Category Archives: Literature Reviews

My Personal Top-10 Stephen King Books

In earlier posts, I have made a few mentions about my love for reading.  However, I wasn’t always the voracious reader I am today.  When I was a kid I hated reading, mainly because I was a contentious little shit who usually did the opposite of what my parents wanted.  My parents were constant readers, but I always saw reading as a punishment.  I had a wild imagination that I liked to foster on my own, and I did not need the help of someone else’s boring words.

I did read, of course, but I rarely enjoyed anything.  I cannot remember anything that I read in High School except for The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.  I also read The Shining at home around the same time.  I enjoyed those books, but it did not keep me engaged.  Aside from a few other books that my parents coerced me into reading, I really did not read a whole lot then.

Of course, I grew out of that ridiculous phase, and I now love books.  I mean, I really, really love books.  This started sometime at about age 21 or so when I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, and then One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  I remembered liking The Shining, and so I re-read that.  Then, a friend recommended the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and I got hooked on the first three books.  I also remembered attempting to read The Stand by Stephen King in High School, but never got very far.  So, I bought it, and loved it.

I mentioned in another post that I tend to get obsessed with the music that I listen to, and when I want to hear one particular artist I will often listen to only that artist until I am fully sated.  I am the same way with books.  As I was discovering my love for reading, I also discovered that I loved reading Stephen King.  While in my 20s, I read, and then re-read every single Stephen King book at least once (meaning I read them all at least twice—jeez, what a clumsy sentence).

With the exception of a couple collections, I read everything of his up to 2008’s Duma Key.  I stopped reading his books mainly because my interests changed, but also because I decided to read all the old classics that I should have read in High School.  I had a lot of catching up to do.

And so, to sum up those last two awkward paragraphs, up to 2008, I have read everything of King’s at least twice, and I considered myself an aficionado on his works.

I researched a few lists of his works online and tried to compare my own lists with others, and I found that most King fans have wildly varied tastes.  With the exception of a few obvious classics (The Stand, Misery), the lists change with each reader.  One person’s favorite is another’s most hated.  I find that amusing, and typical, I guess.

Anyway, I was thinking recently about my favorite King books.  Depending on how you count them, there are about 50-70 different books from which to choose.  I tried to be as honest as I could, and not go with my obnoxious contrarian nature, and here is the list I came up with.  In order:

10) The Dead Zone

DeadZone

One of the first five King books that I read, I was fascinated by the idea of someone having severe head trauma, and then being able to see people’s futures.  I was also intrigued by the idea of changing the future if you could.  Would you, if you could?

9) The Shining

Shining

This is a pretty obvious choice, and for good reason.  I remember reading this as a young teen after watching the movie on TV with the family.  My mom had the book, and I wanted to read it.  I cannot remember if I was disappointed by the differences between the book and the movie, but I do remember enjoying the book.  I need to re-read this again, since it has been about 20 years since the last time I read it, and I do not remember a lot of the details.  I still watch the original movie with Jack Nicholson every time it is on!

8) Different Seasons

differentseasons

This collection of four novellas is a favorite just because three of the four are pure masterpieces in their own right.  Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and The Body are classics in the King canon, and all three made brilliant movies, to boot!  The fourth novella, The Breathing Method, is pretty good as well.

7) The Dark Half

Dark Half

I thought that this was one of the creepiest books I have ever read. I don’t always go for slasher books, and I certainly do not go for slasher films, but this one gripped me.  The original concept fascinated me as well; what if your evil and imaginary twin came to life and wreaked havoc in your name as a sort of revenge?  Creepy!  The movie was good, too!

6) Misery

MIsery_Book_Cover

One of the few movies that worked out for a King novel, Misery was classic King.  I won’t say too much about this book, since the movie was so wildly popular, but I will say that the “hobbling” scene in the book was so much better than what happened in the movie!

5) The Talisman

Talisman

A young boy’s journey across two worlds to save his dying mother, this book is otherworldly and beautiful in a Tolkein-esque way.  It was co-written with Peter Straub, but it is clear whose passages belong to whom.  It is my impression that King wrote the majority of this one.  Am I wrong?

