“A Midnight Clear” (Post 1/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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William Wharton’s third novel, published in 1982. I read a William Morrow edition with terrible-smelling ink and cheap pages (seriously, buy a different used edition if you get this one).

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: Yes. And, if memory serves, it’s better than the book.

The Plot:

Six American soldiers are stationed at an abandoned chateau in the winter of 1944. German soldiers make contact, wanting to surrender but needing it to look like they were captured in a fight.

We have another Christine (review) on our hands: A book I loved in high school and struggled through as a thirty-something.

I can tell you exactly why I liked it at fifteen-years-old: this is a sentimental, borderline-precious, undemanding War Is Bad story. We have a kind, highly intelligent (or so he keeps telling us), sensible young man as our lead. His friends are kind, highly intelligent men. These guys are so nice, they pay a woman for sex, then spend half the night talking to and consoling her! They’re also geniuses at bridge – 15% of the book hinges on you understanding the terminology of the game. And they never curse! They don’t smoke! They’re gentlemen, even in war. What minds! What men!

Nothing about A Midnight Clear works for me now. It’s written in first person, present tense (God knows when this style started bothering me, but it takes a damn good author to sell me on it now). And Wharton doesn’t use a single dialogue attribution in the book. Not one. He lets us know who’s speaking by having characters use each other’s names incessantly, which feels incredibly unnatural (How often do you use your co-workers names mid-conversation?).

Wharton variously refers to his characters by first names, last names, and nicknames and gives them few distinguishing qualities. At times, I thought there were eight to ten men in the main group and it took until the end of the book to be sure there were only six. (This is coming from someone who can keep war casts in The Thin Red LineCatch-22 and Band of Brothers relatively straight.)

And (she continued hysterically), the horrible events of the story could have been avoided if one piece of information was shared with one character. Five of the Americans decide not to tell the sixth that the Germans want to surrender. Why? They think it will cause him more stress. Why? I don’t know. You’d think the nervous American would be relieved to know that the nearby Germans aren’t out to kill them. It’s like a romantic comedy plot, for God’s sake.

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“The Bad Seed” (Post 2/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[28] References:

There was Mrs. Archer-Gilligan, owner of a home for the aged, who took her guests on a lump-sum, life basis and who took the proper precautions to see that she did not go into the red; there was Belle Gunness of Indiana, who, after striking her admirers with a hatchet, was said to have chopped them up into a sort of silage and thriftily fed them to her pigs; there was Miss Bertha Hill, who lived in a village called “Pleasant Valley”; there was Christine [sic] Wilson, the English girl, who used colchicum with such enthusiasm that the doctors of her day thought a new, unknown epidemic had broken out in England; there was Mrs. Hahn, Mrs. Brennan, and Miss Jane Toppan; there was Susi Olah, who, almost unaided, practically wiped out the male population of two Hungarian villages.

There was a series of cases involving the male mass murderers, but she read only one of them: Albert Guay, the Quebec jeweler, blew up a plane and the people on it, to collect the trip insurance he’d placed on the life of his wife (…) Compared with such outstanding artists as Alfred Cline, James P. Watson, or the Incomparable Bessie Denker, he’d been fumbling and foolish indeed.

(p.132 – 133)

All right. Time to do some unpacking.

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“The Bad Seed” (Post 1/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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William March’s classic horror tale (and final book), published in 1954. I read the Vintage edition paperback.

4.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: No (1956 version); No (1985 version)

The Plot:

A mild-mannered 1950s housewife is raising sweet-looking Rhoda, an eight-year-old serial killer.

The Bad Seed is written in third person, staying mainly with Christine Penmark as she discovers her daughter’s terrible secrets. March allows us into other characters’ heads at times (including the building’s maintenance man and Christine’s upstairs neighbor), but he never lets us know what Rhoda is thinking. We observe her actions, expressions, and outward reactions but they seem like an alien trying to mimic proper human behavior. March’s success in The Bad Seed is making Rhoda an unsettling, inhuman blank. She’s a great horror villain; justifying any action to get what she wants (she will kill for trinkets) and seeing no worth in the lives of others.

