Tag Archives: Stephen King

Nothing Appeals to Everyone

As I mentioned last week, there are certain authors and genres I’ve never been able to become a fan of no matter how many times I try to like them.

It simply isn’t possible to write, draw, film, or sing something that’s going to appeal to every single person who stumbles across it. My thoughts on this topic were too complicated to condense for last week’s post, so I’m going to discuss them with you this week instead.

Some themes, plot twists, or tropes will appeal to one reader but will repel the next person who attempts to read them. This is completely normal, and it says nothing about the quality of the writing itself. It all boils down to the subjective nature of art and storytelling.

Subjectivity and Literature

To give you a concrete example of what I’m talking about, let’s go back to when I was in high school. My eleventh grade English teacher was a kind, generous woman who regularly allowed her students borrow books from her if we wanted something to read for the sheer joy of it.

When she noticed me reading a scary Stephen King story one week and a collection of Langston Hughes poems the next, she smiled and say she was glad to see a student of hers readings such a wide variety of stuff.

She taught her students a lot about literature in general. The authors she assigned us to study were from a wide range of eras and movements. I enjoyed all of them at least a little bit with one glaring exception: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

By the time I finished the first scene of it, I began counting down the days until we finished the last chapter and moved onto literally anything else in the entire world. I honestly would have preferred to read the phone book by the time we were halfway through that story because there was nothing about it that I found at all enjoyable. The characters were vain, selfish, and materialistic from what I observed. If anything interesting ever happened to them, the horrendously slow pacing made it hard for me to tell when those scenes were occurring.

I’ve never been able to get into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s catalogue even as an adult reader who no longer has to remember anything about what I’ve read for a future pop quiz. Obviously, there are plenty of people who disagree with me here, and I’m glad that they’re able to get something out of his writing. The fact that it doesn’t speak to me in no way means that it isn’t worth reading.

He simply isn’t the kind of storyteller that I’m drawn to. Something tells me that my teacher would have understood this if it had been socially acceptable for me to tell her how much I disliked that unit. As it was, I stayed perfectly polite and never brought up the subject. She might have privately had a list of authors she wasn’t a fan of as well!

Subjectivity and Art

The subjective nature of these things isn’t limited to literature, either.

One of the biggest reasons why I love going to art museums, shows, galleries, and other creative spaces with a small group of like-minded people has to do with how interesting it is to see how different folks respond to the same painting, sculpture, or other creative work.

When it comes to photography, I like whimsical, thought-provoking pieces like the shot of two toy robots on the right side of this post. Their glowing eyes make it easy to imagine that they’re somehow at least slightly aware of their surroundings.

There are so many different ways to interpret a photo like this one. Sometimes when I’m sitting quietly somewhere this is exactly the sort of thing I think about.

My taste in paintings is nothing like my preferences for photography. Hyperrealism fascinated me long before I had any idea that there was a name for this movement or that multiple painters have figured out how to paint scenes so realistic that I genuinely feel like I could walk into them and never notice I was in a painting at all. It was a style of painting I was pleasantly surprised to see on occasion, and I only grew to love it more once I figured out what it was called and that many different artists have explored it over the years.

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with me on either of these points. There are people out there who don’t connect with the pieces that speak to me at all just like I have been known to have trouble understanding other, most abstract types of art.

Subjectivity and Music

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to get a group of people to agree on what a good song should sound like even after you’ve sorted out objective criteria like the quality of the singer’s voice or whether or not they’re singing on key?

I know plenty of folks who have incredibly strong opinions on this topic. Some of them even refuse to listen to certain artists or entire genres of music altogether because of how firmly they’ve made up their minds about what they do and don’t enjoy.

Yes, I’ve done this, too. There was a long period of time when I didn’t think I liked any form of country music at all. It was only after being exposed to many different types of it that I realized there were a small number of country artists that I actually did enjoy quite a bit.

There’s Something for Everyone

While nothing is going to appeal to everyone, there is something out there for everyone.

I don’t know about you, but I find that freeing.

It’s okay not to like something. Someone else out there loves it.

On the flip side, you’ll find plenty of books and other creative works that you do love if you keep searching for the things that speak to you.

What have you read, watched, or listened to that you’ve never been able to enjoy? What creative works have you tried and been surprised by how much you loved them?

Saturday Seven: Characters Who Need a Date

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, so today I’m thinking about characters who could really have benefited from going on a date. None of the characters I’m about to discuss had romantic storylines. They were far too busy looking after a disabled friend, exploring a haunted mansion, fighting for the freedom of an innocent man, raising a large family, protecting their household from a vengeful spirit, or otherwise staying busy.

