Book Review: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

My husband and I both love classic movies, and a few weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed the 1930s film adaptation of Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. I enjoyed the simple tale and decided to read the original.

In a move that would have made my high school English teacher’s heart proud, the movie was very different from the book. Both media stand on their own, but I think I liked the book better.

If you’re unfamiliar with Babbitt, the plot is fairly simple. The tale follows one Babbitt, a middle-aged realtor living in Zenith, Ohio. Babbitt is married to Myra, and has three children: Verona, Ted, and Tinka.  He’s bored. He’s rather a blowhard. He’s always spouting platitudes and seems to belong to every social, political and fraternal group in town.

The story takes place in the 1920s, the Roaring 20s, and Prohibition is in full swing. Babbitt’s tale winds its way through real estate deals, social gatherings, and his best friend, a fellow named Paul, trying to kill his nagging wife, Zelda.

Over the course of the book, Babbitt, bored to death with his conventional existence, takes up with a “fast” widow and her young friends. He has an affair. Is it sexual? In 1920s middle-class America, just hanging out alone at her apartment was enough to break his marriage vows, I think. Whether he slept with her or not, we never know.

Babbitt eventually recovers from his midlife crisis, returns to his wife, and resumes his plain-vanilla existence, but not without finding the strength to help his son Ted kick the traces over and elope with his girlfriend, a fun ending and a twist I wasn’t expecting.

Babbitt is social commentary on a unique period in American history.  It was a time of rapid growth, as exemplified by Babbitt’s thrilled longing at the skyscrapers of Zenith, at his love of business talk, meetings, and business groups. It is a time when social mores are changing, as exemplified by the flappers he hangs out with who are considered fast, loose and dangerous. Finally, it’s a time when Prohibition reigned supreme, and alcohol seems to stand for a lot of the rebellion throughout the book.

More importantly, it’s a commentary on middle class America. Babbitt is every man; his wife, every woman; their gray and vanilla existence in Zenith the culmination of the American dream. Is it a dream, or a nightmare? Only you can decide.

I really liked the book, and recommend it. It’s a classic well worth the read if you would like to catch up on your classic books. If you click on the book above, you can order it through Amazon. I make a small commission from the sale which does not affect your price in any way.

As for the differences between the book and the movie…there are plenty of them. If you’re assigned to read this book for class, DO NOT watch the movie and think you can take a test on the material.  The movie makers really changed a lot, including how many children Babbitt has, and many, many other important details. The movie can be watched on its own, but it differs significantly from the book.

Babbitt…loved it, and am looking forward to reading more by Sinclair Lewis.

Book Review: City of God by Sara Miles

City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles is an intriguing book. Sara, an avante garde Episcopalian minister, writes in great detail about one day in her ministry: Ash Wednesday.  We accompany Sara from the time she wakes up to the time she ends her day on Ash Wednesday as she ministers to the crazy, wild and wonderful people of San Francisco.

The book detours into the lives of the people she meets, and her history with them. For example, a homeless man the staff at St. Gregory’s has dubbed “Mr. Claws” for his long, unkept fingernails comes to services every morning. Today of all days, Mr. Claws stumbles to the church, gravely ill.  Sara and her colleagues drive him to the hospital and help him, only to never see him again.

It’s these haunting stories, and others about the parishioners at St. Gregory that makes the book worthwhile.  From the lives of the men and women in her neighborhood to her own unique vision of the gritty city as the City of God promised in the Book of Revelations, Sara’s writing is crisp, often sparse, and sometimes frighteningly brilliant in her insight of the nature and character of the followers of Christ.

Sara takes ashes to the streets on Ash Wednesday, seeing ashes as a symbol of death and mortality. She anoints her neighbors and ladies at the local beauty salon sitting under hair dryers. She describes in vivid detail the gangs, the lunatics, the freaks, the hard working immigrants, the yuppies she meets during her day.  I’m not a huge fan of San Francisco, nor of any major city, but Sara clearly loves her adopted town, and I love it too through her eyes.

