Cult of Celebrity

SPOILER ALERT!

I’m not entirely sure why I picked up Caroline Zancan’s Local Girls from the library, but something written on the book jacket told me that it might be an interesting coming-of-age tale. The book took place over a single night, with its three main characters, 19-year-old Florida girls, sitting in a bar with drinks (why they are allowed to drink when they’re not of age is not explained very well) when a very well-known (fictional) celebrity, Sam Decker, randomly comes in and starts talking to them. For some reason (again, not fully explained), this triggers a series of flashbacks that make up the majority of the book and explain why a fourth girl is no longer the main characters’ friend anymore. Sam Decker ends up dying at the end of the night, so the fact that he spent his last night with ordinary girls was supposedly enormously significant, but I didn’t understand why.

Admittedly, the author is talented. I liked some of her insights about life and friendship, but I felt as though it was wasted when she was speaking in the voice of a character who supposedly graduated high school with “low B’s and high C’s, and even the stray D’s” and didn’t seem all that interested in college or ambitions beyond drinking with her friends and hanging out with a boyfriend who seemed far too good for her. I don’t think it would be realistic for such a character to have insights like that.

The other girls were portrayed similarly. They seemed to live for the celebrities they idolized from magazines and movies, which is why they were so enraptured when Sam Decker entered the bar. I’ve personally never understood the point of celebrity worship, so I couldn’t sympathize with these characters. I mean, if I saw Susan Lucci or some other famous person I like walking around in my town or at Walmart, I’d stare for a little bit, try not to stare, then go about my merry way. I’m not the type to run squealing up to a celebrity and beg for an autograph.

I am (I think) one of the few people who actually enjoys flashbacks in books, and the flashbacks were what made the book bearable to read. They brought the characters more to life and distinguished the girls from one another, but they didn’t make me feel sorry for the characters or put myself in their shoes. The flashbacks reminded me of hearing someone talk about drama that happened to someone else—there was too much distance, a “you had to be there” kind of feeling.

Overall, I felt like the book would have been better off as a short story or even a novella. If the author had written in a shorter form, she might have been forced to make the book less meandering and more punchy. She has a lot of talent, but it was wasted here. I wouldn’t recommend this book at all, and I don’t like saying that, but there are much better choices out there.

At the Mercy of Children

SPOILER ALERT!

So I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome. (Yes, I know there was a TV mini-series, but I don’t think I’ll ever watch it.) In short, I liked the premise of the book and enjoyed the experience of rushing through it to see how Mr. King would wrap up all the craziness he’d created, but the ending was sort of a bummer.

Big Jim Rennie was probably one of the best King villains I’ve read about in a while. He’s your (stereo)typical slimy used car dealer, and to make matters worse, a hypocrite of the highest order. I wanted so badly for him to have a much more gruesome death than he actually did. Having him die alone haunted by the “ghosts” of the people he killed did not in any way justify the hell he unleashed upon the other characters, as if actually being under the dome wasn’t bad enough for them.

I didn’t like the idea of alien “leatherhead” children using the dome as a kind of experiment just to get their kicks, the same way that human children would burn ants under a magnifying glass.* Because the town of Chester’s Mill was basically a huge meth lab, I wanted the dome to be some kind of byproduct of all those chemicals. Wouldn’t that have been a positive anti-drug message? Yes, but that’s not what we got. Instead, we got a sermon on how we should treat ants and those smaller than us with respect because you never know: they might have quite complex lives after all, just like us. (I mean, it wasn’t a bad message, but it wasn’t quite big enough and loud enough to match the bigness and loudness of the book. I suppose it was too “literary” for mainstream horror/sci-fi.)

King also tried to be charitable toward Republicans by making one of the heroines a Republican journalist. However, he was not in the least charitable toward Christians, whom he often portrays as a bunch of mindless sheep who can be very cruel and unaware of how hypocritical they are acting. I find it somewhat unfair, but hey… everyone has their bias, right? King also uses his typical tactic of having a young kid save the day—or at least prove himself to be smarter than most of the adults. I like that trope of his because it is nice to see an underdog pull through and have a victory.

The best parts of the book were the fast pace and the interesting characters. There was literally never any downtime. It was one death right after another, and just when you thought the carnage would be over for a few pages, it started right back up again in the next paragraph, which of course made the book nearly impossible to put down. I kept comparing it to my favorite Stephen King book, Needful Things, mostly because it centered on the destruction of one small town and followed a multitude of raucous characters. However, Needful Things had the satisfying ending that Under the Dome did not.