While avoiding romantic subplots was definitely the right decision for all of these books, I can’t help but to think that all of the main characters in them would have had happier lives if they somehow could have carved out a couple of hours of free time for an offstage date at some point.

For example…

1. Dr. Faraday from The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Dr. Faraday rose from humble beginnings to become a respected country physician. Unfortunately, his job didn’t pay well, and his patients kept him so busy that he didn’t have any time at all for romance. This became even more of an obstacle once he realized that a few of his patients may be living in a haunted house. Let’s just say that dealing with what may be a angry ghost doesn’t leave a lot of time for dating.  

He would have some attention-grabbing stories to share on a date, though, and I think it would have been good for him to have someone to discuss all of his eerie experiences with. He lived such a lonely and sometimes even frightening life in this book. Having someone to talk to  would have done him a world of good.

2. Constance Barton from Angelica: A Novel by Arthur Phillips.

Constance was a young Victorian mother who became convinced that an evil spirit was terrorizing her daughter at night. She hired a spiritualist to figure out what the entity wanted and why it was attacking her family.

There was far more happening in the Barton household than what was revealed right away. Constance’s marriage was disintegrating before her eyes, and her health was becoming increasingly fragile as a result of a string of incredibly dangerous pregnancies that had produced only one living child so far.

Constance could have really used a nice, chaste date with someone who treated her kindly and who wasn’t obsessed with having a son to carry on the family name.

3. Miss Peregrine from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Wayward Children by Ransom Riggs. 

Miss Peregrine was raising multiple children who were mischievous and had magical powers. She’d been doing this on her own for years, and she had no reason to think her duties would ever end because she and her brood been forced to move to a place that existed outside of time in order to avoid being caught by people who wanted to harm all of them. Her wards were always going to remain their current ages due to the weird way that time passed by where they lived.

She was a fantastic parent figure to the kids, but she really could have used one night where she didn’t have to remind anyone to wash their hands or eat their vegetables. A date would do a world of good for this character. Since I haven’t read the other books in this series yet, I can only hope that someday she’ll get to do just that.

4. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 

Atticus was a widower, a single father of two young kids, and a lawyer. He agreed to defend an innocent black man named Tom Robinson who had been wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

Atticus probably never would have admitted that he could find the time to date, but this character sure would have benefitted from a few hours away from all of the responsibilities in his life. Other than Tom, of course, Atticus was the character I sympathized the most with in this tale.

5. Susie Salmon from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. 

Susie was violently murdered when she was fourteen. As she adjusted to the afterlife and attempted to contact the loved ones she’d been ripped away from, she began to realize all of the important life events she was going to miss out on because of how young she’d been when she died.

Going on one date would have meant the world to her. I wish she could have had that experience.

6. George from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

George had voluntarily taken on full financial and legal responsibility for a developmentally-delayed friend of his at at time when people who had those kinds of disabilities didn’t have access to any of the government programs or other types of support that they can rely on today.

While this definitely isn’t canon, I imagine George as a man who would have been identified as gay if he’d lived in modern times. He seemed much more comfortable living with and near other men than he did around women, so I’d set him up with a friendly guy who didn’t mind dating someone who already had many responsibilities in life.

Maybe he’d do well dating someone who also knew what it was like to be the legal guardian of someone whose disabilities required them to have close daily supervision?

7. Carrie from Carrie by Stephen King.

Carrie’s horribly abusive upbringing made me feel so much sympathy for her, especially once I realized that her life was only slightly less traumatic when she was at school.

If only she’d had the chance to experience a normal, happy existence. There were the briefest glimpses of the person she could have become here and there, but she would have really blossomed if she’d done something as simple as held hands with a cute guy at the movie theatre or had someone in her life who told her she looked pretty every once in a while.

Which characters do you wish you could send on a well-deserved date?

Saturday Seven: Cold and Flu Season Reads

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

We’re well into the depths of winter now here in Ontario. Cold and flu season is in full swing. I spent the last several weeks fighting and just recently finally getting over a stubborn cold myself, so communicable winter illnesses like these have been on my mind. How do you stay healthy when everyone is sniffling and coughing their way through January? Will we ever come up with a cure for the flu or the common cold?

Today I thought it would be amusing to talk about books that approach these questions from a wide variety of perspectives. My list begins with one of the most common ways that germs enter a body, explores what happens when an epidemic occurs, and ends with the one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time.

Three of these books are non-fiction, and four of them are fiction.

5. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. 

One of the most common ways to catch a cold, the flu, or other diseases is to touch your face after you’ve touched someone or something that is carrying those germs. That virus then travels from your eyes, nose, or mouth into your body and begins replicating.

