Saturday, June 14, 2014

Annoying People

Okay, so maybe a minister's wife shouldn't be focusing her attention on people who annoy her. I mean, I know I'm supposed to be loving and forgiving and all. Most of the time, I try to focus on the positive, to see the good, and to let go of the negative, reining in all the desire I have to complain about everybody and everything. I mean, I've read all the articles about how damaging and exhausting all that negative energy is. Still, it doesn't stop me from observing annoying people. And, you know, the digital age and social media have made it easier than ever for annoying people to be more annoying than ever. So, here's the list of some of the people I find most annoying.

1. The Arguers. You know these people. If it's windy outside, and you comment on it, the first thing they say is, "No it isn't." And they just won't let it go, even as trash cans, lawn furniture, and small dogs go swirling by. Every time you post a Facebook update, you wait for them to come back with some long refutation (usually in an email) that leaves you thinking, "You have time for that?" You wait for the day when you post a photo of yourself, and they come back with a comment telling you that it can't possibly be you.

2. The Puppy Dogs. For some reason, these people desperately, desperately want you to like them. You haven't seen them in years, and you thought you made it pretty clear that you really didn't like them. Maybe never saying a word to them and never inviting them to do anything just wasn't clear enough, though. Now that they are social media experts, they ask you to sign up for every pal, chirp, tack, chain, ivy (you name it, they're on it), and they just keep haranguing you with requests until you finally give in. You don't like them any better online than you did in real life, but you feel a little sorry for them, so you don't "unpal", "unchirp", etc. Probably they're just using you to pump up their stats, but then, that's kind of pathetic, too.

3. The Gadget Addicts. These people never put their phones or tablets away and respond to every single text (which by the way, has some absolutely obnoxious "ring tone"), every tweet, every FB update, every email (if they're still bothering with those) when they're at the checkout register/at a restaurant with their family/sitting in a meeting with you/at a party/at a live performance, etc. Am I the only one who sometimes wants to grab a telephone and throw it across the room? Some people have jobs that are so important (presidents and prime ministers, doctors, intervention therapists, ministers, e.g.) so I will sometimes overlook this obnoxious behavior, but, really, I know there aren't that many presidents and prime ministers, doctors, intervention therapists, and ministers in the world. Also, probably even a president could wait till s/he's through a checkout line before responding to a text. Notice I don't even mention people and their gadgets while driving. There's another word for them, and it's worse than "annoying".

4. The Narcissists. These people have new "profile pictures" featuring their latest favorite "selfie"s every time you log on to their favorite social media sites. I mean, I know I have a tendency to change my profile picture every 5-10 years or so, which probably is annoying, too, but still. Really, you look exactly the same as you did an hour ago. Get over yourself already; nobody else is nearly as fascinated as you are. Speaking of profile pictures, please don't put up a profile picture of a child, unless that child was you at some point in your life, because those are fun to see. Pictures of you with your child? Those are great fun to see, too, but pictures of nothing but your child? If I haven't seen you in twenty years, I want to see pictures of you, not some child I've never met. Besides, there's nothing more annoying, at my age, than trying to figure out who this person is who wants to friend you, hoping to see a photo that resembles someone you might remember knowing, and seeing a picture of an unrecognizable 5-year-old.

5. The Bandwagon Jumpers. Speaking of "selfie" and "friending", I despise those terms. I'm tempted to despise everyone who uses them, as well as everyone who started talking about "googling" before anyone else even knew what Google was; everyone who posts something about each new episode of (fill in the blank here with Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards or whatever is going to be hot next week), especially when they use in-the-know language associated with the shows; everyone who raced out to get a copy of 50 Shades of Grey, and everyone who is running out to see The Fault in Our Stars. But then I would have to despise some people who are near and dear to me, including myself, so I won't despise them. I will remind them, gently, though, that bandwagons are annoying. We can continue to enjoy them, but let's do it in the closet where the annoying people can't find and join us.

6. The Gun Worshippers. Despite all the, daily it seems, mass shootings in this country, they insist on putting up ridiculous quotes like, "Cars kill more people than guns. We need car control more than we need gun control." The latest, I've discovered from a young friend of mine, is, "Saying guns kill people is like saying a spoon made someone fat." Okay, so I long ago got over the notion that this country will ever have true gun control, and really, if you insist on having guns in your home to protect yourself from the millions of deranged killers out there just itching to break into your home and kill you, who am I to argue, just because I've never known a single person who saved themselves from some deranged killer by owning a gun? I'm not going to argue if you insist on keeping a pet rattlesnake, poison intact, either, but don't come crying to me if someone you love gets bitten (or shot) and dies. I am going to argue, though, with your annoying, illogical reasoning when you try to defend an object whose sole reason for existing is to kill by comparing it to other objects designed for other purposes.

