Wednesday, November 25, 2020

64. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I took this book out of the library (which we have been hitting hard now that my daughter is reading; man do I love libraries) because I found an R.L. Delderfield that is a prequel story of the life of Ben Gunn, one of the characters from Treasure Island.  I thought it was just some pirate book by him until I brought it home and read the back.  I had read Treasure Island as a lad and enjoyed it (though Kidnapped stayed with me longer for some reason).  I didn't want to read the Delderfield without really having a memory of Treasure Island.  

I had positive but not elevated expectations of reading Treasure Island as an adult. I thought it would be a fine tale as they say.  It surpassed my expectations.  It's a great book, a tight, exciting adventure that still lives up to its reputation as a classic, beyond its massive cultural influence.  Though it owes much to the popularity of castaway and pirate tales that preceded it, it really is Treasure Island that defined what we think of pirates today. Reading it again, one understands why. It combines innocence and real darkness in a perfect balance that makes it light and enjoyable to read but not trivial. The pacing is masterful, so that you really have a hard time putting it down, yet also let's you take a pause in nice places.  Finally, it is the characters and dialogue that really make it a masterpiece.  Long John Silver and the disturbing father/monster/victim relationship he has with young Jim Hawkins is at the heart of it. Several side characters add richness without getting in the way.  

This is definitely colonial history and its sins are woven into the story and setting.  The obvious racism only shows up at the end since there is really no other characters other than Englishmen.  The jolly class relationships are a tasty illusion that makes the whole thing palatable.  Just pointing these things out, as they should be critiqued, but for the astute reader none of it gets in the way in what is probably one of the best adventure books I have read this year and definitely in the top ten.  I read this to prep for the Delderfield, but I may have to take Kidnapped out of the library now.

Monday, November 23, 2020

63. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

I can't remember how we discovered these.  We got one and my daughter was hooked, so I have been taking the rest out from the library over the last few months.  It only take about half-an-hour to read one of them.  I've read them all plus the two Rowley Jefferson side books, so I figure I can count it as a single book (similar principle to a bande-dessinée series).  They are aimed at boys in elementary school.  I am not quite sure what it is about them that so appeals to my 8-year old daughter.  I suspect the format itself is a big part of it. They are books with illustrations with just enough balance of text and images to make them very easy to digest. The pictures themselves are nice, clean solid line drawings that have a lot of humour in them as well.  

Kinney has made a kajillion dollars from these books, so I will leave it to other experts to figure out why they are so popular in any more detail.  I found them to be quite fun and very enjoyable to consume aesthetically speaking (I even stole some of the character images for a presentation for work).  I get a chuckle and sometimes a belly laugh at least once a book and there are a few truly hilarious moments.  Perhaps the standout for me is in book 14 with the epic neighbourhood snowball fight when the weird forest inbred children come and join.  

 The portrayal of the mother is somewhat problematic. She is always both the overly strict punisher in the family and the lone enthusiast who is always forcing them to do "family activities" nobody wants to do. Now, to be fair, I suspect Jeff Kinney grew up around the same time I did and whatever patriarchal structures were in place then and probably responsible, the truth at the time was that a lot of moms really were like this.  However, that has changed significantly and I feel like this series is perpetuating and reinforcing a stereotype that we can all move on from.  The dad is feckless and selfish, but his passivity is never portrayed as being such a negative element in Greg's life. You could also argue that everybody is kind of awful in these stories (except sweet, innocent Rowley), but it still feels like the brunt of the parody is thrust upon the mother character.

Monday, November 16, 2020

62. It by Stephen King

Whew!  Epic!  I have been looking for It for quite a while now, but would only read a used paperback copy.  These are actually quite hard to find, especially after the latest movie came out.  I did finally discover this really beat-up copy (not the ideal cover, but I am not complaining) in the big book dump in my alley last summer.  While I was still looking for it, I made the mistake of watching the first installment of the new movie.  When it came out, I hadn't been that interested in it, but the trailer for the second installment was so good (the one where she is visiting the old lady) that it made me want to give the two films a chance.  That was a huge mistake.  The first movie fucking sucked.  They had all this money and now we live in an era where it is okay (and even desirable) to actually tell the story and instead they ruined it like so many of Stephen King's properties. This one just devolved into tired repetitions of the way clowns could be freaky with only the smallest hints of the true storyline of the kids friendship and the evil that is the town of Derry.

The purity of my reading the book was thus somewhat spoiled by having seen the movie, as it imprinted some imagery, especially that of Pennywise and Beverly.  Fortunately, the rest of it was mostly forgettable.  I had also started reading It right at the end of my big Stephen King phase and then abandoned the book.  I just wasn't interested at the time.  My memory told me that I had only read a few pages before giving up, but I was 100 pages in and still remembering stuff, but couldn't tell if that was from the movie.  Finally at some point, I realized I had definitely not read it and could just enjoy the book.

I consider It to be the last of the early and for me best phase of Stephen King's writing. This could be erroneous, but it felt like after It he started going into more literary territory and doing things like The Dark Tower series.  I was always into his more adventure/sci-fi than his horror books.  Firestarter and The Dead Zone (and of course The Stand) were my favourites.  It is definitely mostly in the horror category but it gets pretty cosmic near the end.  There is a lot going on and it is a long book.  I am too lazy to fully and fairly analyze it.  I will say that I mostly enjoyed it and loved some parts of it enough to remind me why I was so into his books as a teenager. It's a bit long at times, especially in the early part.  There is so much horror in it, that it starts to get a bit not scary.  I am not into horror that much anyways, but I think the gruesome child murders could have been brought out a bit more slowly.  As it is, you are barely a third of the way in and you know there is a killer clown ripping lots of kids apart. The sexual and racial politics are questionable and interesting.  I think we can mostly give King a pass here as he was really trying.  The one black character, Mike the librarian, has some Magical Negro elements, but is also a fully-fledged character (though still getting somewhat second billing in the final action given his importance to the plot).  Beverly is really great as a kid, but somewhat weird as an adult, the abuse victim pattern doesn't feel entirely realistic (though the abusive husband does and is one of the scariest characters in the book).  There is also a super weird part in the end when they are kids that I am just not smart enough to unpack but seems somehow very wrong to me.  

Overall, though, the portrayal of this nasty town takes this book to the next level.  Stephen King knows America and though the evil here is from elsewhere, the manifestation it takes in Derry, Maine is all American and all too relevant today.  The real evil here are the racists, the bullies, the abusers and worse of all, the people who look away when it is all going on.  King describes the history, the geography, so many people, the establishments, the weather, everything to such a degree that I feel like the town should be findable on Google Maps and Wikipedia.  And he just savages it.  One wonders about his own childhood. He seems to know the darkness in small town America all too well.  And this is Yankee Maine!

As I mentioned when complaining about the shit movie, It is fundamentally about childhood friendship and before it gets really weird, this is the second-strongest part in the book. Each character and their confused perspective on their world is well written and when they start to find some salvation in each other, it is really quite moving. The part where fat Ben escapes from the bullies and meets Bill and Richie and then helps them build a dam and is blown away when they ask him to come and hang out with them is especially touching.  

Accomplishment achieved and thoroughly enjoyed! 

Now that is a well worn paperback!