Thursday, October 28, 2010

All Hallow's Read--Halloween Recommendations

For me Halloween means two things: pumpkins and vampires.

I often reread Bram Stoker's Dracula for Halloween.  It was the first "grown up" book that captured my imagination and ignited a life-long passion for reading.  My appreciation of it grows with each rereading.

Over 600 pages of Dracula Galore!
Last year I spent the holiday with a cool gift that my partner bought me at Read Between the Lynes when we were up in Woodstock, IL for our annual pumpkin pilgrimage.  The gift was The New Annotated Dracula by Leslie S. Klinger, which I highly recommend for all vampire enthusiasts.  Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction to this tome.

Speaking of Mr. Gaiman, he's also trying to start a new tradition of scary book giving on Halloween and is calling it All Hallow’s Read.  I found out about it via a tweet by Joe Hill and you can read the post that started it all here.

And here's a neat idea for the Halloween season--you can watch and listen to Neil Gaiman reading The Graveyard Book here.  I haven't read the book yet, though its been on my list since it came out a couple years ago.  Each chapter is contained in its own video file so you can easily plan your viewing schedule or watch/listen to a favorite chapter.  It looks like viewing time for a chapter runs between 25-70 minutes.  The Graveyard Book is a novel for children so it would be appropriate reading (or viewing) for the whole family.  The novel won both the Hugo and Newbery Awards.

But as for my reading this Halloween season, I'm resisting the pull to reread Stoker's Dracula and am going to try it as a graphic novel instead.  I've not yet been able to read a complete graphic novel.  I lose interest in them pretty quickly.  This seems odd to me because I loved comic books when I was a kid (Sgt. Rock and Spiderman were my favorites).

Marvel Comics Dracula
DC Comics American Vampire
So I've checked out a copy of the new Marvel Comics Dracula adapted by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano.  I already know I love the story, so I'm thinking this might be a way in to graphic novels for me.  I also checked out a copy of DC Comics American Vampire by Scott Snyder & Stephen King.  Both books were just released this month and should be available at your local bookstore.

I'm also adding The Castle in Transylvania by Jules Verne to my reading list. 

Some Halloween recommendations:

Fangland by John Marks
This is the hardcover edition.
Much cooler than the paperback.
I read Fangland when it first came out in 2007.  The cover caught my eye.  Fangland is a literary vampire novel and it was the first novel that I recall reading that incorporates the destruction and devastation of 9/11.  It pays homage to Stoker's Dracula in both content and style and has some truly creepy moments that stick with me three years later.  I highly recommend it if you're a Stoker fan.  If you're not a Stoker fan or don't like epistolary novels, you might have a challenge with it, but give it a shot anyway.  If you haven't heard of Fangland I'm not surprised.  Some bookstores shelved it in the literature section where horror fans would not stumble across it while browsing and many literary fiction readers poo-poo vampire books (I said 'many,' not 'all') so it didn't catch on via word of mouth.  It will see some light again soon, however, because its being made into a movie produced by Hilary Swank, directed by John Carpenter with a screenplay written by Mark Wheaton.

1st edition cover
Salem's Lot by Stephen King
I have no written record of my early reading years, but in my memory I read Salem's Lot right after reading Dracula.  I went to the bookstore with my Dad and browsed the shelves looking for a good vampire novel and stumbled upon it.  Then, as now, I like my vampires to be nasty & scary.  The current popular romantic vampire craze doesn't appeal to me although I did read book one of Stephenie Myer's Twilight series to see what the fuss was all about.  I also read the first book in the Chicagoland Vampires series and will probably read more of those because they're set in Chicago.  Anyway, Salem's Lot it a hell of a vampire story.  It will scare you.  It will creep you out.  There's even a few film versions you can watch.  It scared me as a kid and it scared me as an adult when I reread it a few years ago.


There are of course tons of teen vampire options out there these days, and I already mentioned the Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neill.  At the bookstore where I work its shelved in the adult sci/fi section, but I think its appropriate for older teens (at least the first book is, anyway).  I recommend this series to Charlaine Harris fans and several have returned for a second and now third helping.  I haven't read any Charlaine Harris novels yet, but from describing Some Girls Bite (the first in the series) to a customer who is a big Harris fan she said it sounded like it would be up her alley, and it was.  I wrote a post on Some Girls Bite in April 2010 that you can check out here.

