Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Thanksgiving Visitor

Every Thanksgiving (including, soon, today) I make it a point to re-read "The Thanksgiving Visitor" by Truman Capote.  This is a short story that is essentially a memoir of an event from his childhood as he grew up in Alabama in the household of some older unmarried relations.  I have a copy of this story in a volume with his other more-famous memoir/short story, "A Christmas Memory."  (This volume, which is also in a beautiful slipcover, is one of my most treasured possessions.  If my house were burning down, I would have to fight not to go back in and get it.)  If you are not familiar with this story, then drop EVERYTHING you are doing right now and go find a copy and READ!  Seriously, it is not long and can be easily read in a pleasurable break from the hubbub of Thanksgiving Day.

In the story, the narrator Buddy has his worst nightmare come true when his friend and relative Miss Sook invites the school bully, Odd Henderson, to the Thanksgiving meal.  This simple act casts a pall over what was supposed to be a magical and wonderful day for Buddy.  This story is not moralistic by any means, but it teaches a great lesson about kindness that I think is what draws me back to it every year.  It's a lesson we all need.

Wishing you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Rogue's Life -- The Wilkie Collins Blog Tour

A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins

Pages: 156
Rating: 5 out of 5
First sentence: "I am going to try if I can't write something about myself."

Today I'm happy to welcome Wilkie Collins to my blog as part of the Wilkie Collins Blog Tour, the brainchild of Rebecca and her friends over at The Classics Circuit.  Check this page for the rest of the stops on the tour, as well as stops previous to this one.

When I signed up for a spot on the tour, I did so with not a little fear and trembling.  For one thing, although I had heard of Wilkie Collins and his more famous novels such as The Moonstone, I had never gotten around to actually reading any of his work.  Part of it was an inability to believe that his writings could possibly be as good as the conventional wisdom thought they were -- this, despite the fact that his work has survived for the past 150 years or more.

So I signed up for the blog tour as a way of literally forcing myself to read some Collins.  But then, which work should I choose?  I picked A Rogue's Life not for its synopsis or characters, but for the most mundane reason of all:  it is a short book.  I figured that, if I just absolutely hated the book, it would be a limited torture.  I am happy to report that that was not the case.  Reading A Rogue's Life was a delightful experience and it whetted my appetite for more Collins.

A Rogue's Life was first published in installments in the weekly periodical Household Words in 1856.  As might be anticipated from the opening sentence above, the novel is in the form of an autobiography of Frank Softly, the "rogue" of the title.

Frank is born into a well-connected family, but one that cannot give him much of a start in life as far as money is concerned.  So his early adult life is a tale of bouncing from one profession to another, and failing or getting bored with all of them.  He eventually ends up in debtor's prison.

It is here that Collins introduces the 19th-century equivalent of a running gag into the story.  Frank's brother-in-law, a Mr. Batterbury, comes to visit him in prison to bring him word that Frank's grandmother, Lady Malkinshaw, has left an inheritance in her will to Frank's sister Annabella.  There's one catch: Frank must outlive Lady Malkinshaw, or Annabella (along with her slightly odious husband) gets nothing.  So the Batterburys suddenly take a sporadic but intense interest in Frank's welfare, bailing him out of prison and in general serving as a kind of humorous "deus ex machina" whenever Frank gets into a financial scrape, which is frequently.

Upon getting out of prison, Frank takes up with a forgery ring that specializes in forgeries of old masters such as Rembrandt.  It's at the offices of the leader of this ring that he first sets eyes on the love of his life, a beautiful but mysterious young woman who remains a mystery, since he has no way of finding out her name or where she lives.  The forgery ring soon falls apart, and Mr.Batterbury steps in again to save Frank from ruin by arranging his employment as secretary to a Literary and Scientific Institute.  (Part of the humor of the Mr.Batterbury gag is that he shows up only when Lady Malkinshaw's health has taken an unexpected and undesirable turn for the better, or has had some catastrophe happen to her and has survived it better than anyone would have thought.)

