Thursday, June 28, 2012

Diary of A Farmer's Wife, 1892

photo: Farmer's Wife in Clogs, 1892 by Louis Roy, from

Check out this website,  As the link suggests, it's a diary of a Maine farmer's wife in 1892.  Doesn't sound interesting?  Well, I thought so, too, but since I was doing some research for The Gravediggers--I needed to know everyday life for New England farmers in 1892--I gave it a shot.  The really interesting thing about the journal is that its author writes just a few sentences--if not just one--per entry.

And so you might think, "How much can I learn about someone who only writes a couple of sentences per entry?"  The surprising answer is: A lot.  Why?  Because she writes every day!  And I do mean every single day.  So it's not what she writes that matters; it's the consistency of what she writes that matters.  And because the writing is so spare, you learn a lot about her, and the time, because there's no fluff at all to get in the way.  In fact, I read the whole year in about 30 minutes.

You learn that she's religious.  Okay, most rural people at the time were.  But you also see that she mentally beats herself up quite a bit.  When she even hints that she may have done something bad, it's jarring.  And she never tells you what she's done, or to whom she's done it to, so part of the enjoyment of reading this thing is that you have to do a lot of playful guesswork sometimes.

The publisher of the website says she has an entire journal to put on the site, but nothing beyond 1892 appears yet, even though it's been a few years now since it was posted.

Why am I pushing this?  Because the woman's philosophy is one I'd love to embrace.  Keep it simple.  Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify."  This woman is honestly grateful for everything!  She keeps it simple (and keeps it real) by doing what she has to do, accepting what comes, being grateful for the good, and hoping for better.  She's no pushover, either, just passively accepting everything.  (She comes across as someone not to be messed with.)  She's a hard-working go-getter, if not a particularly gifted writer, and she is an obvious presence.  The site's author notes that her great-grandmother (the author of the journal) was a woman of her time, and probably not known at all outside of her household and closest neighbors.  But she seems content with this as well, and just gets along as best she can with her bad knees, her quiet convictions, and her place in a very unpopulated area that is very cold and very harsh.

I've been keeping a journal--as I always have--but lately I'm trying to do the same: to boil the day down to its two- or three-sentence essence.  Maybe I can make my head and psyche as clear as my journal.

And maybe you can, too.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

photo: First edition hardcover, from its Wikipedia page

Very well-researched and captivating book about witches and healing, past and present.  The author wisely switches back and forth between the two, sometimes focusing more on one than the other, to create the feeling that the past influences the present, especially amongst families.  The author also manages to write about present-day witchery without the muddlesome, and mostly inaccurate, hocus-pocus that goes with it, making it seem more like Wicca than anything like the witches with broomsticks and dressed in black, such as those found in what we think of Salem or The Wizard of Oz.  This book's witches seem more like herbalists than spell-casters, and their witchery is always used for good.

The characters always seem real, especially the Danes of the past, and Connie of the present.  The author also manages to create real minor characters, which is no easy feat.  My favorites were Connie's mother and the elitist researcher who points Connie to Harvard's Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.  His lines were priceless; I actually read them again out loud.  I have to admit that the antagonist is not much of a mystery.  You feel like knocking Connie upside the head for constantly being oblivious to the adversary's obvious meddling.  And it's obvious to me that the author has seen The Silence of the Lambs.  A character in that movie shares the exact same name, mannerisms and speech-patterns, and oily-slick aura and presentation, as his namesake in this book.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this book for me was its writing.  Sometimes it got a bit purple; in some passages, the author is trying way too hard.  But most of it is really good writing.  I was blown away by some small touches, such as how in one scene, Connie and Sam are talking, and we leave them, follow the dog for a couple of sentences as it walks away from them, then re-join them as the dog does, thereby showing the passage of a short amount of time.  Clever, without shocking us out of our suspension of disbelief.  There are a lot of small passages in there like that, and the writing is simply good, and exact, without bogging the reader down with so much specificity that it stops the story's progress. 

