11/22/63 by Stephen King (Book Review)

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a big Stephen King fan over the years, beginning with Carrie, which came out when I was in high school and was joyfully passed from hand to hand, becoming steadily more tattered. King was doing something new, writing about things none of us had seen in print, in a voice that was new and somehow creepy and matter-of-fact at the same time, and what we would come to recognize over the years as uniquely Kingish. I couldn’t get enough of his books, bought every new one that came out.

Until the Dark Tower series. I know very little about making your living by writing and editing and publishing books and I’m sure there are considerations I’ve never thought of, but I got tired of waiting six and seven years between installments, and I quit buying them. (George R.R. Martin, are you listening?) Maybe I just got burned out altogether. Although I bought Cell and Lisey’s Story I never got around to reading them; I’m pretty they’re in storage after my last two adventures in moving house. Once the entire Dark Tower series had been published I bought them all used and read them straight through, then put Stephen King away for several years. Maybe it was just time to discover other things.

Recently my literary life has been flashing before my eyes, calling me to reread books I’ve loved decades ago. Carrie was among those, along with The Stand, which is my favorite of King’s novels and one of my overall favorite novels of all time. That got me wondering what he’s been doing lately. 11/22/63 had two hooks to land me: the JFK assassination and time travel. (Many years ago I read another novel about a time traveler who keeps Kennedy alive, with dire results, and I can’t remember the title or author and it’s driving me crazy.)

King’s contribution to the body of JFK conjecture is stellar, and his research shows. There is no glossing over the ugly things from the late 50’s and early 60’s: the racism and segregation, the misogyny, the clouds of smokestack emissions and cigarette smoke everywhere you go. Still, immersing yourself in this book is a lovely return to a more idyllic time, including the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and the stirring of America’s racial and environmental conscience. This book is many things all at the same time: science fiction, mostly, including alternate history, time travel, the butterfly effect, and chaos theory. There’s a wee bit of horror (thankfully only a hint of Pennywise the Clown; sorry, but I didn’t much care for It). There’s a love story, too.

Stephen King is considered by many to be a hack, and that’s really unfair. (And I’m sure every time some book snob looks down their nose at him, he goes into a corner and cries, blowing his nose with money.) So he writes a lot of horror; so what? So he writes a lot, period. So what? He’s written books I didn’t like much (the aforementioned It; The Tommyknockers; I like my creepy-crawlies more metaphysical than corporeal), but he’s also written books I loved enough to read again. Mozart was prolific too, but his genius is recognized. Dickens and Poe were called hacks in their day.

I love well-crafted phrases and exquisite prose, of course, but while King is capable of that, I don’t think that’s really what his voice is. That doesn’t make it not worth listening to. So many times Literature with a capital L has left me snoring or wondering what the hell the book was even about, when all I really want is a good read, with a world I feel I’ve stepped right into, characters I feel I know personally, and a story I feel like I’m actually living. It doesn’t get much better than that, and Stephen King usually comes through. If he’s a hack, then he’s my favorite hack.

Don’t Feed the Squirrels (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch May 18 Flash Fiction Prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a squirrel.

squirrel-528067_960_720
Pixabay/detapo, CC.

Jane and the squirrel are both frozen, warily eying each other. She doesn’t dare move, doesn’t want to startle it.

She remembers wanting to feed yard squirrels as a child. “They carry plague,” her mother had fretted. “Don’t get near them.”

Her father had laughed and asked her mother why she didn’t make squirrel pie like his mother had. Mom had snorted. “Where would you go shooting in the Denver metro area?”

Happier times. Safer times.

Jane breaks a piece from her doughnut and slowly holds it out, drops it. The squirrel’s bright gaze drops and it hops forward.

Shut Up and Hit Me

Sometimes I used to wish he would just hit me. He’d have it out of his system that much sooner, the injury would heal faster, and I’d have something visible to show, something people would take seriously. Sure, people close to me knew he was an asshole, but I couldn’t possibly be in such a position as to need help. Could I?

Scenario One: I’m scrolling around a website and idly remark to my husband*, “Someday I really am going to tour the Greek islands.” He rolls his eyes. “Oh, don’t be stupid,” he replies. “With your panic attacks? And where are you going to get that kind of money?”

I don’t answer. I sigh, and shut down the computer, and go to bed.

