My Ideal Bookshelf – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

In a darkened theater, waiting for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to start, the trailer for the latest Guillermo del Toro macabre fairy tale, The Shape of Water, plays, and I nudge the elbow of my friend, whispering, “I want to see that.”

After the heartbreaking feature film ends, a discussion follows, which leads to a journey down the Wikipedia rabbit hole until I reach director J.A. Bayona, director of The Orphanage, which was produced by del Toro. Bayona, also, directed the adaptation of the most recent read on my Ideal Bookshelf, A Monster Calls.

I’d been chronicling my thoughts about each book on the figurative shelf until I reached this one.

This one had me stuck and unable to move forward.

And, I am not sure why exactly.

I guess this book has just stayed with me, as did the movie.

How do you tell the story of a child trying to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis?

How do you make that story matter?

How do you make that story linger?

The beautiful illustrations, the core narrative, and the tales within the tale reveal truths about who we are and how we cope with our realities.

When originally read, now, and throughout the course of that time in between, I have dwelled on those truths.

And, as I cope with my own reality and all of its intricacies, I know that I will still keep A Monster Calls in my thoughts.

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My Ideal Bookshelf – Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

It’s always nice finding an author that you can dive into almost any book of theirs and enjoy. Throughout my reading journeys, I have found several of these authors.

In middle school, it was Gary Paulsen, on journeys into into the wilderness to survive in isolation.

In high school, it was Robert A. Heinlein, on journeys into space to rethink the human condition.

These authors would be followed by others: Jasper Fforde, Jon Krakauer, Rick Riordan, Brandon Sanderson, and David Sedaris, to name a few.

And, during my college years, one of those authors was Christopher Moore.

With an insane and inane sense of humor, Christopher Moore’s novels take on everything from the Grim Reaper to Santa Claus to vampires to Shakespeare and pretty much everything in between, including the story of Jesus H. Christ.

Lamb follows Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, as a host of angels commission the inept and misguided Biff to write the untold story of Christ, essentially filling in the years that the good book leaves out. While a hilarious parody in its own right, chronicling debaucherous sex, drug use, and other Bible-worthy shenanigans, Biff’s story relates the shift from the teachings of the Old Testament to the teachings of Christ as he discovers the beliefs of “eastern” religions.

The story is filled with ridiculous magics and other supernatural forces of fiction. And as I read through this highly entertaining fictional account of a religion’s savior, my last shreds agnostic beliefs drifted away on the wings of angels, which according to the world of Night Vale are all named Erica.

My nonreligious convictions have always been a sore spot with living in Oklahoma, surrounded by the devout. When I had tried to express my thoughts, I was told I would grow out of it. Or, I was met with shock that I didn’t believe.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

I don’t really know what to say about this book.

Or, rather, I don’t know how to say what I want to say about this book.

I keep trying to write about why I read it and why it made it to this list, but my thoughts on it never seem to do it justice.

Like Stranger in a Strange Land, I read this one out of an attempt to read the best of science fiction and fantasy by diving through the Hugo and Nebula award winning novels.

My quest ended with The Left Hand of Darkness.

I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers because I had read Have Space Suit – Will Travel in middle school.

On appreciating these two award winning books, I definitely preferred Stranger to Starship. I could never get into Starship and viewed the movie adaptation as a much less pleasant experience than the book.

Being fifty/fifty on my Hugo and Nebula appreciation/enjoyment mission, I moved onto The Left Hand of Darkness.

At least, I think I did.

I think this was the order.

The two by Heinlein, followed by Ursula K. Le Guin, but maybe, I have the order wrong. Maybe, Darkness came before Stranger.

Or, maybe, it doesn’t matter.

Order and continuity usually matters.

But, does it here?

I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness because I had read through and enjoyed the world of Earthsea in middle school.

And, here is where my memory of of this novel becomes fuzzy and skewed. Because, I remember sitting on a chair at a university, waiting for my mom’s class to finish. But, when was this on the timeline of my childhood? Where exactly was I? When was I?

But, I remember reading about an alien world allowing genderless humans to shift into and out of male and female characteristics.

I remember discomfort and unease.

I remember trying to forget it.

But, I remember.

And, I ended my Hugo and Nebula personal reading challenge quest.

And, in ending that quest, another, unbeknownst to me then, began.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

School literature textbooks are packed with stories about all kinds of adventures and civil rights issues and other interesting tidbits. Yet, very few of the excerpts in a literature textbook ever led me to seek out more content from the author.

