Monday, February 27, 2006


My father grew up in Yonkers in the thirties and forties. As a kid he told me about something called the "Alexander Smith Carpet Factory." It was the largest carpet factory in the world and I think one of the largest factories period in the world.

His grandfather had worked there as a carpet designer in the late 19th and early 20th century. My dad said the company was miserable and a had a habit of letting people go a few years or so before they vested their pensions so they never had to pay them. I think it's what happened to my great-grandfather and I know it one of the many reasons my very white-collar, never unionized dad always supported legitimate labor unions.

He told me how the managers at his company would crow about keeping the unions in line only to be let go by the higher ups when they started costing too much. I guess that's my own stand. Sure there are too many examples of venal unions these days that don't really take the right stands for their members. But, imagine how much better life would be for all the white collar drones if they had some sort of organization standing up for them.

Which is all off track from where I was starting. So I drove to Yonkers yesterday with hopes of seeing the old factory complex. From what I could see on Google Earth it sure looked like something was still there. Several long blocks worth of something still there.

It's a fairly short ride, maybe an hour or so and from 9A you come right out on Palmer Road which takes you right to the backside of the factory.

It's not just one big building, which even though I knew beforehand that it wasn't, that's still the picture I had in my head. Some sort of nightmarish Upton Sinclair/Charles Dickens/William Blake soot-stained mill with towering smoke stacks.

Instead it's a series of huge but low building strung out for five or six blocks. Since a third of them have been occupied by various businesses and the city is trying to attract new tenants it's all pretty clean and polished. The windows are unbroken and there's a distinct lack of garbage and graffitti.

I was overwhelmed by the scale of the place. Even the old ship factories in Mariners Harbor (they built destroyers on Andros Ave.) pale in comparison. But I was disappointed at the tidiness of the whole thing. Oh, well.

“Floating Dragon” – Peter Straub

After a series of horror novels culminating with “Ghost Story”, Straub wrote “Shadowlands”, a more fantastical book about magic and illusion. After that worthy detour he pulled out all the stops and wrote what he has described as an over the top grand guignol horror story. There are old secrets, new secrets, melting bodies and terrifying Neanderthaloid twins. Blood and gore oozes from the pages and in the end half a small Connecticut suburb is depopulated. Is there much more to it than that though?

I guess. Straub wrote it partially in response to his own relocation to Connecticut with his family after a decade in England and Ireland. He was jarred by the forced and often excruciating openness as well as the almost oppressive pull to join in. One of the book’s main players is in just such a position and much of “Floating Dragon’s” early pages play on his unfamiliarity and discomfort.

The small town of Hampstead is brought to life with tremendous detail. We know about the cops and the stores and all manner of the town’s flotsam and jetsam of daily life. The point is that when things fall apart there’s a deeper understanding of the enormity of those events. As a child of the seventies I found his recreation of suburbia much like the memories I hold in my own head and I enjoyed that aspect of "Floating Dragon."

I like Straub’s writing and I liked the book but it just doesn’t do all that much other than exist between its two covers. I reread it because I read it when it first came out and had vague memories of being disappointed while still enjoying it. I wanted to look back and see how I felt about it now. The plot moves along, unfolding almost as you'd expect, though with a few tough twists, but it feels too mechanical. Too often it's spectacle for its own sake (which is ok by me) but there’s not much else going on.

“Ghost Story” and his other horror stories up till this seem suffused with their characters’ guilt over wrongs they’d done or failed to prevent. There’s deeper current running through them that at the least make the books feel more meaty. “Floating Dragon” is too mannered and precise to function as a splatter story and too over the top to really work as an unsettling story about the past and its crime returning to haunt the present.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Hearts in Atlantis" - Stephen King