Okay. I think that's all the complaining I'm going to do for now, its being so exhausting and all. I'm off in search of all the non-annoying people out there who give me faith in humankind. Or maybe I'm just off to spend some time with dogs and cats.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fifty is Nifty #1

When I turned 50 in February, I decided I was going to write 50 letters to 50 living authors whose works I love. I was also going to write 50 short stories. Recently, I decided I would add to those two goals with a third: trying 50 new things. Bob has listened to all this and made comments like,

"That all sounds like way too much. I'm exhausted just thinking about it."

Well, maybe it would be if I'd given myself some sort of deadline, but I haven't. I'm just plodding along writing my letters and stories at a pace that works for me (sometimes that means I write 3 letters in one week and then go 3 weeks without writing any, or one short story in a day and then another one that takes two weeks to finish). By far, the hardest of these three plans of mine has been the trying 50 new things.

Let me explain this concept to you. This isn't some sort of "bucket list" of great adventures like bungee jumping over the Grand Canyon, or things I've been longing to do forever and am going to make sure I finally do. No, it's more of a paying attention when I've decided to do something new and different that I've never done. For instance, going to a yoga class at that studio I often pass in Lancaster City would count (haven't done that yet but still might).

The reason it's been so hard is that I'm someone who is constantly doing new and different things. I didn't realize this until I started paying attention. 50 seems like way too few. I'm beginning to think I should've decided on 150 or maybe even 1500. I was too vague when I came up with this idea. "New thing" is very hard to define. For instance, Bob and I recently went into Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital to visit a member of our congregation who'd had major heart surgery. I'd never been, and maybe that should count. Then again, it's not exactly a "new thing" for me to visit a member of our congregation in the hospital; it's just that I'd never been to that particular hospital. Afterwards, we went to The Philadelphia Museum of Art (that's an experience that's almost yawn-worthy. We go there all the time), but we decided to eat dinner at the restaurant at the museum, where we'd never eaten, and which is only open for dinner on Friday nights. That counts as doing something new, I thought, but then I realized, no, it doesn't. Bob and I are always trying new restaurants. In fact, we rarely go out to eat without trying some place new, especially if we're in Philadelphia.

I'm still working on defining "new thing" but have decided this blog is a good place to record some of the new things I'm trying, so now we get to the heart of this post. I'm doing something brand new for the next six months that involves books. It's an idea I've gotten from book blogging challenges that I've often thought about doing but have never done, which is to read only from my own overcrowded book shelves. This means, with the exception of books I have to get for book discussion groups, I'm not going to buy any new books to read or check out any books from the library. On May 31st, I bought my last two books (The Adrian Mole Diaries, because I was so sad to hear that Sue Townsend had died, and a pre-order of Tana French's newest, because, well it's Tana French, and it's a signed first edition). The last book I put on reserve at the library before June 1 actually came in the other day, so I did check something out post June 1, but that's it now until November 30.

Well, technically, it's not it. I'm a librarian. There's no way I'm going to let our circulation numbers suffer just because I'm determined to try something new. Thus, I'm planning on checking out copies of the books I'm reading from my own shelves, if we happen to have them in the library system.

So far, with nearly two whole weeks under my belt, this "new thing" is going swimmingly. The hyperventilating has stopped, and I'm happy to report that I never suffered from the DTs, which just goes to show one can find the willpower, somewhere, to stop spending all her money on books. I've gone cold turkey, with no support group, and I've been fine making do, quite well, choosing what to read from the thousands of unread books little library we have in our home. I'm even discovering some things I didn't even know we had.

My biggest obstacle, so far, has been reading books. You know how books are the sorts of friends that enable your book addiction. You read one and come away from it with twenty others to read. I don't recommend reading, say, Updike, when you've decided to go six months reading only from your shelves, especially when your shelves have very little Updike on them. Damn Bob. Wasn't it his duty as a man who came of age in the twentieth century to fill our shelves with Updike? I don't recommend reading letters that any famous author wrote (you know, like Rose Macaulay, say) in which they're likely to mention anything they were reading. Nor is the summer fiction edition of The New Yorker a good idea.

Still, I'm not doing too badly. I'm able to read book blog posts, even, with a sort of detached "that sounds good" mind set, adding to the TBR tome without racing out and buying anything. Granted, I've not yet set foot in Barnes and Noble. Nor have I delved too deep into Shiny New Books, despite how thrilled I am to discover that Litlove, et al. have created something I've thought, for years, someone ought to create. Meanwhile, all this shelf browsing in my own house has helped me build my shelves at Emily's Page Turners, a wonderful online community, which I discovered through Ms. Musings, whose streets house nothing but independent book shops. Better yet, all the shops, for now anyway, are located in Great Britain. It's a terrific alternative to Goodreads (far more visually pleasing), and, better yet, it's not owned by The Evil Empire Amazon. Instead, it's owned by one of my favorite publishers, Penguin, in conjunction with Hive.

Setting up a page at My Independent Bookshop could count as one of my fifty new things, I've just realized. Well, see, I'm still defining this goal and will have to come up with some way of figuring out what counts and what doesn't. Meanwhile, you can look forward to 49 more posts in the near (and distant) future you accounts of my adventures in "new things" (whatever that means).