To my recollection, I can only think of three authors’ works.

Ray Bradbury.

Ursula K. Le Guin.

And, Norton Juster.

In middle school, our class read “All Summer in a Day”, a text that I would later teach both in Oklahoma and in New Mexico. A fantastic read, but it was not the story that led me to seek out more of his work. That story is one whose title escapes me. I believe it was a story set on Mars, and it dealt with time and a robbery. Even searching through Google, I am unable to find the name, but my interest in wanting to reread the story led me to picking up The Martian Chronicles, an excellent bundle of science fiction yarns, but one that ultimately lacked the story I had been searching for. And, thus, my quest continues.

Another read in middle school, this one by Ursula K. Le Guin, would lead me to seek out further adventures of within the watery wizarding world of Earthsea. While, again, the exact title of the short story from the textbook escapes me, it told a story of Earthsea’s protagonist and the power of one’s true name. A Wizard of Earthsea was barely nudged off my ideal bookshelf by other epic fantasies and another of Le Guin’s tales, The Left Hand of Darkness.

I can place the time period of reading a textbook excerpt from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth in either my 4th or 5th grade year. I think I read about the adventures of Milo during my 4th grade year, but I am uncertain. And, googling seems to suggest that the excerpt may have been included in a 5th grade textbook. Regardless, I remember picking up the book and enjoying it soon after reading the excerpt in class. But, I soon forgot about the book. I never thought back to it. That is until it was time to fill my classroom library, and I picked up a copy at a Scholastic Warehouse sale.

I reread it.

And, it was like being reacquainted with an old friend.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, 1), Robert Jordan

In high school, I found my genre of choice when it comes to reading, fantasy, but not just fantasy, epic fantasy. For my middle school years, I had focused on Accelerated Reader to take home top prizes, like an air hockey table or, the finally replaced, sleeping bag.

Looking back now, I can’t seem to remember which series I launched into first, but it was during my high school years that I devoured the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, Sword of Truth, and The Wheel of Time.

All three books were discovered via recommendations.

A Game of Thrones, the first of A Song of Ice and Fire, was recommended by my former teacher, who was an author herself and had managed to get its author to attend a local science fiction and fantasy convention, the now defunct Conestoga. Having no idea of the future cultural impact of A Game of Thrones, I wish I could remember the conversation I had with George R.R. Martin, but alas, it was 2005. I never would have foreseen the books being made into Tits with a Chance of Dragons, er, I mean, Game of Thrones. Whether the book was recommended because of her horror that I was reading Terry Goodkind or she was simply plugging the con’s guest of honor’s book, I couldn’t say, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first three books in the series and would soon become accustomed to the long, long (and, at times, disappointing) wait as authors refused to finish books at my demands.

A Wizard’s First Rule, authored by Terry Goodkind and which has already been written about on a previous entry, was recommended by an older cousin, the one who introduced me to anime, which could very well explain a lot . . . Anyway, the first of the Sword of Truth series was great, but as a whole, the series was very hit or miss, and due to an unexpected continuation, still unfinished. So while fun and escapism, it is not the series I have come back to or the one that led me to my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson.

That epic fantasy series would be The Wheel of Time, and the book that started it all, being The Eye of the World. Recommended by the former high school librarian turned FBI analyst, it was a series first read throughout my high school years. I would be ready to drive the Silver Fox to Borders to pick up the next book in the series, which would lead my mom to go retrieve my early Christmas present from her closet. I read three of the series in the car on the way to Colorado to go skiing with my dad and stepmom and found more time to read during that trip after coming down with the flu, cutting my skiing short. I read Lord of Chaos, book six during, either, my freshman or junior year because I distinctly remember drawing the map of the series’s world as an assignment, assigned by the teacher and parent of my junior year’s date for prom, the one who, likely due to karma, went home with her mom midway through prom. I remember Crossroads of Twilight, book ten, being my first hardcover purchase of the series.

My second read through of the series would be after the author’s death and the announcement that Brandon Sanderson would be completing Jordan’s fourteen volume magnum opus. I spent a lot of time rereading the series on European trains. During my college summer abroad at Oxford, I would shove the thick books into the pockets of my khaki shorts I’d worn since middle school and explore history. Long lost digital photos of long lost acquaintances snapping a picture of me lost in the series as the train rattled to Florence.

