Recent Reads – June 2017

 

The Dead Zone – Stephen King

This was a strange one for me to reread. I remembered it being about a man who, following a car crash, develops second sight and plots to assassinate a presidential hopeful intent on setting off a nuclear war. But this doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. Most of The Dead Zone is concerned with Johnny Smith (either King was having a bad character-naming day or this guy is supposed to be an everyman) trying to cope with his new gift. Special gifts, in King’s universe, are rarely to be envied — think Carrie, Firestarter, Dr Sleep, or Duma Key for instance — and the same goes for Johnny. “The Bible says God loves all his creatures,” he remarks at some point before being told, “Got a funny way of showing it, doesn’t he?” He loses his girl, his friends, his job, he’s ridiculed in the media and shunned in the town where he lives. What’s remarkable is how readable all this is. Or maybe it’s not remarkable at all, since King is a hell of a writer, and this is one of his earlier books that doesn’t yet suffer from the bloat that became his signature later. It does contain some other classic King elements: a doomed love affair, religious maniacs, a sexual deviant with a sexually repressive childhood, references to his own work (Carrie is name-checked), and of course many of the characters speak in clever, down-homey colloquialisms. All in all, a fine read. I listened to the audio version narrated by James Franco, who did a great job, especially with the Polish (?) doctor.

Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane

This is classic Lehane. A breakneck plot, believable characters, razor-sharp writing. But as a parent, I found this a wrenching read. First I was tortured with the question of what I’d do if one of my kids went missing, and then by the reality of what happens to missing kids. Be prepared to have your heart pierced and your stomach turned. Still, this is probably my favorite Lehane at this point, after Live by Nightand World Gone By.

Recent Reads – May 2017

Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is such a smooth, supple writer. He gives his characters real depth without ever slowing down his stories, and he’s a master plotter. But this new book didn’t do it for me. It starts off as one thing, then becomes something else entirely, and this “something else” was where Lehane lost me. Both the plot and the characters became increasingly ridiculous, and what seemed like an unsolvable situation turned out to be, well…

Gwendy’s Button Box – Stephen King and Richard Chimer

Stephen King has been in top form in recent years. 11/22/63 and Duma Key are two of his best novels in my opinion. But he’s also cranking out books at a rate he last managed in the 70s and 80s, when he was half a century younger and out of his mind on coke and booze. Consider this: he spent fifteen years on the first four parts of The Dark Tower only to finish the last three in a year. He’s been clearing out his drawers (Under the Dome, Blaze) and writing sequels (Doctor Sleep, the forthcoming Talisman book) and filling gaps in his oeuvre (The Wind through the Keyhole). Add to that the many comic books and film adaptations and TV shows (Haven, Under the Dome, The Mist) of his work, and you might feel King is everywhere.

No wonder, then, that not everything he does is a success. With Gwendy’s Button Box, he’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Apparently, he’d written 7,000 words and didn’t know how to go on, so he enlisted the help of fellow horror writer Richard Chizmar. You’d think that 7,000 words is no big loss for King, who reportedly produces 2,000 words a day, and he’d been better off just discarding this story altogether. It’s a vapid piece of writing. Neither the characters or the plot are remarkable in any sort of way. A big deal is made of the fact that this is a Castle Rock story — Castle Rock being the site of some of King’s best works — but really, the place is only mentioned a few times without serving an actual purpose. Reference is made to “The Monkey’s Paw,” one of King’s favorite stories, but in actuality Gwendy is more akin to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” also a favorite of King’s. But whereas that story was only one or two pages long, Gwendy stretches to well over a hundred. There is lots of setup and very little payoff. In the end, the story just kind of… fades out.

But King is a money-making machine, and Gwendy will sell and get positive reviews and do nothing to stop the world, myself included, from awaiting King’s next book, Sleeping Beauties, written with his son Owen and to be published later this year.

