It by Stephen King: finished

This review contains mild spoilers – like, about how characters feel about each other, and about who dies in the first 100 pages or so. No major plot-wrap-up spoilers. Medium spoilers.

Please recall my much earlier review of the first third or so of this book.


itMy It-reading friend got in touch to say that she’d been reading away while I hadn’t been. (I had been reading, just not this book.) Luckily I was just then headed off on vacation! so I sped through the last 800 or so pages, and upon my return, met her at the bar to discuss.

What happens in Stephen King’s It? I needed reminding as well; and I give Danielle credit for finding & recommending Constant Readers, a blog devoted to King’s work. Two friends discuss It in five parts, in banter-y dialog; it’s great fun, and they’re fairly expert about SK, unsurprisingly. Enjoyable and thought-provoking – check them out. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

I won’t spend too much more time on plot summary; It is fairly well established in our cultural consciousness and 1,000 people have written about this before so you can get the plot easily enough from Google if you need it. Kids become adults; good vs. evil; scary, exciting, outrageous.

A few notes from my impressions and/or my discussions with Danielle (and a little bit with my buddy Jack, who was unable to make the bar date)…

  • This book gripped me from the start, when briefly-likeable little Georgie gets it; I loved all the characters and rooted for them all the way through, in both their kid and adult form. Jack and Danielle both found them most relateable and real as kids, but I identified better with the adults versions (I don’t seem to remember my childhood as well as some people do) – although clearly, the kids were deeply likeable.
  • King’s worldbuilding skills are alive and well.
  • I adore how Stephen King always has a hero librarian in his books! (& Joe Hill too.)
  • His highly believable characters are one of his greatest feats: we agreed that this book is clearly character driven, although the plot was well done and powerful as well; and let’s be clear on King’s world-building prowess, yet again.
  • The ending was satisfying for me because it felt like the right, the realistic solution; but of course we’d always like to know more. In this case, I hunger for a little more epilogue for each of our survivors. I would love to see a follow-up book starring one of our grown-ups in his or her new life.
  • King continues to be outrageously self-referential; as I told Danielle (for whom It was her first King read! how exciting!), things will make more and more sense, the more you read him. The Dark Tower series ties in all over the place, and are you kidding me? Dick Hallorann from The Shining makes a not-insignificant appearance as well.
  • The dog dies! plus all the animal torture – gah!! Truly horrifying, King.
  • WHERE THE HECK DOES HE COME UP WITH THIS STUFF? Specifically, 27 years in between events? What is that about? The imagination astounds me.
  • I was rarely actually frightened. (There were a few nights when I read late into the dark hours in an unfamiliar bed…) I guess I didn’t buy into the supernatural threats quite enough to scare myself silly. But I marvel at the world created!

Rate ‘em: how did we like the characters? Richie is annoying but also loveable; I think his role is to be annoying to his friends, less so to the reader. (To me at least.) Stan is hard to love. Maybe because he dies so early that we know not to invest in him? Eddie is also a little exasperating but I found him sympathetic as well. Despite these three being difficult to like, I ended up rooting for them all. When Eddie and Stan really stepped up to the plate and gave it their all, they came further, you know? For Bill and Ben, heroism seemed to come more naturally. (For all that Ben is meant to be the archetype of fat loser kid, he always had a courageous hero sitting very near the surface; he didn’t have to come as far to get there.) I loved Bev, Danielle didn’t; and while Mike was maybe a little boring, he was the rock, or the tie that bound them all together (not to mention being an uber-capable librarian, which is always worth points). And Bill? Interestingly, the Constant Readers did not appreciate Bill. And I can understand the ways in which they found him boring, but I loved him all the same. As far as his being a foil for Ben & Bev’s romance, I say, not his fault; there will always be that guy (or girl), and he (or she) doesn’t always have control over that role. Fair game. In the end, I loved all seven of our kids, more or less equally – with Stan a half-step below, for not sticking around long enough to earn more love.

Favorite quotations from Constant Readers:

  • “In the Gunslinger world, they’d be a ka-tet.” Yes.
  • “This book is full of childhood sweetnesses without every getting mawkish or saccharine, which is a fucking feat.”
  • “I know you hate the Turtle, but I really like the image/concept of this lumbering creature that created the universe by puking, this really reflexive, disgusting bodily function, and now it’s dead because it puked in its own shell. I like the idea of the creator of all things being sort of witless. Or at least clumsy. I really believe that, man, if Something Made Us All, it was definitely not on purpose. A puking Space Turtle fits my ideology very well.”