Scenario Two: I’ve settled in for an evening with the husband and kids. On the end table next to my chair are my drink, my glasses, the embroidery I’m working on, my cigarettes and lighter and ashtray.* Predictably, I eventually get up to go to the bathroom. When I return, my husband is now sitting where I’d been. Perplexed, I say nothing, just move my things and get comfortable in another chair.  Later, when I return from tucking our daughter into bed, my husband has moved again and is now sitting in the spot I’d moved to.

There are lots of other scenarios. “If we didn’t have all your hospital bills, we wouldn’t have any money problems.” “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that I wear the pants around here and your job is to shut up?” “No, we’re not watching that show. You only like stupid stuff.”

Now multiply this, two or three or a dozen times a day, every day, for years. Just stop and picture that.

Or is already familiar, because you live it already?

It’s crap like that, that makes you think you’re going crazy, wonder what’s wrong with your life, what’s wrong with you. Until you realize it’s not you at all.

It’s abuse.

No, maybe he doesn’t hit you. But it’s still abuse, designed to manipulate and control you and keep you down, keep you in your place, keep you theirs. Their ability to tear you down to nothing is limitless, their tactics legion. When The Troll ridiculed my Greek islands daydream he was telling me I was incapable, not good enough, and that my dreams were pointless and stupid. When he kept stealing the place I was sitting, he was keeping me off balance, reminding me I didn’t have a place in the world beyond what he allowed. (And it wasn’t just me. I’ve read of other abusers doing this same thing to other targets. Astounding.) And they do way more than that. If you take exception to something they say, you’re oversensitive or you can’t take a joke. They blindside you with accusations that have no basis in fact, they tell you your opinions and memories are wrong, they convince you they’d treat you well if you only deserved it, they blame all their problems on you. Many abusers won’t even permit their victims to work outside the home. They control all the money, the transportation, the communication. Even if your abuser doesn’t go that far, you still may end up isolated from other relationships. The abuser may discourage your other relationships by guilt-tripping you or accusing you of disloyalty or infidelity. Or it may be that your friends and family just don’t like the abuser, don’t feel comfortable. Maybe they believe you have chosen the asshole over them. My mother would not even come to my house, two blocks away from my sister’s, for the years I was married to The Troll. Beyond family holidays at which my family grudgingly included him, our social life was confined to his family and his friends.

How in the world are you going to have anyone to turn to for help? How likely are you to believe you even deserve help, when you’ve been convinced you’re a worthless piece of shit and your friends and family don’t talk to you anymore?

See how this works?

Of course it’s not all bad, not all the time. Abusers can be loving and magnanimous. They make up for the latest outburst against you so you won’t leave, they put on a display for others, they use gifts and loving treatment like carrots on a stick. The Troll used to celebrate special days lavishly – my birthday, Mother’s Day, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Christmas. Expensive jewelry or stereo systems, flowers all over the house, once a brand new car. Their generosity is very visible. If you try to talk to anyone about your unhappiness, all you get is, “That wonderful guy? But he treats you like a queen!” Um, yeah. When you can see him. And what about the 360 days a year that aren’t special? Abuse has cycles. Typically there are three stages: building tension, the explosion, and the make-up or honeymoon, when the abuser promises change and the victim wants so badly to believe.

Sometimes I used to wish he would just hit me. He’d have it out of his system that much sooner, the injury would heal faster (“stick and stones” is bullshit; cruel words and constant tearing down can scar for a lifetime), and, perhaps most importantly, I’d have something visible to show, something people would take seriously. Sure, people close to me knew he was an asshole, but I couldn’t possibly be in such a position as to need help. Could I?

woman-1006100_960_720
Pixabay/Counselling

And the thing is, even if people do recognize verbal and emotional abuse for what they are, they still don’t recognize the debilitating effect, popularly known as Battered Woman Syndrome. If you stay in such a relationship, you’re still stupid, or you must like it in some sick way, or some other stupid shit rationalization that is still used to judge abused people.

Just as the pattern of my abuse was a thousand thousand small things all knit together, it was something very small that finally set me free. I’d been calling around to borrow an evening dress for The Troll’s fancy-schmancy work Christmas party. “Oh, no,” he said grandly. “You’ve worked so hard, lost all that weight since the baby. You deserve to buy a new dress.” So I did, a killer find, a beauty of a velvet LBD for less than forty dollars. We partied, he was complimented endlessly on his beautiful wife, he beamed, we danced, I glowed. Surely this time everything would be all right. How could it not be, with magic like this?  About a week later, he saw the dress in a dry cleaning bag and just lost it, out of nowhere. Ranting and raving about all the unpaid bills, no food in the house, no money in the bank, and a useless stupid bitch of a wife who pisses away hundreds of dollars on a fucking dress. I stood there, feeling that stupid, dumbstruck expression on my face, again. Speechless. Blindsided. Again.