I’d recommend Under the Dome if you want a big, juicy book to keep you turning the pages on a boring car ride or maybe on the beach. It’s so gory at times that you almost feel like a sick person for enjoying it so much… then you wonder about the author’s sanity.

*As much as I disliked the ending, it was incredibly accurate because when I was much younger, I used to pull the legs and wings off Japanese beetles, mostly because there were so darn many of them and they destroyed my mother’s rosebushes, so they were basically Public Enemy Number 1. At one point when I got a bit older, I realized that as gross and destructive as the bugs were, they were living creatures that felt pain and had lives, no matter how short and seemingly useless. When I realized that, I let all the Japanese beetles out from the glass jar where I kept them… under the dome. So I was one of those creepy leatherhead alien kids after all. So reassuring.

Little Ways and Simple Lives

CAUTION: Spoiler alert!

I am a huge fan of Rod Dreher’s column on The American Conservative, and I’ve read a couple of his other books, so when I saw The Little Way of Ruthie Leming at a used book sale, I grabbed it with glee. The book didn’t disappoint. In short, it’s a memoir about Rod’s younger sister Ruthie, who passed away at age 40 from an aggressive form of cancer. Ruthie wasn’t wealthy or famous or “worthy” to be the subject of a memoir in the way that celebrities are, but she indeed seemed to live a saintly life, and the definition of sainthood was what Rod came to grips with throughout the book.

Rod lived a vastly different life from that of his sister; he escaped the small Louisiana town of their childhood in favor of a journalist’s worldly life in the big city. Ruthie, on the other hand, was content to remain in the little town, marry her high school sweetheart, and become a teacher. In a sense, it was like the city mouse/country mouse story from childhood and made readers ponder the question: Is it better to have a “big life” or a “small life”? The answer is honestly either one, just as long as you live according to moral standards.*

As I read the book, I found myself relating to both Rod and Ruthie. On his blog, Rod echoes a lot of my own views on various subjects, but he often comes across as pretentious and privileged. Ruthie enjoyed the simple things in life, as I do, but she didn’t seem to value learning and books in the same way Rod does. The difference between the two siblings reminded me a lot of the division where I live. On one hand, you have the simple Southern people who have lived in North Carolina their entire lives. They tend to enjoy the typical Southern life, which is slow-paced and involves close ties between family and friends. North Carolina natives tend to be good, honest, “salt-of-the-earth” people, but they also can be ignorant or intolerant of anything that goes against their way of life or beliefs. This was how Rod described Ruthie and other Louisiana natives in the memoir—as quite close-minded—but of course, that’s not their fault. That’s how they have been raised and they’re satisfied that way. They are content with what they have and don’t see any reason to broaden their horizons.

The other part of North Carolina is taken over by “Yankees” who recently moved from New York and other Northern states. If you ask the native North Carolinians, the Yankees have totally destroyed North Carolina’s culture with their high-class, fast-paced ways. They’re forcing new roads and highways and homes to be built, which is ruining the environment, and they’re in favor of upscale stores like Whole Foods and niche boutiques that are causing the prices of everything else to go up. Houses are going for outrageously high prices, and who can afford them but the Yankees? Many of the Yankees work in the Research Triangle Park area and tend to be highly educated and current on the latest technologies. Because they’re not native, many of their family members live elsewhere. Thus, family may not seem like it’s as much of a priority to them as it is for the native North Carolinians (but I’m sure it probably is).

I did come from New York, but that was in the mid-1990s when I was a little kid, so I find it hard to relate to the newest wave of “Yankees” who have arrived in my state. I love the native North Carolinians I know, and they do tend to have a better and more fulfilling lifestyle in that they value what is truly important: family and friends. But I, like Rod, tend to get impatient with them because they don’t seem to value education and “book smarts” in the same way that I do. They are very set in their ways. However, I’m constantly aware that my impatience with them may make me come off as pretentious and high-falutin.

Ruthie Leming’s “little way” (i.e., doing small things with great love, also espoused by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta) is a simple faith that anyone can live by. From what I gathered from reading the memoir, Rod is still coming to terms with this “little way” and how to reconcile it with a world that seems focused on the things that don’t ultimately matter. Like Rod, I have issues with trying to follow the “little way” and reconciling it with what I know (from education and being a native New Yorker) and what I value (from my parents, my religion, and the aspects of the Southern life I admire).

The book can be read for the enjoyable and inspiring (although obviously very sad) story, or for a more in-depth study of culture and faith if you’re the kind of person who, like the author (and me), tends to overanalyze everything.

*What is “morally acceptable” and what is a “good person” are extremely subjective these days. I personally believe in objective morality, but many do not, and that’s a topic for another post.