Gerald's Game by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'll be honest: I dismissed Gerald's Game for years as a weird BDSM entry in Stephen King's long and winding career. It wasn't until recently, when I watched Mike Flanagan's 2017 film adaptation, that I realized just how wrong I had been. At first glance, it's easy to jump to the same conclusions that I did: as the blurb explains, this novel is about a woman, Jessie Burlingame, who ends up stranded in the countryside and handcuffed to a bedpost during a sexual escapade gone wrong - very wrong. On the surface, this seems like classic King, with an edgy topic and the hovering specter of death on the horizon. However, Gerald's Game isn't about risqué sexual encounters as much as it is about trauma, rape, misogyny, and sexual abuse. Beneath the spooky exterior, this is actually one of King's most straightforward examinations of suffering and the psychological aftermath of trauma. Color me surprised.
The basic gist of Gerald's Game is as follows: Jessie Burlingame and her husband, the eponymous Gerald, escape for a brief romantic getaway to their rustic lake house in Maine. During an intimate encounter that quickly goes off the rails, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie alone and chained up - with nary a soul in sight to help. While she's trapped and cuffed to her bed, Jessie faces two challenges: the physical task of freeing herself from her metal restraints, and the psychological journey of coming to grips with a traumatic childhood event. During flashback sequences, King uses the astronomical phenomenon of an eclipse to mirror a horrific personal experience that casts a long shadow over the rest of Jessie's life. That darkness, unlike the brief blackout of the sun that ten-year-old Jessie witnesses, is not so easily dismissed.
It's impressive that Stephen King takes such a seemingly simplistic core of a story and expands upon it for hundreds of pages, delving into a wide variety of psychological hurdles. Over the course of the novel, the reader watches Jessie use MacGyver-esque creativity to survive, which in itself is a surprisingly engaging aspect of the book. The most vital part of Jessie's story arc, however, is embedded within her mental acrobatics as she lies imprisoned in her bed.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without a little extra "creep factor" thrown in, so things inevitably get even worse for our poor protagonist. The book hits some familiar macabre notes when Jessie is inevitably haunted by a mysterious "Moonlight Man" (a.k.a. the "Space Cowboy") who hides in the shadows of the Burlingames' bedroom. This misshapen specter visits Jessie at nighttime, inciting her to ponder whether he is a figment of her imagination or something even more sinister. While this might seem like an unnecessary addition to the story - one that initially seems to detract from the 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place vibe of the novel - this plot point ultimately complements Jessie's story arc and growth as a character, as she comes to grips with her own childhood monsters.
Although this is a very tidy, constricting setup for a 400-page novel, Gerald's Game delves into the fathomless depths of the human mind to flesh out the story. King is a master writer, a word-dancer who utilizes a limited stage setting to foster hours and hours of thought-provoking conversations. In the first hundred pages of the novel, King bluntly addresses rape (even seemingly consensual date rape), deconstructs the "male gaze," and discusses the dehumanizing way that women are viewed by men. This is not just a two-dimensional horror story with a supernatural antagonist. Rather, much of the villainy we see is from mundane, everyday folks - characters not unlike the people we interact with on a daily basis in the real world.
What's so surprising now, thirty years after its publication, is how ahead of its time - perhaps even prophetic - Gerald's Game actually is. King, despite all his obsessions with the dark, dirty, and demonic, is a champion of the underdog and the underrepresented. King's masterpiece, It , confronts a variety of topics: racism, sexism, child abuse, bullying, neuroses, molestation, and many other subtle (and not-so-subtle) issues. For several members of the "Loser's Club," Pennywise is the least horrific of their worries. Likewise, Jessie Burlingame is a character whose woes stretch much further than a deformed, moonlight-clad killer. For Jessie, darkness has been a constant, haunting companion throughout adolescence and adulthood. And sometimes those childhood shadows are much harder to shake.
In the end, Gerald's Game is a proto-#MeToo story that illustrates how much the world has changed over the last three decades. Though not nearly as well known as Wendy Torrance, Beverly Marsh, Annie Wilkes, or Carrie White, Jessie Burlingame is a heroine worthy of recognition. This novel is undoubtedly a timestamped tale from the King of Horror, but it's also a gentle reminder of how timeless trauma and heroism can be.