If you're looking for something for a pre-teen kid I recommend Kate Cary's Bloodline.  If the name sounds familiar its because Ms. Cary also writes the hugely popular Warriors series about four clans of wild cats.  Bloodline and its sequel Reckoning carry on the saga of Dracula's bloodline.  Quincey Harker a captain in the trenches of World War I?  Beautiful transition between generations.  Bravo Ms. Cary!

If you're looking for books for even younger kids,
all bookstores that carry kids books will have a display full of picture books for little ones and don't forget your local library as an option, too.

Happy All Hallow's Read Everyone! 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hans Fallada's 1947 anti-Nazi classic Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone 
Hans Fallada (1893-1947)
Melville House, March 2009
543 pages
Translated by Michael Hofmann

Originally published in Germany as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, 1947

Published in the UK by Penguin Hardback Classics as Alone in Berlin, February 2009

"But they told themselves and each other that it didn't concern them and that nothing could happen to them, as they were doing nothing against the State.  "Thoughts are free," they said--but they ought to have known that in this State not even thoughts were free."

Reading this masterful novel was both painful and exhausting.  Every Man Dies Alone is the story of what it was like to live in Berlin in the early 1940s.  Written by someone who lived through it, the novel shows how everyone suffered under the political system of Nazi rule.  The concentration camps hover as a warning for gentiles and Jews.  The atrocities committed against the Jews of Poland is beginning to be whispered about in dark places at the beginning of this story.  The unrelenting fear and threat of violence that people lived with under the Nazi regime is unimaginable and I think it’s perhaps impossible for someone who has grown up in a well established democracy to truly comprehend such an existence and the toll it takes on one's conscience. 


After a few months of mowing through books like a wood chipper, this one slowed me down.  Way down.  In a way that's appropriate to the novel's content.  Every Man Dies Alone is one of those novels that makes you think about the point of life, how to live a good life
a meaningful liferegardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, and also about the purpose and potential of literature.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on a true story of a Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hampel
(renamed Otto and Anna Quangel in the novel), who decide to fight the Nazis in their own way.  A large cast of characters join the Quangels and their stories all weave throughout the novel.  Everyone in Berlin—from the gambling addicted alcoholic to inspectors in the Gestapolives in fear of the absolute power of the Nazi State.

When trying to make a decision, people think and rethink and then second guess themselves about the best course of action to take because absolutely anything can have unintended life or death consequences.  You don’t want to do anything to cause suspicion because once the questions start coming so many other things that you have done could begin to look bad or easily be interpreted to look like you don't support the cause.  And if they start to question you they'll also pull in your family and anyone you unthinkingly mention during the exhaustion of interrogations that may go on for twelve hours or more and include physical torture.

So, there are no small decisions, there is no safety, there is only fear.  This is not an action-packed novel.  It is about the day in and day out struggle to stay alive or at least to stay out of trouble for one more day.  And trouble finds everyone in Nazi Berlin.  No one is safe, not even Gestapo officers.

As I read I imagined everything in this novel as shades of gray and the cover reinforces the color scheme.  People seem to be either a pale, tired, gray with dingy clothing or they are blisteringly white with crisp black clothing and shiny black boots.  And everyone seems exhausted and worn down except for the brutal sixteen year old Hitler
youth all star named Baldur Persickes who doesn't seem to understand that his star is already falling.  Most of those who are not of the dingy gray sort dim their minds with mass amounts of alcohol in an attempt to drown out their conscience.  Two doctors with easy access prefer morphine to numb out.

How did people survive without going insane?  And maybe going insane meant joining the party and participating with gusto or maybe it meant resisting blatantly and ending up quickly imprisoned and eventually dead.  Otto and Anna Quangel  lived for a while in a non-existent, denial inspired middle, it seems, until their only son is killed in the war.  It woke them up and reignited their consciences.  They chose to protest in a climate where the smallest hint of protest was suicide.  Insane?  You'll have to read the book for yourself to decide.

I was drawn to this book when it first came out in March of 2009.  Since then I've picked it up and looked at it dozens of times in the bookstore where I work knowing that the day would eventually arrive when I would be ready to read it.  I knew it would be an emotional commitment.  I was finally ready last month after my journey of going to massage therapy school was over and I received my license to practice.  Buying Every Man Dies Alone was a reward to myself.

