Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes: An Open Letter to Ray Bradbury

I've broken one of my personal rules: I stopped reading a book half-way through. It's something I almost never do, but alas, I had to do it this time. The book in question is, of course, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, a classic novel by pretty much everyone's standards. Me? Well . . . I was not too impressed. Make no mistake; the fact that I didn't love it saddens me to no end. I hate not being able to enjoy a book I've started, especially one deemed as "can't miss" literature for over five decades. So, since I was not able to actually complete Bradbury's novel, I don't feel it's right or fair to me or the book to write a complete analysis the way I usually do. Instead, I've opted for writing an open letter to Mr. Bradbury (and yes, nay-sayers, this blogger is fully aware said author has went on to the clearing at the end of the path), and in this letter I will pretend to tell him what I liked about his novel, what I didn't like, and why I couldn't finish. It's going to be short and sweet because I have other blog posts that demand to be written!

Ray Bradbury and cat

Started: January 14th, 2015
Finished (partially): January 20th, 2015

Dear Mr. Bradbury:

Okay, first off, is it okay if I call you Ray? Or maybe Ray-Bray? No? Shoot. Well, then, this is awkward because you're probably going to hate what I say next . . . but I did not like your novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. No sir! I hate to sound rude -- if it helps, I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and thought it was pretty decent. The futuristic, sci-fi thing you had going on was pretty cool, as well as the theme of censorship. Classic stuff! I'm aware Something Wicked This Way Comes came out nearly ten years after Fahrenheit 451, and I know it was wrong of me to expect this book to live up to that one and it was VERY wrong of me to compare the two. . . but I did. Will you ever forgive me? Readers do that sort of thing all the time, even if they don't mean to. Still, I hope me complimenting Fahrenheit helps you see I'm really not such a bad guy. Honest.

Going into this novel, I was expecting to be blown away . . . or at least be able to put myself in the narrative. Usually I can do that even if the book isn't very good. Your prologue gave me hope! Filled with beautiful, honest descriptions of the wonder of October and what it means to be a kid and all that followed by the menace of danger to come by way of a carnival. Neeeeeat. Good set-up. However, from the first chapter I felt let down, and I felt more and more justified in that opinion as I read. I found the characters to be paper-thin, your prose purple, your action middling, your plotting lacking. I only read 160 pages in six days, and I'm a very speedy reader. I simply felt like I couldn't get in to the place you were trying to describe and I couldn't become friends with the two kids, Will and Jim, and it was pretty obvious you wanted me to like them. The attempt was admirable, but the execution was far from successful. You just couldn't make me care about anything you wrote, and that's one of the biggest jobs of an author -- making the reader care.

However, your novel wasn't all bad! I thought the theme of finding youth again by way of electricity was neat, but I couldn't help but think my favorite author Stephen King did it better in his latest novel, Revival. I also liked the scenes with Will and his father -- there are some great thoughts about what it means to grow up and get old to be mined within those pages.

Mr. Bradbury, why couldn't you have written the rest of your novel the way you wrote the conversations between Will and his father? Those were the only times I felt like these were real people and not characters in a book. I'm not picky, and I don't ask for much -- I simply want more than monsters I can't imagine due to a lack of adequate description  and cardboard good guys and bad guys. Give me someone to root for, and give me something to fear. That's all I want, 'k?

See . . . That wasn't so bad. I promise I'm not a mean guy. I write this letter out of love and respect for a man making a career of the writing craft and obviously touching millions of readers in the process. There is a reason you're so popular, after all. I just haven't found that reason for myself yet. However, that does not mean our relationship is over, you and I! You've written many books, my dear man, and I plan to try out at least one or two more. Perhaps it's simply a matter of trying 'em on till one fits, and when that happens . . . We'll go from there.

Sincerely yours,


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Look at Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" / Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"

Started/Finished: January 12th, 2015

Today I am going to be briefly discussing two short stories I was assigned for my literature college course: Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" and Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." I enjoyed both, but today's blog post is going to be pretty short due to me needing to do other things tonight. Huzzah.

The first story I am going to talk about (I wanted to say "analyze", but let's be real here!) is Walker's "Everyday Use." It's a story about an African American family -- two daughters and a mother -- dealing with the circumstances they've been dealt in their lives. The story is told in first-person perspective from the aging mother's point of view as she fills the reader in on the little, modest (and difficult, too) life she and her less-successful daughter, Maggie have built for themselves. Mother has no husband, and he is not mentioned at all in the story. Instead, mother describes herself in this way within the first few paragraphs:

In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. . . .

