Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wilderness Tips

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991
Paperback, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385491112 
short story collection
http://www.margaretatwood.ca/
 
Description:
In each of these tales Margaret Atwood deftly illuminates the single instant that shapes a whole life: in a few brief pages we watch as characters progress from the vulnerabilities of adolescence through the passions of youth into the precarious complexities of middle age.  By superimposing the past on the present, Atwood paints interior landscapes shaped by time, regret, and life's lost chances, endowing even the banal with a sense of mystery.  Richly layered and disturbing, poignant at times and scathingly witty at others, the stories in Wilderness Tips take us into the strange and secret places of the heart and inform the familiar world in which we live with truths that cut to the bone.
 
My Thoughts:
 
It is hard to comment on such a perfectly executed collection of short stories as those found in Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips. The ten short stories in this collection include: True Trash, Hairball, Isis in Darkness, The Bog Man, Death by Landscape, Uncles, The Age of Lead, Weight, Wilderness Tips, and Hack Wednesday.
I can honestly say that I found them all equally brilliant.
 
The collection of stories covers the unpredictability of life: disappearances, betrayals, affairs, revenge, reflections, consequences, and desires. Her protagonists, mainly woman with 2 male exceptions, are persevering, confronting, and surviving in the particular wilderness they face, whether real or emotional. For some of the characters events in the past are forcing them to confronting the present. 
 
Really, Margaret Atwood presents an excellent example of how to succeed at writing short stories in this collection. She always tells her poignant stories with exact details and descriptions. The stories can be melancholy, eerie, disturbing, contemplative, humorous, or unsettling, while the prose is always descriptive and concise. 
 
Very Highly Recommended
 
Quotes:
 
The waitresses are basking in the sun like a herd of skinned seals, their pink-brown bodies shining with oil. They have their bathing suits on because it's the afternoon. In the early dawn and dusk they sometimes go skinny-dipping, which makes this itchy crouching in the mosquito-infested bushes across from their private dock a great deal more worthwhile. pg. 3
 
The hair in it was red - long strands of it wound round and round inside, like a ball of wet wool gone berserk or like the guck you pulled out of a clogged bathroom-sink drain. pg. 34
 
Julie broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp.
Julie silently revises: not exactly in the middle, not knee-deep in rotting leaves and dubious brown water. More or less on the edge; sort of within striking distance. Well, in an inn, to be precise. Or not even an inn. A room in a pub. What was available.
And not in a swamp anyway. In a bog. Swamp is when the water goes in one end and out the other, bog is when it goes in and stays in. How many times did Connor have to explain the difference? Quite a few. But Julie prefers the sound of swamp. pg. 77
 
When she was nearly five, Susanna did a tap dance on a cheese box. The cheese box was cylindrical and made of wood, and decorated with white crepe paper and criss-crossed red ribbons to look like a drum. pg. 121
 
"It's the forties look," she says to George, hand on her hip, doing a pirouette. "Rosie the Riveter. From the war. Remember her?"
George, whose name is not really George, does not remember. He spent the forties rooting through garbage heaps and begging, and doing other things unsuitable for a child. He has a dim memory of some film star posed on a calendar tattering on a latrine wall. Maybe this is the one Prue means. pg. 181
 
Marcia has been dreaming about babies. She dreams there is a new one, hers, milky-smelling and sweet-faced and shining with light, lying in her arms, bundled in a green knitted blanket. It even has a name, something strange that she doesn't catch. She is suffused with love, and with longing for it, but then she thinks, Now I will have to take care of it. This wakes her up with a jolt. pg. 207

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374203054

Description:
It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafĂ©s on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. ....

My Thoughts:
 
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is a coming of age novel set in the early 1980s. It tells the story of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, three college students from Brown University. As Eugenides himself says "The book is a postmodernist take on the original marriage plot within the Victorian novel. A lot of the time, it is also a novel about other novels." He explained to the Calgary Herald, "At 20 you can really change your philosophy of the world by reading a single book, or by one chance meeting." "That is my point about The Marriage Plot: you read books and they change your life."  "But it is also an exploration of mental illness, failed romance and one man’s battle with religious faith."  (interviews found in Economist, Christian Science Monitor, and others) 
 
The marriage plot in literature is the classic love triangle found in nineteenth century literature. You have a  beautiful woman (Madeleine) who is falling for the wrong man, a handsome man with a secret (Leonard), while the less attractive but better man is pining for her from afar (Mitchell). At the beginning of The Marriage Plot there is a lot of literary theory but then Eugenides purposefully lessens the literary discussions as the novel progresses.