My third read through of the series began with twenty-five minute commutes from a duplex in Norman, OK to my school in Oklahoma City. Read by two extremely talented individuals who would later go on to bring auditory life to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive series. I would refinish book fourteen in mid-August of 2015, months before, through my own actions, my life changed forever. For a lot of reasons, I think of those commutes often. Very often.

I think on this series often and where I was when I was reading it and who I was when I was reading it.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Job: A Comedy of Justice

Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert A. Heinlein

Oh, religion.

I’d call you quaint and adorable, but you are used to embolden bigots and racists. You are used to subjugate women. You are used to justify wars and murder. You are . . . Okay, this post is about another Heinlein novel, not my many bones to pick with religion . . . This is going to go well.

During my ninth grade year of high school, once a week, I made the mile or so trek up the hill from my high school to my grandparents’ diner where I met with an elder of the church to discuss the weekly readings from The New Testament. Honestly, I don’t remember which gospel it was. Perhaps, Mark, Luke, John, or Ringo. But, it was required reading in order to be confirmed in the Methodist Church.

I don’t remember what prompted this confirmation quest.

Was this my final attempt at connecting with the omnipotent bearded man in the sky?

Or, was this another attempt by family forces to get me to accept the three-faced god into my heart?

My previous attempts to find some meaning in “the good book” resulted in memories of being bullied, feeling isolated, and being a confidant for my youth minister as she described the suicidal tendencies of her husband.

And while those were only my direct associations with “the good book”, I know how it can be used to help cope with and justify an affair or to help wash away other “sins” of one’s past.

The words of The Bible just never sat right with me. It all seemed like a poorly written version of Tolkien’s Simarillion, which wasn’t that well written either.

But, the moral ambiguity was there.

The life lessons were there.

The plot holes were there.

And, at the end of this book study, I was confirmed in the church and the man I had been meeting with to study the word of a god was soon diagnosed with cancer.

After being confirmed in the church, my church goings almost completely ceased. Perhaps, it had something to do with working at my grandparents’ diner on Wednesdays and Sundays, or how my high school peers referred to those two days as the days in which a woman can’t get pregnant because, you know, they are God’s days.

And, it was immediately following my Methodist confirmation that I came across Job: A Comedy of Justice. A fictional book highlighting the hypocrisies of Christianity and religion in general, and it confirmed that Texas was in fact Hell on Earth.

This book is another case of the right book at the right time because after rereading it in the course of the last few years, this book didn’t make it onto my Ideal Bookshelf for its writing quality.

It was another book that helped me to see things differently and come to terms with my, at the time, agnostic outlook, or as Stephen Colbert would say, my atheist without balls outlook.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein is an author who completely opened up my way of thinking by showing me new ways of looking at the world. But, in recent years, I have reread Job: A Comedy of Justice and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and I have come to realize that the quality of his writing and storytelling doesn’t necessarily hold up.

The ideas aren’t as grand as I had once thought they were. The misogyny and weird sex stuff is a bit too prevalent, but when I had originally begun reading Heinlein’s work, I just remember being blown away by how different these worlds were and the thinking of his characters.

The first book of his I picked up was Have Space Suit – Will Travel, which was one of his more YA centric books, and I only picked it up because I was running out of fantasy and sci-fi to read my middle school’s library.

I remember enjoying the sci-fi jaunt. But, I didn’t make my way back to Heinlein’s more adult centric outings until high school. For a period of time, I wanted to read as many Nebula and Hugo winning books as I could get my hands on, which led me to Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and many more Heinlein novels which seemed to get weirder and weirder.

For the most part, I grokked and enjoyed them.

But, I always felt highly awkward reading them in class because of the scantily clad women on the covers of the books. Yet, my embarrassment never held me back from reading them.

As I would peruse the Heinlein paperbacks at the local and now defunct Borders, I would always pick up I Will Fear No Evil, consider reading it and put it back.

I was not afraid of the naked blue and white, star covered woman on the cover.

Rather, it was the exploration of gender that kept me away.

It was something I was not ready to grok.

My Ideal Bookshelf – A Wizard’s First Rule

A Wizard’s First Rule (The Sword of Truth, 1), Terry Goodkind

There are very few books where I can visualize where I was when I was reading it. Or, remember my exact spot in the book for this visualization.

A Wizard’s First Rule is one of those rare books.

I had said sayonara to my waterbed, which I still sorely miss, and I was lying on my bed reading. My extra-long twin bed was certainly not the most comfortable, but it was necessary as it would be my new bed once the eponymous “shack in the back” was finished.