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Drunken Fireworks by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Drunken Fireworks is a flamboyant, but underwhelming, entry in the Stephen King oeuvre. The title says it all: this is a short story about a "Fourth of July Arms Race," told from the perspective of a chronically inebriated alcoholic with a competitive streak. The writing is conversational and free-flowing, with plenty of amusing one-liner quips; however, there isn't much "meat" to the story beyond that. Besides the rambling protagonist (a drunken nouveau riche man named Alden McCausland), the characters are mostly one-dimensional - though a Native American fireworks dealer does provide some commentary on racism, reminding the narrator that "we're all Americans," regardless of racial or ethnic background. Nearly every other character in the story is a cardboard cutout of a figure: flammable, disposable, and forgettable.
While I appreciated the enthusiastic audiobook performance of Tim Sample, his thick New England accent (amplified by the protagonist's slurred intoxication) is insufferable and nearly indecipherable at times. I almost always enjoy Stephen King's attempts at non-supernatural storytelling, but I'm disappointed in this piece. In this case, King is more concerned with style over substance. Perhaps fewer substances (get it?) would make this a more appealing work.
Though I love Stephen King, this is one of the less-impressive entries I've read from him. Alas, Drunken Fireworks does not have much to offer its audience beyond a quick, combustible flash in the sky.
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Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I read Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven a few years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with the author's thoughtful, insightful twist on science-fiction. Here, at last, was an author who married literary aspirations with the tried-and-true tropes of Sci-Fi, validating a genre that is all too frequently dismissed by critics and "serious" readers. In a rare circumstance, the book actually improves upon its archetypal ancestor, Stephen King's The Stand . Despite some of that novel's imperfections (like the mathematical/scientific implausibility of a virus that simultaneously spreads across the globe while killing its hosts within just a day or two), Station Eleven artfully captures the timeless elements of trauma, grief, loss, and growing up. It's nothing short of a modern masterpiece.
With Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel returns to the Sci-Fi landscape in which she found fame, and once again incorporates elements of global pandemics (multiple pandemics, in fact). In four intricately intertwined narratives, Mandel delivers a unique cast of characters: a British expatriate in 1912, a grieving woman in pre-pandemic 2020, a novelist on a book tour in 2203, and a time traveler in 2401. These four disparate threads are more intimately stitched together than one might assume, with an inexplicable time/reality "glitch" uniting the figures across the centuries. Without revealing too much, I will happily report that Mandel delivers the goods in the novel's final act, saving the best twists and turns for the last portion of the book. Unlike, say, Jodi Picoult, Mandel leaves a feast of breadcrumbs for her readers. Whenever there's a plot twist, you can be sure that the author has "done the work" to provide clues for the audience - whether it's subtle details like eye colors and music, or larger passages that repeat important observations and characteristics. It is during the last portion of the novel that Mandel weaves together all her disparate threads - and proves she is a modern master of science-fiction, a worthy heir to Margaret Atwood.
Mandel incorporates some clever "meta" moments in Sea of Tranquility: the story's 23rd-century novelist, Olive Llewellyn, is touring in support of a science-fiction novel about a global pandemic... not unlike Mandel's own experiences as the writer of Station Eleven. During interviews with journalists and lecture hall Q&A sessions, Mandel pokes fun at some of the nuanced criticisms of Station Eleven: How many books did the author sell during the pandemic? Is the death of the novel's antagonist too anticlimactic? Does the author feel validated or vindicated knowing that they wrote a book about a fictional global pandemic shortly before the outbreak of a real global pandemic? There are moments of humor and heartbreak in equal measure, as Mandel uses the avatar of Olive to explore some of her own real-life experiences. Although it's dangerous to assume that writers use autobiographical elements in their novels, I'm always fascinated by the overlapping Venn diagram circles of fiction and non-fiction; I love it when an author's personal experiences are imbued and embedded within their creations. Though it's a precarious wire to walk, the author simply jumps and jetés on that tightrope in Sea of Tranquility. Such acrobatic feats are remarkable from any writer, let alone one as adventurous as Mandel.
