Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction – Grady Hendrix

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror FictionPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Grady Hendrix on a convention panel, was immediately captivated by the thought of all the things I didn’t know about horror fiction, and then entered (and won) a giveaway for this book. It took me a year and a half to read it, picking it up and putting it down as my desire to study the subject waxed and waned. It’s a lot to take in all at once, but it makes for a great bed- or couch-side read.

The text is tightly-written, witty and smart, devoting time to the subgenres of horror as they rise and fall, the books themselves and their writers, the cover artists so rarely named or lauded for their work, strung along a thread of the boom and bust of the publishing houses putting all these books into the hands of the masses. That anecdotal balancing act kept the book from feeling repetitive (“oh, and then this novel, and then this one, and this one . . .”). It delivered what was promised: a history of the books, their stories, cultural context, and the business and people behind and around them.

You may walk away from this book with a reading list to keep you busy for years. You may, like me, enjoy knowing more about that period of horror fiction and its echoes down the years than feel any great desire to read the greatest hits of decades past. I didn’t get really excited and start looking up authors and books until I got to the last section, about the psychological and genre-crossing horror of the early nineties under Dell’s short-lived Abyss imprint, edited by Jeanne Cavelos. If nothing else about this book appeals to you, it makes a great coffee table book for the wealth of full-color cover images, ranging from stark and iconic to bizarre and lurid.

I recommend this to anyone discovering (or re-discovering) an interest in horror fiction who isn’t quite sure what parts of the horror spectrum appeal to them. This book is also wonderful for anyone who enjoys knowing the history of genres and publishing, or just wants to read clever and sarcastic essay-reviews about older books.

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Born with Teeth – Kate Mulgrew

Born with TeethBorn with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t go looking for this book. I didn’t know it existed until I glanced over a table during my visit to Book People in Austin, TX, and saw a familiar face looking back at me. I know Kate Mulgrew from Star Trek: Voyager, had seen her in a few other shows and interviews over the years, and I was immediately interested in learning more about such a dynamic woman.

Mulgrew writes as well as she acts, navigating the treacherous waters of a memoir by balancing carefully-selected and vivid details with hyperbolic Irish storytelling to distract and direct our attention by turns. She covers difficult ground—a child given up, a sister lost to cancer, an abusive relationship, a robbery turned sexual assault, the end of a marriage, and the beginning of her mother’s decline—as she gives us a tour of her career on the screen and the stage. She reveals all the darkness and light of her ambition and choices, unflinching and unapologetic when she calls herself selfish, celebrates her happiness and successes, and forgives herself for her failings. The men in her life come and go, and she is vigilant not to villainize them as the ties that bind them together unravel time and again.

What might have been a series of anecdotes loosely connected by her career is instead given a compelling and family-centered through line by Mulgrew’s refusal to forget the daughter she gave up for adoption, and she ends the memoir with their climactic reunion. The finishing note is a true-love denouement as Mulgrew reunites with the man who got away. Her two great passions (besides acting)—love and family—flourish around her. This was a thoroughly captivating and enjoyable read.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain employs a smooth blend of anecdotes and layman’s summaries of scientific research to present a picture of both the history of America’s cultural attitudes toward and the current views and inquiries around introversion.

This book didn’t tell me anything about myself that I didn’t already know (I’m introverted and high reactive, prone to sound and light sensitivity when I’m tired or overwhelmed). However, knowing that this has been studied by scientists is comforting. When my niece inevitably falls victim to our extroversion-forward culture, and begins to doubt herself as others tell her it’s bad to be shy or sensitive, I’ll hand her this book and reassure her that she’s absolutely fine and capable the way she is.

I also already knew that open-office plans are garbage ideas that lead to higher stress levels and lower productivity rather than more effective collaboration. Cain’s evidence-based discussion on the true effectiveness of allowing people to study problems in solitary contemplation was satisfying to read, but ultimately made me sad and angry because I work in a large corporate environment that is already willfully ignoring this research in favor of the more cost-effective open office plan and the power-of-collaboration bandwagon to justify their position.

My truest enjoyment of this book is the glimpses into the inner lives and dramas of the scientists and ordinary people Cain interviewed and sketched in the pages. They came alive for me, and even days later I find myself thinking about them, wondering how they are doing as they make their way quietly through a loud world.

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Books I Did Not Finish: The Beautiful Cigar Girl – Daniel Stashower

I purchased The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rodgers, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower at Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, MA five years ago, just before the owner sold the business. It was one of the last times I ever set foot in the shop before the new owners renovated it. You read about places like this, but rarely get to experience them anymore. You knew from yards away it was a used book store because the windows were gloriously cluttered with volumes. When you stepped inside, stacks of books rose around you, on floors and on tables, jutting from shelves, threatening to tumble but never delivering drama outside their pages. I couldn’t tell you what the man who owned the place looked like—he barricaded himself behind precariously positioned towers of paperbacks at the register, taking money and returning receipts through a slim channel on the high counter. Behind his register confessional, trapped between glass and stacks, a box set of the first five Harry Potter novels rotted in the window, blue box bleached pale by the sun.

The new owners told me they threw away a solid twelve inches of books from the bottom of the piles, books that sat on the carpeted floor for decades, disintegrating slowly. They threw away the carpet, too. They found a shallow fireplace on one wall and installed hardwood floors and window shades. These days, the shop is charming, welcoming and deliberately cluttered without becoming overwhelming. I want to like it, because I want to like all bookstores, but they never seem to have any books I want to read.

I wanted to read The Beautiful Cigar Girl. I wanted to be thrilled by it, this story of an unsolved murder, sensationalized by the press, taken up by Poe and his fictional detective Dupin. I carried it from one apartment to another, kept it on the to-read shelf in the living room, waited for the right moment (I routinely take years to read books I acquire). I finally jumped in expecting the dramatic read promised by the book’s description.

And I was completely bored out of my mind.

Stashower writes perfectly competent sentences that relay facts about Mary Rogers and Edgar Allen Poe in alternating chapters. He details life in 19th century New York City using many anecdotal asides. But he set few scenes, draws few connections between his city-life descriptions and Mary Rodgers’s life, and asks no questions for which he can then offer answers for the reader. We know from the outset that the case was never solved, and Stashower gives over to the inevitability of this like George Lucas gave in to the inevitability of Anakin’s future in the Star Wars prequels. I forced myself to read a third of this book, until I was skim reading, until I started skipping whole pages, until I could not go on. There was no tension, no sense of mystery. For a story about speculation and sensationalism, this book is astonishingly lacking in any sense of dread or urgency. I think the sections about Poe are meant to be wry and sly, but they come across as heavily judgmental instead. Two days after I stopped reading, I couldn’t remember Mary Rodgers’s name. This book utterly fails to engage.

It doesn’t help Stashower that I picked this up after finishing a Joanne Harris novel, a master class of evocative details and feelings. But I won’t blame a book hangover or a rough switch from one genre to another. The Beautiful Cigar Girl is simply a boring book. I swapped it at work on the take-a-book leave-a-book shelf for Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, another nonfiction book I’ve been meaning to read for years. Cain opens the book with an anecdote about Rosa Parks, and I was instantly hooked. Her style is witty and absorbing. I feel guilty for leaving such a lackluster book in its place.