Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

A sprightly, autobiographical 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle, written in French by an American and appearing in English for the first time.

woman lovers

The works of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived in Paris and wrote in French, are little known, and her 1926 autobiographical novel Amants féminins was published for the first time only in 2013. Woman Lovers, or The Third Woman is the first English translation.

A scholarly introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne and a translator’s essay by Chelsea Ray place this work in the context of modernism and evolving gender definitions while detailing Barney’s biography. These introductory materials are revealing and absorbing in their own right, if a little dry in their academic tone. The novel, however, leaps energetically to life.

Barney’s protagonist N., who stands in for the author, believes in love among women as an ideal of pleasure and friendship. “Friendship is simply love without pleasure!” she declares. “Love is heavy for two to carry, and happiness is monotonous.” With a new lover, M., she establishes an “association” by which the two women will comfort those in romantic distress by sharing their affections. When she brings such a woman into her relationship with M., however, N. is unexpectedly left out, jealous and hurt.

Barney is perhaps best known for her aphorisms, and she uses such pithy fragments as well as screenplay-style dialogue, mock journal entries, a combination of first- and third-person perspectives and even drawings to tell her story. Woman Lovers, while brief, is thus a noteworthy and historically significant piece of experimental literature, queer theory and a captivating roman à clef all at once.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 chestnuts.

guest review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, from Pops

Pops sent me this guest review – unexpected, unsolicited, but very welcome – with the note, “you will likely find it easy to tie this into your own readings.” Certainly; but he had no idea how timely, as I’ve just recently reviewed Jesmyn Ward’s forthcoming The Fire This Time, a collected of essays and poems Ward solicited from today’s minds, to answer Baldwin’s 1963 book. I read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It On the Mountain, and so have some idea of his voice & power, but I hadn’t read this title, so it’s excellent to have Pops’s perfectly-timed review. Synchronicity, we’ll call it.
the fire next time

I recently finished James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is a strange bird in form as it consists of two essays that are pretty different: a short personal letter to his 14 yr-old namesake nephew, and a much longer autobiographical, contemplative ramble, a sort of musing, largely about religion. My book’s dust cover says it “caused a great stir upon publication in 1963 and landed its author on the cover of Time [magazine]” – while he was on a Civil Rights speaking tour of the US south. (He lived mostly in France beginning in 1948 at age 24.) In 1963 Baldwin was an established author, an “accepted” spokesman for the Black experience. His call in these two essays for integration & reconciliation during the outbreak of angry & nationalist activism is the likely source of that “great stir.” Indeed, the great value in reading these today is in appreciating the issues of that pivotal time in our history.

The short piece has a long title: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation.” This is the one recently associated with the book title, compared to numerous other public letters by Black authors to the next generation. (This is a comparison where context is again important, as we are challenged to appreciate the Black Lives Matter movement as it matures.)

Baldwin describes his great-grandfather’s “terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” This begins a two track theme: an unbridled (almost bitter?) depiction of the oppression & tragedy of racism, with also a sober appreciation of the need for reconciliation & even love. On the former: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Yet, after more of such clarity, he says, “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them… and accept them with love.” In spite of all, he advocates for integration, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

With this in mind, he closes by reminding young James that he is prepared for the future: “you come from sturdy, peasant stock… [who] in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable & monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This of course ties us back to the essay title; but oh, there is much more.

The words Baldwin quotes in italics are from a traditional spiritual. In fact, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, when MLK Jr. says “in the words of the old Negro spiritual…” he is referencing the same source, a spiritual now generally known under the title “Free at Last!” but also appearing under different titles and with varying lyrics. Here is the pertinent section of an “accepted” version that agrees with Baldwin’s quotation:

Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.
The very time I thought I was lost,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,
This is religion, I do know,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
For I never felt such a love before,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.

Further, MLK delivered his speech on Aug 28, 1963; Baldwin’s essays were published in book form in 1963 but had earlier been published in The New Yorker in 1962. Did MLK have occasion to read Baldwin during those turbulent months? Though I find no record in a quick search, it is quite likely; they ended close friends and Baldwin was widely read in the movement. In any event, I am quite satisfied & comforted just thinking in terms of “like minds.” And this is not the last time Baldwin invokes religious and musical references, both an essential part of the Civil Rights movement.

The second & longer (~90 page) essay is the autobiographical “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” the main title taken from a hymn quoted after the title page. It begins with the author at age 14 (same as nephew James, above) and describes how his abusive stepfather drives him to join a Pentecostal church, where he is successful as a preacher. In long and rambling paragraphs, suitable for exploring those “regions in his mind,” he relates his mixed experience with religion – and racism – up through adulthood, concluding, “the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable.”

