Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stephen King: Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

This is Stephen King's third collection of short stories (and other writings), after Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. The hefty 816-page book includes stories published over a period of approximately twenty years (1971-1992), and five previously unpublished pieces.

It also includes two pleasant baseball-related surprises: "Head Down", an essay he wrote for The New Yorker about his son's Little League team and its drive towards the Little League World Series, and "Brooklyn August", a 1971 poem about the Dodgers.

King offers Lovecraftian horror ("Crouch End"), a Sherlock Holmes pastiche ("The Doctor's Case"), and a section pulled from an aborted Bachman novel ("My Pretty Pony"). "The Fifth Quarter" also feels Bachmanesque; King published the pure crime tale in a men's magazine in 1972 under the name John Swithen.

N&D - like each of King's short stories collection - is a mixed bag. I definitely enjoy his novels more. Here are some notes on a five other stories:

Dolan's Cadillac: A modern version of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado". A mobster named Dolan has the narrator's wife murdered before she can testify against him at trial. The husband, a schoolteacher, spies on Dolan for seven long years, learning every one of his routines, and slowly conceives of a wild plan to bury Dolan alive in his Cadillac.

The Night Flier: Richard Dees, a writer for the tabloid Inside View - he played a minor role in The Dead Zone - tracks down and confronts a serial killer who has been flying a Cessna up and down the East Coast, murdering people in small, rural airports.

Popsy: A man with deep gambling debts scouts out a shopping mall and abducts a six-year-old boy in an effort to pay off his debt. This is prime suspense/horror, and would have made an excellent beginning to a novel. But the short tale falls apart when we learn the boy's Popsy is also some sort of pterodactyl, who rescues the boy and kills the abductor.

The Moving Finger: Howard Mitla hears tiny scratching sounds from his bathroom and assumes there is a mouse in the tub. Upon actual inspection, he sees a human finger poking up out of the sink drain like "an organic periscope". Howard believes he is hallucinating, since his wife Violet is unaware anything is wrong. But as the finger grows, Howard realizes he needs to take drastic action to stop it. King, from his Notes: "My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen. ... I hate explaining why things happen".

Rainy Season: Every seven years, on June 17th, the small town of Willow, Maine, is inundated by a thunderstorm of large toads. Very hungry toads with extremely sharp teeth. Long-time residents know to stay inside and shutter their windows. John and Elise Graham arrive in Willow the day before, and are warned to stay out of town for the night. Naturally, they think the locals are joking with them and they drive off to the house they have rented for the summer. ... They should have taken the locals' advice.

Next: Insomnia.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Widespread Torture Continues In Afghanistan

As Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as president of the United States, a new report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) states that
torture persists and remains a serious concern in numerous detention facilities across Afghanistan.
According to the Associated Press,
Afghan authorities leave detainees hanging from the ceiling by their wrists, beat them with cables and wooden sticks, administer electric shocks, twist their genitals and threaten to shove bottles up their anuses or to kill them.
Georgette Gagnon, Director of Human Rights for UNAMA:
UNAMA found a persistent lack of accountability for perpetrators of torture with few investigations and no prosecutions for those responsible. ... Without deterrents and disincentives to use torture, including a robust, independent investigation process, criminal prosecutions and courts' consistent refusal to accept confessions gained through torture, Afghan officials have no incentive to stop torture.
You can download the entire UNAMA report here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Pleasures Of Reading In An Age Of Distraction, By Alan Jacobs

"We read what we want, when we want,
and there is no one to assign or to evaluate.

According to Alan Jacobs's short (162 pages) but insightful and utterly wonderful book, published in 2011, we should strive to be "free readers", to jettison the idea of the "guilty pleasure", with its implication of doing something wrong, and read what gives us delight and do so without shame.

Jacobs explores many facets of reading, including the invention of silent reading, the challenges of reading responsively, the distinct pleasures of rereading, and the pros and cons of digital reading. While mulling over how reading is presented in school - as a chore, a stressful obligation, or because it is good for you, like broccoli - Jacobs says it's a minor miracle how anyone ever becomes a reader, someone who does it because she loves it and can't not read.