Frank's efforts to sell tickets to a ball being sponsored by the Institute put him in the path of the young woman again, and he finally learns her name -- Alicia Dulcifer .  This encounter begins the central and most exciting part of the novel.  Alicia's father appears to be a scientist and former physician, but Frank learns that he is looked upon by the community with fear and distrust, with the result that Dr. Dulcifer and his daughter are essentially pariahs.  Frank is told by an associate that Dr. Dulcifer is hiding something in his country home, and Frank eventually discovers what it is: Dr. Dulcifer runs a complex counterfeiting operation out of his home, where he and three other men turn out near-perfect copies of gold coins.

It's in this section of the novel that Collins shows his mastery of the art of storytelling.  What had been a pleasant, albeit antiquated, story in the early part of the novel suddenly turns into a page-turning thriller worthy of a James Patterson or a John Grisham .  (OK, I suppose I am exaggerating just the tiniest bit.  But I found the page-turning part to be absolutely true.)  At the risk of spoiling any more of the story than I already have, I'll say no more about the plot.  But the story does have a completely unexpected but entirely satisfying happy ending.

One thing in general that pleasantly surprised me about Wilkie Collins (besides his prodigious storytelling skills) was his deft use of humor.  This novel is not actually a comedy, but still Collins slyly injects humorous episodes and even just funny turns of phrase into the story.  The scenes concerning Lady Malkinshaw's escapes from death are genuinely funny, and they definitely increase the reader's enjoyment in what might otherwise be a slightly darker book.

Collins also does a wonderful job with the main courtship scene between Frank and Alicia in the book.  Suffice it to say that he takes a scene that has the potential to devolve into something quite maudlin and turns it into an utterly charming episode.

All in all (in case you couldn't tell), I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone, whether they are a Wilkie Collins fan or not.  If you enjoy a well-told tale, you will enjoy this book, and who knows -- it might turn you into a brand-new Collins fan, like me.  Thanks, Wilkie!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14 -- Book Review

Pages: 590 (although I didn't read the whole thing)
Stars: 4 out of 5

I picked this book up from the library a few weeks ago, in hopes that it would be the perfect companion for some dark October nights.  In general, I would say it fulfilled that need.  Edited by Stephen Jones, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (Volume 14) has a variety of short-story (and not-so-short-story) offerings that are somewhat uneven in their appeal.  Some were not appealing to me at all, and I suppose that is the inevitable result of every anthology -- the editor is doomed to give everyone something to hate.

I am not familiar with this series, but in addition to being a yearly anthology of the best horror stories, it is evidently also a review of the Year in Horror, as it were.  A large portion of the book is devoted to two sections: "Horror in 2002," a review of publishing activity in the horror genre; and "Necrology: 2002," a listing of people in the field who passed away during 2002.  I didn't read either one of these.  I think only the most die-hard horror fan would.

I read about 75% of the stories in this volume, and liked about half of them.  Here's a list of my favorites, with an extremely brief analysis/synopsis of each one:
1. "October in the Chair" by Neil Gaiman: At the monthly meeting of the months of the year, October tells a dark tale of a runaway who decides to permanently join his newfound playmate from the graveyard.
2. "The Wretched Thicket of Thorn" by Don Tumasonis: A short pleasant day trip by boat to a forbidden island soon turns dark and bloody.
3. "The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe'en Horror Nights" by David Schow: My absolute favorite kind of story -- a fun-filled romp with pretend monsters terrorizing a theme park on Halloween night.  Except that most of the monsters turn out to be real.  A healthy dose of obnoxious people getting what's coming to them, too.
4. "Little Dead Girl Singing" by Stephen Gallagher: A well-written story with great atmosphere and perfect foreshadowing.  A tale of a little girl singing in a dress that looks like funeral home curtains, and a mother who has a strange power over her.
5. "Nesting Instincts" by Brian Hodge: One of the most perfect (and creepiest) stories I've read in a long time.  A real page turner about a young boy whose mother goes through a surprising transformation at the hands of her live-in boyfriend.  This story actually had my heart racing as I approached its climax.
6. "Hides" by Jay Russell: Robert Louis Stevenson is a prominent character in this story set in the old West. A group of stagecoach passengers (including Stevenson) find themselves stranded in a lonesome, out-of-the way rest stop with visions of the Donner Party dancing in their heads.
7. 20th Century Ghost" by Joe Hill: A captivating story about the ghost of a young girl who proves to be the salvation of an aging moviehouse and its owner.  A perfect plot.
8. "Egyptian Avenue" by Kim Newman: A slow, strange start to this story about evil that persists throughout the decades, and about tombs that come in all shapes and sizes.
9. "The Boy Behind the Gate" by James Van Pelt: Excellent story about a father whose son is missing and a father from a different time who gradually realizes his son is a monster.  These two families are inextricably and inexplicably linked in time and space by an old mine, with disastrous results.