I chose to read it in e-book format.  Had I bought the hard copy version there would have been much underlining, dog-earring, and sticky note-ing going on.  At least in the beginning.  Since the e-reader I own doesn't have a note function, I started out reading and jotting down some notes and ideas in my reading journal.  Eventually I stopped doing that, whether out of the depression of reading this war torn story or knowing I'll read the novel again in the future or maybe out of a need to just experience the novel and not trying to 'intellectualize' it.  I probably would have stopped underlining had I chosen to read the hard copy.  The first hardcover copy that I come across in a used bookstore is going home with me.  E-books serve their purpose, but there are some books I want around as real 'objects.' 

It took me about three weeks to read Every Man Dies Alone.  Each day of those three weeks I looked forward to my reading time, yet I also dreaded it.  It is a book filled with great pain and destruction, with little scraps of tenderness and hope scattered here and there.  It's one of those novels where I fluctuated between both liking and disliking most of the characters.  I don't think this reaction is unique to me or an accident on Fallada's part.  He wanted to portray what it was like to live under the Nazi regime.  Living under that sort of brutality and fear with such guilt and where everyone has something to hide . . . what else can you expect?  People need people, but when you can trust no one or accidentally cause the death of someone you know or love by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, what does that do to how you see your neighbors and fellow citizens?  Or yourself?  Every man may die alone, but they don't live alone.  Fallada's novel shows some of the best and much of the worst that people experienced in one of the most horrific chapters of the twentieth century.
Hans Fallada at work

Fallada wrote the novel in only 24 days and based some of it on the actual Gestapo file that was kept on the real Otto and Elise Hampel.  The US paperback and hardcover versions of the novel contain an appendix with facsimiles of Gestapo documents including the Hempel's mug shots.

Rudolf Ditzen is Fallada's real name.  Hans Fallada was a pen name combined from two German fairy tales.  You can read more about the author's life and other novels at his website here

Read the first chapter of Every Man Dies Alone here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Visit to Hemingway's House in Key West


Despite suffering through reading and discussing and writing about The Old Man and The Sea for what seemed like weeks and weeks in high school, I became a fan of Hemingway in my early 20s.

It was in my early 20s that I realized my Mom has decent taste in books.  I took an independent study course in German Literature and after reading everything on the syllabus asked my Mom for her recommendations.  She is, after all, from Germany.  She suggested Thomas Mann's The Buddenbrooks, which I loved.

At the end of the semester I asked her to recommend more writers, from any nationality.  When she said "Hemingway," I inwardly groaned and outwardly asked which novel I should start with.  She thought about it for a few seconds and said A Farewell To Arms.

So off to the library I went.  I really enjoyed A Farewell to Arms and on the next trip to the library checked out For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I liked almost as much.  I thought about calling my high school English teacher and asking him why he didn't choose A Farewell to Arms for us to read.  It seems like it would have been of more interest to 14-year-olds than The Old Man and the Sea. (Note: I plan to re-read the book one of these years because I think I might enjoy it more now as a more "mature" reader.)

My appreciation for Hemingway survived college and graduate school even though a few professors along the way took pot shots at Hemingway as a person, at his subject matter, and at his style.  I was one of those innocents who became an English major because I loved reading and writing.  I assumed that my professors loved books and appreciated a diversity of subject matter, style, etc.  I had a lot to learn.

The first shot at Hemingway came during my first literary theory seminar as an undergraduate.  The class was team-taught by a professor from the English Department and a professor from the Modern Languages Department.  I don't remember what theorist we were discussing, but one of my classmates enthusiastically made a comparison to Hemingway (who she obviously adored) and the professor from Modern Languages sneered--yes, he actually sneered--as he replied, "Phft!  Hemingway.  See spot run."

We all sat there rather stunned for a bit, not making eye contact, while the Modern Language professor smirked.  After a few beats the professor from the English Department started talking about something else.  At then end of class some of us comforted our wounded classmate with assurances that we, too, loved--or at least respected--Hemingway.

That seminar was my introduction to the politics of literary theory, English department politics, and inter-departmental rivalry.  I look back on that seminar as a battle of egos between the two professors.  By the time I finished my graduate school years, my love of reading was almost sucked out of me.  Becoming a bookseller renewed my book-loving soul, but that's a topic for another post.

Let me just add that during our junior year my fellow English-major-roommate and I thumbed our noses at that professor by volunteering at the Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park, IL.  I also enthusiastically taught The Sun Also Rises during my own tenure as a college English instructor.