From the beginning, we see this aging woman has always been independent, strong, willful. Maggie, her stay-at-home daughter, is the opposite: she is nervous, reserved, and ashamed of her ugly body with its burn scars on the arms and legs, especially when her successful and beautiful sister, Dee, comes to visit. The two offer a deep contrast but they care about one another -- they've both seen hardships, and they only have each other.

Unlike her sister and mother, Dee seems rather prideful and arrogant, but that's understandable -- she's left home, gone to boarding school, and made something of herself. It's totally acceptable to be proud of one's accomplishments, but Dee seems to only want to rub her wealth and husband in her sister and mother's faces. Still, Maggie and Mom can't help but be proud of the one who got away from the homestead and made her own way in the world. It's their pride that makes it so heartbreaking when Dee claims she doesn't want her name anymore, because it is a name that has been passed down in the family. A name is very important, and to want to change one's name is significant. What right does Dee have to change her name? One of the biggest motifs in "Everyday Things" is heritage and becoming one with where you come from, and a name is exactly that.

The awkward visit goes on for a little while, and while rummaging through some things Dee discovers old quilts that were knit by her grandmother and insists that she have them. Mother tells her no, telling those are for Maggie whenever she moves out. Dee protests this, claiming Maggie won't know how to treat the old things, but Mother defends Maggie's honor, and that's when the silent sister comes out of hiding and tells Dee -- the sister she's always been afraid of, the one she's always compared herself against -- that she can have the quilts, because Maggie knows what it is to love and cherish the little things.

"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts."

It was in this moment Maggie became my favorite character in the piece -- I was rooting for her. I wanted her to feel a smidgen of the love for herself that Dee, mighty successful woman from out of town, felt for her self.  I knew it wouldn't happen because the two sisters are worlds apart, but I can't help wanting it all the same.

Dee and her husband begin to leave, and it's at this moment -- the end of the story -- that things are turned just a bit and the reader see things ever-so briefly through the aloof Dee's eyes, and we sympathize with her and can completely understand why she's made the choices she has.

"'What don't I understand?' I wanted to know.
'Your heritage,' she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, 'You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it.'"

With that, Dee lives, and the world turns on. "Everyday Use" is a story about not forgetting where we come from or where we've been, but also not getting stuck in the past -- at least that's how this guy sees it. What's important is realizing history and heritage is us -- it's who we are and why -- but we mustn't fear living life to the fullest, even if our relatives didn't do that. We don't have to answer to the sins of our ancestors, nor should we.

Started/Finished: January 10th, 2015 

Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" was a story I had to read a couple of times to really mine the meaning and catch the subtleties of the short three-page piece. It focuses only a man, simply called The American, and his companion/lover, Jig, a younger girl.  The two are waiting on a train in Spain, and the conversation they have in the train station over glasses of beer make up almost all of the story. The two have been traveling together for a while, and they're off to somewhere else. Where to? Hemingway never lets the reader in on that; the only hint he gives is The American's insistence of Jag getting an unnamed "operation" -- telling her she will feel so much better after, and things will be "normal again."

After reading this story a few times, I realized the "operation" is an abortion. Wow-ee. In today's world an abortion isn't unheard of, but this thing was written in 1927 -- a time when abortions were most definitely frowned upon and done on the sly. It really shows that Hemingway was advanced as a writer and not afraid to tackle taboo subjects.

So, the operation the American wants Jig to get is an abortion. Okay. That revelation adds a certain depth and sadness to the couple's conversation, in which he is insisting that the younger woman "have the surgery" and "let the air in."

One thing I thought was rather interesting about this short story was Hemingway sticking to rather strict gender stereotypes -- the man is stoic, strong-willed, and assured, while Jig is submissive and reserved -- she even needs help from the man when ordering her drink. This offers an interesting contrast to "Everyday Use", a story that seemed to hint at breaking down pre-conceived social barriers. Walker's characters long for something more; Hemingway's characters are mostly content to stick to the parts they are expected to play.

