The Stand by Stephen King (audio)

the-standStephen King’s long, juicy novels often leave me a little tongue-tied when it comes time to write a review. There is so much to say. The Stand is a long one: this updated version (with King’s “Preface in Two Parts” and some 400 pages of added text left out of the original publication) runs around 1200 pages. Or, as iTunes informed me, 1.9 days of audiobook. Briefly I will say it was all worth it.

It is 1990, and a “superflu” has just wiped out the overwhelming majority of human life on the planet. This superflu was a biological weapon worked up by the United States military that, oops, wandered out of the lab. There are some weeks of totally creepy information control by the military & government, as they try and keep citizens from suspecting the reality that life as we know it is gone. Eventually we are left with a handful of people who stumble around an empty world and find each other. Put very simply, the good and virtuous people dream of a good woman–sort of a wise crone, feminine divine figure–and of a frightening dark man. The remaining people with basically good natures gather around Mother Abigail, and the remaining people with evil impulses gather around the bad man, who we recognize from other King novels by the name Randall Flagg. What follows is part good-vs-evil battle for the control of a near-empty world; but the far more compelling part is a story of human beings and their personalities, and personal struggles with the good and evil within all of us. Plus the practical difficulties of a high Colorado winter without piped-in heat.

This overly simple description doesn’t do it justice, of course. While there is an overarching good-vs-evil plot, that makes the story sound too pat and frankly boring: I wouldn’t read that. These characters are the masterpiece, as is so often true with King. The individuals and their nuances, and the challenges of the day-to-day, are creative, realistic, whimsical, hilarious, riddled with pathos and endlessly interesting. This is why I read Stephen King. Beyond that, this story makes for an intriguing sociological study (and he goes ahead and gives us a surviving sociology professor to help us along). Reading (listening to) this in 2016-17 calls to mind an obvious parallel to my favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. Both, for me, are studies in what the end of the world might look like for a few remaining survivors. Spoiler alert: we humans are the greatest threat, before and after.

I loved this reading by Grover Gardner; he did all the characters justice, which is no small feat. I loved the accents, especially on the character sometimes called “East Texas.”

For the serious King fan, there are the usual Easter eggs and references across novels. I’m not sure I qualify as a superfan yet–I’m only a small way into this man’s prodigious stack of published works–but I saw enough to tickle me.

What can I say? I’m adding nothing new to the world’s wisdom on Stephen King; I can only add my voice to a chorus: this man does some of the best world-building since Tolkien but is firmly rooted in our messy world, too. There are enough unexpected metaphors to please a poet, enough gimlet-eyed reality to please a realist, and enough fun to please the most loyal of genre readers. I can’t get enough.


Rating: 8 chocolate Payday bars.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Stand by Stephen King (audio)

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

Teaser

I know I already teased you from The Stand once, but I couldn’t help but share this single sentence.

It sort of bemuses me still that King is considered fluffy or genre-specific. He definitely has his chosen genres (horror, fantasy), and outside those genres has given inspiration to movies scripts (Stand by Me, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption), which can be considered fluffy as well. I thought 11/22/63 was a monstrously successful work of imaginative historical fiction, outside of King’s better-known genres. And just because The Shining or It are horror novels shouldn’t take away from their extraordinary power; don’t get me started on the Dark Tower series

I digress.

the-stand
When I heard this sentence spoken aloud on this audiobook, I wished I’d written it.

The stars seemed close enough to reach up and touch; it seemed you could just pick them off the sky and pop them into a jar, like fireflies.

This is an image that is imaginative, visual and tactile, unexpected and yet perfectly understandable. Pick them off the sky and pop them into a jar, like fireflies. This is why I read Stephen King. This, and so many other reasons – his characters, his worldbuilding, his humor – but also for simple, gemlike lines like this one.

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.