The point of today's post is to share some pictures from my visit to Hemingway's house in Key West last summer.  I was cleaning up my hard drive recently and thought it would be a fun to share some of them with you.  I am not a Hemingway fanatic (although I probably could be if I let myself go) but it was a thrill to finally visit his house.  While the rest of the family went shopping on the strip, I had a few hours to mosey around Hemingway's house and property. 

I hope you enjoy these images!

907 Whitehead Street, Key West, the house where Hemingway lived from 1931-1938 and owned until his death in 1961.
Hemingway's front door.

Cats are free to roam and lounge anywhere they please here. Hemingway loved cats and you can read an article about the cats who live at the house here.

The funky Hemingway cat toes!  Technical term: polydactyl.

The master of the lard on the master bed.  This fellow did not like to be petted and finally had to gently scratch a little girl who was annoying him to get her off his back.  Even her parents were annoyed with her.  Call it an interactive tour.  I think his name is Archibald MacLeisch.

Cats really are everywhere at Hemingway's.  The gray cat in the hallway is laying at the top of the main staircase.  Across the hall from the bedroom is the bathroom.  
Looking into the house from the back window.  The gray cat is laying below, just out of view.  On the right side wall are bookshelves covered with Plexiglas. For an interesting look at Hemingway's reading life click here for a 441 page PDF that you can download.
Kathleen Norris's Maiden Voyage was faced out on the one of the bookshelves.

Looking toward the lighthouse from the second floor.  The master bedroom is to the right.

Back of the house on the second floor.  Open door to the left leads into the master bedroom.

Stairway leading into the back yard.

Hemingway's writing space is on the second floor of the carriage house which is directly behind the main house. Note the two sets of stairs leading to the studio door.  Hemingway had a cat walk installed that lead from the second floor balcony near his bedroom door directly to his studio door.  I can picture him walking across the cat walk with his morning cup of coffee, ready for a morning of writing.  The cat walk was eventually taken down due to damage but I think that happened after he moved out of the house. The first floor of this building houses the bookstore/gift shop complete with a pressed penny machine!  We collect pressed pennies during our travels, and scoring a literary pressed penny was a double treat.
Standing at the top of the staircase, looking into the studio.

This iron decorative "cage" juts into the room a bit so you can get the full view of his writer's retreat.

View from the cage of the left hand side of the room.

View from the cage straight ahead.

Close up of Hemingway's Royal typewriter.  This is how writers suffered prior to ergonomically designed chairs, desks, and keyboards.
View from the cage of the right hand side of the room.
Self portrait reflected in a mirror.

A small bathroom is to the right and a bit around the corner.
Heading out of the studio you have two directional options.  To the left is the pool and gardens.  To the right is more gardens and an area for weddings and events.
Here's the pool.  Hemingway's wife Pauline had it installed while he was off traveling and he wasn't very happy with the price tag for it when he got home.  Rumor has it that he yelled at her for spending his last penny at which time he took a penny out of his pocket and pressed it into the wet concrete.

Kitty prints in the cement.

A replica of Hemingway's house that houses...cat litter boxes.

A path through the gardens.

It was over 90 degrees F and humid as all get out and this little white cat wanted to cuddle with me.  She finally settled for the other side of the bench while I sat and looked through the treasures I'd just purchased in the bookstore/gift shop.

Toe thumb.  Reminds me of a dancer standing with her foot turned out.

Little huts are scattered around the property to provide shelter for the cat's dining pleasure.
This fountain/water bowl is at the front of the house.  

Check out more pictures and read about Hemingway's house at the house's official website here. I didn't take very many pictures because I wanted to experience being in the house rather than documenting it.  It is a beautiful place and visitors are free to roam about at their own pace or take a tour with a guide.  I did a little bit of both.
--The End--


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"love a lot, laugh a lot, don't ban books"

The title of this post is taken from an essay by Lauren Myracle, author of ttyl and Luv Ya Bunches, two young adult novels that are frequently challenged due to their content (gay marriage, teenage lesbians, tampons, etc).  They're #1 on the American Library Association's most challenged book list for 2009.  In the essay, which you can read here, Myracle talks about intellectual freedom at its most basic and personal level: living authentically.