While this book spends most of its time talking how the digestive tract works in general, it also discusses the body’s defences against germs and how someone’s diet can affect their chances of getting sick. I was simultaneously fascinated and also a little grossed out by the author’s descriptions of how all of these things work.

 

1. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata. 

Imagine how terrifying it must have been for our ancestors to watch their loved ones die from this strain of the flu or from the secondary infections they developed as a result of it. Normally, influenza kills people who are very young, very old, or who have underlying health conditions. It must have been even more frightening to see so many young, healthy adults succumb to it.

Antibiotics and life support machines didn’t exist in 1918, so there was little the hospitals could do in general to help patients who had severe reactions to this virus. People either recovered or they didn’t. All the doctors and nurses could do was watch and wait.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was how much detail it went into why this strain of the flu was so deadly, how it disrupted the daily schedules of the people who encountered it, and why it faded away.

2. The Stand by Stephen King.

The Stand was the first story I ever read about a virulent strain of influenza accidentally being released and killing off 99.4% of all humans. It ignited my interest in this genre.

While the plot soon veered off in other directions, the first few chapters went into great detail about why the U.S. army weaponized this virus to be so deadly in the first place, how it ended up being introduced into the general population, and what happened once people began dying in droves.

 

3. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. 

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories in general. What appeals to me the most about Oryx and Crake is how much time she spent describing what the world would be like after all but a handful of humans died in a terrible pandemic.

Some species flourished after mankind died off either because or in spite of all of the ways we bio-engineered them. Other species weren’t so capable of looking after themselves without a friendly human to feed them and keep them out of mischief. The buildings, trees, and land in general also changed in many ways as the Earth quieted down.

4. The Plague by Albert Camus. 

Don’t read The Plague if you’re easily grossed out by detailed descriptions of disease or what happens to a body after someone dies. The communicable disease that these characters come down with is a particularly nasty one, and there were never enough people around to take care of the ill or bury the dead.

With that being said, there are a lot of poetic passages in this book once you get past the descriptions of what happened when the characters fell ill.

5. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

Most post-apocalyptic novels assume that everyone who comes down with the disease that’s destroying humanity will die. This one describes a world in which infected people remain alive but are changed into something that is no longer human. By the time the first scene began, there is only one human left in the entire world.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot without giving away spoilers, but I was fascinated by the idea of a virus that permanently and severely changes someone’s personality, habits, and ability to communicate rather than outright kills them.

 

6. Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine by William Rosen. 

Finally, we come to the idea of a cure. The introduction of antibiotics changed how modern medicine was practiced in so many positive ways. Surgery became much safer, and with the threat of infection greatly reduced we were eventually able to start performing risky procedures like organ transplants as well.

Before I read this book, I had no idea how dangerous it used to be to give birth, have surgery, or even do something as ordinary as accidentally cutting yourself and then developing an infection in that wound. No one was too young or too healthy to avoid a terrible death if the wrong strain of bacteria entered their body during one of those events. I wonder if a similar drug will ever be invented that cures the common cold or the flu?

My fingers are crossed that we’ll someday have such a thing. In the meantime, stay healthy this winter!

10 Fantasy Books I’d Recommend to New Readers of This Genre

Last August I blogged about science fiction and fantasy books I’d recommend for elementary, middle school, and high school students.  Last week I blogged about science fiction books I’d recommend to adults who are unfamiliar with that genre.

Today let’s talk about books that are a wonderful introduction to fantasy in general for anyone who hasn’t explored this genre yet. I’m much more selective about what types of fantasy fiction I read than I am about science fiction. On the positive side, once I fall in love with a fantasy story I will become one of it’s biggest advocates for many years to come.

I generally have a preference for fantasy tales that were written for children or teenagers for reasons that are hard to tease out. This list reflect that, although there are still plenty of novels for adults on it as well.

Fantasy is a genre that requires a lot of world-building in order to make an unfamiliar place feel like home for the readers, so there won’t be any short stories in today’s post. Longer novels usually do better in this regard in my experience.

Finally, I gravitated towards books that have been made into films, TV shows, mini-series, or plays. I often prefer to watch fantasy rather than read it because of how rewarding it is to see a world I’ve spent years dreaming about finally come to life, dragons or intelligent little rabbits and all. Nearly all of the recommendations below have been transformed into one of these things at least once.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

First of all, everyone’s heard of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are references to it everywhere, and for good reason. This was actually one of the first fantasy tales I ever read, and it’s something I enjoy going back to visit again every so often.