Jacobs quotes Lynne Sharon Schwartz:
[W]hat reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life's lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.
Jacobs talks about collaborating with a book while in this state. "The book you read - or whatever you read - becomes your ally and your chief support as you take ownership of your inner space and banish those forces that would rule your consciousness." It is an awesome amount of power from a series of black symbols on white pieces of paper.

Jacobs stands firmly on the same side of the cultural street as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and opposite "the Vigilant school" of judgmental literary snobs like Harold Bloom and (in earlier decades) F.R. Leavis, those self-appointed guardians of literature, announcing which books are worthy of being read, and how they should be read.

Bloom's puritanical disgust and contempt for most readers is well-known. In 2007, in response to the massive sales of the Harry Potter books, Bloom sniffed, "I know of no larger indictment of the world's descent into subliteracy." To spend time with one of these books was to not actually read, according to Bloom, but to merely pass one's eyes across a page. In case you are curious, back in 2003, Bloom listed only four active American writers who "deserve our praise": Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo.

Jacobs mentions Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book (1940), which, although the title sounds elitist, has a populist message: you do not need a university education in order to be a skillful reader of even the most challenging texts. Some slight guidance from a confident instructor (like Adler, for example) could put you on the path to erudition.

Jacobs is admirably non-judgmental. "The person just beginning to bring some discipline to his or her life as a reader need not be ashamed at reading non-masterpieces, or at only being able to focus on reading a few pages at a time." After all, a sedentary person would not - indeed, could not - leap off the couch and promptly run a marathon.

Jacobs highlights the three things we look for when we read: information, understanding, and pleasure or joy. Each of these reasons are equally valid, one not more important (or "better") than the others. However, there is something to be said for reading "upstream", for looking back to the works that inspired our favourite writers, rather than reading "downstream", finding lesser works that come in the wake of those favourites.

Very little of our growth as readers can be planned; it is unmethodical and unpredictable. "We must be content to be guided by the invisible hand of serendipity." Jacobs also uses the term "accident sagacity". Jacobs believes that serendipitous chance encounters and discoveries remain possible in the age of Google/Amazon. I'll agree with him on the idea of clicking from link to link on the internet, ending up somewhere interesting, but not quite able to retrace your steps and remember how you got there, but I'm skeptical that something like Amazon's "People who bought this book also bought" feature can approximate wandering around a sprawling used book store.

Jacobs also includes a few good quotes showing that people in the 17th century felt a similar flood of information (and books to read) as we do today. When discussing the need for silence in order to read deeply, Jacobs cites Bruce R. Smith's The Acoustic World of Early Modern England which makes the case for an utterly cacophonous world 500 years ago. (All of this sounds utterly fascinating to me.)

I've done a poor job of explaining or showing the delights of this book, but I think if you like reading (and especially the idea of reading), you'll enjoy any time spent with this book.

Dept. of Baader-Meinhof. Jacobs mentions Patricia Meyer Spacks, whose book On Rereading (2011) I also borrowed from the library. (Peter Toohey's Boredom: A Lively History - which was not as engaging as I had hoped - also mentioned Sparks.) Jacobs refers to C.S. Lewis (he has written a biography of Lewis) and I just finished reading Lewis's extended essay An Experiment in Criticism (1961). Jacobs mentions that he has finally read G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, a 1908 novel which was cited in two books by John Carey that I recently purchased: The Intellectuals And The Masses (1992) and What Good Are The Arts? (2005). (I was reading all of these books hoping to get a firmer handle on the idea of high and low culture, when those distinctions were invented, how they have been perpetuated, and how they hold sway over us even now. Also: what constitutes a work of art, and do works of art have any more intrinsic value than something that might not be considered "art"?)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FBI Breaks Up Another Of Its Own Terrorist Plots

Arun Gupta, Z Magazine:
The U.S. government described the five as hell-bent on sowing terror to fulfill their "violent anarchist ideology." In reality, the FBI supplied ten pounds of inert plastic explosives to drifters, suicidal, drug addicts and emotionally troubled. Like hundreds of post-September 11 cases against Muslim-Americans, the FBI conjured up the terrorism it takes credit for preventing.

The FBI's most valuable asset was a paid informant and con artist, Shaquille Azir, who played father figure to the lost men, molding their childish bravado and drunken fantasies into a terrorist plot. Azir drove the five around — who lacked cars and drivers’ licenses according to friends — and provided them with jobs, housing, beer, pot and prescription drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, Azir kept it on track.

