Say You’re One of Them

say you're one of them

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan, is going to be hard to review properly. Because it hurts to think about. But in a good way.

I picked up Say You’re One of Them in a thrift store. It had Oprah’s sticker on it. She has good taste in books, right? Also, it was written by a Nigerian, and I’m trying to expand my worldview. It had beautiful cover art. And it was only 25 cents. Worst possible scenario: waste of 25 cents. Easy decision.

This is a beautiful, awful book. It’s a collection of short stories about awful things happening to children in Africa. Each story is set in a different country, involving different children, and different problems. A Kenyan slum. An Ethiopian child who isn’t allowed to play with her Muslim friend anymore. A Muslim teenager on a bus full of angry Christians. The Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a little girl.

These stories are beautifully written, haunting, and surprisingly not as depressing as you would think from the topic material. Akpan openly acknowledges the ugliest parts of African history, politics, and culture—from the perspective of someone who has lived to see many of them—yet he brings a soft note of hope by choosing children as protagonists. He also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties caused by religion, even though he himself is a Jesuit priest. His stories don’t propose a solution, but they give you a better perspective, and something of a call to action.

Don’t read this unless you’re willing to wade through some pretty deep crap. But when you’re ready, read it. It’s a masterpiece. ♦

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Frankenstein—1818 Version

frankenstein-1818

I’ve never read the original text of Frankenstein before. Mary Shelley wrote the book when she was 18, published it when she was 20, and then published an edited version 5 years later (due to a lot of pressure to make the book more conservative.) I picked up an anthology called Penny Dreadfuls at Pioneer Book (’tis the season), and it included the first published text, from 1818. According to the editor, they chose the original edition because it was more gruesome and graphic and—well, dreadful.

To be honest, I didn’t really notice the difference, but that might be because I haven’t read the book in nearly a decade. My husband is reading the later version, and he noticed a few differences in the beginning chapters. For example, in the original version, Dr. Frankenstein marries his literal cousin. In the later version, she’s just an orphan they adopted and referred to affectionately as “cousin.” (Makes me wonder if marital laws changed around that time…)

Anyways. I digress. I like the 1818 version just as much as the more popular version (as far as I remember it.) It’s sufficiently creepy, and it rams home the responsibility that Dr. Frankenstein should have taken for his hideous creation—but didn’t. Also, the monster in the book is way more scary than in any movie out there. I don’t just say that because my imagination is better, or something. I say that because Shelley describes the monster as basically an enormous skeleton with translucent yellow skin, visible (but distorted) muscles, and long, scraggly black hair. Creepazoid.

I also think there’s an unstated theme to this book: humans are not ready to be gods. Shelley makes a world where man can create life, but shouldn’t, because he’s not ready for the responsibility. It’s a wonderful story.

It’s also a really flowery story, though. My husband keeps rolling his eyes at the complete lack of action, the ridiculous coincidences, and the elevated dialog. It’s entirely unrealistic, and that’s without even addressing the whole “bring the dead back to life” thing. It’s unrealistic because in real life, ten-year-old children who’ve just encountered eight-foot walking corpses don’t stop to explain why they’re afraid of them, in perfect academic English. The book was written in a flowery and educated age, for a flowery and educated audience.

I give Frankenstein 5 stars for concept, but only 2 stars for action. It’s short enough, however, that you might be able to plow through and compensate for the slow plot line. ♦

Something Wicked This Way Comes

something-wicked-this-way-comes

Ray Bradbury is a freaking genius.

Most people know Bradbury through Fahrenheit 451, which is well-known because it’s required reading for a lot of high school classes. For good reason, of course—it’s well written, it makes a very good point, and the point it makes is for literature and against censorship; it’s popular among English teachers.

But let me be honest: Fahrenheit 451 is my least favorite of anything I’ve ever read by Bradbury. It’s not a bad book, by any means. It’s a great book. The problem is that I had already read Bradbury’s portrayals of Halloween before I read it. And if Bradbury is good at writing, he is amazing at Halloween.

I mean, the storyline is good. But when Ray Bradbury tells you it was October, he doesn’t just tell you the month. He tells you what the leaves smell like, what color the dirt on your shoelaces is, and the sound of your mother calling you home for dinner while you race your friend to the front porch. He’s a poet—he just writes it in prose. And when someone that good at writing decides to write horror, it’s amazing and terrifying all at once.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boys, a middle-aged man, and an evil carnival. That’s basically it; it’s a classic good-versus-evil story. But the real difference is that Bradbury makes the story about humanity, youth, fear, growing old, and breathing just for the joy of filling your lungs. He doesn’t tell you that the good guys win; he tells you why light is stronger than dark.

This is literally the best book I have ever read. If you haven’t read it yet this October, get out there and buy a copy. ♦

The Turn of the Screw

turn of the screw

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, is a classic horror novel. For some reason, I always thought it was a book about torture, similar to Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I think I was taking the title a little too literally… and morbidly.

At any rate, I picked up a copy while wandering at Pioneer, read the back cover, and discovered that it was actually a ghost story – and it looked like a good one! Awesome! I ignored the 80’s illustration on the cover and bought the book anyway.

