A Year of Unknown Books: Flickering Empire (How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry)

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film IndustryFlickering Empire
by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer
Book #12, reading during October, 2015
Final Book

This is the last book of my year-long project where I read books that other people recommend to me, and this is the perfect title with which to finish strong.  Not only is it about Chicago history, aka my amazing homeland, but is also the first book written by my spouse, Michael Smith.  Published in early 2015, I could either be an awful wife having waited this long to read it, or you could say that I saved the best for last.  Either way, the back cover has been closed, and luckily for me, the dedication to me is typed within a book (yep, that’s right) that I can honestly say was wonderful.

Admittedly, I’m not a big film history buff.  I love specific genres of film, but I’m not studying their origins, so I was a little nervous that the information would be over my head.  In all actuality, some of it was, but mainly the names of the early iterations of film equipment, but those are sparse and you can just glaze over them if you wish (because I obviously did).  The appeal for me as a film ignoramus was all of the firsts.  So much of what this book includes are facts about how things common today first came to be in the early 20th century, and in Chicago.  Because there are too many to describe, here’s list of some of my favorites:

-How seemingly disparate histories intersect, i.e. how Colonel Selig (a studio head) was financially aided in court to fight back against Thomas Edison by the meatpacking company who received bad publicity because of Upton Sinclair’s serial turned novel, The Jungle.

-That absolutely nothing has changed since 1912 regarding the intimate relationship between corruption and Chicago government and police.

-The description of early Chicago has honestly been the only one that I’ve read thus far to make me want to read about historic Chicago.  Charles Dickens, when he visited Chicago is said to have been “shook [so badly by the experience] that some commentators feel that he never really recovered his former optimism” after seeing it as a “dirty, grimy land full of thieves, con artists, and people who lived in poverty and misery…”  I don’t know, it kind of fills me with pride.  Don’t mess with Texas Chicago.

-The progression from still photos to what we view today is astounding, and once moving pictures became so, it seems unjust that so many of the early films have been lost.  It’s also unbelievable that some are merely hiding out, only to be discovered one hundred years later in an entirely different country, such as the new found Chicago-made Sherlock Holmes, unearthed in France in 2014.

-The definition of the word nickelodeon came from nickle theaters in Chicago.

-The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in Chicago, and with his famous hat, which was a creation of the filmmaker, not the actual story.

-Chicago filmed the first film adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

-One of the disturbing realities of film history is that animals were indeed killed in the making of early Chicago film.

-Thomas Edison was actually a huge asshole (who knew?!) who appropriated the ideas of others while taking the credit on a historical scale.  As they say, history is written by the winners.

-Orson Welles studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

-And lastly, the gripping description of one of the first African American filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Who knew that Chicago was essentially the birthplace of film?  Not I, but Flickering Empire does a bang up job of setting the scene for early film history in Chicago, and doing it in a way that is anything but textbook.  The authors set the scene for a fledgling time and place where film and city are akin in their voracity to exist and grow.  I couldn’t have planned (and I planned for nothing, as all the books were recommended) for a better title to cap my Year of Unknown Books project.

A Year of Unknown Books: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Wolf in White Van WolfinWhiteVan
by John Darnielle
Book #11, reading during September, 2015

When Wolf in White Van first came out, my cousin Ethan recommended it to me as he is an avid music fan and WiWV was written by John Darnielle of the band The Mountain Goats.  I believe that I resisted it for so long because the face value description describes the story of a game creator, but like so many books, what the publishers choose to put on the jacket fails to capture the depth of the novel as a whole.

When asked to describe the book to my spouse, it reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and the film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke.  Especially as a librarian, you have about 15 seconds to encapsulate the essence of a novel before losing their attention.  At the outset you can only think to say that Station Eleven is a about a post-apocalyptic world and then watch the interest immediately fade.  It is however, not about the apocalypse but so, so much more.  Re: The Wrestler, one of my favorite films of all time, I cannot even guess how many times people have said, “I don’t like wrestling,” to which I immediately reply, “it’s not about wrestling!”  This book is of the like.  I could say, it’s about a role playing game creator who shot his face off, but it’s not about that.  Like the above two, WiWV is about the descriptions, the writing style, and the feeling that it leaves you with days after you’ve finished.

