Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: "Once Upon a River" by Bonnie Jo Campbell

I did not know what it really meant when people said they were charmed by a book or movie. It always seemed kind of superficial to me and may be a sign that the book/film lacks depth and meaning. I don’t mind plot twists and odd character turns, I am more concerned with aspects of a story that try to be aggressively unique, and end up being overly cute and annoyingly quirky, like a Juno or anything Michael Cera has been in. I have no interest in those, and feel their only purpose is to validate certain arrogant hipsters and their behavior. So when I got to the end of Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, I was surprised how what I liked most about it was its charm. It works in the way The Story of Edgar Sawtelle did; in that it gives the rural America of the 20th century a sense of mystery and that there are still things to discover. The story centers on Margo Crane, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, who is obsessed with hunting and modeling her life after Annie Oakley. I was skeptical of her at first and thought she was going to be portrayed as a romanticized feminist character, but that is not the case as we get to know her. She lives on the banks of the Stark River, which is near the Kalamazoo River, with her hard-edged, yet protective and competent father, Bernard Crane. Her mother has left the family, probably due to Crane’s impotent attitude toward her. Across the river, lies the household of the Murray’s, the namesake family of the town of Murrayville and in some way related to the Cranes.  They own the metal fabricating plant that Crane used to work at, but after he catches the patriarch of the family raping Margo, he is fired, and now there is a great conflict between him and the rest of the Murray clan. The book immediately puts us in a place where the potential of violence seems to be nonexistent, but is really about to break through and is only held back by the two parties decency. But that decency is destroyed one day, when Margo’s father is killed, and Margo decides to go up the Stark River in order to find her mother. This is where most of the action takes place, and where the story really becomes fun, and, begrudgingly, charming. Margo meets with many different people, mostly men, who try to comfort her through sex and companionship, but whenever her autonomy is threatened, she escapes, and happens upon someone else who offers the same thing in a different kind of way. She meets Brian, who seems to care, but hides a violent side, she then meets Michael, who is the exact opposite of Brian. He is almost too kind and nice to be a part of Margo’s life. While these characters can seem very one-dimensional, as if they are written by a Diablo Cody, they all, in how the try to comfort the lonely Margo, say something about the attitude she has toward life, and even her obsessive and creepy need to hunt and kill wild animals. Now Margo herself, as I said before, is not simply a feminist to be admired. Yes, she is a strong female who commands respect, but her flaws shine through, one of which is her hardness. She kills animals without any intention of cooking them, and even cruelly skins an animal alive at one point. She has things to work on, which makes her interactions with these men somewhat more rewarding then her forced exile. By the end, while this book has some real dark places, it is ultimately hopeful in how a na├»ve yet strong-willed person can persevere. In short, I thought this book was magnificent and wonderful in how it showed it’s main character transverse outside of her small world and into undiscovered America, at least to her. Anyone interested in how magic and discovery can still be found in the world around them, will love this book as much as I did.
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Top Ten Human Villains in The Stephen King Universe

    In the world of Stephen King, evil and good not only coexist, but in a strange way complement each other. One cannot exist without the other and they each give the other one it’s definition, which makes the worlds he creates in his stories very much like our own, and the evils in his stories come to act as metaphors for our culture, and more importantly, the conflicts in ourselves that can destroy us or make us a better version of who we are. Most people focus on the big, powerful, supernatural villains in his stories, but as I have read his books, I have found that the human monsters, who blend so easily into the landscape of the fictional society to the point where they seem almost human or are even looked upon by some as people of extreme integrity and importance in their community, but it is just a mask they wear so they can prey upon innocents for their own needs. Here are my Top Ten Human Villains in the Stephen King Universe. I am excluding any person possessed or under the influence of other beings, like Jack Torrance in The Shining and the townsfolk in Needful Things. Hope you enjoy my insights, and give me your feedback if your number one is different:

