Teaser Tuesdays: The Stand by Stephen King (audio)

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

Teaser

Yes, it’s true. In the middle of new work for graduate school and all, I have begun a new audiobook, and it is (of course) a whopping Stephen King novel, my buddy Jack’s favorite of all the Kings. (My iTunes usually tells me how long a book is in hours. This one it says is 1.9 days long.) So here we are. I’ve chosen a teaser for you that I especially enjoyed.

the-stand

Dr. Emmanual Ezwick still lay dead on the floor, but the centrifuge had stopped. At 1940 hours last night, the centrifuge had begun to emit fine tendrils of smoke. At 1945 hours, the sound pickups in Ezwick’s lab had transmitted a whunga-whunga-whunga sort of sound that deepened into a fuller, richer and more satisfying ronk! ronk! ronk! At 2107 hours, the centrifuge had ronked its last ronk and had slowly come to rest. Was it Newton who had said that somewhere, beyond the farthest star, there may be a body perfectly at rest? Newton had been right about everything but the distance, Starkey thought.

I liked these lines for the awesome use of onomatopoeia (a word I never spell without help) and sense of plain fun that King inserts into even the direst or goriest of situations. I love this guy.

Stick around, and maybe I’ll be ready to review this mammoth in a month or three.

Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke (audio)

Disclosure: James Lee Burke has said some nice things about me. I appreciate that, deeply. But he couldn’t buy my good review that way. Not all of his books are equally excellent. This one is excellent.


jesus-out-to-seaOn our drive south, Husband and I listened to this collection of James Lee Burke short stories on audio. I found it deeply powerful. The stories range widely: geographically, they are set in Gulf Coast south Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Montana. In time, they are set in the 1940s and 50s through 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Protagonists are oil rig workers, children, jazz musicians and retired professors of literature and creative writing. What they all have in common, though–characters and stories both–is their focus on society’s outcasts and castaways, the downtrodden and unlucky, the poor; and on the evil that lurks in the hearts of men (and women). In other words: classic James Lee Burke.

The opening story, “Winter Light,” stars a retired academic who opposes hunters and doesn’t let them on his land. His refusal to back down in this and other just causes* precipitates ugly events. “The Village” is a short, stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by a military man involved in a massacre in Vietnam. Its style, if not its tone, is different enough from the Burke I know to startle me; I am impressed. “The Night Johnny Ace Died” tracks musicians through love triangles and organized crime in 1950s Louisiana. “Water People” sees base conflicts and suppressed traumas among Gulf Coast oil drill workers in the same era. “Texas City, 1947” references a real-life major catastrophe of that year (look it up), but that big event is only one piece of a puzzle starring an abused child and a number of sad and sordid crimes, as well as a sympathetic nun who (sadly) Husband didn’t find terribly realistic. My impression from hearing these stories read aloud is that this was one of the longer ones. If that’s incorrect, at least it was one of the more impactful for me, and contained lots of familiar geographic markers.

“Mist” featured a young woman attending AA meetings and trying to be sober. Her past traumas include the death of her husband in Iraq and events during Hurricane Katrina that go unnamed for most of the story. I suppose this is a personal reaction, but I found the particular uglinesses of this story harder than most of the others. But beautifully done, and not exploitative.

“A Season of Regret” reprises the opening story: a different retired academic on his own chunk of land makes a stand for a different set of just issues. I enjoyed the new version of a familiar concept. These are two different characters and two different sets of challenges, but the emotional tone is the same. Next come a trio of stories told by the same narrator, a child named Charlie growing up in 1950s Houston. These have their higher and lower moments in terms of holding interest, but I found the characters–Charlie, his best friend Nick, Charlie’s father, and the family of neighborhood bullies–compelling. And there’s nothing like hearing the specific history of my hometown extracted and mulled upon in its details: it feels like coming home.

