Shadows of the Dark Crystal

Shadows of the Dark Crystal

by J.M. Lee


“Ahhhhhh, Gelfling!”

Stretched out in that high-pitched screech (Supplied by the inimitable Frank Oz), that phrase has been with me since my childhood. I loved the Muppets, loved Jim Henson’s creations; The Dark Crystal most especially. It was one of the most magical fantasies I can remember, and elements of it — Aughra’s massive astrolabe, the singing of the Mystics, Fizzgig, the Landstriders, and of course, the Skeksis — have never left me, never left my imagination.

And now I got to live them all over again. In Shadows of the Dark Crystal, by J.M. Lee.

First, for fans of the movie, let me say: the book lives up to it. It has very much the same feel, that magical, soft-edged fantasy world suddenly interrupted and fractured by deeply disturbing and grotesque nightmares; going from the sweet, pastoral life of the Gelfling, to the corruption of the land by the flaw at the heart of the Dark Crystal, which creates and unleashes monsters — the book is very much in line with all of that. It keeps the same essential storyline, as well; nothing in the book veers away from the original world. So if you loved The Dark Crystal, absolutely you should read this book.

For those who are not necessarily fans of the movie, let me say: this is a genuinely good book. It’s a young adult fantasy, with the perfect heroine for the genre: Naia is the daughter of the clan leader of a tribe of Gelfling who live in the Swamp of Sog; she leaves home on a quest to seek out her twin brother, who left home to be a guard at the Castle of the Crystal, and now needs help. She is strong and brave and capable, but she is young, and so she suffers self-doubt and frequent moments where she is not sure what is the right thing to do. But her kindness and her courage carry her through, as far as those things can; what happens then, I’ll leave for the book to reveal. The action in the story is exciting without being overly gruesome or violent; the language and the writing are interesting and well-crafted without going beyond the abilities of a young adult reader; the world is vast and beautiful and wonderfully described.

All that said: the book really does follow in the footsteps of the original movie, and so I would highly recommend watching that, first. If you like what the imagination of Jim Henson and Brian Froud created, you’ll like what J.M. Lee added to it; if the movie is too dark or disturbing for you to enjoy or allow your children to watch, then you’ll probably feel the same way about the book.

If I have any criticism, it’s that I wish the storyline had started farther back: not to spoil anything, but I’d be more interested in reading about how the villains of the movie became that way, how the original problem started, rather than how the situation that exists at the beginning of the movie got to be that way, which is essentially what this book tells. However, there will be a series — the novel isn’t a cliffhanger, but the story doesn’t end with the ending of this book — and perhaps we’ll find out more.

I am, without question, going to keep reading these books. And I’m going to go watch the movie again.

Hey — You Wanna See a Dead Body?

Working Stiff
By Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

This was an outstanding book. And it was extraordinarily gruesome.

It’s not the first non-fiction book I’ve read about corpses and cadavers and the like; Stiff, by Mary Roach, was another excellent book that explored the different ways that we in the modern world deal with our dead — burial, cremation, preservation, repurposing, and the like. And if you want to include fiction, forget about it: I read a pile of the Kay Scarpetta mystery novels, not to mention all the zombies. And it’s a lot of zombies.

But this book is the first memoir I’ve read by an actual medical examiner (co-authored with her husband, who is a writer), a fully trained pathologist who examines the dead in order to determine how they got that way.

And Dr. Melinek holds nothing back: she describes the procedures (Including how they remove and examine the organs), the tools (Including a butcher knife and a pair of long-handled pruning shears), and the responses: her own as well as those of the victims’ families. It is a detailed, up-close guided tour to the world of the medical examiner.

She talks about gunshot wounds, about stabbings, about poisonings; she talks about drug overdoses; she talks about heart attacks and strokes and TRALI, the incredibly rare syndrome when one receives a blood transfusion with just the wrong sorts of antibodies (Or, as in this case, one has just the wrong antibodies already in the bloodstream when that transfusion happens) and the lungs fill with fluid, causing death within hours. She talks quite a lot about falls and drownings and car accidents.

And she talks about being pregnant, and being a mother; she talks about her career and her marriage; she talks about her attempt to become a surgeon before she settled on pathology. She talks about living in several different cities in pursuit of her goals. She talks, entirely candidly and at length, about her own father’s suicide by hanging at the age of 38, when she was 13.

