Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The King Has Returned

Courtesy of  nydailynews.com
For a while, it seemed that the king of psychological horror books had stepped down.  Stephen King's books in the last decade have tended to be off-the-wall, weird, difficult to follow, and were just overall disjointed, badly written, and uninteresting.  Fans everywhere continued to buy the books and slouch through them, out of respect for his past works.  And then, in 2013, Doctor Sleep happened. With Doctor Sleep, we saw the return of the Stephen King we grew to love (amazing stories!) and hate (sleepless nights!).  While still reeling from the revelations, thrills, and horrors seen in Doctor Sleep, fans were then hit in June 2014 with King's first hard-boiled crime novel, Mr. Mercedes; it was a success not only with King fans, but also with crime/mystery fans.

It appears that King has finally moved on from his brush with death in 1999, when a distracted driver ran him over with a van.  The accident clearly had a huge impact on King, not only physically, but emotionally as well; he had recurring nightmares about the accident and had great difficulty sitting up for more than forty minutes to write.  Almost all of his books written after the accident had underlying themes of near death, accidents, and theories about time reversal and how it could affect the future.  Several books have characters that were suspiciously similar to King and who dealt with the consequences from near fatal accidents.  It was perhaps due to his emotional and physically painful recovery (as well as maintaining his several decades long sobriety) that King began writing the disjointed and muddled books that marked the 2000s.  There were no great hits from King, no books that would make the reader's blood run cold or keep them up at night.  Fans worried that this was the end of an era; Stephen King was a has-been, an author who had run his course of success. Yet, with these two novels, King has triumphantly returned.  He has returned to his classic form: a suspenseful build-up of a battle between good and evil, with ample interjections of fear spawning not only from objects and surroundings, but also from everyday people.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com
A sequel to 1977's The Shining (admit it, you still can't hear REDRUM without shivering), Doctor Sleep picks up on Danny Torrence's life as an adult.  Battling his demons left over from his eventful stay in the Overlook Hotel, Dan hits rock bottom and needs to reclaim his life.  He still has his Shining; but it has diminished due to years of alcoholism and self-hate.  The reader sees Dan getting his life back together, along with strengthening his Shining.  Interspersed through Dan's recovery, King introduces us to the True Knot, a group of wanderers who maintain their immortality with the lives and souls of children with Shining.  The story becomes a race against time and evil for Dan to save Abra Stone, a girl with immense Shining which makes her a valuable asset to the True Knot. Doctor Sleep is Stephen King at his finest.  There is horror: the True Knot hunts down their victims and dispatches them in a gruesome method in order to get the Shining from them at its strongest.  There is psychological panic at facets of everyday life: you will never look at normal looking people in RVs the same.  There is the classic King style: a battle between good and evil is embedded in everyday life, fought by momentous evil and by people who might have flaws, but are unfaltering good in their core character.  King illustrates the power of self and of normal people's determination to defeat evil.  There are several ancillary characters who rise up to the challenge to help Dan save Abra.  Ancillary characters are often King's greatest creations; they are us, with our flaws, our pettiness, our desires, our overall humanness.  However, these characters play huge parts in King's novels, whether by encouraging the protagonist to continue on no matter the hardships or by actively playing a role in the hardship itself.  The dialogue is clipped, realistic, and powerful; King manages to convey a range of emotions and wishes in his minimalist dialogue, reminiscent of his earlier works.  It is a book that will leave you breathless, satisfied, and very uneasy.

Courtesy goodreads.com
While a departure from King's go-to genre, Mr. Mercedes was yet another reminder that King has not lost the suspense, the terror, and the overall excellent prose style that he became famous for.  The reader is introduced to Bill Hodges, a retired cop who flits with ending his life out of boredom.  We also meet Bradley Hartsfield, a mild man who flits with mass murder out of boredom.  A seemingly gruesome but unsolved crime hangs over Hodges, who becomes unofficially involved in the cold case again when a letter arrives at his house, with the writer claiming to be the perp.  A back and forth between the two culminates in Hodges realizing that he is toying with a psychopath, a person who is intent on killing again.  Mr. Mercedes traces the cat and mouse game between the two men, the climax building to Hodges attempting to stop Hartsfield's biggest spree yet.  Once again, King relies on his ancillary characters to drive the story forward, using them to either block or propel the main characters' actions.  Readers are treated to a different type of crime novel set-up.  Instead of an unknown, in the shadows bad guy, Hartsfield is identified to the reader almost immediately and has his persona and justifications unwrapped throughout his interactions with others and himself.  Crime is a departure from the norm for King. Nonetheless, King manages to include his signature suspense, complex characters, and portrayal of the human psyche into the story, making it feel almost more like one of his older works, despite being very recent and very different from any type of genre he has previously written.  This is the type of book that is not read for the ending or the whodunit; it is read for the story itself, to see how King will lead the reader to the inevitable, yet seemingly elusive conclusion.The novel reads as a battle of the psyches, of who can outwit the other faster and more efficiently.