Though Sea of Tranquility is quite possibly brilliant, it's not entirely flawless in its execution. The opening chapters, featuring Edwin St. Andrew, feel tedious and almost deterred me from continuing the book; as someone who finds that era of history foreign and uninteresting, I had to struggle through Mandel's first act before I found myself invested in the story. Because of my experience reading Station Eleven, I decided to give Sea of Tranquility the benefit of the doubt - and thank goodness I didn't abandon this ship! Additionally, while Mandel does an excellent job of tidying up loose ends for Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, the fates of other characters seem maddeningly incomplete and unnecessarily truncated. It's strange to watch a writer who effortlessly crafts tidy endings for some characters leave readers unfulfilled with other storylines. While I admire ambiguity in storytelling, I also crave closure... and the two are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, the subplots involving "simulation theory," while injecting faint hints of The Matrix into the narrative, seem slightly forced and unresolved; I only hope that the author revisits these strands of her storytelling in the future. So, while I have very few complaints and criticisms about Sea of Tranquility, they're reminders that Mandel still has a little room for growth as a writer.
Despite these imperfections, Sea of Tranquility is still a thrilling read - one that will appeal to fans of literary fiction and Sci-Fi. While pandemic plagues and time travel have been addressed in media countless times before (there are echoes of 12 Monkeys throughout the novel), Mandel imbues her novel with a sense of humanity and organic authenticity that often escapes the attempts of middling science fiction writers. One of Sea of Tranquility's key lines, “A life lived in a simulation is still a life," is an excellent reminder that Mandel is ultimately most concerned with life, not the trappings of outer space or the failings of a far-off future. Because of this, Mandel capably offers a prayer for the present, a reflection of our own worlds through the filtered lens of fantasy. In the end, Sea of Tranquility masterfully captures the essence of the human spirit - an accomplishment which is even more impressive considering its fanciful imagining of the future and its insightful examination of the past.
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The Gunslinger by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stephen King might be the most prolific author of his generation, with more than sixty books under his belt - several of them hulking behemoths. And, while there are *many* contenders for the title of "best" in his oeuvre, the Dark Tower series seems to have amassed a small army of readers who believe that this is King's masterpiece. So, with the announcement that Mike Flanagan would be tackling a Dark Tower adaptation for Amazon, I figured that it was time for me to enter the world of Gilead, pick up The Gunslinger , and give the series a shot - no pun intended.
In this novel, we're introduced to the rugged Roland Deschain, the last of a dying breed of gun-slinging pseudo-knights. Roland travels the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Gilead (not to be confused with Margaret Atwood's dystopian country of the same name in The Handmaid's Tale ), hot on the trail of the enigmatic Man in Black. Along the way, our protagonist encounters magic, militias, mutants, and a mysterious child who only recently crossed into Gilead from his home in contemporary New York City. Is Gilead in the far-off future? Is it an alternate dimension with tethers to our own universe? Or is it something else entirely? Like Roland, the reader gets some answers during the penultimate chapters of the novel - but there are many, many more mysteries left to solve. It's no surprise, then, that King needed seven more books to complete this epic story.
The end result? A hybrid western/sci-fi/horror/adventure novel that references everything from the Bible to the Beatles. It's an ambitious gambit, but it's one that doesn't always hit the mark. Alas, in The Gunslinger, King is less of a sharpshooter than a middling marksman.
Although this novel is not King's magnum opus, it's still a fascinating story with boundless creativity hidden in its pages. Though I can't in good conscience sing the praises of The Gunslinger, I still applaud King's ambitious attempt to fuse a variety of genres: we see echoes of dime-store pulp novels filtered through the lens of Friday night juke joints, Saturday afternoon monster-movie matinees, and Sunday morning church services. King simply refuses to remain chained to the restrictions of classification, and he clearly delights in subverting audience expectations. For better or worse, King's confidence and ambition are forces to be reckoned with.
