Black Friday is These Books

I’m not sure I get Black Friday anymore. It’s increasingly easy to get goods and gifts online, and at discount prices pretty much the same as the ones in store too. The weather is usually pretty crappy this time of the year, and I’m typically more interested in sleeping off Thanksgiving than getting into a fistfight over a TV at Best Buy at four in the morning. I prefer to stay home on Black Friday.

Still, though, there are plenty fascinated with Black Friday, like they would be with a vicious car wreck I suppose. You just can’t look away. Except now you can! Instead of watching the depressing news of mobs taking over stores today, you could simply read a few books. Specifically, you could read the books I’ve compiled in this list here, because they are the texts I feel best simulate the experience of being on the front lines of Black Friday.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan: This is a well written YA apocalypse novel that part standard zombie apocalypse, (the hands and teeth in the titular forest) and M. Night Shyamalan’s the Village. A town has built a safe zone out of a system of fencing, walls and other protection in the middle of an isolated forest. Isolated, that is, except for all the zombies of course. To keep people feeling safe, and to keep stringent laws and codes in place, a whole tribal hierarchy is in place that heavily echoes the first part of the Village, but this story is better because the monsters are real and not Adrien Brody in an evil porcupine cloak costume.

Protagonist Mary eventually has to decide whether to brave the deadly zombie forest or face certain death in the village itself. This is often how I feel on Black Friday. I randomly find that I need something small, a new charger cable or some soap, and I have to decide whether getting this item is worth venturing out into an apocalyptic department store that could very likely be full of blood thirsty zombies… I mean customers. Always a very difficult choice.

Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama: This vastly successful anime and manga series also plays with the idea of humans quarantining themselves off from a world overrun by monsters, but with this excellent series I want to focus on the main monsters. Titans, the one’s we’re supposed to be attacking according to the title you guys, are these freakish giants with abnormally large mouths and often other strangely proportioned body parts that just make them look all the more terrifying. Their uniqueness makes them even better than traditional zombies at highlighting how these monsters we are fighting are merely warped versions of ourselves. Incomprehensible, gluttonous nightmares we feel we cannot possibly understand, as much as they do remind us of our worst selves. When we see someone on the news arrested for stabbing someone over a toaster, isn’t part of our horror in recognizing this person as an eerie, dark reflection of your own greedy instincts? What would you really do for a toaster at that steep a discount, huh? Do you know? Do you?

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton: This is perhaps the most straightforward comparison on the list. Sure, it starts out seeming like a cool idea. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs/saving big money on fancy gift towel sets? At first though, it just seems like a great idea and a natural extension of our capitalistic, consumerist world. Long extinct dangerous creatures in a theme park? Sure, Where else would we put them, and the gift shops too! Well of course there would be a crowd interested lining up outside a store at midnight, with these deals? And sure dinosaurs might get a bit snippy. They’re wild animals after all, put we’ve got safe guards against…OH GOD NO THE FENCES ARE DOWN RUN! Sure, there are lots of people waiting to get in line, and these prices are pretty cheap, but people won’t go too crazy about this. They aren’t animals…OH MY GOD THE DOORS ARE OPEN, RUN! Then we realize it was all a sick parody designed to expose the inherent flaws in our society.

There you have it, three books you could read and still get that full Black Friday experience without serious bodily harm. Stay harm and safe this holiday season!

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Being Mortal: A Modern Ars Moriendi

Way back in medieval times, when death could come at any moment and was a whole lot more present in people’s lives than it is now, there was this important notion of the Ars Moriendi, or the art of dying. Texts of this title would describe the ideal way for family members and the dying person themselvesto behave and make sure the dying soul can pass into the afterlife in the right mindset, not overtaken by any sort of sin or flaw. In true medieval style, they show this  process by throwing a bunch of random demon creatures and people into pictures of the scenario. Oh, and also a dying Jesus. Can’t have medieval art without a random depiction of Christ’s agony at the Crucifixion.

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Woodcut illustration from an Ars Moriendi text.

We don’t think about death in the same way anymore, and looking at those weird lil’ demon guys in the bottom left corner that does make me a little happier, but a book I came across recently convinced me that, as seldom as we have to face death in this modern day, we need a  modern Ars Moriendi. A book about how we face death, both how we do and how we should, would be very important. Luckily, I finally got my hands on a copy of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

Gawande is a doctor that felt increasingly dissatisfied with how the medical community treats death, and how, by extension, the general public reacts to and experiences death as well. He focuses both on elderly people dying of old age in nursing homes and terminally ill people facing a variety of diseases and aggressive medical treatments for them.

Mainly, Gawande believes right now that our society is suffering because too many aspects of death are taken over by the institutional and the medical. There’s the horror stories of relatives abandoned in nursing homes and stripped of all freedom, and there are desperate cancer patients trying so many aggressive treatments in hopes of recovery that more often than not end up shortening their lives.

Reading this book is a very emotional experience, because even if you’re lucky enough to not have anything like this happen to you yet, the personal accounts of patients and people interviewed by Gawande for this book take it beyond philosophy and ethics into a deeply gut-wrenching and emotional journey, one that lends extra weight to the topic and shows people why having this discussion matters.

In the end, that is the main thing I feel Gawande wanted people to take away from his book. It’s not so much a book telling you how to die as it is a book reminding you that you need to discuss how you want to die. As painful as that conversation is, he points to so many times when families, including his own, had the pain of a truly traumatic medical choice lessened by remembering what their loved one said they wanted during a previously held discussion of what they’d wish to endure. In making people discuss death, Gawande hopes they will realize what the current system is lacking in care and kindness, and that people will do what they can to change it, or at least find their family a safe, comforting spot inside it.

