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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

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I love reading books and talking about them. Please feel free to join the discussion or suggest what I should read next.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome, An Anti-Religious Right Political Allegory for Our Time by Christina Knowles

rennie-trump            I finally finished the 1,072-page Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, published in 2009. I started it over a year ago and lost interest about 400-pages in. I started watching the television show, which seemed nothing like the book and did not inspire me to continue reading. However, I am one of those people who cannot stand to abandon a book unfinished, so I recently picked it up again and started over from the first page. I am so glad I did, and I am glad that it was in the midst of this ridiculous election season that I completed it. I had no idea that it was a political commentary of the 2008 election season, and King’s criticisms are even more apt in this election year. Fair warning, this review contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.

under-the-dome            The super-short synopsis, just enough to paint a backdrop for this review, is that an inexplicable and impenetrable (except for a reduced air flow) dome descends suddenly over the small town of Chester’s Mill, blocking them off from the outside world. In a matter of a week, all hell has broken loose as one egomaniacal character decides, against democracy, to lead the people his way, which happens to be evil and corrupt. While some fall in line out of a false sense of security, others passively stand by, and a few actively resist.

Immediately, it struck me that King was influenced by two very classic tales and one dirty election season to write this novel. The first classic tale is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, wherein, a group of boys are marooned on an isolated tropical island with no adult supervision. Quickly, the island descends in to chaos when the democratically elected leader of the boys, Ralph, is challenged by a thug who decides he wants to be the leader, Jack. Ralph represents Barbie in the novel. Barbie is given leadership by the military leaders, who are monitoring things from outside the dome. Barbie cares about the people and is reluctant to take the leadership role, but takes on the responsibility for the good of the people. Jack represents Big Jim Rennie in the novel, an over-bearing egomaniac, who lets baser instincts rule and enjoys bullying weaker people around him, much like Jack bullies and finally kills Piggy with the help of his newly developed cult followers.

And this is where it begins to mirror the 2008, as well as the 2016, elections. In the novel, Barbie represents civil and intellectual leadership (President Obama), and Big Jim Rennie represents the Evangelical Republican Right. Throughout the novel, Big Jim Rennie talks disrespectfully about that president with the middle- eastern middle name and how he does not recognize his authority over Chester’s Mill. Sound familiar? Additionally, Rennie is a fundamentalist leader in the radical right wing church in Chester’s Mill. Rennie is corrupt, running a meth lab for profit, and justifies it by the good he does for the community and the church. Rennie thinks he and his cohorts are the only ones with a direct line to God and going to heaven, despite their heinous acts, including rape and murder. To Rennie, the ends justify the means, and he is able to excuse all his racism (his views on immigrants sound just like Trump’s), sexism (he treats women exactly like Trump does), and his disdain for the poor (sounds just like Romney and Trump). Oh, and Rennie makes fun of the handicapped and hates homosexuals too. Of course.

In Chester’s Mill, there are three main groups of people. The religious fanatics that resemble the Westborough Baptist Church. These people include Rennie and his misled and amoral followers. The next group are the members of the First Congregational Church of Chester’s Mill (the Congos, they are called in the community). This group is the “normal” religious folk, the ones who go to church and kind of believe, but are not dogmatic in their beliefs. They believe live and let live. The pastor is a woman who doubts the existence of God, but she continues to pray anyway. She is of one the good people, who eventually sides with Barbie against Rennie’s group. Also, in this group are the citizens who go to church outside Chester’s Mill, but are not fanatics. These include the Catholics. This is an obvious commentary on the Religious Rights’ influence on politics and their insistence on legislating based on their own beliefs, while the “normal” Christians are not so dogmatic, question their beliefs, and do not think they should force others to live by those beliefs. The non-fanatical Christians in Under the Dome, eventually side with Barbie.

The last group is the non-believers, of which Barbie, the protagonist, is one. The people who claim no religious beliefs and think the rules should be based on democracy and reason are the leaders on the moral side in Under the Dome. As a secular humanist, I really appreciated this divergence from mainstream stereotypes and its connection to recent politics. Barbie represents fairness and reason in the novel.

Julia Shumway, another protagonist and journalist, is the token “good Republican.” Barbie continually says to her, “You don’t seem like a Republican.” And she does not. She is reasonable, fair, and represents journalism. She backs Barbie and fights Rennie from the beginning. I believe she represents fiscal conservatives, who have reasonable views on social progress. Perhaps, she even represents Independents.

Rennie is willing to do anything to be in charge, and engineers smear campaigns to discredit Barbie and his followers over and over, and eventually resorts to violence. Finally, climate change and the environment become an important part of the novel after a fire breaks out, and the dome prevents the smoke from getting out and clean air from getting in. Throughout the novel, Rennie wants to keep the dome up because he likes his reign of terror and control over the people and does not want it to end, even though it’s killing them. He continues to deny that their environment is not sustainable.

