A Reread, or Rather a Re-Listen

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd book cover

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my partner and I traveled from our home in western North Carolina to central and northeast Ohio. We drove, so we naturally listened to audiobooks along the way. The first one we listened to was a repeat for me. I had read it many years ago in my teens–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

This was a book that was on the bookshelf in my home when I was in high school. My dad’s books were mostly history, cars, and airplanes, so I was a little unsure what this book was doing on his shelf. I asked him about it. He proceeded to comment on the nature of how the murderer was revealed in the book. From the shocked look on my face, he quickly realized I had yet to read it. He apologized profusely. But a funny thing happened as I started to read the book. I didn’t believe him. Or rather, I thought he must have misremembered. But as I finished the book, I learned that he hadn’t.

So on this recent trip, I decided to reread it, or rather re-listen to it. My partner had never read it before. I wanted to read it again knowing who did it for a different experience, to enjoy the magnificent writer that Christie was. I was not disappointed. I have read many of her other books, but this one may be my favorite. I really enjoy Hercule Poirot as a character and how he uses his “little gray cells”. The setting in the English countryside lends an air of isolation and mystery that deepens even that of the plot.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again.

Storytelling at Its Finest

Something Wicked This Way Comes book cover

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is superior storytelling, though I didn’t think so as I was reading it at first. I found the language over flowery and a little old fashioned (the book was originally published in 1962). But I got used to the language of the time. And the prose is full of so much metaphor that it almost felt like poetry that paints not just a picture you can visualize but one you feel. Instead of trying to see all the description, I instead let it wash over me and move me emotionally. That’s when the book really came alive for me.

The book is the story of two boys–best friends–in a small town in Iowa. One early morning in October, a carnival arrives. But it is no ordinary carnival. The boys are drawn to it and adventure follows. My favorite aspect of this book is the relationships. The two friends are very different but very dedicated to each other. Jim is the adventure seeker. He wants to do things just because he can and to see what happens. Will is the good boy who feels deeply and sees deeply into others. Will and his father also share a relationship that grows and changes as the story unfolds.

But the part I love most about this book is what it says about the nature of evil and how to overcome it. This story could be characterized as horror but doesn’t share the hopelessness that I associate with that genre. Rather it evokes a living and breathing sense of ominous and imminent doom but resolves it in the most unexpected and satisfying way.

The Medium is the Challenge

The Shallows book cover

After reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I was looking for something a little more recent in the same vein. I found The Shallows by Nicholas Carr published in 2010. The theme in this newer volume is based on scientific research that shows that our brains change based on how we use them. Using the internet is changing the way our brains are wired and not for the better.

Perhaps the most interesting idea explored is attributed to Marshall McLuhan. “What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” So much of our discussion today focuses on content as the problem. What if the problem is the medium rather than the content?

I really appreciate the fact that Carr neither demonizes the internet nor treats it as an unalloyed good. Rather he points out, supported by scientific research, how the shallow, quick hit nature of the internet is changing how we work and think and how this is causing all sorts of problems. This book was published twelve years ago and the problems it lays out have only gotten worse.

The one thing I wish Carr had included in his book was a path out of this wilderness. He acknowledges that much good has come with the internet but how can we get the good while avoiding (or counteracting) the bad? Maybe that’s the next book I need to look for.

Why I Read Uncanny Magazine

Uncanny Magazine Issue 49 cover

Every other month, I read the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine. Why do I do this? Lots of reason, really. There are great stories in each issue by well-known and new writers. The non-fiction essays touch on topics modern with respect to our culture and how it is evolving. But mostly I love how new cultural and technical ideas are explored in its pages.

Speculative fiction is my favorite genre. I love it when a writer takes some idea, tool, or practice in today’s world and twists it with a “what if” that explores some aspect of that thing that most of us have yet to consider or think about. That’s why I read this magazine. Six times a year, I get to read the thoughts of people who have pondered these ideas deeply and share them through stories and essays. I encourage you to dive in and see for yourself.

Here are the pieces I most appreciated in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine, Issue 49 November/December 2022.

A Bit of a Jumble

No Gods, No Monsters book cover

We just had our latest book club meeting yesterday where we discussed Cadwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters. We all were very interested in reading it. During the meeting, I also learned that we all had some challenges reading it.

This is one of those books that doesn’t give you a lot of background and dumps you into the story. This was the main challenge. Many books start this way with a clear thread joining them. That thread seemed to be missing, leaving the reader struggling to grasp all that is going on through most of the book.