The shack in the back was no mere shack. Instead, it was a garage/apartment/game room that was built in the back of my mom and stepdad’s yard. The first level featured an oversized two car garage, which my mom has slowly begun to claim as her clay studio, and the second story featured a big screen tv, whatever game system had recently been popular, my Accelerated Reader auction prize air hockey table, a small bathroom with the smallest shower imaginable, and an efficiency style apartment.

I would claim this as my living space my senior year of high school, even before it had water running to it.

The tradition of moving out to the shack in the back one’s senior year of high school was passed down to my brother . . . but so far, the tradition has ended there, since my sister is moving off to college without the shack in the back experience.

So, I laid on my red and blue checkered quilt furiously reading through the pages of A Wizard’s First Rule.

I couldn’t put it down.

The pain, the torture that the protagonist was enduring was nearly impossible to get through. But, I kept reading because things had to get better.

They had to.     

My brother knocked on my door, wanting to play Legos.

And while how it went in down in reality versus how it plays on in my memory may differ slightly, I roared at my brother, “Get out! I’m reading!”

My floor to ceiling personal Legoland would continue to collect dust.

And, I would continue to read, ignoring everything else around me.

In middle and high school, classmates would say that the world could end or the floor would open up or there would be an explosion, and I would ignore it all and keep reading.

With a book like, A Wizard’s First Rule, this was likely true.

And while the series as a whole is a bit uneven, many of them were just as addictive and impossible to put down.

But, in the end, this book pointed out a universal truth, which just so happened to be the wizard’s first rule.

People are stupid.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

So far, the books from my Ideal Bookshelf are books I’ve read multiple times.

The Invasion, twice.

Marvel 1602, lost count.

Lord of the Flies, at least three times, possibly four.

The first time I attempted to read Lord of the Flies, I was in 5th grade and was reading it at my mom’s behest. I don’t really remember much about my impressions the first time reading it. I think it was a bit over my head for a 5th grade reading.

I am pretty sure I read it again, sometime in middle school, but alas, I cannot put my finger on exactly when. Mayhaps, in 8th grade?

My freshman year provided another opportunity to read it, as it was assigned reading along with The Pearl (which made me think I would always loathe Steinbeck, not the case) and Romeo and Juliet (which made me think I would always loathe Shakespeare, also, not the case).  Whether it was my disdain for the other two assigned readings (and how they were presented in class) or my finding Lord of the Flies to be a more mature version of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, I loved it.

A survival story, sans adults, but with a look at how society works and how society thinks.

A Hatchet with constant moose attacks where the good guy doesn’t walk away unscathed and may not even walk away at all.

Kind of like life.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602, Neil Gaiman

I’ve always enjoyed comic books and superheroes.

I spent many a childhood weekend morning watching the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and others save the world again and again. I had a small stack of random back issues and my sole graphic novel, The Death of Superman, in my adolescent space-then-fishing room and would read and reread them over and over again.

I no longer have any of those back issues, having given them to my mom for various art projects over the years.

Much to the disappointment of others, I did not grow out of my comic book reading. Heck, I spent the weekend Robert Kirkman’s Invincible series, Jason Aaron’s incontinuity Star Wars run, and the wildly fun Greg Pak series, The Totally Awesome Hulk. Let’s just say that the Hoopla app and the Marvel Unlimited app make my little ol’ nerd heart happy.

While I did read a comic book issue here and there, I never considered myself a comic book reader. This shift occurred during the summer before my junior year of high school. On my first trip to New York City, a trip to see musicals and sightsee, one of the tour guides kept telling me about the Batman: Hush story arc. I eventually made my way to Midtown Comics and purchased the first volume and wanting to pick up a souvenir for my brother walked away with the first volume of Ultimate X-Men, an alternate Marvel Universe series, which reintroduced the origin of the X-Men in a modern day setting and bypassed decades of continuity.

Batman: Hush was good, well written by Jeph Loeb and fantastic art by Jim Lee, but I still wasn’t a comic addict, yet. After returning from New York City, I wanted to find the second volume for Hush, and I made my way to a Tulsa comic book shop. It’s there that I found my fix and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602.

I’d settled in for the long haul of reading the Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Spider-Man series, but it was not until I found Marvel 1602 that I truly became a comic book reader.

On the bus to a contest speech tournament, I was admonished for reading it and not reviewing my lines, but I couldn’t put it down.

It was a fun and clever.

It was an escape.