Barbie constantly works toward solutions to conserve energy, maintain order and civility, and solve the environmental problem of the dome. These are obvious allusions to climate change deniers on the right. Rennie even talks about God delivering them and not allowing them to die from bad air. Barbie relies on science to work on the problem with Julia and another protagonist in the novel, Joe, a young sciencey teen. Do you think I’m imagining these political statements? No, they are very clear in many passages in the novel, but check out this one:

When Rennie is held up selfishly in a fallout shelter while people are dying all around him, one of his cohorts says, “’What if the air doesn’t clear. The TV said—?” and Rennie responds with a tirade of right-wing vitriol:

“’Oh, dear, the sky is falling, oh dear, the sky is falling!’ Big Jim Rennie declaimed in a strange (and strangely disturbing) falsetto. ‘They’ve been saying it for years, haven’t they? The scientists and the bleeding-heart liberals. World War III! Nuclear reactors melting down to the center of the earth! Y2K computer freezes! The end of the ozone layer! Melting ice caps! Killer hurricanes! Global warming! Chicken-dirt weak-sister atheists who won’t trust in the will of a loving, caring God! Who refuse to believe there is such a thing as a loving, caring God!’

Big Jim pointed a greasy but adamant finger at the younger man.

‘Contrary to the beliefs of the secular humanists, the sky is not falling. They can’t help the yellow streak that runs up their backs, son—“the guilty man flees where none pursueth,” you know, book of Leviticus—but that doesn’t change God’s truth: “those who believe on him shall not tire, but shall mount up with wings of eagles”—book of Isaiah. That’s basically smog out there. It will just take a while to clear out.’” But, of course, it doesn’t. Most of the town dies because of the air quality.

And under all this, there is another story going on, which relates to the second classic to which I referred earlier—The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” by Rod Serling. In “Monsters” an alien race experiment on a town by isolating them, cutting off the power, playing with them by turning on and off law mowers, etc. The fear cuts through the town until they turn on each other, the town descends in to chaos, and in fear, one of them shoots one of their own people. The chaos in Chester’s Mill is much like this. People begin fearing each other and lashing out without due process. This is made most obvious when Barbie and a fellow kind and reasonable person, Rusty, are imprisoned on trumped up charges, framed for the rapes and murders that Rennie and his son, Junior, commited, are beaten, and are to be executed without due process. The townspeople go along with it because they hear Rennie’s propaganda and believe the lies even though they are concerned and doubtful.

Like The Twilight Zone episode, it turns out that the dome is caused by alien children, who are keeping them covered like an ant farm, for their own amusement. The realization of this causes Julia and Barbie and their friends to think back on times when they were once the bully and the bullied, like ants under a magnifying glass. They each recount the feelings of standing by and watching while someone else bullied someone and they did nothing, and the experience of children, pulling off the wings of flies and subjecting ants to heat under a magnifying glass. Barbie remembers stopping because he realized that the ants “had their own little lives.” Julia recounts a humiliating memory of being beaten and stripped naked by a group of girls as a child. One girl came back and gave her a sweater to put around her to cover her nakedness. Because of this, they decide to beg for mercy from one alien child looking at them through the dome. Julia convinces the alien that “they have their own little lives” and immediately the dome rises from Chester’s Mill. King ends the book by speaking of Barbie reflecting on Julia’s childhood memory of the girl who gave her the sweater: “Pity was not love, Barbie reflected . . . but if you were a child, giving clothes to someone who was naked had to be a step in the right direction.” Ending the book on this note seems to me to be a call to care for one another, to end the cruelty, the selfishness, and have compassion on one another, something characteristically absent in both the 2008 and the 2016 divisive election seasons.

So, although this book took far too long to tell the story, what a story it tells. The allegorical characters and the allusions to our current situation are all too poignant. Do we really want a Lord of the Flies political system? Do we want a society where fear and fanaticism overrule science and reason? Do we want a Big Jim Rennie bullying women and the handicapped as President Trump? Without kind, ethical, reasonable leadership, we, as humans, tend to follower baser instincts, especially if that is the group mentality. This is an important message, and I thank Stephen King for delivering it to us in palatable way without toning down his obvious frustration with the radical right. And I believe it is telling that the network version of this book happened to leave out all the political details that make this book great. So, if you’ve seen the show, but haven’t read the book, take the time. It’s well worth it. Five out of Five stars.—Christina Knowles

All quotes are from Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Published by Scribner, 2009.

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Book Review: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep by Christina Knowles

Doctor_SleepI finally read Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s eagerly awaited sequel to The Shining, published thirty-six years after the first, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The Shining is one of my favorite novels, and how could a sequel live up to something revered as one of the all-time best horror novels ever published? I decided it didn’t have to. I would read it and enjoy it on its own merits. So how did it fare, in my humble opinion?

Well, it was wonderful getting to know grown up Danny Torrance, now known as Dan, or to his co-workers at the hospice where he is now employed, as Doctor Sleep because of his uncanny ability to calm dying residents and guide them to the great beyond in a peaceful and pleasant way.

Yes, Dan has some problems, and at first he was a little less than likable. I was, initially, repelled by what Dan had become, an apple fallen a little too close to the family tree, but he soon won my heart with his remorse, selflessness, and compassion.

I also adored the little girl whom Dan befriends, Abra Stone. In fact, I marveled at King’s ability to write from the perspective of a pre-teen girl, but it was superb.

This novel, although strange and fascinating, was not at all scary like The Shining, and it didn’t need to be. It was so much more than that. It was about recovery and redemption, realistically told in an insanely surreal world. It continued the main story in The Shining, the story of alcoholism and facing the worst demon of all, our weakest and unlovely selves. I reconsider. Maybe it was a little scary.