The Door into Summer – Robert Heinlein

This was a quick, fun read: a time-travel revenge story with a clever plot, breakneck pacing, and a likable grump for a main character. Oh, and an awesome cat.

Recent Reads – November 2016

A Whole LifeA Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

This book reminded me, in a positive way, of one of my all-time favorite short novels, Denis Johnson’s TRAIN DREAMS. Like that book, A WHOLE LIFE covers the life (duh) of a man who lives on the fringes of society at the turn of the 20th century. Both of these men make their living in the woods and mountains; both have shadowy interior lives that are never fully revealed; both have wives that die young and tragically; both never remarry; both are visited by the ghosts of their dead wives; both are perplexed by the modernization of the world; both are eventually left behind by the modern world but find contentment in their solitude. It wouldn’t surprise me if Seethaler was as moved by TRAINS DREAMS as I was. Both books are prime examples of how you don’t need a lot of words and pages to tell a grand story, and how even a modest life can be filled with luminous moments worthy of great literature.

EverymanEveryman – Philip Roth

This is the first of Roth’s four Nemeses and the last I’ve just reread (I reread them in reverse chronological order). With the exception of THE HUMBLING, I liked all of them better this time around than when I first read them upon their original publication. Maybe that’s because I now know they are (probably?) Roth’s final novels. And while I still think they are minor efforts compared to his best work (SABBATH’S THEATER, the American trilogy, the original Zuckerman books), I enjoyed taking a last run through some of his favorite themes: rebel sons and their overbearing fathers, the outrageousness of death, the temptations and trappings of sex, the moral indignity of religion.

NEMESIS, with its heartbreaking and ferocious ending, remains my favorite of the bunch. EVERYMAN is tied with INDIGNATION. Both are relentlessly bleak, but some sunlight filters through EVERYMAN’s dark mood in the form of childhood memories and a longing for lost loved ones that, especially in its final pages, truly moved me.

World Gone ByWorld Gone By – Dennis Lehane

As implied by its title, WORLD GONE BY is an elegiac book. It’s a direct follow-up to LIVE BY NIGHT and might as well have been tacked onto the end of that book to make one massive volume like its predecessor, THE GIVEN DAY.

Our hero, Joe Coughlin, this time around is concerned not with establishing his empire but tying up loose ends and securing a future for his son. He’s in his 30s, but in his line of work he might as well be an old man. Many of the characters in WGB are similarly aware of the passing of time and the brevity of human lives, which is reinforced by the war that’s devastating Europe and the violence that’s always in danger of erupting around them.

WGB is haunted by Thomas Coughlin’s — Joe’s dad — warning from the previous book that violence only begets more violence, and that Joe may not be able to live down all the evil he’s put into the world. Lacking the breakneck speed and spectacular set pieces of the last book, WBG delivers a slow buildup of dread. Joe Coughlin is going down. The question is who he’s taking with him.

Dolores ClaiborneDolores Claiborne – Stephen King

As I’m working my way through the entire King catalogue for the first time since my teens, I’m finding that the books that hold up best to a second reading are the non-horror ones. DOLORES CLAIBORNE starts off with the confession of a crime and the rejection of another, and doesn’t pull a twist ending or any other “gotcha” moments. And still King manages to keep the book moving for some 300 pages. This is largely due to Dolores Claiborne’s infectious voice, which really is King’s own voice in disguise — can an ornery, solitary housekeeper really be expected to keep up an engaging monologue for 300 pages the way King can? The result is a book that’s both horrific and hilarious.

JoylandJoyland – Stephen King

This was one King novel I hadn’t read yet. It’s short and sweet. I listened to the audio version read by Michael Kelly, whose delivery was fittingly melancholy. There were echoes here of King’s past work (the theme park setting reminded me of THE TALISMAN, plus King likes his kids with magical abilities), and a version of the televangelist that’s featured here off-stage takes center stage in his next book, REVIVAL (which, interestingly, name checks Joyland and The Territories from THE TALISMAN). In short, a minor but pleasant note in the King oeuvre.