In Which Promises Are Broken

I know, I told you here, that I would be talking more about Pablo Neruda today.

But, finding a book of his that -isn’t- his love poetry has proven to be near impossible.  I finally had my library look and see if they could get it inter library loan and luckily they can.  But that means I will not have it in my hands for at least a few more days.

So, today, we are going to talk about other things I have read recently that I feel are definitely worth checking out.

I counted today (I write down everything I read in a tiny notebook, for curiosity’s sake) and I have read about 65 books this year (more if you count all of the Walking Dead graphic novels separately, which I did not since it felt like cheating.  Some of those have been re-reads, some audio books, some fairly fun and easy books to read.  Some have been more “literary”.  I’m just going to list the ones that I definitely want to recommend on.

The most recent one I read is Confessions by Kanae Minato.  It is a novel originally written in Japanese, for Japan readers.  It was a really engaging book, about a teacher whose four year old daughter dies.  On her last day of teaching at the school, she informs the class that it wasn’t an accident, that two students murdered her daughter.  She then informs them of the revenge she exacted.  The novel is about the domino effect of all of that.  It explores the idea of revenge and retribution.  What the possible outcome can be of knowing a murderer.  The minds of the killers.  And the teacher’s final revenge.  Parts of the book felt slightly awkward, but I think that’s more due to translation.  My only random negative thought was that the teacher has a couple of parts where she is talking to someone (not her class, that monologue is written beautifully) and seems to be able to go on for minutes without interruption.  If you’re looking for something different to read, check Confessions out.

I also have read quite a few YA novels.  The one I loved the most was Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Ms. Rowell comes from the Omaha area and her books all reflect that.  The geographic area of all of her novels that I have read, center on Omaha and Lincoln.  Eleanor and Park is a tale that takes place in the mid 80s, about two very young teenagers (Eleanor and Park).  Eleanor comes from a very poor house, with a crap step father.  Park comes from a very loving home, but is half Korean (I think Korean, it’s been a few months since I’ve read it).  Quite unwillingly at first on Park’s part, they become friends. Then they become more.  This book really beautifully showed the powerlessness that kids have.  And how that powerlessness can conflict so strongly against their desire to take action, to fix things, to rescue people and things.  It also deals with how people can fit in the weirdest places, sometimes without even knowing.  There is a sense of melancholy to Eleanor and Park that appealed to me.

I listened to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver as well.  This is a YA novel.  It’s about a girl who dies in a car accident after a day with her popular friends and the people that they make fun of, and the insensitivity they have.  She wakes up on the day of her death.
And relives it.  Making different choices that show how each action sparks another action.  It has a Groundhog Day vibe.  It deals with who you really are underneath it all and what ends up really mattering in the end.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.  I resisted reading this book for the longest time, as when I had started it in the past it had seemed like just another “chick lit” book set in England and I had exhausted my craving for those years ago.  But, then I really sat down and read it.  And it’s definitely not your normal book.  The ending is both expected and unexpected.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  This memoir is stunning in how much Ms. Walls really brings to life both a childhood lived in extreme poverty, but also a childhood lived with eccentric and most likely mentally ill parents.  I know this book was in vogue a few years ago with everyone around raving about it.  I just didn’t read it then.

Enjoy!

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Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown

I will preface this with the statement that I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

A. M. Homes listed this book as #8 in his Top Ten list.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, Flat Stanley is a children’s tale written in 1964. I found out when searching it on amazon that it’s since spawned a whole collection of Flat Stanley tales. Some were written by the original creator, but since his death was somewhere around 2003 (Wikipedia isn’t always the treasure trove of information you’d wish it would be and you have to obtain facts by contextual clues), this Flat Stanley book published in 2014, obviously is not written by Jeff Brown. Click on that link. Seriously. Do it. It confuses me that there would be 12 Flat Stanley books that are in addition to the original ones written by Jeff Brown and yet I’ve seriously never heard of anything beyond Flat Stanley. I feel that I need to turn in my “books of all genres nerd” badge and go home.

Flat Stanley is a book that if you have a child whether boy or girl, and if you can get said child to want to hear about something that isn’t Disney princesses or Bat Man, this would be a good selection to read. It’s a funny story. Basically Stanley is squished flat by a bulletin board that his father hung on the wall for Stanley and his brother to use to pin up papers and all sorts of stuff on (I envision a treasure map with a picture of Selena Gomez underneath).

