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My Year of King, #7-Firestarter

Monday, May 14, 2018

Chances are pretty good that when you think about Firestarter, what you see in your mind is a very young Drew Barrymore, hair blown back from her tiny face, setting, well, just about everything in her path on fire. That movie, along with E.T., helped propel her to early stardom and created one of the many iconic images of the 1980s. So iconic, in fact, that the Netflix series "Stranger Things" references it, not literally, but through the character of Eleven and the shadowy government agency with nefarious purposes known as Hawkins National Laboratory. As movies made from Stephen King books go, I don't remember Firestarter being too awful, nor do I remember it straying too far from the events of the book, though I will admit it's probably been 20 years since I've seen it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the basic plot, Firestarter revolves around Andy and Charlie McGee, a father and daughter who are on the run from a secret government agency called The Shop. When he was in college, Andy and his future wife Vicky participated in trials of an experimental hallucinogenic drug that left them with weak psychic and telekinetic powers. Those powers were magnified by a power of a lot in their young daughter, Charlie, who showed signs from a very early age of being able to move things with her mind, and, more frighteningly, set things on fire. This happened most often when she was angry or upset, giving new meaning to the phrase "terrible twos". Andy and Vicky did everything they could to keep her powers, and their own, a secret, but The Shop maintained covert surveillance on all of their past subjects, and when they saw what Charlie could do, they tried to capture her so they could study her with the ultimate goal of creating a super-weapon. Andy, obviously, wasn't really down with this plan, so he took his daughter and ran.

This is not the first time that King has explored the idea of telekinesis, nor the first time he has used a young person as his powerful hero (hello, Carrie!). Charlie is another in a string of children that King uses as protagonists. One of the recurring themes in his work seems to be that the more innocent you are, the more likely you are to have the imagination and bravery to confront evil. In this case, while Charlie is the one that can set things on fire with her mind, the evil is the government, another recurring theme in King's works, first appearing in The Stand. It is not always the main theme, but in many of King's books the least sympathetic characters have something to do with the power structure of the location of the story, whether they be a politician, clergy member, or wealthy citizen.

One of the things I liked about this story, both when I first read it and now, is the relationship between Charlie and her father. He is smart, a teacher (another recurring element in King stories), kind and gentle, and pretty evolved for a man who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite their dire situation, he tries to teach Charlie the difference between right and wrong, even as he sometimes has to tell her to do horrible things to help them evade The Shop. It felt more unusual when I first read it, but even now portraying the father as the primary caregiver of a small child feels is not that common. Unlike Jack Torrance, Andy McGee is able to be truly selfless, doing everything he can to ensure his daughter's safety despite what it means to his own.

The story does feel a bit unbalanced, with long periods of waiting in between action scenes, but oh what action scenes they are! The other characters in the novel; agents from The Shop, mostly; are written with just enough depth for you to understand their motivation, but without any real substance. They could be any shadowy government official from just about any book or movie that contains shadowy government officials. They are fairly shallow, that is, except for John Rainbird, the Native American Viet Nam vet turned assassin, who is tasked with getting Charlie to use her powers. His character is cunning and violent and sociopathic, but with an impressive, if scary, intellect. His main motivation for being an assassin isn't money or revenge or patriotism-his long string of murders are essentially his own twisted research into what you can see of a person's soul if you look in their eyes as they die. He is a truly chilling character, and one of the more subtly written King villains. He definitely adds a quality of menace to an already suspensful story.

Jumped In, Patrick Flores-Scott

Friday, May 04, 2018

"Don't judge a book by its cover." "Looks can be deceiving." "All the glitters isn't gold." "Beauty is only skin deep." We have quite a few sayings in English about using more than just appearances to make judgments about people. That idea is the foundation of the young adult novel Jumped In by Patrick Flores-Scott. The main character is Sam, a teenage boy who has perfected the art of slackerhood. He has learned how to keep his head down and avoid drawing the attention of teachers or his fellow students, thereby allowing him to drift through high school doing just enough to pass and escape the not-always-friendly scrutiny of his peers. But when he is partnered with Luis, a tough-looking Hispanic kid, for an English project, Sam's whole modus operandi is threatened. Sam is sure Luis is a gang member; his brother is infamous for his involvement in gangs, and Luis has a huge scar running up his neck. Sam knows there will be no slacking or hiding this time-if he doesn't do his part in their slam poetry assignment, Luis is bound to pummel him into the ground. But not everything is as it seems with Luis. Can these two boys from seemingly different worlds actually be friends? 