10. Patrick Hockstetter (It): This character appears briefly in his own chapter in the novel It, but he leaves a huge impression. We, as readers know all about him as Beverly is watching the Bowers gang light farts in the junkyard. He is a natural born psychopath, who kills not out of malice, but out of boredom. He has a warped sense of the world around him. He feels that nothing around him is real except him, and does not see what he does as wrong. He kills flies and saves them in a pencil box to show girls and traps small animals in a refrigerator and waits for them to die slowly. Worse, when he was five, he smothered his infant brother in his crib. After Henry leaves him alone in the junkyard (after he gave him an awkward hand job), Beverly sees him die slowly as the monster, taking the form of leaches, which is Patrick’s biggest fear, devours him after Patrick opens his precious fridge. We feel some sympathy for him as a victim of the monster, but he is a wholly unpleasant person who resembles too closely the killers we see in real life.
9. Frank Dodd (The Dead Zone/Cujo): Someone who is seemingly a pillar of the small community of Castle Rock hides a horrifying secret: he is the Castle rock strangler, responsible for a slew of female victims in the area, the last of which being a nine year old girl, which forces the psychic Johnny Smith to uncover his crimes. Before he can be caught, Frank slits his own throat, with us thinking he is remorseful of his crimes. But, his soul seemingly comes back in Cujo, with his title of the town’s bogeyman being intact and his spirit possessing the rabid dog Cujo, who goes on to terrorize Donna and Tad Trenton. A mirror image of the nasty secrets that hide beneath the carpet of any small community, Dodd’s lasting effect on Castle Rock taints the town until it is finally destroyed in Needful Things.
8. Roland “Rolly” LeBay (Christine): We see the victim of Life Arnie purchase the 58 Plymouth Fury from LeBay without realizing the malice and evil behind it. We find out, from Roland’s brother and few others who were unlucky enough to know Roland, what a malicious and bad person he was. He once through his brother on a fence, impaling his arm and showing no remorse for it, and it is implied he watched his daughter choke to death in the car and drove his wife to kill herself, also in the car. That may have been the only thing Roland ever loved in his life, and in death he possesses it and also Arnie, ruining the life of everyone who crosses them. He is one of King’s most overall awful creations, and one of his underrated villains.
7. “Junior” Rennie Under the Dome): While Rennie’s reprehensible actions in the novel stem from an inoperable brain tumor, he was not that good of a person to begin with. With hints of necrophilia and rape, it makes it that much more sickening to see him gain authority over the town. As his condition worsens, we see his view of the people around him change in horrible ways, and he takes out his made-up rage on anyone who gets in the way of his father’s rise to power in the Chester Mill community. Insanity in control of the powerless is a recurring theme in the longer novel of King, and Junior’s character is a perfect example of that idea.
6. Tom Rogan (It): The person Beverly finds when she escapes Derry is an unrepentant sociopath, although not as extreme as someone like Frank Dodd, we like Tom less. He is charming at first, but we find out how he handles what he sees as weakness, and how he tries to beat it out of Beverly. His violent outbursts are almost immediate, with him, almost calmly hitting Beverly when she smokes, which Tom hates. He seems to convince Beverly with his charm and intelligence, but he seems to like the how submissive Beverly is, because he is able to take out his anger and self-loathing on someone who will not fight back, at least at first. By the end he is a psychotic slave to whatever it is that holds power over Derry, but we all know of relationships like this, which makes Tom that much more scary.
5. Greg Stillson (The Dead Zone): The prototypical sleazy politician who seems like a stand-up guy harbors a deep-seeded and sickening sense of self-preservation that will eventually lead to a global apocalypse, but only Johnny smith knows and he decides to stop him. We see bits and pieces of Stillson’s sociopathic mindset as we move through the novel, with him killing a pet dog without thinking twice, burning a youth’s shirt because it had an offensive saying, and bribing people in order to get the money he needs to run his political campaign. It is a nightmare to think about what would happen if an honest to god psycho were to achieve control over the United Sates, and someone had to kill him to save the world. This subversion of who is the good guy and bad guy makes this one of King’s finest novels, and one of his darkest villains.
4. Harold Lauder (The Stand): What is truly remarkable about this character is at the beginning of this epic novel; we actually sympathize and feel sorry for Harold. He harbors a pure, honest, yet obsessive love of Frannie Goldsmith, and seems intelligent and thoughtful enough to deserve her courtship. After Captain Trips lays waste to most of the population and he and Frannie can finally be together, it seems Harold has gotten what he deserves. But some things are not meant to be, and when Frannie begins to fall for Stu Redman, the hero of the novel, the real Harold begins to show his colors. He turns out to be a selfish and elitist individual, whose sexual fantasies, which he brings to life with Nadine, who cannot actually have sex with him, since she is saving her self for Flagg, are indicative of his need for control and his want to have things his way. This courtship from hell leads to the explosion in the Boulder Free Zone, which kills a large number of its leaders. Harold comes to represent the worst ourselves can become, when something we want slips through our fingers and we don’t have the courage to move on.
3. Henry Bowers (It): The tangible threat to The Loser’s Club in Derry, Henry may be King’s most sadistic character, who gets off on the fear that his victims feel toward him, and the power he feels from the acts. He tries to carve his name into Ben Hascomb’s belly (only getting the letter H before Ben fights back, which is a scar that still shows in 1985), and breaks Eddie Kaspbrak’s arm, and shows great zeal and elation from doing such horrible things. It may have been the monster that controlled him for most of the summer of 1958, but it is evident that Henry would have still been a bully into adulthood, getting pleasure only from the pain he inflicts on easy victims.
2. Annie Wilkes (Misery): Easily King’s most famous human villain, Annie rescues the injured and weakened novelist Paul Sheldon from a car accident, only to imprison him in his bedroom when she finds out he has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Here, King really captures the fear and urgency we would feel if we were helpless and in the clutches a powerful, yet irrational mind. We find out later on about Annie’s killing as a nurse, and she becomes another of King’s creations obsessed with control over the living, and Paul knows if he does not stop this Grendel- like beast who threatens his existence, he will die. This take on brute force versus keen intellect remains one of King’s most suspenseful novels to date.
1. “Big” Jim Rennie (Under The Dome): While from a more recent novel and not as famous as Annie Wilkes, Big Jim Rennie, used car salesman and Second Town Selectman of Chester Mills, Maine, may be the most terrifying human villain that King has created. He seems to encompass a lot of the qualities of others on this list, such as selfishness, cowardice, sadism, and being a sociopath that is able to blend in with society and use innocent people to his advantage, but here, all the aspirations of the others seem to be fully realized in his actions and the sheer power he holds over this little community is truly scary. Over the course of 1000 pages, he commits murder, bribes people into his power game, frames two characters for murders he and his son committed, and runs a crystal meth operation that, if ever found out by the authorities, would look to be the work of First Selectman Andy Sanders, who would be arrested for it, while Jim would walk free. He possesses a general lack of compassion that allows him to use his smarts to hide his dirt and actually use others to help cover it up. He also has a slew of young, brutal goons and a dull police chief who he uses as pawns to do his dirty work, and are just stupid enough to follow his orders and believe his web of lies. Add to that the fact that he hides behind The Bible, and the damage that he has done by the end, he stands out as the most reprehensible and repellent character in King’s Universe.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review: "Christine" by Stephen King

