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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

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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: 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: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333223Finally– I finally finished the 771 page novel that is The Goldfinch.  I have never taken so long to finish a book before. Not just because this book was soooo long. I have read many long books, but this book had to be read slowly, absorbed. I do admit that it was not really a page-turner. This is an understatement. In fact, every time I had to put it down, I had no trouble at all. I actually looked forward to putting it down and had a hard time picking it back up. It’s not that it was a bad book, or even boring.  Actually, I found it very profound and am glad I read it. But let me start at the beginning.

This book is about a boy named Theo with an absent and alcoholic father and a loving mother, who is trying to raise him on her own.  While visiting an art museum, he and his mother get caught in a terrorist bombing. His mother is killed, he survives, and through a series of seemingly providential events, he meets an old man and his grand-daughter, steals a famous small painting called “The Goldfinch” in a confused and concussed stupor, and manages to find his way out of the carnage unnoticed in the chaos.

Theo experiences and suffers numerous things in the proceeding years, but always manages to hold on to the painting, maniacally attached to the famous and priceless work of art. He soon realizes what he’s done, but is both unwilling and afraid to give it up. The rest of the very lengthy book chronicles his life, living with post-traumatic stress, guilt, and fear, recording one bad decision after another in an almost ridiculous hyperbole.

As a reader I became somewhat fond of Theo, but who wouldn’t be after spending 771 pages with him? Still, after 771 pages, I would think I would be more attached to him. The characterization in this story is all right, but nothing to really speak of. The prose are eloquent, the descriptions striking and pictorial. The plot is wonderful. So what’s wrong with this book? Why did I look forward to putting it down and dread picking it up? Is it bleak, disheartening, cynical? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is, but that’s not it either. This book is dragged down with the weight of details, details, details. Endless details. I swear that this author takes thirty pages to say what most people could say in five. And I’m sorry; I don’t care how beautifully it is said, there comes a time when you just have to get to the point. Sometimes I would find myself dying to find out how something turned out or what someone said, but by the time five, ten, or fifteen pages went by, I would forget what it was I was waiting for. I was tempted over and over again to skim it, but a force seemed to hold me back, telling me that in all these details there had to be a purpose, a message that I was sure to miss if I half-heartedly scanned the pages.

It finally came. I must say the profundity of the last thirty pages made enduring the whole over-written story worth the reading. But even the ending was at least fifteen pages too long. When I finally achieved the nirvana of the story’s thematic message, I floated on this cloud for only a page or two when the repetitive, albeit beautiful, drone numbed my mind once again.

Still I marvel at the incredible perspicacity of Tartt. She paints this crazy, chaotic, hyperbolic story with its deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable protagonist, into an Impressionistic masterpiece that can only be fully understood as one backs up and takes in the whole picture, the whole really long, laboriously large picture. (Forgive the “artsy” metaphor-no pun intended.) And the irony of the depressing events Theo endures finally coming to a usable point through the philosophical ruminations of Theo’s drug-addled, abused, trouble-attracting, poor-decision-making childhood friend, Boris, was just superb. In one sublime page, the entire seemingly pointless suffering all seems to make sense. The book should have ended there, but no, Tartt needs to go on and on and on, almost condescendingly assuming that we didn’t quite “get it” yet. The book could easily have been done, and done well, in my humble opinion, in half the pages. One must ask, “What was her editor thinking?” Isn’t it the editor’s job to demand cuts where extraneous material invades? I can only assume that her editor must have been infatuated with Tartt’s beautifully descriptive and intelligent writing style.

The Goldfinch evokes such ambivalence in me that I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I will say this: I am so grateful that I read it, but I will never be reading it again. I am giving it 4 out 5 stars–5 stars for its deeply meaningful insight, but subtracting one for making me suffer so long to receive it.–Christina Knowles

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