The reader does need to be interested in the mid- to late-1600s to enjoy the book, however; a healthy knowledge of The Crucible also helps, as part of the interest is to see what the author will do with the characters of that play, as well as the other real-life personages.  Overall, she remains true to them and to history, and so creates a captivating book that plops you more into the past than it does into the present--well, into the early 1990s, anyway.  I also guess that the book was placed in the early 1990s--rather than in 2009, when the book was actually published--because of the numerous scenes in which Connie talks to her mother on an actual phone.  I also suspect that too much present-day technology would be too jarring for us, especially since we want the author to return to the 1690s scenes, anyway.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Full Dark, No Stars--Stephen King

photo: book cover, from its Wikipedia site

"1922," the first one, was very good, far outshining the other three stories here, but slightly disappointing in the final paragraphs, which felt comicbook-like.  The writing is King's best in a long time, even if the theme and unreliable narrator are things we've seen before.  You almost feel sorry for the guy--but not quite. King has visited the rat motif many times before, most notably in some stories in Night Shift, and does so again here in a psychological fashion--though perhaps realistically, as well, at least in the eyes of the narrator.  This story is disappointing in the sense that King essentially has nowhere to go with it, leaving the author, the writing, the main character and the reader meandering through most of the story.  But, strangely, agreeably, because of the excessively smooth storytelling.  Perhaps one of the better examples yet of how King is a master storyteller--as he's been called literally a million times--even if he is somewhat lacking, sometimes (see: Rose Madder and Cell), as a writer.  Writing and storytelling are non-exclusive.  See James and Joyce for writing; see King for a story.

"Big Driver," the second story, was okay, in its own way, but severely disturbing no matter what you think about its gender-specific overtones.  I thin of this one as what Jodie Foster's character in The Accused would have done if she'd had the chance--though that character was of a far different background and constitution than the one here.  A disturbingly good read is the best way to describe this one, though, again, it's predictable with only one avenue to travel.  You'll feel compelled to travel it, too, and watch the carnage unfold, perhaps with your hands over your readers' eyes, trucking that written road through partly-opened fingers.

"Fair Extension," the third, was...hard to describe.  Slightly amusing in an "I'm a bad person for feeling this way" kind of way.  The Book of Job in a comic book format, I guess.  A reversal of the "bad things happen to good people" thought, combined with the Book of Job, this story is hard to like and yet also hard to put down.  Taps into the fact that most people are so dissatisfied with their own lives that they will watch with glee as constantly terrible things happen to someone else.  "As long as it isn't me" taken to the Nth degree.  An unlikable, but true, aspect of most people.  Right up there with King's often-stated metaphor of drivers and passersby rubber-necking for a glimpse of the corpse under the sheet at the accident scene.  One of the worst aspects of human nature, something I've always hated.  King's constant metaphor has led me to steadfastly NEVER peer at traffic accidents--literally, I don't ever look at the actual accident because of Stephen King.  Having been in one myself--and my blanket-covered body was videotaped by a guy as it was put into the back of the ambulance, so I speak from experience--I can tell you that this is a truly repulsive, Let's All Watch the Fight in the Hallway and Not Try to Stop It aspect of human nature that I detest in others.  Others' misfortunes are not my entertainment. (But, hey, I read this stuff, so maybe who am I to say after all?)  I would argue here that this story points out all of what I've just said, and does so with a disagreeable look.  (King acknowledges that he has made millions of dollars, thanks to this base aspect of human nature.)  

The last story, "A Good Marriage," was good.  Compulsively readable; very quick and easy; though, again, there's nowhere to go down this one-way street.  But, also again, the reader is compelled to follow the story down that one road, knowing full well where it's going, and not caring that he knows.  This is ostensibly King's greatest genius, it now occurs to me: he's able to tap into an innate segment of our psyche--no matter how base it is--and he shows it to us as a mirror into our own possible subconscious.  We compulsively follow it, and his stories, for just that reason: it could be us doing those things.  Based on the BTK killer--and his wife, who apparently really didn't know that she was married for 25+ years to a guy who tortured and killed a ton of women and children over all those years (Sandusky's wife is now saying the same)--this was a welcome break in between all the grad. class short story reading, which I also have to admit were very good, but much more serious and often intense.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Carrie by Stephen King