I love this book! Flores-Scott does an amazing job creating sympathetic characters, and the friendship that develops between these two boys is really quite sweet. Sam is the narrator, so his internal life and perspective are easy to see, but Flores-Scott uses Luis' poetry to give us insight into his character that proves his tough exterior is protecting a tender soul with depths of thought and feeling people wouldn't assume just by looking at him. I think that teens who have ever been misjudged by others based on the way they look, or because they are part of a stereotyped group, will completely get Luis and his internal struggle. 

Because Luis is so enthusiastic about the poetry assignment, he is able to inspire Sam as well. Sam has his own issues; his mom left two years ago, and he has a love of the rock of the Pacific Northwest (musical, not mineral) that none of his classmates seem to share. He feels isolated and alone most of the time, and he adopts his slacker persona as a cover for these feelings, and as a way to cope with feeling so out of place at school. The way he blossoms through his friendship with Luis is a reversal of the white savior syndrome that so many books about young people of color and their white teachers/peers fall into. Luis is the one that saves Sam, not the other way around. Though Sam does get his chance to repay the friendship Luis showed him; after a gang fight, Luis disappears, and Sam has to put himself front and center with teachers and peers in a way that he never would have if Luis hadn't become such an influence in his life.

The high-interest nature of this book, coupled with the easy readability, make it a good choice for inclusion in a readers' workshop or other independent reading activity. It would also make a good novel to use in middle or high school (with lower level readers) to explore friendship, assumptions, stereotypes, and overcoming personal challenges.

My Year of King, #6-The Dead Zone

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

...or, alternately, "John Smith's Unbelievably Bad Luck". The Dead Zone, one of King's earliest books, may be best known to some readers as the title of a show loosely based on King's work starring 80s teen movie nerd turned hunka hunka hotness Michael Anthony Hall. Like many movies and television shows based on King's work, the writers went pretty far afield from the source material, though the basic premise stayed the same.

In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith, twenty-something high school teacher and genuinely nice guy, isevent, and sees the terrible future that awaits us all if the man is elected to office. John has a choice to make; ignore his vision, try to get people to believe what he saw is true, or take matters into his own hands.
feeling at the top of the world. He has a job he loves teaching English, and a girlfriend he is quickly falling in love with. He has a rather complicated relationship with his parents, especially his ultra-religious mother, but generally speaking, his life is going in what is, as far as he is concerned, the right direction. Due to a fall he took as a child, which he doesn't even remember, he occasionally gets flashes of insight (read: glimpses of the past and future) from people or objects that he touches. When he and Sarah, his girl, take a late fall visit to a visiting carnival, Johnny gets one of his flashes at the Wheel of Fortune (a bit on the nose, Mr. King), and wins $500, a fortune for a young teacher in 1979 (and frankly, 2018). But this good luck came with a price. On his way home from the carnival, he is in a head-on collision with a drag-racing teenager, and spends the next four years in a coma. When he wakes up, his girlfriend has married someone else, his mother's religiosity has become a mania, and his ability to see the past and future is amped up by a magnitude of a lot. Every time he touches a person or an object, there is a chance that he will see that person's future in his mind. This is a terrible burden, and his use of this ability to save a woman's house from a fire and catch a serial killer gain him notoriety he is neither prepared for nor happy about. But these events pale in comparison when he shakes a politician's hand at a campaign

It is impossible to dislike John Smith. He is a good guy. He's enlightened by 1979 standards. He is a teacher, a good one according to King's description. He treats his girlfriend with gentleness and loving care. And then, this thing happens to him that completely derails his life.  I spent the rest of the book feeling sorry for him in one way or another; he loses his girl, he loses his career, he's hounded by the media, his mother goes insane. This ability that he never asked for and doesn't want destroys any real chance at happiness that he had.

I did feel as though this book is almost three loosely related novellas rather than one cohesive book. The first is the period of Johnny's love affair with Sarah, accident, and recovery. The second, the hunt for the Castle Rock Strangler. The third is his plan and showdown with Greg Stillson, politician extraordinaire and sociopath. It surprised me how quickly the Castle Rock Strangler storyline was resolved. It seemed, from the way the character of Frank Dodd was introduced, that he would be the "Big Bad" that Johnny had to battle. When he was caught so easily, I wondered where the story was going. King is a known political junkie (very liberal, thank you very much), so I'm not really surprised by his decision to make a politician the ultimate evil in the book. He often portrays politicians as vain, venal, and corrupt in his novels. But it seems like the average reader would be more interested in catching serial killers than in stopping sociopathic politicians. But I guess I don't give the average reader enough credit, because this book was a huge best-seller just like almost all of his books are.

This is the first appearance of Sheriff George Bannerman, who works with Johnny to find the Castle Rock Strangler. Bannerman plays a much bigger role in later novel as the sheriff of Castle Rock, until his tragic death a few books from now. This is not the first book to mention Castle Rock, but it is the first book where Castle Rock is an important location in the arc of the story. One of the things I have always appreciated as a Constant Reader of King's work is the way he works references to his other books and stories into the novels and stories that follow. As someone who has read almost all of his work, it feels like a reward every time I understand a reference to some other character, event, or location and know that other readers who aren't as well-versed in King's oevre might not. I suppose that's super nerdy, but in these days when fandoms and nerdgasms are a regular part of pop culture, I'll own that label.

The President Has Been Shot, James L. Swanson

Monday, April 30, 2018

Any regular readers of this blog will know that non-fiction isn't really my thing. Apparently, I need a plot, because the only genre of non-fiction I read on a (semi)regular basis is the memoir. But, because we are gearing up to do some major curriculum revisions in the social studies department at my school, I spent the last month or so reading all the young adult non-fiction I could find pertaining to world history, American history, psychology, government, and even <gasp> economics.

Some of it was definitely not my cup of tea (I'm looking at you, Naked Economics), but I surprised myself by how many of the books I really enjoyed. One, in particular, was The President Had Been Shot by James L. Swanson. It details John F. Kennedy's rise to the presidency, including major events such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then gives a detailed, almost minute by minute account of the days leading up to the assassination, and the immediate aftermath.

There has been a rise in the amount of non-fiction aimed specifically at young adults in the last few years, and Swanson definitely understands his target demographic. The book is chock full of photographs, maps, and diagrams, breaking up the information visually and providing support for the reader, both of which have been shown to have a positive impact on the engagement and comprehension of young adult readers. The prose mostly reads like a good story, rather than a list of dates and facts, written in language that is sufficiently academic not to insult the intelligence of young adult readers, but not so academic that it feels stuffy and dry. The subject matter lends itself to a feeling of drama and suspense, despite the fact that we obviously already know how things turned out on that fateful day, and Swanson's writing fosters that feeling, especially once he gets to the events in Dallas just prior to, during, and after the assassination. What was new to me, even as an adult reader, was the descriptions of what happened the day of the assassination in terms of the gathering of evidence and treatment of the crime scene by police, FBI, and Secret Service officers. How so many people botched what was, even on the 1960s, pretty standard investigative protocols is beyond me, even given the extraordinary event that was the assassination of a sitting president.

There are a ton of content connections in the text that could be used as jumping off points for bringing in other material, if this book were to be used in a classroom. It mentions the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, as stated above, but also the space race, the Berlin Wall, Joseph McCarthy, the Civil Rights movement, and Soviet defections. It is also an opportunity to examine the uniquely tragic history of the Kennedy family in general; Joseph Jr's death in WWII, JFK's assassination, RFK's assassination, Rosemary Kennedy's botched lobotomy, Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal, and JFK Jr's plane crash. The book also makes mention of some of the conspiracy theories about the assassination that grew out of the Warren Report, providing a springboard for talking about how historians evaluate evidence and draw conclusions, as well as teaching students how to evaluate whether a source is credible.