FBI tapes reveal Azir led the brainstorming of targets, showed them bridges to case out, pushed them to buy C-4 military-grade explosives, provided the contact for weapons, gave them money for the explosives and demanded they develop a plan ... The group was nabbed at an Applebee's after futilely using cell phones to detonate the charges, as they had been instructed.
It is nearly impossible to find a thwarted terrorist plot in the U.S. since 9/11 - and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds - that does not have the FBI's fingerprints of entrapment all over it.

Stephen King: Dolores Claiborne (1992)

In Dolores Claiborne, character is more important than action. The entire novel (save for a few newspaper clippings at the very end) consists of a lengthy statement Dolores gives to local police regarding the death of "that bitch" Vera Donovan, an elderly woman for whom Dolores works as a live-in nurse on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine.

Dolores knows she is suspected of foul play in Vera's death because most people on the island believe she killed her husband, Joe St. George, nearly thirty years earlier. Indeed, very early in her statement, she admits to the murder. ("Everyone on Little Tall knows it ... It's just that nobody could prove it.") And so she has come to the police station voluntarily to tell her story. She says she will give a complete and truthful accounting, but she will tell it her way.

Over the course of several hours, Dolores - 65 years old and a lifelong resident of the island - details the trials of caring for the increasingly-senile Vera, her marriage to Joe and the many years of abuse, her planning and carrying out of his murder, and her less-than-ideal relationships with her children. This is Dolores's life story - more of a long narrative than an actual confession.

The book was originally planned as one half of a longer novel - In The Path Of The Eclipse - with Jessie Burlingame's story (his previous novel, Gerald's Game). The two novels were published six months apart (May and November 1992).

King dedicated Dolores Claiborne to his mother, Ruth Pillsbury King, who raised King and his brother David after their father went out for cigarettes one evening when Steve was two years old, and never came back. In Danse Macabre, King writes:
After my father took off, my mother landed on her feet scrambling. My brother and I didn't see a great deal of her over the next nine years. She worked at a succession of low-paying jobs ... She was a talented pianist and a woman with a great and sometimes eccentric sense of humor, and somehow she kept things together, as woman before her have done and as other women are doing even now as we speak.

James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
King doubles his risk as an author both by removing much of the suspense in the novel and by using a first-person narrator. ... King must rely on the strength of the novel's themes and, perhaps more importantly, the strength of Dolores's character to keep the reader's interest. This last is even more challenging for king because he goes beyond simply using a first-person narrator by writing the entire novel in the form of a monologue with no chapter divisions or other breaks of any kind. This narrative structure gives him an opportunity to develop a female character in much more internal detail than he ever has before.
Dolores's story is full of Maine vernacular and folksy phrases, and King occasionally uses phonetic spelling (pitcher, ast, warshin). Dolores explains: "I'm just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that's what happens, more often than not, when you've had a foul life."

She was married to (and pregnant by) Joe St. George when she was only eighteen years old. "I was tired of fightin with my mother. I was tried of bein scolded by my father. All my friends was doin it, they was gettin homes of their own, and I wanted to be a grownup like them." Joe hit her for the first time two days after their wedding. Dolores grew up seeing her father hit her mother occasionally - "that sort of thing was called home correction in those days" - and believed that "a man hittin his wife from time to time was only another part of being married."

Dolores began working as a housekeeper at the Donovans' summer house in 1949, a few years after getting married. After Vera's husband dies in a suspicious car accident, she moves to the island full-time. Dolores needs the work to make up for the money Joe lost in his weekly poker games. Joe's inability to find steady work and the need for Dolores's income to provide for the family only increases Joe's contempt for his wife, and his need to exert control over her.

After years of abuse, however, Dolores finally takes a stand. When Joe whacks her in the kidneys with a stove-length piece of rock maple, she asserts herself, smashing a creamer against the side of his head and threatening to kill Joe with a hatchet if he ever hits her again. Her threat actually stops the physical abuse (Joe's verbal abuse continues), though Dolores does nothing to prevent Joe from bragging to his friends about how he still keeps his woman in line.