“Hearts in Atlantis”, a series of linked short stories, is Stephen King’s study of the sixties. Two of the stories are clearly supernatural, one might be, and the other two are fairly naturalistic. How innocence dies and what it means to several characters and the nation at large is examined over a span of almost forty years.
The first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is set in 1960 when a somewhat odd old man moves into the same apartment building with young Bobby Garfield and his bitter, widowed mother. Next to King’s usual well-written depictions of childhood crises (real ones, not just the ones we think important when still a child) there are clear links to his vast “Dark Tower” series and various fantastical doings. There are also first loves, family lies and sudden irrational violence. It is the most overtly supernatural story in the collection but it also sets up the world as Mysterious place. Strange connections and loyalties will be forged in childhood that will follow children into middle aged adulthood.
The second tale, “Hearts in Atlantis” is about the awakening of several students at University of Maine (including some from the first story) to the nature of the Vietnam War and birth of the counterculture. Some students are swept up in the coming social storms already sweeping America in 1966 and are carried off to parts unknown. Running through the story is the destructive effects of one dorm’s addiction to the game of hearts.
The third and fourth stories, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam”, dissect the aftermath of the Vietnam War and psychic damage wrought on some of its participants. One veteran tries to atone for the sins he’s committed and another is haunted (perhaps literally) for the sins he failed to prevent. The naiveté and almost sweet innocence of the early sixties has been smothered with remorse and the need to do penance. Again, characters participating or mentioned in the earlier stories are woven into these ones. People who were minor characters become major, becoming fulcra for destiny changing events.
Realistically the connections between the characters are fantastical. Too many coincidences and improbable meetings across too many years happen to properly mimic reality. What they do, though, is cry out how much what we do impinges on our fellows, be it good, bad or merely unintended. Someone steals a baseball mitt at age eleven and it comes back several times over the ensuing decades to haunt different people. Another person, known in childhood, turns to radical politics and her image, real and imagined, travels across the years and the continent. No one escapes the consequences of his or her actions and no actions fail to have an effect beyond their original intentions.
The book is brought to a circle in the final story, "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," with the return of Bobby Garfield as man now in his fifties. For almost forty years he has borne the weight of his actions and friendships and at times they seemed ready to break him. He is brought back to
The Atlantis motif comes from a Donovan song and for King is the sweet and charmed sixties before the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution turned the country into some sort of madhouse. By the book’s end some characters come out and explicitly say that for a bright moment it looked liked the people, particularly the baby boomers, were ready to change the fundamental nature of the country for the better. King then reminds us that they failed, and became stockbrokers and speculators and self obsessed and Atlantis sank beneath the sea.
I’ve never looked back at the sixties (particularly as a seventies kid) with anything less than low-level contempt for the smelly hippies I see in the news clips. I remember a professor, who had been active the anti-war movement, telling me that the big protests stopped the minute the draft ended. I’ve also seen clips from the local paper where SI Community College kids talked about how they shouldn’t go to war because they were the nation’s future, unlike the working class kids getting drafted. For me, Altamont’s a better vision of the times than Woodstock. There was a lot more self preservation and interest than universal brotherhood than people like to admit to at times.
That being said, King does a good job at making a case for innocence lost and people making valid stands for real beliefs. By focusing on characters who are pretty straight or at least uninvolved in the shifts in society starting to occur, he shows the incremental steps, sometimes taken just to get close to a girl, sometimes taken for fairly noble reasons, that in the end bring them into the post-Atlantis America.

Next - "Floating Dragon" - Peter Straub

Friday, February 17, 2006

Cheney Got a Gun (and I'm the man who hates puns)

I'm still working on the "Hearts in Atlantis" review. I guess I'm stuck between giving away too much of the book and assuming everyone's familiar with the book. Oh, well, I'll figger it out.

Meanwhile, the Dick Cheney stuff is making me all mental and frothy. Sure they should've told people a little sooner. That they didn't doesn't make it any less NOT A BIG DEAL. The VP shot his buddy. Isn't that bad enough on its own?
There's a war going on, the Australian Wheat Board's been shown to have been involved with $20 million (and no, I don't know if that's in the less valuable Aussie dollars) of UN Oil-for-Food kickbacks, Iran's going nuclear, Hammas is taking over. You get my drift, right? I mean, what the heck is going on?
Also, I love that Cheney gave his only interview to Fox. First, cause I like Brit Hume, and secondly because who was he going to give it to, David Gregory at NBC?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Great Debate

Last night New York's public radio station, WNYC, sponsored a debate on was the American public deliberately misled about pre-war intelligence. Participating were ex-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fl), David Korn, Washington editor of The Nation, Ann Wedgwood of various Pentagon advisory groups and Christopher Hitchens (yeehaa), columnist for Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.
It was a fascinating debate, less so for the content, which was great, than for the ability to observe the audience. It was held at the Center for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It's pretty much in the heart of one of the country's wealthiest and most liberal neighborhoods.
Now I've been to townhall meetings with Mayor Giuliani in Bushwich and Washington Heights and I never saw any measure of real rudeness. Not so last night. It started slowly, but by the end of the evening there were cries of fascist and f-you aimed towards the two pro-war speakers (Wedgwood and Hitchens).
The event was being taped for a radio show. Presumably they'll beep the cursing but the general notion of audience disrespect will remain. I only saw this at Giuliani town halls from specific radically aligned people bent on disrupting the assembly. Last night there were all sorts of folks contributing to the catcalling.
When I left I overheard one matron complaing that the pro-war speakers were condescending. My girlfreind simply said, quite politely, more or less, "So was the audience".
The debate itself was pretty good and valid points were made all around. I still don't think we were lied to but I do think poor interpretations of information were made. But listen for yourself. You can hear it next Wednesday online at 10am EST on