I'm definitely not a fan of exclusively using the textbook to teach, well, anything, so if I were teaching US History I could definitely see using this book as one resource for a unit on the 1960s, the Cold War, or the US presidency. I think that it would stimulate not just intellectual curiosity but also the emotions of teenagers, and getting emotions involved is one way to help students retain information. If they can remember how they felt when they read something, the content will stick with them longer. Unless what they felt was bored, which is why I think that using this type of text is a great way for history teachers to increase the engagement level of their students with their content.

My Year of King #5: The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dystopian fiction has been big over the last decade or so, especially for young adults. Series like Veronica Roth's Divergent series and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy have harnessed the anxiety about the future of the human race that seems so prevalent these days and turned it into stories about brave young people defying oppressive authority and overcoming ecological and societal disaster.

When I first read The Long Walk in my teens, I had never heard the term dystopian, but it turns out that experience foreshadowed a future love for the genre. The Long Walk, published under King's pseudonym Richard Bachman, is the story of Raymond Garraty and 99 other teenage boys who are participating in the Long Walk, a competition to see which boy can walk the farthest without stopping. The reward for being the winner of the Long Walk is untold riches, but the consequence for coming in any place but first is death. The boys are followed by men with guns, ready to shoot and kill any walker who stops for longer than two minutes. The boys begin in Maine and walk until there is a winner. The Long Walk is the brainchild of The Major, the dictator of an America that is under totalitarian rule. Ray, being from Maine himself, gets a lot of support and encouragement from the spectators gathered along the walk's route, but will that be enough to give him the strength and stamina he needs to make it to the end.

What makes this short (for King) novel such an interesting read is the way he describes the physical and mental trials the walkers go through. As the Walk goes on through its second and third and fourth day, and the number of walkers gets smaller and smaller, King describes in pretty gruesome detail the effects that non-stop walking can have on the human body. This is not a novel for the squeamish. Each walker responds in their own way to the physical and mental pain and exhaustion, as well as to the increasingly likely event of their own death at the hands of one of the soldiers enforcing the rules of the Walk. A camaraderie forms between many of the walker, who find small ways to support each other, even though their friend's success would mean their own death. It is an interesting study in human nature, and how one author imagines we might behave under cruel and grueling circumstances.

My main criticism of this book, which I don't remember having when I read it the first time 30 years ago, is that though King drops some hints along the way about what has happened to make America into a totalitarian state willing to sacrifice its own teenagers in a bizarre form of ritualized physical competition, we never learn exactly what the purpose of the Long Walk is, who the Major is, how he came to power, or really anything about the state of the world outside of the Walk. From conversations between walkers, we know that it is illegal to speak out against the State, and the punishment is to be killed or "disappeared". We know that there is a militaristic security force that enforces these repressive rules. We know that something must be making these teenage boys desperate enough to be willing to participate in the Long Walk-none of them were conscripted. Each one made the choice to participate without coercion, as far as the reader can tell. I was left with TONS of questions. Readers often bemoan novels with too much exposition, but this one definitely could have used a bit more.

Some folks are also dissatisfied with the ending, I suspect, which leaves the finale of the Walk unresolved. But I am OK with it. I didn't need this story to have the ending tied up in a neat little bow. Unlike some plot-driven novels, I don't actually think the specific events of the novel were as important as the way that the characters reacted to them. All we know for certain is that there was a "winner"-but what that means, or what the long-term effects of being a walker might be on said winner, we will never know.

Death Coming Up the HIll, Chris Crowe

Monday, April 16, 2018

As a child of baby boomers, I heard a lot about the 60s, the Viet Nam War, and the civil rights movement when I was growing up. My father served in the Navy during the last years of Viet Nam, and was never stationed in Southeast Asia, but so many men of his generation were horribly traumatized by that conflict. And unlike World War II, which most Americans seem to regard as a just war, the advent of television and the anti-war movement created a very different cultural moment when it came to Viet Nam. The domestic upheaval of the 60s essentially redefined what it means to be an American in some pretty profound ways.

