Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cold, Unrelenting Terror

Yesterday, I wrote about books that scare us, the stories woven by authors to make our skin crawl. Books that we read alone and wished we hadn’t. Stories that make us crawl deep under the covers in our bed at night.

As I looked through my library, I found a book I read recently that gave me chills for a whole different set of reasons. The setting is different than most horror novels, no haunted house, no forest, no graveyard, no ghosts and ghouls. There is very little blood and gore. What is terrifying about this novel is the horrible isolation, the chilling climate, and the unknown nightmare that stalks the characters relentlessly

The Terror by Dan Simmons is a novel retelling of an actual arctic expedition that was lost in the late 1840’s while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. In reality, the expedition disappeared and was never heard from again. Simmons takes it from the point at which the two ships were last seen and creates a story that is terrifyingly believable.

As the first winter sets in the northern arctic waters, the ocean freezes around the ships, locking them in the ice. The expeditions leadership expected this and had come prepared with extra fuel and food. What they did not expect was the ice remaining throughout the arctic summer, locking them in for multiple winters, depleting the extra stores they brought. As the men ration their supplies, an unknown, unseen beast begins to ravage the ships crews, one man at a time.

As the situation becomes more desperate, the men must abandon the ships, attempt an escape to a low lying island, while defending themselves against the unknown killer that stalks them.

Simmons is an incredible writer whose description is so vivid the deep cold of the arctic can be felt while you read. You feel the isolation and desperation of the men, and ultimately the fear of the survivors is palpable.

This is an amazing novel, founded on historical fact, constructed on a fascinating conjecture, and capped by a touch of horrific fantasy. The Terror is perfectly described by its own title.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The depths of fear

The yellow, fall moon is out, not quite full. Fallen leaves cover the ground and scrape and grind beneath your feet. The air is chill, the night is dark and branches of the newly naked trees scrape the sides of the house when the wind blows. Get a fire going, turn the lights down low (but not too low) and pull out that book- you know the one. The book that sends chills down your spine, that makes you jump at every creak of the house, the one that makes you pull the covers up over your head when you crawl into bed after reading.

I believe that reading a scary book is much worse than watching a scary movie. Reading is such a solitary endeavor. You, and you alone, are in there with monsters, ghosts, and all the other horrors that crawl from the pages of books. Your imagination is better than any movie screen at creating what scares you the most. The branch scraping the window late at night now becomes the fingernail on the hand of the living dead looking for a way in. The reflection in that same window may be yours or is it a deranged murderer staring in at you?

I love books that give me the chills. An author who can do that has done their job well. Some of my favorites are Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Poe was a master of the Gothic horror story. Of course, Stephen King has scared me once or twice over the last 25 or 30 years, but the book I read once and will never go back and read is “It.” I still hate clowns. King is also the master of the scary short story. “Graveyard Shift” made me avoid basements and other dark underground places for years afterwards, and “The Man in the Black Suit” was an amazing story that scares any of us who believe we are approaching our ultimate end. Those are a few of the stories that have scared me, but are by no means all the books that have made me cringe, hide, shake, and break into cold sweats.

Is there a book that plumbs the depths of your fear?

Which Are You? A Dummy or an Idiot.

This week at the Campus Store is “Which Are You?” week. Are you a Dummy? Or, are you an Idiot? No, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence, I’m simply asking which reference series do you like the most? Is it the “for Dummies” or the “Complete Idiot’s” books, both of which are very popular reference series that teach us how to do something when we know nothing about the subject (or, at least very little about it).

Dummies ChessI remember running into these series a number of years ago and picking one up for a subject which I thought I knew a little bit about- chess. OK, so I knew very little about chess and to prove it, I got beat quite often. Usually by 10 year olds who had just learned the game (I personally think they were child prodigies, but how many chess prodigies do you normally find in one place at one time?).Idiot’s Chess

The book helped me understand opening moves, how to most efficiently use pawns (even when you lose them), and how to carry out a series of moves to checkmate a king when you only have two pieces left on the board.

I have purchased a number of “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” books over the years and found most to be quite helpful in bringing me up to speed on subjects I knew next to nothing about. Even subjects I was familiar with, these books gave me tips and tricks that were very useful and cut down on time I spent trying to, learn the harmonica for example.

This week is a great time to bone up on an old familiar subject or try something completely new, as all the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” guides are on sale. You can even drop your name in the box for some seriously cool schwag. Even if you don’t win anything the books are still a great deal and you might just learn something.

