Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: "11/22/63" by Stephen King

While reading the latest doorstopper of an opus by the ever present and ever prolific Stephen King, I was struck by another kind of defense for those who continually downgrade his importance to American writing simply because of his popularity. To get through any of his books, the great ones especially, such as The Stand and It, and this one 11/22/63, you really have to love reading. Not the kind of reading you do in college, which, despite some student’s said enthusiasm, will always remain a chore, or the kind of reading people do to get smarter and consciously develop thinking skills. I am talking about the kind of reading that serves no purpose, the kind that, while the act itself is taking place, does not seem to be accomplishing anything (although and unconscious process is taking place) and it is driven by the sheer joy of the reading, and the writer’s voice and the act itself do not show their ugly little heads, and its just you and the story, together on a long, perilous, and exciting journey into the unknown. To me, that is the best kind of reading, since casts aside all the pretensions and pressure so many intellectuals force into people’s reading lives, and allows the process of learning to unfold organically, and reading a Stephen King book is a good way to put this process into effect, and with 11/22/63, he has produced his most accessible book since The Dead Zone. We are introduced to Jake Epping in 2011, a divorced high school and GED teacher whose life seems to have hit a standstill until he reads and essay of the harrowing account of the murder of one of his student’s families. This student, Harry Dunning, is also a janitor at the school Jake works at, and the story produces unknown emotions in him, despite not being a “crying type”. Eventually, he forgets about this essay (although he saves it) after a few years, and one day he goes to Al’s Diner, a place he frequents despite rumors of a nefarious meat product in the hamburgers, and finds his friend Al much older than the night before, as well as sick. Al then shows him a portal that exists in his pantry that takes him back to 1958, and brings you back two minutes ahead. After a brief trip that resulted in Jake buying a classic tasting root beer, Al lays his main mission on Jake: he must stop the Kennedy Assassination. Once Al dies, Jake, for a lack of anything better to do, decides to see this mission out, spending five years in the past. There he finds love, a new life, but also the impending consequences of what he is about to do. Through this time travel story, King expertly details the ideas of self-sacrifice, the ways in which the past must remain unchanged, and the ways in which we have importance in lives of people we know, despite how little we may feel it in the end. It offers the same kind of bittersweet message The Dead Zone does, that doesn’t end smoothly, but it does end right. A good read for Christmas break, and possibly the best thing this master craftsman has done in a good, long while.
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review: "The Twelve" by Justin Cronin

I’m starting off my Christmas break reading with quite the fire starter of a book in Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, the sequel to his disgustingly good novel The Passage. In a time where vampires have all but flooded the art of storytelling, leaving little room for new ideas, Cronin’s saga of a world a century from today overrun by a breed of classic, yet scientifically original vampires was able to stick out of the pack of the seemingly endless supply of vampire tales, becoming what is probably the best post-apocalyptic novel since Stephen King’s The Stand. What sets this book apart really isn’t with its unique setting, although it is very cool and interesting, but in how rich the characters are. Cronin seems to have taken his strong ties to the classic literary epic and applied them to a modern take on survival in a new and dangerous world, creating a reading experience like no other. In The Passage we are brought into this engrossing world that has been built over 100 years, as well as harrowing glimpses into the past, whose ashes this new world arose from. In The Twelve, we also get much of the same thing, but the world is much bigger now, despite the slimmer page count, still hefty at 568 pages. Readers of The Passage are able to navigate this world fraught with terror much easier, yet the surprises and twists and even some creative and disturbing uses of violence, still pack quite a punch. As the epilogue of the passage said, there was an attack on the Roswell site that left a few characters from the first book dead, but has left Peter in an unenviable position to look for the other eleven of The Twelve with assistance from the Expeditionary, leading to a failed mission leaving one person dead, yet unveiling a new, very cool aspect of the viral’s habits. But we also hear about another colony that lost a number of its members in an attack on a field, which seemed to be led by a woman who had an eerie amount of control over the virals. This information is found out by Peter after an encounter with this woman himself, leading to a discovery of a new kind of human colony, one much more horrifying and scary than anything the human population can imagine. I may have already given too much away, but the real enjoyment is in watching these different people interact and reconnect from the first novel, as well as the said expansion of this new world, both before and after (called A. V. in the books). We see a man holed up in high-rise apartment fighting off the attack, and another man whose pain at a romantic rejection morphs into something disturbing and repulsive in the future. Again, a lot of the joy is in reading some of these moments with a fresh mind, so if you enjoyed The Passage, which I think is a given, The Twelve is a worthy follow-up.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: "The Master of Petersburg" by J. M. Coetzee

A kind of detective novel by one of my favorite writers, who brings new and interesting kinds of intrigue to a genre of fiction I find boring should be a cause for celebration, but why is The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee so boring? It has a premise full of promise, but rarely while reading it did I feel that it was reaching its full potential. While Coetzee is an undeniable master when he sticks to the African wilderness, his books set outside that terrain, with the exception of Foe, tend to be a little too tedious and not as rewarding, but I guess that comes with the kind of writer that Coetzee is. It reminds me a lot of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, where a writer lays out an intriguing story arc but more interested in deeper meanings and fancy language than the actual story itself. In this case, the story involves the fictional death of the son of the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The death brings Dostoyevsky to St. Petersburg to investigate the death, only to embroiled in a torrid affair with the landlord of the apartment where his son lived, as well as hearing two conflicting stories about his son’s cause of death. Was he assassinated by the group of violent activists whose ideology he shared, or was he a victim of a secret police mission to snuff out this insurgency? While it sounds interesting, it rarely is. It is easy to lose the stories power in dense prose that is too flashy to do anything but show Coetzee’s writing prowess, which is staggering in itself, but so is his storytelling ability, which seems to be taking a vacation here. Stick with Disgrace or Life & Times of Michael K for a real enriching Coetzee read.
Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Review: "Woe to Live On" by Daniel Woodrell

Again, while not living up to the hype that I kind of put myself through with the legend of Daniel Woodrell, at least Woe to Live On, one of his earliest novels, is at least quite interesting, unique and rather violent in its fictional account of the American Civil War. I think I may have pinpointed what I dislike about Woodrell, or at least what has left me disappointed in regards to what I expected of him. While he is an excellent prose stylist, he is not a very good storyteller, as much as it pains me to say, and his characterization is really terrible. Things happen, people are introduced and die within the same paragraph, and while his fancy wording is nice to look at, it really does not push the story forward, and a lot of the details get lost in translation, which, for me, makes reading one his books kind of confusing, but at least some what pleasurable. This book, which is relatively plotless, deals with a group of Confederate soldiers in Missouri led by a black man named Holt, which gives the book a unique perspective. Young Jake Roedel, who within the first few pages coldly shoots a young boy whose father he just hung so the boy won’t seek vengeance, is the main character, despite his propensity for violence he can never justify. The violence is told in such a detached manner, it is hard to like Jake, but we do follow him, and the brutal death of his brother, which involves a few scenes where he must feed him and amputate his arm after getting wounded, are what I will most remember from this novel. Despite not really being able to tell who’s who and what event is taking place, this is still a cool little book worth checking out if you like your history a little skewed.
Rating: 4/5