reread: The Stand by Stephen King

My copy of The Stand runs 1,153 pages, and I have a lot to stay. Sorry for the long review.


I loved this book before, and all over again, although not without qualifications. It took me nearly two weeks to read these ~1,200 pages, but only because I was reading other books at the same time (and teaching three classes) – it was really a handful of nights reading 300+ pages at a go. I loved this book all over again.

The very obvious impetus was the current pandemic, and my curiosity about how well The Stand tells a story that we are now (in some ways) living. The answer is, pretty well, actually. In the real world we don’t have a supernatural evil force in the form of a shapeshifting man with a cadre of more and less intelligent evil-minded followers; but there is plenty of metaphorical material there for those so inclined. I’ll leave that work to each of you. The superflu aka Captain Trip’s infection itself is different from Covid most importantly in the speed and rate of transmission, the death rate, and the speed with which it does its deadly work. It is infectious massively more of the time, and nearly always deadly. Covid is wildly infectious and pretty deadly by real-world standards; Captain Trip’s takes this to a logical extreme, which is often what fiction does, but the parallel is striking and instructive. That it is also wildly fast-acting is an interesting point. In some ways, the slowness with which Covid makes itself known (meaning, we can be infected for days or weeks before we get sick – and we can be infected and not get sick, therefore acting as invisible vectors)… has helped its spread, because we humans have a hard time taking seriously something that we can’t immediately see happening. Captain Trip’s, on the other hand, looks more like this: guy coughs near you; 20 minutes later, you are coughing. You might both be dead in a day or two. This is much easier for people to grasp as a concept; they feel fear and wish to take precautions much more, and much sooner, than we have with Covid. The flip side is that it’s much harder to fight against (especially because if you cough, you die). At least to this lay reader, this difference between reality and fiction feels like a simple difference between two types of virus. To my (again, layperson’s) knowledge, a virus could act as quickly at this one does; we just didn’t happen to get one of those. There would be pros and cons.

Captain Trip’s was also manufactured in a lab as a form of biological warfare which then accidentally escaped. This is not the case with Covid.

Because of the massive death rate of Captain Trip’s, the post-pandemic world looks very different than the one we will be living in the real world. Roughly, let’s flip the numbers of living and dead: the United States in The Stand is populated by some tens of thousands of people. That means their challenges in rebuilding, and in thinking about designing a new world, are very different from the ones we’ll face. Well, I’m trying to write a book review and not entirely a social commentary; but let me say briefly, I think the Covid crisis is highlighting the inequities and injustices we’ve always lived under, and we have a rather special opportunity to do something to fix our systems, with this new (to many of us) vision we’ve been granted. The survivors in this novel, on the other hand, have been left with the “toys” (Glen Bateman’s term) of a previous world, but limited knowledge of how to use them, and the power (etc.) has been turned off. Ideally, they’ll choose what to pick back up (book learnin’, heat in the winter, animal husbandry) and what to leave lying (nuclear weapons). But Glen Bateman is not terribly optimistic. (I must confess, neither am I.)

On to the book review proper. This remains a thoroughly compelling, expertly paced, engrossing story. Characters are delightfully wrought, various and complicated. The sympathy drawn out of us for the Harold Lauders of the world is disturbing as hell; he’s a villain but he’s very human. (The Walkin’ Dude is just evil, and not human.) While there are “types” in Glen Bateman, Larry Underwood, and Stu Redman, they’re convincing human beings at the same time that they’re types. Let’s face it, there are types in the real world, too; that’s where they come from. The momentum with which this plot moves could perhaps not be better executed; Stephen King is a master, and as I said above, I can easily take in 300+ pages in a single sitting (and stay up until 3am, I’m sorry to say), because it’s just all so juicy and absorbing.

That said, I did have a few concerns on this reread that I didn’t have just three years ago. Partly I suspect this is because in reading a print copy, I was able to pay closer attention to certain details. The audio experience I had in 2017 was entertaining, and I certainly followed the story and many of its finer points, but I do feel like I can watch a story more closely when I read it. I can speed up and slow down at my own pace, reread a line if necessary. And I think seeing a word printed imprints it on my mind more thoroughly than a word heard. I don’t know if that’s because I have a certain kind of brain or if it’s relatively universal.

On the other hand, I also think I’ve become more attuned to certain issues and injustices in the world in the last few years. So, on this go-round I noticed a problem in particular with race and ethnicity. King’s characters are almost all white, which doesn’t seem statistically plausible in this country, although I’ll allow that in 1978 (when this novel was originally published) the country probably looked a lot whiter than it looks now – it probably was a little whiter, but it also would have looked a lot whiter, in terms of where society (and therefore Stephen King) directed its gaze. And the few characters of color? Well, we have the “magical Negro” trope, which Stephen King gravitates toward in many of his works. (There’s a decent write-up of the concept in King’s work available here thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.) “Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, the character is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He or she is also regarded as an exception” (source). Mother Abigail is delightful, and she does get her own backstory, but her function in terms of plot seems to fit squarely into “magical Negro” territory. It could be said she also serves as a token. Headline: Black woman character as hero! There are very few other non-white characters, and they’re all problematic: the abominable Rat Man, the heroin addict in the “second epidemic” section, the “black junta” early in the pandemic (they wear loincloths. This is disgusting, SK). But the ending really got me, and take note, writers of all stripes: the end of your book is the taste that is left in your reader’s mouth. At the end of The Stand we get the evil force sometimes known as Randall Flagg reawakening in an unknown place where he is surrounded by brown-skinned men with spears who don’t speak English but worship him. Not cool.