Chris Crowe's book, Death Coming Up the Hill, is a short novel, told in a series of interconnected haiku, does an admirable job of fitting in a little something about almost all of the major events of 1968 and 1969. The title, and the last chapter, are based on a letter sent home by a US Marine shortly before being killed during the battle on Hamburger Hill. The main character, Ashe, is a senior in high school. Every week, his history teacher writes a number on the board-it is the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam the previous week. Numbers are very important to Ashe, especially the number 17, which is why he writes his "journal" in the form of haiku (Japanese poems that consist of three lines totaling 17 syllables). Ashe's mother and father married because of him. His father, a former college football star, gave up a career in the pros to marry Ashe's mother. His mother, for her part, was never 100% comfortable in the housewife role she'd been relegated to. When she becomes interested in the anti-war movement, things get really tense at home. Luckily, a beautiful new girl, Angela, enrolls at Ashe's school. They quickly become involved, and Ashe learns that Angela's brother is missing in action in Viet Nam. As the war grinds on, and things at home deteriorate, Ashe is forced to make a decision that may force him to pay the ultimate price.

Novels in verse are having a moment right now, so the fact that this novel is told through poetry is not singularly unique. What is, however, is the very intentional way that the author (through the character of Ashe) honors the memory of every US soldier killed in the Viet Nam war. Each syllable of each haiku represents one soldier lost, and the number of haiku times the syllables in each (17, of course) equals 16, 592; the total number of the fallen. Frankly, this is one of those feats that always amaze me. It's hard enough to tell a compelling story with all of the words in the world available to you, but to limit yourself to 196 poems of three lines and seventeen syllables each to tell a story as moving and comprehensive as this one is pretty impressive.

You'd think that a novel as short as Death Coming Up the Hill would feel overworked by the inclusion of so many historical references, but Crowe finds a way to weave the history of the late 60s into the story in ways that make sense and don't feel contrived. The school year he chronicles (1968-1969) was chock full of events with historical significance. Because I was thinking about using this in a US History class as a supplemental text, I made a list of the historical tie-ins that could be explored; the Viet Nam War, the civil rights movement, the assassination of MLK, the assassination of RFK, anti-miscegenation laws, the Democratic Convention riots, the hippie/peacenik movement, and the Cold War. Some of these topics are mentioned in passing in the context of some event that happens in the novel, and some become larger themes, but all are woven into the story in ways that feel true.

The character I probably related to the most on a personal level was Ashe's mother. My own mother was a housewife for most of my childhood, and that role never sat well on her. She is one of the smartest women I know, someone who needs a lot of intellectual stimulation, and being home taking care of the house and watching me and my brother was not really meeting that need. Luckily, she was able to go to college when I was in high school, and while she only briefly worked outside the home due to some physical challenges, college gave her an outlet for her own intellect and allowed her to meet likeminded folks who had more in common with her than many of the other moms on our block. So I saw a lot of my mother in the character of Ashe's mother, but I also saw a little bit of myself. I can totally envision myself doing exactly what Ashe's mother does when she realizes the power that she can have by freeing herself from the chains of expectation regarding what is "proper" for a wife and mother to do.

Of course, I'm old now, so it makes sense I would see more of myself in the adult characters, but Ashe and Angela are both well written and relatable. Ashe is a little more mature than I expect most 17-year-olds to be, but he had to grow up fast to survive the conflict in his home. I think teenagers will see in him the same uncertainty and fear they themselves feel as they grow towards adulthood, grappling with decisions about what exactly they will do after high school and learning to navigate adult relationships. While ultimately we decided not to use this book in US History, I still think it would make a good addition to a social studies class at the high school level.

My Lobotomy, Howard Dully (Charles Fleming)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Humans really don't have a great track record as a species when it comes to the way we treat people In fact, we don't even have a great track record of deciding what is and is not a mental illness in the first place. At various times in the last 200 years, we've pathologized a slave's desire to run away from slavery (drapetomania), women who are emotional and like sex (hysteria), and man-on-man or girl-on-girl action (homosexuality). Clearly, it's taken us a really long time to get around to understanding the full complexities of the human condition, and the medicalization of the normal range of human emotions continues today. There are some who are even questioning the psychiatrist's most important book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which lists mental disorders, their symptoms, and possible treatments.
with mental illness.

One of the more recent (and shameful) periods in the history of mental health treatment came in the middle of the 20th century, the era of the lobotomy. A lobotomy is a surgical procedure that creates an incision in the brain, resulting in changes in personality, cognition, and behavior. The theory was that people with certain types of mental illness, especially those that resulted in abnormal, uncontrollable, or violent behavior, could be "cured" by disconnecting the pathways in the brain that are pathologically damaged. The procedure was pioneered by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for advancement in psychosurgery. Perhaps the best-known lobotomy patient in the United States was Rosemary Kennedy, oldest sister to President John F. Kennedy. Born with cognitive disabilities, Rosemary's father Joseph ordered the procedure done on her when she was 23. However, serious complications during surgery resulted in her being severely disabled for the rest of her life, which she spent in an institution in Wisconsin. The lobotomy was also a prominent plot point in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In the US, Dr. Walter Freeman was the most vocal and enthusiastic proponent of the procedure, and he developed his own version of the surgery, involving a literal icepick to the brain, inserted through the eye-socket. Freeman performed thousands of these procedures, despite having no surgical training. Up to 40% of his patients were being treated for homosexuality, which resulted in almost 2000 otherwise healthy people being brain damaged for life. He was finally banned from performing the procedure, but not before he had affected thousands of lives, including the lives of at least 19 minors.

One of those children was 12 -year-old Howard Dully.  In 1960, Dully's father and step-mother, after a year or more of taking Howard from psychiatrist to psychiatrist, stumbled upon Dr. Freeman. Dully's step-mother, Lou, was physically and emotionally abusive to Howard, constantly berating him and using him as the scapegoat for her biological son's behavior. She had taken Howard to many psychiatrists, none of whom found anything wrong with the boy that couldn't be explained by a stressful and toxic home environment. Dully's father, Rodney, was unwilling or unable to stand up to his wife, and, in fact, was also physically violent with Howard. Lou finding Dr. Freeman was the worst kind of luck for Howard. Lou was determined to have Howard removed from her home, and Dr. Freeman was overly-enthusiastic about performing lobotomies. Despite his own admission that he believed Lou to be the problem in the household, he agreed to perform the procedure on Howard. Instead of fixing the "problem", the surgery resulted in permanent changes to Howard's memory, cognition, and personality, and exacerbated his difficult home life. Forty years later, happy for the first time in his life, Dully decides to try to determine exactly what happened to him in the months and years leading up to and just after the procedure.

The telling is straight-forward and no-nonsense. Dully shares stories of his abuse and neglect, as well as honest accounts of the poor choices he made as he moved into adulthood. He did not have an easy life-he experienced abuse, drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. While no direct cause and effect can be drawn between the lobotomy itself and his future outcomes, it certainly couldn't have helped.  It was part of a pattern of trauma, physical and emotional, that has certainly been shown over time to correlate to exactly the kind of actions that lead to drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration later in life. What is clear, however, is that Dr. Freeman was guilty of more than just malpractice. His ethical and moral violations are mind-boggling by today's standards, and even during his most active period, there were those in his field who refused to associate themselves with him. But somehow he convinced enough people that his procedure was "curing" things like schizophrenia and homosexuality that he was allowed to continue practicing for YEARS. Historically, "cures" for mental illness have caused more problems than they've solved, and have led to real torture for some patients.

While we've certainly made advancements from the earliest days of locked asylums, ice baths, and electroshock treatments, we've still got a mental health crisis in the United States. The majority of people incarcerated are diagnosed with or show signs of mental illness. Ditto many people experiencing homelessness. In Cook County, Illinois, the largest provider of mental health services is the Cook County Jail. Lack of funding, lack of community support, lack of adequate mental health first aid training, overpoliced communities, and the effects of trauma on the brain all contribute to a system that abandons the most vulnerable patients to a patchwork of unreliable services, the jail, or the streets. Because I don't see any alternative to hope, I have to believe that eventually, we as a society will recognize the value of prioritizing the elimination of poverty and violence, as well as compassionate care for those who are suffering from mental illness or trauma.
 
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