photo: First edition cover, from its Wikipedia page

So this is the first adult book I ever read, when I was 7.  Which possibly explains a lot.  When I finished reading this, I thought, "I can do this!  I can do BETTER than this."  (See my profile for more on this.)  I've been writing stories and novels ever since, proving myself right, and wrong, at less than even intervals.  The phrase "a crow among swans" has stayed with me, for some reason.  Frankly, it's in one of the few really well-written sentences in the whole book.  Now-famous story of how his wife saved this from the trash and made him finish it, thereby leading eventually to the $400,000 advance from Doubleday, is perhaps better than the novel itself.  Made me realize that I've always needed a woman in my life to support my writing the same way--and to welcome the task of sifting through my own garbage, both mental and physical.  Made "dirtypillows" a common word in my vocabulary.  Carrie's mom now seems like your typical right-wing conservative--very scary, indeed, and very prescient.  Some of those guys and gals out there today, including Christine the non-witch, make Carrie White's mother seem completely normal by comparison.

Stephen King himself says he's a bit embarrassed about this one, as he perhaps should be.  Obviously an underwritten novella pushed to barely novel-length by some "interviews," "articles" and crude desk-carvings.  Some of the scenes are brilliant, if not brilliantly written, but they clearly formed the vision of De Palma's movie, which was almost brilliant.  And it started the whole career rolling, didn't it?  (And not just for King, but for De Palma, Sissy Spacek and John Travolta, as well.)  Ultimately an okay read that showed great promise, which is what most first-time books this side of Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird usually are.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

photo: cover of French version, second edition, from the book's Wikipedia page

Very effective book--about the French populace not recognizing the culpability of the French police being the Nazi's stooges in 1942--that would have been great without the emphasis on the present-day relationship struggles and the moralizing/browbeating by the author, through the main character.  Though the real incidents portrayed via Sarah were real and horrifying, there isn't too much room for moralizing and browbeating in fiction.  I could've taken quite a bit of that, as it is that warranted, but this book crosses the line and becomes a bit of a soapbox.

Having said that, this book is worth the read just for the scenes with Sarah, culminating upon her return to her apartment--though, really, culminating with a car and a tree in Connecticut.  The tragedy of the tragedy ends with that car and tree, as we want our victims to live long and prosper.  That doesn't happen too often in real life, and it doesn't happen here, and the tragedy is multiplied because of that, and because of the reasons behind the suicide.  You never want the victim of unspeakable horrors to commit suicide, but the reality is that they often do.  All of this is very sad, and it will stay with you, whether you want it to or not.  Sarah's character will be a long-lasting one in the world of fiction, and Sarah's key is one of the better metaphors and symbols to come along in a long time.  In fact, as such, it is shockingly underused in the book.

That the book focuses instead on the relationship between the main character and her husband is an author's mistake, I think, that is further highlighted by her comment in an interview at the back of the book that she did not want to write a book of historical fiction.  Her aim was to include a bit of that, but to focus instead on creating a parallel to a modern-day relationship and its problems.  It is this parallel, unfortunately, that very much doesn't work.  You expect them to cris-cross at some point, and of course they do, but when they do, the moralizing starts, which degrades the effect of the tragedy.  Part of the tragedy, in fact, is that the tragedy was largely ignored.  It needed to stay tragic, rather than become fodder for a soapbox.

This failure with the parallel--and, I think, a failure on the author's rationale, as she states in the interview at the end that she thinks her readers want a book more about relationship struggles (and, hell, maybe they do, though this reader doesn't)--is that it counts too much on that moralizing, and on over-sentimentality, and on a large dose of coincidence.  The main character's marriage ends in divorce, it is said, because the husband couldn't handle her devotion to the tragedy, and to her unborn baby (though the marriage was actually in trouble long before that, and one supposes that the husband would've had a problem with her focusing her attention on anything and anyone at all but him, and he was cheating on her for many years even before the timeline for this novel started); another man's marriage falls apart because his wife couldn't handle his preoccupation with the same thing--even though Sarah was this man's mother, so he had a much better reason for his preoccupation.  Anyway, the main character and this man, separately, move to NYC after the failure of their marriages, and they both think about each other and keep track of each other without letting on to the other.  They fall for each other right away, though the man was also upset with her, and his marriage was fine at the time.  That they get together at the end, and the name that she gives her new daughter, will not surprise even a six year old reader, especially since the main character goes out of her way, several times, to narrate how beautiful this man's fingers and hands are...

