Tag Archives: long books

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: A Storm of Swords

It took me 15 days to read all 1,000+ pages of George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, but I stuck with it. In all that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up posting a review for it, spoilery or non. But after spending half of my reading month on one book, I’ve finally decided that I do want to talk about this one, whether or not anyone is interested in following my (slow) progress.

A disclaimer before we get rolling: I’ve only read books 1-3 at this point, and I’ve only watched through half of the third season. PLEASE DON’T SPOIL ME! This will be a mostly non-spoiler review, in which I’ll talk only about the third book, but expect that I’ll be mentioning some events (vaguely) and characters who are still alive in the third book; if you want to avoid even that much info, please don’t read any further. If you’d rather check out my (also non-spoiler) reviews for A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings in the meantime, please do!

astormofswordsIn the novel, the Lannisters retain control of the Iron Throne in Westeros, doing their very best to knock other contending kings out of the running. Robb Stark has lost no battles, but can’t seem to hold his allies and lands. Stannis Baratheon has suffered a major defeat on the Blackwater, but refuses to relinquish his claim. The Greyjoys have made their move rather uncontested, but lack support. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen builds an army and watches her dragons grow. Tywin Lannister, official Hand of the King, plots to keep these enemies at bay, but even in King’s Landing chaos reins. King Joffrey’s commands win him no friends. The Tyrells and Martells could be powerful allies for the Lannisters, but are at each other’s throats instead. The Lannister children war with each other. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted. Meanwhile, Beyond the Wall, another king is on the move with plans to invade, and all of the Watch’s pleas for aid seem to be going unanswered…

” ‘Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?’

‘Almost everyone. Save you and I, of course.’

I’ve already raved about the complex characters, politics, and world-building in my previous Song of Ice and Fire reviews (linked above), and those opinions hold steady through the third book, as well as my dislike of the way most women are represented as objects to be raped and/or stolen, and their general lack of rights. It feels redundant to examine them at length again, so I won’t be sharing more about those aspects in this review. Which will perhaps be more of a reflection.

What I do want to talk about are a few trends I noticed in this book that may be new elements, or may simply have been new observations of old elements that I wasn’t able to pick up on while reading books 1 and 2 (it’s been over a year since I read the earlier books in this series, in which time both my reading tastes and my critiquing abilities have changed).

The first is that there were far fewer surprises for me in this book than I remember discovering in the previous two volumes. To some extent, this may be due to mild spoilers I’ve been subjected to over the last year, and especially during the run of the final season of the corresponding TV series. Another explanation may be that this is such a middle-of-the-series book, and it shows; the scene has been set in the first two books, but it’s too early for anything climactic, so book three felt like Martin marking time, slowly moving his pawns a few short spaces across the board in preparation for bigger events to come. But ultimately, I think the biggest factor for fewer surprises stems from the fact that I’m growing accustomed to Martin’s writing. I can spot his foreshadowing a mile away. I can’t help noticing threads left mysteriously dangling, no matter what other distractions he provides in the foreground.  I’m familiar with the way he plays on the reader’s emotions or expectations by building up scenes or particular character dynamics right before he plans to upset them. I love trying to “crack” each author’s code in this way, but with at least two books (and hopefully four, in the end) left to read in this series, it’s also a bit disappointing to find predictability through familiarity with the writer’s style.

Which of course isn’t to say I saw everything coming, because I didn’t. In addition to quite a bit of foreshadowing, Martin does like to drop the occasional bomb that can’t be seen coming. The combination of both tactics keeps things interesting even for readers like me who begin to suspect they’ve cracked the code. I can’t say I experienced much boredom while reading, despite the sheer enormity of the book and the weeks I spent reading it exclusively. Each chapter adds something new and significant to the overall narrative, though like any book, some are certainly stronger and more memorable than others.

“Why won’t they let me be? I just need to rest, that’s all, to rest and sleep some, and maybe die a little.”