Some of the complains I’ve read about this book on Goodreads just seem silly. Someone complained about the few swear words in the book. I’m not in favor of swearing, but people need to get over the fact that a minister swears in the text.  Guess what, folks, ministers, priests and rabbis DO occasionally let out the F word. I’m not saying that’s a good thing but it’s REAL, and that’s what this book is all about – the real, the true, the gritty.  It’s not sugar coated. Just because Sara is a minister doesn’t mean she isn’t a person.

All in all, I enjoyed this book even though some of the theology conflicts with my beliefs. It is that love affair, that lens through which the author sees the real city of San Francisco behind the daily life that made me like this book. God is in the streets of San Francisco, among the homeless, the crazy Mexican lady who gives Sara lemons, in the old men playing chess in the park.  God isn’t in neat cathedrals only; he takes to the streets.  Remember this, and you’ll probably like this book too.

I purchased my book through Amazon.  I am an Amazon affiliate, so if you click the book picture or the link in the blog post, I make money if you buy the book. This doesn’t affect your price. Thank you.

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PricingYourServices200x300_150DPI

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Book Review: The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory

I really love the various historical fiction series from author Philippa Gregory.  Each book is infused with such period detail that I can visualize the world completely, from the social mores to the clothing, horses and food.  I borrow these books from the public library, and they don’t have the entire series or some are missing, so I read them out of sequence, which is okay – you don’t have to read them in order.  Some, like The Queen’s Fool, stand alone in the Boleyn sequence, so that you can read this book and enjoy it as a good historical fiction, or read it along with the other Boleyn books by Gregory, and it works fine either way.

 

The Queen’s Fool tells the story of Hannah Greene, a Jewish girl who with her father, escaped persecution in Spain.  They pretend to be Christians but maintain their Jewish heritage in secret, lighting a forbidden and hidden Sabbath candle, and networking with other Jews in hiding. Hannah is promised to marry Daniel Carpenter, a good and honest young man studying to be a doctor, but Hannah has earned a measure of independence. She wears boy’s clothing and works with her father in his printing and book shop in London.  Hannah also has the gift of sight, and this gift eventually earns her a place in the court of King Edward as the king’s fool, then upon his death, as Queen Mary’s fool.

A fool during the Elizabethan era did not mean a stupid person. Instead, it meant an amusing person; someone the monarch kept around to bring honesty and humor to the court.  Hannah’s position means she can be honest with the monarch when others must remain as courtiers, flattering and playing politics. Another fool at court, Will, is more like what we would call a comedian today, making jokes during serious matters or to lighten the mood at court.

Hannah is only 13 when three men appear at her father’s bookshop, one of whom is dressed completely in white and riding a white horse. It turns out there are only two men, one of whom is John Dee, the other a highly placed nobleman at court. The third is the angel Uriel, who she sees with her second sight. Dee, the court astrologer, is instantly transfixed by Hannah, and she is pledged to the court so that her mystical second sight can be used by Dee and others to help the Boleyns attain the throne.

Hannah is a woman torn between polar opposites. In politics, she loves Queen Mary, but is torn because she believes Princess Elizabeth will be a better monarch. She is torn between her attraction for Daniel and her attraction for Robert, the Duke at court. She is torn between wanting to be a woman and wanting the independence of a man, and of wanting to remain free and unencumbered but wanting the security of life with Daniel.

I liked this book a lot, and especially the character of Hannah. While she does seem almost too modern for the time period in fighting for her independence, I found her love for both Daniel and Robert convincing, as was her loyalty to Queen Mary and her mixed feelings about Elizabeth.  I won’t spoil the end of the book for you, but there is a plot twist when Calais, the city in France held by the English, falls that I did not like. I found it very contrived. But let’s see if you feel the same way after reading The Queen’s Fool.

