Short Book Reviews: July 2021

My wife’s been out of town most of this past month (helping her mother recover from cataract surgery), so I’ve been leaning on books (and friends!) more to keep me sane company.

As ever, I’ve listed the books in reverse order, with the one I read most recently listed first.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

Not what I expected at all. I’d hoped for a thorough, wide-ranging, history of Central Asia. What I got instead was a history of Europe, told from the perspective of how events in Central and East Asia impacted Europeans.

So…not the kind of thing you can really use as research material for a novel set in the Central Asian steppes, as I’d wanted 😬

But once I got over my expectations, I settled in for what turned out to be a very enjoyable, very readable history. It’s lopsided, in that he spends only about 1/3 of the book on the vast majority of human history (everything before 1800, that is), and spends a lot of time in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even so, it’s a good corrective to our usual look at the past six hundred years. Especially when it comes to the “rise” of Europe, Frankopan deftly illustrates how the real story was the theft of vast sums from the Americas and Africa to Europe, which was then funneled to Asia to obtain spices, silk, paper, etc etc. The “normal” situation for the world is for money to flow East, and the development of China and the various former Soviet Republics in Central Asia is less a revolution than a return to history’s status quo.

Oh, one last thing: This book does a much better job of laying out the perfidy and fickleness of the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world than the next book in my list. Leave the history to the historians, I suppose?

American Rule, by Jared Yates Sexton

I wanted to like this one. I really did. I wholeheartedly support Sexton’s goal here, which is to pierce the myths that we’re frequently taught as American “history.”

The trouble is — and the reason I couldn’t actually finish the book — in order for that kind of argument to be effective, you really have to get your own history right. And Sexton, um, doesn’t.

Here’s a sample paragraph (from page 10):

…England’s monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion…

There’s…so much…wrong with that paragraph.

The absolute monarchy he’s talking about was something invented in the early modern period, not the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, is an offensively wrong term for the period). And the doctrine of absolute monarchy had nothing to do with the fall of Rome (itself a disputed event), and everything to do with the centralizing projects European monarchs embarked on after centuries of conquest and consolidation.

Far from civilization “languishing” in Western Europe for hundreds of years, the Middle Ages saw rapid urbanization, expansion of trade, and the foundation of Europe’s first universities.

And religion being the one unifier? As opposed to any, oh, government? That’s…fuck, that’s just laughable

These are not small mistakes. They’re massive mis-representations of the period and the trends within it. And Sexton makes mistakes like this on every page (nearly every paragraph)!

I couldn’t take it. So I noped out.

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

My second of two (see below) King books this month that don’t read like King books. This is told like a fairy tale, with the same sort of remove and third-person omniscience you’d have in a fairy tale. It’s the same voice King sometimes used in the latter part of the Dark Tower series.

And as far as I know, this is King’s one and only full-blown medieval fantasy book: kings and wizards, magic and dragons. I picked it up because of the connections to his other books — the king’s name is Roland, you see, and the (evil) wizard’s name is Flagg — not expecting too much.

I should have known better. Even in this mode, King is a master storyteller, weaving a tale of family and betrayal and escape that captivated me all the way to the end.

The Running Man, by Stephen King

Ok, technically this is a Richard Bachman book, since that’s the name King released it under originally. But they made a friggin’ Swarzenegger movie out of it, so I’ve got to include it in my reading list, right?

Interestingly enough, I can see why King published this one under a pen name. Because it doesn’t read like a King book at all. There’s no slow build up of tension, no deep dive into the lives of multiple characters before everything goes to hell. It just dives right into the plot, explaining just the bare minimum about the world needed to keep up with what’s going on.

And this thing moves. Each chapter is incredibly short, maybe 3 pages maximum. It’s the “potato chip” technique (keep chapters so small that folks think “I can do one more”), and it works here; I read the entire thing in a single day.

On the downside, it’s incredibly violent, and racist, and sexist, all at once. Granted, the world he’s portraying is very much that, all the way through, but it’s bigoted in a very…old-fashioned way, from the slurs they use, especially. Like 1960s racism ramped up to 11 and then set in the future.