Now, because this was the 60s and not the 2010s, no authorities were called when Stanley was squished to an inch wide by his father’s inexpert hanging of large bulletin boards next to little boys’ beds and the doctor in fact just marveled at it and said that there were some things even doctors didn’t know.

Stanley has a variety of adventures as a flat boy until

SPOILER ALERT

SERIOUSLY, I AM ABOUT TO SPOIL THE ENDING.

His brother blows him back up to normal size using a bicycle pump. Thereby ending Stanley’s adventures and heartache of being a flat boy.

If you read the author bio, you find out that Jeff wrote these after making them up as nighttime stories for his sons. You can tell sometimes, since there’s just the right touch of Cleaver morality thrown in (Cleaver, as in Leave it To Beaver, not cleaver as in the meat cleaver at Just Good Meats here in Omaha). Stanley’s mother tells off policemen for calling her crazy while Stanley is in the sewer finding her wedding ring and she is holding him by a piece of string (seriously!? these parents could get away with -anything-!!!!) and tells them that if they can’t say something nice they shouldn’t say anything. They tell her they’ll remember that going forward. There’s a couple of other instances like this.

It is cute. You should read it to your sons and your daughters. I do like that it could be for a boy. I feel like there aren’t a whole lot of books that are straight fiction written for young boys. It’s changing, but I know if you go look at children’s books, there’s usually way more for girls really. But, I also like that it’s funny enough and interesting enough that any kid, girl or boy would get into it.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Thanks to Dave, I have a great lead off for this blog post. 

Homer Simpson often says the wisest things.  For example: “What’s the point of going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”  Or.  “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

For my book this week, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Simpson provided us with this:  “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”  Ponder that for a minute before continuing to my obligatory paragraph telling you which authors listed To Kill A Mockingbird in their top ten.  Also, be aware that if for some insane reason the book hadn’t been in The Top Ten, I would have forced it into a blog entry anyway.

Chris Bohjalian, Judy Budnitz, Pearl Cleage, Michael Connelly, Sue Monk Kidd, Alexander McCall Smith and Susan Vreeland all listed To Kill a Mockingbird.

In addition the book has received numerous other awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

I last read this book at least 20 years ago.  So, I remembered bits and pieces of it, intermingled with bits and pieces of the movie, last seen around the same time frame.  Now, I will state that the fact that I remembered bits and pieces of it speak as to the strength of the novel and its quality as I often don’t remember anything about a book a month after reading it, much less 2 decades or more later. 

I think most of you reading this blog will already have heard or discussed yourself the racial implications, as also even noted by the esteemed Mr. Simpson above, of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I wanted to focus today on, to me, what makes this book so amazing other than that theme (since there are other works of fiction revolving around racial injustice that haven’t endured quite as well). 

First, one of the things that I had forgotten was exactly how the book got its title.  Scout, the main character/first person narrator of the story and her brother Jem, get guns for Christmas one year.  Their dad, Atticus Finch, tells them the following:

“”I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.  “Your father’s right,” she said.  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The whole of the story is a coming of age story.  Which I hate sounding, because it sounds so trite, and is always what people say about books with children narrators, but it’s true.  Through the three years approximately that this book covers, you see Jem and Scout go from being scared of an unknown thing (Boo Radley, their recluse neighbor) to not being scared of him due to the events of the book (their father’s defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, who obviously did not do it) showing them the real evils of the world.  The trial is only about 2/3rds of the novel, the other third deals with Boo Radley and also just the day to day life of Scout, Jem, their father, their black servant who Atticus refers to as family, Calpurnia and Scout and Jem’s aunt, Alexandra.  Their friend, Dill, who comes in the summer also plays a major role.

Going back to the title and the quote I put above, Lee shows both subtly in some cases and not so subtly in others the mockingbirds being “killed”.

1.  Jem and Scout.  As children, they could fit into the whole mockingbird innocence theme.  They haven’t had the chance to do anything that makes them more of a bad thing.  However, the whole of the events of the trial slowly wears that innocence down.  Jem loses faith in his home.  This is the more subtle one, as Lee doesn’t seem to make a big deal about trying to get the reader to see this.

2.  Boo Radley.  Towards the end of the book, Scout likens exposing Boo to the world to shooting a mockingbird.  Boo is a recluse for a reason, and for him to be exposed to the town’s scrutiny would be killing that, killing Boo.