I enjoyed this book so much that I went back and borrowed The Red Queen, one of the others in this series, and plan to read more of Philippa Gregory’s wonderful historical romances.  4 stars out of 5 for this one.

I borrowed my copy from the Prince Edward Public Library, but you can also purchase it through Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.

Book Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

When I mentioned on Facebook today that I loved We Are Water, a few people who read the book expressed their disappointment with it. On Goodreads, similar reactions were shared; some people, like me, loved it, and others really hated it. I think the problem with this book is that if you are looking for a simple story, you’ll be disappointed.  I think Wally Lamb is making a commentary on evil with this new book, and it’s not an easy read, but if you can see my viewpoint, you might like the book as much as I do.

As usual, spoiler alert; I might reveal some plot points you wish I’d kept secret.

This is a book that starts off with an intriguing premise. Annie, married for 27 years to Orion, a Connecticut college psychologist, has abandoned her 27 year marriage, announced she is a lesbian, and left Orion to live with and marry her partner, Viveca.  Annie and Orion have three children, twins Ariadne and Andrew, and young Marissa.  The story alternates between their viewpoints as well as two sections narrated by peripheral characters, a newspaper reporter and the mother of a teenage girl, as well as Kent, Annie’s pedophile cousin.

We have a cast of characters vaguely unlikable in many different ways. This is why I think so many people react negatively to the book. None of the characters are completely fleshed out or believable, with the exception of Kent, who is so chillingly real you don’t feel the least bit sorry when he eventually gets his comeuppance.

Everyone seems to be dealing with abandonment issues of one type or another, acting out and generally misbehaving except Orion.  Of all the characters, I liked him and Viveca, Annie’s lover, the least. Viveca comes across as a phony chic New Yorker, all materialism and money hunger, and I hate that in people. Orion, on the other hand, gives goody-two-shoes a new meaning. Let me ask you, if your spouse left you for someone else, would you go to his or her’s remarriage?  It wouldn’t go over too well here.  How would it go over in your household? Yet Orion seems calm and even considers going to the wedding. It’s completely unbelievable to me. It’s like, “Oh sure, after 27 years of marriage, my wife wants to marry another woman…sure, okay, fine, now let me deal with the mess of my life.”  He really was a cardboard character, in my opinion.

As the plot deepens, I realized that Lamb’s statement in this book is not gay marriage. It’s not even about child abuse, which is the secondary theme in the book. It’s really about inter generational pain.

There’s a difficult to read scene when Kent, the pedophile, describes his childhood. I actually found his description of abandonment by his father more painful than how his babysitter molests him, thus indoctrinating him into pedophilia. Kent’s dad leaves his mom for another lady whose son is in his class at school. Can you imagine the pain, the rage, the betrayal on that front? Every day you have to go to class and see the kid your dad is now tucking in at night, playing baseball with. His dad is a louse on all fronts, and Kent’s mother is struggling as a single woman to make ends meet. She has to send him after school to the babysitter’s house, and that’s where he gets molested. And by molesting and beating him, by torturing him, he ends up torturing others….

So it is this one spark, this one selfish action – Kent’s father’s choice to abandon his wife – that creates spirals of evil in the O’Day family.  Kent turns into a monster. He abuses Annie and 7 other little girls. He is a miserable scumbag, but as a result of his actions, Annie turns into an abuser, hitting her son, breaking his arm and so on. She doesn’t sexually molest him, but her kids are all messed up; her eldest, pregnant through artificial insemination because she won’t wait for a husband even though she’s fairly young; Andrew, turned into a holy roller; and Marissa, whose one-time try at prostitution ends up almost getting her killed.  And that’s just for starters.

Annie herself harbors a terrible secret involving a dreadful flood that kills her mother and baby sister. I won’t say anything more, but keeping toxic secrets is another theme in the book worth thinking about.

That’s why I liked this book. Lamb is making such a statement here.  Evil, left to fester, begets more evil.  Through the generations it crawls. Even though Annie and Orion’s kids don’t know their mother’s past at all, they are all acting out part of the story. It really made me think about how that happens.