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stephen King - "Cell"

Every couple of years I find a Stephen King book I haven’t read and that gets decent reviews, I read it and then blow through a couple of other books of his I haven't read yet. Last time it was "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon". This time it's "Cell". Overall the experience was worthwhile and it did trigger me to start reading more unread King books. I'll talk about "Cell" a bit later, but first I want to ramble about King.
The first Stephen King book I read was “The Shining”. I remember hearing radio ads for it on WPLJ with actors depicting the scene where Danny reminds the demented Jack about dumping the boiler. I think I got a paperback from my Aunt Karen. It was the silver covered one with the little faceless depiction of Danny. When I re-read "The Shining" a few years ago I was struck by the economy of the thing. There's no single wasted word and no single bit of fat.
I really latched onto him in high school after friends told me to check out "'Salems Lot". I read it freshman year and can remember being freaked out. Particularly when I was listening to Black Sabbath with headphones on and came to the end of "Children of the Grave" when Barlow was driving out Father Callahan. Spooked me silly.
I quickly plowed through "Night Shift" and "Danse Macabre". Stories like “Gray Matter” and “Night Shift” were great. They reminded me of Lovecraft in a more readable idiom. “Danse” was my first foray into reading non-fiction about horror and the genre’s history. I presently have a decent shelf worth of such books but his was the first.
Then I hit "The Stand". That's the one my friends really told me to read. I was primarily a science fiction and fantasy reader up until then so the fact that it was a post apocalypse story got me geared up. I dug into in eagerly. The beginning was cool (I still have images of the making a way through the car clogged tunnel under the Hudson River in my head). Flagg has the makings of a great villain and Trashcan Man is a ball (I planned to write blast, but dang do I hate puns). All sorts of fun stuff.
Half way through I stopped. I couldn't bear it anymore. The book wouldn't end. There was way too much water treading and none of King's early books' tightness. I put it down and didn't try him again for a bit.
I read "Dead Zone" and revived my love for his work. Then I read "Firestarter" and lost hope again. I left him alone for some time after that. Nothing that came out looked particularly interesting. I remember reading "Pet Semetary" one night and being struck by how bloated it seemed for such a short book. It had a nifty concept, but too many words of no account.
Next came “Skeleton Crew”. Even though I’d long before read “The Mist” in Kirby McCauley’s “Dark Forces” anthology (truly one of the single greatest collections of horror stories – if you don’t own it, get it at once. Actually, I almost can’t believe you’d be reading this if you don’t already possess it. But then what do I know?) along with a few others of the book’s stories, I loved “Skeleton Crew”.
“Christine” and “It” held no appeal for me at all. The former sounded stupid and the latter looked liked it suffered from the worst case of Standitis imaginable. At some point I read "The Tommyknockers" on what must have only been a bet with myself. I remember seeing an interview with King a few years ago. He talked at length about his drinking and drugging and reflected that he had little memory of actually writing the book. If only as a reader I had the same sort of luxury. His novels really weren’t cutting it for me anymore.
Then came "Misery". I had sworn him off after “The Tommyknockers”, but a guy at work really recommended it. Peer pressure subject that I am and hoper against hope that King hadn’t written another piece of crap like “Pet Semetary” I checked it out. And I was blown away. Here was a Robert Bloch style non-supernatural horror story as well as an interesting critique of the writer’s relationship with readers. I was 22 and it struck me as mind-blowing. In retrospect it’s still pretty damned cool and creepy.
Later that year I somehow read “It”. It’s just way too long and it’s got some pretty crappy bits sprinkled way too liberally among the good stuff. Too often scenes feel repeated, but not for effect. Sure it’s scary (sometimes), but not enough to carry its vast weight.
I stayed away for 10 years until I got stuck on federal grand jury duty in 1999. I read “Carrie” simply to pass the hours and I remembered why I had liked King in the beginning and saw why he’d become a bestseller so quickly. I loved the style he told it in and I loved his teenage characters. And it was short. Pared down. Primal. Very cool.
Since I had time on my hands I decided to be daring. I decided to give “The Stand” another shot. Hey, it had been 18 years or so and the book had been revised. What could go wrong? Well…. So I only made it about half way before I cried “Uncle”. I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t.