It is after creamer/hatchet incident that Joe begins to take an interest in his fourteen-year-old daughter, Selena. Although we never see any of the sexual abuse, we do get a full portrait of Selena's depression. A distance develops between her and her mother (Joe has told Selena lies about how unstable and violent her mother is). Selena starts dressing in baggy clothes, spending more time studying at school and not at home, often not washing her hair, not eating, and not talking much to anyone. We are privy, through Dolores's recollections, to the conversation when Selena finally tells her secrets to her mother: "I feel so dirty and confused, and I can't be happy no matter how hard I try."
There were two other things she said on the way back - one with her mouth and one with her eyes. The one she said out loud was that she'd been thinkin of packin her things and runnin away; that seemed at least like a way out. But runnin won't solve your problems if you've been hurt bad enough - wherever you run, you take your head n your heart with you, after all - and the thing I saw in her eyes was that the thought of suicide had done more'n just cross her mind.

I'd think of that - of seein the thought of suicide in my daughter's eyes - and then I'd see Joe's face even clearer with that eye inside me. I'd see how he must've looked, pesterin her and pesterin her, tryin to get a hand up her skirt until she wore nothin but jeans in self-defense, not gettin what he wanted (or not all of what he wanted) because of simple luck, her good n his bad, and not for any lack of tryin. I thought about what might've happened if Joe Junior hadn't cut his playin with Willy Bramhall short a few times n come home early, or if I hadn't finally opened my eyes enough to get a really good look at her. Most of all I thought about how he'd driven her. He'd done it the way a bad-hearted man with a quirt or a greenwood stick might drive a horse, and never stop once, not for love and not for pity, until that animal lay dead at his feet ... and him prob'ly standin above it with the stick in his hand, wonderin why in hell that happened. ... My eyes were all the way open, and I saw I was livin with a loveless, pitiless man who believed anything he could reach with his arm and grasp with his hand was his to take, even his own daughter.

I'd got just about that far in my thinkin when the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time.
Dolores says that it was shortly after her daughter's confession that "the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time". But as Dolores admits to Vera, in whom she has confided, "I'll be goddamned if I see a way to do him the way he deserves to be done." It is Vera - who strongly implies that she tinkered with her late husband's car's brakes - who insists she get rid of this obstacle in her life: "An accident is sometimes an unhappy woman's best friend."

Dolores, realizing she cannot control Joe from taking out his aggression on her sons, resolves instead to leave the island with the three children, and goes to withdraw money from their college fund accounts at the bank as money to start a new life. When at the bank, she learns that Joe has secretly withdrawn the money from all three accounts for himself. Dolores is incensed at the betrayal, both by Joe and the bank. She rightly claims to the bank's manager that if the situation had been reversed, Joe would have certainly received a call from the bank alerting him to what his wife had done with approximately $3,000. This small incident exemplifies the unequal power in marital relationships in the early 1960s, and the subservient role that women were forced to accept.

This betrayal is the final straw and after much hard thinking, Dolores works out a plan to kill Joe on the day - July 20, 1963 - that a solar eclipse crossed Maine by getting him drunk and luring him over to an abandoned well on their property. Also on that day, Dolores has a vision of a 10-year-old girl sitting on her father's lap. It's young Jessie Mahout, also watching the eclipse from somewhere else in Maine. In Gerald's Game, Jessie thinks of a woman leading her husband to a well. King offers no real explanation for these twin visions. Perhaps he is implying some shared spiritual connection between abused girls/women?

Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) praises the
complex and conflicted way in which King represents Dolores' reaction to violence and the historically accurate representation of the great limitations put upon women in this time period. ... In this manner, Dolores Claiborne imagines the suffering of a victim subjected to the social and legal restrictions that first wave feminists were fighting to abolish.
King's portrayals of Jessie Burlingame and Dolores Claiborne (she begins re-using her birth name six months after Joe's death) represented a huge leap forward in his writing. Unfortunately, the men in the two novels are nearly one-dimensional. In this novel, Joe is presented with few, if any, redeeming qualities. He is cowardly and paranoid, a frequent drinker, has no sense of humour, and, in addition to beating his wife and lusting after his daughter, he ridicules his oldest son as a sissy for reading books. King seems determined that no reader can have a shred of sympathy of Joe - and that Dolores's decision to kill him is wholly justified.