Periodically, King's wordplay takes centerstage and reminds the reader that his talents stretch far beyond the realms of the macabre into masterful craft. Take, for instance, King's description of a "big bang" occurrence: " 'Land,' the man in black invited, and there it was; it heaved itself out of the water in endless, galvanic convulsions. It was red, arid, cracked and glazed with sterility. Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent's baseball head... Continents took shape before his amazed eyes, and were obscured with clocksprings of clouds. The world's atmosphere held it in a placental sac. And the sun, rising beyond the earth's shoulder--" (216). Such stream-of-consciousness description is simply good writing, regardless of genre. In my own subversive way, I would love to throw this passage at an AP English class and simply enjoy the ensuing discussion. I guess that King isn't the only person in this world who likes to subvert expectations.
As I was reading The Gunslinger, it was hard for me to not draw comparisons with Cormac McCarthy's "weird western," Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West . McCarthy's novel is another dark epic that flirts with the supernatural and marries bloodshed with literary aspirations. And, while I'm undeniably "Team King" in that showdown, I have to admit that McCarthy has successfully outdrawn the King of Horror in this duel. That being said, I would love to see some cross-pollinated fan fiction that depicts Roland Deschain taking on The Judge. In that circumstance, my money would definitely be on Roland of Gilead.
With all due respect, I wholeheartedly believe that It is King's true masterpiece - a sprawling pièce de résistance that bridges the traditional Bildungsroman with horror and sci-fi tropes. In that regard, I think Pennywise the Clown could probably teach the Man in Black a few tricks. All the other King-obsessives out there might think otherwise, but Roland Deschain can't hold a candle to the Losers' Club. And I'll challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel in the sewers of Derry.
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Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A few months back, my mom loaned me a copy of Lisa Wingate's Before We Were Yours . I took one look at the cover, read the synopsis, and promptly shoved it onto a bookshelf - forgetting about it entirely. Alas, there are just too many books and too little time to read them all. Shortly thereafter, however, my book club decided to tackle Before We Were Yours as our December/January selection; after begrudgingly reading the first few chapters, I have to admit that the novel defied my prejudiced expectations. Wingate's book is a heart-wrenching work of historical fiction that sheds light on a tragic piece of American history, and her writing will undoubtedly thaw even the iciest of hearts.
Bouncing back and forth between 1930s-era Memphis and modern-day South Carolina, the novel unfolds with two intertwined narratives: the story of Rill Foss, a child who (along with her siblings) is abducted from her home, and the life of Avery Stafford, a young woman who is the heir-apparent to her family's political dynasty. As any casual reader will guess, these two stories are inextricably bound together by secrets that will ultimately come to light over the course of the novel. Both parallel plots work well in isolation, but Wingate creates a sleuth-worthy mystery that the characters (and readers) will have to untangle and decipher.
It's not much of a spoiler, because the book's blurb reveals as much, but Before We Were Yours centers on the crimes of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the mid-1900s. Over the course of several decades, stretching from the 1930s to the 1950s, a woman named Georgia Tann organized the illegal trade of children through the auspices of adoption. As the novel details through its fictionalized reenactment of history, children in Memphis were regularly abducted from their homes, taken hostage by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and abused by their captors before being sold to families under the era's legal channels of adoption. These innocent victims were often subjected to neglect, starvation, physical abuse, psychological torment, and molestation. As Wingate asserts in the novel's afterward, the traumatic experiences of Rill and her siblings were taken directly from the real-life experiences of children who were victims of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It's almost like the American version of a Charles Dickens novel, with Georgia Tann serving as a stand-in for Miss Havisham or Fagin. Unlike the protagonists of a Dickens novel, however, the Foss siblings don't have a tidy happily-ever-after resolution to their travails. In that regard, Wingate is much more in line with Mark Twain, whose novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Wingate repeatedly references over the course of her book.
While Wingate's writing is unquestionably eloquent and carefully crafted, the novel does suffer from a few authorial missteps. A romantic subplot in Avery's portion of the story falls flat and undermines the haunting qualities of Rill's experiences. Likewise, the "shocking secret" at the heart of the book relies upon several characters refusing to divulge their personal histories to their own family members; rather than create an honest portrayal of psychological repression, it comes across as forced - as if it's done more to mechanically further the plot than to authentically examine the aftermath of trauma.