Thursday, June 05, 2014

Trigger Warnings

So, I didn't know about trigger warnings until I read this article by Rebecca Mead in the recent issue of The New Yorker. According to Mead, an article in the NY Times described trigger warnings as

...preƫmptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder.
I was torn, as I read the article, which does delve into the recent shooting at UC-Santa Barbara. Everyone knows, given the numbers of attacks on college and university campuses that have made the news over the past ten years that classrooms can no longer be considered safe spaces. In fact, nowhere in America, it seems, is anyone safe these days. People might be tempted to say, "Well, you're safe at home", but, no, homes are often the most dangerous places for those who share their homes with violent people, especially violent people who have guns. Also, as a woman who has a rather vivid imagination and has probably read a few too many mysteries and thrillers, as well as watched a few too many episodes of things like Criminal Minds, I can tell you that I often don't feel safe in my own home, especially when I'm alone at night.

I started the article, thinking "well, maybe trigger warnings are a good idea." I mean, I have friends who've been sexually abused or sexually assaulted to whom I've said, "Don't read Stieg Larsson." The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book I very nearly put down and never picked back up, so upsetting was that first brutal rape scene, although I ended up loving the book by the end. Interestingly, though, I have a friend who was sexually abused by her father who devoured all three of the books and didn't seem nearly as traumatized by all the sexual abuse as I was. Which just goes to show, you really can't tell what is and isn't going to be a ptsd trigger.

Realizing how arbitrary and unpredictable ptsd triggers are, I blinked and went from thinking maybe trigger warnings are a good idea to thinking, "How much more are we going to baby students?" If the reality of their lives is that some NRA-supported psycho with an AK-47 could burst into their classroom at any minute, or that they could get stabbed while walking from their dorms to their classes, or that they might have a roommate they think they know who is secretly plotting to bomb a marathon, isn't literature the best place to explore sudden, unexpected violence? Do we really need to shield them from fiction? By definition, literature is a safe place, because we all know that what's happening either isn't real or that it happened somewhere else to someone else. It doesn't need to be made safer for those who are 18 and over. The horrible things that happen to us in life rarely ever come with warnings. When an adult picks up a book or goes to a movie, he or she should know without having to be warned that it might contain something upsetting. Almost anything truly worth reading or watching and studying does.

I went to college having barely watched anything more violent than The Three Musketeers. I'm very sensitive and empathetic and couldn't even watch episodes of The Three Stooges when I was young. I didn't find all the pain they inflicted on each other to be the least bit funny or appealing. My first year in college, I took a course called Cinema as an Art Form. The first movie we saw was A Clockwork Orange, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I felt physically ill during most of the film, so violent and upsetting was it. The second movie was Mad Max. It made A Clockwork Orange look like a brilliantly choreographed ballet in comparison, so raw was all its violence. Again, I was physically sick. Do I wish these movies had come with warnings? I can honestly say, "no". Now, I know that's just me, and I'm not someone who'd ever been raped or beat up or shot at before I saw those films, but I do think that watching them was part of a growing up process for me, and they actually turned out to be very important movies in my life, movies I've revisited, especially A Clockwork Orange, which I still consider to be one of the best diatribes against behaviorist theory ever made (next to the original English version -- don't confuse it with the original "make-nice" American version -- of the book).

Those two movies taught me a lot that I don't think our professor even intended to teach. I learned how I relate to violence. I still don't like horribly violent movies, but I can sit through them without getting sick, knowing I can close my eyes if needed, and knowing that sometimes -- not always. Sometimes it's just Hollywood being manipulative or trying to shock us -- the violence is there for a good reason. I learned how to self-censor. I learned that it won't kill me to watch or read something that's terribly upsetting and that, in fact, sometimes if I stick with it, I will discover how strong I am or how lucky I am or how inspiring someone else is.

Trying to make everything safe when nothing is safe is a tricky business, one that doesn't belong in college and university classrooms. Instead of warning students that something might be upsetting, we'd be better off teaching students how to put things into context (a lost art in our society as far as I'm concerned). Is the racism and violence in 12 Years a Slave devastating? Yes. Should we protect students from it, censor what we teach, because they may have suffered from racism in their own lives? Do we stop teaching Freud because he was so sexist, and young women are suffering enough from sexism in the world today? I think that's doing students a disservice, as well as underestimating their wisdom and intelligence. Instead, we should teach them about context, encourage them to explore ideas from historical perspectives, ask them to compare the 19th-century racism/sexism/abuse, etc. that they encounter in literature and film to today's racism/sexism/abuse. The best questions we can ask is "Have we changed? If so, how? If not, why not? Why is it important to study this?"

