliant and bold; The Day of the Locust even turns up on The Modern Library's top 100 novels of the 20th century. But these stories are not fun. They end perfectly, but they don't end well. *sidenote: West and his wife both died in a car accident, after running a stop sign, in a hurry to get to friend F. Scott Fitzgerald's funeral. So, his life is as dark and depressing as his writing.
Well, I'll say this about Allan Traylor; he assigns very readable books. Granted, Brian Vaughan's Ex Machina is a graphic novel and neither it nor Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music is particularly long, but it's the first day of the month and I'm already 2 books done. These books weren't a lot of work (and I don't mean that as faint praise), but they were a lot of fun. Let's begin with Ex Machina. I was already familiar with Vaughan's work, due to my love for his incredible series, Y: The Last Man. I've said before that it takes a series awhile to find it's groove, but Vaughan is the exception to that rule. Both Ex and Y start strong and I can only hope that Ex is as consistently enjoyable as Y turned out to be. Mitchell Hundred is the mayor of New York and a retired superhero who called himself The Great Machine. The story opens as a look back on what was, ultimately, a disastrous term, though we reach the end of the first volume without knowing why. This book is just the right combination of dramatic and comic; the dialogue is sharp, the characters are complex, and the pacing is perfect. I'm looking forward to continuing this series. Gun, With Occasional Music marks the first time, since this project began, that someone has assigned me a book that I had already read. How glad I am that he did. I had forgotten what a pleasure this book is to read. Set in a not-too-distant future in which both babies and animals receive evolution treatments (leading to a mob boss with a kangaroo for muscle and "babyheads" in bars, trying to drink their lost childhood away), drugs are a part of the government program, and a loss of karma points can cost you your life. Conrad Metcalf is a private detective on a confusing case, and narrating events like the lead in a Raymond Chandler novel. Lethem mixes the dystopian setting and hard-boiled feel and creates something both old and new, often in the same sentence. February begins with a bang. Both of these books are a ton of fun for readers, a lot of payoff for so little work.