Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Joyland is part coming of age tale, part crime novel

Joyland, a novel by Stephen King, published by Titan Books, A Division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd. (2013)

Stephen King has always been a fan of pulp crime novels, and in his latest novel, Joyland, he pays homage to that venerable genre in an earnest and respectful way. King's decision to only publish a paperback edition, along with the kitschy design on the cover, are throwbacks to the pulp novels from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Joyland is a story narrated by Devin Jones, who reflects back on a summer he spent working at an amusement park in North Carolina in 1973. The younger Devin is at first captivated by the people, the ambience and the spirit that pervades the park, a world that operates far outside the sphere of ordinary American life.

While working at Joyland, Devin is drawn to a brutal murder that occurred there four years earlier, a murder that has remained a mystery ever since. Devin is compelled to try and solve the case using a combination of hard evidence and supernatural clues. He enlists the help of a former colleague at the park to help with the research, and when the pair start to uncover some uncomfortable truths, tensions start to build.

Devin is no gumshoe, yet his willingness to poke around and ask questions, combined with his likeable personality and curiosity, make for a heartwarming tale, which works as both a coming of age story and a whodunnit. In addition to investigating a murder, Devin realizes with the benefit of hindsight that working at Joyland represented a turning point in his life, a period of spiritual and emotional awakening. I particularly liked the friendship he forms with a young boy named Mike Ross who has muscular dystrophy. Such a relationship would seem unlikely in a crime novel, but in King's hands, it works.

This not a gripping page turner by any means; the plot hops along leisurely and conversations drag on for longer than they sometimes need to. King's writing style is familiar and folksy. He does a convincing job conveying the language and mannerisms of the "carnys," he builds suspense slowly and methodically, and he's is always in control of his subject.

Joyland is light, breezy reading, perfect for a summer holiday. If you're looking for vintage Stephen King horror, this isn't it. Rather, Joyland is a delightful story with elements of the old-style pulp fiction and a hint of the supernatural, but generously infused with King's characteristic style and wit, a story that delivers quite a punch at the end.

It's great to see King venture into pulp fiction territory, and I hope he has more of this type of fiction up his sleeve.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ted Rogers: media and communications pioneer

Relentless, The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications 
With Robert Brehl
Published by HarperCollins Canada Ltd. (2008)

Just before he passed away in 2008 at the age of 75, Ted Rogers released his autobiography, entitled Relentless, The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications.

There is much to admire about this man who almost single-handedly changed the communications landscape in Canada. Aside from being a proud Canadian his entire life, Rogers was a driven man, someone who spent most of adult years chasing after a dream to reclaim his father’s legacy after his untimely death at age 38.

Throughout his life, Rogers viewed himself an outsider, a loner, always bucking against the establishment. But – as far as I could tell – he led a fairly comfortable lifestyle, attending private schools and getting a first-class education. He always seemed to be well-connected with Toronto bankers, and with the business and political elites of the day. The “outsider” label seems a bit of a stretch.

Nonetheless, his early forays into radio (with the purchase of CHFI in Toronto, Canada’s first FM radio station) and his partnership with John Bassett (owner of CFTO TV and the former Toronto Telegram) were among the early successes in his career. Rogers, himself, was not a technical genius, but he seemed to know before anybody else what consumers wanted, and he knew how to sell his vision.

In Relentless, Rogers comes across as a little too reckless at times, always willing to bet the farm on the next big technology. He was lucky to have dodged bankruptcy several times. His excessive debt loads could have sent men and women of lesser mettle scurrying for Chapter 11 protection.

One of Rogers’ many talents was his ability to envision the future. In the 1960s, he got involved in cable TV and seemed to know instinctively that cable represented the future of TV. He also invested heavily in wireless technology, first in cell phones and later in Internet connectivity. For many industry observers at the time, these bets seemed preposterous and irresponsible, but Rogers had enough belief in his convictions and he kept his eye on the horizon.

Relentless is a book that was assembled in a hurry. Rogers must have been aware that his health was failing, when he embarked on this project; there is a sense of urgency in getting his story down on paper in his own words, even if it wasn’t a complete self-portrait.

I made note of a few good quotes in Relentless:

  • “You have to have an accounting of how you’re doing to be able to make clear decisions on where you want to go.”
  • “Just because something is done one way doesn't mean it can’t be improved upon or done in a different way.” 
  • “I learned early that failure is a necessary component of success and an entrepreneur cannot let setbacks sideline him or her from objectives.”
  • “Solid and thorough preparation can trump just about anything.”
  • “Always aim high and look for vulnerability in the market leader.”
  • “Don’t follow a dream; live it.”

