A Book A Day: The Stand by Stephen King

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I re-read The Stand about every other year. It’s arguably my favorite book and I consider it a Great American Novel. I’d want it with me on the proverbial stranded desert island. I own the unabridged edition; the original was published in 1978 but King was forced to make a lot of edits. He restored them all 10 years later.

A super virus knocks out more than 99 percent of the population and the survivors are linked together by dreams. Some go to California in order to serve The Dark Man, and others are called to Colorado after they see a woman named Mother Abigail every night. Those in Colorado try to form a small society, with the end goal of confronting the Dark Man and making a final Stand against evil.

There are people in Colorado who end up deflecting to California; still others are recruited as spies to go there and find out more about The Dark Man, or Randall Flagg. The (mostly) men who make up the group who travel to California for the final stand are utterly human. There’s nothing remarkable about them besides their immunity to the super virus. The people in California are better organized and more talented. So in addition to being a story about good over evil, it’s also a tale about how a normal person can rise to be a great hero.

King’s primarily known for his work in horror but I’d argue The Stand isn’t horror at all, although there are parts that are gruesome. It’s post-apocalyptic fantasy more than anything else. I think the fact that it’s so hard to categorize makes it his best. 

Thanks for reading my book a day posts for March! Back to normal posting now.

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A Book A Day: The Stand by Stephen King

A Book A Day: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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Because of the cancerous cervical cells taken without consent from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks who was buried in an unmarked grave, we have the polio vaccine and countless other medical miracles. Scientists were able to replicate HeLa cells and cultures have been sold around the world. Not only did her family have no idea, these researchers started to investigate (again, without consent) cells from her husband and children.

This is a great book about medical ethics and our country’s embarrassing history of secret experimentation on black people, as well as issues surrounding ownership of our own genetic makeup.

A Book A Day: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A Book A Day: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

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I read this book just when the Sandusky scandal broke at Penn State University, and I thought maybe if I revisited it later, the book (specifically, the second half of the book) wouldn’t be as terrible. Besides, this book is about baseball and the Penn State scandal was about football.

But perhaps a more fitting analogy of the book would be the Phillies’ performance during their first game of the 2018 season today. They were up by five runs, new skipper Gabe Kapler (please, Google Gabe Kapler and coconut oil and you will see what the offseason has been like for Phillies fans, the signings of Carlos Santana and Jake Arietta nonwithstanding) pulled the starter and the bullpen gave up eight unanswered runs. THAT’S what The Art of Fielding is like.

We meet Henry Skrimshander, a baseball phenom who attends small Westish College. We learn about his love for the game and the minutiae of baseball. He works hard and studies and generally is deserving of success. (This is where the book is at its best.) Everyone—his roommate, the team manager, the college president—revolves around Henry and his stardom. 

Until he flubs a routine throw to first base and all the wheels come off.

Henry’s puzzling descent into mediocrity and then awfulness is not my issue. Baseball players are notorious head cases. Some pitchers can’t field bunts, because their throw to first would be crazy. So instead of drilling the guy on bunts, the manager gives him a pass. When I was in high school I fielded a ground ball at third that barked my shin and it spooked me so much I never was able to cleanly field grounders, during practice or games. I eventually moved to first base.

But what bothered me is the whole school came apart and the second half of the novel deals with the minor characters (the bullpen) and its starter, Henry, feels abandoned. Henry’s self-assured roommate has an affair with the college president. (It’s consensual, but mind-boggling.) The college president’s daughter somehow becomes a major character. The only interesting storyline is the team manager, who’s cared more about Henry’s career than his own, and he’s starting to regret that.

(A good baseball memoir to read from an actual player is Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand.)

A Book A Day: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

A Book A Day: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

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This is my first audiobook. Once upon a time I had a 50-minute commute and to preserve my sanity and keep a nasty road rage habit in check I started listening to this book about a man who was put on trial for murder four times in Savannah, Georgia.

Ostensibly a true-crime book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in Berendt’s hands, reads like a larger-than-life novel. Indeed, after the book’s publication and subsequent film adaptation (spoiler: the movie pales in comparison to the book), tourists flocked to Savannah to experience all the places Berendt mentions. The statue on the cover of the book was moved from a local cemetery to a museum because of concerns about damage. 