His narrative path arrives at his moment of writing as he tells of his recent audience with Elijah Muhammad, which opens a lengthy account of his perspective on the Nation of Islam and racism as seeks a path to reconciliation, consistent with the first essay. As he does for young James, here again he closes with a measure of hope and a call for action, as he considers the prospect for continued racial strife: “at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well if this is so, then one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate… I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”

His final line provides a caution for those who hesitate at key moments in history, and the title for the book, as he quotes a spiritual, a “slave song” called “O Mary Don’t You Weep”: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in the song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mighty Currawongs and other stories by Brian Doyle

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Brian Doyle on books! Obviously you need this in your Tuesday.

mighty currawongs
From the story called “Elson Habib, Playing Black, Ponders the End Game”:

…one only needs a hundred books, my boy; the trick is to choose carefully which books are your companions; many people simply accumulate books and do not read them, whereas a discriminating soul has fewer books in toto but swims in them regularly; and the best books bear rereading, for somehow they always contain surprises and lessons you did not notice in previous readings. It is possible that some very good books continue to write themselves after they are published, perhaps working with their companions on the shelf, which is why I rearrange them twice a year, so as to provide them with new stimuli. Who is to say that they do not communicate among themselves, in ways only they know?

There is a whole blog post hidden in here about book ownership: how many, how stored, how arranged, how loved, how many read vs. unread. Incidentally, I am preparing for another cross-country move, so packing & choosing books again. Today, I don’t want to muck up Doyle’s lovely words. That blog post will come (and you will be asked about your own habits!).

But for today, go back and reread those lines, above. Happy reading.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This grand, sweeping story takes place entirely inside the walls of a luxury hotel in 1920s-1950s Moscow, in lushly evocative writing from the author of Rules of Civility.

gentleman in moscow

Amor Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, won readers’ hearts with its strong sense of time and place, fully realized characters and richly evocative voice. A Gentleman in Moscow repeats the feat with those qualities and more.

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (“recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt”) appears before a Bolshevik tribunal, accused of “succumbing irrevocably to the corruptions of his class.” He responds with quips, and is sentenced to house arrest in the luxury hotel where he has lived for the last four years. “Make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.”

This stylish and cultured protagonist has already lost his family and their estate. Now two armed guards move him from his suite into a monastic room of one hundred square feet. The bulk of his fine furniture, which will not fit in his new lodgings, becomes the property of the People. Remarkably good-natured, Rostov makes the best of his circumstances. He has all he needs in the Metropol: two restaurants, a barber, a seamstress and impeccably mannered staff who know him well. His worst enemy, perhaps, will be boredom–or a waiter who is particularly committed to the revolutionary cause. To brighten Rostov’s days, a fellow resident, “the young girl with the penchant for yellow,” befriends him. And then the hotel opens for him into a world as broad and rewarding as the one he wishes for his new friend–but ultimately as limiting as well.

The charming, complex Rostov is joined by colorful hotel employees (especially a talented chef and maître d’) and visitors, including a lovely actress, a dear friend from his youth and an assortment of Western journalists and businessmen. It is the charm of this expansive, lushly detailed novel that such a rich cast and such diverting and occasionally devastating events can populate the closed space of the Metropol, over a span of 32 years. A Gentleman in Moscow is filled with literary and cultural references–Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Humphrey Bogart–and with tastes, smells, humor, love and loyalty. Towles indulges in sentimentality to just the right degree. Readers who enjoy a generous, absorbing story, vibrant characters and immersive time and place will fall in love with this saucy novel. And by the time A Gentleman in Moscow closes in 1954, those readers will be sorry to lose the new friend they’ve found in Rostov.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 jackets hanging in the closet.

book beginnings on Friday: A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig

book beginnings

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am having a blast with this novel set in modern-day Houston’s high society, loosely based on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

wife of noble character

I will share with you the first lines of the book, as well. But for starters, I couldn’t resist quoting here, because just look at the opening epigraph and its original author, you guys:

I learned two things growing up in Texas.

1: God loves you, and you’re going to burn in hell forever.

2: Sex is the dirtiest and most dangerous thing you can possibly do, so save it for someone you love.

–Molly Ivins

My mother loves Molly Ivins. I was glad to see her here.

The opening lines of the novel itself are a little calmer:

Preston noticed her immediately. He always did.

But never fear. This is a book that will keep you turning the pages.

Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

author interview: Ridley Pearson: The Price of Darkness

Ridley Pearson is the author of more than two dozen novels, including The Red Room, Choke Point and The Risk Agent, plus the Walt Fleming and Lou Boldt crime series and many books for young readers. He lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis, Mo., and Hailey, Idaho. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series.

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: "Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos."

Pearson at Solio wildlife sanctuary: “Time and time again I was a matter of 15 yards from these rhinos.”


White Bone’s plot centers on elephant poaching in Kenya. How did this issue come to your attention?

I heard a statistic about elephants, and it really shocked me. In 2014, the first real decent study documented that 100,000 African elephants had been killed in three years. One of every 12 African elephants had been killed by a poacher in 2011. Three-quarters of local elephant populations are declining. In nine years, there would be no more wild elephants in Africa.