The only thing that made this incident different from hundreds of previous incidents was that this one was the breakthrough, the time the heavens opened and light shone down and a hidden truth stirred deep inside me. This was the time when bone-knowing finally happened.

This is your life. It was like a great Voice in my head. I finally knew that truth no one else can tell you, that I’d never be able to do anything right with this man because it wasn’t about me at all. It was about him. I also, finally, knew that it was never going to get better, no matter how much I tried, no matter how many things about myself I changed or hid or gave away, no matter how many eggshells I tiptoed across.That was the moment I knew I’d never be able to do anything right because it wasn’t about me at all.

Things were exactly the way he wanted them. And if I didn’t get out, this was how my life would always be.

His ranting was nothing more than another tactic, of course; more blindsiding whole cloth accusations on the tail of another honeymoon phase. The bills were indeed paid. Our cupboards and pantry were stuffed. There was money in the bank, too, and wasn’t he just furious when I took half of it as I left him.

I’d known none of the terminology when I figured out that I was, in fact, being abused. The only phrase that came to my mind was “mental cruelty,” a phrase I’d seen in various pulpy novels and that was not used in Nevada divorce law. A couple of years later, after our tortuous divorce was final, I chanced across The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. I read it and marveled, wondering how the author had managed to hide a camera in my house, to read my journals. She was writing about me! I know now that book is a staple among counselors and therapists. Some excellent points taken from the book can be found here

shame-799094_960_720
Pixabay/johnhain

It is also important to remember that it is not just heterosexual domestic relationships where this kind of abuse occurs. It takes place everywhere. Years after I escaped that horrific marriage, I endured the most miserable three months of my entire professional life when I moved to Seattle to work for a woman who turned out to be the Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell. The dynamic is the same: one person wants a healthy and happy relationship, the other wants to exercise ultimate control, and the abuse target is harmed, with consequences up to and including suicide and a perpetuated abuse cycle. The control-abuse dynamic is found in same-sex relationships, platonic friendships, between parents and children, between caregivers and dependents, between bosses and employees.

If you are a target in this cycle, there are two things you need to know:

It’s not your fault. You’ve been operating under the belief that both of you want the same thing: an honest, give-and-take relationship that is good for both of you. Your abuser has been lying to you. You’re not to blame for operating with integrity and trusting that other person. You don’t deserve it, you’re not stupid, and you’re not to blame.

There is help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline to talk with someone and get resources to untangle yourself from the web. If yours is an employment situation I recommend the work of Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie.

What is the most important thing you can do if you think someone you know is being abused? Let them know you see what’s going on. Let them know you’re there to help. Don’t assume they “just know it.” They have been beaten and worn down, with words and with fists, to where they are no longer their true selves. Don’t push them to do anything they’re not ready to; just be there. Promise you’ll help when they’re ready, and keep your promise.

There’s a saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” That’s one reason abuse occurs, sure. People who hurt others are usually lashing out against those who have wounded them. But it’s not a justification. The cycle has to end. Every time one of us stands up to it, we help it to end.

*The husband referred to here is now an ex I call The Troll. My present husband, the Tominator, could never be such a flaming asshole.

**Don’t start. I’ve quit since these days.

Insomnia, Installment 15 (Six Sentence Stories)

Oddly, the address of the building she had worked in, the building that should be right here but somehow isn’t, is still there. It no longer consists of molded and brushed steel numerals affixed to a sleek professional tower. It now looks more like a status: “1,601 Available Now,” proclaims a handwritten sign hanging from a solitary post. She feels a vague fear running its way up from her toes.

Absent-mindedly craving security, her fingers pull her phone out of her cardigan pocket to check it, almost at the same instant it registers that she can see no power lines anywhere. She thumbs the button to turn the display on and is pathetically comforted to see the icon telling her she has a pending message.

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Pixabay/Tante Tati.

This is a Six Sentence Stories installment. It’s been hectic around here and I missed a week, so I’m making myself feel less behind by getting two cues in one story. Last week’s cue was “address” and this week’s is “check.” Aren’t I just the clever one?

Click here for Installment 14.

Click here for Installment 16.

Click here for fun Six Sentence Stories from other writers.

 

 

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (Book Review)

Valley Of The DollsValley Of The Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This guilty pleasure of a book is the kind of awesome that should be hidden in the nightstand drawer with a bottle of gin.