One choice, however, for the other – to tell secrets, to air them, to heal them – can reverse all the damage in a single generation.

There’s some graphic sex descriptions in this book, and if you are really anti-gay, don’t read it.  But if you are willing to open your mind to the potential, and to the ideas presented here, I think it is worth a read.

I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.  I borrowed my copy from the Prince Edward County public library.

Book Review: Innocence by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz is one of my favorite authors. When Innocence published in December 2013, I had it on my list to buy for Christmas, but one thing or another delayed my purchase. I then haunted the Prince Edward County public library until finally, this past Sunday, the reservations list was exhausted and there it was on, the new book shelf, just waiting for me.

And I have to say, I was disappointed.

I tried hard – very hard – to like this book. My reaction remains “meh”. Blah. It didn’t thrill me.

(Spoiler alert! If you don’t want the plot revealed, STOP HERE).

The book is written in the first person, and generally I find Koontz at his weakest when he writes in the first person. His Odd Thomas books are written in the first person, and they’re my least favorite. I found the character of Addison, the narrator in Innocence, a clone of Odd Thomas without some of the eccentricities.

The book’s other protagonist, a wealthy Goth teen named Gwyn, also seemed like a stock character.  Koontz always pairs an oddball man, a misfit, with a woman who either 1) is extremely wealthy, which makes running from the bad guys a lot easier or 2) an old-fashioned misfit, i.e. someone in love with the past.  In this case, Gwyn is stock type #1.  Her father has so much money that before he dies, he sets up not one but eight bolt-holes for her in Manhattan, and a ninth that no one knows about. They are magically stocked with food, they are cleaned, the rent is paid. I have enough trouble managing one household; Gwyn somehow manages to manage nine secret hideaways.  Yes, her guardian manages several, but come on…

The story begins with Addison’s compelling tale of somehow being such a physically deformed misfit that when people look at him, they want to kill him. The midwife who delivers him wants to murder him; his own mother admits to wanting to kill him several times.  His mother kicks him out of the house at age 8 with a backpack of food, then commits suicide a few minutes later. He never knew his father. A cheerful childhood – no.  Rarely in a Koontz novel.

Anyway, we don’t exactly know what Addison’s deformity is. I suspected he was a werewolf, or looked like a demon but I was wrong. The surprise twist of what he actually is was good, and Koontz’s altering chapters of present story versus Addison’s memories of the past was also engaging, a tale within a tale.

Addison lives underground, presumably under New York City, with a man like himself he calls Father. After Father’s brutal murder by the police, Addison lives by himself until one night, after sneaking into the public library, he encounters Gwyn chased by a stranger. He befriends Gwyn and the two become companions. The man chasing Gwyn has embezzled a fortune from her father, and tried to rape her when she was 13.  He hasn’t forgotten and is willing to chase her down to the ends of the earth to kill her.

As the story unfolds, we meet more odd characters and a bird-born plague escapes from North Korea to doom humanity. The bad guy gets killed by the plague, so the main characters really don’t have to do anything to escape. I think that was the first big cop-out for me; I was like, “C’mon, why is this turning into a poor version of The Stand?”

The big reveal is who Addison’s guardian and protector has been all these years. I won’t spoil it for you, but one of Koontz’s hallmarks is making priests good guys, and he doesn’t disappoint with that part of the book.

The big reveal – Addison’s “deformity” – was not particularly compelling to me. I think part of the problem is that it is speculative theology, and Roman Catholic theology at that.  [SPOILER ALERT].  What would happen if someone could be born of human parents but free from original sin?

The only person I know of who fits that description was the Blessed Mother, Mary, Jesus’ mother. Conceived without sin on her soul, she would have been like the characters in this book. But people didn’t react to Mary by wanting to kill her; she seemed to be an anonymous person in history, except for Christians.  We don’t have any stories about her other than a few stories in the Bible, like the wedding at Cana, where she basically says “Trust my son” to the servants.

