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 – February 2017

The Drawing of the ThreeThe Drawing of the Three – Stephen King

I’ve lost count of all the times I tried reading the Dark Tower series and got stuck in this book. If I wasn’t on a journey now to (re)read every Stephen King book — a journey perhaps as daunting as Roland’s trek to the Dark Tower — I might have given up again. But this time I made it to the end. Hallelujah.

Why did I struggle? I liked the book okay. Didn’t love it. King is always an entertaining storyteller, and a lot happens so the book is never boring. But every scene felt like it was stretched to the breaking point — they just went on and on and on. I suspect that with this book King decided to turn the Dark Tower into his magnum opus come hell or high water, and he started throwing everything at the wall hoping it would stick. (Apparently, he suffered from George RR Martin syndrome long before Martin himself did.)

I’ve heard this book described as a “bridge book,” and supposedly The Waste Lands is better, so onward and upward I go… to the Dark Tower.

Mother NightMother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be in a certain mood to read Kurt Vonnegut: the mood for silly profundity. So whenever that mood strikes, I read him in big gulps before it goes away again. Luckily, his books are never long or needlessly complex. This is a compliment. I’m always amazed, when I’m reading Vonnegut, at how effortless his books go down and how smoothly they seem put together. His narrators jump back and forth in time, they interrupt their stories with seemingly random asides and drawings, minor characters pop up, disappear, and reappear again; in short, Vonnegut does what any writing teacher would tell you NOT to do and somehow makes it work. Gloriously so.

Vonnegut’s books have a logic all their own, an infectious kind of madness. They’re all the same in this regard. Read one Vonnegut and you’ve read them all. This, too, is a compliment. Book after book, he offers a sustained vision of life as being both beautiful and absurd. So what can I say about Mother Night that I haven’t already said about, say, Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five? Just read it. For a Vonnegut newbie, this is as good a place to start as any. For a Vonnegut convert, this one ranks among his best and shouldn’t be missed.

Waiting for ContactWaiting for Contact – Lawrence Squeri

This book started off with a big bang (wink wink): it talked about the history of man’s fascination with extraterrestrial life, moving from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the more wonky area of ufology. But once SETI comes into play, things start to drag. A history of man’s search for ET isn’t complete without a close look at SETI of course, but the entire middle section of this book is taken up with recapping conferences, funding problems, and internal strife that left me with the feeling that SETI is too small, too conflicted, too underfunded, and has been too unsuccessful to really offer much hope of ever finding alien intelligence. Things pick up again in the last few pages, when the author widens his scope by theorizing about the future and new technologies for making contact. To anyone who finds this interesting, I’d recommend reading Paul Davies’ excellent THE EERIE SILENCE instead. Unless you want to find out how much government funding SETI received in, say, 1979. In that case, read Squeri’s book.

Recent Reads – December 2016

Time TravelTime Travel – James Gleick

If you get all tingly and happy at the wonderfully paradoxical possibilities of a history of time travel, this book is for you. It’s a mix of hard science, popular science, and retrospective of major SF novels that deal with time travel. I loved it.

The Postman Always Rings TwiceDouble Indemnity & The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Though these books are 80+ years old, they’re still as sharp as a razor blade and as taut as a guitar string.

 
 

The Colorado KidThe Colorado Kid – Stephen King

I love King and wish I loved this book too, but is this Minor King with a capital M. Three people discuss a mystery that turns out not to be very mysterious at all. It’s an anecdote stretched to some 100+ pages. King writes dialogue like no other, so the book is never boring, but THE COLORADO KID is like Chinese food: it leaves you hungry for something with real substance.

Trout Fishing in AmericaTrout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan

This book speaks my language.

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.

 

Recent Reads – September 2016

 Fat CityFat City – Leonard Gardner

There’s much to love and admire about this book. The writing is exquisite, the dialogue very sharp and often very funny, plus it takes place in the Sacramento River delta, an area I know well. So why did it take me almost two years and several false starts to finish it, when it’s all of 190 pages? Because the characters — washed up boxers and small-time trainers — aren’t very likable. So I could only take this book in small, though brilliant, doses.

