Tag Archives: great writing

THE MONDAY BOOK: The Ha-Ha by Dave King

I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a book so much, not least because half of me was engrossed in the story as a reader and half of me was sitting back as a writer going, ‘how is he managing to do this?’

A great read

Think of the challenges you would have if your narrator were a man incapable of speech. And if the narration were limited to his point of view. And the cast of quirky characters included five well-drawn people whose points of view you’re not allowed to hear unless they speak out loud, and a handful of supporters.

This was an amazing novel.

The protagonist, Howard, was injured when his sergeant stopped paying attention to the dangerous territory through which they passed, and started investigating local flowers. There are many lovely sections about Howard remembering the life-changing, speech-taking event, sometimes comparing the flight through the air in slow motion to the disruptions of his life.

Howard, in high school, went with a girl named Sylvia, both of them casual drug users. Sylvia got hooked where Howard got drafted, and when he came home and got well enough to go back out into society, Sylvia had a little boy named Ryan. So when Sylvia had a chance to go to rehab, guess who got asked to look after Ryan?

In the intervening years, Howard had built something of a life by taking in renters: Laurel, an Asian woman who makes soup for a living and home delivers to her buyers. (Her soups are awesome.) Then there’s Nit and Nat, according to Howie, but Steve and Harrison according to Laurel, two guys who kinda hang around and do pick up jobs and such. Howie doesn’t consider them much until Ryan comes to stay with them and suddenly the house pulls together around his child needs. They go to his concert, they enroll him in Little League, and life is happening.

But Sylvia is going to get out of rehab, and her pull on Howard remains like a bad boomerang.

The book is called The Ha-Ha because Howie’s job is lawn maintenance at a local convent. The convent is near a major road, protected from it by a landscaping feature literally called a ha-ha. You’ve probably seen them; sound walls built out of manufactured hills. At the bottom of the hill you see the restraining wall of beams and dirt. At the top of the hill you think the hill continues without the large gap that accommodates the road. They are designed to hide both sound and sight to the casual eye.

Howie, the mowing machine, the ha-ha, and life are a good metaphor for all the insanity going on between these finely-drawn characters. Reading the pain, dysfunction, and desperation of the characters comes from Howie’s point of view, but comes through clearly for all the main players. They are a Gordian knot of competing needs.

Where character drives plot, Howie driving his mowing machine over and over toward that dangerous gap makes a story not to be missed. Highly recommend picking up this book.

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Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, reading, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table

The Monday Book: DUMA KEY by Stephen King

Yes, I know; some of you are even now saying, “Whaaaa? She’s recommending a bestseller?! I want something more obscure!”

But here’s the thing. King has reached the point in his career where, as one NY editor put it, “He could publish a phone book and it’d make bestseller.” And since all his books are bestsellers, there are people who ignore him. What’s for the masses must not be good.

That dismissal would be a disservice to good, honest writing. Like fellow “pop lit” writer Terry Pratchett, King–even in the midst of his boyish fascination with making horror from human scatology and secretions–sometimes hits literature. Consider these quotes, all from Duma:

“When I look back on that time, it’s with the strangest stew of emotions: love, longing, terror, horror, regret, and the deep sweetness only those who’ve been near death can know. I think it’s how Adam and Eve must have felt. Surely they looked back at Eden, don’t you think, as they started barefoot down the path to where we are now, in our glum political world of bullets and bombs and satellite TV? Looked past the angel guarding the shut gate with his fiery sword? Sure. I think they must have wanted one more look at the green world they had lost, with its sweet water and kind-hearted animals. And its snake, of course.”

“Stay hungry. It worked for Michelangelo, it worked for Picasso, and it works for a hundred thousand artists who do it not for love (although that might play a part) but in order to put food on the table. If you want to translate the world, you need to use your appetites. Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t. There’s no creation without talent, I give you that, but talent is cheap. Talent goes begging. Hunger is the piston of art.”

When King is on, he’s on. When he’s off, welcome to Under the Dome. A friend and I were talking about King’s massive body of hit-and-miss novels, and we postulated that when he’s writing about something that has personal interest for him–his relationship with his wife and family, for instance (Bag of Bones, Lisey’s Story) or people getting hurt in accidents (like in Duma)–he’s spot on.  When he’s not that interested, well, can I just offer my opinion that Doctor Sleep sucked hose water?

In Duma Key, King explored something that definitely fascinates him: creativity. Hence, the book has that great mix his regular readers have come to expect of human nature captured so well in tiny sound bites, amidst tight storytelling about strange phenomena.

So, for all the aspiring writers, painters, chefs, and dancers among us, here’s one more quote from a guy who knows: “Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won’t carry a quitter. ”

Stay hungry, and enjoy.

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