Book Review: The Shining

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There was no one to see the autumn leaves steal across the grass but the three of them. It gave Jack a curious shrinking feeling, as if his life force had dwindled to a mere spark while the hotel and the grounds had suddenly doubled in size and become sinister, dwarfing them with sullen, inanimate power.

The Shining, by Stephen King

There are some books that are simply impossible to read without any preconceptions. I tend to read a lot of classics (both in and outside of class), and certain books lose much of the author’s intended meaning simply because of how popular they’ve become since publication. While reading Dracula, I couldn’t sympathize with the horrified surprise the characters feel when they learn of Count Dracula’s true identity. Dracula is such a huge part of the canon and of pop culture that it would be impossible for someone to read the book with no preconceptions.

To a lesser extent, I felt the same about The Shining. Although I’d never watched it, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the book is such an integral part of pop culture that I found myself anticipating key moments from the film while reading. Happily enough, though, I found out that the novel and the film differ in significant ways, so much so that key scenes from the film don’t exist in the novel.

What I personally found most interesting about The Shining wasn’t the horror and thrills, even though this is arguably what Stephen King is best known for. In fact, earlier this year, when I read my first Stephen King book, The Stand, I was pleased to find that I found much to delve into in addition to the horror: the depiction of women, social and political commentary, and the fragility of society in general. The Shining is definitely an exciting read full of thrills (and much shorter than The Stand!), but it also contains considerable food for thought.

One problem I had with The Stand is its depiction of female characters, especially Frannie, an initially independent young woman who becomes increasingly dependent on her partner and overly emotional, bursting into tears at every little thing. Wendy, the only female character of any significance, is financially dependent on her husband, Jack, but I found her troubles to be instantly relatable. Wendy seriously contemplates leaving Jack over his alcoholism and his verbal and physical abuse of herself and Danny, but is forced to face the reality of starting on her own with limited finances and struggling to provide for her young son. I found the novel to be realistic and relatable in its depiction of the tensions that exist between a young married couple with strained finances, especially under the conditions that the Torrances find themselves in.

I also found the novel’s depiction of the inheritance of abuse fascinating. Wendy, like Frannie, has a strained relationship with her mother, who is verbally abusive and jealous of Wendy’s close relationship with her father. Despite Wendy’s disdain for her mother, she finds herself feeling similarly about Jack’s close relationship with Danny. Similarly, Jack’s alcoholism and rage can be linked to his own abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, showing the unshakable power of a history of abuse.

YES OR NO?: YES. Although The Shining is often simplified to a story about a family taking care of an abandoned hotel, I found it to be a nuanced read, with more to offer than the scary elements. And to be honest, it wasn’t even that scary, in the end.

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Book Review: The Circle

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Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

What is a good book? Everyone has different things they look for. Since I’ve started this blog and actually recorded my thoughts about the different books I’ve been reading, I’ve started to evaluate my own tastes a bit. My favourite books are those that challenge the way I think about my world and the things I take for granted, that connect with my own life in a startling way, with dynamic, believable characters and a solid, eloquent narration. Once in a while I will like a book that is missing one or a few of these elements.

Do I think The Circle is a good book? Now, a few days after having completed the book, I’m still not sure. The ideas in it are certainly interesting. I’ve always harboured a love for dystopian fiction, and The Circle presents a dystopia not unfamiliar to us. The most effective dystopias, I find, are the ones that are not too distant from reality.

Unlike the dystopias presented in popular young adult fiction like The Hunger Games and Divergent, the world in The Circle is one that is immediately familiar to us. The novel’s protagonist, Mae Holland, is a young woman who is given the chance of a lifetime to work at The Circle, the most prestigious tech company in the world. The Circle’s progressive work culture and vast amount of resources are obviously reminiscent of firms like Google and Facebook. As a young woman who works in tech, this novel challenged me to think about the industry, and my role in it as part of the industry and a consumer. As with many works dealing with the ramifications of technology, The Circle brings up issues regarding privacy, especially the sacrifice of privacy for the sake of convenience.

So The Circle definitely presents ideas that anyone with a smartphone or a Google account can relate to. However, I found Mae to be an uninteresting heroine. She was dull and mostly did what she was told to do. At first, this bothered me, but I couldn’t help but feel that she is representative of the generation as a whole. She is impressionable and emotionally dependent on social media (almost breaking down when other Circlers don’t “like” her). The point of Mae is not to be an interesting character, but to reflect the growing power of The Circle.

Still, though, I thought the novel was lacking in interesting characters. The dialogue was laughably contrived, the descriptions often stilted, and characters were flat. Annie, supposedly fun and lovable, came off as irritating, and Kalden was the stereotypically enigmatic love interest, although I did enjoy the twist at the end. There was little depth to the characters, and even the novel itself spelled out its messages loud and clear. Although the ideas themselves were interesting, the reader is not left to their own interpretation. I would have preferred a subtler approach.

YES OR NO?: YES. If you are interested in dystopian fiction, you will probably enjoy The Circle, which presents familiar ideas in the world of the near-future. However, the characters and style leave something to be desired. I’m personally looking forward to the movie to see how Emma Watson (!) breathes life into Mae.