But mostly, it was heartfelt, poignant even. More than once I teared up during this novel. I find that I like this new softer side of King, the King of the post near-death “accident” seems to create characters that feel a little deeper, are more expressive, kinder. Perhaps, it was the experience, or maybe he is mellowing with age, but I’m fine with it. Doctor Sleep delivers on weird with his descriptive immersion into horrifyingly evil minds, at the same time as showing us that there are still really good people out there, even in the midst of evil, and that even when the evil is in us, we can overcome it. Five out of five stars.—Christina Knowles

Read my review of The Shining.

Book Review: Stephanie: One. Life. Lived. by Melissa Service

StephanieStephanie is a troubled and angry young woman who also happens to be a brilliant composer and musician . . . and a drug addict. This is a story of real life struggles, change, acceptance, and redemption.

Before I go any further, let me say that this is a Christian novel, and I am not a Christian, so I hope I judge it fairly. In addition, I am not musically inclined and have never used drugs, so I can’t relate to a lot of the situations in the book, but I still enjoyed it.

When the book began, I really did not like Stephanie’s character. She was hateful, rude, and violent. I chalked it up to the fact that drugs make people into different people—the kind no one wants to be around. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: When Stephanie has a sudden transformation, she became very likable, and I have to admit, that I was a little insulted with the implication in the novel that this was solely a result of her becoming a Christian. However, it may be that I just interpreted it that way, and perhaps when she quit doing drugs because of a supernatural strength from God, that, in turn, made her a nicer person. But don’t think you know what’s going to happen. There are some twists and turns in this novel.

The author, Melissa Service manages to keep the reader turning pages with some interesting characters and some other-worldly action. But what I liked best about this book was the message of acceptance. Service is able to elicit a sense of responsibility in the reader to help his fellow man—to see others who are different from us through the eyes of a loving mother or a heart-broken father. Definitely worth the read. 4 out of 5 stars.—Christina Knowles

Buy it: Stephanie: One. Life. Lived. by Melissa Service

Book Review: Brenda Vicars’ Polarity in Motion

Snagged from Amazon.com
Snagged from Amazon.com

Polarity Weeks was already having a rough time of it. Switching schools, dealing with her mother’s Borderline Personality Disorder, and struggling to fit in are hard enough, but Polarity is shocked to discover that her latest problem has nothing to do with anything she or her family has done. When a nude photo of her suddenly begins to circulate among the students at her high school and on the internet, she has no idea where it came from or what to do about it. This novel deals with the all-too-real issues faced by the modern teenager living in a high tech age while navigating the age old problems of friends, parents, school, and popularity.

I really loved this book. At first I was turned off by the title and the main character’s name, but there is actually a touching story behind the name, Polarity. Although this book is categorized as a romance, it is so much more than that. It’s an intriguing mystery, which kept me turning the pages. It’s about bullying and relationships and about dealing with teenage drama in high school. It’s about dealing with parents and mental illness. It’s about issues with social media and technology and about being powerless in the system. It’s about growth and prejudice, and it’s about finding out who you are, who you are becoming, and who you want to be.

But my favorite part of the book, the part that struck an emotional chord in me, was the horrifying reality of Polarity’s daily tight-rope act of dealing with her mother’s mental illness. It was beautifully written and realistic. I didn’t know much about Borderline Personality Disorder, but I assume Vicars did her research because Polarity’s mom was startlingly real. Vicars manages to make the reader sympathetic to Mrs. Weeks, even while hoping for Polarity to escape her verbal and emotional abuse.

Vicars also writes Polarity’s character so smoothly that she seamlessly grows throughout the story from a passive introvert into a strong-willed and confident girl without ever seeming like a different person. I love a book that leaves me wanting more, and I want to know what happens in her life next. I enjoyed Ethan, the grandmother, and Polarity’s father as well.

As a high school teacher, I’m going to tell my students that this is a must-read! It would also be great to teach in a class because of the character growth and symbolism in the story. I just recently read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and really enjoyed it, but I think I actually enjoyed this one even more! Highly recommend. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Buy it: Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars

Revival: The Death of Hope by Christina Knowles

RevivalRevival by Stephen King Book Review**SERIOUS SPOILERS**

Revival is one of the most original books I have ever read–a strange statement about a book, which King admits was inspired and influenced by some of his favorite horror authors. Among these are Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. Still, I’ve read a lot of King, and this one seemed particularly unique. Although unlike his novels, it did seem rather like a return to his earlier writing in a way. But I’ll get to that. First, a synopsis.

Revival (a brilliant and apt title, by the way) opens with a reflection of the “cast” of characters that make up a person’s life and a bleak foreshadowing of the impact of Reverend Charles Daniel Jacobs, the “fifth business” or “change agent” in the fifty-some year span of the life of our protagonist, Jamie Morton. Already I know this book is going to deal with some heavy issues.

The next scene is strangely creepy even though nothing unusual or bad really happens, but that is how King plays this tale—very subtle, at least until the last fifty pages of the book. Anyway, the scene opens with six-year old Jamie playing with his toy soldiers in the dirt when a shadow falls over him in the form of Reverend Charles Jacobs. I remember being tense through this scene, expecting something to happen, but Jacobs is a just a kind and warm person.

From this point on, we get to see Jamie grow up. We experience his childhood problems with siblings, school, we see his first kiss, watch him discover his passion for music, agonize over his descent into drug addiction, and breathe a sigh of relief when he is cured of it. Jacobs, on the other hand, we see only through Jamie’s eyes: a kind and understanding pastor, a friend, a healer, a loving and devoted husband and father—until a tragic and senseless car accident gruesomely takes the lives of his wife and young son. But that’s one of the first themes explored in this novel. Aren’t tragic accidents always senseless? I mean, when do they ever make sense? Reverend Jacobs cannot make sense of it either, and as a result, he loses his faith and takes Jamie’s along with it, then turns full-time to his obsessive hobby of experimenting with electricity.