Overall this was an entertaining collection for this time of year, but I find that short story collections are relatively hard for me to read.  I finish one story and then am reluctant to go on to the next.  If the story I just finished was a good, satisfying read, I want to savor it, and not spoil the atmosphere of the story with another totally unrelated plot and set of characters.  I guess this is a kind of reader's OCD.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dewey's Read-a-Thon is Coming!

The date for Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-Thon is rapidly approaching: it begins October 24, 2009 at 7 AM Central Daylight Time (1 PM GMT).  Information about the rules, details, etc. can be found here.  I am going to do my part by helping to publicize it, but that's about all I will be doing, unfortunately.  I will be deep in the throes of a Haunted House fundraiser for my daughter's showchoir that weekend, so I will be both too busy and too exhausted to train my eyes on a book for any length of time.  I am a little disappointed, because the Read-a-Thon sounds like great fun, and I would love the challenge as well.  But I guess I will just have to look forward to the next one in April!

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Knew It Was Too Good To Be True

The title of this post refers to the fact that tonight I ran across another books and reading blog called "Time Enough At Last."  Shoot!  I suppose it was inevitable, given the significance of the title.  But the good news is, that other blog went defunct in March 2006, so it's high time the title was used again!  Onward and upward!

Speaking of onward, I simply cannot wait to use this picture:

Probably some of you are familiar with this image, which is from the famous WPA posters collection from the late 1930's and early 1940's.  A good many of them have to do with reading, and I love them all, but especially this one.  To me, it perfectly captures the feeling you get as the weather turns a little colder (and here in South Mississippi, the occurrence of cooler weather in October is a cause for general rejoicing) and you want nothing more than to be left alone with a good book, spooky or otherwise.

I like this one for September too, but it's too late to use it (sigh):

What kinds of things do you associate with Autumn and reading?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Salon

OK, guys, I am adding to my list of firsts as a budding book blogger (say that ten times fast -- and you'll sound really silly) and participating in my first Sunday Salon.

The Sunday

For the uninitiated, Sunday Salon is a virtual reading room where bloggers talk about what they are reading (click the badge above to go to the Sunday Salon home page and read more about it).

I have been reading two books, and I am not reviewing either one of them yet because I am not finished with them.  But they are both ones that I plan to keep on reading, although one is harder going than the other.

First up is a book I got from the library, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14.  It's a collection of horror short stories from various authors.  So far they have been a mixed bag, as you invariably get in a collection of this sort, but the best has been a story that is now something of a classic, as far as I can tell -- "October in the Chair" by Neil Gaiman.  It's a story about the months of the year sitting around a campfire, telling stories at a monthly meeting they have, and as the story opens, they are getting ready to hear October's story, which (of course) is a spooky little tale about a boy whom we know only as "the Runt" who runs away from home and meets up with a new friend named Dearly outside a graveyard.  It's a memorable story although it's very short.  I have never read any of Gaiman's longer works, but I know he is extremely popular.  This story makes me want to read some of his other stuff.  (If you have any suggestions, I'd welcome them in the comments.)

Another story I enjoyed from this collection was "The Wretched Thicket of Thorn" by Don Tumasonis.  It was a slow starter, but I enjoyed the way the author began with a sense of dread and kept it as a subtle undercurrent throughout the story, all the way to its unfortunate (for the characters) conclusion.  Suffice it to say, this story is a variation on the basic horror story theme: Don't open that door -- they open that door -- they pay for opening the door.  It's a story that definitely calls for a rereading, to catch the small touches and details that I probably missed the first time through.