This was a really intense read for me, but I kept pushing myself to go on with it because I wanted to be confident I could engage in the modern Ars Moriendi and make sure the people I cared about would be well taken care of when the time comes. As emotional as this book made me, I recommend it for anyone who worries about how their death or that of their loved ones can be handled gracefully and peacefully.

Books For When You’re Low.

Hey guys. It’s my rough estimate that recent events in politics have many of you feeling pretty low. I’m right there too. It’s times like these that you have to bring out your comfort books. I’ve got a few solid buddies it feels great to have by my side, no matter how many times I’ve reread them. Of course, this is all very much a matter of personal taste, to each their own, but I’ll tell you what I love about my comfort books and maybe afterwards you can tell me about yours in the comments below. If you don’t think you have any, maybe this’ll give you inspiration.

Mary Oliver Poetry: I believe that one of my very first entries was about Mary Oliver and how much I enjoy her poetry. What I enjoy most about her work is that I always find it incredibly calming in it’s simple frankness. She sees beauty in the world and especially nature, but finds a way to put down that beauty in a simple way that is almost the inverse of the florid, ostentatious Romantic pieces waxing poetic about nature that you might remember from High School English class. One of my favorite quotes from her is about how to live life.

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

-Mary Oliver

Howl’s Moving Castle: This is a fantasy book by Diana Wynne Jones I read and fell in love with when I was younger, so I usually take it out when I feel especially nostalgic, or when I think of the brilliant movie adaptation by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a good old rollicking fantasy adventure about a shy young woman coming into her own and realizing her magical inner strength, (hmm I wonder why I related to this book so much,) and also about her romance with the difficult wizard Howl. In trying to teach Howl to be honest with his emotions and face up to things, an important lesson for Howl in the book, she utters one of the best lines the book and film, one that reminds me it is okay to feel overburdened emotionally, because I’m a human with a heart.

“A heart’s a heavy burden.”

-Diana Wynne Jones

The Tao of Pooh: That’s Pooh as in Winnie the Pooh people, a Taoist text taught by Winnie the Pooh people. I wrote a previous post about why this book means a lot to me. In short, my dad gave it to me when I graduated high school because he’d enjoyed reading it and learned a lot. He both wanted to share it with me for the joy of sharing a good book and to help me prepare for going out into the adult world and handling myself. It was the first text I’d ever read about Taoism, and I found it very helpful when I needed to keep my hyperactive, anxiety inducing impulses in check. The Tao of Pooh showed me how you can use what you’ve been given in unexpected ways to find happiness.

“…instead of struggling to erase what are referred to as negative emotions, we can learn to use them in positive ways. We could describe the principle like this: while pounding on the piano keys may produce noise, removing them doesn’t exactly further the creation of music.”

-Benjamin Hoff

All these texts are very comforting companions to me right now. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but I’ve got my books to anchor me and keep on pushing me in the right direction. I’ve gotten through a whole lot of tough stuff with my comfort  books before, and I’m feeling confident they can help me get through this too.

Welcome NaNoWriMo!

I know this blog is usually more about reading books than about writing them, but this first week of November heralds the beginning of NaNoWriMo, a truly momentous endeavor that I simply have to acknowledge. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, happens every November. Writers interested in participating have one month to write a whole novel. That’s a minimum of 50,000 words. It’s essentially a marathon for writers, but without the physical activity part, which is probably for the best, thinking of some of the writers I know, (myself definitely included.)

This isn’t just an insane exercise that turns out half-formed rush jobs though. You’d be surprised by some of the books that originally came out of NaNoWriMo. There are several lists all over the internet for you to look at, but three of the most recognizable titles include Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and each of the Lunar Chronicles books, a YA series by Marissa Meyer. Not all of these writers actually finished their entire book in one November. Morgenstern, for example, needed two NaNoWriMo’s to finish Night Circus. Still, these incredible books were all spurred on into existence by one very special organization.

You see, NaNoWriMo isn’t only the name of the event, it’s the name of the organization that promotes the month of writing and acts as a support network for people in a number of ways. Writers who sign up for NaNoWriMo online get help creating a writing schedule and connections to other writers in the NaNoWriMo community. Famous writers such as Maggie Stiefvater or  Alexander Chee from last year will write pep talks that are released throughout November. Writers in the same area often organize write-ins, meetings where all nearby writers get together and just work on their books. Seeing as you have to write over 1,600 words a day to reach 50,000 by the end of the month, authors definitely need all the help they can get.

The sheer numbers can be intimidating, and sure, NaNoWriMo can’t be attempted by everyone every year, but many people praise the month long event for giving them the motivation to write with a focus and intensity they never knew, to start that one story they never thought they could put down to paper. It’s the community and network that really pulls people through.

We’re only four days into November, so if you’re really into the idea, there’s still time to sign up. This November also happens to be when I have finals, so I won’t be able to join you, unfortunately. The 50,000+ words I’ll be writing this month will all be for term papers and exams, and trust me it’s much less readable and enjoyable than Water for Elephants.

If you’re still intrigued by NaNoWriMo but feel left out because you can’t write, maybe you’d like to hear about the organization’s charity work and see how you could support it. They’ve got writing camps for young people, initiatives to build spaces for writing in libraries and the like, and school programs to develop writing skills and creative expression. They have a shop for merchandise and donations on their site.

I realize now this is starting to sound like sponsored content but I swear it isn’t. This whole concept, from the idea to the organization, just appeals to me so much as a reader and writer. Hopefully I’ve intrigued you too. Whether you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo, check out their organization, or even just chase down some famous NaNoWriMo books and read them, I hope you’ll find a way to celebrate National Novel Writing Month.

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image courtesy of nanowrimo.org