Tuesday, November 29, 2011

11/22/63, by Stephen King

Scribner, 2011
849 pp

"You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live."

 After having been a bit disappointed in Under the Dome, I wasn't so sure I wanted to shell out the $$ for this one, but because  a) I needed a light read at the moment and b) the premise sounded interesting, I coughed up the cash and brought it home.  What I thought this was going to be and what it turned out to be are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I thought I'd be reading an alternative-history/what-ifish kind of thing based on a thwarting of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and there is a smattering of that, but I got a surprisingly good story, one that kept me flipping pages just to find out how everything turns out.  For a book of sci-fi/escape-type fiction, 11/22/63 is a winner.

The long and short of the basic story is this: English teacher Jake Epping gets a call from Al Templeton, the owner of a small diner in the town of Lisbon, Maine. Al's diner has a unique feature: in the kitchen's pantry, there is a portal through which Al has been traveling back and forth through time.  No matter when he leaves, he's always taken to the same day in September, 1958; no matter how long he stays there, he's only away for two minutes in the present.  Another feature of the portal is that when Al goes back in time, everything he set in motion in his earlier visit is totally reset.  Now  Al is dying of lung cancer, and doesn't have much time left, and he wants Jake to pick up where he left off -- and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy back on 11/22/63.  Al offers Jake "a chance to become a major player not just in American history, but in the history of the world", saying that by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting the president, Jake can  "save millions of lives."

Of course, Jake isn't so sure about time travel, and has two main concerns about it.  First, there's his concern about the idea of paradox. For example, when he asks what if he goes back and kills his grandfather, Al's response is "Why the fuck would you do that?" Second, Jake worries about the "butterfly effect," the idea that when the past is changed, there may be serious consequences in the present.  So he decides to take a test drive into the past, to undo a particularly horrific crime.  The trip reveals two things to Jake: first, Eisenhower-era America is a kinder, gentler place and second, time travel may indeed have repercussions. The first trip leads him to a second outing into the past, and Jake becomes more entranced by the last years of the 1950s, but he's still not quite sure that he wants to do what Al is asking of him.   After all, Jake admits that "most of his knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came from an Oliver Stone movie," but circumstances ultimately make him feel he has no choice.  Armed with Al's copious notes on Oswald, the people and events leading up to the fateful day, off he goes.  And this departure is where Jake's story ultimately begins, as he begins to acquaint himself with the early 1960s and begins to find a place for himself in the past as George Amberson; it is Jake's time in Texas that ultimately provides the core of this novel.

A complete suspension of disbelief is required, but isn't that the case in all of King's novels? Even though this novel falls within the realm of science fiction with the time travel element, King doesn't get into a lot sciencespeak about the mechanics of time travel; nor does he get all caught up in discussions about the "hoary old time-travel paradox." While the lack of explanation of the existence of a portal and the means by which it works may be a drawback for some diehard sci-fi readers, others will find it to be a very human story, based largely on King's characterizations.

In this novel, as in all of this author's books, there are some really bad guys, and there are some mysterious figures as well, but his best work is obvious in the very sad, flawed human beings who nonetheless have a huge capacity for goodness -- the reader can't help but be moved by their stories and become caught up in their lives. But what also makes this book work and work well is the author's use of fiction interspersed with real events and real people -- allowing the reader to easily identify with the story.   Oswald, for example, is so well portrayed that you'd think King had met the guy himself.  He comes off as a pathetic little man who wants to do something really big to compensate for his nothingness.  The scenes featuring Oswald and his wife Marina are believeable, as are the scenes where Oswald's overbearing mother steamrolls into their lives. It's very obvious that King has done an immense amount of research.   Beyond the characters, the late 50s/early 60s setting is well evoked with his capture of the music, food, fashions, TV shows, cars, and attitudes of the time; King's reconstruction of this time is incredibly realistic. 11/22/63 never really gets dull or overbearing, considering its size, and there are some exciting moments as well, especially as Jake is pitted against forces he doesn't quite understand on his way to the final showdown. 

One of the ideas in this book that I particularly liked is that every individual act of violence, every act of malice or brutality is "harmonized" with every other act, and that there is a "dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life."  The novel also brings home the fact that what we've lost will remain with us and stay a part of us forever.  My only niggle with the book is that the explanations behind the ultimate consequences of Jake's actions are sort of quickly glossed over, but the overall story is so good and so well written that it just didn't matter in the long run.

I can definitely recommend this novel. This is one of King's best works in recent years, and although at 849 pages it may seem overwhelming, the story and time go by quickly as you read.  While snooty-poot readers may thumb their noses at the book, don't listen to them. It's definitely worth the time, and turns out to be a great escape for a few hours.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

about Parallel Stories, by Peter Nadas

I'm in the mood to go watch some mind-numbing television right now, to rest my poor tired brain after finally finishing Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas. I've been working on this one since November 7th, and today's the what, the 16th? That's nine, count them nine days on one book.  But was it worth it?


I can honestly say I've never read anything quite like it.

After I've spent some time thinking about what I want to say about this book, I'll be back with a review. It won't be of great literary merit, because a) I'm not an expert on literary works and b) I tend to write for myself and I don't even think that way. However, I will definitely be providing links  to the more technical and literary-edged reviews for anyone interested after I write my own and then do a bit of research on the others.  Suffice it to say, I am going to take a well-deserved rest away from serious thinking right now; I'm probably going to numb my brain for a few days with Stephen King's new book and then The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis before I tackle Eco's newest novel. 

But for now, I'm positively bleary eyed and need some junky tv!

