The Institute, by Stephen King

cover of The Institute
All dread the “meh” review, and alas, yet again, it is upon us. As a long time Stephen King fan, I acknowledge that he has hits and he has misses (your mileage will vary on which is which).
The Institute has gotten more buzz than other recent King novels because of all the TV and film adaptations of his other work popping up like Carrie from the grave, but it’s not his best. 

 

We begin with a long interlude about Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter who takes on a night job with the sheriff’s department in a small town in Georgia. Then we switch to the Ellis family which consists of a mom and a dad and a very gifted twelve year old named Luke. In short order mom and dead are killed and Luke is kidnapped. He wakes up in a room that is almost, but not quite, a perfect replica of his room at home, but which is located in a dorm inhabited by other children. While they are not all geniuses (Luke is universally acknowledged as the smartest among them) they all have low levels of either telepathy or telekinesis.  

 

Will the kids, led by smart kid Luke, rise up against their oppressors? They sure will. Will Tim and Luke ever cross paths? You betcha. Will I find all kinds of problems with the book and still manage to read the entire thing over a remarkably short period of time? Yessiree. These are not spoilers. They are self-evident.

 

I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I read Firestarter in middle school but this book feels like a retread of older themes that is trying too hard. King is usually great with pinning down how people talk and think, but the level of folksy in this book, especially at the beginning with Tim and the small town, is almost a parody. 

 

Meanwhile, the kids don’t seem like kids. Even genius kids would not sound like forty-year-olds and their pop culture references would not come mostly from the 1990s. They make so many 1990s references that I thought this book was set in the 1990s until someone made a reference to Hamilton. King has written so many great child characters that it’s especially jarring that these kids read not as gifted kids but as artificial constructs. As the book progresses, either the writing improves or I just fell into the flow of it, but it never completely loses the feeling that these are chess pieces as opposed to characters, with a couple of exceptions.

 

As is usually the case with King, there is a certain amount of liberal love (Donald Trump is disparaged, by name, twice, and Hillary Clinton’s slogan “Stronger Together” helps the kids make their plan). There are an equal number of problematic elements, such as the fact that the small town only has one female deputy, and she’s a ditz who exists purely to become Tim’s girlfriend.

 

I liked the images of small town nights, and the plot just zips along. I’ve read King books that I loved and some that I hated but not once have I said, “Well this is boring.” I like his slow character building moments, and this book has plenty. I also liked it that the message of the book is firmly on the side of idealism. The kids, and the good adults, are, in fact, “stronger together” in multiple ways, and the book highlights the importance of the individual and the importance of community, and how vital it is to balance the needs of both. There’s a lot of found family in this book which I just love.

 

Overall, however, this book just makes me want to re-watch Stranger Things and re-read Firestarter. It feels artificial instead of organic. But maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s just about freaking time we had a bunch of psychic kids storming the barricades while quote Hillary Clinton. Just because it’s artificial doesn’t mean I can’t get behind it. 

 

Between the Lines Book Club: The Ghost Bride Discussion Questions

between the lines book club logoOur next book club meeting is on October 26th from 10:30 – 12 at Arden Dimick Library. We are reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. Comment in person or on the blog!

Here are the discussion questions from the publisher. I may add more before we meet, but please keep these questions in mind as you read. I also encourage you to form connections between this book and others we’ve read!

1. Perplexed by her father’s absences and worried by finances and marriage negotiations, Li Lan wonders, “What was happening out in the world of men?…Despite the fact that my feet were not bound, I was confined to domestic quarters as though a rope tethered my ankle to our front door.” How does Li Lan chafe against notions of femininity, and in what ways does she rebel?

2. Malacca is a city settled by various ethnic groups over the centuries, with a long colonial history as well. The Chinese in Malaya, like Li Lan’s family, keep their own practices and dress, but don’t follow tradition as rigidly as in China. How does Li Lan benefit from this blending of tradition?

3. After Li Lan gives in to Amah’s superstition and visits a medium at the temple, she observes a Chinese cemetery that has been neglected due to fear of ghosts: “How different it was from the quiet Malay cemeteries, whose pawn-shaped Islamic tombstones are shaded by the frangipani tree, which the Malays call the graveyard flower. Amah would never let me pluck the fragrant, creamy blossoms when I was a child. It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.” What do you think the comforts of superstition are? As Li Lan interacts with the spirit world, does her perspective on superstition change?

4. Why is Li Lan drawn to Tian Bai when they meet? How do her feelings for him change over the course of the novel, and why?

5. The ghost world Li Lan enters is a richly imagined place governed by complicated bureaucracy. How does the parallel city reflect the world of the living, and in what ways is it different?

6. When Li Lan thinks that she has found her mother — “a second wife in the ancestral Lim household” — she is shaken by how horrible she is. How does meeting her real mother, Auntie Three, help Li Lan understand her own family?

7. When Li Lan is a wandering spirit, able to observe from another perspective, what does she realize about herself and her world? Are there positive aspects to her time spent outside her body?

8. Li Lan thinks, “All who have seen ghosts and spirits are marked with a stain, and far more than Old Wong, I have trespassed where no living person ought have.” How has Li Lan’s time spent in the realm of the ghost world — “speaking with the dead, eating spirit offerings, seeing Er Lang’s true identity — changed her? Is it possible for her to go back to normal life?

9. When Er Lang proposes to Li Lan, he warns her, “I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of family.” Were you surprised by Li Lan’s decision at the end of the novel? If you were in her shoes, do you think you would have chosen the same route, with its sacrifices?

10. Did you know anything about traditional Chinese folklore before reading THE GHOST BRIDE? What did you find fascinating or strange about the mythology woven throughout the novel, and the Chinese notions of the afterlife?

Mini Review: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

Need some nonfiction for Halloween? Here you go. cover of The Five
TW for discussion of violence against women.

In 1888, an unknown killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper” killed at least five women. Since then, multitudes of books and movies have been made about the killer, but none have been written about his victims. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper seeks to redress this by telling the stories of “the canonical five.” These five women are the ones considered most likely to have been the victims of a single killer in 1888: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

 

Because these women lived in a neighborhood known for crime, and because they were killed while outside at night (with the exception of Mary Jane Kelly, who was killed in her bedroom), the public assumed that they were prostitutes. The author challenges the assumption that all of the women were prostitutes and explores why this assumption was made at the time as well as why it continues today. She also challenges the assumption that prostitutes are unworthy of safety and dignity. By exploring the lives of these five women, she humanizes them and in the process illustrates the choices faced by women in the working and unemployed classes. It’s a sad, but fascinating, book.

 

Between the Lines Book Club: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Our next book club meeting is on October 26th from 10:30 – 12 at Arden Dimick Library. We are reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. Comment in person or on the blog!

From the publisher:

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

In addition to Book Club in a Box copies, there are some copies in the library catalog and through Link+. For large print, reserve through Link+ and for audio reserve through Hoopla. Our wonderful librarians can help you if you haven’t used Link+ or Hoopla before. See you soon!