WiWV took a little bit of time to get into; I didn’t know where it was going, and it took me a while to become accustomed to the internal monologue style of the most of the novel.  In a nutshell, the book starts with current day, and the narrator, Sean, who is left with a mangled face from an interaction with a gun, recalls the steps leading to the beginning of the book.  This non-linear style is subtle, and for me the real charm of the book is in the small details, Sean’s observations about his life.  Author Darnielle also gives us just enough suspense in small droplets so that you’re curious enough to turn the page, but not so that your stomach is left in anxious knots.

This book is technically an “adult” book, but I can see why a lot of people (the American Library Association to name one organization) would recommend it for teens as well, though I’d say probably for more of an advanced reader.  Teen gods may strike me dead, but I am a teen librarian and don’t love teen literature as an adult reader.  I think it has its place for teens, but as an adult, I’m past it, so I appreciated that Darnielle writes about high school in way that isn’t clunky and melodramatic, but links me to the characters by recollections of my own teenage years.  Sean’s recollections of his high school years are carbon copies to many of ours: depression, smoking, the need to fold in on oneself, especially in the presence of parents, music as release and discovery, and the sometimes realization that organized religion and those in positions of authority are flawed.

Halfway through the novel, I had no idea where the book was taking me but it builds from Sean having a seemingly “normal” life to his eventual incident with the gun, sprinkled with his life as a disfigured being, leaning in and out of his alternate universe game, the Trace Italian.  I pondered if we were going to be given a final ah-ha! detailing what happened: did the gun go off accidentally, or was it a suicide attempt?  Or was Darnielle going to do that very hip and often aggravating thing where we are given nothing, forcing the reader to utilize their own glass half empty/half full proclivities.  Luckily for me, who thought that Mickey Rourke lived at the end of the film and drove off into the sunset with Marisa Tomei, it was somewhere in the middle.

Without the recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have read Wolf in White Van solely based on its description, but in the end, wound up really appreciating it for being exactly the opposite of what it seemed to be.  I’ll also add that I oscillated between reading the novel and listening to the audio, read by author Darnielle himself, and it was fantastic.  Darnielle expresses such vulnerability and honesty from the point of view of the main character that you feel like the Sean is speaking directly to you.  Thanks, Ethan.  It was a great recommendation.

A Year of Unknown Books: Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Let Me Be Frank With You (a Frank Bascombe Book)Richard Ford
by Richard Ford
Book #10, reading during August, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You (a double entendre concerning the narrator and the expression of his truths) was recommended by a male library patron, most likely double my age, and wonderfully reflects the spirit of this year-long project.  He recommended an unknown book by an unknown (to me) author that in the end, I ended up loving and in no way would have ever picked myself.

The narrator of the four short story compilation is Frank Bascombe, a 60-something upper class New Jersey Democrat who’s trying reconcile the aging process that has forced itself upon him, his friends and family.  This subtly written collection, said to be in the style of William Faulkner and John Updike, is comprised of his observations and interpretation of tangible events in his life, though they are secondary to his internal monologue. He lives in a post-Katrina world where Jersey inhabitants are surveying and calculating their losses, both materially and sacredly.  Throughout the four stories, Frank describes a concrete situation that he’s encountered, and spends the bulk of each story mulling over its meaning in his life, including but not limited to his ex-wife’s illness, the shortcomings of children, friendship and the experience of an aging man.  He untangles these issues with a dry humor that reminded me of my grandfather’s crass and wizened wit, which left me with a heavy and mournful heart.  On the other side of that coin, reading Frank talk about sex and his erection left me with an extreme embarrassment reserved only for granddaughters who deeply wish to believe that their grandfathers are eunuchs.

Being a middle-class woman in her low 30s, this book was like a glimpse into another world, perhaps one that reflects the goings on of the affluent community in which I am employed, especially when compared to the mixed race and economically diverse urban neighborhood in which I’ve lived for the past decade.  The author, by way of the narrator, manages to simultaneously write about a specific type of man’s experience, with fingers that stretch out to tap into what most humans must undergo throughout their lifetime: his long gone career in real estate, the stock market, his second marriage, dying friends, memory, his aging body, and the actualization that the children you’ve created have morphed into beings other than that idealized image that you may have had before their birth, et al. Having not even purchased my first home, living on the salary of a teacher and librarian, and currently inhabiting a face sans wrinkles, Frank’s world is somewhat foreign to me, but led me to a deeper understanding of not only the mind of an old bastard (I mean that in the best way possible), but the collective mentality of a geographic region and and how a masculine gender formed decades ago translates into 2015.

