This was my first Stephen King novel and it’s years later and I’m still not absolutely sure how I felt about it. I think it was incredibly well-plotte...moreThis was my first Stephen King novel and it’s years later and I’m still not absolutely sure how I felt about it. I think it was incredibly well-plotted—I don’t think it was particularly well-written—and it is largely sexist, although King even apologizes for that in a foreword in the edition that I read, all, “I was in my twenties, whatareyougonnado.”
I feel like there were elements of the story that worked much better than others, and that the multiple movie and TV versions of this story that have come out since the book was published—notably Kubrick’s The Shining and The Simpsons's "The Shinning"—did excellent jobs of picking out the really scary bits and leaving behind the chaff. The only scary part I remember that was really fresh to me in the book was the hornet’s nest, which Jack thought was abandoned and so gave to Danny to put in his room. And then hornets were appearing so he put like a clear bowl over it while they killed all the house hornets. And then they looked at the bowl and it was black with insects crawling inside of it—they couldn’t even see the nest. That’s a fantastic little unsettling piece of business.
Whereas, the hedge animals that come to life…that’s chaff. Jack’s obsessive cataloguing of the hotel’s criminal and paranormal history. That doesn’t go anywhere except getting him almost fired. Which doesn’t happen and doesn’t affect the outcome of the story anyway. I think really it was just a plotty way to fit the hotel history into the plot. And the thing is, like I said above, King is above all a great plotter, so he could have probably done better than this. He could even have broken up the narrative structure with the text of the old news clippings without anyone in the story having had to be the one reading them. That structure goes all the way back to (famously) Dracula.
Also, and here’s where things get SPOILERy, I was confused as to where, at what point, Jack finally dies. There is a specific moment in which he seems to be finished off by Wendy (who stabs him in self-defense). He has death throes, he collapses, she gets away. Then he gets back up. Only by this time the book is calling him “It.” It climbed the stairs, and so on. So I decided, Jack is dead now and he’s now one of the hotel spirits. There are already dead people all over this hotel, right, so it’s not that weird. But later, in a confrontation with Danny, Jack is Jack again, and shows his son mercy by sacrificing himself, so that Danny can get away. He seems to have multiple deaths, is the thing, and I would have liked a more clearly delineated line between alive/dead or even harmless/vengeful.
But then maybe that’s completely ridiculous. A major part of the horror here is the creeping evil in Jack. He’s dangerous long before he’s dead. Maybe it’s actual spirit possession, maybe it’s something that was always in him that’s just been unlocked by the presence of the spirits in the hotel. So from that perspective, the minute Jack ceases to be living, breathing Jack, is totally arbitrary, and just a reflection of me wanting hard and fast rules for the Overlook’s supernaturality, and not getting them. And that is not King’s problem.(less)
I deeply admire what Annie Dillard does. She has a way of crafting an essay in which readers learn little to nothing about her actual life, but feel a...moreI deeply admire what Annie Dillard does. She has a way of crafting an essay in which readers learn little to nothing about her actual life, but feel as though they've been given a glimpse of something very personal. She has a way of achieving poignancy within these hugely intellectual/philosophical musings of hers and I think it comes from her ability to craft an indelible image and build upon it.
The Writing Life was, weirdly, the least interesting of the three for me. I had just read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which is so amazing, that Dillard's felt a little flat. I had hoped to learn more about the nuts and bolts of what she does, the practical side, but this text veers too far into the philosophical.
An American Childhood is gentle and nostalgic; it has a very serialized feel, with each chapter delving into a particular memory, so that it can be read in spurts and bursts. It's about kids riding their bikes down streets bathed by lamplight. It's about grass stains on the knees of your pants. It's about girls in party dresses going to church-sponsored dances and whispering behind their gloved hands about the boys. It's beautiful through and through.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Dillard's most famous work. It's all about Dillard living in a cabin in rural Virginia, walking through fields and swamps, observing bugs and frogs, and thinking about life. Her obvious jumping-off point is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which I read years ago. Both of these books—Thoreau’s and Dillard’s—are amazing pieces of American literature / philosophy, and it makes me feel like a total philistine, or someone entirely lacking in spiritual being, not to care for them. But I kinda don’t. I don’t like nature. I like couches. I like store-bought food. I like disinfectant. Still, Dillard made me feel, at least momentarily, like my rebellion is totally futile. That, I think is her main objective.(less)
The third book from Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her first, Interpreter of Maladies. That was a book of short fiction and so is this, a...moreThe third book from Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her first, Interpreter of Maladies. That was a book of short fiction and so is this, and unfortunately it proves, among other things, that her scope is reaaaaally narrow. Those stories were all about (East-) Indians living in America and Indians who’d been in America and returned to India and the resultant culture clash, and almost all of them were affiliated with Harvard in some way. Lahiri has a milieu and she scarcely stirs from it; not necessarily a problem, but one her fans had to face up to when we read this, because there is a definite sameness in some of these stories to others that came before them. It felt, at times, a little tiresome. A little. However, she still has precise, exquisite prose—like looking at museum miniatures—and she still draws relationships between people with careful, subtle strokes. If I think of her as contemporary fiction’s Edith Wharton, I’m totally OK with anything she wants to do.
And, even if the first handful of stories in the collection do have that bit of sameness to them, the final three (sur-titled “Hema and Kaushik”) are something really different. They almost make up a novella, three interconnected stories about two characters over time. There’s romance involved, but it’s deeper than that, an interwining of fates that is bigger than both of them, a shared loneliness. And although I didn’t really expect a happy ending for them—the vast majority of Lahiri’s characters lead Thoreauesque lives of quiet desperation—I was certainly unprepared for heartbreak of the one that I got.
Additional note: I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a terrific presentation. There were two readers, a man and a woman, who did justice both to Hema and Kaushik but also to the various male and female characters in the other stories. I don't know why more audiobooks don't do this. It would save us so many really unflattering imitations of the speech patterns of the sex opposite that of the reader (men reading women in high, silly voices and so on).(less)