Which brings me to another frustrating trend I found in this book, for the first time while reading this series: some plot arcs, for some characters, have begun to feel rather unnecessary to the overall scheme of things. Of course I have plenty of pages left to read in the final books so it’s possible I’ll find more sense in some of these choices later on, but for now I’m confused. I’ll give one example (skip to the end of the paragraph if you want to avoid vague hints about one character’s plot line): Jon’s time Beyond the Wall. I was so excited when this plot arc began at the end of book 2 because of all the possibilities for nuanced alliances and betrayals, secrets he might learn, acts of sabotage he might commit… but then he reaches the wall again and Martin has not capitalized on any of those opportunities. Rather than nuance and fresh character dynamics, I felt as many of the other characters seemed to: that Jon was a poor actor who’d accomplished little other than survival in a situation where much more than his own life was at stake. He is able to issue a warning, but his knowledge of the enemy’s numbers proves irrelevant and he hasn’t gained any insight into their tactics. So much could have been made of this journey, but instead it felt like mere shuffling from one setting to another, and then a shuffle back to start. There were a couple of other situations I felt similarly about, but in the interest of not spoiling or confusing anyone with my vague rants I’ll keep them to myself for now.

One more trend, on a bit of a more positive note. This book, more so than I remember in books 1 and 2, is full of assumptions. What I mean is that Martin feeds different characters different bits of information, or no information at all, and lets them all reach their own conclusions. Some staunchly believe so-and-so to be dead, some staunchly believe so-and-so to be in such-and-such a location, etc. Martin often allows the reader to know when a character is expressing opinion rather than fact, but not in every case. I particularly enjoy this level of irony (and mystery), so this was a fun element for me.

“There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports.”

Of course, this is all compounded by an intriguing layer of magic. I do quite love the bits of magic infused throughout this world, though I will admit that a couple of times in A Storm of Swords it began to feel like a cop-out response to a difficult situation. I hope that impression does not continue.

Otherwise, I could go on and on about my favorite and least favorite characters, events I liked and didn’t, theories for what comes next, etc. But I think I’ll save more spoilery thoughts for a full series discussion when I’ve reached the end of the books- or at least, as many are published so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I have not given 5 stars, mainly for the reasons listed above: finding the foreshadowing is getting a bit overly obvious, and feeling that the book is overly long for the amount (or lack) of important twists occurring. But I’m still fully invested in this series, and looking forward to continuing. I’m currently watching season 3, and I intend to finish season 4 as well before I continue on to A Feast for Crows. Here’s a handy chart I’ve been referring to in order to help me decide how many episodes to watch, at what point in the reading process, if you’re interested in trying a similar approach or simply enjoy comparing the differences between the story’s mediums.

Do you watch / read the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire series? What are your (non-spoilery!) thoughts so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Tommyknockers

I managed to read seven Stephen King books last year, including a single bind-up of four novellas- which arguably could bump the total number up to ten if you want to consider how long even a “short” novel can be for King. Four of my 2018 Stephen King books were buddy reads (those really help with powering through the long titles), including one of my final reads of 2018, a 976-page novel titled The Tommyknockers.

thetommyknockersAbout the book: Bobbi Anderson walks across her wooded property in the fictional town of Haven, Maine one evening–  as she done many evenings before- and stumbles across a small piece of silver sticking up from the ground. Curious, she digs a bit with her hands, wondering whether she’s found an old can, a steel lockbox, a car? But it’s like nothing she’s ever seen before, massive and otherworldly. She comes back to the same spot the next day with digging equipment, and then excavation equipment as the scope of the thing keeps growing. The problem: the metal seems to be releasing some sort of toxic chemical compound into the air that gradually encompasses the entire town, infecting the townspeople and preventing outsiders from entering Haven to discover what’s going on. Bobbi’s find seems to have a mind of its own, and it’s taking over.

“There’s a whole town going loony just down the road and no one has got the slightest idea it’s happening.”

Stephen King has written in a wide variety of genres, but this one fits firmly under the category of sci-fi. It’s not one of his best-known titles, and I certainly wouldn’t call this one a must-read for King beginners, but fans won’t want to miss this adventure. Especially if you’ve ever enjoyed The X-Files.

“It was a marvelous, improbable artifact shining in the hazy sunlight of this Sunday morning… but it was also a haunted house where demons might still walk between the walls and in hollow places.”

The reason this one doesn’t rank among King’s classics (in my opinion) is that the writing is not quite up to King’s impressive par. His characterization is spot-on as ever, but the cast is excessively large, especially considering that all of the people in Haven are undergoing more or less the same change. The plot is engaging, unpredictable, and intense, but a bit slow-paced in the middle. The social commentary is interesting and not entirely outdated (this novel was written in the 80’s), mostly relating to potential problems with nuclear energy. There is no mistaking King’s usual style, though on a sentence-by-sentence level it doesn’t seem quite as polished as others of his works.