Without going into too much detail, time goes by and Jamie meets up with the reverend as an adult with a slightly less than positive result. At this point in the story “something happens,” tying Jamie irrevocably to Jacobs. The “something happened” repeated throughout the story was another inexplicably creepy device King brilliantly used.

Later Reverend Jacobs becomes an atypical traveling healer, complete with a revival tent and offering plate, furthering the not-so-subtle but oh-so-apt commentary on organized religion. Jacobs serendipitously meets up with Jamie several times throughout his life, each time having a more negative effect. Our opinion of Jacobs, sadly, spirals downward along with Jamie’s feelings for the pastor until, finally, the friendship deteriorates into complete loathing and disgust, at least on Jamie’s side.

The first three hundred and fifty pages of this novel are fresh, descriptive, and thought-provoking. The characters are realistic and well-developed. I loved Jamie–and Jacobs, which made me feel strangely like I was betrayed by the reverend as much as Jamie was. However, the next fifty pages descends into a parody-like ridiculousness that made me feel like I was watching an old cartoon version of Frankenstein.

Throughout the novel, the allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus were obvious. The object of Jacobs’ last experiment is named Mary Fay, daughter of Franklin Fay and Janice Shelley. She has a son named Victor (as in Victor Frankenstein), he is obsessed with power, particularly electricity and with what happens to us when we die. You don’t have to be a brain donor to predict what’s going to happen next.

Although I certainly appreciate King’s attempt to pay homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein, it was so over-the-top that I could not help picturing one of the old movie versions of it complete with Victor Frankenstein screaming, “It’s alive!” while I read. Still, I knew to expect the classic horror to appear sometime in the book. In fact, I looked forward to it, just to be disappointed in its cartoonish nature—but possibly, that is just a matter of taste. After all, King was a fan of the graphic novel, so maybe this was on purpose. He is such a brilliant writer; it likely was intentional. The contrast between the realistic and effective social and religious criticism and the fantastically surreal ravings of a mad scientist were a little disorienting, but perhaps, that was the point. My real disappointment lay elsewhere.

My only true disappointment in this novel was in the last few pages. I guess I didn’t expect it to end on such a depressing note, but here I am complaining about being surprised when a moment ago I complained of guessing the end. I’ve been lulled into believing that King usually has a hopeful ending to his novels with good winning out over evil, at least for the moment. But this novel is much more like some of his early short stories that end in complete and utter despair. The most horrifying part of this novel is when all hope is dead, and Jamie realizes that there is something much worse than nothing at the end of this life, something inescapable and that salvation does not exist.

I’m not really a happy-ending kind of girl, but the depth of darkness at the end of this novel left me disturbed, and not in a fun horror kind of way, but in a hopeless, bitter kind of way. But maybe that’s the true mark of horror, being forced to face the ultimate fear—that there may be something even worse than the unknown. 4 out of 5 stars.—Christina Knowles

Must-Read Books by Christina Knowles

Snagged from freecomputersonline,com
Snagged from freecomputersonline.com

As a teacher, my students often ask me what my favorite book is, and I easily reply, “Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah,” but after that, it gets tough to narrow it down to a list of essentials. I would love to just list ten, but I find it impossible to limit it that much when I begin to write. Here are my absolute must-reads:

  1. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah: I love this book because it is the most beautiful novel I have ever read. It’s about regrets, misunderstandings, and relationships—relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, and husbands and wives. It is thought-provoking, poignant, and reads like poetry. Within the contemporary story, lives a fairytale, so sweet and tragic that it captured my inner child, and I fell in love with this book. Hannah understands the dynamics of our closest relationships and how the ones we love most, have the most power to wound us, but also have the power to heal. I could read this book a thousand times, and I just might.
  2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Ray Bradbury is a genius of the written word. This book is probably my favorite science fiction novel because the dystopian world Bradbury creates is startling real, dark, and symbolic, and yet it is written like poetry, each word carefully crafted with the next; its evocative beauty remains with the reader long after the cover is closed.
  3. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: This strange and tragic novel blew my mind. It is weirdly surreal and unique in its delivery of the horrors of war and their effect on the human psyche.
  4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: This was my favorite book for many, many years because its dystopian world is not only filled with scientific and sociological predictions (two of my favorite subjects), but it is also filled with Shakespeare (another favorite subject). One of the novel’s main characters constantly quotes Shakespeare, and the book parallels one of my favorite plays, The Tempest. Incredibly deep, insightful, and startlingly accurate in many of its predictions.
  5. The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King: This is my favorite of the Dark Tower series. Stephen King always amazes me, but this novel (and the series) transports me to a surrealistic world filled with danger, magic, and loyalty, an epic quest on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, but modernized and on steroids!
  6. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: This book is heartbreakingly beautiful, about pain, suffering, mercy, and forgiveness. This book contains the secrets of life.
  7. East of Eden by John Steinbeck: This book was my first experience with real literature. I first read it in middle school, and I was enchanted with the discovery that a novel could be so filled with symbolism, allegory, epiphany, imagery, and the meaning of life. I think this book is quite possibly the reason why I became a literature major, and it began a life-long love of John Steinbeck novels.
  8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: This book is not just another angsty teen novel. It is a masterpiece of Existentialism, and like Brave New World, it is filled with allusions to my favorite literary works. This book is intellectual and emotional, and it had me hooked when the main character, Hazel Grace, started quoting from my favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot. See my full review at: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2014/06/06/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars-by-john-green/
  9. The Complete Poems of TS Eliot: His modernist outlook is deeply cynical, anti-traditional, heartbreakingly poignant, and most of all, lyrically beautiful. My favorite poet. Dare he disturb the universe? Oh yes, please.
  10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Not just a Christmas classic, this story is symbolic and meaningful, and in Dickens’ style, blunt in its message of charity to the poor and the necessity of prioritizing in life. It never ceases to amaze me that even the most staunchly anti-Socialist people love this work, even while they continue to hoard their riches and look down upon the poor.
  11. The Pigman by Paul Zindel: I love just about any story concerning a friendship between teenagers and the elderly, but this one is the cream of the crop. I think I love this book so much because I lived this experience when I was young. Two teenagers accidentally befriend an elderly widower when they make a prank phone call to his house one day. They never imagine that he will mean so much to them or change their lives forever.
  12. The Crucible by Arthur Miller: Every time I read this play, I am hanging on every word of John Proctor. Miller creates a protagonist that grows from a selfish, lying adulterer to a heroic, self-sacrificing man of integrity in four dramatic and realistic acts, and manages to make a political statement at the same time. Brilliant.
  13. Walden by Henry David Thoreau: Elegant and Transcendent words of wisdom to live by. Enough said.
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Haunting, creepy, and beautiful written.
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Horrifyingly realistic. This book takes a look at the horrifying social behavior of children left to their own devices on an island, which is a microcosm of all of humanity, and it isn’t a pretty sight.
  16. 1984 by George Orwell: A quintessential sci-fi novel at its best. Full of dark warnings against Totalitarianism and the importance of words to thought.
  17. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: These are moral tales that accurately cover just about every type of personality, virtue, and vice with both humor and severity.
  18. For One More Day by Mitch Albom: This book is a magically transcendent exploration of a mother’s love through a bizarrely surreal visit with the other side. I love all his books, but this one is definitely my favorite.
  19. On Writing by Stephen King: I love everything about this book. It’s not only sage advice given openly from the guru of suspense, but packed with personality and real life stories along with the lessons on writing.
  20. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Lee has wonderful voice, creates characters you won’t be able to forget, and addresses issues of racial prejudice, justice, and moral integrity.
  21. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: I love this tragic tale of friendship, fate, and the harsh realities of life.
  22. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley: I never had a horse, but I could relate to this story of a boy and his horse, their love, and their loyalty because it reminds me of having a wonderful dog. I love books about the love between humans and animals, and this one is one of the best. Full of action and adventure too. I read the whole series.
  23. Strangers by Dean Koontz: Koontz expertly weaves the lives and experiences of several seemingly unrelated characters into one crazy and unexpected plot. You’ll never believe that it could be rationally explained in the end, but it is! My favorite Koontz novel.
  24. Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory: The one that started it all. This is considered the definitive King Arthur story. I love the Knight life.
  25. Paradise Lost by John Milton: Milton makes Lucifer shockingly relatable, or maybe it’s just me. I think I’ve said too much.
  26. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Chivalry, knights, quests, love, and friendship. I love this tale of knightly adventure.
  27. The Shining by Stephen King: King at his best. This novel masterfully uses a malevolent ghost-filled hotel as a metaphor for the almost demonic hold of alcoholism. If you’ve only seen the movie, you are seriously missing out. For more check out: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2013/10/21/review-the-shining-by-stephen-king/
  28. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult: An engrossing story-within-a-story combining the strange but brilliant combination of the Nazi holocaust, a bakery, and a vampire in small village. Heart-wrenching, realistic, and superbly symbolic. Read the entire review here: https://disturbingtheuniverseblog.com/2013/11/23/review-the-storyteller-by-jodi-picoult-2/
  29. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Dark, poignant, and unique. Death is the narrator, a neutral observer, telling the story of a young German girl who loves to read as things fall apart around her in Nazi Germany.
  30. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier: Creepy, gothic, and suspenseful with a scary head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who tries to sabotage the happiness of a young bride. Who can Mrs. DeWinter trust? Certainly not her husband, a widower whose wife, Rebecca, died under suspicious circumstances.
  31. The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells: I love everything by HG Wells, but this one is particularly good. It’s science fiction, bordering on horror, and makes us question all kinds of scientific ethics.
  32. The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Observation, logic, and reasoning are paramount to a very flawed, ego-maniacal protagonist, Sherlock Holmes.
  33. Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes: Mind-blowing philosophical theory, questioning the very essence of reality.
  34. Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzche: Brilliant thoughts on mankind, the origin of evil, and the purpose of life.
  35. The Giver by Lois Lowry: A classic dystopian novel, written for children, but with such depth, and done so well, everyone loves it. Many layers of meaning and unforgettable characters.
  36. Bag of Bones by Stephen King: Haunting, mysteriously beautiful, romantic, and creepy. I love this book. Again, don’t judge it by the movie.
  37. Duma Key by Stephen King: I loved this book because it combines three things I find interesting— a haunted house, a stormy ocean setting, and an artist. I couldn’t put this one down.
  38. The Street Lawyer by John Grisham: This book will renew your belief in the goodness of people. It’s quite different from Grisham’s other legal thrillers, but still a page-turner.
  39. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: This book is hard to read. A difficult look at the oppression of women in a dark sci-fi story in a not-too far-fetched Totalitarian and faux-religious future. Definitely worth a trip to the dark side.
  40. The Angry Woman Suite by Lee Fullbright: Fullbright hooked me on the first page with her intricately woven plot and complex characters. The novel is a combination of historical fiction and mystery, wherein, Fullbright manages to use multiple first person narrators and jumps around in time without losing the reader, connecting all the times and characters seamlessly and hurtling them to the insanely climactic ending. Love this book.
  41. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: Shocking and powerful, this book will open your eyes to another culture and draw you in. This book touched me in its gripping portrayal of tortured minds, one by guilt, and another by tragedy, cruelty, and betrayal.
  42. Game of Thrones by George RR Martin: Graphic, complicated, shocking, and pure bliss! Martin is a master of complexity in both character and plot. One minute I despise a character, and the next I am masterfully manipulated into sympathizing with him.
  43. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: This book about an alien race helping the human race evolve, unbeknownst to them, is magnificent! Clarke explores numerous themes such as history, art, and what gives life meaning, just to name a few.
  44. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar: This book is lovely and poignant from beginning to end. It’s a beautiful and heart-rending look at friendship and love in a world of inequality, addressing the issues of religious difference, poverty, and caste systems in modern Bombay.
  45. A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron: See life through a dog’s eyes. It’s a tear-jerker, but you’ll never look at your dog without imagining what he’s thinking again.
  46. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Beautiful, poetic, and profound. “Song of Myself” and “O Me! O Life” are some of the most quoted lines of wisdom still today, and it is no wonder. He could be writing about the world right now. Like Walden, these are words to live by.
  47. Symposium by Plato: Wisdom from the ancients. I always love Plato, including The Allegory of the Cave.
  48. Metaphysics by Aristotle: I really like Aristotle’s reasoning about learning through experience and the physical world. He could be a modern-day scientist.
  49. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. An intellectual argument on why there is probably no god and how the major religions of the world are flawed. Dawkins breaks down the basics of evolution and punches undeniable holes in theology and philosophy.
  50. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan: Sagan convincingly destroys all illusions about the supernatural world in this book. It’s fabulously done, but at the same time, being disillusioned is kind of depressing.