And what, exactly, are the hills like white elephants? Jig is the one who actually uses the phrase -- at the story's beginning, she tells the man the hills surrounding the train station they are currently waiting at look like white elephants, but what does that mean? It's never really elaborated on -- the conversation is soon turned toward the operation again. There are several ways one could interpret this, but I guess I'll go with the one my literature teacher pointed out: the elephants could represent the "elephant in the room", i.e. the impending abortion. It's a theory, but it's good 'nuff for me.

Overall, I really enjoyed "Hills Like White Elephants" after reading it a few times. It's a grower, for sure. Hemingway's over-abundance of dialogue and spare language becomes a bit tiresome, but it was well worth the read. It's an imaginative portrait of a moment in time -- the young, doubtful couple; the sense of innocence lost and time not well-spent. The reader never finds out if they end up going through with the abortion -- that's for the audience to decide. One can only hope all ends well for the doubtful woman and wooden man.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"Sometimes they grow up together quite successfully": A Review of Tabitha King's "One on One"

Started: January 1st, 2015
Finished: January 10th, 2015

As you can tell from the dates above, it took me a whole ten whopping days to finish Tabitha King's follow-up to Pearl, 1993's One on One. I'd like to blame that on a number of factors, especially starting classes starting back and returning to work after a two week break. Honestly, though, I just had a few too many problems with it to be able to finish it in the normal length of time it takes for me to complete a 500-page novel (3-4 days). It wasn't bad -- there are too many interesting characters and too much of a compelling story here to deem it "bad," or anything less than average, really. It just fell short of my expectations that were heightened after the earthy, raw, and fun adventure that was Pearl. Maybe that's a little unfair of me, and it's more than unfair to One on One, but it's true. However, expectations aside, this novel simply has a number of things that work against it, and they cannot be ignored.

For instance, King has a habit in this book of using certain words in this book -- "friggin", "wenches", "dink" -- over and over and over and over again ad nauseum. This is not something that usually bothers me while reading, unless it's severe . . . and in this case, it is. Seriously. This book is filled with supposed modern day teen guys calling girls "wenches" -- who talks like that? I don't know why this particular issued stuck in my crawl so much, but alas, it did.

Another seemingly minor problem is the lack of Pearl (the title character from Tabby's previous novel). In my opinion, she's King's best character to date, and it's a shame she isn't given more stage-time in the story, besides a few scenes in the role of Sam Styles's (son of Reuben Styles, one of Pearl's lovers in Pearl) new stepmother. It just seems like sort of a waste to me, because Pearl was such a spitfire character before who came alive and pretty much walked off the page, and now she's reglected to a few lines of dialogue here and there, and even those don't seem like they're coming from the person of the novel from before. Luckily, Reuben has some good parts in the story, and there are more than one heartwarming moment between him and his son.

I'd like to add one more thing to my gripe-fest before moving on to the positive aspects of the novel: the sex. Okay, I do not mind sex in literature as long as it isn't heavy-handed and is handled tastefully. This book, honestly, gets mired in all sorts of sexual encounters and fantasies.  I don't care to go into too much detail, but I feel like an editor should have weeded some of this out. It's not badly written -- it just gets repetitive and distracts from the story.

Okay, so for the things that do work: namely, the two main characters. This book is, first and foremost, a basketball story, and the two main characters are on the basketball teams at the local high school -- Sam Styles on the boys' and Deanie Gauther (AKA "the mutant") on the girls'. Both teams are really good, and these two are the stars of his and her respective team. The story is about the evolvement of their relationship from strangers that run in different social circles (Sam is a popular do-gooder; The Mutant is a burnout with a shaven head) to friends to lovers as they each try to lead their team to winning the state title. I must admit, I did not like Deanie at first. I thought she was rather unlikeable, and I know King's point was to make her seem unlikable, but I really did not like this chick. I thought she was annoying, and couldn't think for herself, and was overall rather childish when it seemed King was trying to make her seem adult-like. For instance, on numerous occasions Sam sees her walking home in stringy clothing in the cold, and whenever he tries to offer her a ride, she either runs away or flips him off. At other times, she smokes and does other things that are hazardous to her health during training season. This all happens several times, and I was like "what even?" I eventually grew to like her though, and by the end of the novel -- after she'd been through several traumas I won't spoil -- I was in love with this character.

