Saturday, May 20, 2023

Review of Reviews: May 2023


I'm a bit behind on book reviews, but rather than doing a few separate shorter reviews, I figured I'd do a review of reviews! This time it's Billy Summers by Stephen King, Dreaming Me by Jan Willis, and Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed.

I'll stick to books this time, but I may do some reviews of some notable TV and movies soon (maybe including Star Trek: Picard, Beef, Yellowjackets, Sinister, X, Dungeons & Dragons, John Wick 4, and the latest (surprisingly science fictional!) iteration of Beavis & Butt-Head.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

I wasn't sure how interesting this 2021 release from Stephen King would be: a hit man with a heart of gold going for one last job? Really? But I should have known better than to doubt Stephen King.

This novel goes far beyond its premise. Billy intentionally plays dumb so that people will underestimate him. Meanwhile, he's reading classic French literature. As if this theme of, let's say, "layers of the self" isn't interesting enough, while he's getting set up for the job, he decides to write a semi autobiographical novel, but he has to write a "dumb" version just in case his bosses are spying on his laptop. So we end up in somewhat familiar Stephen King territory of a novel about an author!

But lest you think this is a rehash of The Shining, Misery, The Dark Half, etc., Billy still has a grizzly job to do, although he tries to only kill bad people. Along the way he gets to know his neighbors (who don't know his real identity, of course) in a way I could never dream of (Am I weirder than a hit man? Or is it my neighbors? It must be the neighbors.).

There's a bit of a left turn in the middle of the book that I won't spoil. There are even a couple sneaky references to other Stephen King works, which won't surprise any Constant Readers. There's plenty to consider about the creative process (although not in quite the depth you get in the Dark Tower series). And of course it's all as engrossing as Stephen King always is.

But the deepest question I'm left with is: Who is Billy Summers? Is he one of the roles he plays? Is he all of them? None of them? Who are any of us but roles we play or stories we tell about ourselves? Or is there some authentic core of self underlying all this?

I have my own Buddhist-inspired thoughts on these questions, but the great thing about a great novel like Billy Summers is that you don't have to answer these questions. And maybe that makes fiction truer to life, after all: who knows if we really can answer these questions about who we are? Maybe it's enough to enjoy the stories we tell ourselves and each other along the way.

See my Goodreads review.

Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist - One Woman's Spiritual Journey by Jan Willis

A fascinating story of a fascinating person. I've read some of Willis's work in Buddhist philosophy, so it was interesting to read this autobiography that's as philosophically and religiously interesting as it is personally engaging. Most academics' lives are not all that interesting (a lot of reading and thinking and not much else), but Willis does all that while she explores her journey from growing up Black in rural Alabama in the 50's and 60's to college up north to India and Nepal to study Buddhism through a brief engagement with the Black Panthers and then a life in academia as a religious studies professor in the Northeast with some African American Baptist roots among her Tibetan Buddhist lessons. On that last point, I appreciated both her descriptions of a non dualist experience as well as her journeys back home as an adult. And it's all engaging and well-written, too (not a thing most academics spend much time cultivating)!

See my Goodreads review.

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Is it science fiction, fantasy, or cosmic horror? Answer: all of the above! You might think of it as a contemporary take on Lovecraft, but without the verbosity and racism, but it's plenty of Mohamed's own thing, too.

Joanna, aka "Johnny," is a former child prodigy and a bit of a mad scientist, although not an evil one. After numerous world-altering inventions, she shows her best friend Nick her latest: an interdimensional reactor that can provide clean energy for the world! (This also takes place in an alternate reality where the 9/11 plot was thwarted, although Nick as an Indo-Carribean Canadian still has a lot of experiences with racism that he discusses with his white friend Johnny).

But wouldn't you know it, the reactor has inadvertently invited interdimensional Elder Gods that threaten humanity. Luckily (or not so luckily) it turns out Johnny also knows all about the secret magical history of how humanity has dealt with these creatures in the past. After several creepy run-ins with the interdimensional baddies, she and Nick go on an adventure to save the Earth that takes them to Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, and elsewhere.

It's a fun ride with plenty of eldritch moments to please fans of cosmic horror. Against the backdrop of the typical existential dread of cosmic horror, you also get the story of a complicated friendship between a genius and a seemingly-average person with some existential angst of their own as young people trying to make their way in this mixed-up multiverse.

See my Goodreads review.

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