Now days, I’m even comfortable playing chess with 12 year olds.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Sacred Shelf of 10

In my personal library, I have a shelf- the Sacred Shelf of 10. This is the shelf that holds the books that are my ten favorite at any given time. There can only be ten. When I find a book that I highly enjoy, I consider putting it on the sacred shelf. But, if one goes on, then one comes off- no exceptions (this is what I think they ought to do in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that’s a discussion for another time).

The rule of ten makes me consider, really, truly consider which of my books deserve to be on this shelf. Why the scrutiny? These ten are the only books I’ll go back and reread (while they remain on the shelf). There’s too little time and too many books to reread more than that. The books on my shelf are chosen because I simply enjoy reading them, not because they do or do not have redeeming literary value. They may or may not have won an award, other than the award of sitting on the Sacred Shelf of 10.

Here they are, in no particular order:

* Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
* The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
* Booked to Die by John Dunning
* The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox
* Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
* Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder
* Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
* The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning
* An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
* On Writing by Stephen King

Those are the books on the sacred shelf in my library. Some have been on the list for a while, some have only recently been added. Now, I can hear some screams of dismay and several of you saying, “huh?” But regardless, those are my favorites. Now the question is- what is on your Sacred Shelf of 10?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In a pile of catalogs I just received from a publisher (name withheld to protect the guilty) I found one which billed itself as a listing of “new” classic literature. I opened the catalog to browse and got quite confused. I consider myself a well read individual. Yet, not one of the books in this catalog was familiar- not a title, not an author. Did I pull a Rip Van Winkle, sleeping through a hundred years of literature to wake and find myself completely unfamiliar with what is now considered a “classic?”

The question then, is “What is classic literature?” Is there a literary star chamber determining this? Or, to quote a classic film (or is it a classic?) is there a secret society “known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows?” Who in Dante’s Inferno is in charge of this list?

Perhaps a book hits classic status when a majority of high school English classes across the country incorporate it into their curriculum. Although I read quite a few books in high school, most classic literature sections of bookstores, including my own, have far more books than I had the time or patience to read when I was in my late teens.

To Kill A Mockingbird Does a book become classic when an author dies? If that’s the case, what becomes of all those Harlequin romances when the authors die? As I write this, Harper Lee is still living. Is To Kill a Mockingbird not a classic?

Maybe a book is “classic” because the book has fallen into the realm of public domain and the publisher no longer has to pay a royalty to the author who is dead (thus fulfilling one of our previous requirements). But then, explain 1984 by George Orwell. His estate still controls the copyright and receives royalties.

Perhaps when the book is refurbished with a new translation, or forward, or epilogue and is given a shiny new coat in the form of brand new cover art. Could that make it a classic?

Regardless of who labels a book “classic,” there’s one thing I know when I browse these supposed catalogs of classic literature- (to paraphrase a classic line from a politician), “I have known a lot of classic literature, and those sir, are not classic literature.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Guilty Conscience

In the past, whenever I started reading a book I felt a compunction to finish. Even when I discovered by the second or third page a book was horribly written, I still felt compelled to slog through. Maybe it’s the fact I felt the writer slaved over a computer (or a typewriter- you remember those?) to get all those words on the page. The least I could do is acceptingly read what they wrote. Maybe the book gods were watching over my shoulder, spurring me on to the finish. Perhaps it was a reciprocal thing- someday if I ever wrote a book, I hoped when someone starts, they’d be forced to finish like I did- even if it’s really bad.

Now days, my guilty conscience has been assuaged. I realize there are so many books to read (all you need to do is look at the piles of books on my nightstand), I would need to be locked in solitary confinement doing nothing but reading all day and night just to make it through one-tenth of one percent of all the books I could possibly get my ink smudged fingers onto. I don’t have that kind of time, and I suppose, neither do you. So, when a book is bad I’ve learned to toss it aside and move on. No guilt.

Then comes the book that is so seemingly bad it is like the horrible wreck at a busy intersection- you slow down, bob your head to get a better view, see the carnage, and yet, you can’t look away. I recently picked up a book which not only made me slow down on the drive-by, but I made a U-turn and came back for more.

Him Her Him Again The End of HimAs I started reading Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx I nearly put the book down and moved on to the next book in the pile. But, I couldn’t. I desperately wanted to pick up the next book with glowing pre-publication reviews but my hands wouldn’t let go. The wreck was just too gory to be missed. But I soon discovered, it wasn’t the book that was a wreck, it was the characters- and what a wonderfully bloody wreck they were.

