On Monsters by Stephen Asma

Asma_MonstersAsma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: If we be human, then need we monsters? In other words, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity the creation of monsters and the monstrous? After all, monsters have always been around. They lurk in our literature, religions, myths, imaginations, landscapes, histories, and (gasp) even in ourselves! Asma takes an omnivorous approach to this topic, exploring the evolution of monsters in relation to science, philosophy, art, literature, psychology, even popular culture. Asma also takes a long hard look at the evolution and mutation of heroes — those summoned to face and defeat what the rest of us fear.

Critique: Why should men and babies worry about witches? Who was the greater monster-slayer: Charles Darwin or Alexander the Great? Why are we more afraid of female monsters?

With innovative provocation, this book invites readers into the world’s most frightening realms to confront the most wondrous yet horrific aspects of human nature: the creating and killing of monsters.

According to Asma, “Each era expresses different fascinations with monsters” but regardless of time, culture, or technology, key features of what makes a monster are consistent. And its these consistencies that wind up communicating a lot about how humans see the world, each other, their desires, their fears, their enemies, and their heroes.

This is a terrific read for writers who deal in horror, the Gothic, paranormal, fantasy, maybe even political thrillers — any genre wherein monsters are made. And it should not be overlooked by anyone noticing the recent trend in Hollywood to create conflicted, sympathetic villains competing against dark and seedy heroes (or antiheroes). Think Iron Man, The Lizard, Bill the Butcher, Walter White, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes. Lately, the line between good and bad is a murky one to draw. And Asma’s research goes a long way helping us understand not just THAT this is happening, but WHY. Why we doubt who’s good, who’s bad, and who needs done away with. The word “monster” stems from Latin monstrum, rooted in monere, to warn. Monstrum can also be found in demonstration, which originally meant “proof that something is true.” So then, monsters are warnings and, perhaps, they are also flares of truth.

Ignore your aversion to footnotes, citations, and source quotes. Asma is a good storyteller and precise researcher with a mind like a lantern able to lead you ever deeper into the dark.

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What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-StarsSchmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)