Friday, November 11, 2011

about That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott

I just finished this novel, and it dawned on me that since it was sent to me as an Advance Reader's Copy, I probably should hold out on a review until it's published here in the U.S., probably in March.  I know it's already out elsewhere, but it just seems right under the circumstances to leave it for a while and then come back later.

In the meantime, I'll just say that the book deals with the interplay of cultures in the early days of Australia's settlement, and despite the fact that several novels have dealt with this topic in the past, Kim Scott brings something rather new to the table here.   I liked it, most especially because a) it seems to be a very different take on a subject which has been covered in fiction by several authors, and b) Kim Scott is definitely a good writer, one I'll be returning to in the future.

In the meantime, if anyone in the U.S. would like this advanced reader's copy,  it's yours for the price of a comment with contact info after this post.

Friday, November 4, 2011

November: books published this year, part one

My own personal feeling about reading is that if you read only what's hot, current or on the NYT bestseller list, you're missing a ton of good books by wanting to stay trendy.  But having just made that statement, there are also a lot of books that have been published this year that I've been setting aside, or that haven't arrived in my mail yet because they're pre-ordered.  So I'm taking the last two months of the year to catch up on what I've missed throughout 2011 before turning the calendar to 2012.  I'm not going to make a list of possible books because

a) I never seem to want to follow the list I make because my mind wanders in different reading directions;
b)I have  way too many choices on my bookshelves
c) some of the novels I'm considering are freakin' huge so I don't want to limit myself or feel like I have a timetable.

I do know that 1Q84 by Murakami, Parallel Stories, by Péter Nádas and Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin will definitely be part of the next two months of reading, but there's no telling what else will show up.  I'm such a random reader that I never know what book I'll be picking up next -- it keeps reading interesting and fun for me.

The Hangman's Game, by Karen King-Aribisala

Peepal Tree Press, 2008 (reprinted edition)
191 pp

(read in October, 2011)

It's times like this when I wish I had turned my attention to studying literature rather than history, although history plays a pivotal  role in this novel.  Indeed, the novel might be characterized in part as a dialogue with history, but there is also so much in here in terms of the art of writing that I'm sure I missed, and as I've noted, I'm neither a lit major nor an English major, so I'll leave it to someone much more skilled in that area to decipher and analyze the symbolism and thematic concepts that run throughout this novel.  

The Hangman's Game is a postmodern, metafictional novel which tackles the question of oppression and the struggle for freedom.  Although these two topics are extremely common themes in literature going way, way back, the author has put quite a different spin on them in this book, and the result makes for rather interesting reading. The narrator of the story is a woman from Guyana who is writing a novel about the 1823 Demerara slave revolt, with a focus on the main character, Reverend John Smith.  Smith had tried to convert the slaves in this area of Guyana, and for his trouble, he got caught up in the revolt, was charged with treason and he received a death sentence.  As the narrator notes, "That had made me mad. It was so unjust," and she was using the "bones of this historical account for my own story."   As part of her writing experience, she decides to visit Nigeria, where she hopes to gain an understanding of the enslavement of her ancestors, as she says,  to "live among its peoples and discover at first hand why hands exchanged silver for the likes of me," and to see for herself

"why slavery, the slave trade, occurred in the first place...why blacks sold their fellow blacks into slavery and I want to know why God allowed it."

In Nigeria, she is greeted by her contact, a university professor and lay pastor.  It isn't long until she and her contact marry, and Nigeria becomes her new home.  It is also not long until she runs smack into the realities of life under the ruler of that country, a figure known only in this book as "The Butcher Boy," likely based on Nigeria's General Sani Abacha, very well known for corruption and human rights abuses.  The novel alternates between her book about Demerara and her experiences in modern Nigeria, and as The Hangman's Game proceeds, it becomes quite clear that even though the slave revolts had occurred nearly two centuries earlier, the same sort of tyranny exists in the modern day.   In short, although both narratives are set in different times and under different conditions, there are some things that remain the same -- most especially the enslavement of people under a ruthless and cruel authority, as well as the measures taken by both societies to effect their own  freedom from political domination and tyranny.   It's what those differences and similarities say about human nature that are important to this novel, as are the concepts of empowerment and control. 

The Hangman's Game is very short, but will keep you reading as you ponder the events and similarities between 1823 and  life in Nigeria under a ruthless dictator.  As far as  the "readable vs. literary" debate, the book is very approachable, but at the same time, there is a lot of wordplay and symbolism  that may escape the average reader such as myself.  Sometimes the action and the voices of the characters  in both narratives is a little overdone, and there is a lot of Christian allegory throughout the story.  To be fair, considering the religious natures of the Reverend Smith and of the narrator's husband, it would be unrealistic if Christianity did not play a part in the book; it's just not something I normally choose in my reading, so it was a bit of a drawback for me personally.  But overall, I liked The Hangman's Game, and recommend it mainly to readers of African fiction.

fiction from Nigeria

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

and another literary prize longlist is announced! The Man Asian Literary Prize

shortlist: January 10
winner: March 15

The Man Asian Literary Prize longlist has been announced -- I've been not so patiently waiting for this one! Here's the list:

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
The Valley of Masks by Tarun J. Tejpal
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

I am very happy to notice that Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village is on this list.  It is one of my favorite books for the year, and although the subject matter is a bit tough, it's a wonderful novel.  So now I must ask myself whether I want to read the whole list or just wait until January and read the shortlisted ones...hmm. A quandary indeed.

Not that they'll read this, but congratulations to all of these people for making the Man Asian longlist!