Tame by today’s standards, but still one of the top five trashy beach reads of all time. I remember lying out on a blanket on the lawn, skimpy bikini, slathered with oil and reeking of coconut, probably with lemon juice in my hair – this was when every teenaged girl wanted to look like Farrah Fawcett. My mom looked at what I was reading, rolled her eyes, and said, “Don’t let your father see that, and please be halfway dressed when he gets home.”

Don’t think the four stars I gave it represent any actual literary quality. There is none of that. This is about as far from Literature as you can get. The dialogue is cheesy, it’s all tell and no show, the pacing is completely whacked, the characters are two-dimensional. I wanted to slap Anne upside the head through the whole thing – God, what a Mary Sue. Neely is a post-war Britney Spears, and Jennifer is the stereotypical blonde bombshell with no talent. All three seek the success of good marriages and showbiz, in the days when Nice Girls didn’t do it, men were encouraged to be oversexed, misogynistic douchebags, and it was still socially acceptable to wear real fur.

That’s what you read this book for, the glitter and the smut and the ladies’ room catfight. You don’t read it for the writing. The writing is like a high-schooler’s first draft of a soap opera.

Seconals. Irma had given her four. (“They’re like gold to me. I can’t give you any more.”) Irma had replaced Neely in the show. She claimed the little red ‘dolls’ had saved her life.

Like that. Seriously, the writing is bad. All the sentences are the same length.

But — it works. My high school friends and I passed tattered paperback copies around like Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill at a basement sleepover. Broadway and Hollywood! Booze! Pills! Premarital sex, extramarital sex, revenge sex! More pills and more booze! Sequins and lipstick and ten-carat diamond engagement rings! Modeling jobs and movie contracts! London affairs and Reno divorces and Mexican abortions! Or is it Mexican divorces and Swedish abortions? Whatever! Yet more pills, washed down with yet more booze!

I have to say, it was almost as much fun as a reread, but with a nice merlot.

The Revenant by Michael Punke (Book Review)

The Revenant: A Novel of RevengeThe Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke

Horribly mauled by a grizzly. Robbed of your rifle, knives, flint and steel. Left for dead in an area where the native tribes do not take kindly to white intrusion. See what happens when you shove in where you don’t belong and weren’t invited? See?

Pack your bags to travel back in time 200 years, and remember you are not allowed to take antibiotics, GPS, matches, or modern weapons. Seriously. Stop reading this review and go read this fictional retelling of the story of Hugh Glass.

The ending did seem a bit anticlimactic, until you remember this book does not follow the standard formula that builds to successive crisis points with appropriate subplots and foreshadowing, ending with a grand climax and denouement. It is a combination of historical fiction and literary fiction, telling a tale based on real-life people and events, in a way that seems it was written not long after the events took place. Some find the biographical and historical passages boring; I loved them. They were informative lulls that whetted my appetite for the action to resume and breathed even more life into characters who did once live, including the title character Glass, legendary mountain man Jim Bridger, William Ashley, Captain Andrew Henry, the pirate Jean Lafitte, and Toussaint Charbonneau, the widower of Sacajawea.

I learned a few things, too: how to make a pine tar poultice, how to trap small creatures for food with nothing but rocks, how to eat cattails. The only thing I felt was lacking was a map. I know Fort Talbot was entirely fictional, but other places were not, and I would have liked to visually follow Glass’ route as he crawled down the Grand River, making his tortuous way toward reckoning and revenge.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (Book Review)

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Ahhh, the joy of a writer who uses similes effectively; more than effectively. O’Connor’s similes deepen the meaning, intensifying everything else. Writers, if your book is on my Cringe-Worth-Simile-Hall-of-Fame shelf on Goodreads, please read some O’Connor and see how it’s done. O’Connor’s powers of description are some of the most impressive I’ve seen, such as, “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.” Sentences you reread with a smile because they’re just that good.

Irony reigns in this complete collection, along with violence and characters who are almost savagely real. These stories are dark. O’Connor show us the light of the world by painting the dark spots.

I don’t think I’ve ever read the word nigger so much in my life. I almost didn’t read the rest of the book after the first story (“The Geranium”), it bothered me so much. But one must realize it was the nomenclature of the time, as were the racist attitudes themselves (which the author herself seems not to share, thankfully).

I’ve always been hard to please when it comes to short stories. I think they are difficult to do well. I am well pleased; there is some powerful stuff here. My favorite was “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (a deft treatment of bigotry and obliviousness), but “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” and a later reworking of “The Geranium” called “Judgement Day” are not to be missed.