And yeah: she talks about 9/11. You see, Dr. Melinek began working as a medical examiner in New York City in July of 2001. She was one of the 30 medical examiners that dealt with all of the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center and the subsequent events.

So: if you don’t mind hearing about blood and guts, and perhaps most disturbingly, what happens to the blood and the guts when things go wrong, I think this is definitely a book worth reading. It is honest, it is genuine, it is clear, it is informative. It is really gross. And it is really good.


I Am Malala
by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick


I saw Malala on The Daily Show, after hearing about her, of course, when the shooting happened and she became the international cause celebre; I was impressed by her poise and her humility, as well as her courage and her dedication to her cause.

I had no idea.

After reading this book, I am more than impressed: I am amazed. Because she just doesn’t make that much of it. She talks mostly about her family and her homeland and her childhood: about fighting with her brothers, about gossiping with her best friends at school, about how disappointed she was when she didn’t win first place in her class. She talks about how close her relationship is with her parents, and her parents’ different roles in the family: her father, the idealist, pushing for change, trying to do what he thought was right; her mother the steady one, the rock that the family held onto and held itself together. She herself comes of as very much an ordinary girl: when the Taliban began invading her homeland, the Swat River valley in Pakistan, she doesn’t even mention at first when she began giving interviews and talking to community leaders about the importance of education; at one point she just says, “I had already appeared on television a few times talking about these matters.” This when she was eleven.

The shooting itself, she doesn’t remember. Understandable, considering that she got shot in the left temple, and bone splinters stabbed into her brain, and an infection led to emergency surgery that removed part of her skull, which was eventually replaced with a titanium plate. But still: her main concern when she awakes several days later in a hospital in Birmingham, England, is: How is my family going to pay for this?

It’s remarkable, really, how this young woman manages to be so incredibly courageous and dedicated, and yet see herself as nothing special. She’s just doing what she feels she has to do, what she believes God requires of us all: to speak the truth and let falsehoods wither in the face of it.

It’s an interesting story, because it shows the slow progression of the Taliban’s invasion of the Swat valley, how it began with a radio show that called for the rejection of Westernization and “modern” ideas like allowing girls to be educated. Malala’s father had founded a school, which taught both boys and girls from primary through secondary grades; so he, of course, held on to his passion for education and tried to bring attention to the plight of the area as the Taliban grew more and more powerful, first through influence and propaganda, and then through violence and terrorism. Meanwhile, beginning about age eleven, Malala took up her father’s cause, as well, keeping a diary for the BBC that showed the daily life of a Pakistani schoolgirl under the Taliban’s rule, and then giving more and more interviews and speeches fighting for the right to an education for everyone, especially young women. Until, of course, she gained the attention of the Taliban, and they tried to silence her.

Boy, did that not work.

I would highly recommend this book for everyone, but most especially for young people — of course for young women. It’s a lot like Anne Frank’s diary in that Malala really does seem like a regular school girl; she worries about her appearance, she constantly fights and makes up with her best friend; and — oh yeah, incidentally, she fights for her right to learn against violent madmen. She is both relatable and a wonderful role model, and her story should be an inspiration to all of us to focus on what is actually important, in this violent world we are all trying to live in.

Excellent book. Read it, and give it to your daughters, and your sons.

The Spice . . .

by Frank Herbert

I’ve read this one before, of course (Though I have to say: this edition had a surprising number of simple typos for a “classics of modern literature.” Bette Gesserit? Seriously?). Of course I have: I’m a reader and a fan of fantasy and science fiction; who can be those two things and not read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece?

If you’re those two things and haven’t read Dune, go read it. Right now. Seriously. There are so many remarkable things about the book: the tangled intrigues and deceptions, and the way Herbert manages to keep the protagonists essentially on the up-and-up without making them seem self-righteous or superior is impressive; I’d call it the basis for Martin’s Game of Thrones books, with the Atreides filling in for the Starks, and the Harkonnens the inspiration for the Lannisters. Hell, Dune’s even got dragons, or at least an even larger subterranean version of them, in the sandworms. The book’s a wonderful ecological allegory, similar to the heart of Tolkien’s great tale, which is really about industrialism destroying the pastoral landscape; this book is about the exploitation of natural resources and the people who survive in those exploited places, who are exploited themselves — and it was only at this reading that I saw where Herbert surely got the name for his exploited desert people, the Fremen — who are Freemen if you just add an E. And those Fremen, by the way, are nothing less than the inspiration for Robert Jordan’s Aiel; and they’re just as awesome.