I get what Koontz is trying to say about the effects of sin on the soul, and how looking at our own sinful selves can drive us to madness and despair. I respect him for even trying to fictionalize this concept; very few writers, especially Catholics, would dare. Yet Koontz does dare, and if he falls flat for me, it’s not for lack of trying.

The prose is, as always, gorgeous. Koontz has a gift for writing beautiful sentences.  His prose is masterful and writing students would be wise to study it.

I still hold that Koontz’s masterpiece is From the Corner of His Eye, and that he should return to the middle ground of his career, or at least avoid apocalyptic settings.  This book was an interesting read, but I only give i a 3.5 out of 5 stars.  I’d be curious to hear your opinions of it, so if you’ve read the book, drop me a note in the comment box below.

 

Movies: Incubus

I can’t get this movie out of my mind: Incubus.

We taped this at – get this – Halloween. We waited until last night, January, when bored out our minds, we decided to watch a whole bunch of horror movies we’d taped but hadn’t yet watched. And there was Incubus, a little sleeper of a film. A 1966 black and white horror movie starring of all people, William Shatner. I expected schlock and silliness and instead got a distinctly mesmerizing film that I can’t get out of my head.

It’s not a foreign film, but it is. It’s not a moral tale, but it is. It’s not a horror movie, but it is.  It is…well, a confusing jumble of stuff.

First, let’s get the basics out of the way. The plot. Incubus is about a man named Marco. He’s injured in an unnamed war and seeks healing from a well that gives beauty and healing. He limps off with his sister, Ardniss, to their rustic cabin.

Nearby lurks Kia, a succubus (type of demon) who, with a partner demon, lures souls to their death from the well. Kia and the other succubi may only prey on already damaged souls; they may not touch the pure. “Why not?” Kia fumes to her companion. “I want the really big prize; I want to lure a good man to his doom, to damage his soul forever!”

“Ah,” the other demons says to her, “beware, for that is not our task. Besides, these mortals have a weapon called “love” which can destroy us forever.” Her fellow demon warns her not to tempt Marco, for he is a pure soul. He saved other men during the war at his own peril.

But Kia doesn’t listen. She visits Marco at his home and pretends to be a lost peasant girl. Marco and Kia wander off but not before there’s a solar eclipse; while he’s off following Kia down the coast to the beach, ostensibly so she can find work picking wheat, Ardnis loses her sight. I’m not sure whether Kia curses her or whether she looks at the solar eclipse, but either way, she’s blinded.

Ardnis tries to seduce Marco, played by Shatner. He refuses to sleep with her unless they are married. They frolic by the beach for a while, then Kia falls asleep. Marco carries Kia to the church to find a priest to marry them (nothing like a hasty courtship) but she awakens and sees the statues of Mary, Joseph, and the saints; she freaks out at the crucifix, as a demon should, and runs shrieking form the church that she has been “violated.”

Meanwhile, Ardniss stumbles to the church, where her sight is restored once she crosses the threshold. She and a sorrowful Marco return home. Marco isn’t sure what the heck happened with Kia, but he loves her and grieves for her.

Meanwhile, Kia’s friends, the other demons, swear vengeance for her “defilement” by Marco’s love and being brought into the church before the sacrament. They raise the incubus, a male demon, and that night, he rapes Ardniss and she dies from the rape.

Marco sort of kills the incubus, at the urging of the other demons, who want a mortal sin on his soul so that Kia can drag him into hell. (Here is where I had a problem with this – yeah, okay, just this one bit – but if the incubus is demon, killing him isn’t really a mortal sin. So it doesn’t count. But suspend disbelief here as the plot carries on).  Now Marco is wounded and he stumbles to the church to cleanse his soul before death.  Kia also has a change of heart, defies the Dark Lord, claims herself for Jesus and fights off an attempted rape by a goat. Marco dies clutching Kia’s hands on the threshold of the church. Is she saved? Is he saved? Not sure. The movie just ends.