4) Bag of Bones

Bag_of_Bones

It was hard for me to rank this at only four.  I really love this book.  I love a good ghost story to begin with, and the love story that is intertwined with the creepiness of the ghost story just made a lovely story.  I see that this book gets maligned often, and that is because people think that King did not do his best writing.  Keep in mind, the book is told from the perspective of a second-rate author, and I think that is the voice we are meant to read, not King’s.  By-the-way, the movie, starring Pierce Brosnan, was virtually unwatchable!

3) The Green Mile

Greenmilepart1

This book originally came out as a serial novel, meaning that only parts of it were released each month.  The story fascinated me, and I usually read each installment in one day, only to wait more than a month for the next release.  It was a cool gimmick, but I was happy to re-read it later as a complete novel.  Oh, I am sure you have seen the movie; it is one of the most successful King movie adaptations, so I won’t say too much.  But it still ranks as one of my favorites.

2) The Dark Tower Series: Wizard and Glass

Wizard_and_Glass3

The entire series is a masterpiece, and I believe that this particular installment is the best of the lot.  That may be because book 3 ends in a brutal cliffhanger and we had to wait six years until this one came out.  When it did, my wife and I read it together because we would have had to buy two copies otherwise.  Makes for a nice memory attached to this book.  Why it took six years to write this 4th book, I do not know, but it came out perfect! It is exhilarating and heartbreaking all at once, and masterfully crafted.  It could easily have been my favorite of his books if not for…

1) The Stand

The Stand

A post-apocalyptic tale of a super flu that wipes out most of the (U.S.?) population resulting in a battle royal between good versus evil, and I wish I were living in the middle of it all? Yeah!  It’s that good!  He really hit his stride with this monstrous epic.  It was only his fourth full-length novel released, and it remains his greatest work to this day.  I wonder how that makes him feel.  I hope he is proud.  I think he should be.  I think most authors dream of creating such a lasting epic.

Since I could not bear to leave these off the list, here are a couple to grow on…

11) Rose Madder

RoseMadder

This is one of the books that often ends up on King’s Ten Worst books list.  I have always liked it.  It is an otherworldly tale of escape, with an abused woman leaving her husband and literally disappearing into another land.  I think this book gets a bad rap because it was the third book about abuse that he wrote in a short period.  Also, it is terribly graphic, which may be off-putting to some. Still, I remember devouring this book.  I did not want to put it down.

12) Lisey’s Story

Lisey's Story

One of the last King books that I have read, to date, Lisey’s Story is another that is often maligned (unfairly, in my opinion) as one of his worst.  However, I have also seen it on other’s top-20 lists, so, whatever.  The widow of a famous author must unravel clues and visit strange worlds to resolve some issue.  Again, I love the crossing other worlds gambit in King’s writing—not exactly an overused theme, but a familiar theme nonetheless.  I do not think this will go down in history as one of his best-loved, and that is too bad.  It is a really good book!

So, that’s my list.  There are a few other classics that I left off for various reasons.  It was a brilliant book for the most part, but it had a few moments that failed me.  Same with The Tommyknockers and Salem’s Lot.  I can only think of three King books that I immediately felt were clunkers: Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and The Regulators.  Oh, I’ll add Dreamcatcher to that list.  Otherwise, he is still one of my favorite authors, and I will read and re-read his stuff again.

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The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman: A Sort of Review

sunne in splendour          With all the hullabaloo recently regarding the newly discovered remains of English King, Richard III (of which I am still not convinced is true), I am reminded of my favorite Historical Fiction novel, The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman.  This was the first of the genre that I read, and it hooked me instantly.  I knew nothing of Richard III when I read the book, but I have always loved Medieval European history, and so the story suited my tastes.

This epic tale of 944 pages includes battles, political alliances, family discord, romance, intrigue, and a little mystery—all things one should expect from a story regarding the English throne.  It takes place during the War of the Roses, as the House of York retrieves power back from the House of Lancaster, and puts Edward IV on the throne of England.

The book’s title comes from the standard of Edward IV, and is at first centered on his climb to power and his twenty-two year reign.  Richard is portrayed in the book as being fiercely loyal to Edward and the House of York, and is content to serve his brother in any way that he can.  He has no ambition to rule, and merely wants to guard his own corner of the kingdom and serve as one of Edward’s closest advisors.

Penman writes this book almost as an apology for all of the horrible things that history has said about Richard III.  In her own research, she felt that Shakespeare, commissioned by the House of Tudor, had unfairly portrayed Richard III as a deformed, disfigured monster who brutally murdered his own nephews to take the throne for himself.  Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a dwarf hunchback with a withered right arm and a hideous face that terrified children.  Clearly, there is a lot of spin put on that description by the victors (The Tudors), who may not have had as strong of a claim to the throne of England as the Plantagenets.  There was never any mention of any deformity before Shakespeare’s time, nor was Richard III ever accused in his own time of murdering his nephews.

Richard’s nephews—Edward IV’s sons—were locked in the Tower of London for safe keeping after Edward’s death, because of a dispute to their legitimacy due to some improper troth to Elizabeth Woodville.  There can be no way to know for sure if they were locked up because of Richard’s ambitions, or because Richard wanted to keep them safe from warring factions.  If the boys were truly illegitimate, then the House of York would lose the throne, and Richard definitely did not want that.

What is indisputable, however, is that some time during the boys’ imprisonment in the Tower, they were taken away and never seen again.  The boys disappeared in 1483, and the remains of two young boys were found in 1674 under the stairs leading to the Tower’s chapel.  It was then assumed that the remains belonged to the boys, and that Richard had them murdered so that he could take the throne uncontested.  All of this is covered in Penman’s novel.

Many scholars believe that the Tudor spin machine, and then later, Shakespeare, created terrible stories about Richard III to strengthen the Tudor’s claim to the throne after Henry Tudor defeated Richard’s armies at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.  The Tudor’s did not have a strong claim to the throne, but they had allied with the Lancasters to dethrone Richard and the House of York.

Penman seems to take the opposite extreme.  She portrays Richard as a saintly man; dedicated to the Church, his wife and children, his mother, and his brother Edward.  He also helps to intervene on his other brother George’s behalf after George’s treachery against Edward.  He doted on Edward’s children, and even tried to accept Elizabeth and her insufferably useless family.  Penman depicts Richard as a good man who would never do the horrible things for which history remembers him.

In my own later research, I have come to find a happy middle between Shakespeare’s monster and Penman’s saint.  Richard III was certainly an ambitious man; how could he not be?  But he was deeply religious and pious, and he was intensely devoted to his family.  I have a difficult time believing the portrayal by the Tudors as anything but political spin aimed to make all of England’s citizens hate the Yorks.

And with that, I have a difficult time believing that the remains found in the parking garage in Leicester were, in fact, Richard’s.  It would be wonderful to believe that his lost remains were found, and could be buried with honor, but since the remains show a severe curvature of the spine, I am inclined to believe that people are still looking for the historically inaccurate version of Richard.  Even if the DNA tests prove that the skeletal remains match the living descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, I am not convinced.  It only proves that they found some relative belonging to the House of York, and not necessarily Richard.

After the Battle of Bosworth, Richard was brutally butchered and desecrated by the victorious Tudor army.  Local Friars buried Richard in haste, in an attempt to keep his body from being further desecrated, and the grave was quickly forgotten and lost afterwards.  Scholars have been looking for the remains for centuries, and now they believe that they found it, but I still think there are too many questions left to ask.

Regardless of current events, Penman’s book is a beautifully crafted epic.  It is historically accurate in most parts, and she fills the blanks masterfully with an appropriate voice.  Although Edward is the King throughout most of the book, the story is about Richard.  Penman creates believable characters that are both beautiful and ugly, which is something that we all face, especially ambitious political leaders.  It is the type of book that I love to lose myself in, and then feel a deep sadness when the book ends.

And so, I immediately devoured everything else she wrote.  I read the “Welsh Princes trilogy” (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning), but I read them in the wrong order, so I want to read them again.  I also recommend the “Plantagenet” series (When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance, and The Devil’s Brood), as well as her historical mysteries (The Queen’s Man, Cruel as the Grave, Dragon’s Lair, and Prince of Darkness).  I have yet to read her latest book, Lionheart, which is actually book four of the “Plantagenet” series.

The Sunne in Splendour introduced me to a whole new genre of reading: Historical Fiction.  I have read the wonderful Helen Hollick, Bernard Cornwell, Ellis Peters, and so many others thanks to this one book!  I have a degree in History, and I have been a lifelong History nerd.  I do not know why it took so long to discover this genre.  I also plan to use Historical Fiction as a teaching tool in my History classes.

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Two Poems by ee cummings

Last week, my son had to recite two poems for his 7th-grade Honors English class.  The poems he read were “Alone”, by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Chord”, by Stuart Dybek.

I asked him if he had ever read anything by my favorite poet, ee cummings.  He said no, and so I immediately dug up my collection of cummings’ poems and shared my two favorites with him.

In college, I spent much of my English 1B class explicating the style and nature of his poetry, and I found him fascinating.  At first, I thought that he was simply a pretentious wordsmith trying to razzle-dazzle his readers by viciously throwing away all rules of grammar and style until I saw what he was really doing with his poetry: He was using words and punctuation to create a living work of art.

One does not simply read the words in an ee cummings poem; one lives the experiences held within the poem.  I’ll try to explain with examples from my two favorite poems.

 

Buffalo Bill’s
defunct
who used to
ride a water-smooth-silver
stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
Jesus
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

The short, staccato lines of the poem give a matter-of-fact reading to the inevitable, and unremarkable, death of the Great American Hero, Buffalo Bill.  Cummings is almost mocking Buffalo Bill because after all the great deeds he has done, and all the fame he gained, he died just like every single one of us will.  It is important to note that Buffalo Bill is now “defunct”; not dead, and not off on some spiritual quest.  He has simply stopped being.

The mashed sentence “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat, shows off Buffalo Bill’s prowess as a sharpshooter.  The single-word line, “Jesus”, almost shows a reverence for this “handsome man”, but the poem is more about death than our American hero.  “Mister Death” gets a title of respect, since he is the great equalizer, but cummings seems to mock him, as well.  And why shouldn’t he?  If we are all to meet him, then what makes him so special?  Meeting Mister Death might as well be as special as going to the supermarket.  Cummings almost spits out those last lines as he asks Mister Death if he holds any more regard for Buffalo Bill than he does for anyone else he has taken away.

In short, cummings sees Buffalo Bill, a hero of his day, reduced to a circus act before finally being reduced to nothing.  And there is nothing remarkable about it.  Cummings sees the same plaintive ending for himself, as well.

The next poem is a bit more complex, perhaps.  I have always read it as a happy, childlike poem of someone trying to find something remarkable in his world while surrounded by conventionality.  I have heard others say that they felt sadness in the conformity of their sterile environment.

 

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
 
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
 
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
 
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her
 
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
 
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
 
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
 
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
 
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
 

The cadence of the poem emphasizes the drudgery of living a day-to-day, repetitive existence.  Thirty-six lines of sing-songy rhythm almost drones on, even if the imagery is happy and pretty.  The “anyone” in the poem is someone trying to break free of this repetition and conformity.  “Anyone” is an individual who has been stripped of his identity due to the homogenous nature of his community, yet he is determined to find his own place in this world.

We know that “anyone” is a he, because in the tenth stanza, after he dies, we read that “noone stopped to kiss his face.”  It is not until he dies that his true identity is revealed, and even then, only his true love (noone) bothered to notice.

The bouncy, lilting cadence fools us into believing that all is well, even in our homogenous lives, just as it tricked this reader into believing that it was a sweet and happy poem.

The repetition of such phrases as “up” and “down”, as well as the use of the seasons and natural elements is a common enough theme in poetry.  He bounces the four elements (sun moon stars rain) in different orders in different places within the poem, just as he does the same with the seasons.   He is referring to the cycles that occur in everyday life.   In the last stanza, he matches summer to sun, autumn to moon, winter to stars, and spring to rain, to bring this theme together.

Cummings also uses verbs as nouns (laughed their cryings and did their dance) and adverbs as nouns (said their nevers they slept their dream) as a way to negate the real feelings of the townspeople.  To acknowledge their sadness or unrealized potential would mean to break the mold of acceptance of their lives in the town.

The “pretty how town” also begs the question: is cummings mocking the town by calling it pretty, or is it genuinely pretty? Also, what does “how” signify?  I believe that it is cummings’ way of asking how pretty the town really is.   With all the conformity and constancy, how pretty can it really be?

Anyway, that’s my take on those two poems.  They are my favorites, and I never tire of cummings’ work.

Do you have any favorite work by cummings?   Any other poems that you think I should read?  Please share in the comments below.  I would love to hear from you.

Poems taken from:
cummings, ee. 100 Selected Poems. 56th ed. New York: Grove Press, 1994. 7-74. Print.

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Sometimes a Great Notion – A Review of My Favorite Novel

sometimes.a.great

I received Sometimes a Great Notion on Christmas of 1999.  I was well aware of Ken Kesey due to his affiliation with the Grateful Dead, and I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at least twice by this point.  Two of my oldest friends had always mentioned Sometimes a Great Notion, and they both named it as their favorite novel, so I had always meant to read it, but I did not get to it until early 2000.

I gave it a go in February of 2000, and chucked it after only 30 or so pages.  I had no idea what was going on, and was confused by the narration.  Two weeks later, I gave it another try.  This time, I made it to about 100 pages and then threw it across the room in frustration.  I really had no idea what was happening in the book.

I mentioned this most recent failed attempt to a co-worker, who excitedly said, “Oh, Sometimes a Great Notion, that’s my favorite book, ever!  How could you give up?  It is so brilliant.”

“I just don’t know what is happening, not to mention who is telling the damned story.”

“Oh!  I see”, he replied.  “You know the narrator keeps changing, right?”

Fuck!  Seriously?  That would have helped me to know this when I first picked it up.

You see, I read a lot, but up to that point, I had never read anything challenging.  I had read every Stephen King book at least twice, and I had read the aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a host of others, but nothing terribly complex.

I had no idea that such a style of writing existed.  Obviously, I had never read Faulkner, and I do not think I had even read any of John Steinbeck’s longer novels yet, either.

So, now that I knew that I was simply a newbie and not merely a moron, I gave it one last try.  And then it also became my favorite book of all time.  To this day, I have read this magnum opus three times, and I may pick it up again soon just for funsies.  Once I figured it out, I could follow along the story line much better, and follow the narrator, as well.

Also, I was reading this book for the first time when my son was born, so it will always have that wonderful association attached to it.

The story itself tells the tragic tale of the Stamper family and their logging business in the fictional Oregon town of Wakonda.  When the local union goes on strike, the Stamper family logging business continues to work by employing only members of the family.  When they are short-handed, they bring in the lost sheep, the Stamper patriarch’s youngest son, who left the family at age 12 with his mother and eventually received an East Coast education—about as far removed from the Oregon logging industry as a person can get.  After his return to the fold, many family struggles and tragedies unfold as the business struggles to meet a deadline.

The Stamper family motto comes from the old patriarch, Henry Stamper, who once scrawled the words “Never give an inch” onto a birthday gift given to the younger Hank Stamper.  This theme permeates throughout the novel in how the Stampers came to Oregon, stayed on their land alongside the Wakonda River, and battled the townspeople, the unions, the river, and each other.

This synopsis, of course, does not do the novel justice at all, and I do not feel that I have spoiled anything for anyone who has not read the book.  It is a brilliantly told story, but Kesey’s style of telling it is what is remarkable.

It is often compared to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom in style and content, and it also bears a similar resemblance to The Sound and Fury.  The narrator in Sometimes a Great Notion changes abruptly and without warning, sometimes in mid-sentence.  I have heard people say that they always do better reading it the second time around, and I agree with that.  Once you know the characters, it is much easier to follow.

Kesey tends to wander off course at times throughout the novel, but I believe that is due to his being influenced by the Beat writers who came before him.  Kesey was friends with Neal Cassady, who was the hero Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.  Kesey later befriended his heroes Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, and mimicked a similar style of writing in Sometimes a Great Notion.

The story is infused with rich descriptions of the land, as well as the characters.   The vicious Wakonda River, the harsh and wet climate, and the tough-as-nails people who live and work in the harsh region are portrayed perfectly.

If I could write with half the talent that Kesey has for descriptive scenery, I would feel accomplished.  His character developments are also worthy of envy.  By the time a reader reaches the halfway point in the book, they know the characters well enough to develop a deep empathy for them.

The title comes from an old Leadbelly song, “Goodnight Irene.”

Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I takes a great notion
I’m gonna jump into the river and drown

Sadly, the movie adaptation from 1969, directed and starring Paul Newman, was a pale depiction of such a rich and prolific novel, even if it received two Oscar nominations.  I have a dream to write a screenplay and see the novel done justice on the big screen.

If you have never read Sometimes a Great Notion, I heartily recommend it.  It is such a beautifully written story that I personally want to re-read again.

If you have read it, tell me what you thought of the book.  I would love to hear your take on my all-time favorite novel.  Also, please share your all-time favorite novel, if you would like.

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