Though I wouldn’t say The Tommyknockers is one of King’s most frightening works, it does maintain a near-constant aura of creepiness. So many of the details are just unsettling enough to keep the reader on board even when the plot verges toward the incredibly bizarre. The tommyknockers are named from a well-known children’s rhyme- one that I recognized from my own childhood (with slightly different wording), despite the fact that I hadn’t even been born at the time this book was written. The story isn’t relatable and all, and it’s hard to walk away from the mysteries of the green light, the locked shed, the magic-trick that turns into a real missing child case, and more.

One of the reasons I would recommend this title to King veterans is the intertextual content. In The Tommyknockers there are some fun references throughout the story relating both to Stephen King himself:

“She wrote good western stories that you could really sink your teeth into, not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote. Goddam good westerns, people said. Especially for a girl.”

(though admittedly marred by that unnecessary final sentence…)

and to King’s previous works, including The Shining:

“So what was she supposed to do? Grab Bobbi’s ax and make like Jack Nicholson in The Shining? He could see it. Smash, crash, bash: Heeeeeere’s GARDENER!

and It:

“Tommy had begun to hallucinate; as he drove up Wentworth Street, he thought he saw a clown grinning up at him from an open sewer manhole– a clown with shiny silver dollars for eyes and a clenched white glove filled with balloons.”

There are several more.

But let’s go back to that “especially for a girl” mention. One of the biggest drawbacks to this novel is that its language and concepts are very much rooted in their time. In the case of technology and lifestyle, these references make for an entertaining flashback. In regards to treatment of women, the old-fashioned sentiments are much less pleasant.

There’s very little in the book that’s truly offensive, the “especially for a girl” statement being the most overt. But there are so many small examples throughout The Tommyknockers of women who are denied their own glory. Though Bobbi discovers the buried object on her property, she needs to be “saved” from self-destruction in the excavation by enlisting male help. In a project involving a large hologram in which a woman is in charge of providing a perfect image for the projection, the task is not complete until she’s enthusiastically lost her virginity to the man watching over her shoulder. The highest police authority in Haven is a woman, but she’s quickly removed from leadership when the townspeople begin changing. Women are not hated within the novel, but nor are they given the same importance and attention as the male characters. Small details add up in a novel of this size.

Interestingly, I found the general disregard for women much less annoying than the over-the-top support of them in King’s more recent work (Sleeping Beauties, Elevation). I know that fiction does not necessarily reflect any viewpoints of the writer, but I think there’s an interesting arc to be located in the social commentary throughout King’s oevre, and it’s fascinating to follow. But I have a lot of reading left to do before I feel comfortable making statements about trends in King’s entire body of work.

At the very least, it’s infinitely interesting to read.

“One of life’s great truths is this: when one is about to be struck by a speeding six-hundred-pound Coke machine, one need worry about nothing else.”

 

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though this was not my favorite King novel, it ranks right up there for weirdness and I do love weird. I’m absolutely looking forward to reading more from King, though I’ll also be more likely to watch the women in his fiction, going forward.

Further recommendations:

  • Stephen King’s Under the Dome is a fascinating character study that takes place in another Maine town that finds itself inexplicably trapped inside an invisible dome. There are some similar sci-fi elements between this one and The Tommyknockers, though the stories themselves are very different. But if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other.
  • If you’re looking for something considerably shorter, (and not Stephen King), Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly is a recent sci-fi thriller that’s superbly unsettling and otherworldly. Its main characters find themselves trapped in an ancient cavern in the Grand Canyon, and quickly discover that they’re not as alone as they thought.

What’s your favorite sci-fi book? YA or adult. I love what I’ve seen of the genre but haven’t read much beyond Stephen King, so I could use some recommendations!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Overstory

Reading the Man Booker longlist this year has been more rewarding than I could have imagined (I’m almost finished– two left), even though I thought the shortlist was surprisingly underwhelming. The last book from the shortlist that I read this October was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I picked this one up shortly after the winner announcement, with fairly low expectations but a lot of curiosity.

theoverstoryAbout the book: A diverse array of characters experience life-changing events relating to trees. One man is saved by a tree when he falls out of the sky, but one boy is badly injured when he falls from another. For a few characters, trees are family heirlooms or traditions; for others, trees are neglected until a bad stroke leaves little else of life available. Over their lifetimes, these characters’ lives intersect, joining or clashing with each other. But across each journey, the characters come to realize that humans are dangerous for trees and that something valuable is being lost in the clear-cutting of ancient forests and farming of quick-growing replacements in the name of progress. These characters learn that trees have voices and instincts that most people are unaware of, and there might be a lot more at stake than simple wood.

“Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

” ‘My life’s work is listening to trees!’ “

I must admit, I often skim over descriptions of nature and landscape when I’m reading novels. The appearance of the setting is one of the least important parts of a story for me, and I have no problem creating a viable image of a story’s world in my own head– the method I prefer for visualizing, unless there are certain aspects to a setting that I would not invent accurately on my own (as in fantasy or futuristic elements). So when I learned that The Overstory is a long novel all about nature and landscape and trees, I thought, “Oh no, I’ll be tempted to skip over half of the information and then I won’t be able to understand or enjoy the rest of it.” It was the only book on the longlist that I didn’t really want to read, but I knew I would not be able to leave one book unread when I’ve gone to the effort to read all twelve others. Also saving my least-anticipated for last seemed like a depressing way to end what has otherwise been a great list. So I picked up The Overstory.

And I was pleasantly surprised. The human characters are present enough from the start that I had no trouble tolerating all of the trees in their lives. And what’s more, the trees themselves are fascinating. Apparently there are a lot of kinds of trees with unique properties or histories that are actually interesting and largely unknown– at least to me. The Chestnut blight. The clearing of trees even in small parks. The difficulties of living 200 feet above ground-level in an ancient Redwood. The possibility that trees communicate. Interesting stuff, and it’s not all about how green the leaves and how strong the trunks and how many the branches. For about two-thirds of the novel, The Overstory really held my attention.

“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”

But as the most enthusiastic characters began to drift away from their tree passion, to question it, or to give up hope that they could do anything to help the situation, my interest waned toward the end. If even the staunchest of these tree huggers are losing their nerve, how can they convince me to stay invested?

I also felt that the resolution was a bit unsatisfactory. Each of the story’s threads do come to some end, but I still had so many questions. The final chapters for each of the characters came as a surprise and left me wondering why there wasn’t more. More importantly, those final chapters upset some of my earlier assumptions, leaving me wondering whether the point of the novel is to raise awareness that we’re going to have a shortage of trees if we keep going at the rate we are,  or move readers toward activism in saving trees, or even just to suggest that humans can do what they will to the world but the world will bounce back and outlast us all.

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will loose by winning.”

There were also a lot of romances (all hetero as well, which was kind of disappointing) that counteracted some of the tree commentary. There were several times I wondered whether this character or that character was truly acting for the trees, or for their partner. Advocating for trees because you love a person does not convey quite the same message as characters advocating out of appreciation for the trees themselves. I didn’t need all of the characters to tie together so neatly that they all needed to be paired off with one another, and found their romances rather unnecessary and frustrating in general.

“You’re worth more to me than all the forests this outfit can slaughter.”

But even though I was left uncertain and somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, I can’t deny that I learned a lot while reading this book and that it made me look at the natural world in a new light. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was never bored. The Overstory is a long book with a high risk for tedium, and I don’t doubt that there will be readers who simply can’t stand all the tree talk. But Powers is an intelligent writer who doesn’t get lost in the scope of such a vast topic, and I think his place on the shortlist was well-deserved.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. For most of the book, I was blown away by how much I cared about the trees and their human advocates/acquaintances, but the ending wasn’t strong enough to maintain that momentum. I am glad that I read it, and for a 500 page book about trees it was a faster and more engrossing read than I expected. If it had come together a little more definitively at the end, this might have been a surprising favorite for me from the longlist. But alas.

More Man Booker reviews in order of descending favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ll also have a review of Sabrina coming up next week.

Have you read any books from the shortlist? Which was your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: It

I read Stephen King’s It! It currently stands as the longest book I’ve ever read, ringing in at 1,153 pages. I spent four weeks buddy reading this book, about 250-300 pages per week between the other books I read this month, ending each week with a phone chat with my buddy about the section we’d just read. It was a great way to make it through what might otherwise have seemed a very daunting book, and thus I ended up really loving not only the buddy read experience but the entire long novel.

it2About the book: Something is haunting Derry. Only the kids seem to be able to see It, although they don’t all see the same thing, and some of the grownups know It’s there. But no one seems to understand what It is, or why it’s murdering kids. In 1958, the Losers Club bands together, united by their shared experiences as victims of local bully Henry Bowers and the terrifying supernatural force they call It. Once they start talking about their frightening experiences with Pennywise the clown (in Its various forms) they start piecing together truths about Derry’s dark nature that no one else seems to understand– or at least admits out loud. One of the Losers has lost a sibling to Pennywise’s reign of terror, and won’t let that stand– the group dedicates their summer to killing It; and just in case, they swear to come back to Derry as adults and try again if It manages to survive and return.