In a post on his website, the author mentions that the community is the protagonist of the story. I didn’t really get this, and I struggled with the characters. Some characters were more sympathetic than others, but I never had enough time with any of them at once to develop any deep feelings. I was taken abruptly from one to the other in what felt a haphazard way.

Interestingly, I still enjoyed this book enough to want to read the next book in the series that is yet to be published. My hope is that some of the confusion and disorientation will dissipate with this second novel. If that is not the case, I expect I won’t finish reading it. It won’t be the first time I stopped reading a series or even a book without finishing it.

A Fluffy Surprise

Book Lovers book cover

I don’t often read romance novels for the same reason that many people love them – they are rather formulaic. But when I was thinking about what novel to read next, I wanted something simple and not very challenging. I had just finished No Gods, No Monsters and needed some fluff. So I picked up a romance novel from my “books about books” stack – Book Lovers by Emily Henry. It was just what I needed.

Sure, it had the typical tropes like enemies become lovers. And it had the typical romantic expectations of what “love” looks like. That part I don’t really care for and didn’t so much in this book. But what I really appreciated about this book is that it turns many other themes on their head. In fact it looks at one of these from the other way around

So many romance stories are about the busy city man with a hard charging, no-nonsense, get-it-done, workaholic girlfriend. While in a small town on business, he meets and falls for a small town girl who shows him the error of his city ways and the charms of a slower small town life. Well, this book is about that city girlfriend who has experienced the unpleasant end of this trope, over and over again.

I won’t say much more for fear of ruining the story, but I will say that I found the ending rather satisfying. While it is neither a simple reversal of the main trope it explores, it also doesn’t completely give in the romantic ideal of leaving everything for the one you love. Instead it makes some space in a fluffy romance novel to explore more deeply what people are really like and what they really want for themselves and the ones they love.

Short Science Fiction and Fantasy

Uncanny Magazine Issue 48 cover

I still subscribe to and read every issue of Uncanny Magazine. The latest is September/October 2022. Here are my favorite stories and essays.

Finding the Right Book

The Card Catalog book cover

After reading The Library, I was hoping for something a little more interesting in the realm of the history of books. I found this gem in my read pile and dug right in. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is the type of narrative history I was looking for.

Granted, it is more a history of how books are found in a library than a history of the library itself. It also has the flaw of being mostly about Europe and the United States, though due to the fact that the author is listed as The Library of Congress that is hardly surprising. Most importantly, the prose is both informative and engaging.

The added bonus in this book is all the photos. Yes, of cards from card catalogs but also of books, libraries, and individuals that are the core of the story. This book really brought back memories of time spent with a card catalog drawer pulled out, looking for just the right book. A fascinating look at book history.

A Dry History

The Library book cover

I learned about The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen from a Jeff Jarvis tweet. I was intrigued by his comments and the subject matter of the book and added it to my read pile. I recently finished reading it and have to say that I was very disappointed.

The book is quite dry and very slow. In fact, it reads a bit like a graduate dissertation that was edited for the general public. The feel is that lots of facts were gathered together and linked with spare prose. The prose and the facts are interesting and informative but a long way from entertaining, at least for me.

Another drawback is that the book is almost entirely focused on Europe and the United States. There is no exploration of libraries or their history anywhere else except for the very brief discussion of the Library of Alexandria in Africa. Surely the Muslim world had libraries during the Dark Ages when Europe was basically struggling to simply survive.

As I said, this book wasn’t my favorite. Maybe I came to it expecting too much. I certainly expected more than it gave.

Stephen King’s Latest

Fairy Tale book cover

I haven’t read much Stephen King, but what I have read I’ve really enjoyed. The Stand was longer than I felt it needed to be, but I stilled liked it. And in both The Stand and The Dead Zone, I really felt like I got to know the characters. They felt both alive and real. For the most part I could say the same about his latest novel released in early September Fairy Tale.

In King’s latest he tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who lost his mother in a tragic accident and later befriends an old curmudgeon living in a run down old house on a hill. In the back yard is a shed that hides… he doesn’t know what. But as he gets to know the owner better, he learns what is in there, and it changes his life.

Once again, the characters are relatable although the story seems to drag in some places. Members of the book club I read this with commented that they felt like some of the perspective of the teenage narrator didn’t fell authentic. Kind of like an older person’s idea of today’s teenager. Despite these shortcomings, this story had me the whole time as it uses, bends, and molds fairy tale tropes to tell a rich story. While not perfect, I was hooked to the end. If you have never read any Stephen King, this might be a good start for you, especially if you are not a particular fan of the horror genre.

You can listen to Stephen King read a chapter of the book here.