Roald Dahl once said, “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who live exciting lives.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that we all live in bubbles of our own making; we often associate with people of like social classes, sexualities, politics and religions. There was enough in this book to create a sense of kinship based on such issues of race and liberal leanings, but it also propelled me into an unknown age, gender and social class (to which I would only be so lucky to aspire).  Despite what connected me to Frank, or what made me wonder at the otherness of him, what I kept pondering days after the closing of the book was the universal humanness.  When we’re stripped to our bare selves, whether it be through natural disaster, aging, loss of health and relationships, Ford shows us that our pain, laughter and hopefully the wisdom to let go bind us all.

A Year of Unknown Books: Tales of the City Series by Armistead Maupin

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Tales of the City & Michael Tolliver Lives Michael Tolliver Lives Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin
Books #8 & #9, read during June and July, 2015

When I found out that I would be traveling to San Francisco for the 2015 American Library Association Conference, I naturally referred to my librarian coworkers to recommend books that take place within the city limits.  When I travel, I love to read fiction for a particular locale because beforehand, it warms you up to the culture and when you return, it helps to bubble all of those sense memories to the surface again.  One of my most well-read and hippest coworkers recommended Tales of the City (TOC) by Armistead Maupin.  For her, it had special meaning because she traveled to Frisco* during the 1970s, coincidentally when the first of the series takes place.  Flash forward to 2015, two copies of the book on the shelf (not just one), which is indicative of its steadfast popularity.

The experience of reading TOC was an interesting one because of its unexpected results (the best kind!).  As I began reading, I was slightly put off by the very 1970s language, almost to the point where I wondered if the vernacular of the era and locale was written in jest.  You know, a lot of far outs, dudes, doobies, don’t you come here oftens? and of the like.  In the end, the language came to enhance the experience of the novel; if you weren’t alive during the 1970s, you’ve been given the gift of a genuine cultural artifact, and if you were alive during the 1970s, then here’s your passport back in time.  The content of the book details the interwoven lives of a variety characters who all live, love and smoke together in an apartment on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the protective wing of landlady Anna Madrigal.  Like many of the TOC characters, Anna has a beautiful soul, is whip smart, wise (and can I be her when I grow up?) and possesses the ability to corral a family together for herself, or as she puts it, her “logical family.”  As the novel came to a close, I realized that my skepticism turned into a love affair and I felt such sadness as I closed the book.  Maupin artfully describes the personalities, pasts and current dramas of each character but does so with an amazingly skillful hand that the stories are finely handed to us in the most believable of ways, as if you’re sitting in a friend’s living room having a conversation over cocktails.

Since writing TOC, Maupin has written a plethora of other novels about the specific lives of some of the Barbary Lane characters and luckily, my new addiction was satiated by Michael Tolliver Lives (MTL).  As MTL takes place in current day (late 2000s), we fast forward from when we met him nearly three decades ago.  In TOC, he was a sensitive, fun, sweet guy and in the years has only become the wonderful, concentrated version of himself.  I don’t know if MTL is based on Maupin’s real life, but I truly hope it is because Michael’s life: his partner, his job, his friendships, and his character (his essence) are perfection in their purity, because Michael is a gentle, pure soul.  And can I also say that I really enjoyed the relationship, including the sexual life of Michael and his partner?  They are in touch and honest about their needs and express them openly with each other, and I loved Michael’s accepting yet insecure inner monologues regarding his partner’s consensual extramarital relations.  Maupin shines a light on the universal truth of long-term relationships; self-doubt always rears its ugly head, no matter how long you’ve been together.  It was also refreshing to read about a healthy sex life from a gay male’s point of view because on a personal level, I feel that I am constantly inundated with a white hetero male’s point of view of sex, which is fairly homogenous.

In MTL, Maupin also catches us up on the lives of our other beloved characters and in true Maupin style, he threads in details of their lives because he knows that even though the book is about Michael, the friends’ lives and well-being, who by now are our friends, are just as important to us.  As I closed Michael Tolliver Lives, I was struck with a similar feeling of de ja vu; I was heartbroken that the tale was over, akin to saying goodbye to a good friend at the airport when you don’t know when you’ll see them again.