The final, titular story is the clear tour de force of this collection, in my opinion. “Jesus Out to Sea” is narrated by a man from New Orleans, who grew up on Magazine Street with two best friends who were brothers. The three go to Vietnam; one is broken by the experience and ends up a gangster; the narrator and the other brother become modestly accomplished jazz musicians who decline into hard drug use before the gangster helps them get clean. The story culminates with a storm that need not be named. While Burke’s writing throughout this collection is as lyrical, startling and shockingly beautiful as ever, this story showcases those talents the best, in its repeated use of bougainvilleas as the blood of Christ, or the blood of any of us, among other things. This story is music and poetry and oh, the tragedy. I admit to being especially affected by Katrina stories. But this one evokes all the unnecessary pain and wrongness of it, as well as the simple natural forces that those of us from hurricane country are familiar with, and the ways in which this storm was different. As we listened to “Jesus Out to Sea,” Husband was driving south across Utah, and we missed a turn by 20 miles or so because our navigator (ahem) was so distracted. It’s powerful stuff, this.

Sharing a book with Husband is a rare treat for me, so I want to give voice to some of his reactions. Overall, he gave this collection a 7, and complained of abrupt endings that didn’t wrap everything up neatly: he wanted to understand clearly what happened to everybody, which is a privilege not always afforded. He wanted a little more justice, to see revenge gained. But we know we don’t always get that from Burke.

He loved the nostalgia of hearing about places and cultural and historical markers we know intimately, though, and I have long found this to be one of the easiest ways to win a reader’s heart: shared landmarks, especially geographic ones (at least for those of us tied to place), and especially little-known ones, so we feel like we’re in on a secret. The classic example in this case was the Alabama Ice House, where young Charlie goes to fetch his dad home for dinner in the 1950s, and where they sometimes get hot dogs: Husband said, “they still serve hot dogs there!” excitedly, and I shared his enthusiasm for a place we know and love. For Husband (not for me), one young protagonist’s experiences in Catholic school also rang a bell.

Husband struggled to find certain details of some stories realistic. But my reaction was very different. I guess I’m more inclined to trust Burke to know better than I do how some things work; or to trust that some unrevealed detail could explain the unlikely event. In the case of a famous gangster showing an interest in learning yo-yo tricks from a couple of kids–maybe I was just too charmed by the whimsical and oh-so-human oddity to complain. Husband did praise the descriptions and scenes overall, said he could visualize what was described; and I think what he’s referring to is the fullness of sensory detail, the evocation of fully-formed worlds.

I also want to mention the repeated images and phrases that showed up in this collection. Several characters, when startled or distracted, looked as if flashbulbs had just gone off in their faces. Several suffer from noises in their heads that recall the thropping of helicopter blades or the banging of people trapped in their attics in rising water. Husband noticed these, too, and again we had different reactions. I have the impression that some of these come from a Burke habit, a way of seeing and describing things. Others–the thropping of the helicopter in a troubled character’s head–I think might serve as a wise and artful linking device. These stories are held together in several ways: the attention they pay to underclasses and injustices, a way of looking at the world, and a sense of the Louisiana Gulf Coast as the center of a personal world. They are also held together by poetry, bloody bougainvilleas, the smell of fish spawning, and torment; and if that torment recurs as a series of thumping sounds, it only helps us follow Burke’s special genius.


Rating: 8 bougainvilleas.

*For the record, whatever your position on hunting, I think this character has a right to control his own property.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (audio)

book thiefI need to give up the audiobooks for a while. I know I’ve been saying this, but The Book Thief is the extreme case. I may have started listening to this in, like, March.

And I had some trouble getting involved at first, but how can I criticize, when I’ve listened so infrequently and over such a long time? My bad, Zusak. Slowly but surely, I was pulled into the world of Liesel Meminger, who is (about) ten when we meet her. Her mother immediately deposits her with a foster family at the start of World War II. Liesel’s story is about the war and its effects on one child, her family and the town where she lives. Unusually, it is narrated by Death; and he is a weary one indeed, especially in 1930’s and ’40’s Germany.