What I find most disturbing is that the students are the ones asking for trigger warnings. To me, it points to students who are underestimating their own wisdom and intelligence, students who've learned to assume they can't handle things, who've been taught to fear, to be on the alert for upsetting material, not to understand that they might get a different perspective on their own miserable experiences by being introduced to them in other, safe ways. It reminds me of the parent I once knew who came over to dinner at my house with her toddler, and before the child had even tasted what I'd made assured her that if she didn't like it, she didn't have to eat it. Of course, she didn't have to eat it, and I know my well-meaning friend was probably trying to counteract an old-fashioned child-rearing trait in which kids were forced to eat food they didn't like, setting up bad and dysfunctional eating patterns. However, don't suggest to a child that she might not like something before she's even eaten it. Let her try it, see if she likes it, and then tell her she doesn't have to eat it if she doesn't. Who's putting the idea into young people's heads that they might not be able to handle certain books or movies, especially when there's a whole school of psychology out there that believes in using literature as a prescription for coping with various psychological issues?

I'm not saying professors and teachers should be insensitive. It's just that I don't think blanket statements should be made about any work of art. The safety found in classrooms should center around students being allowed to feel what they feel without having to worry about negative repercussions, not around trying to decide what might and might not trigger certain reactions. Students ought to be free to say "I got to the rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I really just couldn't bear to read any more" or to say, "A Clockwork Orange made me feel sick, and I had to leave before it was over" without having to worry about being mocked or getting a bad grade. Great discussions could be had around both those statements, discussions that could, in theory, actually help the person who might have experienced some sort of trauma in the past feel validated or understood, or might help him or her find a strength that's been hidden. After all, isn't that what great art is all about?

Mead concludes her article by saying,

The hope that safety might be found, as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension. The classroom can never be an entirely safe space, nor, probably, should it be. But it’s difficult to fault those who hope that it might be, when the outside world constantly proves itself pervasively hostile, as well as, on occasion, horrifically violent.

I don't disagree. I would only add that we need to teach students what the purpose of literature is, that it is an excellent mechanism for dealing with the outside world Mead describes. We need to resist their fears and requests to protect them from things that aren't truly dangerous. By understanding the true purpose of literature (the true purpose of all story telling), students will come to understand that, no matter what they might explore through literature, the literature classroom is a safe space, and it just might better equip them to handle real hostility and horror in the outside world.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

In Which I Become Boring and Blog About Dieting

Since moving to Lancaster County, PA 6 years ago, a place that doesn't exactly specialize in exotic eating adventures, but that does specialize in some of the best breads and desserts I've ever eaten, I've gained 15 pounds. I don't look horrible at this weight, but it isn't a weight that makes me happy, and it means I can no longer wear some of my favorite clothes, so I'd like to get rid of it. Back when I was 35, losing weight wasn't a big deal. I'd get back into an exercise routine (usually lack of a regular exercise routine was the reason I'd gained), keep track of what I ate, and soon I'd be where I wanted to be. Not so much anymore. In fact, not at all anymore.

It seems now my only choices are to exercise tons more or to eat tons less. Since I already exercise for 20-60 minutes 5-6 times a week, and, sorry, I'm just really not going to do anymore than that, the only real option for me is to eat less. For about a year now, I've been checking out different diet books and plans and doing things like trying to keep up with tracking my food and fitness at Sparkpeople.com. I'll lose a few pounds, get all excited, and then, well, you know, we have out-of-town guests, and I have to introduce them to the wonders of Amish sticky buns. Or someone invites me over for dinner and offers me two desserts, after I've already eaten an overflowing plateful of food, and, heaven forbid, I be rude and refuse. In fact, to be really polite, I'd better try both desserts or my poor host might think I don't like his or her offerings. Then there's that plate of brownies or cupcakes someone leaves in the kitchen at work. Whatever it is, all my willpower soon goes out the window.

The thing about me, though, is that I'm someone who knows she only eats for three reasons. Reason number one is that someone else suggests it's time to eat, and I agree. This used to happen a lot when I worked in an office all day. At 11:00, someone would decide it was time to go to lunch, and even though I wasn't the least bit hungry, I'd agree and go along. Reason number two is that food presents itself. I'm really not someone who ever goes around thinking, "I'd like a doughnut. I'd better go get a doughnut." But if I walk into a bank, and they have doughnuts sitting out for their customers, well, I'll eat one. The third reason is that I'm actually hungry. This often sneaks up on me. I'll be busy writing a short story for hours, when suddenly, I'll notice my stomach is growling. I'll look at my watch and realize, oh, it's 2:00 p.m., and I haven't eaten anything since 8:00 a.m.

In other words, I'm an impulsive eater, and I don't tend to be an emotional eater. I don't eat when I'm bored (which I rarely ever am anyway) or when I'm depressed. In fact, when I'm depressed, I'm one of those people who's less likely to eat. Ideally food would never present itself without my seeking it out; no one else would ever decide that 6:30 p.m. is a good time for dinner when I just went to Costco at 4:00 and ate every single sample offered; and I'd only ever eat when hungry. Life, alas, is never ideal.

Something else I know about myself is that I'm highly suggestible. It's why I often avoid reading  reviews of books by my favorite authors and movies with my favorite actors until I've read or seen them. It's why I'm a borderline hypochondriac. It's why reading an issue of O magazine sometimes means I find myself thinking, "Hmm. Maybe Bob and I should sell everything and go build schools in South America."  O is full of ideas when it comes to dieting (as well as delicious-looking recipes meant to sabotage any diet, I've not failed to notice), so it was that introduced me to the idea of the 5:2 Diet.

I read an article written by a woman who'd decided to try this intermittent fast diet, initially thinking, "Oh, I could never do that." I've fasted on occasion and know it's something I don't much like doing, because rather than being one of those people who feels rejuvenated by fasting or maybe has spiritual insights, I'm one of those people who, by 3:00 p.m. is ready to cook up a shoe and eat it. By the time I'd finished the article, though, I'd begun to think "I could do that. Maybe." The change of heart had less to do with the convincing manor in which the author had written it and more to do with the fact that, although the diet uses the word "fast", it's not a true fast, as in, you do nothing but drink water (or juice you have to make yourself, something I'm not willing to do) all day. No, you do actually get to eat. You just eat very, very little, for two days a week. The rest of the week, you eat what you please, without thinking about it.

That sounded doable and far better to me than constantly worrying about what I'm eating every day, which, let's face it, just doesn't work for me. I don't like having to choose between cake or ice cream on any given day when what I really want is both cake and ice cream (and probably even a second piece of cake, if you're offering). Oh, and did I mention, that's on top of the two hot dogs I've already had? Foregoing cake and ice cream today when I know I can have it tomorrow? That just didn't really sound so bad. So I decided to read the book, which explained to me that I need to choose two nonconsecutive days a week and limit my caloric intake to 500 (men, those lucky bastards, get to eat 600 calories) on those days.

There are all kinds of arguments the authors put forth as to why this makes sense (the old "this is how hunters and gatherers ate and how our bodies evolved" is there, yet again, for anyone who, somehow, hasn't managed to hear it associated with any diet in the past 20 years), but do you want to know what I think? I think it works because people are actually just doing what always works, eating fewer calories. Let's say I typically want to eat 2000 calories per day, but that's really too many for me, if I want to lose weight. Now, let's look at two days if I'm on this 5:2 diet. One day, I eat 500 calories. Let's say the next day I eat 2500, I've still only eaten 3000 instead of the 4000 I would've eaten when I wasn't on the diet, and if I eat only 2000, well then, in two days, I've eaten 1500 calories less than I normally would.

All of this is to say that I've begun this diet. I'm convinced that even I can control my impulsive eating enough to look at a plate of brownies at work, take one, and save it until tomorrow, if I'm not allowed to eat it today. I'm in week two. I won't say it's for everyone, because you will be hungry on your "fast" days. I've fasted four days now, sticking to the authors' recommendation of eating something at breakfast, skipping lunch, and then eating something at dinner, about twelve hours later, which means I actually am fasting for twelve waking hours. I get really, really, shoe-eyeing hungry around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. I've discovered, though, that if I stick it out, the growling stomach goes away. Counter-intuitively (because one would think this would mean passing out, given all we've heard about low blood sugar, etc.), it appears that working out is a good thing to do when my stomach starts to growl. I can workout, which distracts me, and then the hunger goes away for a while. I did that two days. The other two days, I discovered what worked was throwing myself into writing -- distraction again.

I'm sure your burning question is, "Yes, but is it working?" The answer to that question is "yes." I began this diet thirteen days ago. I've lost 3 pounds so far and have kept it off. That means it's working enough for me to continue with it. We'll see what happens if a plate of brownies ever presents itself on one of my fast days.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Gran, Sara. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This was October's Connecticut mystery book club read. What an appropriate title for October (although I actually read it back in September).

I've never been to New Orleans, but I've always wanted to go. It's one of those American cities that mesmerizes me because it seems much older than it can possibly be, a city that must be at least 500 years old and teeming with all kinds of good and bad spirits, the two sides constantly struggling for control. Sara Gran's first Claire DeWitt mystery didn't disabuse me of this notion.

Gran's New Orleans is seedy, romantic, gothic, mysterious, evil, spooky, passionate... She's done a wonderful job of painting the city in a way that brings countless numbers of adjectives to mind, many of which are polar opposites. Having never been there, I'd say she's also done a wonderful job of capturing the city in all its complexity. And something about her brought Caitlin Kiernan to mind, even though the two authors are not of the same genre.

You'll get no unbiased review here. I loved the book from the minute I started reading it. Claire DeWitt is an interesting sleuth who, with the exception, maybe, of "the cozy", draws on all types of fictional detectives, rolling them into one to produce someone truly unique. Much to my surprise, I also found her truly believable, which she probably wouldn't have been in the hands of a less talented writer. She's part hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe (although with the 21st-century twist of turning more to drugs than to booze to numb all the horrors her chosen career forces her to face), part whacky Stephanie Plum and her ironic sense of humor, part Charlie Parker and his insight into the supernatural, and there's a little Hercule Poirot, since her mentor from the grave is a French mastermind. She's even a bit like Mary Russell, although she never apprenticed with the Great Detective himself the way Mary did with Sherlock Holmes. Claire, instead, apprenticed with another apprentice, who is also now dead and lives only in Claire's memory, dreams, and hallucinations.

