"Take no heed of her...She reads a lot of books."
~Jasper Fforde

Friday, January 10, 2014

January Book Update: Beasties and Bogeys (Non-Fiction)

It's not even halfway through January, and I'm already plowing through my reading.  Not all of it has been recorded under my reading challenge on Goodreads (or on the widget), but that's just because not all of the entries were BOOKS (I read a few short stories on the Kindle App on my computer), and I only wanted to include books on my reading challenge goal record.

I think if I had to pick an over-arching topic for the materials I read this far into the new year, I would go with Beasties and Bogeys because most of the materials I delved into involved monsters of some variety or another.  And if you wouldn't actually consider a lion, tiger, or spider to be a monster, then at the very least, you could say that they can be considered beasties.

I'm going to divide this up into two parts.  The first (this post) is going to focus on the non-fiction books: Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals (Gordon Grice) and The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear (Matt Kaplan).  All of the fiction I've read so far has all been part of one series: Johannes Cabal (Jonathan L. Howard), and that being the case, I think they deserve their own post.

I have always been fascinated by monsters.  As a kid, I loved the thrills I got from reading scary stories or watching Scooby-Doo.  I liked to be scared.  In junior high, my class and I were introduced to the thrilling world of Greek mythology, and my passion for monster stories skyrocketed.  Years later, I'm no longer that kid sneaking books out to recess so I don't have to socialize, devouring shelves and shelves of books from the public library.  Now, I'm a well-adjusted library employee who brings books on break to avoid socializing, and who devours shelves and shelves of books from my place of employment.  And that's how I found The Science of Monsters

It just sounded like the coolest book.  I mean, it's all about the concept of monsters, and how they come into our mythologies and popular culture.  In a little over 200 pages, Matt Kaplan tries to explain everything from Medusa to the Minotaur to Dragons to Terminator and HAL 9000.  It was a pretty cool concept for a book.  But, I wasn't completely thrilled.

In theory, I should have been ecstatic.  In theory this book was perfect for someone with my interests.  But, at the same time, I found Kaplan's theories a bit dry and forced.  Sure, I can believe that Medusa has snakes for hair because the ancients were afraid of snakes.  If you wanted to freak me out with a scary story, make the villain a giant spider.  (I about pissed myself during the second Hobbit movie).  But, at the same time, I found some of his theories a bit hard to swallow.  For example, the Chimera.

This creepy critter has the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake.  Oh, and it also breathes fire.
Chimera: Lions and goats and snakes, oh my!
I did a project on this back in high school.  Now, I'm by no means saying that I'm an expert.  Not at all.  But, I think that there is more to a myth than just the literal.  Kaplan suggests that ancient people found a "chimera" skeleton after a goat got caught in a tar pit.  The goat was attacked by a lion, which also got trapped in the tar.  A large snake also got tangled up in all of this, and by the time they sunk, died, and fossilized, the end result was a skeleton that looked like a lion/goat/snake hybrid (Kaplan also says the Griffin might have been "created" in a similar way).  The way I see it, though, the monster could represent more abstract concepts, such as violence, deception, and lust.  But, my frustration was not because I disagreed with his theories.  I just found them to be overly-complicated and forced.

Moving on from the supernatural, I turned to the all-too-natural.  This brought me to Deadly Kingdom by Gordon Grice.  Now, instead of learning about the origins of all the monsters I would read about as a child, I got to learn about all the terrible things in the world, that, if given half a chance, would kill, maim, or eat me.

I don't think about death very often, but when I'm reading a book that details story after story about people being killed by [INSERT ANIMAL HERE], I can't help but think of how I don't want to go camping, or swimming, or even visiting the zoo (who knows if a chimpanzee might escape?)  But, the worst part was the section about spiders, which I decided to read right before bed.  Know what's a great feeling?  Reading that most encounters with venomous spiders occur between the sheets WHILE I'M IN BED is nothing more than a moment of abject horror.  I slept that night convinced I could feel creepy crawlies all over my skin.

It was almost a little depressing by the end.  As a kid, who read every Calvin and Hobbes comic book I could get my hands on, I thought it would be the greatest thing ever to have a pet tiger.  It would be my best friend, and walk with me to school, and I would read books to it, and no one would pick on me, because they would be scared of my tiger friend.

Realistically, though, I should also have been scared of the tiger, because it probably wouldn't have let me live long enough to walk me to school, or read it a book.  Instead of a best friend, I would have turned out to be a convenient snack with glasses.

I enjoyed this book a lot less than the first one.  I think this was mostly because the book consisted of pages and pages of the most horrible stories.  For example, in 2003, a grizzly bear ate a camper.  This also happened in 1987, and the first recorded instance of this happened back in 1694.  And then, Grice goes on to tell all the gruesome details of what is eaten off, or what turns black and falls off after a snake/spider/scorpion encounter.

So, while the first book was a bit dry, the second was just horrifying.  I would have crawled under my bed, but I'm sure that there are spiders under there, so that would not have been a good idea.
They're coming to get you, Barbara
So far, my non-fiction reading hasn't been exactly stellar.  It's been fine, but I'm not exactly jumping-up-and-down excited about it.  But, luckily, my fiction selections have been a bit more exciting.  That post should be coming very soon.

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