This will be the last blog entry that I post here. After a little over five great years with Rutherford County Library System, I’ve made the hard decision to open a new chapter at another organization. Of course, I’m not really leaving the library; I’ll be stopping in probably once a week, at least, to browse the stacks and check out books. But I will miss being able to share what I’m reading with all of you.
But before my departure, I wanted to recommend one final book: Melmothby Sarah Perry.
First, the setup: For the past 20 years, Helen Franklin has been living in a state of self-imposed exile in Prague. She works as a translator, occasionally shares dinners with her friends Karel and Thea, and lives with a landlady she detests. Her life is much like the landscape of Prague during winter as Perry describes it, just as cold as desolate, though unmarked by the wonder that others might feel when looking at the beautiful buildings or the grand astronomical clock. Just as Helen ignores these features of the city around her, she denies herself moments of pleasure, even something as simple as a piece of cake.
Her drab routine is interrupted when Karel shares a story with her. He had struck up an odd friendship with a fellow visitor to the library. This friend told him about Melmoth, a figure he learned about as a boy, a woman cursed from antiquity to roam the earth, feet bloody, finding no rest, forever seeking companions. This friend, Karel tells Helen, is now dead.
And then, Karel, himself, disappears.
Thus the stage is set for intersecting stories of betrayal, guilt, and abnegation, told in the form of letters, journal entries, and historical documents. The narratives weave back and forth through time, united by the shadowy figure of Melmoth, forever watching from the periphery.
This book is a thing of beauty. The language shines, as does the cover, emblazoned in rich blues in a design of jackdaw feathers. Its deckled edges are as delightful as its moments of sly, dark fantasy. When I wasn’t reading Melmoth, I wished that I was, and when I finished, I thought first that I would probably read it again, sometime in the future.
Melmoth is not a mystery, and it’s not quite suspense, but you will keep reading to satisfy your wondering. You will be slightly confused, and you will want to keep going, to gather all of the pieces that you know you don’t have, but will, perhaps soon, perhaps on the next page.
I’m not going to tell you what is revealed when the pieces are assembled; after all, the pleasure is the acquisition of each piece. But I will say that I was glad that I read this book. It’s a mixture of the timely and the timeless, and is the perfect Gothic read for winter to put you in a contemplative mood.
People read books for different reasons. Some people are plot-driven, seeking out books with multitudinous twists and turns and non-stop action. Others read for information, and prefer nonfiction. Some are author-centric, and tend to stick to the same familiar names that have not let them down over the years.
But for some people, characters are the most important part of a text. These readers might forget exactly how a book ended, but their favorite characters’ first appearance will be emblazoned on their minds and hearts forever. These are the readers who like to imagine what it might be like to meet a character from a book. They’re the ones who identify wholeheartedly with Elizabeth Bennet or Hermione Granger or Holden Caulfield (or insert character here) and consider said kinship as good a way as any to explain their personalities.
I said “they” a lot in that paragraph, but of course I mean “we.” I’m definitely a character-driven reader, and each new book is an opportunity to meet new people who might change my life, regardless of the fact that they’re fictional.
And just like when you meet a new person and find yourself reminded of someone you already know–“Oh, you have to meet my friend So-and-So, I think you’d hit it off!”–I sometimes imagine making introductions between my favorite literary characters.
Here are some characters that I think would make great friends, despite living in different fictional worlds.
Henry DeTamble (The Time-Traveler’s Wife) and Tom Hazard (How to Stop Time)
Both Henry and Tom have problems with time: Henry has a condition that causes him to spontaneously time travel, while Tom’s causes him to age so slowly as to be nearly immortal. While these are two very different problems to have, I think that they would be able to sympathize with one another. They also share a love of music, though Tom might find Henry a bit quaint and naive… After all, he’s 439 years old.
Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) and Adele (Behind Her Eyes)
It’s hard to fully explain why Amy and Adele should hang out without revealing too much about either book and thereby spoiling the reading experience. But I will say that both of these women are highly intelligent, very crafty, and know what it’s like to keep a secret. I can imagine them meeting up for coffee and sharing the salacious details of their latest schemes, delighting in one another’s intricate deceptions. They would probably be frenemies, but I think they would have a good time.
Alice (The Hazel Wood) and Vivienne (The Cruel Prince) This is another case of characters becoming friends through the shared weirdness of their existence. Alice grew up on the run from her the legacy of her grandmother, a reclusive author who penned a deeply strange collection of fairy tales. Vivi is a girl living in a fairy tale… Literally, in the Faerie realm, until she decides to try and return to the human world where she once lived. Both girls have been through more than their share of adventure and hardship. They could swap stories and give one another what survivors of trauma need: someone who will listen and believe.
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Isabel Townsend (Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord) Elizabeth chafes against the societal expectation that women will inevitably get married for money, and refuses to enter a loveless match. She’s shrewd and independent, both qualities that she shares with Isabel, who operates an estate independent of a male caretaker, a highly unusual endeavor for a woman during the early 19th Century. Isabel is a little bit farther ahead on the timeline than Elizabeth (Ten Ways… takes place in the 1820s, while the events of Pride and Prejudice occur somwhere between 1797-1815), but I still like to imagine these ladies meeting. It would be much better for Lydia to go live with the other women in Isabel’s home than to have to marry the heinous Mr. Wickham. (Seriously, is anyone else creeped out by the fact that she has to be stuck with that boor for life, rather than getting a second chance while he’s shunned from society on a desert island or something?)
Roland Deschain (The Dark Tower series) and the man (The Road) Roland and the man (yes, that’s how McCarthy refers to him) both know what it’s like to live incredibly bleak lives while trying to survive and look out for the people they care about. Both are gruff and cautious by necessity, both have seen and done some stuff in the way of people living in post-apocalyptic worlds, and I see parallels between the man’s relationship with his son and Roland’s relationship with Jake Chambers. This also works well given the idea in The Dark Tower series that all worlds are real and connected. (“There are other worlds than these.”) Imagine an alternate version of The Road where Roland and his ka-tet encounter the man and the boy and band together with them! How differently things might have turned out…
Crimson Peak, one of my favorite movies, is widely regarded as a failure. I think that this is largely due to mismanaged expectations on the part of audiences. They bought tickets expecting a $50 million horror movie, but what Guillermo del Toro had made was something far different: a Gothic romance.
Gothic and horror are related, but they’re not the same thing. I think of it as a matter of adrenaline. You’re not going to feel that kidney-spike survival instinct kick in when you’re reading or watching a Gothic. Rather, you’re in for creeping dread and lingering wistfulness.
Both are things that Crimson Peak has to spare, along with all of the tropes that make a Gothic so darkly delicious: a determined heroine, a dark and brooding hero (who inhabits that role with ambiguity), a crumbling old mansion, plots leading to doom, disturbing family secrets, and, of course, ghosts (and, for my money, the most stylishly-designed ghosts in the history of cinema, but I adore del Toro and might be a smidge biased).
I bring up Crimson Peak because I think it’s a perfect example of Gothic fiction in film, and because we’re heading into the perfect time to read Gothic literature. As the days shorten and the weather takes a turn for the dreary, some people seek escape in lighter reads or the warm bustle of Christmas books. I much prefer to lean into the current season and embrace the somber atmosphere of November.
Here are some Gothic novels, from classic fare to more recent explorations of the genre, available through RCLS.
Foundational Texts: If you want to get down to the origins of Gothic literature, you’ll need to go all the way back to 1764, to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. It is considered to be the first Gothic novel.
Two out of three Brontë sisters published Gothic classics during the Nineteenth Century: Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily, Wuthering Heights. (Anne Brontë wrote less… intense love interests in her novels.)
If you want to read a send-up of the Gothic and the way it inflames readers’ imaginations, you’ll want to check out Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Romantic Suspense: Crimson Peak gets its inspiration from classic Gothic literature, but also from Gothic romances, which are distinct from other Gothic novels in their focus on a romantic plot. Often a plucky heroine finds herself in a spooky house with a creepy kid and a brooding guy who might or might not have committed a crime. She might be depicted on the paperback cover wandering through a corridor with a candlabrum, or else fleeing from the house wearing a gauzy nightgown, looking back over her shoulder in abject terror. (Neil Gaiman’s 2006 poem “The Hidden Chamber” incorporates this trope.)
Gothic romance following this formula, also called “romantic suspense,” had its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, and it’s still what a lot of people think about when you talk about Gothic novels. When you look at books from this era, three authors come up again and again: Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt.
Gothic in the 20th Century: Romance isn’t the only game in Gothic fiction, and the 20th Century also featured less pulpy examples of the genre.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebeccais an essential Gothic novel, exploring the classic “I wonder how my new husband’s ex-wife really died?” plot. She also wrote Jamaica Innand My Cousin Rachel, which was adapted for film in 2017.
Shirley Jackson’s work is getting increased attention for the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, but the original is far, far different… and regarded by many, including Stephen King, as the best horror novel of all time. You should also read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or, to explore her short fiction, the collection Dark Tales.
Susan Hill’s 1983 slim novel The Woman in Blackreads like a much older book, and is a good example of slow-burn terror. If it sounds familiar and you don’t know why, it might be from the 2012 adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe.
If you would like to get lost in a lush trilogy, try the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, starting with 1949’s Titus Groan.
Of course, a supremely fun and easy way to get a dose of Gothic goodness or to acquaint yourself with the hallmarks of the genre is Edward Gorey. His signature pen-and-ink illustrations accompany odd and macabre tales that are immersed in Gothic aesthetics. Beyond his own writing, he also had a prolific career as an illustrator of other people’s books. He had a penchant for lending his pen to creepy stories, so you can often take his byline as illustrator as an endorsement. (An example being the Louis Barnavelt series, starting with The House with a Clock in Its Walls.)
Contemporary Gothic: Luckily, since the turn of the 21st Century, the Gothic lives on as contemporary authors find new ways to work within this old genre.
Sarah Waters writes historical fiction featuring lesbian characters and richly detailed settings. To read her work is to be immersed in the time period in a sort of Dickensian fashion. Fingersmithis set in Waters’s signature Victorian London, while The Little Strangertakes place postwar in a Georgian mansion.
Sarah Perry knows the Gothic genre well; she a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic from the University of London. She brings this knowledge to bear in Melmoth, in which a strange letter found in a library leads to encounters between a translator and a shadowy figure who moves throughout history.
If you’re only familiar with Audrey Niffenegger through The Time Traveler’s Wife, you should know that her other writing tends to be just as good but much darker and weirder. Her Fearful Symmetry, a ghost story set near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, is a perfect example.
Though the popularity of Gothic romantic suspense has waned, the genre still attracts authors who no longer feel the need to adhere quite as strictly to the original plot conventions. One such author is Simone St. James, whose novels (among them The Haunting of Maddy Clare, An Inquiry Into Love and Death, and Silence for the Dead), feature historical settings, creepy hospitals, psychics, and ghost hunting.
Kate Morton’s The Distant Hoursplays with the time-honored trope of a mysterious letter summoning the heroine to an old castle, where eccentric sisters share history related to her mother. The Forgotten Garden, meanwhile, is set in Cornwall and Australia and preoccupies itself with family secrets and the search for one’s true identity.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven) begins with one reader’s quest to discover why books by an author he loves are being systematically destroyed. Perhaps the blurb describes it best: “an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love.”
Although contemporary Gothics often aren’t labeled explicitly as such, once you know the conventions, you find that they’re lurking on almost every bookshelf. As you can see, there’s plenty to choose from, and even more when you open up the criteria to include Gothics that blend more strongly with other genres, such as fantasy, or if you decide to explore Southern Gothic. But that’s a subject for another day…
In the meantime, steep a cup of your favorite tea and settle in for a dreary autumn of suitably atmospheric reading.
You know when you walk in a room and you stand there for a second and laugh cause you have no idea why you went in there? You’re talking to someone and you can’t think of that word, yeah you know, the one you say when you want to sound smart? It eventually comes back, right? What if it didn’t? What if that happened to you with every single thing in your daily life? What if it repeatedly happened and your doctor told you that it will only get worse and he can’t stop it?
I have the joy of meeting and spending time with some pretty great people through volunteering with a local hospice. Most of the patients I meet are older and have a variety of health issues. One very common health issue is Dementia/Alzheimer’s. It is not an easy disease to understand, and I feel grateful that most times the patients do not know what is happening to them and they do not suffer. One special lady, who has the symptoms of Dementia/ Alzheimer’s loves to do crafty things. I came across these styrofoam shapes that you push colored tissue paper into with a little plastic stick. She loved it and was very pleased upon completion. Although she no longer remembers where she has left her rainbow, and that we made it together, she does remember how to use the plastic stick. She smiles every time I pull the stick out of my bag for another project! Repetition for our brains, very important!
I am pretty biased and believe that nurses are smarter than doctors (two of my aunts are great nurses), but to help better understand from the doctor’s perspective there is Alzheimer’s Disease: The Complete Introduction by Dr. Judes Poirier and Dr. Serge Gauthier. This one has color photos and diagrams to help you better understand what happens to the brain and body as you go through all of the different stages. For a more hands on approach, I recommend Alzheimer’s Activities That Stimulate the Mind. I have found that books like these that are written by nurses are always on point and make you feel the love and time that was put into it. I will be putting these activities to good use. Emilia C. Bazan-Salazar, R.N., B.S.N., I, Thank you!
Children have a hard time understanding that just because they can’t see it happening, that our brains change. Also, as parents we want to protect our children from all the scary things that life throws at them. Faraway Grandpa written by Roberta Karim tells the story of Kathleen and the special bond she shares with her grandpa. Every summer she visits him and he always does the same things to make her smile. One summer, Grandpa forgets to do his shenanigans and even comes to live with Kathleen. She then figures out that when she sings their special song that the “clouds” will lift from Grandpa for just a few minutes and that’s where she can always find him. I am not a fan of telling children lies or sugar coating many things. The last thing you could want is your child realizing you lied to them. I believe that you should answer any and all questions that they have, but don’t give more details than necessary. Besides, they get bored fairly quickly!
Even adult children can sometimes have a hard time with this and need the comfort of each other to get through! The film Savages is about a dysfunctional family that must come together to help Dad (Philip Bosco) when he starts showing signs of dementia. Son (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and daughter (Laura Linney) place Dad in a nursing home and then care for him through his remaining time, while struggling with their own personal lives.
The family and caretakers are the ones who experience most of the emotional effects of Dementia/Alzheimer’s. It’s a difficult situation to be in when someone starts forgetting who you are and what is happening to them. It hurts, and it hurts a lot! I often think that because memory loss runs in my family, that I should make sure that my nearest and dearest understand my wishes, if this were to happen to us. It’s not typical table talk, but it is definitely an important conversation to have. All too often I come across a family who, when asked a question of this nature, sound the crickets, all look at each other, and wait for someone to answer. That’s not going to help when you can no longer make your own decisions and your family is arguing over what you would want. Let them know! Today!
The Day We Met by Rowan Coleman will give you a glimpse of what it might be like to start losing your memory. The main character, Claire, is suffering from Dementia/ Alzheimer’s. When she is lost, so are you. When she doesn’t understand, neither do you. It made me think about being in her place and what I would want my family to know if this started happening to us.
I do not know how it feels to be on the spousal end of this disease, and I hope that I never have to. Since I have been watching films and reading books on the subject, I at least have a glimpse of what it might be like. Away From Her, a Canadian film, starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent is based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The film won seven Genie Awards. Seven! The story is about a husband and wife who have lived over 40 years together. She has started to show signs of Alzheimer’s and moves into a facility that can care for her around the clock. Upon moving in, they cannot see each other for 30 days. In those 30 days, she forms a close bond with another resident and forgets who her husband is. You go through this with him, you feel lost and betrayed, and in the end, you also feel all the love he has!
I believe that this is one of the worst diseases ever. It’s a hunter that has no rules or regulations. There is no cure, and it slowly attacks and eats your brain. You cannot run and hide, it comes from within you! We must fight it head on!
Help me raise awareness! The state of Tennessee participates in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Hopefully, by the time you have read this, I have completed my 2 mile walk in Nashville and donated a few bucks to a worthy cause that affects my family and I. There are local walks in your area in the month of November. Put on your sneakers and get going!!
It’s an age-old question: Which is better, the book or the movie?
Recently I posed a version of this question to my RCLS colleagues. I wanted to know about their experiences with books that have been adapted for either the large or small screen. Books that were better than movies, movies that were better than books, movies that got them to read books… I wanted to hear about it all.
And they delivered!
Beneath the cut you’ll find reflections from seven different library staff members, each with a slightly different take on the book/movie debate and each with vastly different tastes in media. You’re sure to take away a recommendation of something good to read, watch, or both.
I find that when faced with the words death or dying people often tend to shy away or run as fast as they can. Death is not something that can be undone; yes, we all understand that, but it should not take over your life. We must find a way to move forward. Not forget, by any means, but live our lives as best we can. Your loved one would not want you to grieve for the rest of your life.
For me, the best way to get through a difficult situation like this and carry on is to talk about it. With anyone! Always seek professional help if the feelings become too powerful for you to talk through them with your family or friends. There are times were a book is exactly what is needed. That is when the library and the endless supply of reading material becomes a great lifeline. The more we can learn, the less scared we will be! My picks:
Dying to Know… About Death, Funeral Customs, and Final Resting Places by Lila Perl
If you want to know the history on why certain customs or rituals have come to be, Perl is your woman! Why did the custom of putting a headstone on top of the grave start? Did Queen Victoria start the fashion of mourning in black when her husband passed away? When did we start the practice of embalming and why?
One of the newest books that I have had the great fortune of finding is Grief Works by Julia Samuel. The author is a grief psychotherapist, who has written about some of the people she has counseled overthe years and the steps she helped them take to try to move forward with their lives. She has a lot of helpful information throughout the book.
For children, The Saddest Time by Norma Simon is something worth reading to your little ones. This book gives you three different stories on why death might occur. It talks about the ways you might feel and what you could do to help your loved ones or yourself. It explains death in a way that is not overwhelming or scary.
We Are All Made of Stars by Rowan Coleman is about a nurse who writes letters for the patients under her care in a hospice facility. She promises to post them once the patient passed, but what if she can give the chance for redemption by breaking that rule? Should she let things in her personal life interfere with a promise she made the patient?
There is a series written by Neal Shusterman that makes you wonder about the future and all the advancements of science and technology. What if all diseases were cured? What if the world conquered death? How would we “thin” out the population? Scythe is a young adult novel that I was not able to put down. I was in this world all night long, cover to cover, wondering if I was given the opportunity to become a Scythe, would I want the power? How would it feel to be the person who was given just a few hours left to live? How would I choose the method of death for me?
Last but not least, for those young’uns, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst is a must read! The story starts after the family pet has died. The little boy is understandably heartbroken and struggles to come up with all ten good things about his cat that his mother asks him to say at the funeral. Letting go is never easy. Barney was very much loved.
There are so many books and so little time. I could easily turn this into a 100-book-plus list. The important thing is that you can find at least one book that gave you a smile or gave you that “I’m not alone” feeling. Death is no stranger to me. I have gotten that 3 am phone call that you hope you never get, I have sat by the bedside of family members as they have taken their last breaths, I have lost friends and family, young and old. Death does not discriminate, and it is not usually welcomed. You must grieve for each and every one,and sometimes in all different ways. There is no wrong or right way to grieve, and there is no time limit. From all my experiences, as long as you do not stand still for too long, you are on the right path.
With all of the political tumult and economic uncertainty, reading trends have shifted from psychological thrillers (called Grip Lit) to wholesome books like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This new genre has been coined Up(lifting) Lit. Up Lit books focus on humanity’s capacity for kindness and empathy. The stories are centered on relatable characters and offer a measure of empathetic escapism to readers. Since this genre is still in the process of being defined, I decided to ask my coworkers at RCLS what books made them feel hopeful and uplifted, and I have compiled a list of staff favorites as well as a few honorable mentions.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman As the defining book for the Up Lit genre, this book delves into the world of Eleanor Oliphant, who is completely fine, until she helps an elderly man who has fallen with the help of the IT guy from her work and finds herself pulled from her isolationist lifestyle.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon This book has been cited along with Eleanor Oliphant as a defining text in the Up Lit genre and it is easy to see why. After their neighbor disappears, two young girls tackle the case of finding out where she has gone in this whimsical coming-of-age story set in 1976 England.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers A space opera my coworker David O’Flaherty describes as “Science fiction – they’re about finding a place in the universe, friendship, redemption.”
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. “It’s positive without being saccharine and will definitely give readers a cathartic cry. A big plus is that the characters’ love for literature is palpable throughout, so it’s a real book-lovers’ book.” – Brittney Reed-Saltz
Something like Happy by Eva Woods “Annie is stuck in her boring and routine life. She suffered a trauma that left her feeling helpless and refuses to help herself. Along came Polly, with a trauma or two of her own, that makes Annie realize that hers just might not be so bad. Polly teaches Annie what the meaning of life could be, if she lets herself be daring enough to try.” -Marlene Kupsch
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows Witty and intriguing, the book is set in post WWII London where a writer finds unlikely inspiration on a tiny island that developed a way to avoid curfew during occupation. The book is written as a series of letters and examines human connection and a celebration for the written word (Goodreads).
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand “…though it talked of the tragedy of war, I was really amazed at the resilience of the human spirit and ability to survive and even thrive under difficult circumstances.” -Carol Ghattas
The Last Message Received and Dear My Blank: Secret Letters Never Sentby Emily Trunko I am including these together as a set because they are both very raw books that read better together than apart. These books offer a candid look at humanity and its emotions. Last Message is a compilation of last messages, some are hopeful and others are tragic, but they serve as a catalyst to remember what is important and to hold on to those that we love. Dear My Blank is similar, but filled with emotional notes addressed to friends, lovers, family, themselves, and to no one in particular.
The Princess Saves Herself In This Oneby Amanda Lovelace [CW: tackles topics of abuse, violence, depression, and eating disorders] Recommended by Brian Organa, this book of poetry presents a narrative about handling immense trauma in her life and coming out of it empowered as a queen, not a damsel in distress or a princess locked in a tower. It is an anthem call to those who have been abused and made to feel less than they are.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein A renowned comedy writer and producer who has worked on shows such as Transparent, SNL, and Inside Amy Schumer writes about her childhood as a tom-boy and growing into what she has coined as a “tom-man” with all of the comedy and social commentary in between.
Persepolisby Marjane Satrapi “Coming of age story about a young woman seeking to define herself in war-torn Iran. Marjane Satrapi brilliantly brings to life her family’s struggle for freedom and survival. You will laugh and you will cry.” -Caleb McCloud
Honor Girlby Maggie Trash “In this graphic memoir, Maggie goes to summer camp and falls in love for the first time with an older girl. It’s sweet and nostalgic and heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time.” -April Smyth
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell In this fun and relatable coming-of-age story, a girl in deep fandom with the fictional Simon Snow (an alternate Harry Potter) tackles college and being away from her twin sister for the first time. This book promotes the legitimacy of fandoms and fan fiction while examining the importance of family and moving on.
The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller Walter Lavender is unable to speak, but he is an excellent finder. He lives in an enchanted dessert shop with his mother until the source of the shop’s magic is stolen and Walter sets off with his dog to recover it, finding not just the shop’s magic but a part of himself as well.