3.  Tom Robinson, the black defendant accused of raping the white woman.  For anyone that has read the book, this is a clear cut example of the title. 

The tight fitting of her theme and how it relates to the characters is one of the ways that Lee has set this book apart from others.

Another is her sense of…timing? I’m not sure entirely what word I’m looking for here, but you keep turning pages.  And for me, I turned those pages in an almost breathless state.  The pace! that’s the word, the pace.  Lee keeps you going, never dragging a bit of narrative or dialogue or description.  It all fits together in a whole, which very few works of literature or even cinema achieve. 

Harper Lee also details characters amazingly.  You know, without a doubt, as if you were a resident of the town who characters are, based upon everything from two lines of description, to the assumption made about them compared to the reality of them exposed in just a couple of lines, to pages upon pages of character observations. 

These are all reasons I would have included To Kill a Mockingbird in this blog, even if no author had listed it as a favorite.

Random interesting trivia about it all.  Truman Capote, of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame, and Harper Lee were friends from childhood.  Capote would stay with his cousins next door to Harper’s house.  Harper Lee helped Capote research In Cold Blood.  In 1960, Truman Capote, in a letter to friends, wrote:

Nelle’s book is high on the best-seller list; she has gone home to Monroeville for a month. And yes, my dear, I am Dill.”

Sadly, though, Homer Simpson is right.  There’s no advice on how to kill mockingbirds.  Or any other type of birds.  Though there is a demonstration on how to shoot a rabid dog from down the street, in a very non Old Yeller way.

Eating Crow

So, way back in the very beginning of this blog (almost two years! Which is crazy), I told Dave that I would never, ever read My Antonia by Willa Cather.  See here for Dave’s explanation of the situation.

In my defense, during college, I never personally had to read a Cather book.  Which was weird in retrospect, since I was an English major at a small school in Seward, Nebraska.  But it happened.  Anyway, I never had to read one but plenty of my classmates did.  That weren’t English majors.  Who weren’t readers.  And what do non-readers being forced to read a classic do when it’s time to write a paper?  They go to their English major friends.  I _thought_ My Antonia was one of these.  But, I have since figured out it was O Pioneers by Willa Cather, that I would have to read stultifying boring sections of to help my friends write their papers. 

When I was in the library on Tuesday, I thought, “You know, I’m going to just -look- at the Willa Cather books.  I’m just going to check out My Antonia and -glance- through it”.  From the second chapter, I knew I was about to have to eat a whole, whole lot of crow. 

I loved it.  I read it in approximately 36 hours, which I do on a regular basis with books, but usually -not- one of the ones for here.  If you have been a reader for awhile, you might remember my time spent with Les Miserables (to be fair, that book is hellaciously long and very dry in some spots.  I believe it took even Dave longer than his average 24 hours per book.  This is not an exaggeration). 

My Antonia has so much in it.  The main character who narrates the book in first person is a young boy, approximately age 10 who moves from Virginia to Nebraska.  He does this due to the death of his parents, his grandparents are in Nebraska, so off he went.  When he is on the train, a train official talks about the Bohemian family in the next carriage.  He especially mentions a girl close to Jake’s age.  Jake feels embarrassed by this and doesn’t go to the next carriage.  He does see the family as they leave and get into the other wagon waiting at the station.

The story involves Jake’s friendship with Antonia, the Bohemian girl close to him in age.  They live near his grandparents and later when they are older, she is next door to him in town for awhile.  He admires Antonia, or feels exasperated by her, or disgusted by her “airs” that she has at one point.  Their friendship goes through some pretty normal changes for two friends in which one (Antonia) is a couple of years older than the other one.  They both grow up and the story mostly ends when Jake is 21, except the very end is twenty years later. 

Cather populates her book with real characters.  None of them feel like caricatures.  They all feel like people you could have known if you were around back then.  Hollywood and popular fiction have given us so many caricatures of Western settlers over the years that it was definitely a change to not be able to pick out certain types.

I would give you quotes from the book, but I was so into it that I didn’t even stop to look for anything. 

Cather writes a child narrator growing up beautifully.  I feel she led him through an aging procession, a maturing process beautifully.  Also, for her to do this with a child narrator of the opposite sex from herself, and to do it so well, took my breath away.

I am definitely glad that reading My Antonia was not the experience of the DaVinci Code, where a book was so hyped and when finally read turned out to be crap.