The entire time I am reading (and now enjoying) this book, I am screaming at narrator (who remains unnamed throughout) to give up her obsession with Eugene Obello, a narcissistic teaching fellow she meets while attending school at Cambridge who has a gift for using, or thoroughly misusing the English language. Though he uses her, marries another women, comes back to her for an affair, uses her some more, ignores her, and uses her once again, she cannot move beyond this ultimate cad- or can she? Everyone she knows can see Eugene for what he really is and tells her as much, but she doesn’t believe they know him as she does. I laughed, I didn’t cry, I laughed again and finished the book- my conscience only guilty with pleasure.

The book is currently out in hardcover with the paperback coming out in February 2008.

Monday, October 22, 2007

He who controls the information...

Just yesterday I stated that I am not a fan of bestseller lists. And today, here is an article in the New York Times about their own bestseller list- which really doesn’t do a whole lot to clear up some of the questions of how the list is compiled.

Bestseller lists can be made subjective, simply by what the compiler chooses to include or exclude. Not to mention, including sales from a publisher to chain stores (who buy large amounts) or to book distributors (who buy huge amounts). Some lists are more open about how they compile the list, who sends the sales information to them and how the rankings work. If you are someone who reads the bestsellers, choose a list that is open about how it is created.

Once again, my plug is for the Booksense Bestseller List- compiled from sales at independent stores around the country, not chains, not distributors. The list is a real indicator of what readers are buying, and therefore (hopefully), reading.

Is there a "Meaning of Night?"

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox has arrived in the store in paperback! I’m excited to share this book with people who love historical mysteries. I received an advance reading copy about a year ago, just before the hardcover was released, read the nearly 800 pages in a matter of days, and told everyone in the store about it. They probably wish I’d shut up about it already, but now that it’s out in paper that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
Can you really like a character who confesses to the murder of a man in the first sentence of the book, and commits the murder for no other reason than to prove to himself he can do it?

Edward Glyver, the narrator, is a complex character who is not just telling the story, but is confessing the acts that led him to the state of guilty anxiety in which he finds himself from the first page forward. What drives Edward is a sense of self, which he finds was stolen from him at birth and he determines to regain it. Should he lie, steal, cheat or murder, it’s all in the name of regaining his place in the world.

Can you like a man who commits murder to prove to himself he can? In the beginning you may dislike Edward Glyver as I did, but by the last page, even if the end doesn’t necessarily justify the means, I’ll wager that you’ll feel for his struggle and maybe even like him- just a little.

This is historical mystery at its best- described by someone as Victorian noire, I simply describe it as one of the best books I’ve read in a decade.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The “Twilight” of Bestsellers

Several months ago I was in my office meeting with my sales rep from Hachette. As we looked through the catalogs, selecting books to buy for the store, we came to Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer, the third book of her series. I hadn't read the other two, although I had seen them on the bestseller lists.

Problem is I've never been a fan of bestseller lists. First, they are too easily manipulated. Second, many lists are so last week (or the week before that), literally. Lastly, just because everyone else is reading these books, does that mean I should pick one up and follow the crowd? I've a huge pile of books to read anyway, and very few, if any are on the bestseller lists.

This doesn't mean I don't pay attention to bestsellers. I personally like the books on the Booksense list. I purchase books on the bestseller lists for the store- because they sell, because people like to read them. I just don't read a many of them.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer was one of those books I avoided because it was on the bestseller list. And, it was billed as a "young adult romance." I like YA. I'm just not a reader of romances. I'd sold a fair number of copies of both Twilight and New Moon, so when Randy, my sales rep showed me Eclipse, I ordered 10 copies.

Two weeks before the release of Eclipse, I figured I should read Twilight and New Moon before Eclipse came out, so I got Twilight and took it home. Two days later, I bought New Moon to take on a trip. I was done with it before I stepped off the airplane. I couldn't wait for Eclipse to come out. It was then that I realized- ten copies of Eclipse weren't going to be enough. Turned out, I was right.

Those who've read the three books understand what a darkly fun series it is. Stephanie Meyer writes her story well, making you believe the unbelievable. Even more than the story, the characters are fascinating and keep you reading even when the story slows. There are a lot of girls and women who I've spoken with who are in love with Edward. There are even a few boys who've admitted they really like Bella (boys don't like to use the word love). Me? I've got a crush on Edward's sister, Alice. Just don't tell my wife.