The Turn of the Screw turned out to be a very suspenseful, fast-paced horror story about a governess who starts seeing strangers around the house. Then she finds out the strangers used to work at the house… until they died. Then she realizes that the children can also see the ghosts, but they don’t want her to know that, which means the children actually want the ghosts to haunt them. And the children keep doing weird things to arrange private meetings with the ghosts (and without their governess.) Complicating all of this, the governess was instructed that she was never to communicate with her employer, under any circumstances. Also, she couldn’t really tell him anyway, because the kids won’t admit they see anything, so everyone would just call her crazy.

The book has a good balance of suspense, horror, and what-the-crap-is-going-on. It also does a good job of keeping the question open: is she haunted, or is she crazy?

SPOILER ALERT – here’s the problem: the “plot twist” at the end is that you never find out whether she’s haunted or crazy. That’s it. That’s the only plot twist. I mean, I was reading this, thinking, “Oh, man. Maybe the ghosts are gonna get the kids. Maybe the ghosts are good, and that’s why the kids want them. Maybe the kids killed the ghosts, and that’s why the ghosts are haunting them. Maybe the kids are gonna help the ghosts kill the governess. Maybe this other maid lady is dead, too, but nobody’s telling the governess. Maybe- maybe- maybe”…. I had a million maybes. And the problem is that all of my maybes were more interesting than the actual end of the book. Maybe I read too much weird horror. And maybe I just expect too much from a plot twist. But seriously – I could rewrite the last three pages of this book about 7 times, and come up with 7 better ways to end the book.

It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster slowly to the very top of the theme park, looking down over the precipice, feeling your breath catch in your throat, and then having the ride stop and the operator telling you to get out. Not because the roller coaster was broken – just because the entire ride was the suspense. You never actually get to experience the rest of the roller coaster.

I would recommend reading the book I’m considering writing based on this book. Once I figure out which ending to put in it. Sheesh. I understand why it’s popular – but the ending is a drag. ♦

Dracula

dracula-book-cover

If you haven’t read Dracula, go smack yourself in the head. Then take a long, hot bath and rethink your life. And while you’re at it, bring a copy of Dracula to read in the bathtub.

Dracula is the reason I can’t take Twilight seriously. Because every time someone says a vampire is “hot,” “sexy,” “dreamy,” or any other synonym for “attractive,” I’m like, “Right, but brutal, abusive, hypnotic serial killer. Did you forget those adjectives?”

Because those adjectives are really what vampires are all about. Food. Vampires are about food. And food is blood. Human blood, to be precise. And any attachment a vampire might have to a particular victim is more of a farmer/pig mentality: if I keep you alive longer, you’ll make me more blood. Any sympathies you might have for vampires go out the window pretty early on in Dracula, when the Count throws his three “wives” a bag with a human baby in it for dinner. And then the baby’s mom comes wailing to his doorstep, demanding her baby back, so he sics the wolves on her and they rip her to shreds, because who has time for whiny women banging on your door? He doesn’t even bother eating her.

This vampire is decidedly a villain.

Also, this vampire is one of the first to join English literature (I think technically Carmilla came first). And he’s definitely the best-known. So if you like horror, pick it up. It’s one of my favorites. ♦

The October Country

So I work at Pioneer Book, which is a used bookstore on Center Street. (If you live in Provo, you’ll probably recognize it. It’s the one with all the books painted on the front facade.) Anyways, I work from home, but I still have an Employee Picks shelf.

I was looking through the science fiction section to see if we had any Ray Bradbury – because I almost always recommend Ray Bradbury – and I found The October Country. I picked it up to put on my Employee Picks… and by the time I read the inside jacket blurb, I decided I just needed to buy it.

October Country

The October Country is a collection of Bradbury’s stories. It’s somewhere between horror, nostalgia, macabre, and silly. It’s kind of like Tim Burton, but more poetic and – at times – much more creepy. But then, some of the stories are pretty tame. It’s a peculiar mix.

I still prefer Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes (for summer or Halloween, respectively), but Bradbury is a wonderful writer, and these stories were brilliant. I highly recommend The October Country to anyone who wants a taste of Bradbury, or anyone who didn’t like Fahrenheit 451 (in my opinion, far from his best work), but still wants to give him a shot. ♦

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

I read Wide Sargasso Sea and wanted more crazy lady. So I picked up my high school copy of Jane Eyre and went back through it.

This book is a gothic romance, with some gothic horror thrown into the middle. It’s slow reading, and you end up with a lot of “how I survived being an orphan” at the beginning and a lot of “how I survived having my heart broken” at the end. But overall, it’s worth the time.

In high school, I didn’t like this book. I wouldn’t say I hated it – I did like the crazy lady – but I thought Jane was a doormat, Mr. Rochester was a manipulative loser, and most of the book was snivelingly romantic.

And you know, I liked it this time. I still didn’t like the characters – Jane was still a doormat, but she gained a spine toward the end of the book. Mr. Rochester was still a manipulative loser, but I think he got some comeuppance and redeemed himself a little bit, and the romance wasn’t as snively as I remembered it. Probably because I’ve actually been in love now. I mean, in high school, I was like, “Dump his sorry butt and stop whining about it!” Now, I still wanted her to dump his sorry butt, but I understood why it was still hard.

I’d give this book three and a half stars. If you’re a fan of chick flicks, four stars. I still don’t like the characters, on a personal level. But they’re fairly believable, and the story is worth sticking around for. ♦