“And once dreams became real, they escaped the power of the dreamer and became their own deadly things, capable of independent action.”

Of course, as with every Stephen King novel (that I’ve read so far, anyway), the writing is superb. King always seems to know which details to share to breathe life into his characters and keep the plot rolling. Yes, It is long. It’s really long (and thus my review is also a bit longer than usual). But there weren’t aspects of this book that felt superfluous like long books run the risk of including. Every word has its place, and they’re good words. It is easy to read, in the sense that it’s not full of unknown words or obscure concepts, and yet he ties things together in eye-opening ways. Despite its supernatural elements, It is full of relatable ideas about human nature, about relationships and emotions that many readers are familiar with. No one writes like King.

It covers two main timelines, a summer in 1958 and another in 1985. The book goes back and forth between the two times, sometimes switching chapters between the two right in the middle of a sentence that meshes with another sentence fragment from the other time. But both times move forward chronologically, the switches are clearly labelled, and there’s such an age difference for the Losers between ’58 and ’85 that it’s easy to keep track of which time you’re reading about. There are also vignettes of Pennywise’s deadly mischief in other years, but again these are clearly labelled and woven fittingly into the story.

In addition to the range of years, the reader is also given close third-person perspectives of each of the seven main characters, as well as a few brief glimpses into Pennywise’s psyche and several of the other children outside of the Losers Club. But again, these sections are distinct, though they aren’t always labelled. Each character is impressively unique, and at the first mention of one of their names the reader knows exactly which character they’re following.

These formatting details alone make the length of the book evident: to follow so many characters closely over a 27-year time span with extra bits thrown in to widen the story, It covers a huge scope of plot, and it does so at a perfect pace– slow enough for the reader to take in every important detail, but fast enough that the reader is never bogged down with a ton of boring backstory. The 1,153 pages are necessary– you just need to be interested in a really big story if you’re thinking about attempting it.

I do want to mention some not-as-stellar aspects of this particular King novel, however. While I didn’t find any of this book truly scary, I would say It is a book for more mature audiences. There are some creepy clown scenes as well as other horror scenes that may potentially be frightening. In addition, there are a lot of slurs and insults aimed at the Losers. The Losers are: an asthmatic, an African American, a Jew, an overweight boy, a stutterer, a myopic goof (class clown type), and a girl. There are also some gay characters. All of these people are made fun of, bullied, called every inappropriate name that applies, etc. Even amongst themselves they joke about the things that make them “losers.” This is done as tastefully as possible (as far as such a thing can be done tastefully): the Losers Club is a self-proclaimed title, and they’re fully accepting of each other inside the group. The narration makes it clear that the slurs and such are the opinions of the small-minded, the real losers; the Losers Club is actually pretty charming and awesome. I would’ve read 1,000+ pages about them even without Pennywise the supernatural clown to keep the plot rolling.

“Maybe, he thought, there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends– maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for, too, if that’s what has to be.”

But then there are the weird sexual moments. These actually bothered me more than any of the racist/homophobic/misogynistic/etc. comments and the murders of small children. Some of the murders are disturbing, but generally their supernatural nature makes them seem more fictional while the sexual moments seem very much more real. I don’t want to give a list of the weird sexual things that happen, but they’re there. It’s not even always a sex scene, per se, it’s just some normal childhood moment that ends up oddly charged. Sex comes into this novel much more frequently than seems necessary. I almost took a star off my rating for these moments, but in the end I liked the rest of the content enough to overlook these bizarre and uncomfortable moments. There’s one scene toward the end of the book when the Losers Club is still a group of 11 year-olds that particularly bothered me.

For anyone who’s read the book (I plan to watch both the old miniseries and the new movie in the near future but I haven’t yet), I’ll say this: I preferred the childhood timeline to the adult one, except for the Ritual of Chud scenes. Ben was my favorite character throughout, though I liked the entire Losers Club, especially as children. The reunion scene was my favorite adult Losers Club section. My favorite scene of the whole book is the phone call to Stan and his wife’s subsequent discovery. The end of the novel was definitely not what I expected (which is to say It was not what I expected) and I would’ve rated the book lower for that “final battle” scene if the adult version of the Ritual of Chud hadn’t fulfilled my expectations more where the child version failed (seriously what were the rest of them doing as kids while Bill was in that Other Space?)