Claire, who grew up in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) is a former resident of New Orleans but is living in California when she's called back to the city that is swarming with her ghosts, to help find out what happened to a lawyer who disappeared in the aftermath of Katrina. With the help of some of those ghosts of hers, her own wit and ingenuity, not to mention consultations with the I Ching and the occasional hallucinogen, she manages to figure out that this "nice guy", just like this "nice city", might have had a seedier side. Along the way, she meets some interesting new people and reconnects with some old. I, for one, was quite surprised to discover whodunit and why.

Happily, there's a new Claire DeWitt novel. I'm quite content to add this series to my growing pile of mystery series I read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

50 Scariest Books I'VE Read

Thanks to Susan, I discovered this. The scariest thing about the latter is that, despite being a lifelong fan of horror and the supernatural, I've only read 17 books on the list of 50 (well, and part of 2, both of which spooked me so much, I had to put them down and never picked them back up again). Even scarier is that I'd never even heard of some of them. Maybe I haven't been reading that many scary books after all; maybe I can't really claim to be a fan; maybe I'm a mere piker when it comes to the spooky. No coward, I, I decided to face this fear head on, think of all the scary books I've ever read, and see if I could even come up with 50 to name as the scariest.

Happily, I discovered I'm no piker. I came up with tons of scary books and had to try to figure out how to narrow the list down to a mere 50. The first thing to do was to take a cue from the originator and include only one book by any given author. That made it a tad bit easier, but still, this was no easy task. I finally found myself boiling it down to books I remembered keeping me up at night; or those propelling me go downstairs to be with others, if the other members of the household were downstairs and I was upstairs alone (or vice versa); or encouraging me not to look out windows; or inspiring me to lock myself into rooms where I felt (sort of) safe. That meant including some titles that aren't necessarily horror classics, or that don't even fall into the horror genre, but just that, for whatever reason, scared the bejeezus out of me when I read them. I'm sure some of them wouldn't scare me in the least if I were to reread them. Others, however, I've read multiple times and can depend on to do the job when I'm in a masochistic sort of mood and actually want to feel the need to lock myself in the bedroom and dive under the covers.

I share with you my list (in alphabetical order by title), which does overlap with the "50 Scariest Ever" list. In compiling it, I've thought about how (like everything else about reading) subjective "scary" is. Vampires have terrified me all my life. Zombies? Not so much (except for the movie Carnival of Souls. Why, I don't know). I'd love to know which of these books others have read and found scary and which they haven't.

(I'm way too lazy to go find cover images for all 50 books, so, in keeping with a good supernatural tale, you'll just have to conjure up your own images.)

1. 1984 by George Orwell. Yes, the world he painted can only be described as horrific.

2. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Okay, now we know that it may all have been a hoax, but I didn't know that when I read it in my early teens. To this day I don't take too well to gatherings of 3 or more flies on windowsills.

3. Best Ghost Stories of J. S. Le Fanu by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A longtime fan of Uncle Silas, which didn't scare me at all, I made the mistake of reading this when Bob was away, and I was all alone. Lots of things went "bump in the night" in my house that night.

4. Best Stories of Algernon Blackwood by Algernon Blackwood. All the stories are good, but on really, really windy nights, or when I'm racing against time to get off a hiking trail at dusk, it's "The Wendigo" that always comes to my mind and sends shivers up my spine.

5. Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe. Dungeons and Dragons game players and murder in my home state of North Carolina? Nothing scary about that, right?

6. The Bog by Michael Talbot. If books were classified the way movies are, this one would be a B movie. Completely predictable and stupid and about something that shouldn't have scared me at all, and yet, when a friend urged me to read it back when it came out, it spooked me to death.

7. Broken Harbor by Tana French. All of French's novels have had a spooky element to them, but this one was the one that got to me the most.

8. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt. Ridiculous to think I'd be scared of doll-sized figures wielding sharp weapons, but I was. Maybe it's the psychology or the voodoo (which has scared me since I was a kid).

9. A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur. Well, I guess dolls can be very scary, and the doll in this book was one of the scariest I'd ever encountered when I first read it as a child. She was still scary when I reread it as an adult.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Not scary so much as just so damn creepy and horrific that I didn't want to be alone while reading it.

11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Forget that it's Christmas and has such a feel-good ending. Marley's ghost is damn scary. 

12. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It's those blank, button eyes. 

13. Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster. Some ghost story collections are uneven. This one isn't. I may be wrong, but I recall being spooked by all of them. 

14. The Deep End by Joy Fielding. This is probably a really dumb book, but when it first came out, I read it, and it terrified me with that whole telephone-caller-is-even (really, really)-closer-than-you-think-thing.


15. The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Loraine Newman by Gerald Brittle. I'm still amazed that something so hokey had me so terrified. All I can say is don't read it at night if you have a dog who might suddenly start barking at nothing (or if you have a Raggedy Ann doll in your house. I was glad I didn't).