Really, this is a book that must be read. But now that I’ve re-read it, I’m wondering if it’s really a book that needs to be re-read. Because this time through, I noticed a few more flaws. I liked a lot of the same things, liked the overall plot very much, liked the ending quite a lot, loved the descriptions of the desert world and enjoyed a lot of the Wise Soldier characters (Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, Thufir Hawat, Liet-Kynes, Stilgar, even Paul himself), the sort of great fighters who are reluctantly taking up the blade despite wanting something else out of their lives — all just like the first time I read it. But this time, I felt like the writing fell a little short, like it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. I wonder if that’s because I really did like the ideas so very much that the voice used to describe them made less of an impression on me. And even now, I don’t think it’s bad; when an author’s voice can disappear, and leave only impressions made by the ideas themselves, that’s good work; but it isn’t brilliant work. I would call Tolkien brilliant work. Actually, the distinction is probably clearest in the Wheel of Time series: Robert Jordan was a brilliant writer. Brandon Sanderson was good enough to disappear into the story.

I didn’t like Paul quite as much. I really didn’t like the descriptions of his developing prescience (That’s a little spoiler, but not really.), or the lack of explanation as to where it really came from. Herbert tried to make it seem scientific, like Paul was just the greatest mind the universe had ever seen — but then he has Paul able to predict things he couldn’t possibly predict based on observation and extrapolation, no matter how smart. It irked me, a bit. I agreed with Paul’s wish to prevent the jihad of his visions, but I didn’t really feel like it was clear enough why he wanted to prevent that; I’m not sure, were I in his shoes at his age, I would want to prevent it. I guess the point is that a little too much rested on this idea of, “Well, he’s the messiah!” I didn’t like that as much.

Anyway, I did enjoy reading it, I will be trying to read the next book — the first time through I got as far as the fourth book before I just couldn’t take it any more, but I was told that I should give the whole series another try, so here we are. And yeah: everyone really does have to read this book at least once. The second time I will leave up to your discretion. Just remember: fear is the mind-killer.

Roald Dahl

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is one of my favorites. How could he not be? The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of my all-time favorite short stories. So of course I grabbed this one when I found it at a local thrift shop. Of course I did.

Sadly, it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as his other books that I’ve read.

Oh, it wasn’t bad. But unlike his other works, it was — well, boring. There wasn’t a whole lot of imagination in there. Three of the stories were non-fiction. One, “The Mildenhall Treasure,” was about a treasure discovered in England by two men plowing a field, which was interesting, except the ending is terribly frustrating. One, “Lucky Break,” was the story of how Dahl got started as an author, which was actually quite interesting but also a little frustrating for me as a long-time unpublished author, because here’s the story: he didn’t even know he wanted to be an author, until one day he was asked to tell the story of his experiences as an RAF pilot during WWII, and he offered to write the story down instead; the man who asked Dahl for the story? C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower novels. A million-selling adventure writer at the time. So when he sent Dahl’s story on with his personal recommendation, guess what? Suddenly Dahl had a writing career. That is not to take anything away from Dahl’s ability and imagination, which were both prodigious, but — lucky sod. Anyway. Totally not jealous, I swear. The third non-fiction one, “A Piece of Cake,” was the best: it was the story he wrote for Forester, and it was both interesting and very imaginative, as the last half of it is essentially a long dream sequence, which took place while Dahl recovered in a hospital from an injury.

The other stories, the fictional ones, were also up and down. The Henry Sugar story is indeed wonderful. It’s also a story within a story within a story, which is pretty cool. “The Boy Who Talked With Animals” was absolutely one I wanted to live for myself. “The Hitchhiker” was okay, but it’s a bit long for only one gag; and “The Swan” was completely irritating because nothing happens to the bad guy — just like the Mildenhall Treasure story.

So overall, I still like Roald Dahl, but I didn’t think a whole lot of this book. Find another collection that has Henry Sugar, “The Boy Who Talked With Animals,” and “A Piece of Cake,” and give this one a miss.

George Orwell, Obsolete Socialist — But Great Writer!

The Road to Wigan Pier
by George Orwell

The more of Orwell’s writing I read, the more I like.

