5 October 2018

Brown & Dickson's Fall Reading List

We thought you may be tired of hearing from us Megs, so we invited bookselling couple Jason Dickson and Vanessa Brown (of London, Ontario's lovely antiquarian bookstore Brown & Dickson) to provide you with some wildly different recommendations on their fall reading list. I know we're off to spend the weekend hunting a few of these down ourselves now...

As the cold chill of autumn creeps its icy fingers along our shoulders, it's time to settle down and get to some serious reading. When I was younger, leisure reading was set aside for school. Now, I'm blessed to own my own bookshop and have the time to really dig into a page turner. Meghan and Meagan asked me to put together a list of ten books for the fall. Being a used bookseller, all my favourites are oldies but goodies. Autumn is crackling leaves, Hallowe'en, and the encroachment of frozen death, and school! Oh no, school! This time of year makes me think about being a kid again.


I'm giving away my age with my book recommendations. Bunnicula was published in 1979. It is obviously about a vampire rabbit. The bunny is one of several pets owned by the Monroe family, and their dog narrates the story. He chronicles the drama between the cat, Chester, the rabbit, Bunnicula, and himself, Harold. The cover illustrations are iconic for most Gen X kids. Howe went on to write a series of other kids books about Bunnicula, and other stories for children, even though his wife Deborah died before the first book in the series, and their only co-authorship, was published. He owed her his career.

This controversial 1979 young adult novel holds a special place in my heart, mostly because I don't know anyone else who has read it, but also becaused I cribbed the plot line to write a play for my grade eight class. The play was terrible, and the home video made of the performance was mercifully taped over by Nascar. However, I've never forgotten this book about a schoolbus full of high school kids taken hostage by an unnamed group of terrorists who aren't much older than they are. The bus sits in the middle of a decrepit bridge, under seige from the both sides. The title refers to a Dylan Thomas poem—“after the first death, there is no other”—and the idea that one death in America is more newsworthy than many deaths overseas. I was probably way too young when I first read this book, which is full of death and peeing in buckets. Spoiler: basically everyone gets killed.

Peck's first published book, this was also the first to establish the young adult genre. It has some really gritty, memorable rural scenes. The main character participates in the breeding, birth, and amateur surgery of farm animals, which is why the book has been censored many times. The setting is the Shaker community of 1930's Vermont—which is pretty grim to start with—and the daily lives of a struggling butcher's family. Not what most people would pick as the setting for a kids book? I mostly treasure this short novel for the goiter scene (just you wait!), but also because of it's close relationship to nature and the picturesque. It's a natural stepping stone between L. M. Montgomery and Stephen King, with honest depictions of childhood on a farm, and the importance of beauty in the world around us.

There's no better badass than Becky Sharp. In this Kavanaugh-nightmare-scape, let's climb back into the 19th century and watch a woman tear down everyone who gets in her way as she climbs to the top (also a great lead up to the next season of House of Cards). Sure, it's problematic from a feminist-reading standpoint, but sometimes a selfish, coldhearted, social-ladder-climbing Regina George is what we really need on a chilly autumn day.

Short stories are great when you go back to school and still want to read for leisure, but don't have a lot of time. If you read all of Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant is a great follow-up. I love that a little girl from Montreal ended up in Paris like Hemingway, after spending years writing for The New Yorker. While she met with great international success during the 1950's-60's, her work wasn't actually available in her home country until the late 1970's, when good old Douglas Gibson brought her here through publisher Macmillan and got her some awards. Like Munro, she avoided interviews and preferred to have her work stand on its own, and was vocal about wanting to maintain her privacy. The main goal of her life was to find the freedom to write. Her short stories are all about moments of poignancy in every day life, and offer the reader a perfect chance to sit and be pensive for a moment. Put it on your nightstand and knock out one story a day, or get warm in the bath and read until the water gets cold.

Collins is most known for his development of the detective genre in his novel The Moonstone. However, I much prefer The Woman in White. This is the only book outside of Anne of Green Gables that has made me laugh and cry out loud. The descriptions can be a bit lengthy, as is common for Victorian-era popular fiction, but the writing is crisp and accessible. It's a thick book that reads at a good pace, with lots of twists and turns, basically as though Days of Our Lives had a baby with a Bronte sister. There's a lot of mist. There are many miscommunications and passionate feelings. It's got that British atmosphere, which is basically an eternal October or early April, filled with muck and the occassional sunny day.

So Netflix is making this into a TV show and word is the show is awesome, but I bet nothing compares to the book. Basically what you have here is the quintessential “people spend a night in a haunted house story and lose their minds”. Add that Jackson has a prose style that's frankly unlike anyone else (she writes sentences that are eerie and unpredictable) and you have a scare-fest for smart people. Jackson herself is a fascinating character. She was a practising witch and a mother to boot, barricading herself in her study for two hours a day (while being a stay-at-home-mom) to write prize-winning stories. All of her books are worthwhile but it's The Haunting of Hill House that has had the most impact. If you can find a copy I suggest you read it with the window open and the cold autumn air filling your bedroom.

There's something very odd about Ray Bradbury. We're not sure exactly what. It's not his plots or characters, which can be odd, sure. We think it has something to do with his use of English. He's not a “clean” writer. His words are chunky. They are weird and chunky. Much like Jackson he puts them together in a completely unique way, and in our opinion it is his work in the Creep genre that is his best. Take Something Wicked This Way Comes (or The Skeleton Tree for that matter). It is the kind of book that seems to have autumn in its very roots. Words and phrases have that chill right down the bone. And let's just throw a carnival in there for good measure. It is like Stephen King held back on the blood and you have this book. It is ominous from the get-go. And few titles capture the creaking tilt from summer to fall like this one.

So if you haven't figured it out by now these last four recommendations are by another person. Jason namely. Hi. I like fall and all sorts of poetic things but really think it is truly a time to read something spooky when it is super spooky outside. When I think about what book is the spookiest thing I've ever read I think of Pet Sematary. I read this book when I was young and I've read it again as an adult and my lord there is something wrong with it. Say what you will about King as a writer but this story frankly gets to the bottom of something true and timeless when it comes to the fears and bonds keeping family together. It is about the roots of place, the shadow of history, the horror of parenting, the sickness of death, and well I can't even think about it all because I just have a hard time thinking about this book in its entirety. Zelda, for godssakes Zelda. I still scrunch with terror at the thought of that smelly back bedroom. King apparently wrote this book and didn't touch it for years before dusting it off. He was that afraid of it himself. But I think these stories need to be told. This ground needs to be marked, even if the dead come alive when you bury it there.

I'll balance that previous one out with a true literary masterpiece (some would say minor I would say major) of poetry - the work of Georg Trakl. I found this book once in a Victoria, BC bookshop. I had no idea what it was. I did not know about Jonathan Cape editions. It was small. It was green. It was a little paperback with a dust jacket. I read one poem and fell in love. Finally, I found it. I found the book. THE book. The book that described everything. We all have that book. This book is mine. Georg Trakl was a poet, an expressionist, that in my opinion captured decline, alienation, the moonlight world, and the dead, better than anyone. Everything I have read since then has not satisfied me (I am stubbornly biased). If you want a book that feels like the fall is creeping up on you, or better yet a world of autumns coming and staying forever, then I recommend this book. Don't be deceived by the green jacket. This book is orange, sunset orange.

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