Doom by William Gerhardie, 3/5
Few escape the author’s satirical pen in this madcap, semi-autobiographical novel, even himself. From struggling artists to business magnates, grasping socialites to simple countryfolk, Gerhardie peoples his version of reality with mostly unlikeable but all too recognizable characters, living in a doomed world that is not as different from ours as one might hope. Is it an eerie prescience, or just a testament to mankind’s unchanging nature, that a novel written almost 100 years ago would depict the machinations of mass media moguls, the limitless privilege of the wealthy elite, and a world polarized by war over Russian territorial claims?
Why I read it: another entry on the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
Looking for the General by Warren Miller, 3/5
Set in a semi-dystopian version of the 1960s, this bizarre book is written from the perspective of a physicist who becomes radicalized by an alien cult (literally, a group of people who believe aliens possessing unimaginable knowledge and power, having left earth, continue to monitor mankind via possession of abducted individuals and will return to elevate the deserving). It is a testimony to Miller’s observational powers and skill as a writer that he could create a serious, insightful, and fascinating novel based on such an unhinged premise.
Why I read it: Many years ago, I encountered a list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately,” and am slowly working my through it, having finally got around to using my library’s interlibrary loan service to order the more rare or out-of-print entries.
The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, 5/5
I’m not usually one to complain about scholarly features such as an extensive introduction, maps, diagrams, summaries, analysis, etc., but by page 73, I was ready to just get to the fun stories already! By any standard definition of “fun,” I would have quite a while longer to wait; the first saga’s opening paragraphs read about as smoothly as a cross between the Old Testament and War and Peace. Once I gave up trying to remember who was who’s father’s best friend’s son and where they came from and where they were going, I was able to enjoy the dramatic events for their human interest without getting too bogged down by genealogical, geographical and historical details.
That is not to say that I learned nothing about Norse culture along the way. The stories in this book corrected many misconceptions I had about Viking life; yes, they glorified masculinity to a level that many today would find intolerable, but they were far from being merely uncivilized, lawless barbarians. In fact, they had well-defined legislative and judicial infrastructure (though the enforcement of laws and rulings sometimes required one to show up with a large group of armed friends) and more respect for women’s rights than might be expected. While there are fantastical elements to some of the stories (especially the shorter tales at the end of the book), the overall tone was much more prosaic and historical than I expected.
Why I read it: I have read traditional stories from many cultures and this thrift store find piqued my curiosity. I started it while in the ER the weekend my son was born, then re-started it once I caught my breath over a year later!
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg, 4/5
A nuanced and well-written story, told from the perspectives of four individual middle schoolers and their teacher, who discover the transformative power of love and friendship as they compete in an academic bowl. Even though it is written for younger readers, the author doesn’t talk down or preach. This, combined with the varying first person perspectives and nonlinear timeline make for a challenging and meaningful reading experience at any age.
Why I read it: a recommendation from one of my students.
Magical Swimming and Flying Adventures by Elsa Fujinaka, 5/5
This little book has as many fairies and mermaids as you could possibly wish for, but my favorite character is the merfairyunicorn with two problems (don’t worry, the delightful duo on the cover are very good at solving problems). I was especially impressed by the detailed artwork, which is impressively consistent for all 16 pages and complements the story perfectly. I hope the author writes more books in the future!
Why I read it: What proud aunt could resist?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, collected by Alvin Schwartz, drawings by Stephen Gammell, 3/5
It is clear that children are the target audience for this book, but the simple layout and child-friendly writing style provide a disturbing contrast with the extremely dark and gross stories it contains. I wouldn’t have wanted to read such terrifying things as a kid and certainly wouldn’t want my own children to be exposed to these ideas at a young age. As an adult, I found the stories to be entertaining, if a bit simplistically retold, and the artwork in particular is outstanding.
Why I read it: a thrift store find. I’ve always been interested in fairy tales and myths, so paranormal stories are not that much of a stretch.
Ghost Stories of Canada by Val Clery, 4/5
This collection of short stories does not get off to a great start, opening with a stale tale that features a cliched haunted doll. Luckily, the rest of the book has a fun, Canadian flavour and shows off the author’s respectable story-telling skills and personal enthusiasm for the topic.
Why I read it: a thrift store find.
Dead of Winter by Christopher Hale, 2/5
A mediocre murder mystery with vintage charm. Its main assets are its worn, vintage hardcover, old book smell, and browned pages with uneven edges. The author has faded into deserved obscurity, but the one fact about him I did manage to find was interesting: Christopher Hale was actually a woman with the imposing name of Francis Moyer Ross Stevens!
Why I read it: probably a thrift store find. I know most people nowadays see little value beyond the purely decorative in this type of vintage hardback, but I think it deserves to serve its original, more noble function: to be read.
The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by David French, 4/5
In this installment of the Witcher Saga, Sapkowski really dives into the politics of his fantasy world, a focus that I did not find particularly interesting though I appreciated the worldbuilding. In addition, a satisfying amount of interesting characters (some new, some old), exciting scenarios, and a somewhat elevated tone, raised this book in my opinion closer to the level of the first in the series.
Why I read it: I’m gradually working my way through the series.
Great American Folklore: Legends, Tales, Ballads, and Superstitions from All Across America, compiled by Kemp P. Battle, 3/5
I understand the need to document and collect traditional stories to preserve them for posterity, but if there is a way to do so while also creating a good reading experience, the editor of this volume has not discovered it. Most of these tales clearly belong to an oral tradition, so it feels strange to encounter them stripped of their correct community context, not to mention the awkward (potentially racist) attempts to convey vernacular in prose.
Why I read it: Somehow it ended up in my to-read pile, though I can’t remember where or when I acquired it.