Relentless not only gives us Ted Rogers’ take on an illustrious career in the communications industry, it also provides a good overview of the cable and wireless industries in Canada, as they have evolved over the past five decades.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Celestial Navigation examines lives of quiet desperation

Celestial Navigation, a novel by Anne Tyler
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1974)

The protagonist of Anne Tyler's Celestial Navigation is Jeremy Pauling, a reclusive and misunderstood artist who rarely ventures outside of his studio. With a less talented writer, Jeremy's character might have remained a cliché, a starving artist who sacrifices friends and family for the higher calling of his art. But Tyler brings a level of nuance and understanding to this flawed individual and presents him as a multi-dimensional human being.

Admittedly, Jeremy is not a likeable character (he's selfish, indulgent, cowardly, uncharitable), but in this novel he becomes fully realized. That's what makes Tyler such a compelling writer: she makes even dull and ordinary characters half interesting, if not intriguing. Readers may be not impressed with Jeremy and the life he's chosen for himself, but one must admire Tyler's ability to bring all aspects of his character to life.

As Celestial Navigation opens, Jeremy's mother has passed away, and when his two sisters appear on the scene they discover that their brother is holed up inside the family home. He has taken no responsibility for his mother's burial (a mother who doted on him her entire life), nor has he made an effort to pay his final respects at the funeral home. My first impression is that Jeremy either suffers from a mental illness or has been involved in a debilitating accident.

As the story progresses, however, the real story about Jeremy unfolds through his interactions with several other characters (and respective points of view), including his sisters and his boarders -- in particular a boarder named Mary who will eventually become Jeremy's love interest. One of the pleasures of an Anne Tyler novel is not so much the intricacies of plot and fireworks, but the richness of detail and subtly that she works into her narrative, like a brilliant painter introducing shades of colour and light that have never been imagined before.

The characters in Celestial Navigation (as in other Tyler novels) are unremarkable. They aren't cheerleaders or football stars. They lead lives of quiet desperation and live in the shadows. But these lives, as desperate as they, are not without purpose or nobility. With a continuous layering upon of details, and an ability to enter the minds of her characters and to reveal their innermost thoughts, Tyler portrays them with an astonishing degree of clarity and accuracy.

After reading Celestial Navigation, my opinion of Jeremy Pauling didn't change much, but I did walk away with a deeper appreciation for what makes him tick. He is an artist who spends the majority of his life working inside a studio and has barely any involvement with the outside world. To be sure, he marches to the beat of a different drummer and seems entirely okay with that. In this novel, Tyler pretty much nails him, for better or worse.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Drudge Manifesto depicts turning point in the evolution of news gathering

Drudge Manifesto by Matt Drudge
Published by New American Library (2000)

Matt Drudge is the reporter widely credited with breaking the Monika Lewinsky / Bill Clinton scandal and other high-profile political stories on his now famous website, The Drudge Report.

Drudge Manifesto is part a re-issuing of some of Drudge’s popular posts, part reflection on his first seven years as a reporter and part rebuke against the established media players of the day, who were suspicious of Drudge and the power he yielded with his keyboard and his connections.

His web site has become a leading source of breaking news and gossip, much to the resentment of large media companies with their teams of reporters and high overheads, and much to the chagrin of celebrities and politicians who often find themselves in Drudge’s crosshairs.

To his credit, Drudge makes some sharp observations about the role of the journalist in the Internet age, and how a single individual, working alone in an apartment, with nothing but a computer, an Internet connection and some well-place sources within Washington, can outfox the mightiest news organizations on the planet.

Here is Drudge addressing a question at the National Press Club in 1998.

Q. Do you think journalists should have any minimum educational requirements?
Drudge: “I guess I'm going to the wrong libraries, because I can't find any lawsuit – civil lawsuit approved by the president of the United States against a reporter. I can’t find it. I’d like to have that information for my litigation – put it in the court papers [Drudge is the only reporter ever to be sued by the White House]. Again, I don’t maintain that I am licensed or have credentials. I created my own. I don’t know what the problem is with that. It seems to me the more freedoms we have the better off we are. And you know, I don’t have a problem with chaos and new invention and confusion. I'm sure in the early days of electricity it was absolutely chaotic. The early days of cars, the horse farmers probably said, ‘What are those things?’ It’s not where I come from. I'm much more optimistic – knowing liberty and freedom is the right way to go, knowing a new invention is afoot that is going to realize things beyond anything we dreamed of. I'm not that scared of it.”

For anyone interested in the evolution of news gathering in the Internet age, Drudge Manifesto will not disappoint.