Despite these flaws, Before We Were Yours is a fascinating read, complete with complex characters and evocative writing. Although some of the plot twists are visible from miles (knots?) away, the winding river of the novel provides many insights into aging, trauma, and the power of family. Even naysayers (like yours truly) will most likely be won over by this poignant, moving novel and the themes that Wingate explores.
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Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have a love/hate relationship with Jodi Picoult. When I read Leaving Time a few years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with her writing... until the novel's big plot twist. Great writers leave breadcrumbs throughout their novels - subtle hints and clues that a clever reader can catch, digest, and use to interpret the unexpected narrative twists that have been embedded within a novel. However, with Leaving Time, Picoult didn't "earn" the big twist that upends the novel's plot. For me, at least, the book was spoiled by the author "pulling out the rug" from beneath her readers, something that left a sour taste in my mouth. Since then, I've been wary of Picoult's writing (especially after learning that another one of her novels, House Rules , promoted the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism). So, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read Wish You Were Here with my book club. Once again, Ms. Picoult has left me a bit torn as a reader. Is the novel lovingly and eloquently crafted? Undoubtedly. Does the author "earn" her plot twist this time? That's open for debate.
In Wish You Were Here, an up-and-coming Sotheby's art dealer, Diana O'Toole, faces some pretty momentous life changes: an impending proposal from her surgeon boyfriend, a father who prematurely passed away after an accident, an absent mother who struggles with Alzheimer's, a high-pressure job in the art world, an expensive planned trip to the Galápagos Islands, and (last, but certainly not least) the COVID pandemic that throws her meticulously plotted life into turmoil. Without giving away too much, I will say that there is one heck of a plot twist about 2/3 of the way through the book - the kind that calls into question almost everything that you've read up to that point. If only for that reason, I have a feeling that M. Night Shyamalan would enthusiastically give Ms. Picoult two thumbs up for this novel.
So, what can I reveal about Wish You Were Here without ruining its big twist? It's probably safe to say that the book tackles the COVID pandemic in a timely, thoughtful manner. Diana's fiancée, Finn, works in a New York hospital during the early days of the 2020 shutdown, and we see the trauma and PTSD of the experience through his eyes. But Picoult's novel is more than just a quick cash-in on our shared global tragedy; rather, it's an attempt to find some semblance of meaning and purpose during an era of malady and malaise. Our protagonist, Diana, is a thoughtful, reflective narrator, someone whose interpersonal relationships are grounded in reality. Even when the novel broaches surrealist topics (again, I'm trying really hard to avoid spoilers!), Picoult tackles the trials and tribulations of her characters in a tender, eloquent fashion. While lesser writers might paint absent mothers, dead fathers, unfaithful lovers, and/or arrogant art dealers with the kind of broad brush strokes that reduce them to two-dimensional caricatures, Picoult brings a graceful sensitivity to even her most prickly creations. As she reminds us at one point, "Nobody’s all good or all bad. They just get painted that way."
Ultimately, Wish You Were Here is a novel about evolution and adaptation - not just of animals in the Galápagos, but of the human spirit. As Diana weathers her way through the seemingly insurmountable hurricane of the COVID pandemic, we watch her grow and change in ways that might seem unexpected. It's a novel about creation and recreation, incarnation and reincarnation, discovery and rediscovery. So, while Picoult might not have hit a homerun with this latest release, Wish You Were Here has redeemed her - at least a little bit - in my eyes. Clearly, Ms. Picoult is adapting and evolving like a literary finch in the Galápagos Islands. Charles Darwin would be proud.
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As someone who grew up without a lot of financial resources, I could never afford to buy a camera. So, when my more financially secure friends would show off their flashy devices, I was always a little jealous and envious. Up until I got an iPhone in 2009, I was relegated to cheapie disposable cameras that would only handle one roll of film. You know the kind: 27 photos with no depth of field and a teeny-tiny viewfinder. It was pretty pathetic.