March stands damn close to the level of Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and Ira Levin in his ability to build excellent plots one strong sentence at a time. There are no signs of struggle or elbow-nudging; March maintains incredible command and confidence. Like Levin, he is deftly constructing a machine of finely tuned pieces. The Bad Seed anticipates so much of Rosemary’s Baby (review) that I’m convinced Levin was an admirer, though Levin ultimately did a better job. He wasted nothing in his trim tale while March’s story spends 30 pages stalling before the climax. Other than that, The Bad Seed is excellent, wicked fun.

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“Christine” (Post 3/3)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[56] Reference:

Sheb Wooley was singing “The Purple People Eater.”



Shelby Fredrick “Sheb” Wooley (1921 – 2003) was a character actor and singer, best known for his 1958 novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” He was also in High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Rawhide. Wooley is also credited as the voice actor who produced the Wilhelm scream sound effect.

[57] Reference:

Both of them played chess as if maybe they thought Ruy Lopez was some new kind of soft drink.



The Ruy Lopez, also called the Spanish Opening or Spanish Game, is a chess opening named after 16th-century Spanish bishop Ruy Lopez de Segura.

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“Christine” (Post 2/3)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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[25] Reference:

Loads up the Nibroc dispenser with paper towels.



The first properly mass-produced paper towels were Nibroc Paper Towels, first produced in 1922 at the Cascade Mill on the Berlin/Gorham New Hampshire line (I am mentioning this because I have been by this mill a ton of times and I’m delighted to have this piece of trivia). William E. Corbin, the inventor (and later mayor of Berlin, New Hampshire) used his own last name spelled backward for the brand. When he died, he was called “the father of paper towels.”

[26] References:

A couple of times I had gone with him on sunny summer afternoons to marinas along King George Lake and Lake Passeeonkee.


From context, it sounds like Dennis is talking about lakes near the Pittsburgh area. There is a Lake George in New York, but it is an eight-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

Looking up Lake Passeeonkee only brings up references to Christine.

I think King made up both for the book. Continue reading

“Christine” (Post 1/3)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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Stephen King’s 1983 novel. I read a lovely first edition.

2 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 3

Seen the Movie: No

The Plot:

High school football-star Dennis and awkward, acne-cursed Arnie are best friends. The summer before their senior year, Arnie impulsively buys a run-down 1958 Plymouth Fury. When Arnie becomes dangerously obsessed with the car, Dennis uncovers its past and finds an evil at work on his friend.

Or, the killer car story.

I accept the premise. My problems are not with the ridiculousness of the plot. I will not ask how or why Christine exists. She does and that’s fine.

I am going to ask why this book runs nearly five hundred pages, why it switches from first person to third (and back again), and how it justifies leaning on nightmares and visions instead of real action. (No one dreams as on-the-nose as Stephen King characters. No, sir.)

Christine is uneven and indecisive, more first draft than finished product. King would have had a solid novella on his hands if he had edited it down to the essentials. Instead… Continue reading

“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 2/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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He held a glass of champagne, which was included in the price of his ticket. That glass was to him what a fishbowl would have been to a normal man, but he drank from it with elegant ease – as though he and the glass could not have been better matched.

The little son of a bitch had a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in his luggage, and so did his miserable sister.

(p.80) Continue reading

“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 1/2)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 classic. I read a 1970s Dell edition. I wish I knew who designed the cover. 

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

The Plot:

Atomic bomb creator Felix Hoenikker has left his last great invention to his three children: Ice-nine, with the power to destroy all life. His children muck it up, of course.

Cat’s Cradle might be Vonnegut’s most pop-culture-referenced book. I’d heard of ice-nine before I ever read it (not that I had idea idea what it was). Vonnegut’s invented terms for his invented religion have also taken on lives of their own. He establishes this religion, Bokononism, effortlessly (also handling a large cast) in less than two-hundred pages.

There are also 127 “chapters” fit into those pages; more like snapshots and set-ups/punchlines than a traditional narrative.

If you’re looking for plot, motivation and character depth, Cat’s Cradle will fall flat. As a thought- and conversation-starter, it’s wonderful.

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