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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What I'm Reading: December 2008

This month I read a favorite author, a natural history title, and a holiday offering.

I read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman as soon as I could get my hands on it. He is one of my favorite authors, but if anything, that makes me more critical. Luckily, he did not disappoint since The Graveyard Book made my top ten for the year. This new title aimed at "middle readers," was awesome. Our story begins rather gruesomely for a "children's book." An assassin, Jack, is climbing the stairs of an old home, carrying a knife that has already killed 4 members of the family, leaving only the baby boy in the attic left to be murdered. However, the toddler has escaped out the back door and into a nearby historic graveyard, now turned nature park. The boy's newly dead parents ask for the resident ghosts to protect the boy, and so begins the boy's life as the only living resident in the graveyard. Renamed, Nobody (Bod for short) the boy is raised by Mr and Mrs Owens and cared for by a guardian who can come and go from the graveyard, providing Bod with food, clothes, books, and contact with the outside world.

Although the story first appears to be a simple tale of Bod's interesting life, there is a larger story involving a secret society of assassins and Bod's mythic place in their world. Like all of Gaiman's works, there are richly drawn characters, beautiful descriptions, and a constant comparison between the living world and the fantasy world lurking just beneath the surface, specifically those that can travel between the two. This is a fast read, but it will also leave you thinking about its issues and themes for many days after its completion.

Although the book itself tells one continuous story, in true children's literature fashion, each chapter is almost its own self contained "story." This novel also contains wonderful illustrations by long-time Gaiman collaborator, Dave McKean. I also highly suggest checking out Gaiman's web site.

The most obvious readalike here is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Bod's story of being raised in a graveyard by ghosts until he must rejoin the world of the living is a clever (and twisted) retelling of Kipling's classic story. Robin McKinley also writes fantasy for young adults which appeals to adults. Her narrative style, although not as blatantly horror laced as Gaiman's, is still clever and twisted enough to appeal to Gaiman fans. Try Beauty, her retelling for Beauty and the Beast.

For readers who want a more adult experience, I would suggest Joe Hill's fabulous ghost story, Heart-Shaped Box or Kat Richardson's Greywalker urban fantasy/mystery series, which follows a PI who moves between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Graveyard Book is about the cemetery as a beautiful place full or art, history, and surprises. Those who enjoyed that aspect of the novel should click here for nonfiction about cemeteries.

A few days after visiting The Field Museum of Natural History with my kids, I began listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This is a great example of perfect timing; this book quickly discussed many of the things I saw at the museum. Everything is a short overview, as the title implies. Bryson takes the history of earth and picks interesting points to elaborate on. One of my favorite stories was about Yellowstone. Apparently, the geysers there are actually part of a huge inverted volcano that could blow at anytime, wiping out all life on earth. Scary stuff! Actually, this is Bryson's overall theme, the pure luck that we are here on earth at all, and swiftness with which we could all be annihilated.

Bryson mentions many scientists and writers throughout his book, but two would specifically appeal to fans of this book: Stephen Jay Gould and/or John McPhee. Newton plays a small part in Bryson's history, and I kept thinking of Rebecca Sott's Ghostwalk which I read in September. It is fiction, but features Newton and his life story. Really, I think any historical fiction about science and scientists would work as a readalike here too. Pick your interest and look for titles. Here is the link for the 100 books A Short History of Nealry Everything cites to get you started.

Speaking of good timing, my friend Mike was reading The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday by Les Standiford, and after listening to him talk about it, I quickly put my name on hold to get it before my December 20th tickets to see the play, A Christmas Carol, at Drury Lane in Oak Brook, IL. Thankfully, I placed my hold before Standiford went on every known talk show discussing the book, resulting in a ten-fold increase of holds on the slim volume.

The title pretty much tells you what you need to know about the plot. If you like Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or just Christmas in general, this was a great title to read in the days leading up to Christmas. I do not know if it would hold up as well read in June though. Personally, I was so inspired by this book that I went out and bought multiple copies to give out as gifts.

The most obvious readalike here is A Christmas Carol and Dickens' other holiday stories. Standiford's writing style also reminded me of Mark Kurlansky, and his microhistories of how one humble object changed the world forever. You could try The Big Oyster which is a history of oysters and New York City and mentions Dickens' trip to NYC which is also in Standiford's book. There is also Jane Smiley's short but accurate biography on Dickens.

But my favorite suggestion to people who are saying "been there, done that," about A Christmas Carol, is to read Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol by Tom Mula, based on the author's one-man show following Marley as he tries to save Scrooge's soul. Even the most jaded reader will enjoy this holiday offering.

That's a wrap on another year of reading.

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