So that’s where I will stop. I could literally continue writing about my favorite books all night, but I won’t put you through that. If you read all the way to the end, I wish I could give you some kind of reward, but why not pick up one of these fabulous books and enjoy? That will be a reward in itself.—Christina Knowles

Book Review: White Walls by HMC

51bx1tkoTmL._SS300_White Walls, a suspense-thriller, by HMC drew me in instantly with an assortment of interesting characters. As the book opens, we get a peek at the possibly paranoid delusions of a very disturbed man, George Barter, an artist who won’t leave his home even to purchase art supplies. I knew I liked this book immediately when I could easily picture George arguing with the store clerk on the phone and then, in an angry tirade, tearing up his own art with a pair of scissors. Each character has a definitive voice that comes through in HMC’s artful and realistic dialogue.

HMC alternates the third person viewpoint skillfully to give readers a glimpse into the minds of several characters quickly. We meet Samantha Phillips, a young woman and daughter of a notable psychiatrist with a personality disorder, Dr. Jade Thatcher, the main character with issues from her own past, Anne, a light-hearted and friendly nurse, Freddie, a patient who has childlike tendencies, Dr. Clancy Green, a crotchety stickler for the rules, and Morty, a kind easy-going nurse, just to name a few, who will all have one thing in common, the mysterious Rowan’s Home Psychiatric Institution.

Without giving too much away, I will say that Jade Thatcher finds herself in a great deal of trouble, which she did not anticipate when she came home to Fairholmes, Australia to make a fresh start after her divorce. With the best intentions, she is soon immersed in Rowan’s shadowy past, unsure of whom to trust, and struggling to survive long enough to uncover the secrets that will allow her to finally help her patients to heal.

The more I read, the more intriguing the plot became. This book made me speculate about what was really going on and to challenge myself to figure it out before the end of the book. This book was great fun to read, and I didn’t want to put it down. HMC has a degree in psychology, which adds to the realism of the novel, but is also the source of my only complaint. I wish she would have given more details regarding the psychological aspects in the resolution of the book. Nevertheless, a great read, and I highly recommend it. 4 out of 5 stars. –Christina Knowles

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

11870085Superb! I absolutely love this book, but before extolling its literary excellence, a brief synopsis: Three teenagers with cancer, Hazel Grace, Augustus, and Isaac, meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace is terminal, Augustus is in remission (but had one leg amputated), and Isaac must have his second eye removed due to his cancer returning, leaving him blind. It sounds depressing, but it is filled with humor, beautiful dialogue, numerous allusions to my favorite authors, and more importantly, profound truths.

Hazel and Augustus share the same sense of humor, ask the same questions of the universe, love the same book, and rival each other’s incredible vocabulary and IQ level. Isaac becomes a sort of lovable third wheel when his girlfriend leaves him because he is now blind after promising him “always.”