Compounding the weirdness of the movie…it is filmed in Esperanto. What is Esperanto? A made-up language. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for it. I kid you not; Shatner passionately overacts in Espereanto as well as in English.

So we have a movie filmed in eerie black and white, in a language no one speaks but that has haunting overtones of a multitude of languages, resplendent with Milton-esque imagery of demons battling for a mortal soul.

Is it any wonder I fell in love with it? It did my English major’s heart good, it did.

I’m totally haunted by this movie. Apparently, it was a flop in 1966 when it came out.  First of all, the actors spoke esperanto so badly that the folks who are actually into the language giggled at it.  Then, the guy who played the incubus was in some sort of murder-suicide, which in those days was box office poison.  The movie flopped everywhere except in France, where it had some modest runs, and then was forgotten. I wonder if Shatner ever remembered it? He went on that year to start filming Star Trek, and his mortgage was paid forever even if he was type cast, so I guess he didn’t care too much.

The film was then lost until 1996, when a copy with French subtitles was found in a vault somewhere in France. The SyFy channel paid to have it restored frame by fame as it was apparently in really bad shape. Then, it was translated into English with subtitles, and thus it came to TCM…which is how I stumbled over it.

I loved it.  I am intrigued by it. I don’t care if Esperanto is a totally made up language, or if you could see the rope around the neck of the goat ravaging Kia…the whole thing worked in an eerie, dreamlike way.

If this comes on TV, watch it.  If you love myth and symbolism, watch it. If you speak esperanto…God bless. You probably will be sorry at the lousy pronunciation, but since there are only two movies ever made in esperatno, count your blessings.

 

Book Review: Thankless in Death by J.D. Robb

Are you a fan of the “In Death” series of mystery novels by J.D. Robb (the pen name of blockbuster novelist Nora Roberts)?  Thankless in Death is the 37th – yes, 37th! – in the series.  Unlike previous novels in the series, the reader knows from the start who the murderer is, but Eve Dallas, the heroine cop, struggles to find the guy. There are some graphic scenes in this book (one actually gave me a nightmare) and graphic sex (between a married couple, but it’s graphic) so if you’re squeamish, you may need to skip these sections.

Anyway….Thankless in Death. I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I like the slower pace of it and the time given to the characters. There’s one scene in a beauty supply store reminiscent of our modern-day Sephora stores in Manhattan that I especially loved.  Eve and Peabody, her partner, are questioning a cosmetics counter salesperson about a transaction that occurred the day before when the murderer purchased hair dye and other enhancements to change his appearance. Peabody exclaims delight over a lip dye but can’t afford. Eve, who is married to mult-billionaire Roarke, buys her the lip dye. It’s a nice touch, especially since Eve never seems to spend money on herself or her friends, and a nice and generous gesture for her. It’s also nice to see her getting some “down time” when Roarke’s family comes to visit for Thanksgiving.

If you know the character, however, you’ll find it as difficult to believe as I did that Eve is actually working at a normal pace on this case. In most books, she’s relentless, neither eating more sleeping until the bad guy is caught. She gets banged up, beaten up, and does the same. Somebody she loves is usually injured or in deadly peril. That doesn’t happen in this book. She has a date night with Roarke, complete with lobster thermidore, barely exchanges insults with Summerset, and actually takes time to eat and sleep and exercise. In the middle of a case. I found myself wondering why Eve was suddenly mellowing after 36 previous books in which she came across like a cold-hearted bitch. She’s getting more likable as she grows more comfortable in her own skin and with her friends.

Perhaps that’s the point of all of this: character development. At last, perhaps, Eve is being allowed to mature.