The iPhone changed all of that for me. When I bought my first Apple smartphone almost a decade and a half ago, I suddenly had an unlimited number of photographs with a variety of editing tools at my disposal. No more one-time-use camera for me! Suddenly, I could take pictures of anything anywhere at any time. After a lifetime without anything vaguely resembling a real camera, this was a revelation. Over the ensuing years, I took thousands of photos: my family, pets, concerts, vacations, collectibles... I thoroughly enjoyed photographing my mild-mannered life for posterity's sake.
When social media hit big (first with Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook), I suddenly had an audience - albeit a small one - for my photography adventures. I held out on joining Facebook until 2010, and I didn't take the plunge into Instagram until late 2011. For the first few years, I pretty much ignored my Instagram account, only posting pictures intermittently for photo contests and a handful of memorable moments. In 2015, however, after I taught a few AP English lessons on photography, visual rhetoric, and tone, I started posting more actively and consistently on Instagram. In the last seven years, I've gone from 14 posts to almost 700 on my personal account (@farfromkansas); I also opened up a few other Instagram accounts for my various creative and professional projects (@buenalibrary, @notsosilentlibrarian, and @briarroseramblers, etc.). During that time, I began to experiment more with filters, camera angles, portrait mode, depth of field, and a variety of other simple techniques.
About half a year ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a REAL camera: a Sony Alpha a7R IV Mirrorless Digital Camera w/Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens. It cost a pretty penny (significantly more than anything else I've purchased in my entire life), but I was lucky enough to receive some inheritance money after my father passed away. Basically, it was a "feel better about your dead dad" vanity purchase. That being said, I have a feeling that Pops would have appreciated this use of his money.
Since early 2022, I've been learning a lot - and I mean A LOT - about photography. Luckily for me, I had a few built-in advisors: Emmet Cullen, Amanda Graves, Eddie Raburn, and a few other friends/acquaintances. Using their guidance and expertise, I purchased a "forever" camera that should last me a lifetime.
So, what have I learned this year, as I've started using a real camera? Here are a few tips:
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Despite my eager hopes, Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent is decidedly not a supernatural horror novel about a giant winged snake terrorizing the British countryside. Alas, Perry's book shares more serpentine DNA with Charles Dickens than Stephen King. Instead of a suspenseful supernatural story, The Essex Serpent is a slow-burning work of literary fiction that examines the muddy, complicated intersection of science and faith, friendship and love. If you enjoy Victorian literature, star-crossed lovers, and the subtleties of stuffy British settings, this might be more up your (cobblestone) alley.
As she alternates between the Essex countryside and London cityscape, Perry provides a colorful cast of outcasts and misfits. However, the core of the novel revolves around Cora Seaborne: a young widow who finds herself liberated by the death of her older, controlling husband. Cora, a devout fan of science and nature, finds herself drawn to the sleepy seaside town of Aldwinter, where a minister and his family informally adopt Cora and her entourage. This vicar, Will Ransome, is an atypical pastor: while he clearly tends after his sheep (literally, in fact, during one scene), he also finds himself inexplicably drawn to the unpredictable Cora. Meanwhile, Will's ailing wife, Stella, seems intent on bringing her husband and Cora closer together. Along the way, Perry also includes a variety of subplots, including a doctor who pines after Cora, a rich man who pines after Cora's maidservant, and the maidservant who pines after social justice. Oh, what a tangled web (or murky serpent's nest?) we weave when we slither through the British marshland and dingy streets of London! Mixed metaphors aside, the fact remains: things get complicated.
I have to admit, it took me a long time to get into The Essex Serpent. For the first 100+ pages, Perry's book wanders and winds through several seemingly unconnected storylines, leaving the reader without much of a solid thread to follow. Where is this book going? I repeatedly wondered to myself. Like a child lost in the foggy marsh of the British coastline, many readers will undoubtedly meander through chapter after chapter of passable prose until stumbling upon a profound passage or plot point.