On that last point: I totally agree. The turtle-as-creation-myth resonates deeply with me, and crosses over not only from the Dark Tower series, but from various native cultures from around the world (see Turtle Island). I am carrying forward this idea of the turtle that vomited up our world, and didn’t much care about it thereafter, as my new philosophy of life and its origins. Thank you, Stephen King.

He’s done it again. It is the Constant Readers’ favorite SK, and I’m pretty sure it’s Jack’s as well. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say that, but it’s definitely a great example of what he does best.


Rating: 9 newspaper boats (shiver).

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), first half

rathbonesI am not quite halfway through The Rathbones, and I am at no proper stopping point – nor am I stopping – but I do feel the need to pause and report back to you. I am intrigued and bemused by this book. I don’t love it, although I might in the end; but I don’t dislike it either. I’m just a little perplexed.

The Rathbones is told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, the last of that clan. She lives in the large, old Rathbone mansion on the Connecticut coast with her rather crazy mother and her reclusive tutor & cousin Mordecai. She wonders about the fate of her father, gone to sea many years ago now, and her little brother, whose existence is denied by mother and cousin. An unpleasant visitor sends Mercy and Mordecai fleeing in a little boat… into strange seas. They light upon one island and then another, meeting strange people who reflect in different ways on the paired mysteries of Mercy’s missing father, and the Rathbone family legacy. As I pause to write this, we are mid-journey, and I don’t know appreciably more about these mysteries than I did at page 1; and in a way I am worse off, in terms of knowing where the heck we are going, because I still haven’t figured out which thread of this story is the lead.

The writing and language are lovely, and well read by four narrators in turn: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, and Gabrielle De Cuir (itself an unusual convention, though I approve). The imagery is impressive as well. Moment to moment, this book is engrossing – sentence to sentence, scene to scene. But as for the overall story, I’m still baffled. Are we concerned about finding Mercy’s father (who is not, by the way, a Rathbone)? Or about unraveling the sinister, and apparently supernatural, history of the Rathbone family? Are we going to deal with the worn-out wives again, or is their episode past? Where are we going??

I’ve chosen a somewhat random example of Clark’s descriptive stylings for you here. Perhaps you can hear the dreamy, fantastical, and outlandish tone that draws me in…

Though the man was not Oriental, he wore wide scarlet silken trousers beneath the jade robe and pointed slippers of embroidered silk whose long tips quivered at each step. Mordecai stood beside me as the man approached. They were of a similar size and bearing, and each boasted a pigtail, one pale, one dark. The man bowed first to Mordecai, pausing for a moment with a troubled look. They might have been two sides to a single coin. He then bowed to me, sweeping off his pointed hat. The pigtail came away with it. Beneath the hat curled a powdered wig. Beneath the wig, a face that made Mordecai seem the fairest of men. It was all sharp angles and harsh planes, the skin rough and pale and faintly gray, though he was a young man. I judged him to be near Mordecai’s true age. It was a face that might have been hewn from the granite on the islands that the Starks had worked so hard to smooth. I thought that if I touched his cheek I might slice my finger open.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to criticize. I think I am charmed by this work. But so far it is working on me more like a series of vaguely connected short stories than as a coherent novel. We’ll see; maybe she will pull it all together soon. Mystery and obscured connections seem to be a theme, so I am hopeful that this is the case.

I also want to note that there are clear influences here of the whale-obsessed culture of Moby-Dick, as well as the fantastic interconnected adventures-at-sea of the Odyssey. The latter is one of my all-time favorites (although Moby-Dick, not so much. maybe I just need another seminar course on it), so that’s a good thing.

I am having no doubts about sticking around for the second half of this odd novel, so stick around for the next review to come. I am (at least) as curious as you are.

guest post: Fire Season by Philips Connors

You will recall from way back my original post about this very fine book, and my dad’s review of same. Now I have another to add to the accolades.


fireFrom his website, I’d like to share with you my buddy Christopher Tassava’s review (even with the undeserved praise in that opening line).

My ridiculously well-read friend Julia recommended that I read Fire Season, a book-length essay by Philip Connors on his work as a fire-tower lookout in the mountain forests of New Mexico. Connors’ writing is amazing, evoking both the wildness of his setting (which I now have a deep desire to see firsthand) and the civilized nature of his work, which aims, at its base, to preserve what man values in nature. I loved lines like

Time spent being a lookout isn’t spent at all. Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one’s life.

which seems as true for my favorite outdoor activity (riding bikes!) as it does for being a lookout.