Unlike The Mutant, I liked Sam right from the beginning, which was also Tabitha King's intention. He's a no-nonsense kind of guy -- star of his team, but doesn't succumb to the partying and other hijinks pulled by his teammates (aside from a hilarious prank in the prologue). It's nice to see his transition from uptight Mr. Perfect-All-The-Time to being a bit more relaxed and open-minded as he gets to knows Deanie more, and the same goes for her as well. These two are really nice for each other, and by the end of the book you're really rooting for their future.

There are a few peripheral characters, but Deanie and Sam really steal the show -- the focus is completely on them, which is fine. These two are enjoyable enough to read about that one doesn't really mind. Other characters that come into play (albeit, mostly in small parts) as Reuben, Pearl, Deanie's deadbeat mother and abusive stepfather, a few local policemen, fellow teammates, and faculty of the high school. None of them play a really large part in the overall story, but they're sketched out well enough for what they are.

Overall, I don't regret reading One on One. It continues the story of the townspeople in Nodd's Ridge, Maine that was begun by Caretakers, The Trap, and Pearl without being redundant or stale. My complaints are minor, but they really add up -- the over usage of certain words, the lack of Pearl, and the missing emotional core that was so prevalant in other Tabitha King books knock it down a few pegs for me. Also . . . If I'm being honest, I feel like 50 or so pages could have been cut without the reader missing too much -- there are a few too many trivial things that happened that I feel didn't add anything to the overall story arch. I loved a few of the characters, but there simply weren't enough of them to make me feel like I was a part of the small town, which is something I think King was reaching for. At times . . . I don't know. I just felt alienated, much like Deanie Gauther. One on One has all the pieces of a great work, but instead it's only a pretty good one. Like I said earlier, I don't regret reading it, but I hope The Book of Reuben will be better.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Glory be to God for dappled things": A Review of Tabitha King's "Pearl"

Hi, all. I've decided to do something I've never attempted before: keeping record of every book I read in 2015 and blogging about them. It will be neat to see how many books I've read and what I thought of them right after reading once December 31st comes 'round again. It's a daunting task, but one I feel I should do (mostly because once I decide I want to do something, my OCD won't quit 'til I do said thing). The first book I read in 2015? Why, it's this lovely one:

Started: December 30th, 2014
Finished: January 1st, 2015

Okay, okay -- so I read more of Pearl in 2014 than in 2015, but I rang in the new year finishing up this bad boy (that's my way of saying I am cooler than all of you, k thx bai) so it counts, dangit.

First things first: Tabitha does NOT write like her husband, well-known author Stephen King. I almost put the word "horror" before author there, but that would have been an error on my part because, while Stephen DOES tend to write scary stories, they are so much more than senseless slasher bloodgutsgorevomit like some folks tend to believe. #soapbox Anyway, Tabby's style definitely leans more toward contemporary fiction with healthy servings of drama. Not stupid, pointless drama, but enthralling "I-can't-believe-this-is-happening-to-those-I-love" drama. Yeah, good stuff.

The novel begins with Pearl Dickenson coming into Nodd's Ridge, the town King's previous two novels were set in. The first paragraph of Pearl is a good one, and I shall quote it for all of you:

'Learning the other ways into Nodd's Ridge, the back roads, takes a lifetime of living there. Since she was from away, Pearl Dickenson arrived by way of Route Five. The first thing she saw was the view for which the Ridge was famous. One comes upon the skyward folding of the land into the White Mountains as a sudden revelation: all at once the woods open up around the individual houses of the village, standing apart from each other in a community of privacy, their backs to the ancient splendid hills. The lake is a wedge of sapphire in the middle ground between, a blue tear in all that rooted rock and green hallelujah of trees. Pearl forgot she was looking for this very place. Swinging into the scenic turnout, she gawked like a thousand other passers-through. 
      'Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,' she said aloud. 'I've died and gone to heaven.'"

Like her husband, Tabitha King has a gift for creating small northeastern towns, using words on the page to create a clear image in the reader's mind. Pearl is the great niece of Nodd's Ridge caretaker Joe Nevers (a character from a previous Tabitha King novel), and she has come to claim the inheritance he has left for her after his passing: his home and vehicles. The first couple of chapters are basically just Pearl arriving at the house, exploring it and moving in, discovering the cemetery beside the old house, finding the grave-markers of a few relatives of hers, and musing on life and death. It's not really slow, but the pace of the novel doesn't pick up until Pearl buys the old local diner (after some vigorous dickering with the crusty, elderly owner) and transforms it from a nasty little place in Nowhere, Maine, to a place where one can enjoy great food and excellent service (provided by Pearl, teenager Karen, and former diner owner Roscoe).

