I read a ton in May! Will try not to ramble on too long.
You know you’ve been working with the public too long when the idea of the human race being wiped out isn’t altogether unappealing. I kid, I kid. But Stephen King’s The Stand raises some interesting questions about our dominance of the planet, and how we treat other.
In a top-secret lab in the US, a computer error leads to a deadly virus escaping. Captain Trips is more than a mere flu- it’s been developed as biological weapon, designed to attack the human immune system, adapting and overcoming every defence until the body gives up, exhausted. Death comes within days, and once it’s out in the general public, it spreads mercilessly. But a small percentage of the population are immune. The novel follows some of them- Texan Stu Redman, pregnant student Frannie Goldsmith, her friend’s bitter and resentful little brother Harold Lauder, sociologist Glen Bateman, musician Larry Underwood, mentally disabled Tom Cullen and mute Nick Andros across America until they settle in Boulder, Colorado, and try to set up a new civilisation. But they have competition. They have all been led to the midwest by dreams of a kindly old woman, Mother Abagail. But further south, a rival community migrates to Las Vegas, led by unsettling, creepy visions of the strange and terrible Randall Flagg, or the Dark Man.
The early portion of the book is the most compulsive. Captain Trips is rendered in horrific detail and all the characters encounter death and terror on their way. Nick Andros is the only man left in town; Larry watches his mother die among a sea of victims in a New York hospital; Frannie must bury her own father. When the party arrive in Boulder, however the pace slows considerably. King delves into a bit too much detail on the various town meetings and plans to organise the new settlement- I read the unabridged, 1990 version so I’m not sure how much was re-added to the original 1978 published version. But you can forgive King these indulgences, given the unforgettable characters and the powerful story he has wrought.
A word of warning- do not read this book if you have a head cold, like I did. It will make you paranoid about every sniffle and every sneezing stranger on the bus.
Another fine example of humanity’s tendency to wipe itself out was World War I. Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is a must-read coming up to the anniversary of that terrible war’s beginning. Faulks’ rather dispassionate and detached narration can take a bit of getting used to, but it’s wholly effective in imparting the dull, endless horror Captain Stephen Wraysford encounters in the trenches of France. There are many stand-out moments, but it’s the little things that linger in the mind. Even while on leave, Stephen’s clothes are riddled with lice; the sapper Jack Firebrace who swears, when he gets back to England, he will never spend a minute underground, not even a trip on the Tube; the veteran Stephen’s granddaughter visits in 1978 who lost his mind in the war and never got it back. It’s a war I’ll admit I was largely ignorant of until recently, but having read more, I think I may post something on it on the run up to August 2014.
And now for something completely different- Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, which was published in 1871, is a gothic novella about Laura, a lonely aristocratic girl in an Austrian Schloss who is delighted when the beautiful Carmilla crash-lands into their lives. Carmilla’s carriage quite literally does crash; her mother promptly shoves her at the family and takes off for three months. Of course Carmilla is not what she seems- she’s a vampire, and has her sights set on Laura’s pretty little neck.
Carmilla is well worth a read- entertaining, so short you’ll read it in an afternoon, and it’s interesting to read a vampire story written before the all-conquering Dracula. Apparently we Irish are mad for vampires. Who knew?
The lesbian aspect is so blindingly obvious also, it’s amazing LeFanu got away with it. Although he was writing at a time where the Queen of England thought lesbians were as real as unicorns (which may be a myth, sadly) so maybe female homosexuality was not on his readers’ radar.
A quick glance at Goodreads shows that Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a novel that firmly divides opinion. Personally I loved it, and found it difficult to get out of my head, especially the ending- a word of warning, the tone at the end of the book is dark as pitch. Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree is the youngest child of the Bigtree tribe, who are in reality, not native Americans but of midwestern farming stock. Her granddad came to one of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and set up a theme park, Swamplandia!, which is home to over 90 alligators. Ava’s mother was a famous alligator wrestler, but with her early death from cancer, the park struggles to attract tourists. On the mainland, a rival park, World of Darkness, has stolen a lot of their business.
Her older brother Kiwi, in a perfectly depicted mixture of bitterness and desire to help, jumps ship and works at the World of Darkness to help pay their father’s debts. Ava’s older sister, Osceola, only dates dead people, and is currently having an affair with the ghost of Depression-era dredgeman. (Ava casually mentions that Ossie cuts out obituaries of local boys killed in car crashes and other misfortunes and sticks them on her wall, which is a lingering creepy memory). When their father goes to the mainland on business, and Ossie ‘elopes’ with her ghost, Ava is left alone, with a rare red alligator she knows will save the park, and the ‘Birdman’, a mysterious stranger. Ava goes looking for Ossie with the Birdman, with devastating consequences.
Most of my prior knowledge of Florida came from The Golden Girls, but Russell- a Floridian herself- paints a wonderful picture of a historic, unusual state, full of mysteries and beauty. Ava’s concerns on the island are far from mundane- this contrasts marvellously with her brother’s life on the mainland, full of everyday problems such as annoying managers and paying rent. But how much is in her imagination?
The picture of a trusting child who has had a magical childhood (one of my favourite parts in the book is when they visit the Library Boat, a wrecked schooner, the hold of which bulges with slightly damp books) only to lose her innocence in the worst way possible is wonderfully drawn by Russell. The end of the story is stunningly sad- while it may seem you are getting a quirky, upbeat read, you’re really getting heartbreak.
You may notice I read some pretty bleak books this month. So I needed, for the sake of my sanity, to read something light. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling fitted the bill ideally. Comedian and writer Kaling (who many will know as Kelly Kapoor from The Office and the star of The Mindy Project) takes us through her life as an awkward kid, who grew up into a successful comedy writer. Kaling is funny, and if you’re looking for a quick, amusing read, you could do a lot worse.
You won’t get depth in this book though- Kaling doesn’t write about anything too serious, and if you’re looking for inside gossip on the cast of The Office, you’ve come to the wrong place. Steve Carell is so lovely he reportedly refuses to bitch about anyone, even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but it does not seem the cast are especially close. Kaling jokes that Rainn Wilson is as irksome as Dwight, but that’s it. Still though, as Kaling herself says, “This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It’s mostly pink. If you’re reading this book every night for months, something is not right.”
Til next month book lovers- oh and I have started to reread Harry Potter so look forward to a review of The Philosopher’s Stone over the next fews days!