I found out some time into my listening that the print version of those book includes illustrations. It is probably worth getting the print version for this reason!! I wish I had. Also, my poor perspective has been noted, but I think it may be true that the book opens a little slowly: Death reflects, and sets up Liesel’s circumstances, for perhaps a little too long before entering Liesel’s head and the intimacies of her life and struggles. Death develops as a character, too, but it is really in Liesel’s childlike, but wise and somber mind that this book becomes most absorbing and affecting.

This is barely a review. Go read someone else’s review – like this one from The New York Times, not entirely raving, or one of these, the first of which notes that slow-to-start observation I made. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook when I think the print would have been better, and going toooooo sloooooowly. But I can see from here that this is an intriguing perspective, and witty in several ways.

And wouldn’t you know, I just found out while writing this that there’s a movie too, as of 2013. It looks a little prettier and more sentimental than my impression of the book (just from the trailer); but it also looks beautiful, and moving. I will want to see that next. The movie never accomplishes what the book does, because of the limitations of the form (time, for one thing), but sometimes the movie is a fine thing in itself.

The Book Thief: worth more than I put into it.


Rating: 7 and a half stairs down to the basement.

Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!


Rating: 7 pills.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

mink riverMy second Brian Doyle novel (following Martin Marten, which was one of the best I read in 2015) was also outstanding. Mink River shares much of the subject matter and setting: it takes place in a rather larger small town on the Oregon coast, with a cast of delightful people and animals, all of whom make up a web and community of life and values in which human and nonhuman creatures carry equal weight. It covers an enormous swath of life experiences, truly profound in that sense, but also humble in its small physical scale: a few families and friends form the core of this novel, which is both quaint and all-encompassing.

Centrally, Worried Man and Cedar are the two members of the Department of Public Works in the fictional town of Neawanaka. Worried Man has a wife, Maplehead; a daughter, No Horses; an son-in-law, Owen; and a grandson, Daniel, whose hair forms three braids, of red and black and brown. Cedar does not know his personal history. He remembers nothing before the day Worried Man and Maplehead pulled him out of the river where he was drowning. They make a motley family circle, of which Cedar and Owen are as much a part as the other, blood relations. There is also a mean old man who beats his children, now just the younger two boys, as the elder boy and girl are adults who fish for a living. A young couple learning about each other. An upstanding policeman and his wife, who struggle to express their feelings for one another. The doctor; the old nun; and of course Moses, the crow, who the nun taught to speak and who is capable of carrying on quite complex philosophical discussions with his human friends. (Crows are very smart, you know.)

The family at the center provides a lovely blend of cultures – the indigenous Salish people represented by Worried Man and Maplehead, and the Irish, by Owen. Worried Man and his son-in-law each speak some of their people’s respective dying tongues, and both pay homage to what that represents; both make efforts to pass their knowledge along. Both cultures also offer a legacy of love of stories, which Daniel inherits. As Owen relates, while telling of his grandfather who survived the Hunger in Ireland:

You can eat stories if you have to. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water, you’ll be all right, he would say…

Sometimes, he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red…

You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories.

A lovely quotation, and of course fitting for a novel about everything in life.

As well as these human cultures, like Martin Marten, this story addresses the bond between human and nonhuman cultures, as best embodied by Moses the philosopher-crow. Bears and birds and the river itself are given voices and agency, although not strictly personified: the bear is not a person at all, but a bear.

Doyle continues to exhibit spellbinding, lyrical language, and his sentences can flow and flow and flow on, as if they will eventually reach the sea. This book was very enjoyable to listen to, read by narrator David Drummond. It was a trade-off: probably I missed some nuance and detail in favor of that lovely sound. But I felt this was a worthwhile trade-off. Sound is one of Doyle’s great strengths – but so is story. He has it all. Loveable, complex, diverse characters, realistic setting, sweeping large plot, philosophy, and poetry, all in one. Absolutely recommended as ever.


Rating: 8 shared bottles of beer.
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