Perry is strongest when she subverts expectations - which she does frequently throughout the novel. What you expect to happen from the cliched conventions of Victorian literature rarely comes to fruition. Young lovers don't always stay in love, but old lovers do. The dying don't always die, but the healthy sometimes barely escape death. The wise act foolishly, and the foolish grow wiser through their lived experiences. It's unique enough to differentiate The Essex Serpent from many of its lesser peers. However, while I admire Perry's attempt to break free from tried-and-true tropes, it's not enough for me to overlook the frequently dull pacing of the book.
While I can't say that I enjoyed reading The Essex Serpent, the novel is clearly a complex, well-crafted study of the British experience in Victorian England. Will I ever read this novel again? The answer is a resounding no. Will I recommend it to others? Only if they enjoy tea, crumpets, and novels that flicker through the night like candles in a dusty window.
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The Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, I picked up Stephen King's original, "abridged" version of The Stand . At the time, it all seemed so far-fetched: a global pandemic that rages out of control and ends up claiming millions of lives? What fantastical science fiction! Imagine my surprise when, several decades later, a global pandemic raged out of control and claimed millions of lives. It turns out that Stephen King, the spine-tingling storyteller of the supernatural, was something of a prophet - the Nostradamus of the 1980s, as it were.
Though I kept the unabridged version of The Stand on my "TBR" list for many years, COVID inspired me to finally tackle this behemoth of a book. I realize that it's morbid to read a novel about a deadly pandemic while in the middle of a deadly pandemic, but my macabre sensibilities prevailed over my good taste. And, after almost exactly two years of off-and-on-again reading, I finally finished all 1,141 pages of King's magnum opus. Needless to say, it feels like I just finished a never-ending literary marathon. With that analogy in mind, crossing the finish line simultaneously feels like a relief and a reward.
For those not in the know, The Stand is essentially three books wrapped in one: a cautionary science-fiction tale about the outbreak of a government-manufactured virus, a quasi-realistic yarn about rebuilding civilization in a post-apocalyptic world, and a supernatural story involving the immortal battle of good and evil. With its vaguely Christian overtones (most obviously represented in the angelic figure of Mother Abagail and the devilishly vicious Randall Flagg), the novel details the never-ending conflict of God and the Devil - the polar extremes that exact their gravitational pull on the mild-mannered citizens of the United States. Though Mother Abagail fails dangerously close to the "Magical Negro" trope, she is the purest, holiest figure in the novel. Hopefully, King's intentions were not to dehumanize; however, I won't speak to his complex, complicated motivations. In any case, this super-sized novel tackles some big themes, including government malfeasance, the temptation of evil, and the triumph of the human spirit. Unsurprisingly, for an ambitious novel of this scale, the book is not a literary grand slam: King falters periodically, with majestic moments of poetic glory frequently overshadowed by his bloated storytelling.
While I'm normally a fan of the "director's cut" with movies and books, I think it's safe to say that King would have benefitted from an artful editor. Although The Stand is impressive with its epic ambition, the story gets bogged down in too many subplots and convoluted characters. Did we really need a chapter about The Trashcan Man and The Kid traversing the desert and spending a night in a motel room? In my opinion: NO. Though I admire King's dedication to crafting a narrative of this scope, reading The Stand became incredibly tedious - insurmountably so, it seemed at times. As I mentioned previously, reading through the 1,141 pages of the book often felt like a never-ending marathon. In this case, I would've settled for a half-marathon and been happy.
That's not to say, however, that The Stand is without merit. Undeniably, King captures the suffering, grief, and tenacity of survivors - something even more relatable because of our recent experiences with the coronavirus. There are passages threaded throughout the novel that ring of true beauty and poetry; likewise, several conversations (particularly between Glen Bateman and Stu Redman) raise thoughtful - perhaps even profound - philosophical questions. Not too shabby for a book about the end of the world.
