November: Books and Bruises

“Would it be possible for you to not type for a while?”

My brother-in-law asked me this absurd question this weekend after examining my wrist. He is a doctor so when I told him that for the past week I had sharp shooting that my wrist and fingers, he immediately strapped a brace on my arm and told me to lay off the typing.

Apparently I have a strained ligament in my right hand. What a perfect thing for a writing and cooking enthusiast! Limited use of their hands!

Arm

But before I temporarily hang up the blogging towel, let me leave you with the November reading list! (A bit late, I know. But at least now we all know why).

1. Cooked, by Michael Pollan
November to me only means one thing: Thanksgiving! It is by far my favorite holiday of the year. Delicious food, football, and family. In my family, each of the aunts brings something new to the table. One aunt brings flaky spinach puffs and spicy cranberry sauce, each infused with her Middle Eastern heritage. Another uses her Italian upbringing to make indulgent pumpkin cheesecake and buttery baked stuffing with sausage. All these traditions and histories come together in the kitchen, and in Cooked, Pollan discusses the importance that cooking and eating together has now, as well as the role in played in allowing societies to form and evolve.

2. Othello, by William Shakespeare
November is a very tumultuous month. Political elections draw battle lines in many cities, and the weather is happy to mimic that sentiment. Some days are bitter cold with icy wind ripping the leaves from the trees; others are warm and clear, with sunlight brightening every color in the lingering fall leaves. There is endless ebb and flow ever present in the natural world. In much the same way, Othello explores the duality of the human mind.

Happy Reading! Hopefully next month I will be allowed to type with two hands without wincing…

But in the mean time… goodbye yoga mat, hello bookshelf!

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What I Learned from Poe and Stoker

Well October is officially over, and I’m extremely grateful for the end in my obligation to watch horror films. But I must admit, my foray into the realm of horror fiction was much more fruitful than I imagined. This year, my spooky Halloween reads included The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and Dracula. The reason I chose these two books was that they were all stories I was familiar with, and that have been adopted in countless ways by popular culture. In a way, the originals have become a bit overdone due to the continuing adaptations made from them (especially Dracula) and the fact that they are studied by just about every student in the country (this is more Poe).

I wanted to go back to basics, study the pure original beasts of these tales, shedding any expectation and anything I knew about them. I wanted to read them for the first time again.

It wasn’t easy, especially when reading Poe who was by far my favorite poet when I was in High School. I was so familiar with his work that I didn’t find it scary…rather, I found it beautiful. I was able to focus more on the cultural notions and emotions behind the work, and not just their fear factor. Here’s what I discovered:

1. Unlike Jonathan Harker, people today are generally good at recognizing danger. Ask anyone, especially any woman, about any time they ever had to walk alone at night. Maybe they had to stay late at the library in college, maybe walking back from the subway station…It’s creepy! Every shadow between you and your door could be housing a potential attacker or thief…unless you’re Jonathan Harker. I’m sorry, Mister, but you had plenty of chances to escape the clutches of the Count. Your need for adventure is a bit too large…and you are in serious need of a RAD class.

2. There are only three basic things that we truly actually fear: Darkness, Distance, and Death. Perhaps you could argue these things are all connected. After all…being dead means you’re likely in a dark place far away from others. Maybe not, I couldn’t tell you. Think of any Edgar Allan Poe work that you’ve read. Any at all. Chances are that all three of these themes are represented there. Upon reading these works intentionally this time around, I realized it would be foolish to view his tales and poems are scary. I don’t plan on cutting up relatives and putting them in the floorboards, nor do I plan on knowing anyone names Lenore…so I can pretty much avoid those scenarios. Poe’s excellent use of imagery and playing on our fears, rather than reality, is what makes his work so scary. I think in general these fears boil down to one overall worry in life: being alone.

3. Opening locked doors is never a good idea. Seriously Jonathan Harker! It’s locked for a reason!

4. Animals are pretty darn smart. If you are traveling in an unknown land, with a driver who won’t show his face, after plenty of people have told you to turn back (yes, Jonathan, I’m talking to you!)…and for some reason need another sign that you shouldn’t be here, pay attention to the animals. So the ferocious, wild wolves are afraid of your host? Chances are you should be too.

5. Do everything you can to avoid large old stone buildings/castles, especially when located near the sea or in the mountains. This is the real nature of fear and stupidity all in one. Today we are privileged enough to have most of our buildings be made of high-grade materials…not stone. But take for instance, Dracula’s castle: Stone. Recall Poe’s poem “The City in the Sea”: stone. And what about the lovely poem: “The Valley of Unrest”: Stone! And don’t forget about Annabel Lee and her kingdom by the sea.

I know it’s not an exact science, but I must admit, my October reads were a bit more instructive than they were chilling. I can certainly appreciate how scary they were to their original audience. After all, if I had never heard of Dracula before and read this book, I’d be pretty freaked out (though I’d still know before Jonathan Harker did that it was a bad idea to spent the night with a mysterious wolf-controlling night crawler). And Poe…no doubt nobody in his time had ever fathomed such horrors. They were more concerned with things like War and disease and crop failures…not rogue birds and masquerade parties. Still…the fact that we can learn a lot from “outdated horror” teaches us that fear is not always cultural: there are something that everyone fears, and that may not ever change.