King’s women are sort of up-and-down with me; I rather love Frannie Goldsmith, the pregnant college student who is part scatter-brained and part moral compass, but I’m also getting weary of the pert young thing who lusts after the middle-aged man. And Tom Cullen, the mentally challenged man with occasional rare wisdom who is able to tune into a higher frequency than his peers-of-normal-intelligence – well, he feels a little like the mentally challenged version of the “magical Negro.”

These concerns dismayed me on my second reading, and while I want to be clear that I really enjoyed rereading this book and still find it to be a masterpiece, it is a flawed masterpiece. And I wonder what King would see fit to correct, if he were to edit this novel for a reprint in 2020. He’s still problematic now, as we know, but I think we should ask of our heroes (literary and otherwise) not that they be perfect, but that they be always learning, progressing, and always willing to learn. I’m certainly still learning: for example, it took a second reading for me to track some of the concerning elements of this book.

I still recommend The Stand. In some aspects it nears perfection. In others, cause for concern and fodder for discussion.

I am letting my original rating stand (ha), because I have new observations in both the positive and the negative columns.


Rating: 8 chocolate Payday bars.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Treasure Island (2015), and the other stuff I’m watching online

This week’s edition of NT Live at Home is another repeat for me, but one I was glad to be able to revisit. Treasure Island can be viewed here until Thursday, when we’ll get access to Twelfth Night. I’m looking forward to it!

This was the first NT Live show I ever saw, with my father, in Bellingham, WA at their outstanding Pickford Theatre. It’s as delightful as I remember. The talented Patsy Ferran plays Jim, who’s a girl in this version – I love a little gender-twist to a classic, and the empowerment that comes with it in a case like this. While it’s not such a big deal as to steal the show, she gets in a few lines about how girls can have adventures too. (Likewise, a few female crew members and pirates draw the odd remark – acknowledged, but not earth-shaking.) Ferran’s Jim is expressive and fun. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is perfect: charming, and terrifying. I love the scene where his one-leggedness is revealed. And I like how they managed the one-leggedness onstage. I see in my original review that I was bothered by certain aspects of the adaptation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel; I am unbothered on this go-round, by more distance from reading the novel, for one thing, but also by appreciation for the theatre. Still impressed by the modular set! This is a great show.

Otherwise, this weekend I’ve been catching up on some of NPR’s excellent Tiny Desk Concerts: Bob Weir and Wolf Bros., Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, Rising Appalachia, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, CafĂ© Tacvba… and the odd Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, like one from Tank (from Tank and the Bangas). There are so many great ones to dig into.

I am also reading my way right through nearly 1,200 pages of The Stand and grading hundreds of pages of student essays.

Put NT Live on your schedule, if you haven’t already!

National Theatre Live at Home presents Jane Eyre (2015), and other online events

Week two of NT Live at Home! This was a repeat viewing for me – I saw Jane Eyre when it was a new production, and loved it. I was perfectly happy and grateful to see it again. And again, to remind you: this production is viewable for free but for a limited time, until the next show goes up on Thursday, so do go see it here asap. This week’s release will be Treasure Island, another outstanding production. Put it on your calendar!

So, Jane Eyre as repeat: still outstanding. I think I loved it even more this time around, although I see I originally rated it a 10, so I can’t do better than that! I am impressed all over again with the set – so simple, and yet used to convey so much movement and so many different sets; the movement of people, including the lovely, clever form of travel in a carriage left to the imagination but fully communicated by the actors; the use of actors as set (as a doorknob, for example) and (I still love this) the actor who plays a dog. And the bird. Each actor, excepting Jane herself, plays multiple roles, with few but meaningful costume changes, and yet they’re not a bit hard to keep straight. Minimalism is the thing all around: set, costuming, cast (in numbers only) are spare. But the acting is superb.

I had forgotten the musical numbers entirely! And while they contribute something (and are stunningly performed), they are not the most important element. What I remembered best about this play – minimalism and extraordinarily great acting – are still the best parts. I didn’t remember it being so passionate – I don’t remember Jane being so passionate, even when she was a child. As my mother would say, this character has an overdeveloped sense of justice. (I won’t say whom my mother has said that about!) That’s interesting, because in my interview with author Erin Blakemore, I recall she and I agreeing that Wuthering Heights is the novel of passion where Jane Eyre is the novel of reason – but this is surely a story of passion! at least in the stage version. Another new observation: on this go-round I badly want to reread the novel, which I haven’t read since high school. Maybe I can straighten all that out.