What makes Maupin such an impressive storyteller is that his content is ahead of its time, tapping into issues that are just below the surface of the mainstream cultural consciousness.  In TOC (again 1970s) Maupin introduces us to an array of transgender characters and mind you, we were still in the thick of the fight for gay rights, and Maupin dares to write about not only trans individuals, but shockingly, trans characters in love!  With friends!  As people!  In MTL, he delves further into the thoughts and emotions of some oldie and newer trans characters and really does a service, especially to the straight (and oftentimes clueless) world by breathing life into the intricacies of the lives of these trans individuals.  What Maupin does for trans people is groundbreaking because humanizes them, thereby taking away their otherness.  This is especially pertinent to this specific time in our history with the increased visibility of such trans figures as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner (there’s even an Armistead quote during the first episode).  Way before the dialogue even began on a larger, world scale via social media, Maupin understood the importance of visibility.

Maupin’s books are the great equalizer: Catholic, gay, straight, trans, queer, and all along the spectrum of personhood, there’s really something for everyone, and something with which you can become newly acquainted.  If you need a good book(s), if you need to feel, to armchair travel to San Fran, to fall in love with a new friend, I cannot stress enough that you read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.

*I thought Frisco was a city in the south.  In Merle Haggard’s song “Here in Frisco” I actually thought he was thinking about “Frisco,” a southern city that he missed because he was visiting some big city.  No comment needed.  Thank you to my own spouse for enlightening me.


A Year of Unknown Books: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Bad FeministBad Feminist
by Roxane Gay
Book #7, read during May, 2015

My experience of reading this book was wonderful.  Let me begin with a quote from the preface, page xiii, “I hear many young women say they can’t find well-known feminists with whom they identify.  That can be disheartening, but I say, let us (try to) become the feminists we would like to see moving through the world.”  I was riding the red line train, full of people during rush hour and I cried when I read this.  Though I may not be the youngest feminist woman, this quote is applicable to all women of any age and this simple yet so powerful statement foreshadows the most awesome of insight to come.  Since this book is comprised of essays, including discussions of teaching, American education, women and the media, the TV show Girlfriends, et al, mentioning them all would essentially be rewriting the book, so I’ll pull out a few of my favorites.

Gay’s essays range from the more hardcore, we’re going to dissect these issues right here, right now, including a critique of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be Woman and an analysis of women’s likeability in the media to her love of Sweet Valley High and Scrabble.  Let’s talk about the latter.  I am horrible at Scrabble; just awful.  So much so, that I don’t want to even talk about the game on an average day.  But, Ms. Roxane Gay is great at Scrabble and as of May 2015, she is ranked 870 out of over 2,200, or to put it more plainly, she’s 870 out of everyone ever as of May.  Roxane also manages to talk about Scrabble in a way that left me with an unbelievable sense of urgency to get to the next page, or should I say, she left me “scrabbling” through the pages (thank you, Ms. Gay).  She turned me into her own personal cheerleader, gasping and shaking my head when her opponents challenged and mocked her.  Gay has the amazing gift to bring you into her stories so that you are on her side, and you want to punch her “Scrabble nemesis,” Henry, right in his smug face.  Gay transports us to the silent, tension filled world of competitive Scrabble where shockingly, a game face and swagger are geekily paramount.

Gay does this wonderful thing that I’ve mentioned in other book reviews by the Tina Feys, Julia Sweeneys and Mindy Kalings of the world where she makes our thoughts tangible.  Much like Bossypants, I kept thinking, yes! this is what I think, too!  Roxane, I think that, too, but couldn’t verbalize it.  Gay also talks about things that are uncomfortable for most people, like privilege and race.  It’s uncomfortable for white people to talk about white privilege, but we need to, and Gay explains privilege in all its various forms in a succinct and understandable way.  As a white girl, for me, Gay was like the privilege whisperer.  For those in positions of power, she reminded readers that it’s okay to recognize that you may have advantages over others, and admit it, and for white people, for example, that it was okay for to own up to the fact that some parts of our lives are better than others’ lives because of skin color.  Or, how much money one’s parents had growing up (I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, so you can imagine, it wasn’t much, but it was so much more than lots of other people).  And you know what?  There’s something liberating in that confession because you feel like you can now work with people; you’ve released your own baggage that was keeping you choked and gagged.  But she also reminds us that there are people who are always going to be more privileged than you in other ways, so don’t feel like total shit about what you have, and some people love to be the “privilege police,” (we all know them) and dig this, “We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege (18).”  How great is that?