I was very weary of this book as I was about to start it. It comes from that very unfertile period in Stephen King’s career where, in retrospect, the books are very lackluster, and a lot of their fame comes from movie adaptions. This book, along with Cujo, which I have read, and Firestarter, which I have not, come, coincidentally right after the period in the seventies, where every novel he published (from Carrie to The Dead Zone) was great, and looked at now as classics in American literature. Also, only speaking of Cujo and this book, the plots seem very one-note and seem to exist as potboilers only, which is change from the balance of depth and suspense found in his first, most creative period. So, I went into Christine with low expectations, and am glad to say that they were exceeded, but not by leaps and bounds. The plot is silly, with a possessed car not nearly as menacing as Jack Torrence with an croquet mallet or Randall Flagg with his flock of Vegas refugees, but from page one, the story takes itself seriously, as most of King’s novels do, and I found I was sucked into this insular world of Libertyville, and more importantly the unfortunate existence of Arnie Cunningham, whose best friend, Dennis, narrates. We see Arnie immediately transformed from the person Dennis has known his whole life by a junked 58 Plymouth Fury on sale in the yard of an old man named Roland “Rollie” LeBay, who we learn, through the stories Dennis is told, was not a good person (and in my opinion, an overrated real life monster in the fictional landscape of Stephen King). As soon as the car is his, Arnie begins to change, for better and worse, his skin clears up and he begins to date the prettiest girl in school, Leigh Cabot. He is also falling behind in school and fighting more with his parents, and all these aspects stem from the car, which Roland called Christine. It acts to both enhance our view of Arnie’s social standing, and makes us worry about where this dark road will lead him. This is one of the more psychological of King’s novels, right up there with Misery and Dreamcatcher. We want Arnie to succeed, because we all knew one of his kind in high school: someone who is constantly marginalized by others and demoted to being a second-class citizen in the world of teenagers (as Dennis says, “there is one or two in every school). But improving through Christine’s power may be too much of a price to pay, and we see the bullies who wreck his car, and those who betray Arnie suffer the wraith of this newfound addiction in Arnie’s life, and more than scary, it is also quite sad and tragic. It shows how good people, who finally get what they want, turn into something just as bad as the world they rally against. While this book is good, there are a few points of contention. I may have found some of the worst sentences and phrases King has wrote down in his great career, but they only appear a few times in the first hundred or so pages. Also, the ending was too dark, just like in Pet Semetary, and the lasting impression this book leaves feels kind of awful and too much like a slap in the face. While not perfect, this book is not as bad as I expected it was going to be, and should be read by those who love Stephen King as much as I do.
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: "The Great Night" by Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian is a really busy guy the last time I heard. Not only is he writing novels and short stories, he is also a divinity student at Harvard and a pediatric fellow in hematology/oncology at University of California, San Francisco. With all these time consuming things going on in his life, it is a surprise to me he is able to write at all, let alone such imaginative tales such as his new novel The Great Night. It is a modern take on the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Titania, and her husband Oberon living in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park with their court. On a night in 2008, three people, wounded by love, get lost in the park. There is Molly, who is still reeling from the suicide of her boyfriend Ryan, Will, a tree surgeon who is also getting over a breakup himself (a girl who happens to be Ryan’s sister) and finally Henry, a pediatric surgeon who attended to Titania’s adopted mortal son and who can’t remember what traumatic event has led to him to be so screwed up. All three end up in the park the night Titania, distraught over the break up of her marriage to Oberon, which was caused by the death of their mortal son, unleashes Puck, who in this story, is a lot more evil and vicious, out in to the world, which threatens its very existence. Add to those elements flashbacks to show how each character is connected and a group of hobos doing a musical version of Soylent Green, and this story ends up to be kind of a mess, albeit one with redeeming qualities, creativity, and a great sincerity. When I was reading this, I knew I was not supposed to follow a linear plot, and the best thing to do was follow it in a chapter by chapter basis, much like Naked Lunch, and if certain parts confused me, I should just let them pass and dive into the next section hoping it would be better. The sections with Will and his discovery of his love are very good and truthful, while the big reveal of what happened to Henry, which also involved Ryan, was very jumbled to me and I still need help figuring it out. I hope people seek this book out, because Adrian deserves the attention, even if this book is not perfect. He is a true original, with his first tow novels being a historical fiction piece called Gob’s Grief, and a massive 600 page book called The Children’s Hospital about a hospital floating on a flooded earth and the pediatric ward building a new society. He is not constricted by culture (which a few of the other writers in the 20 Under 40 book were) or literary trends, and writes with feeling and imagination. I look forward to reading more of Chris Adrian’s work, and if you like mystical works and Shakespeare, you should check out The Great Night.