The plot itself is rather typical crime-story fare. Jeremy Rheinhold, a spoiled kid, kills his parents because he thinks he deserves a free ride wherever he goes. He doesn’t work, he’s a thief and a sneak, and he decides to go on a murder spree to kill everyone who has dissed him in the past. He likes torture; he likes pain; he kills a lot of people. There’s a sympathetic ex-girlfriend and a to-root-for retired schoolteacher who end up as Jeremy’s victims.  Yes, the bad guy gets caught, but not with the usual “In Death” series of futuristic plot twists.

Maybe that’s why this book didn’t feel like the others in the series. Because after all, despite some nods to what New York City in 2060 might look like, the murder has nothing science fiction or futuristic about it. While in past books we’ve dealt with clones, medical mysteries and viral terrorism, here we simply have a guy knifing people to death. That could happen now, as then. It’s not that Robb didn’t write a good book. She did. It just doesn’t feel like part of the series, but more of a hybrid Robb-Roberts book. I know that sounds weird, because after all, it is the same author behind both book lines. But the two “authors” in the past did seem radically different; now they seem closer, rather than farther apart, on plot and character.

Thankless in Death is an entertaining read. I borrowed my copy from the public library but it is also available online.

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Stephen King’s writing has, without a doubt, matured over time. I enjoyed his early works, but somewhere in the 1990s I lost interest. Perhaps it was the Dark Tower series, which I could never get into; regardless, I drifted away from King and into the Koontz camp (Dean Koontz, another horror/sci fi writer) and didn’t pick up a King novel until a few years ago when, bored and looking for something to read at the library, I rediscovered why I love Stephen King’s books.

And among King’s books, Doctor Sleep stands out as one of my all-time favorites.

It’s hard to review a book like this without giving away anything. I’m not a fan of spoilers, even though I tend to skip to the end of a Stephen King novel to make sure my favorite characters make it to the end of the tale alive. I’ll try my best not to spoil the plot nor give away any of the revelations in this book.

Doctor Sleep picks up the life of Dan Torrance, the little boy we last left fleeing The Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  Most people have seen the Jack Nicholson movie version of The Shining, with the iconic image of his crazed, sweat-streaked face leering around the doorway of the caretaker’s apartment breathing, “He—eee-re’s Johny!”  But put all that out of your mind. If you have not read The Shining, buy a copy when you buy Doctor Sleep. Read The Shining first.  Then and only then pick up Doctor Sleep.

Poor Dan Torrance has followed in his father’s footsteps straight into alcoholism. He drinks to forget the shining, his unique telepathic gifts that also enable him to see ghosts and other assorted spirits, some benign and some not so, in this world.  We learn what happened to Wendy, his mother, and Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s cook who also had the shining and acted as mentor and teacher to the young boy (and also saved his life.)

Dan hits rock bottom, and one day, after months of wandering the east coast, hopping from job to job and booze to booze, he comes to a small town where he meets a town worker with a ‘twinkle’ or a bit of the shining. He has a vision that this town is where he belongs. While he doesn’t understand why this little New Hampshire town is the place to settle down, he does. Pretty soon he enters recovery, gets sober, and rebuilds his life.

He works as a hospice nurse and with his faithful cat, Azreel (love the name; Azrael is the god of death or the angel of death in some cultures) helps the dying cross over.

One night, a little girl with a shining so strong it almost knocks him over reaches out to him. She is Abra Stone, a precocious and highly gifted child with “the shining” or psychic abilities. And her life is in danger.

A group of travelers known as The True Knot, ancient evil beings sort of a cross between demons and vampires, is after her.

The True Knot is perhaps one of King’s most brilliant creations. He has created in this book a new genre of evil creatures that I dare say will one day be as famous as vampires, mummies and Frankenstein’s monster. The True Knot are a truly original creation of pure genius; they are mildly pleasant while stunningly evil.  On the one hand, they look like elderly tourists in ugly slogan shirts, ball caps and comfy shoes playing bingo at the camp ground.  Those same benign-looking folks also love to mutilate, torture and feed on the essence of children with the shining.

