The Fortunes (Davies)

Sometimes, awards lists can be predictable in the same way that the New York Times Book Review can be predictable. I mean, Meryl Streep needs another nomination as much as Stephen King needs a book review. At this point, you’re either a Stephen King fan or you’re not.

One of the many wonderful things about the Anisfield-Wolf book awards is that they generally introduce me to authors and titles I haven’t encountered before. Such was the case with Karan Mahahjan’s The Association of Small Bombs (tremendous book!) and such was the case, once again, with The Fortunes. First of all, I’ve never heard of Peter Ho Davies or any of hi

I was worried at first because the Table of Contents made it seem like this was really going to be 4 short stories. In a literal sense, if you think the book is about its characters, it is. And taken individually, they are all vivid and excellent. Taken together, though, complete with unifying themes, language, images, this is a novel about, to borrow from Celeste Ng’s blurb, “the Chinese American experience.”

It earns two of my highest compliments. The first is that I’ve not read anything like it before. The second is that I’d love to teach it. We could go in so many different directions with this novel, whether it’s historical, whether it’s Hollywood, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s living a hyphenated life, how form follows function, the evolution of symbols, who can tell what kind of jokes and on and on.

It’s honest, it’s funny, it’s anything but safe, it’s heartbreaking, it’s a world – which is everything a novel should be – especially an award winning one.

 

Peter Ho Davies

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

Mr. Mercedes (King)

I decided that Thackery was a bit much for my recent trip, so I grabbed this King novel at the last moment. It was probably the recent reviews of the final book in the trilogy that made me think of it. Anyway, it was entertaining. I prefer my bad guys a bit less crazy, but King knows how to keep you turning the pages. It was not wonderful enough to inspire me to pick up the second book in the trilogy, but it was good company for a few days.

Joyland (King)

I like carnivals and amusement parks; I admit it. There’s a kind of poetry in them, I think. Maybe it’s a romantic idea. Who knows? That, and the summer, and a forthcoming adventure of my own, drove to me to this Stephen King novel. I enjoyed it. Like 11/22/63, I found it immensely readable. The story just moves. The people and places come alive. Everything is three-dimensional, textured. If King uses the mystery writer’s trick once too often – “But later that day I went and got them again. Something else, too” – well, I figure, he’s earned it. (Why not tell us what he got? He tells us pretty much everything else.) Also, there’s the larger question of why our narrator, Devin, is telling us the story at all, considering. . . Well, no spoilers.

Entertaining. A good story from a great storyteller.

Blockade Billy and “Morality” (King)

I needed a book on CD for a 2+ hour drive, and there weren’t many choices. I selected this Stephen King novella and story because I figured that if I wasn’t paying full attention to the plot of each, I’d still be able to track the action. Also, the first one appealed to me because of its baseball plot.

In his book On Writing, King and another writer (Amy Tan?), are complaining that no one ever asks them about their craft. This motivates King to produce this book (which I liked and recommend).

Here he seems to have forgotten his own lessons. There’s little craft here. Both stories are essentially monologues. Both plots are essentially about secrets. The characters are generally cardboard. I just wanted the proverbial yarn to while away the time while I drove; instead, I got King-lite, a kind of paint by numbers affair – a Thomas Kincaide factory model.

Craig Wasson, the narrator of the first story, overdoes it at first, but eventually finds a useful register. Mare Winningham (reduced to this?) does a fine job with the predictable ‘bonus’ story, “Morality.’

11/22/63 (King)

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel before. I listened to and enjoyed The Green Mile as much for the project itself as its execution (pun intended). I read King’s non-fiction book, On Writing, and enjoyed his voice and his insights. I’m not sure what drew me to this one. I’m not really a fan of time travel stories. Perhaps it was because I do believe that something fundamental changed in this country after JFK was killed.

King breaks one of the central rules (as I understand them) of anything in the neighborhood of science fiction. He creates a new world, but has his characters be deliberately fuzzy about the rules. At first, this seemed lazy, like King knew the questions, but didn’t want to bother answering them. By the end, though, it was clear that he’d created that haziness on purpose. His characters really didn’t understand the rules and they acted accordingly.

The construction of this book is remarkable. And self-conscious. King’s protagonist (perhaps too quick to turn into an action hero) notes the frequent parallels. The past is not only “obdurate”; it also harmonizes. The research is here, but never overwhelming.

King makes another regrettable choice — his main character is an English teacher. Often a cliche, over 800 pages, its impact kind of washes out. That he is not an historian matters, but why couldn’t he be a science teacher? Books that feature English teachers are filled with too many literary allusions, even for my tastes.

Some may claim that King has Peter Jackson syndrome – that the book has three endings. They might be right, but I don’t think it’s because King wasn’t sure how to end it, but that the first two were a set-up for the third. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) The middle ‘ending’ seems surprisingly cursory and relies a surprising amount on dialogue for exposition.

It’s a good, quick (really) read. King does believe in the principle he has his main character espouse – just tell what happens, and then what happens next. Does he rely on the coy ending a bit too much? Probably, but it’s not a huge distraction.