Rating: 4/5

"Orientation and Other Stories" by Daniel Orozco

I feel short stories should try to bring to the surface great truths and great experiences, but not necessarily big ones. Which is to say I do not think they should try to over reach their short form and try to describe big worlds with big happenings. Like the stories of Raymond Carver, and even today with writers such as Wells Tower and ZZ Packer, they can be profound, funny, enlightening and disturbing, but always within the grasp of the readers frame of mind, and should be able to be read in one, sometimes two sittings (although one is ideal, any story over 30 pages I split into a few reading sessions). I do not like overly complex short stories that much, even though I do think they are the best medium to experiment with different. I don’t mind that the story is complex, so much as the format of the story itself. The stories of Barthelme and Barth and other post-modern writers seem rather gimmicky to me, and lack the profound spirit in the basic, yet more rewarding short story format.  While Orientations and Other Stories has a few gems in it, it sadly falls short of being great due to the sometimes-hokey story formatting. The First story here, the title story, may be the best one, and is, honestly, one of my favorite stories I have read in a few months. It is written as a speech to a new employee at an office, and the person speaking seems to have the knowledge of the intimate, sometimes disturbing details of the workers’ life, such as who loves who, what male hides out in the girls bathroom, and which one is an infamous serial killer. It manages to be funny, sad, and scary at the same time and is indicative of people’s need to connect and societies indifference to that need. The other great story, Only Connect” is about three separate perceptions of a robbery homicide, from the victim, the shooters, and a witness. It leaves the reader feeling confused, in a good way, about who to blame, since we know all of the characters and what brought them to this moments. It ultimately represents the importance of looking at situations, no mater how ugly, and trying to see all perspectives. While these tow represent the high points of this collection, one story, Officers Weep”, more representative of what this collection is. It shows the weird and sad details of the life of a select few police officers in the form of police reports. It is a bland, goofy, ineffective attempt at doing a George Saunders like story, who, while post-modern, can actually be humorous and present great ideas about modern life. While “Officers Weep” represents a low point in the book, a lot of the stories are simply forgettable, harmless and under 30 pages. I do recommend it for the two really good stories, and you will like it more than me if you like post-modern flash fiction, which is what this book would be categorized as, which kept me from giving it a perfect score.
Rating: 4/5

Monday, August 15, 2011

Now Reading: "The Great Night" by Chris Adrian

This year, I am trying to read 135 books, and am at 80 right now. I my post what I have previously read this year at some later date, but right now, the book I am reading is The Great Night by Chris Adrian. I first heard about him in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 collection, and thought his ideas seemed really grand and not gimmicky. So far, at 100 pages in, it’s pretty good. I will probably finish around Wednesday, but since I have a lot of free time before my classes start Monday, I may get it in tomorrow. 

Rating Systems/Non-Book Reviews.

The rating system I will be using is pretty simple. A book will be on a scale from 1 to 5, with a 5 being an A+ book that has little faults, while a 1 is a book I see very little value in. I will probably be giving out more 5’s than 1’s, which I can only think of four books I have read that have no redeeming qualities. Also, I may post some movie, TV, music, and other miscellaneous thoughts on things I come across in my search for good stories and works of art, so expect some variety in my interests in this blog, but the focus will be the books I read.