Connors’ skills at crafting prose are matched by his skills at explaining the American perspectives on fire and on wilderness. Much of the book concerns how the U.S. Forest Service – Connors’ employer – has understood the primordial force of wildfire, and how it has reacted to it. The historical material is fascinating on its own (someone seriously proposed clear cutting the Rockies to prevent fires!) and as context for Connors’ own stints in the watchtower. Not all of the fires he spots garner a response from the Forest Service: some are left to burn acres and miles of forest, contributing to the endless natural cycle of burning and growth.

But Connors also adds his voice to the conversation about what wilderness is, and what it’s for. He comes down in favor of preserving wilderness for its own sake: not as a place for humans to “recharge” but as a place apart from humans and, I thought by the end of the book, better than we are.

Glad you loved it, Tassava! Next up is Dirt Work, which I believe he is also loving. Stay tuned.

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

A novel of family history, passion and menace, based on historical events in eastern Canada.

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In her fourth novel, Alone in the Classroom, Elizabeth Hay (Late Nights on Air) awakens the hidden histories of Saskatchewan and the small-town Ottawa Valley, as her narrator Anne Flood researches the life of her aunt, Connie.

Connie Flood taught for one year, 1929, at a small prairie school in the town of Jewel. Among her students, she worked closely with one challenged boy, Michael Graves. The strikingly portrayed principal, Mr. Burns, surveyed them with an ominous air. One of Connie’s students died a tragic and mysterious death; some 80 years later, the repercussions of that death still swirl through Anne’s life. Likewise, the unrelated murder of another child shortly thereafter haunts Connie, Mr. Burns and Michael Graves for years to come.

Alone in the Classroom is not really a murder mystery (although no slack is permitted in the plot); it’s a lyrical, thoughtful exploration of a town’s secrets. The Flood family’s history and the legacy of Mr. Burns make for a taut, suspenseful and compelling tale. There are threads of romance intertwined with obsession, sensuality paired with threat. Anne’s relationships with mother, aunt and grandmother–both sinister and everyday–form a central theme as well. Though it’s a slim book, at just over 200 pages, Alone in the Classroom begs to be read slowly; at the novel’s close, it’s easy to feel an intimate connection with Anne and her forebears and, having come so far with her, be strangely refreshed by the journey.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 lakes.

Maximum Shelf: The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on August 6, 2014.


small

Kurt Gödel was a mathematician, logician and philosopher, best known for his incompleteness theorem, and often referred to as one of the greatest logicians since Aristotle. Born in Austria in 1906, he immigrated to the United States in 1940 to escape Hitler’s growing power and to pursue his scholarly work. Plagued by mental illness but also highly accomplished in his field, he would easily make an interesting subject to pursue. But Yannick Grannec’s first novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is not about Kurt Gödel; it is about his wife, Adele.

Adele was six years older than Kurt, and was employed as a dancer at a cabaret when they met in 1927. They were a couple for more than a decade (during which time she nursed him through several rounds of institutionalization) before they married, with the continuing disapproval of his family. Adele would face rejection and isolation in the academic community as well, particularly when the couple finally settled at Princeton, where he worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).

These details are a matter of historical record. Grannec’s foray into fiction begins with her other protagonist: it is 1980, Gödel has recently died of anorexia, and Anna Roth, an employee at the IAS, has been tasked with recovering Gödel’s archives from his widow. Adele lives in a nursing home, and continues to hold a grudge against the academic establishment that shunned her; she is known to be a prickly old woman, and at first lives up to her reputation. But she sees something she recognizes in Anna, the daughter of two egomaniacal Princeton professors, who never felt that she fit into that society, being a more timid sort. Gradually, as Anna makes regular visits to the nursing home, the two women begin to open up to one another. Adele calls it a trade: she’ll tell her story if Anna tells hers. Chapters of The Goddess of Small Victories alternate between a third-person view of Anna’s visits to Adele in 1980, and a first-person telling of Adele’s story as it happened chronologically, beginning in 1928.

In this way, “the younger woman” (as Anna is often labeled) gets to visit Adele’s past worlds: Vienna in the 1930’s, postwar Princeton, McCarthyism, the Cold War; the difficulties of being an immigrant with poor English, the thrill of close friendship with Einstein and other luminaries and, centrally, the challenge of marriage to a tortured genius. Gödel is concerned with the infinite, but unable to handle the minutiae of his life: he is a consistently and increasingly troubled man–gifted, but also cold and demanding. He suffers from depression and paranoia, starves himself, meticulously tracks his body temperature and bowel activity, and refuses to see anyone outside a small circle that includes Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, Robert Oppenheimer and their wives. He harangues his friends with conspiracy theories and an insistent rehashing of his unpopular notions. These few individuals naturally compose Adele’s entire social world, as well. Gödel tests Adele mightily, but in the end her love persists, as does her belief in infinity (a popular topic in the Gödel marriage and within their intellectual circle).

In exchange, Adele enjoys hearing about Anna’s life, though it has been marked by broken relationships and fear. The elder woman is outspoken, where the younger is reticent; Adele is enlivened by the challenge of spicing up Anna’s professional and love lives. Anna, as it turns out, has had a gifted-but-troubled mathematician in her own life as well. As the book and the women’s relationship unfold, the reader’s perspective moves more deeply inside Adele’s head, hearing her more intimate thoughts and becoming privy to her fears and insecurities, which increase as she ages and her marriage disappoints her. Anna and Adele make a journey together, and soon Gödel’s archives are no longer the point (except for Anna’s employer).

In an author’s note at the end, Grannec succinctly outlines which parts of the story are historically confirmed, which are relatively safe conjectures, and which she has created. Sticklers for historical accuracy should be satisfied. The translation from French to English by Willard Wood is smooth, establishing appropriate voices for the two different protagonists, and creating the evolving atmospheres of nervousness, fear and, eventually, desperation that characterize the Gödel household.

In the end, The Goddess of Small Victories delicately evokes both Adele’s varied experiences, in historical context, and also Anna’s more circumscribed life, which leaves room for future decision-making. While light is shed on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, he takes a backseat to his dynamic wife in Grannec’s compassionate telling. The finer technical details of Gödel’s work are outlined in narrative form, as Gödel reluctantly tries to tutor Adele, or discusses theories of philosophy with Einstein and the others. (Grannec also inserts footnotes regularly to offer further explanation, or to attribute quotations.) These mathematical and philosophical dialogues, the reader is reminded, are oversimplified; but they are enough to either whet the appetite, or impress upon one the magnitude of Gödel’s genius. The stars of this story, however, are two strong and intriguing women, who are stronger together.


Rating: 8 chocolates.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Grannec!

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo

A quirky illustrated reference guide to the oddities of the plant world and botanical history.

largo

Broccoli as we know it today comes to us as a product of early bioengineering (by the Etruscans around 800 B.C.). Eve’s forbidden fruit may have been not an apple, but a fig. In Aztec culture, virgins were not permitted to look upon the lusty avocado fruit on the tree. The blister bush contains chemicals that interact with human skin and then combust upon exposure to sunlight. In Greek mythology, the artichoke was created when Zeus became angry with his mistress and transformed her into the thistle as punishment. Bamboo blooms only every 65 or 120 years, and when it does, rat populations explode. Nutmeg has mild hallucinogenic properties.

From Absinthe to Żubrówka (“widely known as the plant that makes the best Polish vodka”), The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not your standard reference book. It is far from comprehensive; Michael Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts) instead hopes to entertain and educate by focusing on plants with odd characteristics and their history and roles in different cultures, including medicinal uses both current and bygone. Entries are alphabetically ordered (although some take a little hunting: oleander is filed under B for “Be-Still Tree”), and accompanied by some 150 illustrations by the artists of the Tropical Botanic Artists collective. Some entries include tips on gardening or on avoiding poisoning.

Simply written with an eye for humor and cocktail-party-friendly trivia, this botanical exploration can serve as a coffee-table piece or conversation starter. Just don’t mix up your yew with your yerba.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 petioles.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

An entrancing fantasy of a young man’s search for past and future in a single summer of change.

ghost in the electric blue suit

Graham Joyce (Some Kind of Fairy Tale) explores family legacies and the struggle for new beginnings in The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

In the sultry English summer of 1976, David Barwise does not return home from college to work for his stepfather as the family expects, but instead takes a job at a run-down holiday resort. The economy is headed downhill, and the resort industry is especially depressed, but David is attracted to the seaside town where his biological father disappeared mysteriously when his boy was a toddler.

His coworkers are a rowdy bunch in which “everyone has an angle.” Among them, David is particularly drawn to Colin, a dangerously angry brooder, and his wife, Terri, beautiful and silent. Over the course of the summer he will find himself pulled against his will into a political association he finds hard to break. He’ll find lust and, later, love. And eventually he’ll solve the mystery of his father’s fate and build a new relationship with his mother and stepfather.

The cast of colorful characters includes some neo-Nazis, a woman with a mysterious past, a solitary Italian tenor, an unlikely pair of fortune-telling sisters and a friendly young dancer. But Joyce’s most remarkable achievement is the tense atmosphere of this slim and haunting novel, simultaneously dreamy and chilling, setting David’s preference for Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix against the backdrop of Sinatra, Como and Nat King Cole performed in a dying theater.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 sand castles.
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