Can The Stand or Salem's Lot ever be recreated?  No, of course not.  King's earlier books literally launched a genre; he introduced mainstream literature that was not your typical crime or romance novels.  King's novels from the 1970's have earned their spots in literary greatness simply because of their originality and their (at the time) unrivaled content; they will not be outdone by King again.  However, readers can now look forward new, fresh Stephen King books, books that have all the components that made King a legend plus his renewed vigor in storytelling.  There might never be another The Shining, but give these two a chance; you won't regret it.   


Monday, September 22, 2014

Trying Limit Our Imaginations- Celebrate the Right to Read

Courtesy of bannedbookweek.org

To Kill a Mockingbird. Captain Underpants. The Color Purple.  Green Eggs and Ham. Junie B. Jones. Catch-22.  Harry Potter.  The Giving Tree.  The Lord of the Rings.  All VERY different books, from different eras, with different audiences.  However, these books all have one thing glaringly in common: they are considered banned books. Reasons ranging from sexism, Marxism, racism, realistic portrayals of history, violence, sexual content, language, smoking, and bad decisions have all marred these books according to some people and those people want those books out of the public eye.  They have rallied, protested, held book burnings, and continue to petition to have these books removed from schools and libraries.  Why?  Because they are offended by the contents.

This week marks the 32 year of celebrating banned books. Banned books span from children's books to adult books; they are referred to as "challenged" books, since offended parties have to petition with the Office of Intellectual Freedom with their concerns about the book in question.  The majority of these books have had concerns raised due to their appearances in school and public libraries; however, several adult novels have consistently been called into question as well, due to their sensitive subjects.  In 1982, librarian and Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, Judith Krug, alarmed by the rising number of books that were being challenged and subsequently banished from school and libraries, created Banned Book Week.  The objective was to raise awareness about challenged books and the reasons that were given.  With the ALA's full support behind Banned Book Week throughout the decades, the week has become an almost celebration of challenged books in schools and libraries. 

So.  What has Banned Book Week done for us?  It has provided a valuable forum to discuss freedom of speech and the freedom of intellect guaranteed in the United States. Banned Book Week has given educators and librarians across the country the opportunity to teach children and adults alike about the virtues of having the freedom to read what we want and not be censored due to others' prejudices against different ideas and leanings.  We need to read banned books; not just for their content.  We need to read them in order to show people that we as Americans will not be censored.  We will not allow a small group of people to dictate what we can and cannot read, just because they do not agree with the content.  Banned Book Week is about more than just books; it is about the freedom we have as a country to educate ourselves freely and to read whatever we want without the fear of persecution. Read a banned book; celebrate the right to read.   

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dragging Along The Dominican Republic- Junot Diaz

Courtesy of junotdiaz.com
Junot Diaz doesn't shy away from the heart wrenching.  He has written the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner about a multi-generational family curse (lots of dying); several short stories about a young man who just cannot stop cheating on women he loves (lots of thoughts about dying); and about people who try to ingratiate themselves in America for a better life (leaving behind lots of death in the Dominican Republic, just to face having to die in the American ghettos where they live).  Life and death go hand in hand in Diaz's stories, along with failure and success, and the desperate need to be better than one's parents, while maintaining their heritage.