Bag of BonesBag of Bones – Stephen King

What a strange book this is. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Stephen King himself. He’s a great storyteller, both on and off the page (his small-town Maine accent being especially good), and his narration helped me get through the parts where otherwise I might have stopped reading. Because this book gets pretty silly…

BAG OF BONES seems to be confused about the story it’s trying to tell. It starts off strong with Mike Noonan, a writer of bestselling thrillers, who loses his wife quite tragically and mysteriously. There are some ghostly goings-on that may or may not be a manifestation of his grief. A third of the way in, the book resets and becomes a kind of legal thriller with a love story thrown into the mix, and more ghostly elements. That second storyline gets cast aside rather shockingly, and in the last third of the novel King takes the earlier fringe horror elements and turns them into a full-blown gothic melodrama. One almost wonders if King shouldn’t reconsider his famous preference for writing without an outline. He has said he wants to be surprised by the writing process — he doesn’t want to know exactly where he’s going — and BAG OF BONES certainly is full of surprises.

The thing about Uncle Steve is, he’s such a good storyteller that even the silly stuff is compelling. Forty-something Mike Noonan almost getting drowned by two senior citizens. Dreams that conveniently reveal information Noonan otherwise would never have found out. And a perfectly timed death that even Noonan himself admits would have embarrassed him if he’d used it in one of his novels. Silly, and yet, you read on.

In short, BAG OF BONES is a mess, but it’s an entertaining mess. I recommend the audio version.

GGhostlandhostland: An American History in Haunted Places – Colin Dickey

This is a fun read. I love a good ghost story, and GHOSTLAND contains plenty of them. Books of this kind have a tendency to veer into sensationalism and ridiculousness, with unsubstantiated claims, blurry pictures, and bad writing. Dickey, however, is a solid writer and humble historian. He situates each ghostly tale into its historical context, turning the book into a road trip not just through haunted America but through our haunted history. He doesn’t simply repeat ghost stories, but examines their historical veracity, without taking hearsay or questionable “scientific” findings — EVP recordings, EMF meter readings, orbs — as proof. In fact, GHOSTLAND left me with the feeling that very few, if any, famous American ghost stories contain any real supernatural elements. The scariest thing is how we’ve continually distorted the historical record to soothe our conscience or make a buck off a good story.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr MercedesStephen King is an institution. I know it, you know it, and he knows it. As far back as THE TOMMYKNOCKERS his novels have referenced his own work as though, in the fictional worlds he’s creating, there’s another bestseller author of scary novels named Stephen King who lives in Maine. THE TOMMYKNOCKERS referenced IT, THE SHINING, and THE DEAD ZONE. MR. MERCEDES also mentions IT, as well as Judas Coyne, the hero of his son Joe Hill’s debut novel, HEART-SHAPED BOX. (Hill included several nods to his father’s work – including IT – in his third book, NOS4A2.) And why not? You can’t dispute King’s prodigious output or sales figures. What’s more, you can’t dispute that he’s an engaging storyteller. This, more than anything, is why readers keep coming back to him.

I’ve recently been on somewhat of a Stephen King kick, having read 11/22/63, REVIVAL, and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS in quick succession. And now MR. MERCEDES. I had my doubts about this one. The story didn’t sound that interesting and I tend to not care for police procedurals, detective novels, or whatever you want to call them (a notable exception being LUSH LIFE by Richard Price). But the audiobook was read by Will Patton, who did some of my favorite audiobooks (LIGHT IN AUGUST, JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS) and whose performance proved once again to be masterful.