I was really stunned and deeply impressed with this re-viewing. Don’t miss it. My previous rating, 10 fires burning brightly, stands.

In other news, and continuing my feeling of overwhelm at all the lovely art & culture available online these days, I’ve seen some additional great stuff the last few days, including a Drive-By Truckers concert (from Pickathon 2017), a Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires jam session and fireside chat, and an author reading by Paul Lisicky and Carter Sickels at the Blue Stoop in Philly. (This was an event I’d originally planned to see in person – I had a dogsitter lined up and everything. But instead I got to attend with a whiskey in hand and dog in lap.)

This was the third time I’ve gotten to hear Paul’s voice in recent months. I interviewed him about his recent Later (that interview will be here on Friday), and I attended (online) another recent reading. He’s made me cry all three times; I don’t know what to tell you about that, but it’s a moving book and I’m a fan. Actually, Carter’s reading made me cry as well; they were both lovely, beautiful readings as well as beautiful books. (I haven’t read Carter’s, but I’ve since preordered it through Taylor Books.) There was some question of how new releases are reading, now, in the pandemic – because the books that are being released now of course date from before COVID ruled our lives. And while some have not profited by the change, sounding frivolous or tone-deaf in the new landscape, both of these books have aged well, if you will. Both are about sickness, which of course is creepy in its own way, but both have intelligent things to say about contagion, isolation, and how illness and death are in some ways confirmations of life.

having a whiskey with Paul Lisicky

Just last night I reveled in this Tank and the Bangas concert. There are concerts and plays coming out fast and thick – and I’m also reading three books at once and teaching a couple of college courses! Whatever else may be true in social isolation, bored I am not. I’ll say it again: the pandemic is a terrible thing. But there are some bright points of light in this darkness: art.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.

reread: Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

My father was right to recommend this reread (re-listen) after finishing The Plover. I didn’t even necessarily remember Declan, hero of the latter novel, from Mink River. And while he was definitely present here, and a colorful character, and recognizable from his later role, I was struck by the knowledge that there were many such colorful characters, whose lives might have been pursued in a sequel. And I was struck with grief all over again that we have lost the brilliant, generous, loving, exuberant voice of Brian Doyle too soon from this world. I wanted him to write so many more books.

He was still living when I read (listened to) this book the first time. This time, I felt saddened at many turns, ironically, in appreciating the delightful high spirits and joy and wisdom in his every line. Gosh, but I’m devastated at this loss, all over again and over and over.

But the book itself: still a wonder and a joy to experience. I fell in again with the inhabitants of Neawanaka, particularly the families of Worried Man and Maplehead and Cedar, No Horses and Owen and Daniel; Declan and Grace, of course; and others: Nicholas, Michael and Sarah, and the budding romance (as I see it) between Stella and the doctor. I ached for Moses the crow and the nun, his rescuer and dear friend. I remember listening to this novel for the first time, working out at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington. It’s funny how memory can transport us into the past. People talk about smell being such a powerful mnemonic, but for me it’s never been as strong as songs and stories, the listened-to. Hearing Worried Man and Cedar share a beer at lunch again took me back to the abductor and adductor machines and sweat, just like that.

As for writing about the book itself, I think I did a pretty good job the first time around, and will let that stand. I will say, about the audio version, it was outstanding a second time; but I wish I had the words in front of me to consult and quote from. So I’ll be finding myself a print copy as well. Consider that the highest of praise.

We miss you, Brian.


Rating: still those 8 bottles.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

reread: Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

In my defense, it’s been more than four years since I listened to this audiobook for the first time (and reviewed it here): I had forgotten what happened, and got to find it new again. I seem to have reached the stage of forgetfulness in which I can enjoy a thriller/murder mystery novel a second time, with the same fresh eyes. Hooray! That always looked like one of the best features of aging. (Perhaps my brain’s just saturated.)

I recently took a road trip with a friend, and he wanted to listen to a book, and I figured Reacher would work for him, so here we are with an unplanned reread. I’ll keep this brief, because I think my earlier comments remain true. I was deeply concerned this time around with the erroneous use of the 50/50 coin toss idea. Reacher (and therefore Child) is usually so smart! But the many scenarios where the coin toss idea is used here are all binary choices, having two options; rarely do they hold even odds. Ugh.

On the other hand, I still love the sexiness, the cleverness, and the depth of the Susan Turner character (Reacher’s romantic alliance in this episode). I still love the formula, and formula it most certainly is; but having acknowledged that, what’s the problem? It works for me every time.

The extent to which I’d forgotten this plot excites me. It’s got me thinking about all the Martha Grimes books I enjoyed in my teens and early 20s: those should all be new to me now, too!

On that note, Happy Friday, y’all. I hope you have a weekend as awesome as a Lee Child novel (but with less violence).


Rating: I’ll stick with those 7 cars.
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