Betty Scott

Stephen King October Picks

Stephen King October Picks

It’s late October: prime horror reading season. A movie version of IT just smashed box office records, and people everywhere are finishing the novel. The question, “Which Stephen King book should I read next?” sits on the lips of numerous readers. For this question, Amazon recommendations and even Goodreads reviews are next to useless. The internet is full of people who believe King never wrote a bad word in his life (pretty impossible, considering how prolific he is) or that all of his books are overrated schlock (also impossible, considering the variety in his oeuvre). Because he’s had such a long and productive career, few people have read all of his books and can remember each one clearly, so forming a recommendation may be challenging. Here, then, is a brief look at several Stephen King titles, selected because of their differences from one another.

The Shining is perhaps known best for the Stanley Kubrick film based on it, but readers familiar with the movie will find enough differences in the novel to feel plenty of wonder, terror, and suspense. The character of Wendy Torrance, for instance, is much richer on the page than on the screen. One of King’s greatest female characters, she gives the novel an emotional depth that a significant amount of genre writing lacks. For every time we see Jack Torrance imagine himself a victim, we see her or Danny actually victimized, making it clear what sort of monster sits beneath the intellectual mask Jack shows the world. The ending is completely different, so having seen the movie won’t give too many spoilers there, either. King excels at balancing horrifying things from real life with supernatural frights, and The Shining is a prime example. Based on a real place, the antics occurring in the Overlook Hotel include varieties of terror many of us fear in real life alongside demonic shrubbery, ghosts, and psychic torment. Unfortunately, this novel suffers from too much internal monologue and flashback, making the middle feel twice its length, but it’s otherwise delightful and remains a great pick for cinephiles and new parents.

Pet Sematary, on the other hand, suffers from stilted dialog in many areas but offers excellent pacing. With its chilling concept, pervasive supernatural elements, and equally strong sense of place, this novel stands up to anything else King has written without borrowing too much from other titles in his canon. Unlike the Dark Tower novels and some other works (like Hearts in Atlantis), understanding key concepts doesn’t rely on having read something else first. King offers enough exposition about the titular burial ground and its environs for the location to feel real, but he leaves it vague enough that we can use our imaginations, and the plot is never weighed down by the conversations that reveal this spooky backstory. Some of the creepiest entities in this book are never fully visible, and this ambiguity, combined with the sinking feeling that comes as the main character repeats his mistakes and plays into the hand of unspeakable ancient evil, makes for a perfect ending. The sense of compound tragedy and questions about the possible inevitability of human folly puts this almost at a Shakespearean level–this is a good read for someone whose favorite play is MacBeth, who likes some gore, and who hasn’t read much or any King previously.

Salem’s Lot does tie into the Dark Tower books, as it’s in part the origin story of Father Callahan, but familiarity with the series is in no way a prerequisite for enjoying the novel. In fact, it’s better if someone starts this having not read any of them, because part of what makes this book so interesting is watching as the characters develop during a series of chilling events. Not everyone reacts the same way to their town becoming a vampire-infested hellscape, so while this may be King’s only straightforward vampire novel, it’s certainly much more than that, functioning in many ways as a study in human (and inhuman) nature. If that makes it sound too conceptual, don’t worry–the striking nightmare images and graphic descriptions of vampires being staked grounds Salem’s Lot firmly in the world of gruesome horror writing. This is also among King’s best endings, as good as you’ll find in any of his novels. While many consider the ability to wrap up a storyline his greatest weakness, the final portion of this book suggests history may be repeating itself or that it may do so again, but without leaving loose ends. Compelling, haunting, and unpretentious, this is a great pick for anyone who likes reading about bloodsuckers but finds Anne Rice’s work too over the top.

Needful Things is another King novel set in a small Maine town–specifically, Castle Rock, where many of King’s stories unfold. This may be the best of all King’s Castle Rock books, partly because it’s so much fun and partly because it doesn’t have the complicated political intrigue that bogs down The Dead Zone, the slow start that keeps some people from finishing The Dark Half, or the derivative plot of Bag of Bones.