My husband and I went to Savannah for our 10-year-wedding anniversary a few years ago; we’d been newlyweds when I first listened to the book and miracle of miracles, Mr. Offal, Resister of All Things Literary, read it in time for our trip. You can visit the house where the murder occurred and tour the historic district, where most of the action takes place. We even toured the cemetery where the statue originally was and let me tell you, the South really does it right when it comes to cemeteries, in my opinion. (The actual Garden of Good and Evil is in South Carolina.)

One odd thing: Savannah, a walkable city, is made up of squares, and the names of the squares do not match up with streets or statutes in the squares. My husband and I were all, “How did city planners not lose their jobs over this?”

Also, if you’re ever there, try and visit the birthplace of Flannery O’Connor if you can. It was a spur-of-the-moment stop for us (it’s a private residence with limited visiting hours) and the tour guide was so fantastic (enthusiastic, knowledgeable, fun) it became one of my favorite places. 

A Book A Day: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

A Book A Day: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

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Before there was Katniss of Hunger Games and Tris of Divergent, there was Lisbeth Salander, a pierced and tattooed hacker who teams up with Swedish private investigator Mikael Blomkvist to solve a 40-year-old mystery: the disappearance of heiress Harriet Vanger.

My caveat to this book is the first 50 pages of slog you have to wade through before the story clicks and hums along. At first I thought it was the translator but then I read that after delivering the manuscript for this and two other subsequent novels, author and journalist Stieg Larrson promptly dropped dead. Among other things, he was studying extremism and violence against women in Sweden, and in the books Lisbeth—who’d been abused in her youth—is particularly nasty and vicious in exacting revenge. (Interestingly, ho-hum Blomkvist gets a ton of action in these books, mostly because he unreservedly loves women.)

Larrson never married but his longtime partner insisted the novels he wrote were joint projects and fought bitterly so that his estranged family couldn’t profit from their success. 

Whoever wrote them needed a good editor and the last book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is just plain boring. (Also, the Swedish adaptation of the book is so good there was no need to make an American movie, in my opinion.)

A Book A Day: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A Book A Day: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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This lyrical novel, the story of a man desperately trying to find his roots so he can fit in somewhere, won the Nobel Prize. It chronicles the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, from birth—the novel opens with a man trying to fly off the top of a hospital, triggering his mother’s labor—until possible death; the ending is uncertain.

Born in Michigan, Milkman wants to learn more about his family and the mysterious treasure his father had buried on a farm. He makes his way first to Pennsylvania, then eventually Virginia, trying to understand his family’s legacy while simultaneously being alienated from his family.

Besides the title, there are Biblical references throughout the novel: Milkman’s mother is Ruth; his sisters are Magdalene and First Corinthians (no, really) and he has an aunt named Pilate, whose daughter is Reba and whose granddaughter is Hagar.

There’s also Guitar, a family friend who belongs to a group called Seven Days, whose mission is to kill white people in retaliation of the racial killing of blacks. Guitar’s revenge extends to him wanting to kill nearly everyone by the end of the novel, setting himself up in a showdown with Milkman.

Unlike the Poisonwood Bible, the use of religious undertones here about family and revenge is what makes the story so compelling. Milkman wanders through three different states before ending up in the same place he started. And like the hymn on which the book is based, Milkman learns how to fly.

A Book A Day: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

A Book A Day: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Some advice from your friend Online Offal: Lord of the Flies is not that long of a book but it’s quite possibly the worst novel you can read during your honeymoon, especially if it happens to be on a tropical island.

Lord of the Flies should be required reading, especially for boys, for it explicitly describes toxic masculinity (i.e., men traditionally being considered violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive). A bunch of boys survive a plane crash and create a haphazard society which quickly and violently devolves. Eventually the boys separate into two groups: the ones who have a pair of glasses that’s used to create fire and the ones who don’t. (Interestingly enough, the owner of the glasses is in the have-not group.)

After murdering the boy who owned the glasses, the leader of the have group literally hunts down the leader of the have-not group. He’s rescued at the last minute by an officer who’s shipwrecked on the island.

Even though it was written in the 1950s, this book still holds up today. (I’d argue there are a group of haves and a group of have-nots in this very country, for example.) It shows me as a parent of a boy I have to cut through the garbage of a “macho man” entertainment seems to emulate and show my son he can still be kind and sensitive and a leader, too.

A Book A Day: Lord of the Flies by William Golding