Then I met Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley, who run a four-generation-old guiding service in Kenya. Eventually I went, under their care, to Kenya to do interviews and see the country and dig into the poaching, and my hair was blown back.

I interviewed 24 people over the course of three and a half weeks, and 23 of them in some way lied to me. These were very trustworthy sources, including our own (U.S.) State Department. Finally, my last interview was an activist lawyer, and we went through my interviews and she told me point by point who had fabricated what. My jaw dropped. There I’d been digging into this to help everyone, and in some way or another everyone had manipulated the truth.

"My guides Ole and Charcoal."

“My guides Ole and Charcoal.”


It was eye-opening, and dangerous. I was in Nairobi when there was a terrorist blast that killed 18 people. I was at a lodge when poachers killed a rhino 300 yards away from me while I slept. There’s a scene in the book where Grace runs into these herdsman, and they try to rape her. Those were two guys I ran into when one of my guides had to go get a vehicle and I was left–by my own choice–and within 10 minutes I ran into these guys, and they did not like me. It was 20 or 30 minutes of, oh boy, all he has to do is lift that spear and I’m going down.

Is there a point at which research makes it harder to write fiction?

My approach is “faction.” My charge is to suspend your disbelief, and I think it works best if I put more fact in than fiction. I do a lot of research. I learned about a guy who was investigating poaching and was a pilot over Mt. Kenya, and his plane happened to go down. A lot of people think that plane was sabotaged; it’s never been proven. I told that story, where a guy was killed in the bush who had been investigating. I just made it a little more palpable and believable for the reader.

Were you searching for John Knox and Grace Chu’s next case, or was this something you needed to write about first, and they were the best fit?

The latter. I just wondered if I could put Knox and Chu into Africa, and what that would look like.

"Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole."

“Ole showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you: it was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.”


I’ve written 51 books. And I haven’t done this for probably 20 years, but I actually wrote the entire book and put it aside and started over. I just wasn’t buying my own story. It wasn’t lighting me up. And it wasn’t the story my editor (Christine Pepe at Putnam, who’s just one of the greatest editors who’s ever lived) wanted. So I stepped back and thought: What am I doing wrong here? I’ve always wanted to do a book about a person out in the wild with nothing. I’m an Eagle Scout, so I’ve gone through some of this in my own teens. When Ole, my guide, told me that a white person wouldn’t last 24 hours in the bush, I said, well, how could I last 24 hours in the bush? He showed me every plant that could kill you, every root that could heal you. It was unbelievable. I based all that information with Grace off my days with Ole.

How did you handle characterization?

I felt a great depth of participation with Grace because of her circumstances. I think this is the book where readers of the series will go, “Oh, that’s the Grace I’ve been waiting for.” I learned a lot about her. She has a lot of stick-to-it-iveness that I really wasn’t sure about. She’s an accountant by trade, but she went through the Chinese army training, and had some short-lived intelligence experience. So I always sensed that she had this potential. This book was her chance to be out on her own, investigating something that’s a little more money-oriented than pure fieldwork, and then it ends up Fieldwork with a capital F. In previous books you never really got in with Grace and felt her, and were afraid or proud or achieving with her.

The challenge is not to put everything in. In my fieldwork, there were some amazing moments. I had an encounter with one of the people who had lied to me. On the very last night I was there, he came up to me at a party and said, “Hey, listen. I’m terribly sorry about how I played that when we were at Solio.” And I said “Yeah, so am I!” But at least he was man enough at the end to come up and say, “Sorry I just lied to your face.” That was a very emotional moment for me. And you can’t get them all in.

"This is me in what they call a 'nice' town near Solio Lodge."

“This is me in what they call a ‘nice’ town near Solio Lodge.”


You regularly write realistically about violence, depravity and corruption. Is this emotionally difficult?

I think you pay for it.

Every day for two years as I wrote this book, these images hung in my head. These stupid idiots come in with automatic weapons on ATVs, they massacre the elephants, they chainsaw their faces off for the tusks, and they’re gone in 15 minutes. For all the dark that Grace and Knox went through, those are the images that haunted me. When you’re there and you see these animals, just how majestic they are–it’s absolutely despicable.

I want to route some of the money from the book there, and get some people at the end of the book to say, “I’ll send $10 to them”–it doesn’t have to be $100,000. It’s just bizarre to me that this is going on, and none of our grandkids will see elephants except in a reserve or in a zoo. An elephant is being killed every 15 minutes, and has been since I started this and long before I started this.

That was the darkness I lived with. Everything else was manufactured. I’ve done a lot of research over 30 years. I’ve been inside the mind of a lot of devious criminals. I’ve spent time in prisons for the criminally insane. I’ve interviewed forensic psychiatrists who have themselves interviewed 140 mass murderers. I’ll say, this is what my guy did, who is he? And we’ll be eating dinner, and the stuff they describe stops me from eating. So there is darkness. And I pay for it.


This interview originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 547 other followers

%d bloggers like this: