Anticipating Alternative History

What if?  Powerful words turned into fictionalized accounts of history can be so much fun.  Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate, his reimagining of the famous debacle that brought down Nixon’s presidency, offers a list of alternate history in fiction in his essay for The New Yorker – Never Happened.

My favorite includes Monica Ali’s An Untold Story, imagining Princess Diana faked her own death, started life over as Lydia Snaresbrook,  and created a new life in a Midwestern American town, appropriately  named Kensington.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 also captured my attention when he used time travel to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Now Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife which channelled First Lady Laura Bush,  creates a life for Hilary Rodham as if she had never married Bill Clinton.


Publication date is set for 2019 – we will have to wait for this thriller.


Doctor Sleep

9781476727653_p0_v5_s260x420Never having read The Shining, and satisfied from the movie trailers with a Unknowndemonic Jack Nicholson that it was too scary for me, I was surprised by the easy flow of Stephen King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep.  Yes, it is scary, as you would expect from this prolific author of horror tales, but the story of a grown-up Danny Torrence with a special gift for reading minds and moving furniture was gripping and did not give me nightmares, as I’d expected.

Still fighting his personal demons, Danny is working hard at beating his alcoholic tendency while using his special gifts to ease the passing of dying patients at a hospice.  He connects telepathically to a young girl, Abra, who also has the powerful “shining,” and together they battle the True Knot, a group of sadistic villains – part zombie, part vampire, all evil – who roam the earth killing children to suck the essence out of them to sustain their own lives.

Although a few scenes have bloody battles, the narrative focuses on the good vs evil theme, as well as the inner strength to overcome personal weaknesses and a debilitating past.  Stephen King tells a good tale, and possibly his books are not as gory as the movie versions that concentrate on the sensational rather than the psychological sensibilities he seems to favor in his writing.  Despite my trepidation, I enjoyed the book.  That said, it will probably be a long while before I read another horror-driven tale.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

Using picture prompts to stimulate writing is a popular device for teachers and creative writing professors, and Chris Van Allsburg’s 1984 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has long been used to stimulate ideas.  In The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, 14 famous authors attach Van Allsburg’s curious black and white pictures with their own interpretations.

Famous for The Polar Express and Jumanji, among others, Van Allsburg’s books artistically combine his vision with his own stories, but the pictures in Harris Burdick stood alone, with only mysterious captions for each picture – until “The Chronicles” appeared.  With help from Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked), Kate Di Camillo (“Tales of Despereaux”), Jules Ffiefer, and  other recognizable names, including Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, the pictures now are connected to stories – some funny (“Under the Rug”), some disturbing (“Uninvited Guests”), most with strange messages to explain the picture and the caption.  Think the brothers Grimm tales before they were homogenized.

Although the partnership makes for a different kind of children’s book, some stories are better than others – depending on your affinity to the authors:  Lois Lowry’s “The Seven Chairs” with a girl’s talent for rising into the air and Van Allsburg’s “Oscar and Alphonse” about caterpillers who spell, and  Stephen King’s “The House on Maple Street” – a house that turns into a rocket ship to save a family from an abusive step-father – my favorites.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that the pictures had been spoiled.  Like great art or poetry, if you have to explain the meaning, something gets lost in translation.

If you’re not familiar with Harris Burdick, do yourself a favor and find the original first; decide what the pictures mean to you – before you read the chronicles of others.

USA Today 10 Best Books of 2011

Are you still writing 2011 on your checks?  Takes a while to catch up, and the USA Today list of 10 books to love from 2011 just rose to the top of my stack of papers.

I’ve only read 4 on the list (see my reviews by clicking on the red titles); it’s great to get more to order from the library for 2012.



  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Joyce Dugard
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
  • Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
  • Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

Read It Again, Sam

 As this year comes to an end, you may be looking back at those books you read; maybe you’ll consider reading them again?

In his essay for the New York Times Book Review – Read It Again, Sam –  David Bowman identifies famous authors who reread books – for inspiration, for motivation, to identify a structure to follow, to discover nuances, or just in awe of great writing…

“The biographer and novelist Edmund White {notes}: ‘I reread in order to remind myself how good you have to be in order to be any good at all.’ “

Stephen King regularly rereads The Lord of the Flies and The Lord of the Rings; Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai) started her rereads with The Nancy Drew Series; Patti Smith, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction rereads An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, reasoning that rereading is a necessity, echoing a familiar complaint of mine:

“…I get so absorbed that upon finishing I don’t remember anything…”

 I shy away from rereading most books, preferring to move on to the next adventure.  If I do reread a book, I may understand more or “build impressions.”  I may even remember more as I finish reading a second time, but I agree with French literary theorist Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text:

“…{rereading may cause pleasure}, but not my bliss: bliss may come only with the absolutely new…”

Do you have books you regularly reread?