I do think this is a book I could find myself re-reading at some point and loving just as much.  It’s definitely not a very hard classic to read and very accessible language wise. 

Consider this my big plate of crow, and for having read My Antonia, I’m happy to be swallowing the feathers.

 

OH!  The following authors listed My Antonia:  Tom Perrotta, Richard Powers, and Meg Wolitzer.

The Book of Ruth & The Book of Esther—Old Testament Bible

As those of you following this blog know, one of the books listed in the Top Ten Books, was the Bible.  Now as many of you probably know, the Bible isn’t a short read.  It makes Les Miserables look like The Lorax.  So, I am covering the Bible in sections.

For who listed the Bible as their favorite book, see my original post here.

I read the two books in the Old Testament that are named after women and whose main characters are women.

The Book of Ruth comes first in the order of Old Testament books, so I’ll discuss that one first.

Ruth is about a woman (oddly enough, named Ruth) who marries an Israelite who is living in Moab (a neighboring country) with his mother, father and other brother.  Over the years, his father dies, then he and his brother die.  This leaves only Naomi, his mother.  She tells Ruth and the other daughter-in-law that they should return home to their families, that she is returning to hers.  When they protest (they have been with her for ten years after all) Naomi says;

“Turn back my daughters; why will you go with me?  Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Tuyrn back my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.  If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown?  Would you therefore refrain from marrying?  No my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord as gone out against me”.

Orpah leaves then to return to her Moabite family.

Ruth states;

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.  For where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you”.

Naomi accepts Ruth’s insistence and they return to Naomi’s people.  There they are reliant upon others for sustenance.  Naomi sends Ruth to the fields of a kinsman, Boaz.  Boaz views Ruth with kindness and allows her to do even more gleaning than is typical.  In these times, people could follow threshers and glean leftovers that had fallen for sustenance.  Naomi tells Ruth to go lay at Boaz’s feet.  She does.  Naomi has her husband’s property for sale.  Boaz goes to a man, who (even though not identified as such) is a relative of Naomi closer in genealogical terms than Boaz and offers the property to him first.  Then when the man says yes, craftily informs him that it includes Ruth, the widow.  The man demurs, not wanting to mess up his own inheritance line.  Boaz then agrees to buy it and take Ruth as wife.  The bargain concludes (as they did in this time) with the man handing Boaz his sandal.  (Yes, I know.  Next time you strike a bargain with someone, a sock might be a nice touch! 😀 ).

The literary standpoint:  This is actually a story that could easily be fleshed out into an entire novel.  There are all sorts of plot devices, and as evidenced by the fact that you still hear it in all sorts of literature etc, the whole “For where you go I will go” speech is obviously a very well written statement.

My Christian standpoint:  I believe that the book of Ruth gives us instruction on how we should be with our inlaws.  Many of us do not like them.  However, as our spouse’s family that raised him, they deserve respect.  We should treat them as Ruth treats Naomi, by refusing to leave her and like Boaz treats Ruth before he falls in love with her (I assume this is what happened after she laid at his feet).  I can’t articulate better what I mean, but all those petty things that make us want to slap our in-laws?  We have to stop that shite.

Interesting side note:  It just hit me how Ruth’s behavior also parallels Chinese culture.  A woman in historical China (I assume not today but I could be horribly wrong) would leave her ancestral home and when she did, she became a full part of her husband’s family, with her allegiance to her mother in law.

Second interesting side note:  Most of you that aren’t familiar with the Bible have heard of David (of David and Goliath fame).  David was part of the ancestral lineage of Christ.  Per the genealogical end of Ruth, Ruth & Boaz were David’s grandparents, making Ruth also an ancestor of Christ.

The Book of Esther:

The book of Esther never mentions God.  In fact, Esther is a story (however, one based in history) about a woman who was Jewish and living among exiles in Persia.  The Queen at that time, refuses to *cough* entertain the King.  And he is told by an advisor; “…let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus.  And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she”.  This advice pleased the King.

The King’s young men who attend him let out a cry; “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the King!  And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the capital, under custody of Hegai, the King’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women”.

Well no wonder King Ahaseurus was so pleased with the idea of deposing Vashti, that upstart queen.

Anyway, Esther is one of the beautiful virgins.  She is an Israelite, whose cousin is a man named Mordecai, who is raising her.  He tells her to keep the fact that she is Hebrew a secret.  So she does.  Of course the King picks her (I doubt the book would be named for her or the story told if this didn’t happen).

Now the King had a bad  man serving as his very top right hand man, Haman.  Haman hates the Jews.  Mordecai won’t bow or pay homage to Haman.  So Haman vows to destroy all the Jews.

So Haman gets an edict sent out with instructions “…to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods”.

Mordecai contacts Esther in the palace when he finds out about this.  He asks her to intercede.  She replies.

“All the king’s servants and the people of the King’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law–to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter so that he may live.  But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days”.

(My theory is that he was out enjoying the hundreds of other virgins that probably got shoved into his harem).

Esther finally sucks it up (sorry to those of you that find this blasphemous, but I’m just summarizing in my own words) and on the third day approaches the king in her royal robes.  He holds out the scepter to Esther.  Then asks her what is it, what is her request.  He tells her he will give her anything, even to the half of his kingdom.

“If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast that I have prepared for the king.”

So the King summons Haman, and they both are at the feast.  After, when they are drinking wine the king asks Esther what her wish is, and what’s her request?

“My wish and my request is:  If I have found favor in the sight of the King, and if it please the king to grant my wish and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come to the feast that I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said”.

Haman leaves all full of joy thinking that Esther loves him (not in that way! yeesh folks!) and that he is making even more inroads with the King.  And as a reward, he decides he will hang Mordecai.  He builds a gallows even (apparently, hanging Mordecai will be a great stimulant for his appetite for the feast in the morning).

The king can’t sleep that night, so asks for the book of memorable deeds.  They were read to him.  (I always enjoy a good chronicle of memorable deeds before bed myself).  Well he discovered where Mordecai had told about two eunuchs who had plotted to kill the King.  The King asks what distinction had Mordecai been awarded.  He is told that nothing has.  The King asks Haman when he comes in what should be done to a man whom the King wants to honor.  Haman of course thinks the King is speaking of him.

“For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set.  And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials.  Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city proclaiming before him:  ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor”.

So the King turns to Haman and gives him his robe and tells him to take it to Mordecai and to do all that he said should be done.  With nothing left out.

Mordecai goes to the King.  Haman goes home crying (well…”mourning and with his head covered”).  His wife Zeresh and his wise men state “If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him”.

He goes to the feast with Esther and the King.  On the second day of the feast, again while drinking wine, the King asks what is it that Esther wants.

“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, for our affliction Is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

The King asked who dared do such a thing and where are they.

“A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!”.

The King angrily strides off (well…”the king arose in his wrath”) and Haman begs for his life to Esther.  The king returns and sees Haman falling to the couch where Esther is.  And the king thinks he is assaulting Esther.

A helpful eunuch, Harbona, in attendance on the king (I think maybe Haman was a bit rude to Harbona at some point)

“Moreover, the gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”

Of course, we all know where this is going.  Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he built.  Then the King’s wrath was abated.

Esther still has to beg to the King to reverse the decree that went out, by writing a new order to revoke the letters devised by Haman.  The King basically gives Mordecai carte blanche;

“Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he intended to lay hands on the Jews.  But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked”.

So, Mordecai sent out decrees stating that the king allowed the Jews to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them…and to plunder their goods.

So in the 12th month, the month of Adar, on the 13th day when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, the Jews gained the upper hand over all the masters that had hoped and dreamed of their destruction.

And, so they did.  They took their own revenge, and plundered and annihilated etc. etc.

And so Purim was born (per the Biblical text of Esther).

Literary note:  If you can’t see how amazing a story this would make, or a movie or a play…well then I would assume you had no sense of imagination at all.  This has all the notes of a great drama.  Beaten down people, one man in power bent on revenge against another, beautiful virgins, the powerful man being hung on the gallows he himself built.  Wow.

Biblical note:  Even though God is never mentioned, due to the other books of the Old Testament, it is known that nothing happens to the Israelites that God doesn’t know about.  And that in the past God has given others the means to rescue his people (Moses.  David.).  So, I believe God is in fact all over the book of Esther.

The end.  Thanks for tuning in.  Sorry for the length.

 

 

The Stand by Stephen King.

I have a confession.  I _didn’t_ read the Stand in the last week.

However, I feel eminently qualified to talk about it here, as I have read it at least 12 times in my lifetime.  You tend to remember a lot about a book when you read it that many times.  Yes, it is a favorite.  I read it for the first time at 12 years old and probably read it last a year or two ago.

Apparently David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Weiner also felt it was worth it.  They listed it in their top ten.  They might have read it 12 or more times too but maybe not.

I was ecstatic that at least one of King’s books made it in this book.  I personally think The Shining should have also been in here, but eh, I wasn’t asked for my top ten.

Today, I will be covering three areas.  My prior debate partners will be thrilled I’m sure at the three areas and my forecasting of them.  First, I will cover The Stand itself and a couple of brief notes on the mini series made from the book.  Secondly, I will cover why I personally feel this is some of the best apocalypse literature out there.  Finally, I will cover people’s misconceptions about Stephen King and people’s close minded views on him and his career.

First thing about The Stand.  It is long.  I don’t think it’s quite as long as Les Miserables, but it might be.  However, it is infinitely easier to read.  There are no sections on The Battle of Waterloo for the sole purpose of using the last two lines to introduce characters.  There are no sections on argot.  King isn’t interested in making long, involved meanderings from the narrative to make comments on poverty.

King covers a few different main characters from start to finish.  King describes the characters, not by description per se, but by narrative involving them.  For instance, Stu, one of the main characters is in a gas station in a small Texas town in the beginning.  King manages to give you more about his character by showing his reaction to a car plowing into a pump than by the description of him.  Larry, another main character, has a hit that climbs the charts (he’s a musician).  King shows his downward spiral as he throws the longest and hugest party in a long time.  King shows his character by describing his walk onto a beach with an acquaintance who wants to give him the hard truth, then his resulting actions, and his arrival back in New York City and his mother.  He describes Fran, by showing her reaction to a pregnancy and a confrontation with her mother.  He describes Harold, a neighbor of Fran’s by the clothes he wears, the language he uses, his actions of resourcefulness.  He describes Nick, a deaf-mute by the beating and resultant jailing and resultant friendship with the sheriff, more than by his descriptive words of him.  This is one of the things I love about King, he may use a lot of words, but in the end you feel you know the characters almost or better than you know yourself.    The story is about what happens when the government accidentally releases a “super-flu” with a 99% transmission rate and a 100% fatality rate.  The flu works by constantly shifting.  Like if you have the influenza virus, your body creates antibodies to fight it.  The super-flu works by constantly shifting antigens, basically the type of flu you have.  King describes the trail of the beginning of transmission, which I always have felt is neat.  He describes different people as they contract it and die from it.   The main characters (of which I only listed a few) all are immune, as you might have guessed.  At the beginning, before they too are infected, the government does try to find a vaccine (because apparently they weren’t smart enough to have developed it to keep themselves safe) by taking people from Stu’s town to isolate them, then figure out why Stu doesn’t have it.  Eventually, all of the people are dead except those that were immune.  King then takes a few pages to describe the people that die from a second wave of events, like a child falling in a well, a woman firing an old gun that backfires and kills her, a man jogging himself to death due to grief.  The next section of the book describes them making their way across the country (the survivors).  They have been having two dreams, one of an old black woman in Nebraska and one of the “dark man” or Randall Flagg.  The black woman represents security, goodness.  The dark man, terror.  They eventually find Abigail Freemantle, a prophet and seer, who says she has dreams to go to Boulder Colorado.  In the panicked days, a rumor had started that the flu was originating from a source in the city.  There was a mass exodus, leaving the city strangely empty.  They settle there, survivors keep trickling in.  They implement a government of sorts.  Then the battle of good versus evil (side of Abigail vs. the side of Flagg) begins.  This is where I will end, in order not to spoil the ending.

I believe this to be one of the great apocalypse stories for a couple of different reasons.  Unlike a nuclear apocalypse, King derived a way to keep the world intact, if empty of people.  King also describes in great detail the things that the survivors do, like canned food, siphoning gas, etc. etc.  I love how he describes both during and after.  I always think apocalypse stories leave too much out.  It’s probably why I like The Walking Dead so much too.  He does have characters die during the story, but it fits in perfectly into the story he weaves.  I can’t think of any other concrete reasons I can put down here.  I have read a lot of apocalypse stories and this one remains my favorite.

