My Year of King #4: Rage, by Richard Bachman, AKA Stephen King

Thursday, February 22, 2018

There was another school shooting last week. Another loss of life, students and teachers cut down to satisfy some young man's need for power and control. These shootings have become all too regular these days. It seems as though every other day I am getting a news alert that students and teachers are in danger, somewhere in the United States. I say United States, because this is the only developed nation where mass shootings are common enough occurences that eventually they plend together in my mind. Columbine, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Parkland. We're having the usual debates right now about gun control and mental health, and I suspect when the next shooting happens (and it has become depressingly obvious that one will), we'll start all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over.

(I do have hope that the youth who are standing up and demanding change will be the catalyst for real conversation and real solutions. Political statement: The NRA has got to get out of our political system, our society needs to stop fetishizing guns, and toxic masculinity has to be replaced with a kinder, gentler way to "be a man".)

Other than the weapon of choice (AR-15) and the location (institutions of learning), the school Rage, these types of shootings were almost unheard of. Sadly, this is a novel that feels more relevant today than it probably did when it was originally published. The main character, Charlie Decker, is a kid who just can't catch a break. Living with an abusive father, watching his mother be repressed daily by her husband's machismo and derision, and being the outcast at school has Charlie to be filled with a rage so powerful that he cannot express it with words. After beating up a teacher at school, Charlie is assigned daily counseling sessions with the school psychologist, but nothing helps. So one day, he enters his English classroom, shoots his teacher, and holds the rest of the class hostage for several hours. During that time, you learn more about his life, as well as his classmates.
shooters seem to have something else in common-rage. Regardless of where the rage comes from (abuse, an inflated sense of entitlement, or real mental illness), these young men are filled with a rage so powerful that it overrides their conscience and reason, causing them to do horrific things in order to express it. In 1978, when King (writing as Richard Bachman) wrote

I think that King really tapped into the intense emotions of adolescence with Charlie's character. Teenagers tend to feel all of their emotions more intensely than adults, especially strong emotions like love or anger or shame.Charlie was so up in his own feelings that no consequence, no threat, and no appeal was going to talk him down until he had done what he needed to do. Charlie's actions are dark enough, but what takes this story to another level is that in a Stockholm Syndrome-type of phenomenon, the other students in the room start to express their own secrets, their own rage. It's as though Charlie's extreme action has given them permission to admit things that they would otherwise keep hidden deep down in their private thoughts.

The book is really novella length (149 pages), so it's good that the scope is only a few hours of one day. It does mean, though, that King had to be economical with his character development, and while Charlie is certainly a fully-fleshed out protagonist (antagonist? King is so good at writing characters that are both), the events that have led to this particular act are not as developed, weakening the reader's understanding of the connection between what happened then and what is happening now.

I almost didn't finish reading this book, after the Parkland shooting happened. I wasn't sure I could stand for my mind to continue to occupy that sad, horrified place. But I'm glad I did. It is still good storytelling, and the themes should not be something we forget-that our young people are vulnerable to rage and despair, and we must provide them with the tools they need to manage their feelings and survive their childhoods.

Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Not gonna lie-I specifically went to Audible looking for an audiobook narrated by Maya Angelou. I recently finished listening to Toni Morrison read her novel God Help the Child, and it was such a treat to hear the story told in the author's own voice, I knew I had to see if Maya Angelou had narrated any of her books prior to her passing. I could listen to her read the phone book.

Luckily, I discovered that not only had she narrated at least one of her books, it was one I hadn't yet read! Win-win! The book I found was Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou's memoir of her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter.

Angelou famously wrote about her early life in the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. We learn that her mother sent her and her brother from California to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother Henderson when Maya was only three. Maya and her brother Bailey spent the next ten years living in Arkansas. When Maya was 13, her mother called for her and Bailey to come back to California, and it is that this point that Mom & Me & Mom picks up the tale. Maya and Bailey traveled to San Fransisco and moved into their mother's large Victorian house. They realized very quickly that their life in California would be much different than sleepy Stamps, Arkansas.