...sigh...It becomes Schindler's List Meets Sleepless in Seattle.  I do not exaggerate.  (Well, perhaps a little.)

Could've been an outstanding book had the author book-ended the main story with the suicide, perhaps, or otherwise focused more on that.  Focusing the entire second half of the book on the aforementioned things, rather than on Sarah at all, or on the tragedies in her childhood, and then at the end of her life, actually degrades the real-life tragedy and drags the whole thing into quasi-sappy melodrama.

Sarah deserved a LOT better than that.  Sarah, in fact, transcends the trappings of this novel she's trapped in, and will live within you, outside the rather narrow confines of this book's borders.  She's a character, much like Shakespeare's Juliet, that is superior to the work she's placed in.  You'll be grateful, though, that the book exists as a vehicle for her to be born in, and then to survive and surpass.

For a look at a movie review from the New York Times that agrees with my assessment of the book the movie's based on, go to  Its final word is the same as mine, in terms of the essential fault of the book and film: both stories couldn't co-exist in the same vehicle, and the one about the pitfalls of today's relationships trivializes the truth and tragedy of the horror that really did happen in Paris, France in July, 1942.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Wind Through the Keyhole--Stephen King

photo: The book cover of the mass hardcover (not one of the 800 limited edition covers) from

An excuse me, I forgot something entry into the Dark Tower series, this one is actually two novellas--both completely different, though both take place in Dark Tower territory--in which one is sandwiched (or bookmarked, or framed, if you will)--by the other.  (Actually, it's literally a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but whatever.)  As a Dark Tower book, the novella with Roland takes precedence, but the other story, with Tim Stoutheart, is actually the better, and a mini-Dark Tower series in of itself (with a touch of Jack Sawyer from King's and Straub's The Talisman).  Roland's story, with a third-person omniscient narrator, has him as a much younger guy, tracking down a shape-shifter (called the Skin-Man) who's been killing lots of people.  Roland himself tells the other story, about Tim Stoutheart, while he and a young boy await the arrival of a group of men--one of whom is the shape-shifter.  The story he tells involves a Man in Black, who readers of the series will remember, and he even comes with the initials RF, for die-hard King fans who remember Randall Flagg's various guises.  This one has a disturbing bit of Life of Pi in it (it's got an existential tiger), as well as a mischievous and possibly evil Tinkerbell-like character.  It's full of the wonderment that I like from the series, and goes easy on the crossover stuff, which some of the other books got bogged down with.  This one is better written than the Roland part, as well.

My theory on this book--as it's rare that a writer or publisher will throw in a book that comes much earlier in the series, and a series that is complete without it, no less--is that this is a tied-together piece of two novellas that had been discarded by King and/or the publisher.  The shape-shifter story is much shorter, and, though okay, isn't particularly memorable or exceptionally well-written.  I think King wrote this as part of the Wolves of Calla string, maybe, and tossed it aside, for the reasons I just mentioned.  The Tim Stoutheart story strikes me as a possible tale of Roland's beginning, as it's essentially the foundation of how Tim, a lad who essentially lived in The Shire, grew to be a fearsome and famous Gunslinger--though not as revered as Roland, of course.  King, I think, decided that the story would not do for Roland, but, as has been his wont of late, thought it good enough to publish--but how?  Well, like this.  Though narrated by Roland, the voice is obviously King's, and is a welcome one that we're used to.  King tones it down quite a bit, and dispenses with his favorite C-word--which is otherwise used extensively in the Roland story, when it's clear that King is the third-person omniscient voice--because Roland is certainly too distinguished to ever use it.

All in all, the book is a quick read, though the framing is certainly forced, and you won't want the Tim Stoutheart tale to end, and you'll be slightly disappointed by the second half of Roland's frame.  It's also slightly more unbelievable, considering Roland is the strong and silent type, yet tells a long-ish story, but he'd been more verbal in the latter books of the series, so what the hey.  Ultimately it's a good read, though nothing you haven't seen before.  You'll come away very pleasantly disappointed, as you'll be wishing Tim and his mother well.