Between the characters’ creative profanity, a gleefully evil villain, and some truly bizarre imagery, it’s hard not to smile through long stretches of this book. This balances some of the deeply unsettling aspects of the novel, like child suicide. The only part of the book that doesn’t work well is a sex scene that challenges the laws of physics. It’s easy to forget about that, though, as King weaves a complex web of characters and storylines into one satisfactory conclusion. Fans of The Body, a novella published in Different Seasons that later became the film Stand By Me, will particularly enjoy finding out whatever happened to Ace Merrill, but it’s not really necessary to have read Cujo or anything else by King to become immersed in the life of what at first appears to be a sleepy little town. Clocking in at 256,217 words, this one is a good choice for people who enjoyed King’s other very long novels (Insomnia and 11/22/64) or who like some comedy with their terror. Physicists, engineers, and others who might demand a certain degree of plausibility in their fiction may not enjoy it as much.

Rose Madder is a novel with many problems. It’s one of only two books for which Stephen King apologized to his fans. That said, the people who enjoy the story truly love it. The antagonist, Norman, is a caricature who seldom feels real and instead seems a composite boogeyman made from a list of despicable traits. Much of the dialog is stiff, and the slang in some of the internal monologues is just plain bizarre. Despite being one of the least supernatural books King has written, it would probably be better without anything fantastic at all. Instead, it should’ve been left as a psychological thriller about a woman leaving her violent husband. The ending is too long, King does not seem to understand how women see each other’s bodies, and his usually careful sense of place is marred by King awkwardly combining the real city of Chicago with some generic version of it.  Despite all this, Rose Madder has some great imagery and contains one of King’s most compelling female characters (though she’s not as fun or complex as Annie Wilkes from Misery). The fight scenes are also very well written, and there are quite a few of them. People who prefer thrillers to supernatural horror and have rejected books like IT and Salem’s Lot because of their otherworldly nature might like this one, as well as people who enjoyed Dolores Claiborne for its deeply personal perspective or because it shows a rotten man getting his comeuppance.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes, on the other hand, has something for nearly everyone. While it lacks cohesiveness, that’s a nonissue for readers who appreciate multifariousness. This short story collection demonstrates why some people think King is a better short form writer than a novelist, and it also shows the lie to claims that he’s a one trick pony. There are truly unusual stories like The Moving Finger, which verges on surrealism and feels much more absurdist than most of King’s work. There’s a Sherlock Holmes story, an homage to the John Carpenter movie They Live, and even a nonfiction piece about little league baseball. Longtime fans will find familiar themes and locations, like the Castle Rock story, It Grows on You, and a tale of organized crime reminiscent of The Ledge in a previous short story collection, The Night Shift. The book also contains two traditional vampire stories, and both are standouts, though Night Flier in particular is especially fun, shadowing a tabloid reporter as he almost wrecks an airplane and discovers what undead urine looks like. Because of its variety and depth, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is perhaps the perfect late October read for all but the most fervent haters of the short story form.

Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television

Whether you’re still reeling from the AV Club’s cuts to television coverage, dissatisfied with the impersonal nature of most media commentary, questioning why that commentary so often lacks diversity, or just looking for insightful short-form nonfiction, Coffee House Press has a new essay anthology to help ease your Better Call Saul withdrawal and disappointment with Game of Thrones’ short season.

Rather than analyze or annotate the hottest new tv shows, the writers in Little Boxes discuss the way the TV shows of their childhoods and young adulthoods influenced them. Most of these shows haven’t aired in years. Some are streamable cult classics, while others are back on TV in different versions, but each is a marker of a specific shared cultural moment.

That these shows belong to the millions of viewers watching but touch us so personally is a paradox some of these writers address. Justin Taylor’s essay on Dawson’s Creek describes how the show taught him to hate plot blocking and the importance of theme songs, despite initially becoming aware of the show through its marketing, which he saw completely through. Jenny Hendrix talks about somehow absorbing things from of television despite being raised by latter-day hippies in a community that discouraged TV, and her essay raises interesting points about the relationship between cultural identity and individual identity. Elena Passarello digs into the ways syndication and licensing issues affect rewatching and second-wave viewers, the importance of music in a show’s overall affect, and the way a mainstream TV show can open doors to subcultures. Twin Peaks fans will appreciate Edan Lepucki’s examination of how the place where we view a show can affect how it feels to watch it, and Nina McConigley’s experimental essay expands and improves the discourse about representation in popular media. Justin Torres describes the difficult moment when you aren’t ready to see a version of yourself onscreen yet, and T Clutch Fleishman’s piece about a softcore porn show on Cinemax is such a treasure that readers may be tempted to put it in a wooden box, bury it on a small Caribbean island, and create a map that marks its location with an X.

Tiny Boxes is an exemplary collection. No two essays are overly similar, yet they fit together and relate to one another in a way that goes beyond just forming a cohesive book. It’s also full of smart and beautiful writing. My only complaints about it are that it made me want to read more from each of the writers, and some (like Ruman Alaam) are a bit difficult to find, and it’s a great injustice that there isn’t an essay about The X Files. Perhaps there will be a second season, er, volume? In the meantime, I will be rereading Danielle Evans’ reflections on Daria before rewatching the show, perhaps taking notes this time.

Little Boxes: Twelve Writers on Television edited by Caroline Casey (Coffee House Press | 9781566894722 | August 29, 2017)

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Endlessly quotable, tirelessly honest, thoroughly edifying, and delightfully witty: if these are the things you want in a summer read, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is your beach book. Scaachi Koul of Buzzfeed fame (don’t worry, no listicles here) fills these pages with essays that are at once timeless and timely.

If you don’t know Koul from Buzzfeed, you might have heard of her after she became the queen of Twitter, then abdicated after Milo Yiannopoulos sent his goons after her. This incident is the subject of perhaps the most fascinating essay in the book, “Mute.” Following death threats and concerns about doxxing, she left social media for two weeks. How does someone who trolls the trolls (with Good Will Hunting quotes, no less) end up going on internet vacation for a fortnight? What does it feel like to have some of the least sane people in North America hurling racist invective at you and threatening to harm your relatives? Koul eloquently describes both the experience and how she moved on from it.

Most of us (hopefully) will never be chased off a social media platform by puerile xenophobes, but other essays describe events familiar to nearly everyone. From questioning the unusual traditions around weddings (five-day Indian weddings in Koul’s case) to grappling with parental mortality and the way friendships change as we age, essays like “A Good Egg” combine relatable anecdotes with Koul’s particular perspective and incisive wit. As the Canadian-born daughter of Kashmiri immigrants, her split cultural identity informs the writing even when she details experiences almost every woman will recognize. Another standout essay, “Size Me Up,” exemplifies the author’s special talent for not only asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” but walking you through her experience as she lives out the answer. Shadeism and public humiliation are seldom so entertaining.

Then there are essays like “Hunting Season,” which every student should probably be given on the first day of high school. Koul pulls aside the curtain on rape culture to reveal, with raw honesty and startling specificity, precisely where it begins. While many think pieces have been written on this topic, this is perhaps the most pointed and direct one yet, exposing how commonplace the problem is while retaining the distinctive voice and personality that typifies Koul’s writing. More relatable than straight journalism but more polished and credible than a random Medium article, this format and style is perhaps the ideal one for tackling this kind of issue.

The title of this book is a bit of a trick–a portion of it appears on the cover crossed out with a thick black marker, shifting it to “One Day This Will Matter.” Ultimately, the topics Koul writes about do matter, and they matter right now. They will continue to be pertinent issues in the culture at large until it’s no longer remarkable that somebody has written a book like this; until a woman can put these words in print and not have thousands of people clamoring to see her jobless, raped, or murdered.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (Picador |9781250121028 | May 2, 2017)

Review: ‘We Are Never Meeting in Real Life’ by Samantha Irby

Review: ‘We Are Never Meeting in Real Life’ by Samantha Irby

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In her collection of essays We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby has done the impossible. There are books full of poop jokes. There are books that make salient points about African-American women and mental health. There has never been a book that does both, let alone does both well–until now.*

Even if you have never read Samantha Irby’s excellent blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, you’ll feel like you know this woman on a deep level by the time you finish the second essay, “A Blues for Fred.” It is the moving account of finally finding a man who has both curtains and towels after dating a string of adult children, only to see the relationship end in heartache. It comes right after an essay where Irby describes her large ankles on an imaginary reality show application, but it’s also right before one about a “pig demon from hell.” She later juxtaposes the fact that working class families who lack the ability to invest in turn cannot teach their children about financial planning,  thereby perpetuating a cycle of poverty, with a joke about pooping at parties. In another essay, she paints an intimate portrait of an erotically-charged moment between her and a sexy musician, then graces her readers with a poop joke.

Lest this review sell the book short, it must be said: these are all truly excellent poop jokes. Some of them have somewhat elaborate set-ups, while others catch you by surprise. They puncture the heaviest parts of this book and let out some emotional weight, much like a colon emptying into a toilet. Just when you think the book is about to make you cry, it makes you burst into laughter instead. If you did already start crying, you just sit there cackling with snot dripping off your face, wondering if laughing this hard at someone’s account of being in the emergency room with a heart problem makes you a terrible person. No, it doesn’t make you terrible. It makes Samantha Irby a rare talent.

Saying that We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is full of heavy material without being burdened with pretension or melodrama understates what Irby accomplishes. The realness and candor here aren’t preachy or moralistic–Irby’s dark humor and self-deprecating style charm you into wanting to read more about how the diet industry is full of toxic garbage. Also, Irby has lived a hell of a life. Have you ever wondered about the cliquey old women doing aqua-aerobics at the Y? About the illegal sprinkling of cremains? Do you have questions regarding the wearing of strap-on dildos? This book has answers. You’ll also find some fun linguistic creativity. Won’t someone please get “turtleneckini” into the Oxford English Dictionary?

While it’s not for the prudish or for readers who prefer emotional honesty sweetened like tea for a smooth ride down, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is a must-read for pretty much everyone else. If you only read one brutally honest book of essays laced with scatalogical humor this year, it should be this one.

*Unless you count her first book, Meaty, but this one is even better than Meaty.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (Vintage | 9781101912195 | May 30, 2017)

Review: ‘Swimming on Hwy N’ by Mary Troy

Swimming on Hwy N_5824d91c9a337.imageReaders seeking an antidote to the omnipresent New York novel will find it in Mary Troy’s Swimming on Hwy N. Rather than focusing on one or two twenty-somethings (perhaps with too much time and money on their hands) picking up life lessons in the Big Apple, this book features an array of eccentric characters road tripping west of the Mississippi. Beginning in Bourbon, Missouri with a thrice-married woman in her sixties and ending at the US-Canadian border with two young lovers, it winds through a few different states and character arcs in between.

Troy’s novel also avoids another cliché of contemporary reading material–the tendency to depict the “flyover states” as monolithic right-wing strongholds. Rather than choosing sides and painting middle America as either the last bastion of hard-working, common-sense people or a vast reservoir of hateful idiocy, Troy’s Middle America is full of real people with differing ideas and perspectives. While it does seem likely that the author is a bit left of center, each character is nuanced, containing both strength and weakness. A young man who deserts his post during the Iraq War and relies on a network of old hippies to help him evade the authorities is just as flawed as an aged crackpot circulating an Alex Jones-style newsletter to a tiny audience. (One of the novel’s many moments of wry humor occurs when it is revealed that one of the hippies is perhaps the newsletter’s most devoted fan.) Troy allows these characters to both be played for laughs and exposed as vulnerable, regardless of who or where they are in life.

The range of characters and the time in which it is set (the second Bush presidency) allow Troy to draw similarities between the 1960’s, the recent past, and today. The book also has a winding plot that reflects the journey of the characters, veering off course unexpectedly and taking strange turns into the unknown. Peppered into this trip are flashbacks and interior monologues, deepening and thickening the plot. Whether readers enjoy this indirectness will be a matter of taste, but surely nobody will findSwimming on Hwy N typical, predictable, or narrow.

Swimming on Hwy N by Mary Troy (The University of Arkansas Press | 9780913785898 | November 1, 2016)