Rose, the leader of the True Knot, is depicted on the cover of the book.  She’s beautiful. She wears an antique top hat. She’s…about as close to the devil on earth as you can get. And she hates little Abra Stone with a passion.

The writing is wonderful, the cursing and sex to a minimum. That’s why I think King’s prose has matured. In some of his earlier works, the crudity put me off. I am not a prude, but I don’t appreciate a lot of gross humor or swear words or slang for this or that.  I always fumed that King was a better writer, and so he is.

I’ve also been harsh in the past about King’s treatment of humanity and his vision of God. (My essay is here.)He still has that quality in his works of agnosticism, but the belief in a higher power is evident in this book, and people – real flesh and blood people outside of the True Knot – treat each other with love, compassion and dignity. A few people are idiots, but isn’t that the way life is? It’s not all unicorns, rainbows and roses. But it’s also not all garbage heaps and outhouses, and sometimes I felt like King’s earlier works dwelled too much in the garbage heaps and outhouses among humanity and not among the rainbows and unicorns. Or at least among kind-hearted, well meaning folks.

Doctor Sleep is an excellent read and I devoured it in two nights of non stop reading.  I highly recommend it. My copy came from the public library, but you can purchase Doctor Sleep at your favorite bookstore or on Amazon.

 

The Pleasure and Surprises of Used Books

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My husband only buys new books, and they must be hardcover editions. To him, these are “real” books.  As for me, one of the greatest pleasures in my life is going to a used book sale at the library and filling bag after bag of books loved by someone else. Each of these books tells a story.

Many times when I open up the book, notes, letters, clippings tumble out. (I’m waiting for the day when a $100 bill falls out.) Last night, I pulled out a book called The Wildflower Meadow, a gardening book I purchased at the Prince Edward County library book sale in the fall. It’s an older edition, with yellowed pages and a wrinkled cover. It looks like many hands have held this book. Out from the foxed pages tumbled a sheet of yellow ruled paper. “Jane called at 11:30 a.m.” was scrawled in the upper right hand corner; below was a note that read in part,

I know you can’t see the changes I’ve made around here to the landscaping, but I plan to do more.

The trees, the shrubs and the flowers all need changing.

It will take time but each year I will accomplish more and more.

The note wasn’t signed, and was followed by other notations, in different pens but in the same beautiful penmanship, notes related to species and varieties of plants. I’m guessing the author was taking notes and dreaming on paper about the changes he or she (I think it’s a she; the writing looks feminine to me, but who knows?) wanted to make in her garden.

It’s these little finds that make reading used books so much fun. One time, I bought a book about how to create a spiritual retreat at home. It was a book filled with ideas on how to create home altars, prayer spaces, daily retreats. Out tumbled a bookmark dedicated to St. Therese of Lisieux; in the middle of it was a square of cloth said to be touched to a relic of St. Therese. At the time, I had just moved to Virginia and joined the parish of St. Therese of Lisieux in Farmville, and it was a wonderful feeling to hold that bookmark, given to me quite by chance when the fellow in my book club sent it off to me. Or was it by chance? I wonder…

I also finished reading the book A Naturalist Buys and Old Farm, another book purchased at the local library book sale. From these pages, a newspaper clipping from a 1970s paper tumbled forth. Badly yellowed, so dried it was cracking, it was a clipping about the book’s author on a speaking tour of Virginia Beach. I wonder if the original owner of the book was from Virginia Beach and moved to my area of Virginia?  There was a note scrawled on the clipping: “Bob. Saw this and thought of you. Hope you like the book.” No signature.

I’ve found dedications inside books, loving thoughts and words written to students, children, parents. One volume of sheet music I picked up of Bach had a note written from a piano teacher to her student, “May you always cherish Bach and the lessons he taught you.”  It is dated 1946.

It is these moments in time that connect reader to reader, past to present, as a cherished volume is passed along, sometimes to a friend, sometimes to a stranger. If books could talk, they would have even more to say than they already do!

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