As a long-time fan of Maya Angelou, I knew that she was an exceptional woman. But after listening to this book, I know that there can never be another woman like her. Because learning more about her life, I can't believe that anyone will ever have the unique experiences again that formed Angelou into the wise, insightful, brave woman she was. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we learn about many of the transformative events in Maya's life, but Mom & Me & Mom provides a broader context for understanding those events, and details some stories we've not heard before. Vivian Baxter,  was a palpable presence in all of the decisions Maya made in her teenage and young adult years, not least because she was such a presence, period. She was a strong women, sharply intelligent, who suffered no fools. She was a woman of stormy passions, who could love you up one minute and slap the mess out your mouth the next. She was a realist, a pragmatist, someone who recognized that a woman needed her own power to prevent her from becoming beholden to some man for protection. She dressed impeccably, had marvelous manners, and expected everyone else to rise to her high standards. While Maya and Vivian had a complex relationship, at its core was the deep abiding love of a mother for a child, and a child for its mother.

Artemis, Andy Weir

Friday, February 16, 2018

In the next century, people have colonized the moon. The city of Artemis was built by the Kenyan
space agency and runs through international cooperation from most of the major economies in the world. Pretty much everyone in Artemis is an immigrant from somewhere else because apparently, it is not healthy for babies or mothers to be pregnant on the moon (who knew?).

Jasmine Bashara, aka Jazz, has lived on the moon for as much as her life as it's possible to. She and her father moved to the moon when Jazz was six years old. Mr. Bashara is a welder, and a devout Muslim, and tried to make Jazz into both. Let's just say he did not succeed. She is now a smuggler, working as a porter so she can meet shipments as they arrive at port, giving her access to contraband smuggled up from Earth. When one of her richest clients asks her to help him sabotage the oxygen-making operation of a company he is hoping to buy, Jazz can't resist the prospect of quick money. But her get-rich-quick scheme quickly falls apart when she discovers that the company she's been tasked with putting out of business is owned by organized crime. She finds herself on the run, trying to figure out a way to stay alive and on the moon.

For all of the science in Weir's novel, this is essentially a good, old-fashioned thriller. And there is a LOT of science. I learned more about how things work (or don't) in the lunar environment than I even knew there was to learn. The tension was only increased by the fact that Artemis is basically inescapable. You can't just run off to some non-extraditing country to avoid capture, nor can you lay low in a place where almost everyone knows you. There are long scientific explanations of engineering, welding, and the imagined tech that allows people to go outside of Artemis without dying. Weir definitely knows his stuff-or at least, I assume he does, because I couldn't tell you if any of the science was real or not. But if not, he's pretty convincing. Given how meticulously The Martian was researched, I'd have to say he's probably not bluffing.

The main character is just that; a character. Jazz is brash, sarcastic, overconfident, incredibly smart, and pretty good at self-sabotage. Because the novel is told from her first-person perspective, you get a lot of information about her inner life, and that definitely makes her more endearing as a character, even when you think she's being reckless or just plain stupid. My one criticism is that Weir writes her as though she is a man who just happens to be female. I don't mean in the trans* way; I mean her attitude, way of speaking, reactions to events, etc...just felt stereotypically masculine to me. I'm certainly not one to believe biology is destiny, and I applaud anyone, male or female, who can break the bonds of expected gender roles. But I spent most of the book thinking that Weir decided to write a female character without actually figuring out how that would change the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the said character. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed following Jazz on her (mis)adventures, and if you are a fan of science fiction that is heavy on the science, this book is for you.

I listened to the audiobook for this one, because I read that Rosario Dawson was the narrator, and she did an admirable job. I'd give her an eight out of ten for her performance, so audiobook-lovers, check it out!