Finally, I get tired of people’s misconceptions and refusal of Stephen King.  There are those that refuse to read him since he got away from the bloody horror stuff.  I know, I know, there are probably straight genre readers of horror and King’s genre readers didn’t like where he has gone.  However, if they bothered to read, they would find many of his stories still carry a tone of horror, a tone of the supernatural.  Many people like this stopped reading way before Bag of Bones, one of King’s greatest horror stories in my opinion.  And they refuse to read it.

Then there are those that stopped reading after Gerald’s Game or some other book that they didn’t like.  Um, the man has written around 68 books as of 2013.  I’m sure that anyone that had written that many  (that wasn’t a franchise writer such as Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts who like to put the same character types in a different setting while trying to tell the same story) would have a dud or two.  I’m sure most of those that stopped reading have never written a thing on their own, so a judgment based on one book they didn’t like is asinine.  I personally disliked The Tommyknockers when I read it, and it was published in the mid 80s.  I still disliked it when I reread it in 2012.  However, there are many of those 68 books written since then that I have adored.  Bag of Bones and Duma Key to name just two.  So I urge those of you that gave up on King after one book you disliked to try again.  You might rediscover an author you previously loved.

I also want to address those “literary” types.  King has been criticized his entire career by critics, by other authors and by those readers that read a book because it makes them look intelligent.  Again, the man has written 68 original books (each story is different and unique, not formulaic at all), have any of those people done that?  I think a little bit of it is jealousy.  There seems to be a prejudice against an author that makes a ton of money and sells a lot of books.  Maybe they believe that only books that sell limited copies and make limited amounts are good, as your average reader doesn’t like great works of literary fiction.  King has won a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.  Here is a list of the number of awards King has won since his career began.  It might be time for people to suck it up and read one of his books.

King tells a good story.  That is his main goal.  And that is what he achieves in most of those 68 books.  If you dislike horror, guts and gruesomeness, read his later works.  Some of them are almost not even close to horror.  If you like blood and guts, read the earlier books, then read the rest.

If you want to read what King himself thinks of “literary” types,  read the introduction of Full Dark, No Stars.  Which by the way has some very non horror fiction in it.

Thanks for listening to my rant 🙂  As you can tell, King ranks up there on favorite authors for me.  I grew up with him.  Well he was already an adult of course.  I read my first King novel, Firestarter at 10.  I’ve been reading him since.  I have re-read a lot of his books.  I read them so fast the first time that I want to find the things I missed.  And they are just as good as the first time.  Also, another note, King always, always makes sure his novels are unabridged when put on audio format.  He also reads Bag of Bones himself, which is amazing.  He finds the best audio book narrators.  If you don’t feel like reading one of his books, pick one up and listen.

Ok.  The end.

Les Miserables! Finally!

Ok, so I finally finished Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.

I know some of you have probably been looking askance at my posts about the length and how long it has taken me to read it.  However, I have one thing to say that sums up how I feel about this book.

Wow.

While reading the book, you will have moments when you wonder what Hugo was really doing.  Was he telling a story?  Or explaining French history to us?  Was he detailing and painting characters with a fine nuance?  Or was he using fiction to deplore social conditions in France in the mid 1800s?

I think he was doing both.  I think Hugo had a lot to say and poured most of it into Les Miserables.  He had published prior books, but the length of time it took him to write this shows how much heart he put into it.  I can’t imagine having to write it all by hand!  Which he had to.

Chris Bohjalian was the author that picked Les Miserables as one of his top ten.  And thinking of the books I’ve read by him, he also uses fiction to make a social statement.  He’s a bit less obvious about it than Hugo, but almost two hundred years can make a big difference in narrative styles and techniques.

I cursed parts of this book to Dave over the last few weeks.  Sometimes, I felt a little cheated.  I’d be reading this great story and be really into what was happening.  Suddenly I’m in a forever long section about Waterloo and Napoleon.  Now, I do enjoy histories, however I don’t enjoy them when they’re slammed down in the middle of a book, with the sole purpose seeming to be the introduction of two characters who then really don’t become relevant for another 500 pages.

But, the thing that saved this book for me, and that makes me extremely happy that I’ve read it, is simply the story that Hugo tells.  How he builds his characters and how invested you get in them.

Hugo follows these characters for years.  Jean Valjean is a released prisoner, who simply can’t find anyone that will accept him.  A bishop (whom Hugo spent chapters describing him, for the sole purpose of his role for Jean Valjean) accepts him.  And through that Valjean finds religion, finds peace in Christ.  He goes on to change his identity and basically save a town from complete ruin, in the process becoming very rich even though he has the tendency to give away large amounts of money.