Aside from situations at the diner, the majority of the book focuses on Pearl's budding relationship with local auto mechanic and part-time caretaker Reuben Styles as well as her side-affair with flighty poet David Christopher, whose younger years can be fully explored in Tabitha's earlier novel Caretakers. I must admit, if I had any problems with the book it was Pearl's simultaneous affairs. I feel like it went on just a little too long to be believable, because this is Nodd's Ridge -- a place so small that everyone almost always knows each others business, and Pearl is able to keep this hidden for months. I don't know. It didn't bother me TOO badly, I guess, because the author paints Pearl so sympathetically that the reader DOESN'T want anyone to find out what's going on -- they just want her to be happy and stop spreading herself so thin at the diner. David and Reuben, like Pearl (and, well, every other character here) are fully-drawn characters. They have good qualities as well as flaws, but that's true for anyone. David is flighty and . . . strange, but it's justifiable: his sister was murdered in the lake when he was young, and he's recently lost his mother to cancer. Reuben is a strong, level-handed guy, but he's recently been divorced and having trouble making his kids (waitress Karen and teenage son Sam, whom we see more of in Tabitha's next book, One On One) respect him. The affairs do, eventually, end, and Pearl ends up with Reuben and (mostly) everyone lives happily ever after.

So far, Pearl is the best book I've read by Tabitha King because it flows really well and there are no unneeded words to pad out the length (that's not to say her other books have that either -- they don't -- but I know that's something many authors fall prey to) and the reader is immediately pulled into this chapter of the Nodd's Ridge story. It's a book I really couldn't put down until I was finished, and I will definitely be reading it again sometime.  I'm awfully glad I started out the year with this one, because I couldn't think of a better novel to begin 2015 with!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Miss Sidley Was Her Name, And Teaching Was Her Game: A Look At Stephen King's "Suffer the Little Children"

My outside cat hasn't come up this morning, so I must admit I am a little worried. The weather feels amazing today, though, and we live in the woods with plenty of places for cats to burrow down in and sleep. He's done this numerous times before, but I can't help but worry just a bit every time. I suppose this puts me in the right frame of mind to write about "Suffer the Little Children," though, which is good -- it's definitely one of Stephen King's darker short stories to date. It was written back in the '70s, when King was a young author. He was drinking a lot, which probably helped give his novels and short stories that certain edge. It's pretty unexplainable, but if you've read King's older work you know what I'm talking about.

Stephen King in the 1970s.

"Suffer the Little Children" is, if I'm not wrong, the shortest story in the collection. It's quick and painful, like a knife to the throat -- a quality present in the best of King's work. It's about Miss Sidley, a stern, older school-teacher being driven insane by her students so she takes them one by one down to the sound-proofed mimeograph room and shoots them with a small hand-gun she's concealed in her purse. She's discovered by a fellow teacher who happens to come into the room, and is soon sent away to Juniper Hill (connection to IT! connection to IT!!!), a mental institution in Augusta. Soon after, she slits her throat. Of the story, King says this in the book's notes:

"This story is from the same period as most of the stories in Night Shift, and was originally published in Cavalier, as were most of the stories in that 1978 collection. It was left out because my editor, Bill Thompson, felt the book was getting "unwieldy" -- this is the way editors sometimes tell writers that they have to cut a little before the price of the book soars out of sight. I voted to cut a story called  "Gray Matter" from Night Shift. Bill voted to cut "Suffer the Little Children." I deferred to his judgement, and read the story over carefully before deciding to include it here. I like it quite a lot -- it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who reveled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love. Put another way, "Suffer the Little Children" is a ghastly sick-joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story."

King said all that needs to be said on the subject, so I'll go now. I know this has been a short entry, but "Suffer" is a really short story and doesn't really warrant a deep analysis. I loved it, but that's no surprise. I'm sure I won't be able to say that a little later on when discussing a few of the stories in this book, but so far Nightmares & Dreamscapes is 3 for 3.