Have you ever read a story where you feel tickled?  As if little bubbles of delight dancing throughout every part of your brain?  That’s how I felt while reading “How to Be Friends with Another Woman.”  She gives us 13 rules, many with sub-points for further clarification on how to be not only friends, but a good friend.  Here are a few of my favorites:

3A. If you feel like it’s hard to be friends with women, consider that maybe women aren’t the problem.  Maybe it’s just you.

6. Tell your friends the hard truths they need to hear.

6A. Don’t be totally rude about truth telling…finesse goes a long way.

6B. These conversations are more fun when preceded by an emphatic “GIRL.”

7. Surround yourself with women you can get sloppy drunk with…

12. If a friend sends a crazy e-mail needing reassurance about love, life family, or work, respond accordingly and in a timely manner even if it is just to say, “GIRL, I hear you.”

Trust me, all 13+ points are 100% valid and I recommend you read them all.  I could not have been more amused when I read 3A  because I have been the awful woman who said that, and you know what, it probably was indeed me.

Early on in the book, Gay tells us to be wary of “professional feminists,” women who are held on a pedestal in the media as the truth speakers of feminism.  They can be flawed, thereby complicating matters of feminism in mainstream culture all the more.  Being a published and hugely popular writer, Gay inadvertently dips her toe into this group but does so with humility.  She’s speaking her truth, and this truth is vulnerable, smart, and so fucking insightful.  GIRL, seriously, run out get your hands on this book.

A Year of Unknown Books: Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Mrs. CalibanMrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls
Book #6, read during April, 2015

Recommended by my spouse, Mrs. Caliban was the first book that I knew absolutely nothing about.  In all honesty, reading a book that was less than 150 pages with a pile of books on my “to-read” desk was extremely appealing, so here we go book number six.

Mrs. Caliban is at first glance a love story between a lonely housewife and an over six foot amphibious fish/man named Larry.  It’s a simply written and understated story that tugs at any heartstrings susceptible to loneliness, infidelity, love, and childlessness.  This book is said to be science fiction, but for those who clam up in disgust at the mention of the genre, there is a fish/man present, but beyond that you’re safe from conventional sci-fi.

Here’s a little plot rehash: Dorothy Caliban, due to the loss of two children is engaged in a loveless marriage where she and her husband are “too unhappy to get divorced.”  In the first few pages, while rushing around at the demand of her husband to spontaneously make dinner for his business partner, the gigantic amphibious man/creature Larry shows up at her door, recently escaped from an institution where he was tortured by scientists.  Having no idea where this would go, I immediately became immersed in Dorothy’s life and couldn’t wait to know what would happen to Dorothy and Larry, which is a hilarious name for the frog man.  An immediate bond is forged between the two as each one fills the gaps in the others’ life.  The overarching theme of this book is relationships and we are given a more thorough glimpse into Dorothy’s life through her conversations with not only Larry, but with her physically and emotionally absent husband, Fred and with her best friend Estelle, whose 180 degree personality acts as an interesting juxtaposition.  By the end, Ingalls expresses themes of marital love, tenderness, loneliness, betrayal and complacency all through the vehicle of a creature.

The amphibious Larry’s presence in Dorothy’s life can be taken literally or figuratively and can change your interpretation of the ending drastically, though the aforementioned themes remain relatively the same.  If you’re a realist, then the story becomes about coping mechanisms and grief, if you are drawn to more flights of fancy, then Larry the fish/man’s presence facilitates discovery and comfort.  Though published in the early 1980s, the thrust of the story reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.  All three stories illustrate that not much has changed in the past 100 plus years concerning such issues as the social stigma concerning women and childbirth and your everyday, plain old gender norms where women are cast as causalities of so many inequities due to socially constructed ideas of what men and women should be, and how that construct keeps women down.

Lucky number six!  This was by far the best book as of yet, and on a personal note, it’s nice to know that my spouse knows me so well after nearly eight years, and that thankfully, we have something else in common besides our love of Indian food and gin.  Ingalls has written a novella with few words, but they’re all the right ones.  Her deft story-writing skills, delivered in the most hard-hitting but simplistic of ways are a breath of fresh air in a time where we are saturated with the concept that more is more in art.  Ingalls reminds us that even with the presence of a nearly seven foot green monster, that sometimes less is indeed more.