Hazel fears being a “grenade” in the lives of her friends and family. She knows it is inevitable that her parents will be inconsolable when she dies, but she hesitates to get involved with Augustus because she is afraid of breaking his heart, which she sees as avoidable. Augustus fears dying and fading into oblivion. He just wants to be remembered, and he wants his death to have a purpose. He longs to be a hero, but of course, dying of cancer is pretty purposeless.

Augustus spends his cancer-perk-wish on Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten, and finding out the unwritten ending to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a girl dying of cancer, which stops abruptly without any resolution. Hazel and Augustus have a romantic Dutch holiday even though Van Houten is a jerk. That’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers.

Although most people I know love this book, I’ve run across a few who have various complaints, and some who downright hate the book, so I’d like to address these criticisms and get them out of the way.

The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written, some say too beautifully. Yes, it may seem corny to certain readers that Augustus speaks in long romantic monologues, and waxes philosophical, and that Hazel and Augustus are far too mature, and it is incredibly unlikely that too super-geniuses with terminal cancer would meet and fall in love, but so what? All these things actually make the book more interesting, in my opinion. Who wants to read a book with boring, ordinary, emotionally immature, and illiterate cancer patients? It is unlikely that people in Shakespeare’s day spoke in rhyming iambic pentameter, but we appreciate the art and beauty of it, and the truths that matter are there, as they are in The Fault in Our Stars. These truths are even more abundant because they are so eloquently delivered via metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. However, I will admit that I do agree with some readers that Augustus and Hazel are too similar, almost the same character. Hazel is more serious and more selfless, but it is strangely narcissistic that they fall in love.

Another grievance among the disparagers of this novel is that it is not comforting to cancer patients or their families. Well, it is my belief that this book is not primarily written for either cancer patients, or those they leave behind. I believe it is written mainly for the obliviously healthy, those living their lives appreciating little, caring for less, and noticing naught around them, to see life through the eyes of a terminal cancer patient and wake up. Reading TFiOS is contemplating the universe vicariously through the eyes of those that have the luxury of knowing this is all the time they have, the here and now, and it is short, way too short. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by calling it luxury–cancer is horrible, senseless, cruel, but in some ways Green is saying that it is a gift, a gift to know how much time you have left and how valuable that time is. The book’s existential message is that we give life whatever meaning we want to give it, and it is beautiful and worth living to the fullest, every minute of it. Hazel and Augustus are lucky in that they know they don’t have much time left. They realize the tragedy of their impending death; therefore; they live abundantly, “sucking the marrow out of life” as Thoreau put it. We don’t do that because we don’t know we are dying; we don’t know tomorrow could be our last day.

However, the most amazing thing about this novel is all the allusion to wonderful pieces of literature. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he quotes Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” names the hamster in Van Houten’s novel, Sisyphus, refers to Walt Whitman’s philosophical ideas, and he quotes my all-time, absolute personal favorite, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, among many others. Being a book nerd, these allusions transported me to literary heaven. But Green does not quote and namedrop for no reason.

The title of the novel comes from Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius tells Brutus that it is not fate that is responsible for our misery, but our own failings are responsible for the tragedy in our lives. But when Van Houten writes in his letter to Augustus, “Never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you are a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, p. 111-112). By titling the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Green emphasizes his point that cancer is a purposeless disease that chooses its victims with no rhyme or reason. I LOVE the title.

I also love the allusion to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” for a similar reason:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay. –Robert Frost

 

Again Green highlights the fact that everything is temporary, especially what is most beautiful, but that only makes us appreciate it more. Because this line is also associated with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which would be familiar to most teens, I think Green means to bring in the totality of meaning that S.E. Hinton intended in her novel. Hazel Grace and Augustus, like Pony Boy in The Outsiders, need to “Stay gold” even though they are losing their innocence while facing a cruel world.

The hamster in Hazel Grace and Augustus’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (the meaning of this title is self-explanatory), is named Sisyphus. Sisyphus is an obvious allusion to the mythological Sisyphus who was required to roll a boulder up a hill over and over, just to watch it roll down again. Albert Camus’s essay, Myth of Sisyphus, uses Sisyphus as an example to put forth his philosophy of the Absurd. Camus tells of Sisyphus’s meaningless task to show how humans search for meaning where there is none. According to Camus, Sisyphus was happy because, to him, this meaningless activity had meaning. In other words, humans create our own meaning (Existentialism) and this quest to find meaning in meaningless things gives people meaning. Hazel Grace and Augustus realize this; they see the absurdity of the world. They don’t try to explain their illnesses or find meaning in it. It just sucks. They are not comforted by platitudes, even though Augustus commonly creates his own in his lengthy monologues; however, they do grudgingly accept the value in them to those who will be left behind.

Finally, I think it was pure brilliance to include the allusions to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This most beautifully rhythmic and meaningful poem is a Modernist work, which by definition is cynical, self-reflective, and anti-traditional. Augustus is afraid to become Prufrock. Prufrock is fading into oblivion, not from disease, but from age. Nevertheless there are many similarities between Augustus and Prufrock. Prufrock has desires, but sees himself and his life as unremarkable, too unremarkable to reach out for the love for which he longs and has let slip away throughout his life. He is too careful, too reserved, a minor character–“no Prince Hamlet.” He asks the big questions, but is afraid to find the answer to his “overwhelming question.” At one point he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (This blog is named for this poem, in case you didn’t know.) Augustus wants to disturb the universe, needs to disturb the universe before he goes. His biggest fear is being like Prufrock, letting love slip away, life slip away, unnoticed, unremarkable, and for no heroic reason. One of the first lines Hazel quotes shows the bleak reality of life and the emptiness of searching for significance where there is none: “Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/ Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question . . ./ Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit” (Eliot, quoted from Green, p. 153). It is relevant that Augustus’s response to her delivering this quote is: “I’m in love with you” (p. 153). Augustus sees in Hazel a soul-mate, who recognizes the futility of asking that question. This book made it in to my top ten favorite books right then and there.