Diaz, who writes both short stories and novels, creates an unique central character: the Dominican Republic (DR).  The DR holds a strong place in Diaz's heart; he too immigrated to the US as a child and was raised in New Jersey.  Currently a creative writing professor at MIT, Diaz strives to highlight a segment of the American culture that often gets forgotten: the immigrant population from the Caribbean. The DR is a central theme throughout his 1996 debut collection, Drown, where the reader is exposed to a series of short stories that are snapshots into the characters' souls.  We see how they struggle to convey a macho (or slutty, depending on what they want) persona to the public, all the while mourning their inability to achieve higher goals like college or at least staying out of jail.  Failures and triumphs are also in his Pulitzer Prize novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Having a generational 'curse' hanging over his head, Oscar is an overweight nerd, the exact opposite of what a Dominican man is supposed to be.  He is a constant source of woe for his mother, who hopes that he can become more manly or at least more healthy, and for his beautiful and popular sister, who is completely unsure how to deal with her awkward brother. Diaz's latest award winning collection, This is How You Lose Her, we see how the DR paints the characters' (several characters resurface through all of his stories) relationships.  Several stories are about how men want to stay with the women that they truly love, but they just can't escape the pressure to be 'manly' by cheating with several different women.  In others, the reader is shown how women also can't stop playing men for money, cars, or whatever they want.  The constant back and forth in their relationships is blamed on the instability of relationships and sex in the DR; however, this cultural norm for the DR does NOT translate well in the US.  Throughout their struggles with themselves, their history, and their family, the DR hangs over their head, like a past they cannot escape and a future they cannot avoid.

Courtesy of BarnesandNoble.com
Diaz writes his stories with a modern, yet uniquely Dominica-meets-East-Coast vernacular, almost a type of Spanglish that is easy to follow along with, all the while pulling the reader into the characters' world.  The descriptions he gives of the varying settings create a stark contrast between the overall pictures of the DR and of the USA; however, the reader can also see the glaring similarities between the two with descriptions of crime and the abject poverty the characters experience.  Junot Diaz is not only telling a story; he is bringing the Caribbean immigrant story to life, a story in which a reader will be completely immersed in.  The stories which Diaz tells are beautiful in their simplicity; uncomplicated phrases and clean descriptions enhance the complexity of the characters' interactions and the depth of their emotions.

Love, loss, poverty, and, most importantly, a loss of culture is what drives Junot Diaz's characters; these people feel the stinging pain of trying to mesh their Dominican culture and identity in with the oft-sterile culture of the USA.  They cannot regain what they left behind, thus they tend to fill the void with destructive behavior, almost barreling themselves towards the stereotype of a "ghetto" immigrant.  It is these descents, these personal struggles, both real and imaginary, that Diaz creates for his readers.

Have Some Louisiana Pride!!


Monday, September 8, 2014

Trading In Harry and Magic for Cormoran and Murder

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Robert Galbraith achieved two things with his 2013 debut novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. 1) He wrote a mystery that was fresh with its approach to a flawed hero, the man who can't exactly get the girl, who doesn't make too many self-improvements, but somehow manages to come out on top. 2) He also was able to use his pen name to hide behind his real identity as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and prove to the world that SHE could write books that didn't involve wands or Hogwarts. And prove it she did. The Cuckoo's Calling received spectacular reviews upon it's debut, while the world still thought that Galbraith was a new, male author; it was hailed as being darkly fascinating, with its mystery solving hero being a “a complex and compelling sleuth," according to Publisher's Weekly. Her sequel, The Silkworm, has received equally positive reviews, with Cormoran Strike proving once again that he can be the hero without being perfect.

Cormoran Strike. An amputee veteran from the Afghan wars. A huge man that elicits stares wherever he goes. The illegitimate child of a famous rock star. A detective. It is these traits, good and bad, and so many more that make up Strike's personality, thus influencing his business as a private detective. Strike is that person that men want to be and women want to be with. In Cuckoo's, the reader finds Strike trying to pick up the pieces of his life after a long-term relationship implodes. He is drawn into the high-stakes and high pressure world of fashion, modeling, and the lives of the wealthy, where one of their own has committed suicide. The dead woman's brother convinces Strike that maybe something else happened. In Silkworm, Strike is once again entangled in a strange, cult-like world, this time of book publishing. An author has been brutally murdered and it seems like EVERYONE wanted him dead. Throughout both books, Strike is assisted by Robin Ellacott, his pretty and quietly intelligent assistant; she too is plagued by her own demons and continues to surprise Strike and the reader with her bravery and cunning.