16. Dracula by Bram Stoker. No, it shouldn't have been scary. I knew the story when I finally got around to reading the original. Stoker was not the best writer of his time. Still, it got me (and did again when I listened to it while jogging through the woods one fall).

17. Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. If you want to feed a fear of vampires with plenty of blood, read this one.

18. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Reread it last year to see if it's really as scary as I remember. Yes, it is.

19. The Falls by Ian Rankin. Just enough of a hint of the supernatural and things like grave robbers to send many shivers up my spine.

20. Famous Ghost Stories edited by Bennett Cerf. It's a short collection, but it has so many of the classics that can keep me awake if I read them too late at night (Oliver Onion's The Beckoning Fair OneThe Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Phantom 'Rickshaw by Rudyard Kipling, to name a few). 

21. Ghost by Katherine Ramsland. Some of this was quite stupid (okay, a lot of it). Still, parts of it spooked me (a lot).
22. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James. James was the master. When I want to study the craft, I return to him. "The Mezotint" will always have me staying in one safe room and avoiding looking out windows at night.
23. Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton. Maybe it scared me so much because I never thought of Wharton as a writer of the supernatural, so I was surprised by her ability with the genre, or maybe it's because, like Henry James, she had such a good handle on "Is it a ghost or all in your mind?" Whatever the reason, it kept me awake at night. 

24. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This was one that spooked me so much, reading it when I was on a business trip by myself, that I had to put it down. I've been meaning to try it again ever since.
25. Green Man by Kingsley Amis. The ending was over-the-top, but parts of it made me wary of trees (and, again, looking out the window at night, especially in areas heavy with trees) for a while.
 26. The Haunted by James Herbert. The surprise is, yes, surprising. The movie also scared the crap out of me.

27. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Every time I read it, I think, "It can't possibly scare me this time. I know it too well." I'm wrong about that. Every time.

28. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. This is the stuff that keeps a teenager up, reading until the wee hours of the morning and then, wide-awake, unable to sleep, hearing all kinds of strange noises in the house.

29. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. See Helter Skelter, only substitute teenager with forty-something who lives out in the American middle of nowhere.

30. The Killing Kind by John Connolly. Some very weird stuff that is very scary when you're reading it in Maine.

31. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Sprezi. I listened to this one while out walking and remember constantly looking over my shoulder. It's terrifying on two levels: serial killer + being falsely accused of something while living in a foreign country.

32. The Omen by David Seltzer. It led me to believe that there isn't much that's scarier than a scary child. (Oh, and see Helter Skelter and that part about being a teenager up all night.)

33. The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell. Got so spooked by it (fog is scary) that I couldn't finish it.

34. The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I don't really remember why I found this one so scary. I just remember that I did.

35. People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. A well-known psychiatrist writing about the psychology of evil and his belief in demon possession? You know how you study abnormal psych and begin diagnosing everyone you know? Imagine when the "disease" is evil and possibly demon possession, and you'll get an idea of where this one took me.

36. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories edited by Michael Newton. Ghost story collections can be hit or miss, but this recent collection was pretty much hit, and the ones that scared me (that I hadn't read before, and even some I had, like the aforementioned "The Monkey's Paw") really scared me.

37. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. A study in evil, more terrifying in what it suggests than in anything that actually happens.

38. Psycho by Robert Bloch. You thought the movie was scary (which it most definitely was)? Read the book.

39. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. I found this one so much scarier than Silence of the Lambs. I think it mostly had to do with the way the killer chose his victims.

40. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. I don't really know why, but John Sandford scares me. Maybe it's his ambiguity when it comes to defining good and evil. But that ambiguity shows up in plenty of mysteries that don't scare me. Anyway, I won't read him when I'm alone (just like I won't watch Criminal Minds when I'm alone).

41. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. Word to the wise: don't read this one when you're fifteen-years-old and baby sitting, a sleeping toddler being the only other one in the house with you.

42. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Before there was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus (which had its moments), there was Ray Bradbury and Something Wicked this Way Comes (more than just mere moments), discovered in one's teens.

43. Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories by Donald J. Sobel. This was a Scholastic book I got circa age 9. I blame it to this day for my addiction to horror. I reread it a few years ago, and yes, I can understand why.

44. Tales of Horror and the Supernatural by Arthur Machen. Includes plenty of good tales, but the one that scared me the most was "The Terror", a perfect study in mass hysteria.

45. This is the Zodiac Speaking by Michael D. Kelleher and David Van Nuys. I'm surprised I didn't buy a gun to protect myself while reading this one.

46. Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Nobody, but nobody writing in the 21st century does "here's a nightmare: is it real or not?" better than Kiernan (and I loved the Beowulf connection here).

47. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Still the ghost story to beat all ghost stories.

48. The Undead edited by James Dickie. Another one to feed the imagination of someone who's vampire-obsessed.

49. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. One of those books that makes you glad you're not a Victorian woman surrounded by men defining how sane you are (or are not).

50. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe. Good old Edgar is another one to blame for my early addiction to the spooky unknown.

(And one to grow on). Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I know, I know, call me a wimp, but that scratching at the window? I still don't like to hear branches scratching at a window.

Okay, I can see the pattern here. If you want to scare me include one or more of these elements (either real or imagined): ghosts, vampires, serial killers, demon possession, scary dolls, and maybe, if the conditions are right, a bog monster (especially if it's scratching at a window with long, bony, gnarly-nailed fingers).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Guest Post: Stephen King and His Movies

Today is Stephen King's 66th birthday, and this week I will have in my hands our library's copy of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. I've been reading Stephen King for over 30 years, and I'm looking forward to this new book, out just in time for Halloween reading. So, when Brandon Engel asked if he could write a guest post here comparing two of King's books to the movie versions, I agreed, not only because I love Stephen King, but also because I'd like to support a fellow blogger who is making a living through writing blog posts. Brandon's post follows with some of my own thoughts and comments included in italics.


This September, author Stephen King will be celebrating both the release of his new book Dr. Sleep (a long-awaited sequel to The Shining) and his 66th birthday. Over the course of his career, King has authored over 50 novels, several of which have been used as the basis for feature length films -- with some adaptations adhering to King’s stories more closely than others.

Let’s take a look at two dramatically different examples…


The Shining

One film which still gets some Stephen King fans riled up is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining -- which Stephen King himself was incredibly vocal about disliking upon its release in 1980. In more abstract terms, the film differs from the book in that the film places greater emphasis on the instability of the Jack Torrance character, portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson. King’s stated intention was to portray the character in a more sympathetic light and to show his declining mental health as being more symptomatic of the corrosive influence of the spiritual entities who inhabit the Overlook Hotel. King’s chief criticism was that the Kubrick treatment made the film more about a domestic disturbance, and downplayed the supernatural elements of the story.

EB: I'm disappointed to discover that King disliked the movie version, although his reasons make sense. I love Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, one of the few that I still find terrifying, even though I've seen it many times. It's not as good as the book, of course, but as far as movies go, it's hard to beat.

There are several other key differences between the book and the film though. In the book, there are large topiary animals who come to life. Kubrick’s version does away with the topiary animals, substituting them with a hedge maze. 

EB: And I always wondered why he chose to do that. It seems like it would've been a great special effect in a movie. Those moving hedges were one of the things that scared me most when I read the book, circa age 15.

In the book, Jack Torrance dies when the boiler room explodes. In the film, he freezes to death in the hedge maze. In the book, Jack Torrance doesn’t actually kill anyone. In the film, he kills the Dick Halloran character (played by Scatman Crothers.)

EB: One of the things that always impressed me about the movie was how scary it was despite the fact that so few characters died, especially since it came out during the height of the slasher movie craze. It was a great lesson for me, who was just beginning to discover horror movies other than what was available on late-night TV: people don't necessarily have to die (or be turned vampires) in order for a movie to be really scary). 

The key difference here, though, is that so much of King’s work is permeated by his ambiguous spiritual beliefs, which usually seem to have some foundation in the Christian narrative, whereas a defining characteristic of most of Kubrick’s work is his biting cynicism and religious skepticism.

EB: Which is probably why I love both of them, because I have to admit I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to others' views about religion and spirituality.


Carrie


Carrie was historically significant as it was King’s first published novel, and director Brian De Palma’s first feature. There were a couple of notable differences between the novel and the film. One was the appearance of the Carrie White character, who was described as being overweight in the novel, but was portrayed by the wispy Sissy Spacek in the film.

EB: This is a movie I haven't seen (I know. I know!), but I always wondered about that myself. Everyone who's read the book knows that Carrie is overweight. Also, everyone who knew me in junior high thought I looked like Carrie (Sissy Spacek), which was a terrible thing for a skinny, junior-high kid and made me (unfairly) hate Sissy Spacek until years later.

The most notable difference between the movie and the book, though, is perhaps the ending. In the end of the novel, Carrie destroys the entire town. In the end of the film, Carrie has essentially killed all of the teenagers from the town, but has left the parents to grieve -- which is, by this blogger’s estimation, infinitely more chilling.

EB: I had no idea that the movie ended that way, but I'd agree that that was a good change. 

On the whole, though, the film hits all the major beats from the novel -- the character is a social outcast; there is one sympathetic character who conspicuously arranges to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom (although both King and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen clearly attempted to lampshade this); and the vindictive teenage girl antagonists conspire to further humiliate Carrie for menstruating. What embellishments were made for the sake of filming were ultimately in the service of the same end as the novel.

EB: Okay, yes, I must see the movie version now. 

Thank you, Brandon, for this birthday gift to Stephen King.

About the author: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger for GetDirectTV.org who is an avid consumer of gothic horror literature and vintage horror films. Among his favorite writers are H.P. Lovecraft, William Peter Blatty and, of course, Mr. King. Among his favorite directors are Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and John Carpenter.