Duma Key – Stephen King, 2008

King is one of those writers I (usually) find compelling despite his flaws. But the worst of those flaws were barely in evidence in this book, one of his very best. Presumably because he’s drawing on his recent experience of recovering from a horrible accident, the non-supernatural characters and incidents in Duma Key are fully realized and believable. I particularly love stories of success, and Edgar Freemantle’s sudden flowering as an artist was delightfully involving; finding redemption and healing in creation clearly draws from King’s recovery as well, and it’s thrilling to watch unfold. The supernatural elements are still somewhat random and motiveless (which is why I fundamentally prefer fantasy and SF to horror–a lot of horror relies on not questioning WHY the Big Bad showed up and why it’s attacking the protagonists). King’s worst faults in my view: a) vulgarity; b) going for the cheap gross-out; c) an intrusive sort of verbal ticcing, where he repeats cultural or personal catch phrases (joking expressions, song lyrics, ad taglines) ad nauseam. The latter has its good side of adding texture and interest, and it’s realistic in the way the human mind works (mine included). In the recent Lisey’s Story, where he did it constantly, it was incredibly irritating. Here he manages to do it almost as much, but it works because it becomes a natural part of the exchanges between Freemantle and his friend Wireman. Duma Key also has a wonderful portrait of the love between father and daughter. I’m very glad King hasn’t retired, as he threatened to do years back, since he has books like this still in him.

Les malheurs de Sophie – Comtesse de Ségur (née Rostopchine), 1858

Another for the Sony Reader. I read dozens of Comtesse de Ségur books in the Bibliothèque Rose when I was a kid, but this is the one I remember best (I was going to say aside from the passages about the Great Pyrenees dog in L’auberge de l’ange gardien, which I now realize I have confused with Belle et Sébastien.) I still to this day identify with poor silly, greedy, impulsive Sophie who is always getting in trouble, but this is a strange book to modern eyes. The children are tiny (Sophie turns five in the book) but behave, and are expected to behave, like much older kids. For example, Sophie has a little pocket knife with which she enjoys cutting up all kinds of things (good and bad). (This may be what influenced me to loan my little brother, who was 5 at the time, a “knife” I had made from a ripped metal can embedded in a piece of styrofoam, on the condition that he be careful and not cut himself. Of course he did and I got in trouble, but I was angry at him for breaking his promise to me! I was 7.) Sophie and her cousin Paul keep all sorts of pets which always meet a bad end by the end of the chapter. No sugar-coating death in the 19th century, no siree. Everything is a moral lesson about “le bon Dieu.” But it’s still extremely readable today–lots of dialogue, and very realistic portrayals of child characters. A wonderful way to time travel.

The Incredible Shrinking Critic: 75 Pounds and Counting: My Excellent Adventure in Weight Loss – Jami Bernard, 2006

Like many people I’m fighting some middle-aged spread–it’s no lie that a few extra pounds are harder to get rid of after you hit 40, alas. Health books are perenially interesting to me, and this one caught my eye at B&N.; It looked sensible and very amusing from a quick flip-through. Now that I’ve read the whole thing: yes, it is. Good input from pros–“Chef Terry” gives some great coulis recipes for steamed vegetables. Wonderful “cheat sheet” in the back–“a summary of every pearl of wisdom in this book.”

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley; 1984

I’m trying going back to one entry per book, even if it’s a short one. Picked this up at the Penguin Putnam warehouse sale (catnip for booklovers, and one of the GREAT things about living in the Binghamton NY area!) because I remember liking The Blue Sword years ago. The young-woman-hero-fantasy genre is well-populated now, and McKinley is one of the people who paved the way. Excellent, almost LeGuin quality, with memorable characters (including a wonderful horse, Talat). I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie–it deserves the full Peter Jackson treatment. Actually, this would be perfect for Joss Whedon…sigh…if only… I also did not know McKinley is/was married to Peter Dickinson, whose Changes trilogy I found compelling but disturbing as a child–haven’t gone back to those yet…

January 6 2008 catch-up

Wish I could keep up with this–or that I could download thoughts directly from my head–but at least I will try to continue to list titles. So, to catch up:

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre, 1847
Read on my Sony Reader. One of my all-time favorites.

Arthur C. Clarke
Dolphin Island: A Story of the People of the Sea, 1963
Re-read because of a query that came up on Project Wombat. Led me to this page about Mary Watson.

Michael Crichton
The Great Train Robbery, 1975
Sphere, 1987
Crichton is so darn readable, but he holds up less and less well as I get older. I don’t think I’d actually read GTR before; it over-relies on contemporary slang for color, but I enjoyed that part most of all.

Mark Doty
Dog Years: A Memoir, 2007
Large print, read on the elliptical trainer. Well-written if a little self-indulgent.

Sue Grafton
T is for Trespass, 2007
Grafton writes as well as ever but my taste for her is fading. Is time passing so slowly in Santa Teresa (it’s now January 1987) because she doesn’t want Henry to die of old age? Not that I blame her–he’s a great character. Suprisingly action-filled ending.

Maria Dahvana Headley
The Year of Yes: A Memoir, 2006
It took me a while to get used to the author’s voice, but I loved it! Fascinating, especially to see the world through the eyes of someone who is constantly propositioned (I grew up in NYC and thankfully had a very different experience) and apparently has very little need to sleep. She crammed an incredible range of experience into her 21st year.

Ursula LeGuin
Powers, 2007
One of the strongest of her novels in years. Truly great. The “Annals of the Western Shore” almost live up to the Earthsea books.

Nigel Marsh
Fat, Forty, and Fired, 2007
Ehhh… Wanted to like it, but I had to skim big chunks. The comparison to Ray Romano on the jacket flap is right on.

Jean Shepherd
In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, 1966
I hadn’t actually read this all the way through before, but I remembered “Hairy Gertz and the Forty-Seven Crappies” making me laugh out loud in the bookstore. Still somewhat funny, but no long rip-snortingly so for me. The photo on the back of the book makes him look totally unlike his author personality. Now that we have YouTube and Google Images I have a better sense of him–check out this clip.