Next: Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Stephen King: Gerald's Game (1992)

Gerald's Game began a new phase in Stephen King's writing career. It was the first of three books – a trio that includes Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder – that marked King's attempts at creating and sustaining believable adult female characters.

Gerald and Jessie Burlingame have made an impromptu midweek trip to their summer home on the deserted north shore of Lake Kashwakamak in central Maine. It is October, and the summer crowd is long gone. As the novel opens, Jessie is handcuffed to the bedposts, wearing only a pair of panties – part of a mild bondage game Gerald has introduced into their flagging, 17-year marriage.

The role-playing initially gave Jessie "a certain uneasy excitement", but now she feels only demeaned and humiliated. She tells Gerald she wants to stop, but he willfully ignores her. She lashes out in anger, kicking her husband in the groin and stomach, triggering a fatal heart attack. Suddenly, Jessie is in a far greater danger – trapped on a bed in the middle of nowhere. She realizes that by the time anyone notices she and Gerald are missing and then thinks to check their remote cabin, it will likely be too late. It's not long before the awful possibilities ("starvation, thirst-induced madness, convulsions, death") flood her mind.

As she tries to find some way to escape, Jessie must draw on previously untapped wells of physical and mental strength. She must concentrate in order to figure out a way to get to the glass of water resting on the shelf above her head or to the keys to the handcuffs on the dresser on the other side of the room. She must also contend with the intense pain from being held in a position resembling crucifixion. During her second day on the bed, she tries exercising, mainly to alleviate the steady muscle cramps, pedaling with her feet and pumping her arms up and down as much as the handcuffs allow.
In spite of the exercise, she could feel coldness creeping into her feet and hands, settling onto her skin like a skim of ice and then working its way in. This was nothing like the gone-to-sleep feeling with which she had awakened this morning . . . She supposed this numbness would eventually overwhelm the cramps and that, in the end, her death might turn out to be quite merciful after all – like going to sleep in a snowbank – but it was moving much too slowly.

Time passed but it wasn't time; it was just a relentless, unchanging flow of information passing from her sleepless senses to her eerily lucid mind. There was only the bedroom, the scenery outside . . . and the slow movement of the shadows along the floor as the sun made its way across a painted autumn sky. Every now and then a cramp would stab into one of her armpits like an icepick or pound a thick steel nail into her right side. As the afternoon wore endlessly along, the first cramps began to strike into her belly, where all hunger pangs had now ceased, and into the overstressed tendons of her diaphragm. These latter were the worst, freezing the sheath of muscles in her chest and locking down her lungs. She stared up at the reflected water-ripples on the ceiling with agonized, bulging eyes as each one struck, arms and legs trembling with effort as she tried to continue breathing until the cramp eased. It was like being buried up to the neck in cold wet cement.
Throughout the novel, King does a marvelous job at creating tension, anxiety, and suspense. While the narrative drags in a few places – including the ending – for the most part Gerald's Game is nearly as taut as Misery. King's plot is simple – Jessie gets handcuffed to a bed and tries to escape – but he easily overcomes any dramatic limitations; his imagination and story-telling skills are far too good for that. King concentrates his energies on what one critic described as "the delicate and contradictory intricacies of the human mind, [creating] a character that is entirely recognizable and imminently relevant."

James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
The horror of domestic violence and a harsh criticism of American patriarchal society have been the dominant tropes in King's novels from the beginning of his career. ... [His novels] show that domestic violence is not only widespread and feared throughout American society, but also enabled by American patriarchal society itself, if not explicitly condoned by it. ...

For King in the 1990s, domestic violence in the private sphere is a metaphor for the ultimate violence of American patriarchal society, the public sphere that condones, enables, and sometimes even rewards violence against women.
Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) agrees, writing that in Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne – which King originally envisioned as two halves of one long novel entitled In the Path of the Eclipse – King
has created a history of fifty years of feminist struggle in the United States that is not only meaningful and authentic to readers, but also serves as a powerful expression of social criticism. King achieves authenticity through rough, vernacular language, recognizable heroines, and an unrelenting political incorrectness that refuses to shy away from the real monster in the closet: horrific abuses of power made possible by a patriarchal culture.
While these two mainstream novels "contain much feminist theory and history ... [alongside] a clear and relevant analysis of American culture", Turnage says they are also "accessible to readers who would otherwise be turned off by texts that openly define themselves as feminist".