Book Review: Outliers

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They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky–but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

As much as I enjoyed my seminar readings (all Victorian detective fiction), it felt lovely to be returning to readings of my own choosing. The first book I decided to tackle was this one. I’d previously read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and BlinkAlthough I enjoyed them immensely, I didn’t think either book was mind-blowing, and that the arguments that Gladwell presents should be taken with a grain of salt. I found that the case studies used tended to be very specific, and sometimes the conclusions drawn seemed too generalized or far-fetched. Still, I enjoyed the books because they present sociological studies in an accessible manner. And you can’t deny that Gladwell is an engaging writer.

This pretty much sums up how I feel about Outliers. In this book, Gladwell takes apart the root of success, using examples like Bill Gates, the Beatles, and even explaining why Asians are good at math. To be honest, the conclusions that are drawn from these examples aren’t subversive by any means. Gladwell argues that people are successful due to a combination of factors, including hard work, luck, environment, culture, and opportunity. This, to me, wasn’t a revolutionary idea.

There were a few examples in the book, though, that struck a chord with me. Gladwell refers to Korean Air’s history of fatal accidents, and how the airline managed to turn that around. According to Outliers, Korean culture’s strict guidelines about respecting those in a position of seniority influenced flight crew to not disagree with the captain, even if they perceived that they were in a dangerous situation. After acknowledging their mistakes, Korean Air hired an outside expert, who forced Korean Air’s crew to learn and communicate in English. The Korean language dictates specific, respectful ways to speak to a superior, so the mandatory communication in English allowed younger and less experienced staff to speak up and contribute to a safe environment that they wouldn’t have been able to do in their native language.

I personally loved this example because it shows how an airline managed to completely turn itself around, even despite being perceived as unsafe, which is possibly the worst quality an airline could have. As a Korean woman raised in North America, though, I immediately understood how much importance Korean culture places in respecting elders. It’s an aspect of my culture that I have sometimes found frustrating in its conservatism, but also feel a deep respect for. It was refreshing to read about the history of a company that decided to incorporate Western values, without overly diluting its culture.

The epilogue of Outliers is also undeniably powerful. Gladwell discusses his family history: how his great-great-great-grandmother was a slave and how his mother happened to have the right opportunities to get an education and eventually leave Jamaica. At first, I was wowed by how a successful, influential writer like Gladwell could emerge from such humble origins, but then I thought back on my own family history. My grandmother was born in North Korea, in a time when the peninsula was yet undivided, and even my parents grew up without the same educational or professional opportunities that I did. Like Gladwell, I am a product of my culture, my opportunities, luck, and the amount of work I’ve put into my success. With his personal history, Gladwell ends the book on a powerful note, and invites the reader to consider how they’ve reached their own success. Or, at least, that’s what I found myself doing at the end…

YES OR NO?: YES. Outliers is an interesting read, despite its rather obvious thesis. The case studies that Gladwell explores are thought-provoking, and the writing style is engaging.

Book Review: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman

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The romance and the peril of the whole proceeding held me spellbound and entranced. My moral sense and my sense of fear were stricken by a common paralysis.

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, by E.W. Hornung

Exciting news – with this last book, I’m finally done all my reading for the semester (at least novel wise)! This was the last book I had to read for my seminar in Victorian detective fiction, so soon you’ll be seeing a wider variety of genres on this blog.

In any case, though, Raffles is an interesting read. The author, E.W. Hornung, was the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and in fact, this book is dedicated to Doyle. The partnership between A.J. Raffles, the titular amateur cracksman of the title, and his faithful (sometimes codependent) sidekick Bunny is an obvious play on the famous relationship between Holmes and Watson. Instead of being a detective and a doctor, however, Raffles and Bunny are two supposed gentlemen who make their living through thievery.

While reading Sherlock Holmes stories earlier in the term, I found it difficult to shake the idea that Holmes and Watson’s relationship is more than just friendship – especially from Watson’s perspective. Watson is constantly abandoning his (newly married) wife at home to enjoy adventures (often for extended periods of time) with Holmes, and his loyalty to Holmes is unshakable.

With Raffles and Bunny, this relationship is taken even further. Apparently Hornung based Raffles and Bunny on Holmes and Watson, but also on Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. In any case, Bunny literally owes Raffles his life, and their relationship is one of friendship, gratitude, and, at least from Bunny’s perspective, dependence. Whenever Raffles is off alone at night, Bunny waits up for him as a worried wife would, and he even admits to jealousy when Raffles pays more attention to an attractive young woman than to Bunny. Even the affectionate nickname “Bunny” is undeniably effeminate, and adds to this theme. All of the Victorian detective fiction I have read so far has been dominated with male characters, and the homoerotic overtones in each text was one of the key points of interest for me.

As for the stories themselves…I wouldn’t say I found them particularly interesting. As both a gentleman and a thief, Raffles transgresses boundaries in a time when class structures were quite rigid. After reading several works of detective fiction, though, both from the perspectives of the detectives and those of the thieves, I wouldn’t say Raffles is incredibly noteworthy. It’s a quick read, though, and not unenjoyable…although I suppose describing something as “not unenjoyable” also speaks volumes.

YES OR NO?: I’m on the fence about this book. It’s not a very strong read, but it’s also not terrible. If you’re looking for detective fiction, I’d honestly rather recommend something else. That being said, I’m excited to finally start reading for pleasure again! Although I loved reading these novels for school, it’ll be great to get some more variety in my reading.