Did the story grip me? Not really. Did the characters? Not really. They included a typical sexually confused villain, a typical retired suicidal cop, and one of King’s favorites: a magical black person (see also: THE TALISMAN and THE STAND). Yet, I kept listening. King’s prose is so smooth and his pacing so clever that you want to know what happens next, even if none of it is particularly exciting. By the end, I was happy to be done with this particular story, but also eager enough to spend more time in Uncle Steve’s company to pick up the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

TommyknockersThis used to be one of my favorite Stephen King books, along with Pet Sematary, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. Those last two I reread in 2014 and didn’t like them as much as I remembered – I found them unnecessarily digressive and adverb-heavy. Yet, there’s something about reading an old Stephen King book… maybe it’s because I grew up on them, or because his post-1990s output has been so uneven (although he’s recently been on something of a roll: 11/22/63 is one of my all-time favorite King novels; Duma Key is great; Revival is perfectly enjoyable)… So I figured I’d try this one again.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, King called The Tommyknockers “an awful book.” It’s too long, too weird, too derivative, too… not good. But it starts off surprisingly strong. Sure, 200 pages in, King loses himself (or his plot) in a long section concerning the town’s history and its inhabitants, but he quickly regains his footing until suddenly, 300 pages in, he has the entire town of Haven under his spell… as well as the reader.

There is something urgent about his writing here, something dreamlike and primeval. This was the last book he wrote before kicking his drug and alcohol habit, and addiction is what this story is about: an entire town locked into the paranoid, self-destructive clutches of addiction. But it’s also about cancer, and nuclear weapons, and zealotry, and Native American curses, and – yikes! – menstrual blood. Derry makes an appearance. So does Pennywise. And Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone. And King himself.

In that same Rolling Stone interview mentioned above, King speculates there’s probably a good 350-page novel hidden inside the current 700+ version of The Tommyknockers. That novel would probably be a lot saner, but also safer. And part of the joy of The Tommyknockers — for me at least — is the mad mess it is.

Revival by Stephen King

RevivalI really enjoyed 11/22/63 recently and was inspired to pick up REVIVAL. But even though REVIVAL is significantly shorter than 11/22/63, it feels much baggier. King’s recent books have been less about jump scares and more about the horrors of everyday life: aging, addiction, losing one’s loved ones (see also Dr. Sleep). As an adult, I find these things are scarier than the moving hedge animals from The Shining or the killer refrigerator from The Tommyknockers (which I loved as a kid). Case in point: I thought the love story in 11/22/63 was truly moving and heartbreaking. The opening chapters of REVIVAL have a similar wistful, nostalgic tone and set up another a loving family for tragedy (two families in fact). But soon King loses track of the plot in favor of his characters. By this time you care enough about those characters to keep reading, but in the end, nothing much happens to them. I was reminded of the horror movie The Innkeepers, where it’s all about the tension, the what-will-happen-next. Once you get to the end and realize the answer is “Nothing,” you’ve spent a pleasant enough 90 minutes (or 400 pages in the case of REVIVAL), but you also feel slightly… not let down, but underwhelmed. Tricked into thinking there would be more.

REVIVAL supposedly has one of King’s creepiest endings. Sure enough, the last chapter is great, even if it feels rather slight compared to the 12 chapters that came before it. You can guess from the very first page (or even from the title, or the cover design, or the motto) where the story is headed and finally – finally! – it goes there and it’s great, so you can’t help but wish it had come sooner or stayed longer. I wonder if REVIVAL started out as a short story or a novella that grew out of proportion. King once called himself the literary equivalent of a Big Mac. REVIVAL is a Big Mac with a LOT of fries on the side.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11-22-63-1This is the best Stephen King book I’ve read in years. I reread THE SHINING and SALEM’S LOT recently and didn’t like them as much as I did when I was a teenager. I found them adverb-heavy and unnecessarily digressive, especially SALEM’S LOT. In contrast, 11/22/63 is tightly plotted despite its length and a lot less hokey, with characters you care for not just because they’re the good guys battling evil but because they feel like real people with real hopes and dreams.

I was a Stephen King junkie for years, starting with SILVER BULLET at age ten, but I stopped reading him in my 20s, in part because I was underwhelmed by much of King’s recent output: DESPERATION, ROSE MADDER, THE REGULATORS (I didn’t even make it through INSOMNIA, DREAMCATCHER, CELL, LISEY’S STORY, or FROM A BUICK 8). But then I picked up DUMA KEY on a whim and was pleasantly surprised. So 11/22/63, along with DUMA KEY, are the only King novels since 2001 that I’ve read, but based on how much I enjoyed them, I’m now tempted to read that other recent doorstopper of his: UNDER THE DOME.