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.

Brief Book Reviews

Sadly, I haven’t written in a long time. That includes this blog, my stories, and even my poor neglected paper journal. The only things I’ve written of any substance in the past few months have been grocery lists and emails related to work. However, I did read a bunch of books:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. A sci-fi/dystopian/literary novel that I got from a book sale because I had heard good things about it. The entire time I was reading, the images in my head were in black and white or in muted shades of gray. The book was adapted into a movie, too, but I’m not sure I want to see the movie if it’s as depressing as the book. It almost reminded me of The Giver but without the sense of hope conveyed at the end of that book. I would call Never Let Me Go a warning to society: let’s not let technology get so far that it calls into question the intrinsic worth of human beings. (Oh, wait! We’re already there!)
  2. Confessions of a Mega Church Pastor by Allen Hunt. Super short, super easy-to-read memoir about a man’s journey to the Catholic Church. I like these stories because they remind me of how grateful I should be to have my faith, and how much I take it for granted because I grew up with it and didn’t discover it later in life, as the author did.
  3. A People Adrift by Peter Steinfels. A Catholic journalist’s sociological commentary on the state of the Church circa 2003 (i.e., right after the sexual abuse scandal came to light). Unfortunately, the same negative trends in the Church as a whole seem to be persisting with no real end in sight. I liked reading the book because it wasn’t nonstop statistics, and the author did propose some solutions that seemed viable. However, he did have a slightly more liberal take on the faith that I didn’t always agree with.
  4.  Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. A memoir by a woman who grew up in a tough Christian household and was sent to a hellish Christian military-style “school” for discipline after she was found “fornicating” with her boyfriend (among other infractions). Honestly, I think the problem with the author’s upbringing was not fundamentalist Christianity itself but the fact that her parents, especially her mother, were totally uninvolved (and even neglectful) and seemed to care only about putting on the faces of good, charitable Christian neighbors. The book was also a commentary on race relations, as the author’s adopted brother was black and she was white.
  5. The Outsider by Stephen King. Ah, Stephen King. I love your books, but your politics and your Twitter page sicken me. Anyway, feelings about the author aside, The Outsider is probably one of the better books King has published recently. It’s not a sequel to Mr. Mercedes et al., but one of the characters does make a cameo appearance, and it is always a pleasure to read about her. The book will scare the crap out of you and leave you questioning the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural.
  6. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. I checked this book out of the library only because it takes place in the early 1990s and it mentions the Smashing Pumpkins. Normally, it’s not the kind of thing I would read because (1) every other word is the f-word (with the c-word thrown in every now and then), (2) way too many graphic descriptions of sex, and (3) I got the feeling the author was trying to push an agenda. Aside from that, this is a hilarious coming-of-age story, and the author writes very well. Her descriptions of what it’s like to be a teenage girl are spot on.

My favorite out of these? Probably Jesus Land because it was one of those books that has you marveling at the fact that truth really is stranger than fiction.