A Year of Unknown Books: Dark Currents

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Dark Currents: Agent of Hel     Dark Currents
by Jacqueline Carey
Book #5, read during March, 2015

The fifth month of reading books that someone else recommended to me was the most difficult month.  It was a chore and the first time that I actually considered quitting the year-long project of reading unknown books.  I kept looking through the list of books and when I broke my rule and read their descriptions, every one sounded like pulling teeth.  This is also why I am not part of a book club; I hate to read books that I don’t want to read.  I’ve dropped out of three clubs without even finishing the first books.  With so many wonderful books in the world, why read anything that you don’t want to read?!

I decided to settle on Dark Currents: Agent of Hel (the Norse Goddess, not Hell), sitting in the adult fiction section of the library.  My first impression was that the cover is awful.  It looks like a cheesy teen fantasy book with a toe-headed girl wielding a knife.  One day on the Red Line el I dropped the book and as the person across from me handed it back, I felt completely embarrassed to be seen with it.  The main character’s dialogue often touts such juvenile sentences of the like: “…he’s so hot!” and other very 20-something year old-isms about the plethora of guys turning her on.

After page five, I could not put this book down.  It’s silly, light, and lucky for me, features my love of other worlds, mythological creatures, gods and goddesses and all other sorts of supernatural ilk.  Carey’s construction of this world is akin to Neil Gaiman’s novels (American Gods, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys), where gods and goddesses live amongst humans in hidden form, but from the perspective of a hormone-crazed young woman.

Carey has constructed a book with a well-written, fleshed out story with a good balance of dialogue and description, filling in the holes without being Stephen King wordy (where you know how many calories were in the lunch of a secondary character on a random Tuesday) that makes for an entertaining read without asking too much of your time and concentration.  It’s about 20-something Daisy, who is half human, half succubus aka demon.  She works part-time for the local police department in the small town in which she lives.  This small town, in addition to your random humans, is inhabited by (and somewhat grudgingly tolerated by the the townspeople) a supernatural counter-culture due to the presence of an active underworld, located otherwise in only the select big cities. In this story, a young frat boy goes winds up dead and Daisy is brought in to help investigate as supernatural forces become suspect, including water nymphs, mermaids and Ghouls, creatures who breath and look like humans, ride motorcycles and but feed on human emotions.

Besides the varied other-worldly creatures’ descriptions hooking me, I also, against my will, was drawn in by the tangental love interests.  Werewolf and police officer Cody has been Daisy’s crush since high school, but this new European Ghoul is alluring, and so is this new guy from Jamaica who can see auras!  What’s a girl to do?!  I know, it’s awful and I’m ashamed, but I was blind-sided by these silly sub-plots and I can’t wait to dive into book two (there are three as of this month).

Reading Dark Currents is exactly what I hoped would happen for this project-that I would read a book, completely unknown to me, and love it, which I did. Whenever I had a free moment, I couldn’t wait to get back and find out what was going to happen next, and it made me realize how much of a struggle some of the previous books have been.  I have hated none, struggled throughout many, but always learned something, whether about story or style.  Thankfully, this novel was a breath of fresh air and gave me an airy, romance filled March.

A Year of Unknown Books: The Psychopath Test

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryPsychopath Test      
by Jon Ronson
Book #4, read during February, 2015

In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explores the history, classification and presence of psychopaths.  Admit it, we all have used this word, sometimes liberally with certain people (come on, we all have that one co-worker or in-law) when labeling someone who acts so irrationally or manipulatively that they are beyond our comprehension.  But how do we know who is crazy, eccentric, or just quirky?  This is what Ronson sets out to explore, and we soon learn that from a clinical standpoint, it’s damn near impossible, but yet all the more intriguing.

We learn from the outset that Ronson’s personality is goofy and insecure, which makes for an amusing journey into what could be an otherwise depressing and humdrum exploration into the history of this facet of psychology.  The backbone of the book is the psychopath test, or the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, created in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Hare to determine whether or not a person is a psychopath based on a series of questions, including pathologically lying, lack of remorse, and grandiose self-worth (see full list here).  We are placed in the room with Ronson as he learns about the test and we, like him, begin to believe that we may indeed be mentally disturbed.  Irresponsibility? Check! Emotionally shallow?  I’ve been there!  Lack of empathy? Sometimes I lack empathy!  However, as one mental health professional tells him, if we believe that we have failed the test and think ourselves to be psychopaths, then we aren’t–psychopaths lack self-awareness and empathy.