Here’s the kicker, though: King absolutely nailed how misinformation, spread through the media, can keep the people at the bottom of the economy apart, keep them hating each other, when they should be attacking the wealthy. And he portrays our current “meritocratic” caste system perfectly, illustrating how inequality can get so locked in that the only way out for some people is to offer to die on national television. That’s the horrific part of the book, for me, the part the lingered after closing the book.

The White Album, Joan Didion

Didion’s essays covering the Seventies (and part of the later Sixties). I could definitely feel a cynicism creeping in, something present in the first book of hers i read and becoming stronger with each essay here.

But she continues to draw moments in time in vivid colors, and is brutally frank about her experiences with mental health issues during this period. Just…compellingly readable, all the way through.

I’d like to say I wish I could write like her, but then I’m not sure how I would even begin to learn or adopt her techniques. Intimidatingly good.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. The title is…a bit pretentious, at least to my ears.

But the essays are as unpretentious as they come. Didion, for the most part, refuses to generalize or judge, choosing instead to capture the moment, or series of moments, that she experienced with and around certain people, at certain times.

The result is a bit like a time capsule of the Sixties, or at least, the parts of the Sixties that she experienced in California.

Her writing is a bit hypnotic, in that way. In how she brings you into a moment, even if that moment itself is a composite of other moments, showing you what it felt like, if not what actually occurred. Makes her essays a bit addictive, tbh, each one a hit of experience from another place and time.

The one downside? Because she’s writing so close to her own experience, her version of the Sixties is very…white. And middle class. To the point where, when she talks about the farming communities she grew up in, she doesn’t talk about the actual workers on those farms, who were organizing throughout the Sixties to advocate for better working conditions for the majority-immigrant workforce. Nor does she mention the Civil Rights movements, or the Black Panthers, or…I could go on and on. Suffice to say that her viewpoint is very well detailed, but is very much myopic.

Short Book Reviews: June 2021

The year is already half over? And California’s re-opening while vaccination rates are slowing and the Delta variant is spreading and…

breathes

…and I’ve been fully vaccinated for two months now, but I’m still keeping a low profile, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Oh, and reading! Mix of essays and horror and, well, horror hesitates tools? Is that a thing? Because I read one.

As always, the books are in reverse reading order, with the most recent one I plowed through first.

Christine, by Stephen King

Definitely the worst of the King re-reads so far (and also the first one to not be set in Maine, make of that what you will).

I almost put this one down, after the rough opening and dialog that seemed broadcast from a 1940s B-movie. I’m glad I kept going, because the story eventually kicks into King-Dread-Gear and becomes compelling. The dialog never really gets better, and the car scare is just plain weird, but the possession bit was goose-bumps-down-my-neck spooky.

Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

A series of excellently-written, pointed essays that I quickly realized were not aimed at me. Not that everything needs to be, of course!

Still illuminating. Kendall has no trouble stabbing through all the BS we tell ourselves about these issues and calling them out for what they are. Points to a type of feminism concerned less with Leaning In and more with putting food on the table. A critical work on fundamental problems with the way American does and doesn’t work for its people.

Body Trauma, by David W Page

This one was slow going for me. I get squeamish around needles, to the point where I get lightheaded whenever I have blood drawn (I’ve only passed out once, so there). But it was recommended by Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, and in the book I’m writing (and in short stories I’m working on), I need to be able to portray injuries and recovery accurately. So I pushed through.

And I’m glad I did! I’m sure I’ll need a few re-reads for everything to sink in, but I’ve got a much better sense of how serious certain wounds would be, and how they can be used to raise or lower tension in a story.

wow, no thank you, by Samantha Irby

Went into this one with no idea of what I was getting into, other than the essays were supposed to be funny. And they were, in parts — literally laugh out loud funny, in fact — but above all they’re a master class in writing a revealing, engaging, personal essay. What other writer do you know can make you reflect on your own poverty-filled past while relaying a (funny) story about how they thought their cheap-and-shitty apartment was haunted? Or make you admire them while they constantly put themselves down and refer to themselves as a “trash person”? That’s a magic trick played with words, and Irby pulls it off again and again and again.

Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Short Book Reviews: April 2021

Fewer books read this month. Between turning 42 and getting both doses of the vaccine, I’ve been reading less (but writing more?). I’d hoped to have a fourth book done before the end of the month, but that’s going to have to wait 😦

Anyway, here are brief, non-spoilers reviews of the three books I did get through, again in reverse chronological order (so the most recently read book is first).