” ‘We’re dead, but sometimes we clown around a little, Stanley.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a stellar experience reading this book, even with a few scenes that made me uncomfortable. I knew going in that there was a chance It would be uncomfortable to read at times, although in the end it wasn’t Pennywise that creeped me out. I am so excited to watch the film versions of this book, and to read more Stephen King novels. The size of his novels can be daunting, but they’re definitely worth the time in the end.

Further recommendations:

  1. More Stephen King, obviously. I couldn’t decide between my favorites, so here’s a few: If you like fictional politics and can suspend your disbelief, try The Dead Zone. If you like a historical twist and a character-driven plot (less sci-fi), go for 11/22/63. If you want another tie to Derry and a potential scare, go for Bag of Bones. And if you’ve read a bunch of Stephen King but haven’t yet read his memoir, definitely pick up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft because he writes about his own early life like he writes his fictional characters and it is everything.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel? I’ve decided I want to read them all (I’ve read twelve), but I’m trying to prioritize some of the best ones and I’ll take all opinions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

My First Buddy Read

2018 is going to be a year of firsts– including one that started on the very first day of the year, my first ever buddy read!

My friend (Ellie) and I are reading Stephen King’s It together this month, all 1,153 pages of it. I’ll be posting a regular review as soon as I reach the end, but before I actually finish the book I wanted to talk a bit about my experience with this buddy read.

We’re taking four weeks to read It— that’s 250-300 pages per week. This is the first time I’ve ever read the same thing at the same time as another person so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but I really like the pace we’ve got going. It allows me to read big chunks of It at a time, so I stay on top of what’s happening there, but it also allows me to read other books at the same time because I can read more pages than that in a week. I think if I was only reading It from cover to cover on my own, I would be struggling with it more, getting tired of reading the same thing for so long.

Every week we have a chat about what we’ve read. We’ve had two of the four chats so far, and we talk for an hour or two, depending on how off-topic we get with all the other books we want to read. Again, I like this pace. It’s a good amount of time to ramble through our opinions and questions from the 250-300 pages, and it’s easy to work the chat time into my schedule. I think it would feel more like a chore if we had to read more pages or schedule more chat times during the week, but I also think I wouldn’t connect to the book and the experience as well if we went any slower. That’s why It was a good first buddy read choice for us– a shorter book would’ve given us fewer chats and less buddy time with the book.

A perk of buddy reading in general: it’s so much easier to stay motivated. I’m pretty motivated to read in general, but I don’t think I would’ve picked up a book this thick right away in the new year if Ellie and I hadn’t spontaneously decided it was as good a time as any to start It and that we were going to hold each other accountable. It seems a lot less daunting to only be reading a fourth of it at a time, with a chat to look forward to at the end of the week. I can put a bookmark in the finish line for the week and watch my progress toward that without focusing so much on how many hundred pages are left in the whole book, which I would be doing if I were reading It on my own, at my own pace. One of my goals for 2018 was to read quality over quantity, and Stephen King is definitely quality; but reading with someone helps keep me going even though quality in this case is over a thousand pages long. I’ll have to check the length of my copy of A Clash of Kings, but I think It will be the longest book I’ve ever read, once I’ve finished it. My fourth book over 1,000 pages, but only the second over 1,100.

Buddy reading is also more fun with Goodreads. Ellie and I can watch each other’s progress through the week, and since we do tend to read at about the same pace, we’re usually pretty close and it’s fun to know what part my friend is reading at the moment. I’m a pretty big fan of Goodreads in general, but this is one of those times that it’s extra helpful and fun, and sometimes it’s just cool to take a moment and appreciate what the internet can do.

I’m halfway through It right now, and so far it’s been a 5-star experience. Stephen King is a phenomenal writer, It feels like a book that deserves to be over 1,000 pages long, and I love being able to talk closely about a book with a friend. I’ve heard that the ending of It tends to make or break readers’ experiences with the book, so I’m really hoping I’m going to keep loving it all the way through, but you can check back in two weeks when I’ll be posting my full review if you’re curious about how it’s turning out for me.

Do you buddy read? What sort of reading/chatting schedule do you use when you buddy read? I’m having a hard time imagining this working very well for me any other way, so I’m really curious about what works for other buddy readers!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant