Book Review, Contemporary, Crime Novel, Fiction, Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018, and one of only two books that I actually pre-ordered this year. I’ve always been a King fan, but something about the description and his development over the last couple of decades heightened my intrigue even further.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of him lately and trying to trace his themes across novels and genres. There are some common threads, and really three distinct avenues that I’ve been able to tack down, thus far: first, his interest in the psychological terror of the unknown/supernatural; second, his interest in morality and the battle of good versus evil; and finally, his interest in the ethics of humanity and the truth(s) of human nature. That said, it seems like The Outsider is in many ways a masterwork that brings together King’s three primary themes and genres, at last. While reading it, I sensed a very delicate and compelling balance between the supernatural horrors of Itand The Shining, with the moral questions embedded in pieces like The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption, and the ethical concerns of his realistic, true crime fiction like “The Body” and Joyland. It is all here, working together almost seamlessly to deliver what is certainly one of King’s best works to date.

The story itself centers around a man named Terry Maitland, a popular man in his small town; he works as an English teacher and coaches the Little League baseball team, currently on a winning streak. He is well-liked, trusted, and respected in the community, almost without question. And then the unthinkable happens. A young boy, one of Maitland’s baseball players, is found dead—indeed, far worse than dead—in a park, and all evidence points to Maitland as the perpetrator. Not only does the town turn on him, and with seemingly every good reason to do so, but slowly, more sinister forces begin to enter the picture as well. At first, the evil unleashed in this town seems to be the result of human nature; there is a mob mentality that develops when a crime so evil, so unspeakable is apparently perpetrated by one of the town’s most unimpeachable residents. The residents find a kind of joy, a catharsis, in bringing as much pain to bear as they possibly can against Maitland and his wife. But not all is as it seems.

After more preventable tragedies, and a lot of early assumptions, there is another murder. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the first crime, but how could this be? Maitland had an alibi for the first murder, a nearly rock-solid one. And he was already under arrest when the next happened. What could be going on in this little town? King spins an elaborate web that spans the country and, like a bizarre supernatural crime novel, the reader is introduced to new characters, new locations, and histories that play more and more significant roles in the unfolding drama and that sometimes lead in one direction, and then another, often falsely. The end might surprise some readers, while others might come to it with met expectations. I, for one, was right about something the entire time, but also completely fooled exactly twice. That made for a fun ride!

Personally, while I was disappointed in a major decision Stephen King makes in the end, and dissatisfied overall with the denouement, I still think this is one of King’s best works because it does bring together all of his best practices and the very reasons why we keep returning to King’s works. King’s characterization is also more on point and balanced in this work than in any others I can think of at the moment. He always has much to say about the human psyche and the ways in which we tend to disappoint one another when we need each other most. Even when the thrills and terrors of supernatural horrors are layered on the surface, creeping us out and giving us the thrills of the genre, it is always the very humandecisions beneath that horror which results in the actual intrigue and terror at the heart of his narratives.

In this case, the situation is somewhat reversed. The crimes committed seem disturbingly possible, and they are described in gruesome, horrifying detail. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the realistic and all-too-human nature at the surface of the crimes. For that reason, I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book and think, had King kept going with the direction the book seems to be taking through that part of the book, it would have ended up being my new favorite. That said, what is clear is that The Outsider is undeniably Stephen King, and in fact, it is Stephen King at his very best.

Are you a Stephen King fan who has read this latest novel? If so, what did you think?

My thoughts on other Stephen King works can be found here.

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Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

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Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Amy Tan, astrophysics, Book Review, Education, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Parker J. Palmer, physics, Potpour-reads, Stephen Hawking, Teaching

Teaching, Physics, and The Joy Luck Club

Potpour-reads: Palmer, Hawking, and Tan

For a variety of reasons, from end of semester madness to poor time management and general laziness, I find I’ve fallen behind on SIX book reviews. Despite the loftiest of plans, I’ve decided that, no, I’m not going to sit here and write full-length reviews for each of these. Instead, I’m separating the books into two “potpour-reads” posts, each with brief thoughts on three books. That should get me caught up in time to finish The Outsiders and, perhaps, write a good old-fashioned review for that one. (Or perhaps not? Who knows, anymore!?) Anyway, I’m calling these “potpour-reads” because these six books span a variety of topics and genres, without rhyme or reason, and I have no intention of trying to make them “fit” any particular perspective. So, let’s grab-bag it, shall we? Thanks, Jeopardy, for the idea!

The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer

This one was selected as a group read among some fellow faculty members at the college where I teach. I was apparently somewhat over-eager in reading the entire book right away, not realizing that we were going to take it in very small bits and pieces (we chose the book last October and have, so far, only discussed the introduction – but I read the entire book in February, I think. Maybe it was March? I could look it up, but I’m not going to). This one was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list because I knew we would be reading it as a group, so it should have been a pretty easy “win” for me. And it was, except that I waited months to sit down and write out any thoughts on it, and at this point I’ve pretty much forgotten most of it. On the bright side, given the way my colleagues are tackling the book, I’ll definitely be able to go back and read it chapter-by-chapter, as they are, for discussion. This will allow me to more thoughtfully digest and discuss it. My first impressions of the book were moderate, to be honest. I found a lot of what Palmer says to be quite relevant to what I do in my profession, especially in considering the ups-and-downs of any classroom. That said, much of the book’s points seemed repetitive to me, and there is a kind of forced optimism about it. I am one of those bizarre educators who think that teaching is a calling, not a career, and that is the kind of audience this book hopes to reach. Still, given the kind of semester I was having while reading the book, I couldn’t help but pick apart every pie-in-the-sky suggestion or anecdote. The chapters were also very long and not diverse enough in theme. I did appreciate how each chapter begins with a kind of philosophical thought about education, from profound thinkers of the past. It certainly added to my reading list, if nothing else. I wish I could remember more about the book so as to give it a richer review (and it probably deserves one), but it has all simply fallen out of my head. Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I first read this book in high school and understood about 10% of it at the time. I re-read the book after Hawking’s passing because I knew I hadn’t understood much of it that first time and because I felt the need to sit with Stephen Hawking now that he has passed on from our world. Ironic how that always seems to happen, with those we know personally and those we don’t. I would like to say I understood a good part of the book this time around, but if I’m being honest, I think I can allow myself a generous, oh, 44%. I certainly understood more of the words this time around, and some of the concepts, but much like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, this book tends to go over one’s head, especially if one’s background in science ended with college general education requirements more than a decade ago. Still, I have always enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s narrative voice and his sense of humor. He does make one want to learn, and that is more than I can say of a lot of science writers. A Brief History of Time does an extraordinary job of awakening the awe in its reader, of making even a jaded adult reader feel that childlike wonder again, which I think is part of why Hawking wrote the book in the first place. Because it is a feeling he never lost, despite how much he knew about quarks and black holes and all that. Interestingly, what I did not remember about this book is how wide-open Hawking leaves the door. He explains a lot of what we know for sure, yes, but he also delights in everything we do not know, which far outweighs the thing we do know. This is a book I will probably return to time and again, although I think my next step will be to read the supposedly even more accessible, A Briefer History of Time, which Hawking wrote after realizing that almost nobody understood this first one. Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I read this one for my Classics Club challenge. It is book 13 of 50 completed for that list, and I’m glad to have read it, finally. Here’s what I can remember about the book (and this is the kind of review I’m destined to write when I try reading during difficult and busy semesters, and without taking any notes. What was I thinking?). Anyhow, again, what I remember: I enjoyed the book. Yahoo! My first impression was that it felt a bit cold, but ultimately, I think that is part of the point. The story covers the relationship between mothers and daughters, all of whom are connected in the narrative’s present-day San Francisco Chinatown. The mothers are all immigrants and they try to navigate lives of split-identities, part of them still in their hometowns in China, part of them here in the United States. Their daughters often struggle to understand, and the daughters and mothers each fail to communicate those differences effectively. There’s a kind of gulf that seems both impossible to bridge and yet deeply, psychologically understood. An ancient “knowing” still exists in the daughters, one that helps them to understand and appreciate their mothers, all the while existing in a society that doesn’t quite belong to them, and even less so to their parents. As more and more of the mothers’ histories becomes clear, the daughters find themselves even more intricately and confusingly interconnected. I found The Joy Luck Club to be interesting in its exploration of the immigrant experience, and I especially appreciated that the four mothers’ experiences in China were so wholly different; these different backgrounds opened up new worlds to me, one who is admittedly rather ignorant of Chinese culture and history. There is a sensitive treatment of mythology (superstition?) as well, though I know some readers have taken issue with how the mothers’ beliefs seem stereotypical and perhaps offensive. To be honest, I cannot speak to this debate because I simply don’t know enough about it. If the debate has merit, though, then perhaps one concession might be that it made this reader, at least, want to know more about these people, and their cultures and histories and stories. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0. 