Last week was Banned Books Week in the U.S.  The freedom to read is celebrated every year during the last week of September.  In Canada they celebrate Freedom to Read week in February.  The purpose of these events is to celebrate the freedom to read and to shed light on the fact that attempts at censorship do exist and that we must be vigilant against such efforts to restrict our freedom and control our knowledge when others try to limit or prevent access to ideas and facts, as well as to the experiences of others.  I strongly believe that democracy cannot flourish when ideas and information are censored.

These days I am particularly concerned about attempts to censor books that contain positive depictions of gay or lesbian characters.  It has long been known that gay teens commit suicide at a rate higher than straight teens, but last month's epidemic of gay teen suicides in the news has been extraordinarily shocking and heart breaking.

Teens--indeed, all of us--need access to books about the issues that they're currently dealing with and that includes issues of sexuality as well as rape, drug/alcohol abuse, and violence.  Censoring books that honestly explore what its like when you're questioning your sexuality or dealing with drug addiction or the after-affects of rape are important to help teens sort out and understand their own experiences or those of their friends.  At least they'll know they're not alone. 

I remember hiding a copy of Rita Mae Brown's Sudden Death in my desk as an 18 year old in the Marines in 1984.  It was the first lesbian novel that I read and I could only read it when my roommates weren't around.  A girl who lived in my barracks loaned it to me after being brave enough to come out to me.  Had the book been found, there's a strong chance I'd have been discharged from the Marines.  A "witch hunt" may have ensued.  (Witch hunts are what we called the investigations that were conducted by the Naval Investigative Service to weed out gays and lesbians.)  My friend certainly took a huge risk in coming out to me.  This was before Clinton's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, which was considered enlightened at the time.

Did the book change my life?  No, but it was really cool to read a book with lesbian characters at a time in my life when I was in the closet to practically the entire world.  And, more importantly, I made a friend over that book and we ended up joining the battalion softball team together where I made even more friends who loved and supported me.  So maybe it did change my life after all.

The American Library Association's website (click here) explains the ins-and-outs of banning, challenging, and who does it most often and why, but here's some quick terminology:
  • Banned Books: are those books that have actually been removed from a school or library's holdings in an attempt to ensure that no one, regardless of age appropriateness, may read them. 
  • Challenged Books: when a person or group of people attempt to have a book removed from a library or school.
Challenging a book or banning a book is not simply voicing one's opinion, it is an attempt to make a book unavailable to others.  It is often a knee-jerk response to something someone doesn't understand, agree with, or fears.

I completely support intellectual freedom and freedom of speech and have wondered on occasion where the line should be drawn between hate speech or "harmful" speech and freedom of speech.  I always end up thinking that drawing lines is tricky and what's to stop a lines from inching up or down or sideways over ideas that I cherish?  So no lines or boxes around speech for me.

For this year's Banned Books Week I started reading Every Man Dies Alone (1947) by Hans Fallada, a novel based on a true story about a couple who tries in their small way to sabotage the Nazi propaganda machine in Hitler's Germany.  You can read the first chapter here.  I'm a little more than half way into it and it is an excellent read so far, full of details about how people tried to survive in Nazi Germany, be they non-political, party members, or Jews. 

This fall I plan on reading two young adult novels that recently have been attacked by those who wish their content didn't exist or at least wasn't available to the teens: Ellen Hopkins's Crank and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.

Ellen Hopkins was in the news this summer because she was "uninvited" to a young adult literary festival in Texas after a librarian riled up some parents about her books who in turn complained to the superintendent who told the festival organizers to uninvite Hopkins.  You can read an article from the School Library Journal here.  Dozens of book blogs had posts about the controversy in August.  Hopkins's fellow writers pulled out and the festival has been canceled (for now, anyway).

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has often been challenged and was in the news again a couple weeks ago after an associate professor of management at a university in Missouri called the book filthy and immoral and referred to it as "soft porn" in an op ed piece for his local newspaper.  His editorial caused a stir in freedom loving circles and some have been taken aback by his referring to rape scenes as "soft porn."  If you'd like to read about it here's an article and Q&A with the author to get you started.

I'll write a post on each book after I finish them.

Here's a list of the top ten most challenged books in 2009 as reported by the American Library Association:
1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
2. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality
3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group
4. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
6. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
7. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
Reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
9. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
10. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Reasons: nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

I've added the The Chocolate War to my reading list, too.  It was first published in 1974 and several customers and employees at the bookstore where I work have said it's one of their favorite books from their earlier reading years.
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