King tells his story by making extensive and expert use of what Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called heteroglossia – a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view that create a complex unity in a literary work, especially a novel.

Early in the novel, King writes that ever since Jessie was a young girl, she had been hearing voices. These voices began "on the day the sun went out": July 20, 1963, when a section of central Maine experienced a total solar eclipse. That was the day on which Jessie, then only 10 years old, was molested by her father.

Since then she has steadfastly repressed the trauma, driving away friends, discontinuing therapy, and ending up (nearly three decades later) unfulfilled in a grossly unequal relationship, quietly acquiescing to her husband's demands. But now, trapped on the bed, with the voices chattering in her head like a Greek chorus, she cannot run, and is forced to confront what happened. As darkness falls on the first night, Jessie begins "not so much dreaming of the day of the eclipse but reliving it".

Guthrie writes that by using these various voices,
King is able to expand the conflict within Jessie's psyche to encompass the conflict within the discourses of an entire society. ... Almost all of society's stereotypical views of women reside within Jessie's troubled mind. ... [Her] journey of self-discovery involves the recovery of the repressed memories made available by a multiplicity of voices ... She is not schizophrenic in the true sense of the word; rather, these multiple personae symbolize the many different aspects of her self, a conglomeration of what she was, what she is, and, most importantly, what she could be. ...

King deftly uses the terror of Jessie's immediate situation to perform an in-depth study of an abused woman's inner turmoil, a struggle for self-integration applicable not only to abused women but also to all women and to men.
Realizing that her father – a man she worshiped – took advantage of her and then manipulated her into taking responsibility for his crime, convincing her to tearfully beg that he never reveal what had happened, Jessie is forced to ask herself a terrifying question: "How many of the choices she had made since that day had been directly or indirectly influenced by what had happened during the final minute or so she had spent on her Daddy's lap?"

Two final points:

After Jessie frees herself and begins driving slowly away from the house, the narrative point of view changes. We jump ahead four months and find Jessie recovering from what she refers to her "hard time". We learn the rest of the story in the form of a long letter Jessie is writing to reconnect with her old friend, Ruth. This shift works for the most part, but it goes on far too long, and makes points a careful reader has already deduced. (The Joubert section feels like it was dropped in from another King manuscript and serves no good purpose, defeating the purpose of a reader thinking Jessie was hallucinating, which would make far more sense in light of her vivid recollections of the day of the eclipse.)

While Jessie is trapped on the bed, a starving stray dog wanders into the house, and rips a chunk out of Gerald's right arm – making a "wet, snotty, ripping sound" – and takes it back into the hallway to eat. King provides the back story to how this mangy mutt ended up near death in the Maine woods and it's absolutely heartbreaking. King is superb at communicating the dog's thoughts; he did it expertly in Cujo, as well. How the dog got to the cabins by the lake is irrelevant to the novel – though there are similarities with the dog and Jessie both doing whatever they need to do to stay alive – but King includes it anyway. After thinking seriously about how dependent domestic animals are on humans, and how irresponsible and sadistic those humans can be, I was left with a messy mix of sadness and impotent anger.

Next: Dolores Claiborne.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Stephen King: The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands (1991)

The actual quest for the Dark Tower begins in earnest in The Waste Lands - the third book in the series - and I remain quite cool towards what King (and many of his fans) views as his magnum opus. I have liked most of King's books so far in this project, but the fantasy novels are proving a tough road to hoe.

First, what happens: Roland the Gunslinger and his two fellow travellers - Eddie Dean and Susannah Dean - help Jake Chambers cross through from 1977 Brooklyn to Mid-World. The foursome (along with a doglike creature named Oy) then make their way southeast along the path of the Beam towards the elusive Dark Tower, encountering some serious trouble within the decaying city of Lud before earning a ride through the Wastelands aboard Blaine the Mono. (For a much more complete overview of the book, check out Kev's synopsis here.)