The way that Ronson relates his subject reminded me of the true crime documentary, The Staircase.  You are given the facts, and yet all of these “facts” completely conflict, making everyone seem right and simultaneously wrong, leaving you without a concrete conclusion.  Throughout the book, Ronson explores different cases and personality types, attempting to pinpoint the what’s and who’s of psychopathy.  He introduces us to Scientologists who hate psychology, and we’re given some pretty compelling evidence in support, such as sane people overanalyzed and wrongly incarcerated in mental health facilities, children being needlessly medicated (does the ADD crazy of the 90s ring any bells?), and homosexuality being labeled as a mental disorder in older editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM.  On the flip side, we also meet doctors who have spent their lives attempting to remove the stigma of psychopathy and mental illness by radical yet humane treatment, thereby ostracizing themselves within their own professional community.  Ronson creates a compelling case by giving us all sides of everyone’s story, thereby leaving you without a clue!  It’s a torturous experience because you can’t make up your mind, and when you do, you’re given a difference perspective and have no idea what to think of psychiatry, your safety, or if we live in a world of true chaos.

The issue is so complex, and the difficulty of an effective diagnosis can be seen in the individuals interviewed throughout the book.  They beat someone up, but does that make them crazy?  They have sexual fantasies involving hair pulling (hello, Fifty Shades), but does that make them sadistic, and who decides?  Psychiatrists and psychologists trained in what course of study?  Yes, there are unfeeling, disturbed psychopaths out there who want to harm others and feel no remorse.  There are also people all along the spectrum of mental illness who don’t want to harm others. Because of the varied personality types in the world, it seems improbable that the dangerous ones could be weeded out of society until they do harm to others, and even after that, how do we know if they’re truly a danger to society?  Ronson presents us with all of these questions and we are left pondering the answers along with him.

Of the books read thus far for my Stranger by the Book project, I enjoyed this one the most.  Unlike some of the past books, such as Vellum, where I would have only finished the book for a project, I couldn’t wait to turn my audiobook back on and hear more stories of the criminally insane, and the appalling stories of the wrongly accused.  Ronson’s research method and style reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Mary Roach, as she also focuses on a subject and explores its history and current day implications in lay-person’s terms with a sense of humor.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read that is also thought-provoking, entertaining and maybe just a little bit crazy.

A Year of Unknown Books: The Forest Lover

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Forest Lover by Susan VreelandForest Lover
Book #3, read during January, 2015

Susan Vreeland is one of those authors in the library world where you know of her popularity from the vast amount of books on the shelf, much like your everyday Lee Child, James Patterson, or Louise Penny.  I could decipher the genre from a glance–historical fiction–and Caucasian women seem to be the main protagonist.  The Forest Lover is what I typically refer to as a “book club book,” meaning that I would recommend for a general audience, probably women, and it has a lot of elements that would make up a good discussion: Native Americans, Native American women, a white, middle-class woman’s role in the early 20th century, artistic freedom, et al.  It’s not particularly controversial, it’s well-written, and there’s no sex or direct violence–it’s a nice book.

Written as historical fiction, where one creates a story using sprinkles of fact, TFL is about an artist in the early 1900s in Canada who chooses to stay single and childless, eschews religion, loves animals, painting nature, and hangs out with Native Americans at at time when whites were in full-swing Christian colonization mode (yes, nothing much has changed; just wait, there’s more).  At first, I wondered if reading a novel written in that time period instead of reading a modern-day interpretation would be more effective, such as books by women who lived what Vreeland writes about, such as Kate Chopin or Virgina Woolfe.  However as I delved deeper into the impetus for the creation of the novel, I read that this book’s main character, Emily Carr, was indeed an actual artist and that the book is loosely based on her actual life.

Vreeland creates Emily Carr’s world by weaving social and personal (to Carr, and probably Vreeland as well) threads that reveal the complexities of social injustice concerning gender and race.  Throughout the book, and Emily’s real life, she frequently receives the underhanded compliment, “You’ll be a fine woman painter” or that she’s a “woman artist”; woman being the operative word here.  This reminds me of a Twitter entanglement in 2014 when musician Neko Case was called a “woman in music” by Playboy Magazine, striking back, “Am I? IM NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC’, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!”  Though this book takes place in the early 1900s when Carr lived, was written in 2004, you’ll be delighted to know that zero has changed in over 100 years concerning the gendered nature of art–men are the norm and women are the outsiders.