I love this book because it is the kind of book that makes me reconsider, makes me contemplate the big questions, and then encourages me to put all that aside and just live fully. It encourages me, but like Prufrock, I am constantly led to ask that question. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that stays with me, but if it fades, I will read it again and again. It occurred to me that this book is saying the opposite of the providential message of The Goldfinch, which I also found extremely profound. Truthfully, I’ll never stop looking for answers, but it is important to be reminded to live in the spaces between questions.

So, I really don’t care if it isn’t probable that two brilliant cancer patients like Hazel Grace and Augustus would have their stars cross in real life because there are truths more important than how large the vocabulary of the average teenager is likely to be. Truths like cancer sucks, bad things happen for no reason, and life is a gift to be lived and cherished every minute without fear because no one is promised tomorrow, and we don’t have to figure it all out; we just get to live it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

Book Review: Covet by Tracey Garvis-Graves

13481759I bought this book when it first came out because I absolutely loved Garvis-Graves’ book, On the Island. I hadn’t had time to read it, but then my book club chose it to read for the month of May. I eagerly anticipated getting lost in another intense story by Garvis-Graves and imagined that I would love the characters as I did in her first book.

That didn’t happen. This book was a bit disappointing. The first half of this book was quite boring as it slowly, very slowly, painted a picture of a suburban couple, Claire and Chris, whose marriage was falling apart due to Chris’s emotional issues and unwillingness to communicate after losing his lucrative job and his inability to find another for over a year. Claire meets a good looking police officer, Daniel, and a seemingly innocent friendship develops as Daniel meets Claire’s emotional needs in a way that Chris refuses to.  This sounds like a decent plot, full of possibility for conflict, but there really isn’t much. Even Claire’s internal conflict–there’s hardly any; she’s mostly in denial.

One reason I found this book rather unexciting, I think, is because I am not really interested in suburban housewives’ first world problems, such as boredom, vodka lunches, and not getting to shop at designer stores, and there was way too much of that in this book for my taste. It seemed very Desperate Housewives to me at first (without the quirky characters and conflict), and I didn’t like any of the characters, but I’m glad I stuck with it because it did get better.

However, one of the most annoying things about the book to me, and this is just a matter of taste, was the present tense narration. I find books written in the present tense very awkward, and because of this, I am constantly reminded that I am reading a story rather than experiencing the characters’ lives. Maybe it’s just because I am used to being told a story in the past tense. I’m not sure. Also, I really did not enjoy the first person alternating points of view. Most chapters were Claire’s, but every once in a while, we would get the perspective of Chris or Daniel. There was not enough from them to feel like I really got to know them, and I think it would have been better just to stick with Claire’s point of view if the others’ perspectives weren’t going to be well-developed.  For me, this is what really interfered with the character development.

Garvis-Graves’ character development in On the Island was probably my favorite thing about that book, but Covet really lacked in this area. It was not until after the first 200 pages that I actually began to have sympathy for Claire, and strangely, this sympathy came not from her own point of view, but from Daniel’s. And even then, it was through her dialogue and actions with Daniel that I started to care more about Claire, and the same was true for Daniel. When Claire spoke in the first person about her feelings, I was left cold and emotionless. They didn’t ring true for me, or somehow, she just didn’t seem like a real person. I felt the same thing when I read Daniel’s perspective. He seemed like an opportunistic creep when speaking in his own perspective, but seemed better in conversation with Claire and in his actions toward her. However, I never cared one whit for Chris, Claire’s husband, and for the remainder of the last half of the book, I just wanted her to divorce him. His perspective was always incredibly brief and uninformative. I felt like the author didn’t even know who he was, so how could I? And his behavior toward Claire just seemed childish and selfish. The author did not do an adequate job of making Chris sympathetic or justifying his behavior enough to make me want to see them work things out, or even care, for that matter. As for the minor characters, too much seemingly irrelevant information was given about them that just seemed superfluous.

The most interesting thing about the book to me was Claire’s Type 1 Diabetes. More than just a plot device, it made her a little more real to me. In addition to Claire’s diabetes, I liked the realism in which the gradual shift from friendship to romantic feelings that Claire and Daniel shared was portrayed. This made the whole book worth reading.  Although Claire should have clearly known better than to become so close to another man if she wanted to save her marriage, most affairs do start out this way.

I did end up kind of liking this book because I did like the message. This book clearly demonstrates the need for one’s spouse to be one’s best friend, to look for that companionship, conversation, emotional connection, and comfort from the person who should be closest. We need to constantly see our spouse as our best friend and share those things that we wouldn’t share with anyone else. We need transparency and vulnerability if we want true intimacy. Garvis-Graves did an excellent job of showing this in Claire and Chris’s life together.

However disappointing this book was to me, I will definitely look forward to more from this writer simply because On the Island was THAT good. Any writer who can pull me into a book as quickly and immerse me into the characters’ lives to the point where I miss them when they are gone, as I did when I finished On the Island, deserves another chance. 3 out of 5 stars. –Christina Knowles

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