I didn’t read another Stephen King book until 2001. I read several reviews of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and was intrigued. More importantly, it was short. I’d seen “Needful Things” and “Insomnia” and just couldn’t imagine reading either one. How much could anyone really have to say about the devil making bad deals with the people of Castle Rock? But “The Girl” sounded interesting. Very interesting.
I went to my local used bookstore (Barrett Book Traders, Staten Island’s only one) and scrounged up a copy. I read it in a day or so and that was that. My tastes had matured enough that I didn’t always need gore and King was in control of his wordy bloat. For those who don’t know, it’s about a young girl lost in the woods and trying to survive. Her only lifeline is a small radio on which she listens to Tom Gordon playing ball. There’s much more of course but that’s enough.
I remember arguing with my friend’s wife of the time. She like it but thought the girl seemed far too grown and I didn’t. Or at least not so much that it ruined the book. I liked the book enough to defend it staunchly. I also liked it enough to pick up a battered old copy of Richard Adam’s “Shardik”. I can’t thank King enough for the recommendation.
From there I went on a spree. “The Dark Half”, “Insomnia”, “Bag of Bones”, all went down in rapid succession. The first two were simply great and the last has some of his best writing but is bogged down a bit by a not-that-spectacular ghost story. But, oh, the parts about a writer suffering from loss, writers block and the mechanics of keeping his career alive are at turns heartbreaking and fascinating.
At the end of that run I felt I’d come to terms with my immediate dismissal of his long books and sort of matured into a place where I could appreciate what he was doing in those books. I also didn’t need just thrillers and horror books anymore (but I do still love them) and neither did Stephen King (but he still writes them). The long, detailed characterizations he presented were there for a palpable reason, not just for King to luxuriate in his own writing.
I’m definitely on the side of the growing literary movement pushing for the reintroduction of plot to story telling. King’s been doing it all along but what’s always made his books work so well is his ear/eye for the details of real life. Just because he’s got monsters and goons in his books doesn’t mean they can be literary. In fact making them literary only makes them more resonant with the reader. I find the outrage
That was a couple of years ago so a few weeks ago I read his little mystery, “The Colorado Kid”. It’s well written and it’s incredibly ambiguous. Heck, that’s the purpose of the book. Some things aren’t meant to be known and others are simply unknowable. From the reviews on Amazon it’s clear a lot of folks hate it. I didn’t.
Which brings me to “Cell”. One day everyone using a cell phone or within close hearing range of one being used is hit by The Pulse. At first it drives them into homicidal rage and then over a few days changes them into something far, far different.
Our hero, Clayton Riddell, is stuck in Boston when the wheels fall off the world. Most of the book is about his journey to find his wife and son back home in Maine. Along the way he acquires traveling companions and gains insights into what’s going on. While there’s a hint of “The Stand”’s post apocalyptic setting and people finding their footing amidst society’s debris, there does seem to be something taking place. I don’t really want to go into it because it would give too much away and sitting a few days out from finishing “Cell” it’s the ambiguities he played with in “The Colorado Kid” that come back and they're best left unrevealed.
In my short review on the lamentable FightLikeApes forum I wrote that the characters seemed too familiar. There’s there the plucky teenage heroine and the geeky teenage genius as well as the avuncular old scholar. But it doesn’t matter. They seem appropriate to the book’s undertakings and Clay is interesting enough to serve as its focal point.
“Cell” is also bloody and messy in a way King hasn’t been in a while. It’s a short punchy book that gets to where it wants to go quickly. I know I said I’ve come to terms with his longer writing but I do appreciate a quick, bloody read once in a while.
So yeah, check it out of the library or pick it up at Barnes & Noble for 30% off the cover price. It’s gotten me set off on another King reading spree so just think of what it could do for you.
By the by, I’m almost done with “Hearts in Atlantis” and I’m planning to tackle “From a Buick 8” afterwards.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Is this worth it?

So I've decided, once again, to attempt to set up a blog. Is it going to be worth it? What purpose will it serve? I'm not sure. I do like that I'm posting short book reviews on the decrepit Fight Like Apes forums and now I'll have a better place to put them. But what else? Will there be any other purpose to this site? I don't know.