Another curious discrepancy that stood out as I read TFL, especially after reading Vellum by Hal Duncan as my last Stranger by the Book: A Year of Unknown Reading selection was the difference in the description of sex scenes written by men and women.  From my own empirical reading observations, there are some marked differences between a man’s description of sex from what I’ve read from Hal Duncan, Joe Hill, Stephen King, and John Updike to name just a few.   From what I’ve read, they use basic physical language, “my penis feels and looks like this and this is what I did with it, and this what I saw,” and these authors, like many other male authors, just love to use the word “cunt” in their sex scenes.  To me, it seems like showing off; feeling like rebels, using a word that seems “naughty.”  In others that I’ve read, including feminist and lesbian erotica, the sex scene is very different in this story, describing Carr’s emotional well-being and psychological process mixed with issues from her past.  She ties in unsettling memories from childhood and here, I feel like Vreeland has a unique handle on how the complexities of the past can impede on a woman’s growth as a healthy–sexual or otherwise–adult.

To contextualize my reading experience a bit more, it’s written from the point of view of someone who reads horror, sci-fi, independent fiction, books where it’s necessary to extend your belief, science and biographies, and therefore mainstream NY Times best sellers are typically off my radar.  This being said, I appreciated this type of general reader, thoroughly fleshed out and full of good “issues” to talk and think about book.  Unless recommended, I probably wouldn’t have read this, labeling it too much of a Lifetime Television flick in book form.  Thankfully, Vreeland gives the reader enough historical fact to keep us slightly appalled and friendships to emotional invest us.


A Year of Unknown Books: Vellum by Hal Duncan

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal DuncanVellum
Book #2, read during December, 2014

Before I began Vellum, it was recommended to me with the warning, “most people don’t like it, but I loved it.”  When I Tweeted the author that pages 1-2 were great thus far (haha), his response was, “Hopefully it’ll hold up for you. I’ll admit it’s bit of a love-it-or-hate-it book. (Most seem to know which by pg. ~50.).”  Obviously, my interest was piqued and I broke my own rule by looking up reviews about the book before I read it, having sworn that I would read each book with no previous knowledge.  This book is the epitome of divisive–half of all of the reviews I read were written by people who just hated it, and half were from people who completely loved it.  I have to say, the drama made it all the more intriguing, and scary because I didn’t want to be one of the ones who hated it because a) I would still have to read it and b) I wanted to be someone who “got” the difficult book.

From the get-go, I can understand why the casual reader may have been put off; it jumps around throughout the entire novel from this place in time to that, from this angel to that creature, and to archaic names that I had to repeatedly look up.  Needless to say, the book keeps you on your toes.  The structure is consistently non-linear and its story (or really, stories) are steeped in mythology, demons, angels, and world religions, while exploring issues of romantic relationships (homo/hetero), trust, deception, faith, and war, and that’s just a sprinkling.  It’s not a beach read, but one that requires attention, time and interest.  Each story line constantly jumps from time, space and character and is told from varying points of view, which, let’s be honest, is confusing on the whole.  As you read on, the threads begin to connect slightly, so the author gives you at least a little to hold on to.  Though this book may not be for every reader because of its experimental nature, its structure is really a mastery of writing, and its obvious that the construction was a labor of love.

Oh yeah, what is the story about?  It’s about a book call the vellum, which contains all hours of all time, and people can hide in it, in this parallel universe.  There are angels, humans, and beings in-between that are hiding from demons and angels who require that they take a side.  Within the larger story, there is a group of friends that you meet in the beginning, and we follow the friends and other connected characters throughout unspecified periods throughout time, and as varied incarnations.  Here, the style and content reinforce one another; as the writing structure jumps around, it mirrors the larger and individual stories as they morph into an array of time and place.  The actual book that you are reading is written in a way that reflects the vellum.

Aside from the content of the novel, I listened to it on audiobook, narrated by Bernard Clark and it was excellent.  Thankfully, he didn’t try to mimic women’s voices, which so often fall short and are unnecessary, and his angel, British and Scottish voices were manifold.

In all, if it wasn’t part of this project, and I didn’t listen to it on audiobook, I don’t know if I would have gotten through it.  It’s a difficult book due to its structure, the male author likes the word “cunt,” which I always find a little suspect, as if by using this word the author is trying to evoke a strong reaction, and it’s time consuming.  However, as a librarian, I really do believe that every book has its reader, and this book has its reader; one that is buckled in for a challenge, and is intrigued by the unconventional.