Recent trends in literary fiction have widened the gates for science fiction and horror in ways that would have been unfathomable in the past. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a prime example of a sci-fi novel that brilliantly tackles apocalyptic settings with the luminescence of well-crafted poetry and insightful prose. Sadly, The Stand pales in comparison to such works. Perhaps, it's unfair to compare King's novel with Station Eleven: although Mandel's book is vastly superior, the kernel of her novel owes a sizable debt to King. However, Station Eleven succeeds in capturing the struggles of three-dimensional characters caught in the surreal storm of unthinkable events, creating a literary masterpiece in the process. It's in this fashion that Mandel surpasses King: although certain characters in The Stand are imbued with thoughtful, three-dimensional portrayals, others (especially the women in the story) are less effectively crafted. By comparison, Kirsten Raymonde and Jeevan Chaudhary (let alone Arthur Leander, Miranda Carroll, and Tyler Leander) have been carefully wrought in ways that Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder are not. And don't even get me started on the Trash Can Man. While King is clearly a visionary, sometimes he overlooks the forest of his characters for the trees of his plot points. That's truly a pity.
Mark Twain once said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” By that definition, The Stand is indisputably a classic piece of literature. Although I do feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a Herculean undertaking like reading this novel, I also recognize that King's magnum opus is a marathon that I didn't need to tackle. That might sound like sacrilege to the King-obsessives out there, but it's true. For the casual King fans out there, I only have one piece of advice: skip the book and watch the TV series, instead. Stephen King is, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive, prodigious writers of his - or any other - generation. As flawed and imperfect as The Stand might be, it's still a historic achievement worth celebrating. Hopefully, other readers won't wait until the next pandemic to give it a shot.
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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I originally picked up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West as part of my deep dive into the "Weird Western" genre. Although there aren't supernatural figures, per se, in McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian is one of the goriest, most horrifying novels I've ever read. As much as the horror genre is synonymous with Stephen King and the paranormal, Cormac McCarthy proves in this novel that nothing is more cruel, vicious, or malevolent than mankind.
Blood Meridian is less of a straightforward narrative than a free-flowing treatise on trauma. The novel loosely follows the (mis)adventures of "the kid" - our antihero protagonist who teams up with a band of malicious marauders in the wild, wild west. Make no mistake, though: this isn't the winsome, whitewashed western of Woody, Bullseye, and Jessie. McCarthy's central mission in Blood Meridian is to illustrate (in explicit detail) the violence that permeated the American landscape of the 1800s. Callous cruelty abounds, with rampant racism and vicious acts of dehumanizing violence that would put any Marvel supervillain to shame. The first half of the novel is essentially a nonstop bloodbath of biblical proportions, with the historical Glanton gang rampaging through the southwest states and into the fringes of Mexico. Bloodshed ensues.
So. Much. Bloodshed.
Threaded throughout the pages of death and dismemberment is an eloquent, philosophical core that attempts to elevate Blood Meridian to literary heights. The book echoes several other "great American novels," most notably Moby-Dick or, the Whale and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . "The kid" shares some literary DNA with Huck, another orphaned young man with a deformed conscience; one of Glanton's mercenaries, the malicious Judge Holden, eventually emerges as the "white whale" of McCarthy's tale, haunting "the kid" from town to town like an unholy ghost made corporeal through his trail of scalped corpses. Though the only other Cormac McCarthy novel that I've read is No Country for Old Men , I think it's safe to assume that McCarthy ascribes to the Charles Bukowski/Chuck Palahniuk school of ambiguous, amoral antiheroes. These authors are less interested in tidy, tightly constructed story arcs than in messy, maddening narratives with frayed loose ends. In McCarthy's eyes, it's less important to tie up your novel with a bow than to blow it to pieces with a howitzer cannon.
It's hard to say that I "enjoyed" reading Blood Meridian, because only a sociopath (like Judge Holden, for example) would find amusement in the gory series of events transpiring in McCarthy's novel. At one point, Holden states that "War is God" - and most of the book's characters worship at this altar of altercation. That being said, McCarthy's prose can be incredibly insightful, thought-provoking, and piercing; in some ways, Blood Meridian is more a philosophical reflection on war, violence, and (im)morality than an adventure novel set in the wild west. While McCarthy periodically draws upon references to vampires, exorcisms, ghost armies, and primordial gods, these allusions are used to describe something even more frightening: human nature.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.