The scene that made me a lifelong fan was the one where Alice drank a potion and magically shrunk to a fraction of her size. I giggled the first time I read it, and it’s still charming to me to this day.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

I saw The Princess Bride movie years before I had any idea it was based on a book. It was a fairy tale that seemed to somehow be self-aware, and it was like nothing I’d never read or heard of before. I’m still not entirely sure if it was supposed to be a kindhearted parody of the fantasy genre or an homage to it. Given the tongue-in-cheek but ultimately warm and supportive writing style, it’s probably a little of both.

What I do know about this story is that it’s timeless and appeals to kids and adults alike. To me, this is a sign of great fantasy.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Before I read The Mists of Avalon, I’d never known that retelling a classic legend from the point of view of an antagonist was something that had been or could be done. Morgan le Fay was someone I’d barely heard of at that point, and all of the reference to her in the versions of the older King Arthur legends I had read were fairly negative.

It came as a shock to me, then, to read about Arthur’s life and kingdom from the perspective of Morgan. I was fascinated by all of the details of her life that the author invented in order to explain why this character made certain decisions and why the other characters didn’t always understand her.  Morgan became much more human and likeable to me after I finished The Mists of Avalon.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

Creating imaginary worlds and then playing in them is arguably one of the best parts of childhood. Terabithia was as complex and magical as any other world a kid could imagine, and I loved reading about Jesse and Leslie’s adventures there.

This is also one of the few fantasy novels I’ve ever read that had a sad ending. I don’t give generally give away spoilers in my posts, but I would recommend being cautious with this one for readers who are younger or sensitive.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Every once in a while I run across someone who has never read the Harry Potter series. I’m slightly surprised every time it happens, but I’m sure there are other series out there I haven’t tried yet that others would have the same reaction to.

This series is a smart introduction to modern fantasy for a few different reasons: it has a large fanbase; the movies were well done; the story telling only gets stronger as the series continues. It’s also aged well and is something I expect people to continue to read for generations to come because of that.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

I have one word for you: puns. This story is brimming with them, and it only makes the Kingdom of Wisdom even more amusing than it would have been otherwise. I also enjoyed the messages embedded in this one about the importance of education and the wonders you can discover if you explore the world around us with curiosity.

The fantasy genre can be quite good at exploring messages like these without feeling preachy or pushing the main plot off topic. The Phantom Tollbooth did a fantastic job of showing the readers the importance of these things without skimping on the development of the plot.

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the other two books in this trilogy yet. My recommendation only extends to The Golden Compass at this point.

This is the heaviest and most complex book recommendation for today’s post. I almost deleted it and replaced it with something else, but I eventually decided that it should stay. Complexity isn’t a bad thing, and neither are stories that are darker than what is typical for the age range or genre they were written for.

How do you know what is real? What do you do when your experiences of the world don’t match the orthodox explanations for how things work? When should – and shouldn’t – we trust authority figures simply because they’re authority figures?

These are hard questions for adults to answer, and they’re even tougher for kids to comprehend. I enjoyed seeing how Lyra tried to figure out what the truth really was regardless of who wanted to stop her.

 

Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Watership Down was something I discovered shortly after I developed my love of rabbits. The idea of reading an entire story about a fluffle* of rabbits who were searching for a new home was quite appealing, and I only enjoyed it more once I realized just how unique each rabbit was and how much they all mattered to the plot as well as to their urgent need to find a safe place to call home.

*No, I am not being cutesy here. This is the technical term for a group of rabbits, and I love it.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Not only is this a classic Christmas story, it’s a magical glimpse into what fantasy can look like if its set in an urban society that barely seems aware of its existence at all. Out of all of the different types of fantasy out there, this one is my favourite. It’s exciting to find the subtle hints that a fantasy realm has influenced an otherwise completely ordinary society.

Having such an ordinary setting also made Scrooge’s encounters with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future even more poignant than they would normally be. Who would have guessed that such a wealthy, greedy, and powerful man was being quietly watched by beings who desperately wanted him to change his tune before it was too late?

 

The Stand by Stephen King.

Will the world end with a bang or a whimper? This novel was so long that I only managed to read through the whole thing once. All of those extra pages and scenes were used to to create a frightening world in which 99.4% of the human population died from an unforgiving virus that had been accidentally released into the general human population.

The survivors were gradually separated into two distinct groups, one lead by a devil figure and the other lead by a woman who is fighting on the side of good. That’s when the plot became a must-read for me. This is such a classic trope in the fantasy genre, and it was explored fully in The Stand.

How about you? What fantasy books would you recommend to new readers of this genre?