This book is not his best: it’s one of his earlier pieces, requested by a Socialist publisher that wanted a piece describing the life of the English coal miners in the northern parts of the country, around Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield. And inasmuch as Orwell did as asked, the book is outstanding: he went to the coal mining town of Wigan, as well as several others; he got to know the miners and their families, he went into their homes, he went into the mine, and he reported what he saw: and if nothing else, Orwell was an amazing reporter. His perception and description are as good as anyone’s has ever been. He makes you feel what it was like to go into a mine: to fall down a shaft, in an elevator car going up to 60 miles per hour straight down, controlled by a man on the surface who was essentially guessing how close you were to the bottom of the shaft, half a mile or so into the Earth: and then, once you hit the bottom, you could be anywhere from half a mile to five or even seven miles away from the actual coal: and in all of that distance, the ceiling never rises above five feet or so, except for a few incidental pockets, natural caverns and the like: everywhere else, you have to duck and walk hunched over.

And that’s before you even start mining.

Orwell makes you understand what the miners go through, and how truly impressive they are. Then he takes you to their homes, and shows how truly desperate and hopeless they are: their meager diets, their broken-down slum houses, often without running water, always without enough beds, generally without enough food. It’s heartbreaking as well as inspiring: because it shows you the strength of the human animal and the human spirit, and then it shows you how we are wasting that, making people dig rocks out of the ground so we can burn them.

That’s the good part. The less good part is when Orwell gives his opinion about why the Socialist movement in England is failing. And honestly, that part is good, too; partly because I have no doubt that Orwell’s criticisms were right on the money, and partly because that guy really threw down some sick burns: his description of Socialists who had grown up, as he had, in the bourgeois class in England, and who therefore talked up the rule of the proletariat while simultaneously despising those same people, is incredibly cutting and harsh and probably exactly right. Just the parts when he talks about how working people smell is enough to prove his point.

The problem is, the book was written in 1935. So much has changed since then in our understanding of Socialism and what it can do and what it should not do, that reading this was an interesting insight into history, but not very helpful.

So the book was an interesting read, a good read, and for me, an inspiring one, as Orwell helps to push me personally closer and closer to socialism; but it wasn’t Orwell’s best. I’d recommend it only for history buffs.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
by David Sedaris
Illustrations by Ian Falconer
In one way, I loved this book. And in another, I have probably never been as shocked and appalled by anything I’ve ever read.

It starts off so nice: it is “A Modest Bestiary,” as the subtitle calls it. All of the stories, and they are all quite short, are about animals. Animals that stand in for people in various ways: they work, they talk, they go to hairdressers, they wait in line to complain about shoddy products. The title story, for instance, is about a couple that try to date, but they really don’t understand each other — and not because they are a squirrel and a chipmunk, though that does cause trouble; the chipmunk’s mother forces her to break it off with him partly because he is a squirrel, and not appropriate for a young chipmunk. No, they break up because he loves jazz, and she doesn’t know what jazz is. And the story tells of how someone goes through various versions of understanding based on different circumstances: when she’s with the squirrel, it is something mysterious and probably wonderful; after they break up, it becomes everything bad, and she is horrified that she ever told the squirrel that she was fond of it (Because after all, she can’t just admit she doesn’t know what jazz is). Over the course of her life, “jazz” changes twice more. And the best part? All of these different ideas are, in some way, reasonable definitions of what jazz is, with the last being the best. It’s a great story, both sweet and insightful. The other beginning stories are also about human foibles: the way service people suck up to their clients and how we let them; the way married couples tell stories, and collect stories to tell; the way people react differently to frustrations — that one, “The Toad, the Turtle, and the Duck” is freaking hilarious.

And each story has at least one lovely illustration by Ian Falconer, the artist who created Olivia. The illustrations are beautifully done, and adorable; they bring the stories to life and are worth looking at even without the stories for context.

But then you get to “The Motherless Bear.” Which is somewhat about human foibles as represented by the animals, but is more about how bloody horrible animal lives are when they interact with humans. And it was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. And it had adorable illustrations by Ian Falconer, too. Which just made it worse.

And so it goes: “The Parenting Storks” is cute, “The Vigilant Rabbit” is laugh-out-loud hilarious; “The Crow and the Lamb” makes you want to gouge your eyes out so you don’t have to look at it any more. (If you’ve read the book, sorry about that. And if you read the book, you’ll get that.) Sedaris goes after envy, hypocrisy, adultery, egotism, enabling behavior — every human foible, as seen through animals. He skewers us all, which is probably what makes the book so hard to read at times: it’s honest, and it’s accurate. It’s a tough mirror to look into.

Honestly, this is a hell of a good book. But it is not for the faint of heart.