Courtesy of goodreads.com
But, you ask, how is this different from EVERY, SINGLE mystery series ever? Somehow, Galbraith/Rowling makes it different. It is set in modern day London, so American readers are introduced to the British life of today. It is written with the same rolling, but at the same time, succinct descriptions that brought us the magical world of Harry Potter. The dialogue is crass, witty, emotional, and engaging; I was never bored by the back and forth between Strike and the suspects. Galbraith/Rowling does not shy away from violence; the crimes depicted in the book are not gruesomely described, but are conveyed in a way that the reader will feel very involved in the crime investigation. The people killed are not innocent saints of humans; they too are flawed. But the reader, along with Cormoran, becomes convinced by the straight-forward violence that justice must be served. How it is served is a departure from the cut-and-dry police procedural plot line that many mysteries follow. Galbraith/Rowling twists and unwraps the mystery at hand, resulting in several problems caused by several people, which will lead up to the main crime. The multifaceted aspect of the books keeps the reader hooked until the very end.

I am hoping that Galbraith/Rowling can breathe new life into the mystery genre. Recently, the genre has been overtaken by cozy mystery series (I love me some cozy mystery series but they all tend to be the same over and over again) and by gruesome, gory mysteries (Sorry, Jeffrey Deaver, but wow!). Galbraith/Rowling can be categorized with Dennis Lehane, Marshall Karp, Stieg Larsson, and those who don't shy away from gritty mysteries, flawed heroes, and the often violent nature of people overall. Perhaps, as the fan base of Harry Potter gets older, they can graduate to Galbraith/Rowling's new series; its written just as well as Harry Potter and also has the action, the tension between good and bad, the wit, and the ever-proper Britishness that we all grew to love.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unbroken- The Story of A Man More Awesome Than You

Courtesy of Goodreads.com

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, published in 2010. It is going to be a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, to be released on Christmas 2014. It's an incredible book, spending 180 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list. It is about a man who has done more and survived more than most of us could even dream of achieving. His life should make all of us aspire to be more.  The book is gripping, suspenseful, romantic, heroic, and inspiring; I read it in three days, calling into work sick so I could finish it. The movie is already generating Oscar Award buzz, even though it hasn't officially been released; the trailer alone made me cry. Why haven't you read it yet? I'm not sure.

Louis Zamperini overcame QUITE a bit to become the very embodiment of the idea of a 'true' American. An small-town boy, who became a Hitler-dissing track star in the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini joined the military in World War 2, was shot down in his plane, floated adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, only to be rescued by the Japanese forces and then spent more than two and a half years in a POW camp. Surely this must end in tragedy, with this hero dying horribly? He did die... July 2, 2014, at 97.  Zamperini was everything the "Greatest Generation" epitomizes: courage, faith, hard work, and an undying love for country and for family. The book is about Zamperini's journey to sports greatness, to military defeat and torture, accumulating in a self-realization and salvation that played a huge role in improving American and Japanese relations after the war.  

Is this a tear-jerker? You bet! Hillenbrand, her first success being the underdog story of Seabiscuit, is in perfect form in Unbroken.  Known for her meticulous research, Hillenbrand uses military archives, news archives, and personal stories from Zamperini, his family, and his friends to weave a tale that leaves the reader breathless and terrified, yet hopeful.  Although clearly a non-fiction work, Unbroken reads almost like a fiction; the story is almost unbelievable and the outcome is incredible. Hillenbrand has a real talent for drawing the reader completely into the story and relaying emotions to where the reader can vividly feel them. No detail is left unexplored, no emotion left untouched. She takes you on the journey of Zamperini's life, from the angst of teenagehood fistfights to the unbending belief that he would survive his time in the POW camp. Hillenbrand, who became close friends with Zamperini while researching the book, wrote in her eulogy to him, "If anything defined Louie, it was that. What made his life transcendent, what made it resonate in millions of hearts, was not the hardship he encountered, but the way in which he greeted it, how he turned it to joy, and what that told the rest of us about the potential that sleeps within ourselves."

Why should you read this? Well, it almost seems unpatriotic to NOT read about an ultimate American patriot.  He served his country as an Olympian, a soldier, a veteran, and a good citizen; all of this, and he never gave up.  If that isn't the true American spirit, I don't know what is.  And the book is an intense, but utterly gratifying read.  You will never be the same after reading this.  

Besides, you need to read the book before you see the movie!!

Quote taken from http://www.dailybreeze.com/general-news/20140731/laura-hillenbrands-eulogy-to-louis-zamperini