Besides some silly and juvenile stuff that gets in the way of enjoying the narrative - the war drums that echo throughout Lud are from ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly"; one of the warring factions in Lud is known as the Pubes - I feel like King has written a lot of this before. The Mansion (the portal through which Jake joins the others) is similar to the Martsen House ('Salem's Lot) and, to a lesser extent, the Overlook Hotel (The Shining). The barren and nearly-uninhabitable Waste Lands sound a lot like the Blasted Lands (The Talisman). Randall Flagg (The Stand, Eyes of the Dragon) makes a cameo late in the book, taking an interest in the wounded Tick-Tock Man.

More importantly, King's writing is often weak, falling back on descriptive cliches that he has used in earlier books. And he has a bad habit of over explaining things, as though he does not trust his readers' imagination. Here is a perfect example of King's excessive description (of the man-made tunnels, warrens, and labyrinths in Lud):
Now they were going downhill, and the walls of tightly packed paper had given way to ramparts of filing cabinets, jumbles of adding machines, and piles of computer gear. It was like running through some nightmarish Radio Shack warehouse. For almost a full minute the wall flowing past on Jake's left appeared to be constructed solely of either TV sets or carelessly stacked video display terminals.
That second sentence does nothing but slow down the narrative. King tells us what the scene is similar to, right after he tells us what the scene actually is. Coming across several of these examples (which often come with a brand name included) makes for a maddening reading experience. Reading this book and the previous volume (The Drawing of the Three) made me fervently wish an editor had gone over the manuscript one final time and removed these, and similar, extraneous words.

Roland becomes more nuanced in this book, showing signs of humour, patience, and tenderness. Eddie matures in his role as fellow gunslinger, mid-wiving Jake into Mid-World. Sadly, King still has trouble with his female characters, as Susannah is not shown experiencing similar growth. While Eddie works hard to get Jake safely through the portal, Susannah is left to distract the spirit being that aims to thwart them by having sex with it. (Granted, if the spirit had been female the task of seduction would have fallen to Eddie - no gay sex in Mid-World, please! - but the fact is that it doesn't. And much of the lead-up to Jake's arrival clearly points to Eddie as being the person in charge.) Late in the book, however, Susannah does solve Blaine's "prime" riddle and enables the gang to get on board the monorail.

In an author's note, King promises a fourth volume "in the not-too-distant future". Fans would have to wait until 1997 - six years! - to find out what happens next to Roland and his ka-tet.

Next: Gerald's Game.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

More Proof Of The US's One-Party System

Under the not-so-surprising headline - Obama Quietly Signs Abusive Spy Bill He Once Vowed to Eliminate - we learn that Barack Obama took advantage of the week between Christmas and New Year's - when many Americans are busy with family and friends - to sneak off and sign into law a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, giving the National Security Agency "nearly unfettered access to Americans' international communications".

If you are curious to read the empty promises that Candidate Obama made in 2008 to dupe his supporters into thinking he actually was going to offer an alternative to the right-wing neo-cons, click here.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald yet again offers unassailable proof of the US's one-party government:
Just four or five years ago, objections to warrantless eavesdropping were a prime grievance of Democrats against Bush. The controversies that arose from it were protracted, intense, and often ugly. Progressives loved to depict themselves as stalwartly opposing right-wing radicalism in defense of Our Values and the Constitution.

Fast forward to 2012 and all of that, literally, has changed. Now it's a Democratic President demanding reform-free renewal of his warrantless eavesdropping powers. ... And it now all happens with virtually no media attention or controversy because the two parties collaborate so harmoniously to make it happen. ...

Here we find yet again a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of right-wing radicalism - warrantless eavesdropping - into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus.
By earnestly and unswervingly following in George Bush's and Dick Cheney's ideological footsteps, Obama has effectively negated all meaningful protest of these unconstitutional measures. Democratic politicans now happily support the same policies they railed against for the eight years of Republican rule (thus making any reasonable person question their prior objections). And Democratic voters offer flimsy reasons why things are somehow different now, arguing that Obama is not that bad.

As the Peace Laureate continues his drone attacks on at least six Middle Eastern countries, where he has murdered close to 200 children in Pakistan alone (without shedding so much as one tear), many of them the same age as the innocent kids who were gunned down in Newton, Connecticut.