My Year of King, #3: The Shining

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

If you're tracing my Year of King journey (and why wouldn't you be?) you'll know that I was a little disappointed in 'Salem's Lot this time. That experience made me very concerned to read The Shining. I wasn't sure I could stand it if The Shining, which I remember being one of King's best books, and one of the few that actually scared me for real, was not as good 30 years later. But crisis averted! The Shining still stands as a true masterpiece of the genre, and one of the best books of the 20th century, in my humble opinion. <BIG SIGH OF RELIEF>

In case you have somehow not read it, or have only watched the Kubrick movie, here's the breakdown. Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their five-year-old son Danny move into the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado as winter caretakers. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, is fresh off of being fired for physically assaulting a student at the exclusive prep school where he was an English teacher. An old drinking buddy arranges for him to get the job at the Overlook, and the plan is for him to spend the winter doing minor upkeep while finishing a play that he's been writing. No sooner do they arrive to take the tour at the end of the season that the scary begins. Danny, unbeknownst to his parents, has what he comes to call "the shine". He can read people's thoughts, can speak telepathically with other people who "shine", and can sometimes see the future. He can also, unfortunately, see visions of the bad things that have happened in the past, and the Overlook has seen its share of tragic events over the years. Once the snows come and strand them in the hotel, without any communication with the outside world, the malevolent forces in the hotel start to work on Jack and Danny in terrifying ways, culminating in an explosive ending.

If you have only ever seen the Jack Nicholson movie, don't think you know The Shining. Kubrick took the source material and adapted it for the time, including the limitations of the special effects industry of the 1980s. While there are many elements in common-the hotel itself, REDRUM, and Jack's eventual insanity-the book and the movie are different enough that reading it will be worth it. Also, the book is WAY scarier than the movie. Both highlight this idea that the most terrifying monsters are the ones that live within all of us, there are truly terrifying scenes in the book that just aren't done sufficient justice in the film, if they are present at all.

This is the second of King's books where he explores the idea that buildings become repositories for the evil done in them, and that as that evil grows it brings more madness and mayhem to the characters who live/work/visit said building, until the building itself becomes a malevolent force in its own right. In 'Salem's Lot is was the Marsten House, which soaked up the psychic energy of the people who had inhabited it, and reflected that back to anyone who ventured in. King develops this idea further in The Shining, where the hotel itself becomes a character, with an evil spirit that acts of its own will to entrap and destroy Jack and his family.

Like many of King's characters, you can't help but feel sympathetic towards Jack, despite the fact that he ends up being the villain of his family's story. I suspect I found him slightly less sympathetic this time than I did when I read this 30 years ago, because the casual sexism that probably seemed super authentic back then was just irritating now. I hope and pray that there aren't too many people who still hold the same views of marriage and gender roles that Jack does in the novel. But that was a minor annoyance and didn't take anything away from how creepy and scary the plot becomes. King also further develops his "children as heroes" theme, with Danny being the most well-developed child character so far, more so than either Carrie or Mark Petrie from 'Salem's Lot.

Because I'm reading in publication order, I have to jump to the first of the Bachman books next, Rage, which is really only a novella at a slim 149 pages. But after that, it's on to The Stand, my favorite of King's book, the one I consider his magnum opus, the one that I think is highly underrated because book snobs consider it "just" a genre novel. It is almost 1100 pages of tiny print goodness, and I can't wait to read it again! But it's gonna take me a minute!

Extraordinary Means, Robyn Schneider

Monday, February 12, 2018

I don't know about you, but when I think of tuberculosis patients, I think of pale, waifish invalids lying on fainting couches wanly coughing up blood until they waste away in Victorian politeness. Truth is, tuberculosis is far from being eradicated worldwide. In fact, it is estimated that up to one-third of the world's population is infected with TB. While most tuberculosis cases can be cured with antibiotics (something those Victorian sanitarium patients could only dream of), for people with impaired immune systems, such as those with HIV, tuberculosis is still a killer. And, of course, overuse of antibiotics has led to new, tougher strains of lots of bacterial infections, including TB.

Why do I need to give you a primer on the prevalence of tuberculosis in the modern world to review a YA love story, you ask? Because Robyn Schneider used a drug-resistant strain of TB as the context of her novel, Extraordinary Means. In some near-future time, a strain of TB has developed that does not respond to any conventional treatment. It is so infectious that anyone found to have the disease is sent to live in quarantine conditions. For Lane Rosen, that means a private boarding school, Latham House, that is now a sanitarium for teenagers with the dreaded Total Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis. Before TB, Lane was an AP student, preparing to apply to the Ivy League. He is used to working hard, compulsively so, and plans to continue his studies at Latham House. However, his doctor soon informs him that things will be different-his day will be filled with yoga, health walks, and rest time instead of study sessions. Lane does his best to stick with his self-imposed study schedule, but soon finds that in the struggle between his illness and his determination, his illness always wins.

As he is getting acclimated to Latham House, he notices a group of students (patients) who don't seem to follow the rules. Granted, students are left to wander around pretty much on their own most of the time, and if you miss class, everyone assumes you were too sick to make it. But this group, including a girl named Sadie that he happens to know from summer camp, sneaks off into the woods, dresses provocatively, and generally seems to thumb its nose at the rest of the students (patients). Sadie, for her part, has accepted that she is probably going to die, and so lives each day with reckless (in this case, literally reckless) abandon. Lane ends up a part of the group, and he and Sadie fall in love. Sadie teaches Lane that there is more to life than AP classes and Ivy League collges. Because of Lane, Sadie decides she does have something to live for after all. When news of a possible cure makes its way to Latham House, both Lane and Sadie begin to think about what a future for them outside of the sanitarium might look like. But will the cure come in time?

As epidemic stories go, this one is pretty low on action. No brave doctors risking their lives in disease-ravaged countries to track down the elusive plant/chemical/scientific whatsit needed to find a cure. No rampaging infected to contend with ("28 Days" is my favorite zombie movie). It is, indeed, a story of first love, with all of the conventional elements: meet-cute, miscommunications, obsession, late night phone calls. But in the background, for the characters and for the reader, is the knowledge that unless a cure is found, this particular love story is doomed. Schneider keeps reminding the reader of that fact throughout, with students who were there one day, and quietly gone the next. Finally, the reality of the "death" part of tuberculosis hits their little group, which really brings it home to the reader.

What the novel isn't low on, however, if good characterization and emotional impact. Lane and Sadie are both well-rounded, realistic characters. The rest of their merry band of misfits are also well-written, and each provides a necessary aspect to their little group. Charlie, especially, is endearing, as a gay teen trying to write as much music as possible before the inevitable end of his music writing career. If you are a fan of John Green novels, you will definitely enjoy Extraordinary Means.

All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Boy meets girl-on a ledge. Violet was considering throwing herself off, but then Finch, who is no
stranger to suicidal thoughts himself, convinces her not to. Thus begins the love story of Violet and Finch, two smart, troubled teenagers living in small-town Indiana. Finch has lived with the darkness for a long time. He's basically been bullied by everyone in his life, starting with his father, for as long as he can remember. Living with a physically abusive parent doesn't exactly make for a rosy childhood. Violet has recently descended into the dark places Finch knows so well. Her sister was killed in a car accident, and it seems like everyone and everything she loved before is meaningless to her now. She and her sister hosted a blog together, which means that even writing, which used to be an escape for her, is tainted. Because of a school project, Finch and Violet end up spending a lot of time together, and before long they are deeply in love. But sometimes, love isn't enough to keep the darkness at bay.

Without going into too much more detail, let's just say this book is tragic. Like, "ugly-cry" tragic. Finch and Violet are both excellently written as characters, and you root for them to overcome their issues. Finch especially seems almost too good to be true. He is pretty consistently more considerate and kind than I'd expect most anyone to be, but especially a mentally ill 17 year-old boy. Finch really helps Violet see that to go on living is the only way to honor her sister, and that rather than withdrawing from the world until she can escape her small town and its painful memories, she should focus on living each day to the fullest. For her part, Violet helps draw Finch out of himself, getting him out of his own head and back into the world of the living. Sounds great, right? It is-for a while (cue ugly-crying).

This YA novel deals with some pretty heavy adult issues, namely mental illness and suicide, but Niven makes them understandable for younger readers. And really, as recent studies have shown, more and more teenagers are dealing with exactly the kind of depression and anxiety disorders that plague Finch and Violet. The story is a testament to anyone who has ever felt despair and overwhelming desperation. It also shows that even when you love someone, that person is ultimately responsible for their own choices. I think one of the messages Niven is sending to young people is that it is not your job to fix someone else, and that some problems are too big for one person, no matter how deeply they love the other, to deal with on their own. One of our protagonists learned this lesson a little too late, but because of a message left behind, they are able to let go of some of the guilt they'd been holding onto. While there is not a happy ending, Niven does leave us with a sense that, at least for one of the characters, things will eventually be OK.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Thursday, February 08, 2018

In the town of Shaker Heights, everything is orderly and perfect. The sprawling houses with the
neatly trimmed lawns, the golden-haired children playing in the parks, the upper-middle class parents and their shiny late-model cars and meticulously planned garden parties. Into this idyllic place drop an artist named Mia and her daughter Pearl. They rent an apartment from the Richardsons, a well-to-do family with four teenage children. Enigmatic and mysterious, with a past they keep to themselves, Mia and Pearl prove irresistible to the Richardson children, who each become drawn to one or the other like moths to a flame. Pearl, for her part, is amazed by the privilege the Richardson children have, and the easy way they move through the world. Mia is disquieted by the conventional ideas and opinions of the Richardson parents, but for Pearl's sake, she tries to make peace with Shaker Heights and the people in it. She tries, that is, until she instigates a custody battle between a co-worker and the Richardson's best friends over a baby of Chinese descent, abandoned by the co-worker in a moment of weakness and adopted by the wealthy, white couple. Mrs. Richardson delves into Mia's past to uncover whatever dirt she can find to discredit the artist, and these two acts set off a chain of events that leads to dramatic results for everyone.

This is the plot of Little Fires Everywhere, the latest novel by Celeste Ng. Ng does a good job of evoking the feel of an upper-middle-class suburb, both in her descriptions of Shaker Heights itself, and in her portrayal of the characters of the Richardsons. The Richardson children are nice enough, but have no idea how much privilege they actually have. At least, not until they observe the way that Pearl and her mother have drifted from place to place with very little in the way of possessions. The elder Richardsons, on the other hand, recognize their privilege and assume that of course, everyone would want to live like them, especially someone as seemingly destitute as Pearl and her mother. Of course, Mia wants to be nothing like them. She only desires to make her art and to keep her daughter safe from the influence of the Richardsons and what she sees as their selfish, unthinking lack of empathy towards anyone not like them.

All of the main characters are well written, and at one point or another, you find sympathy for all of them, including the snooty Mrs. Richardson, who's liberalism takes the form of paternalistically thinking she knows what's best for anyone she perceives as below her station. There are some cringe-worthy passages where the adoptive parents of the baby in question try to explain how they will ensure their daughter learns about her Chinese heritage (frequent visits to the local Chinese restaurant seems to be the extent of their plan), but otherwise it's not hard to see the issues presented in the novel from all sides.

The real heart of the book is in the relationships between the children, however. Pearl has an effect on each of them in a different way, and her lack of experience navigating the turbulent waters of sibling rivalries causes her to make decisions that ultimately drive her away from them. She herself really just wants to stay in one place long enough to have stable friends, and she sees the Richardsons of the perfect example of how a family should be. This sets up both unrealistic expectations in Pearl, and her mother's disquiet and ultimate decision to go behind Mrs. Richardson's back and instigate the custody battle. My favorite character of the children was Izzy-poor, misunderstood Izzy-who's outsider nature in the family made her the perfect target for her siblings' abuse and her mother's disapproval.

There is a faint feminist feel to the book, as Ng describes what Mrs. Richardson wanted her life to be like, before she gave up her dreams to become a wife and mother, as well as in Mia's restless wandering and ability to make a life out of the cast-off things of other families. But in the end it is less about women's empowerment than it is about the devastating consequences of being judgemental and/or prying into a person's past without their consent. Both led to hurt feelings and fractured relationships.