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.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Just to review the Dark Tower series:

The Gunslinger (I)

The Drawing of the Three (II)

The Waste Lands (III)

Wizard and Glass (IV)

The Wind Through the Keyhole, written last but fitting between books IV and V

Wolves of the Calla (V)

Song of Susannah (VI)

And here we are with book VII, The Dark Tower.


dark towerHow to even begin? Everything that was wonderful about the first six (or seven) books of this series was at least as wonderful in this, the final installment. I love our characters – and you’ll recall that I love them best when they’re all together, which they are for the most part in this book (meaning, when they split up, they reunite in a fairly speedy manner). (The thing I am perhaps happiest about in this book is that the ka-tet reunites to work as a unit once more. That was what I found most frustrating about Susannah’s Song in particular.) I love the excitement – the many challenges, with the almost assurance that they’ll make it through, right? Because ka-tet? But then again, this is the last book… I love the suspense, and I very much love Stephen King’s prodigious, just about unbelievable imagination – where does he get this stuff? I love that even the minor characters (hello, Irene Tassenbaum) or most short-lived of locations are fully explicated, fully detailed, perfectly real – you can imagine King expanding any one of those vignettes, no matter how minor, into a full-length novel of its own, because that’s how well thought-out they are.

I feel that I need to skip the plot synopsis entirely on this one. It wraps up the series, so you know it’s denouement – nearly 850 pages of denouement, so quite a bit of action & adventure of the BEST kind prior to that wrap-up, but still. I can’t tell you what happens. If you’re that interested, I challenge you to read the whole book after reading the whole series. You won’t regret it.

There is heartbreak. But in brief response to King’s Author’s Note, in which he predicts some reader unhappiness: no, I respect this ending. I am not angry. I’m miserable that it’s over, of course. But there is a beautiful resonance to the way it all ended. Almost makes me want to …go back and start it all over again.

I am deeply amused by the extent to which King plays a role in this one. He had appeared before (I call it self-referential, he calls it metafiction; which of course it is, but I share his negative feelings about that term), but was a major player in this book, to my endless entertainment. Arrogant? Maybe a little, but I’ve bought fully into the idea that Stephen King is a master, so why not play with it? And, regarding my misery that this series is over, the fact that ALL King’s books are interconnected or woven around the Dark Tower, just means that there is more (tenuously related) to read on the subject.

The references are not limited to Stephen King as person or Stephen King’s other books, either; see Harry Potter as well as the Lord of the Rings as well as Homer as well as… pop culture, life, what you will. One of the most fun things about this series is that sense of metaconnection. It’s written into the plot – “there are other worlds than these” – and so it only makes sense.

I love the plot lines for their detail, intricacy, realism, imagination, and enormous world-building power; I love the characters; and I love the masterful way King structures every level of his stories, from dialog all the way out to a 7-(or-8)-book series arc. I am mad for this stuff.


Rating: for the sake of your father, 10 turtles, may it do ya!

This is the first book in the series to have gotten a 10; but call it a 10 for the series as a whole, to boot. Thank you, SK. Keep writing, and watch out for minivans so you can keep writing for a long while yet. Thankee sai.

book beginnings on Friday: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

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.

dark towerCan you believe it? I’m finally getting around to book 7! I’m so excited! It’s hard to fathom, I know, but I recently came to a break in my reading-for-review schedule and found the time to pick up this behemoth, at 800+ pages, which will finish the Dark Tower series. It begins:

Pere Don Callahan had once been the Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map. He didn’t much care. Concepts such as reality had ceased to matter to him.

And let me tell you, it begins with a bang. These next few pages are action-packed. Hooray for King! I’m glad to be back…

And for those of you who recognized the King self-reference there (no hard thing, as Salem’s Lot is the title of another of his books), you might be interested to note this one just a few pages later.

[A certain item] tumbled to the red rug, bounced beneath one of the tables, and there (like a certain paper boat some of you may remember) passes out of this tale forever.

Yep, I’m in the club on this one now!

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).
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