Carrie, by Stephen King

At this point I should just confess that I’ve decided to read all of the classic King books. Everything I missed growing up (parents!): Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Needful Things, etc.

This was King’s first book, and it’s amazing how much his writing improved between it and his second (Salem’s Lot). Carrie is a lot faster paced than the other book, but as a result I didn’t feel like I really got to know (or care about) a lot of the characters.

Even so, it’s a gut-punch of a book. Would recommend.

Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

A non-fiction palate-cleanser between horror novels. Recommended by the author of acoup.blog, whose insightful and detailed critiques of the “medieval” world represented in the Games of Thrones TV series drew me in.

It’s a short book, more of an extended scholarly essay than anything else. Morley’s goal here seems to be to poke holes in two of the leading schools of thought about trade in the classical Mediterranean: one that holds trade couldn’t possibly have been worth noting because of subsistence farming, and another that basically says globalization arrived thousands of years earlier than we thought.

I’m not familiar enough with those other schools to tell if that’s a straw-person argument or not. But Morley lays out his own case well, arguing for a sort of middle approach, relying on archeological evidence that shows trade in certain goods was in fact massive, while admitting the large gaps in our understanding of the period. Certainly food for thought when designing a classical-like society, or writing a story set in the classical period.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Published the year I was born! King’s fifth book published under his own name.

Again I could see both the commonalities in the way he tells stories (newspaper clippings and interviews sprinkled throughout, a sharp focus on the minutiae of small-town life) and the leveling-up of his skills in the use of those techniques (and exploration of those themes).

Very much a horror-as-dread book, rather than blood-and-guts. Reminded me of his later book 11/22/63, not in the time travel aspect, but in the dilemma the protagonist faces towards the end (no spoilers, it’s worth the read). King’s rendition of the political mood of 1976 jibes with everything I’ve read about that election by recent historians, and his construction of a populist politician with evil in his heart and elections to win felt…let’s say a little prescient, after 2016?

A Note on the Casual Racism in King’s Earlier Books

While I’m reading through King’s oeuvre, and enjoying it, for the most part, there’s a few…problematic things that pop up again and again, like sour notes among an otherwise well-written symphony. And I feel the need to call them out, rather than skip over them.

Most striking, for me, in reading these now, is the way King drops at least one racist bit of imagery in each of the books I’ve read up to this point. Adjectives like “n*ardly”, or describing a character’s grossly misshapen and swollen lips as “African”.

It jerks me out of the book each time, and makes me wonder why he (or the publisher) doesn’t go back and remove it. This isn’t in character dialog, it’s narrative description, and it would be easy — very easy — to remove the short phrase that contains it without really altering the book at all. Why not change it?

More insidious is the way these books have basically no black people. In Needful Things, which I’m reading now, there’s one (one!) black character, and he’s only allowed to be a janitor, and his dialog is written…well, let’s just say King tries to render what he feels is a Black manner of speech, and it comes across as a caricature. I know some of these books were written before I was born, but I swear there were Black people in America back then, even in Maine. Leaving them out altogether feels…strange. Less like oversight, and more like an authorial blindspot.

These elements might change in his later works (and I hope they do!). And I’m certainly not trying to say anything about King the person, especially given how much time has elapsed between when he wrote these books and today. I must hope that whoever he is now, it’s a better version of himself than when he wrote these.

But these racist elements are in the books, and I feel must be called out as such.

Keeping Score: April 2, 2021

I feel like I’ve been to a horror workshop this past week.

It started with reading Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, effectively a textbook (complete with exercises!) for writing better horror stories. He breaks down the different sub-genres, he explores what distinguishes horror from other types of fiction, and he pulls back the curtain on different techniques to use in horror to produce different effects.

I’ve read other writing books before — and will read more, I’ll take advice wherever I can find it — and always come away with at least one or two changes to make to the way I write. Writing in the Dark was no different in that respect, but it went one step further: It changed the way I read.

Shortly after finishing it, I picked up a copy of Salem’s Lot. I realized I haven’t been reading much horror lately, so I thought going back to one of the classics would be a good way to dive in.