The book details the beginning and descent of Fantine, a young woman who gets pregnant with a rich nobleman’s child, a rich nobleman who thought it would be funny to take her out on an outing, then just walk away and have a waiter deliver a note awhile later with the essence of “Been fun, gotta run”.  She has the child, but can’t find work.  As she leaves to go to a town, she finds a woman outside an inn with two of her own children.  Fantine asks if they will watch her daughter, named Cosette, that she will send money for the upkeep.  The woman agrees.  And in comes the Thenardier family, Thenardier ending up being the reprehensible evil character.  The story then goes on to describe Fantine’s descent all the way into prostitution and Valjean’s saving her.  She makes him promise to get her daughter.

There is a detective in the story, Javert, who believes the mayor is Valjean (it is), which would make him a criminal of the worst sort.  Now, you think Javert is a bad guy.  However, he is just built in a very uncompromising manner.  In the end, this manner takes him to his demise.  Javert comes to arrest Valjean while he’s at the hospital with Fantine.  Valjean goes.  Fantine dies.

Time passes.  One day, into the Thenardier inn comes a shabby looking old guy.  Cosette has been mistreated by Mrs. Thenardier for years, and Mr. Thenardier has used the money he did receive before Fantine’s descent into poverty and death for his own purposes.  Cosette is a scared little girl.

Then lots of time passes.  Marius and his grandfather are introduced.  They become estranged, as Marius discovers his father was a Napoleon guy and becomes utterly devoted to his father, after his father dies.  His grandfather is a man who believes in the sanctity of royalty.  Marius goes off on his own.

He & Cosette fall in love.  They are parted.

A revolution, a street one, of 1831 occurs.  Marius’s friends lead a movement, where they block off a tavern and fight.  It all ends horribly wrong.

I don’t want to give the ending, as it will ruin the experience of reading it for yourself.

However, Jean Valjean is a pitiful hero.  And I don’t mean that in the usage of pathetic that many do.  I mean, you really have to pity the man.  He has so little happiness in his life, and everytime he does, it gets ripped away.  In the end, he only has the faith that the Bishop inspired and the love that Cosette showed him he had (oh yes, he rescues her from the Thenardiers).

The Thenardiers remain evil through and through, and the only surprise with Mr & Mrs is the depravity they have.  Their daughter Eponine though?  She surprises you.  She starts out as someone you think of as definitely a Thenardier to the core.  However, love changes her.  In the end she makes a huge sacrifice that she knows will come to the worst possible outcome.

Javert…well he is a man of unbending principles.  He has prided himself all his life on this, and has lived his life by these principles.  Hugo shows the effects that life events can sometimes have on people like this.

Cosette, she is flighty.  But her love for Valjean and for Marius is inspiring.

Marius, is noble in a way.  During the whole time he was estranged from his grandfather, he lived in poverty.  He very rarely borrowed money.  He is the one who almost comes out as the “hero” in this, as he is the opposite of Valjean.  For most of his life, he has good happen to him.  When bad does happen to him, and he is miserable, good suddenly occurs.  I like how he is almost opposite of Valjean, like almost mirror like.

These are the main characters.  However, Hugo has filled in chinks of the story with more minor characters that sneak into the chinks of the story and cement the whole.  The urchin, Gavroche, (who is the unloved son of the Thenardiers so he lives on the streets) is one.  Marius’s friends who stage the revolution in the inn are others.  He paints even the most minor characters in huge detail.  For instance, Cosette & Valjean’s serving woman, has very little said about her.  However, Hugo brings her to life.  She stutters.

I can definitely see how this would make a great show.  I have never seen the Broadway play…but want to.  I also really want to see the movie but made myself wait until after reading the book.  I think that is best in this instance.  Otherwise, you’d expect the book to move like the show or the movie, which considering it’s over 1500 pages, it simply cannot.

Please, don’t let the size of this daunt you.  It would be a great book to read a few pages of in a night.

However, just skim the pages about Argot.  It’s hideously boring and I think Dave agrees with me, if anything could have been cut from Les Miserables and not have it hurt the story line…it’s this section.

Please be sure to check out Sage Magazine, where I talk about Peony In Love by Lisa See.  It’s an amazing book, and I’d definitely put it up there in my favorites.  It’s also a much shorter book haha.