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Ancient Greece, Annabel Lyon, Book Review, Classical History, Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Oh, how I wanted to love this book.  I had no doubt in my mind, given the subject, the blurb, and some of the reviews (not to mention the great cover art), that this was going to be a brilliant read. Unfortunately, I was a bit mistaken. This is not to say that the book was bad – it really wasn’t, and if you are looking for a quick, easy, superficial book about the time period and some of the relationship between Aristotle and his superstar pupil, Alexander, then this book might be right up your alley. Aristotle and his wife move to Pella to visit King Phillip, an old friend of Aristotle’s. While there, Aristotle meets the young princes. He first begins, on his own, to tutor the elder brother, a mentally handicapped teenager.  n time, Alexander comes to like and approve of Aristotle, so he too (and his friends/lovers) become pupils of the master. There are some mentions of the tensions between neighboring city-states, as well as wars and the assassination of Phillip, which brings Alexander to power but, all-in-all, for the amount of time this book covers, and the lofty subject matter, it probably should have been (and could have been) another 300 pages long.

Two major things about this book bothered me, and really brought down the overall impression of it for me. The first was its disappointing characterization and lack of character development. This book deals with some of the most impressive people who history has ever known and, in particular, one of the most interesting student-teacher relationships of all-time. Yet, the characters fall flat. Pythias and the bit of Plato/Cleopatra the reader sees are slightly interesting, as are some of the minor characters (like Hephaestion and Athea) but Alexander and Aristotle, the two “main” characters of the story seem so far from the story, as if there is almost a physical distance between what is happening the story, and who is playing in it. Perhaps this does have something to do with the author’s possible intent to make this book somewhat of a play (a character list appears at the start, for instance, and the book is laid out in five long parts, rather than in chapters). Since the book is written in prose, though, and not in drama form, this intent is lost, and the characters remain “actors” of characters in a larger story, never fully developed because there is no substantive connection. This would be what an old creative writing instructor would call a case of “telling, not showing.” 

Setting aside the disconnect between the author’s possible intent and what was actually accomplished or decided on, the overall prose is satisfactory and even enjoyable – it is probably the best element of the book in general. Lyon certainly has great technical ability, and she does express emotion and humor very well through prose and dialogue. The language was engaging and the reader can certainly relax into this book, enjoying pages at a time with ease. What was problematic; however, were the instances of “flashbacks” into Aristotle’s past. These sections of the story are segmented into different enumerated portions; however, there is no clear distinction of what is happening when. At times, I could not remember (or figure out) whether I was getting Aristotle’s boyhood, or Alexander’s.

The second major disappointment was in the lack of deeper meaning from this text, or the potential edification that a text like this could have provided. There were certainly names, dates, places, and events, but none of this really seemed to mean anything. It was almost as if Aristotle and Alexander were living out their drama in suburban Wisconsin – some big cities, some small, but so what? At times, I even forgot where and when this book was taking place, so much so that I expected references to electricity or telephones at any moment. For a story about classical Greek history, this is not a good thing. Sure, it makes the book easy to read and accessible to a larger audience, but so much that could have been, just wasn’t.

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Atheism, Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, LGBT, Novella

Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.

Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.  

Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.

Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.

Notable Quotes

“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).

“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)

“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)

“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).

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