And I was right, but not in the way I’d intended. Because instead of just noticing things like the parallels in the story to the original Dracula, or getting sucked into the story — both of which happened, it’s still a damn fine book — I started noticing things about the way King wrote it. Places where he was writing in a more literary voice, versus genre. Places where he slowed time down by writing everything out in minute detail, to ramp up tension. Places where he shifted point of view. How in the more “horror” chapters, he wrote in a perspective that clung tightly to one character’s train of thought, to show their reactions to what was happening, which is where dread lives. Often those chapters had very little happen in them at all, but the characters reacted to them as if they were scared out of their wits, and thus carried the reader with them.

It was like Waggoner was standing over my shoulder as I read, pointing to passages and remarking on the techniques being used in each. I could still appreciate the story King was telling, still feel the chill of being hunted by an ancient vampire in a New England fall. But I could also see how he was telling the story, and think about how I could use those techniques in my own fiction.

Next I read Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, a horror novel which came out just last year. I had the same experience with it, though — at least for me — the seams were less visible in this one. That is, it was harder for me to pull myself out of it, and see how it was built. But it was still possible, and I noticed both some of the same techniques King used and others being brought to bear, techniques more commonly used for monster books, which Jones’ is (and King’s wasn’t).

I’m now reading Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, and having much the same experience. Loving the story, falling into the book, but on the way, paying attention to the way she’s telling the tale, from sentence length to parenthetical remarks to event ordering (no spoilers, you’ll need to pick up a copy and read it). It’s another finely constructed book, and I feel I’m appreciating it on a whole different level (and learning from it).

All of which is to say: I’ve started drafting a new horror story (finally).

It’s the one I’ve been outlining forever, afraid to commit it to (electronic) paper. This week I took the plunge, working on it after my words for the novel were done for the day. I’m drafting it in much the same way as the novel, working scatter-shot, drawing up bits of dialog before anything else, and then stitching it all together.

But this time, I’m consciously thinking about the different horror techniques I’ve seen, and looking for ways to apply them. So after finishing the dialog and blocking for one section, I went back and added in the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, to pull the perspective tighter in on them. I’m also not shying away from characters in conflict, or physically fighting; taking the time to block the sequences in my head and then setting them down. Because in this story, at least, there will be pain, and there will be blood. And if my protagonist is not going to flinch, neither can I.

It’s still the first draft, so it’s going to need a lot of editing, but I’m already feeling better about it. More confident. Like I’m writing in a more deliberate mode, more aware of what I’m doing, and why. Here’s hoping my confidence is justified, once it’s done.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Compelling. Read the last half of this 900+ page monster in a single day.

Still amazes me how King’s writing style is so slight as to be non-existent, but with it he creates these incredibly long, involved, gripping stories. Truly a master of the craft.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Horror stories lean on senses other than sight: smell and taste, in particular. These senses are more intimately connected with our bodies, making the texture of the story more physical.
  • A simple task can have tension if the reader is kept guessing as to what might happen, and if the character thinks things could go horribly wrong; if the character has a goal-threatening freak-out, that’s even better.
  • Horror needs a temptation: an invitation to follow a compulsion the character normally wouldn’t, with promises (usually false) given that make it seem ok.

On Writing by Stephen King

Revelatory.

I first read this ten years ago, when I was first trying to take my writing seriously. It was inspirational then, and inspirational now, though I’ve discovered different lessons in it this time.

From the autobiographical section, I got a strong sense of the struggle King went through to become the successful writer he is. There were multiple points where he could have stopped, where people wanted him to stop, but he didn’t. Success in writing wasn’t something he was born into, it was built out of hard work over decades that finally paid off and lifted his family out of poverty.

From the section on the writing craft itself, I’ve pulled three new techniques to try:

  • Write the story first, and do the research later. The desire to get things right in the first draft is something I struggle with. King emphasizes getting the story out, and then doing the research needed to make it feel true.
  • Shoot for a second draft that is 10% shorter than the first. King insists this will push you to not only eliminate pesky adverbs, but also take out anything that is not story.
  • Rely on your characters and the situation they’re in to tell you the story, not your outline. I’ve been using this last technique to push my current novel forward. Instead of thinking through each action to its consequences for the outline in my head, I’m just writing out what the characters do and say, letting it evolve on its own. It’s helped me overcome the stress and blockage I had two weeks ago, and made writing much more enjoyable.