Tag Archives: long books

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

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

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