I'm having a great month for reading, and I hope all of you are, too. Here are a few of my favorites from Dec-Jan. I'll have more for you soon.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Between Mr. King's most recent works and On Writing, I think I'm a fangirl.
This book is really scary. The idea for the big bads is one of the most terrifying things I've ever encountered in a horror story, partly because it hides behind something so benign. I mean, who wouldn't trust a grandparent-ly person in an expensive RV? The baddies of Doctor Sleep are super well-done.
I also like the younger, newer version of The Shining's Danny. The story requires another intuitive child. Danny is grown up now, and the RV dwelling vampires like the "special" children best. Enter Abra Stone. She has a particularly fascinating poet-grandmother who is a delight, not just to the reader but also, eventually, for Dan. In King's stories, I often find that it's the supporting characters who stick with me and say things I remember for years even if I don't quite remember their names. In Doctor Sleep, Abra's grandmother is one of those hauntingly well-described but not central figures.
Of course, it's Dan that this story lives to serve. You hear about what happens to him and his mother and his mentor after their escape from the Overlook Hotel. But you also see what it might be like to live from childhood to middle age as Dan: not too fun. He's recovering from all types of wounds, but when we catch up to him he's actually doing pretty well. He has a support system that is working for him and a doctor friend (another one of those supporting characters who feels so real he might have checked your kid's ears one time...) who understands him and helps him when he needs it most. Dan is not perfect and he does not always know what to do, but King makes the peace Dan seeks possible for him to find--even peace with the horrific memories of his abusive father.
I love the way King writes about his own--my parents'--generation. Sometimes I think he's too hard on them (the descriptions of American RV life get a little harsh, geez), but he also captures the idealism that has been their best trait all along. Criticizing Baby Boomers for not living up to their own impossible ideals is not that realistic, after all--but it's true to form since King is one of them. He's honest about his generation's failings, not making excuses, and that's refreshing at this particular moment in time.
I liked the book, but I loved the ending. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but much like my review last summer of Joyland, all I can say here is that King has become a writer who gives you hope in the midst of life's haunting chaos. Who knew? And there's no smultz to it. It's not tacky or churchy. It's the kind of peace we hope to make, the kind we see is possible in our finer, more honest moments. The heart of a man may be stonier, but as it turns out, the roots of the most hardy and determined love are not deterred by rough terrain.
The Returned, by Jason Mott
C'mon people, what's the first rule of magic realism?
I've lived in the South since I was twelve, but I'm not a native. I sometimes had the impression that Mott might have a background something like mine. He lives in North Carolina, the bio says, so it's possible. Sometimes the descriptions of Southern life are very good, sometimes not quite true. For example, I can't see a small town Southern church lady showing up to save the day with her husband's gun unless bears or bobcats are involved. To do what needs to be done, most of the small town Southern church ladies I've had the pleasure of knowing would not need bullets. (If you need a little help to picture what I mean, recall Sally Fields in "Steel Magnolias," and run with that image. Her husband might need a gun and enjoy playing with one, but not her. She inspires tenderness or strikes terror with her presence alone.) I think the scene would have been more powerful without the gun, especially since she has a huge crowd of unarmed Returned backing her up. And there should be more wry humor in a Southern tale. As my husband always says, Southerners laugh in funeral homes and hospitals. There should be more laughter in this story, and the memory of elementary-school jokes just doesn't quite cut it.
That's enough criticism, for the truth is that I loved this novel.
Mott writes about an extraordinary situation that gives the reader and all the characters a chance to explore a condition not bound by region or time: loss and grief and the aftermath of death. So by the time gunfire erupts in this plot, criticizing it for regional realism becomes petty. And speaking of petty criticisms...
It bothers me that so many of the reviewers of this novel do not understand magic realism, which I must say I think Mott handles beautifully. One of the biggest challenges of the magically realistic story is to tell it without ever spelling out exactly why the magic happens. You can come close. You can even know, and as the storyteller you probably should. BUT YOU CAN'T EXPLAIN THE MAGIC. It's the first rule of the genre. Mott cannot tell you why the dead return. He cannot tell you because his characters do not know, and you have to live side-by-side with his characters and do the best you can to understand while they do the best they can to live with what has occurred.
So saying that there's a big hole in the middle of Mott's tale because the magic remains magical is not a valid critique. More to the point, do the characters feel real? Do you relate to their struggle? Have you ever felt like this? (Because so much of "real" life feels like it couldn't happen for real--that's why we tell stories with magic, right? That's why we love to read them, isn't it?)
This is what I thought Mott did best. By the story's conclusion, I was right there with our church lady and her husband whose willingness to do what he felt was right even if his reason was different from his wife's saves him from ending up in the same place as his narrow-minded neighbors whose bitterness rules every choice. The losses suffered evoke the pain of the reader's own losses, I thought very well. And, beyond that, the characters here point the way to some better responses, some choices beyond denial and repression.
It's a beautiful story. And, as is supposed to be the case with magic realism, the magic doesn't matter in the end. Not one bit. As in life, it's the response, not the catalyst, that tells us who we are. Read The Returned with an open heart, and you'll see what I mean.
Bellman & Black, by Dianne Setterfield
Better than The Thirteenth Tale
Call me crazy--and from the looks of other reviews some readers definitely will--but if I had to choose between the two for the finer work, I'd pick Bellman & Black.
This story of one man's life is epic in nature (aspiring to convey the entire arc of the man's existence, every relevant detail from youth to decline), yet concise enough to be a page-turner.
And how often do you encounter a compelling story that also engages in language beautiful enough to be poetry?
I read The Thirteen Tale years ago, so maybe my expectations that Setterfield would repeat her first literary performance were dimmed with the distance of time. I was NOT disappointed in this novel. Far from it.
Yet I am a bit baffled as to why it was first subtitled, "A Ghost Story." This subtitle does not appear on my dust jacket, and I suggest that it be removed from the book's title on Goodreads. The subtitle was a mistake. It's not that the book is NOT a ghost story. Sure it is. The problem is, rather, that it leads the reader to make assumptions about what the novel will be about. It's more complicated than a ghost story. It's more like Bellman and Black MIGHT be a ghost story...and in the end it won't really matter to you.
This is a novel about nothing less than what it is to live and to die, to have and to lose, and what is gained along the way. If your literary tastes are anything like mine, the language alone will keep you engaged and haunt you for weeks after you've devoured the last page.