The other book I am in the midst of is Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way by Philip Orbanes.   It's a history of Monopoly from its beginnings as a homegrown game from 1904 called the Landlord's Game.  The book is a whole lot drier than I thought it would be, but one very interesting thing about the book is the way the author weaves the social and political history of the time into the story of the development of Monopoly as a game (through its many incarnations, which were surprisingly many).  Guess what?  The political and financial climate of that time (the early 1900's) mirrors ours so closely as to be positively uncanny.  So that makes this a timely read as well.  Another interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of game history and development, told from the viewpoint of an insider -- the author served as a Vice President of Research and Development at Parker Brothers and also has judged many Monopoly tournaments.  All in all, although it is not exactly what I expected, I am eager to get further into the book at this point.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Fall Into Reading" Challenge 2009: My List

My main goal for this challenge (hosted by Katrina at Callapidder Days) is to read some books that I have been interested in reading for a very long time. A secondary goal is to read books from my personal library (since a book that sits on a shelf and is never touched, let alone read, is worse than worthless, in my opinion). One or two of these books have been on my shelves for literally decades, so it’s high time they were read (since I can’t seem to get rid of them).

I decided to pick a single book from each of the following categories:

Non-fiction, Science: Adam’s Curse: A Future Without Men by Bryan Sykes (This one is actually not from my personal library. It suddenly popped into my head today as I was thinking about what I might want to put on my list, so I hunted it down and checked it out from the university library. I started it a year or so ago, and never finished it for some reason, so my goal with this one is simply to finish it.)
Non-fiction, History: Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy
Non-fiction, General: Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way by Philip Orbanes
Fiction, Short Stories: The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot
Fiction, Mystery: Real Murders by Charlaine Harris
Fiction, Horror: Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
Fiction, Humor: Snobs by Julian Fellowes
Fiction, Fantasy/SciFi: Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Fiction, Classic: A Death in the Family by James Agee

Optional goals: As I finish each book, I want to write some sort of review or thoughts about the book. They will probably not be very long reviews, but I think it will be good practice for me to do that.

Looking back over this, it strikes me that I have ended up with a very long list. I am not a fast reader when I am reading for pleasure, and I don't have a lot of reading time some days, as we have already established. But I like the organization of it. And there’s only 9 books on the list, and I have 3 months, right?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Library Loot -- September 19, 2009

So I am very new at this, of course, but I did go to the library today, so I have to do my first Library Loot! (In going to the library, I ignored the fact that I already have a TBR pile that would stretch to the moon and back.)

This book, Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., caught my eye and I had to pick it up. I am not familiar with this author (and Amazon says he has written just one other book), but the interior of this book sold me. It is formatted in an interesting and somewhat bizarre way, which I am sure is part of its unconventional storyline. I feel like I have been in a reading rut for quite some time, so I think this book will break me out of that.

This looked intriguing: You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by Christopher Potter. Very sciencey non-fiction, but as I leafed through it, many of the pages I alighted on had a rather "gee-whiz" flavor to them, and I am sucker for that kind of science book.

In honor of the upcoming spooky season, I had to check this out: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume Fourteen, edited by Stephen Jones. It's full of short stories, which are always seductive to me -- "Look, I can just read one or two and not have to finish the whole book! Of COURSE I'll add it to the pile!"

A very small list, I know -- but I just can't let myself bring a lot of books home from the library when there are SO MANY to be read in my personal library. I think I should make a definite reading list for the rest of this year. I don't feel up to doing challenges yet like so many other book bloggers do, but I'll get there!


This is a quick post to introduce myself and my blog. Having been inspired by the many excellent book blogs out there, and feeling the strong desire to blog about something interesting, I am starting this blog. If you are an avid reader and a Twilight Zone fan, you have already recognized the reference to the episode that shares the same title as this blog. (I really hope there are no copyright issues involved there -- I don't think one can copyright a title, however.) Here is a link to part 1 of the episode on YouTube, if you want to see it. In fact, I think I may have to watch it again soon!

Currently reading (almost finished): The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs