Curious book: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The following is an essay written for the online Coursera course “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.”

Even those who only know Dracula from a breakfast cereal or Sesame Street character can acknowledge the pervasiveness of the icons and themes of Bram Stoker’s famous Vampire throughout our culture. Even greater than the terror induced by the blood-sucking villain, however, is the cognitive tension Stoker creates throughout the novel through his use of correspondence, journals, and telegrams. The observant reader experiences a juxtaposition between the fear of anticipating whether a character has endured an outcome and the reassurance that the author (at least) has survived to complete the entry and deliver it to someone able to preserve and distribute it.

The reader’s tension begins to build from the first several chapters consisting of Jonathan’s journal. Just as we begin to wonder, for example, if Jonathan’s run-in with the three vampiresses will end in his demise, it dawns on us that he must indeed have survived to write the very journal entry we’re reading! Yet having realized this, we subsequently forget the logic as we get caught up in the drama of each new encounter. Even at the end of the novel when Professor Van Helsing describes, in his own hand, his final encounter with the same Undead ladies, we must, in order to preserve the mystery that makes reading the novel so enjoyable, forget that he has already come through the other side of the ordeal.

To fully appreciate this writing technique, the reader must enter a “suspension of disbelief.” With the exception of those with eidetic memory, few individual have an exceptional capability of attention and recall. Yet with our heroes, each writer is able to capture verbatim the dialog spoken by various characters. On the other hand, many religious faithful accept the veracity of Scriptural texts which have typically been written many years after the events they record occurred as well.

See other books in the Curious Library.

Curious book: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

The following is an essay written for the online Coursera course “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.”

Download Through the Looking Glass here: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carroll/lewis/looking/

In the dream worlds Lewis Carroll creates in his pair of books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” the whimsical journeys challenge the reader to investigate the real world from the perspective of a young child. At seven years old, Alice struggles with the expectations of growing up including pressures from parents, peers, and teachers. The characters and her struggle with size both represent elements of the real world with which she is trying to come to terms.

The white rabbit, with his obsession about time, represents time itself and Alice’s youth that is quickly disappearing. Her innocence and uninhibited creativity are in danger of expiring as she grows up. The Caterpillar, the March Hare, and the Hatter reflect her opinion of adults as silly creatures who live meaningless lives and who twist logic to their own advantage. The Queen of Hearts is the prototypical adult woman in Alice’s life with irrational expectations, bossing around Alice and others, and punishing everyone who crosses her. Finally, the absurd croquet game and the final trial both demonstrate how unfair and arbitrary a child must see similar institutions in the real world.

Her shifting physical size represents her struggle between wanting to stay a child (but being seen as childish) and realizing she is maturing (with the fear of responsibility). After her encounter with the Caterpillar, she chooses to hold on to a bit of each side the mushroom in order to grow or shrink as the situation demands. In the same way, a mature individual can be both playful and responsible. During the trial, she finally grows big enough to assert herself. With newfound confidence, we then see her enter Looking Glass world, where Alice is willing to stand up for herself in the face of the demands and ridicule from characters like the Red and White Queens.

See other books in the Curious Library.

Back on the shelf: The Back of the Napkin

A fun and quick course in expressing ideas in pictures, Roam helps anyone – even those who are self-professed non-artists – learn how to use the most basic shapes and symbols to create a visual depiction of a complex proposal.

From amazon.com:

“There is no more powerful way to prove that we know something well than to draw a simple picture of it. And there is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem.”

So writes Dan Roam in The Back of the Napkin, the international bestseller that proves that a simple drawing on a humble napkin can be more powerful than the slickest PowerPoint presentation. Drawing on twenty years of experience and the latest discoveries in vision science, Roam teaches readers how to clarify any problem or sell any idea using a simple set of tools.

He reveals that everyone is born with a talent for visual thinking, even those who swear they can’t draw. And he shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.

See other books in the Curious Library.

Back on the shelf: Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm

The following is an essay I wrote as part of the online Coursera course “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.”

The fifty-two fairy tales collected in “Household Stories” by the Brothers Grimm are an original retelling of classic stories, untainted by Western influences on palatability or sensibility. They alternate between heartwarming, horrifying, and ridiculous and reflect three aspects of our culture: fears, desires, and principles.

The fear of persecution is reflected in stories where family members, thieves, or those in power abuse an unwitting or undeserving individual without cause and with seemingly no way out. Another fear, that of inescapable “bad luck,” is seen in characters that create capricious obstacles that require inconvenient solutions required for the hero’s rescue.

Desires for food and companionship are met through items like a magic tablecloth or a golden goose that provide unlimited wealth and provision and through the promise of a maiden’s hand or birth of a child.

Warnings, typically passed from parents to children, are documented in stories where obedience, selflessness, ambition, and tenacity lead to the success of the story’s hero.

A surprising theme that permeates the tales is a demeaning depiction of women, reflecting the male-dominated culture that distrusted and demeaned women. Women are often demonized as mothers, stepmothers, stepsisters, and others take pleasure in persecuting others. Women are also made out to be simpletons, who require a man – e.g., husband or prince – to rescue them. Men, on the other hand, are almost universally the rescuers and protectors. 

Similarly, those of low social class that surreptitiously come into wealth foolishly squander it or worse, use it to manufacture their own demise. In contrast, those of noble birth (and therefore wealthy) use their wealth for some great purpose – typically benevolent but sometimes evil.

Contemporary adaptations of ancient tales attempt to undo these stereotypes. To wit, the strong(er) Rapunzel character in the movie “Tangled” and the title character in “Aladdin” both demonstrate strong character and intelligence.

See what else is on my bookshelf…

Back on the shelf: Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Herman Melville

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.

I came across a blog post that mentioned this novella by Melville and was intrigued for two reasons. One, the main character embodies a counter-cultural attitude (to a fault) wherein he simply says “I would prefer not to” when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. My second reason for reading this tome came from being a fan of the Bone graphic novel series, in which the title character – himself a fan of Moby Dick (a novel I didn’t much care for) – befriends a baby monster and names it Bartleby. The story progresses slowly and deliberately, taking the reader through various moral quandaries experienced by the storyteller, a mid-19th century Wall Street lawyer who employs the odd Bartleby as a scrivener (a copyist). As the lawyer wrestles with Bartleby, his quirky staff who are perturbed by their new colleague, and his own conscience, we’re challenged to decide how we would respond if placed in his shoes. While somewhat dark, the haunting and memorable story can be read in a couple hours and is well worth it.

See what else is on my bookshelf…

Back on the shelf: The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic

Neil Gaiman

In this graphic novel, Gaiman, one of my favorite fiction authors, explores darker version of a character that closely resembles the more familiar Harry Potter (though this was written years before Potter was). Instead of the towering and goofy Hagrid, our protagonist Timothy is instead intercepted by four darkly grim – and rather disturbing – men and whisked away on an equally disturbing adventure through the darkest realms of the magical world. During the journey, he is taught about the perils of accepting his talent and destiny about which, up to this point, he had had no clue.

Richly drawn in four distinct art styles, this is not light reading, though it is very much Gaiman’s quirky and unpredictable style of fantasy. This wasn’t my favorite work by the author, but I still recommend it to anyone who enjoys his work.

See what else is on my bookshelf…

Two books show kids that they are special

Lately, I’ve been striking gold in the children’s section of our local library (if you haven’t been to your local library recently, I highly suggest you give it a try!). The following are two heartwarming stories that reinforce the valuable contributions every person has to offer, no matter how young.
Little Wolf’s Song. Anyone who has grown up trying to catch up to older siblings will feel the message in this story. Little Wolf would love to howl like the rest of his family, but he can’t. What’s worse, his siblings taunt him for it. Despite reassurance from his parents, it’s not until Little Wolf gets lost in the snowy woods at night that he finds his howl. This is a story about not giving up and waiting for the right opportunity to find your true talents.

 

Brewster the Rooster. Something is wrong with the family rooster and he’s creating havoc for the entire family. After little Julie realizes that he needs glasses, everything becomes much clearer! Told in hilarious poetic rhyme, this book combines vivid engaging illustrations with a message that sometimes answers come from the littlest family members and to not give up looking for solutions to a problem!

Three wonderful children’s books

Jon Acuff recently recommended a couple of children’s books with encouraging messages, which I quickly added to my reading list (though unfortunately, our library doesn’t carry them yet). Coincidentally, I also recently came across some children’s books that stand out from the dozens we plow through monthly.

I often feel overwhelmed when I enter our local library to find new books that the kids will enjoy and that have a positive and meaningful message. Thankfully, our librarians regularly pluck out some of their favorites and place them on top of the low children’s bookshelves. I’ve taken to simply browsing these selections since it has resulted in many gems. Here are three that recently stood out.

moon rabbit (Natalie Russell). If you’ve ever experienced the desire to travel beyond your home, then had the conflicting desire to return to the comforts of home, you’ll appreciate this charming tale. Little Rabbit loves her city life, but longs to find her soul mate. One day she follows the sound of music to the country and finds Brown Rabbit, with whom she becomes fast friends. Hanging out in the countryside enjoying her new friend, Little Rabbit eventually longs for the familiar experiences of the city. The two new friends find a wonderful compromise in the final pages of the book.

Fletcher and the Falling Leaves (Julie Rawlinson). Fletcher is a young fox who loves his favorite tree. But something is terribly wrong as the tree begins to lose its leaves. Fletcher struggles as nature and other animals begin to prepare for Fall, but in the end finds that change isn’t so bad after all! You can hear the entire book read in this video.

You and Me, Little Bear (Martin Waddell). “Mommy, Daddy, play with me!” This is a refrain every parent hears countless times every day. Little Bear is no different and wants to play with his dad. But Big Bear has a busy day of chores that he can’t put off (sound familiar?). The two find out, however, that work and play do not have to be as different as we often make them out to be. Simple watercolor images make this a great anytime story.