The characters are immature, egomaniacal young people who are searching for meaning in life and their way in the world. They are so self obsessed that it can be painful to be privy to their every emotion and feeling. Since these students are only a few years younger than I was when I went to college, I recognize them. Clearly they are a product of their times. I also didn't like them very much. But then who, as an adult years past the  time of life these characters are experiencing, would really choose to spend time with these self-centered people?
 
Even though I didn't like the characters for most of the novel, I have to credit Eugenides skill as a writer that I continued to read and was interested and invested in the characters enough that I needed to see what happened to them and if there was any personal growth. Finally, I respect Eugenides for the ending, which could have predictably gone one way but didn't.
 
On January 22, 2012 Jeffrey Eugenides was among the nominees announced for the National Book Critics Circle awards for The Marriage Plot.
 
For me The Marriage Plot is very highly recommended, with a cautionary statement: it really wasn't until the very end, the last sentence, that I knew what my rating would be. 
  
Quotes:

To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable BrontĂ« sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.” opening

She’d made this plan with them two months ago, in April, and now here they were, at the appointed time, in their eager, dependable way. That Alton and Phyllida had driven up from New Jersey to see her graduate, that what they were here to celebrate today wasn’t only her achievement but their own as parents, had nothing wrong or unexpected about it. The problem was that Madeleine, for the first time in her life, wanted no part of it. She wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented. pg. 5

“I thought you might care,” Madeleine said. “Since you’re my friend.”
“Right,” Mitchell said, his voice suddenly sarcastic. “Our wonderful friendship! Our ‘friendship’ isn’t a real friendship because it only works on your terms. You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me for three months, we don’t talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents—and now we’re talking again. We’re friends when you want to be friends, and we’re never more than friends because you don’t want to be. And I have to go along with that.”
“I’m sorry,” Madeleine said, feeling put-upon and blindsided. “I just don’t like you that way.”
“Exactly!” Mitchell cried. “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”
Madeleine reacted as if she’d been slapped. She was outraged, hurt, and defiant all at once.
“You’re such a”—she tried to think of the worst thing to say—“you’re such a jerk!” She was hoping to remain imperious, but her chest was stinging, and, to her dismay, she burst into tears. pg. 19
 
That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical - because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in. pg. 21
 
Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.
"Give me my book," she said.
"I'll give it back if you come to the party."
Madeleine understood why her roommates trivialized her feelings. They'd never been in love, not really. They didn't know what she was dealing with. pg. 82

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Crown Publishing Group, copyright 2010
Trade paperback, 381 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400052189 
Nonfiction
http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/



Description:
Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, was buried in an unmarked grave sixty years ago. Yet her cells - taken without her knowledge - became one of the most important tools in medical research. Known to science as HeLa, the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture are still alive today, and have been bought and sold by the millions. Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey from the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East Baltimore today, where Henrietta's family struggles with her legacy.



My Thoughts: 
It's always a good feeling when you have the privilege of reading one excellent book right after another. With The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a selection for a face-to-face book club, I am continuing my winning ways.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot has written an intelligent, moving nonfiction narrative that tells the story of the Lacks family and the HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)  was a poor African American woman who died from cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Without her consent, cells were taken from her cancerous cervical tumor at the free "colored" ward. These cells were given to a researcher who cultured them and created an immortal cell line used for medical research. The cell lines, called HeLa cells, have not only helped in vital medical research they have also made billions of dollars for the medical research industry.

Henrietta's family, however, knew nothing about this cell line and once they learned about the "immortal" and living cell line twenty years after Henrietta's death, they had a multitude of misunderstandings, misgivings, and apprehensions concerning what this meant. They also wondered why there was no compensation provided to the family for these unique cells that were taken from Henrietta. It is an ironic fact that while the HeLa cells have been credited with a myriad of medical advancements, Henrietta's descendents cannot afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a biography about the woman from whom this cell line originated but it also is about her family, racism, class, medical research and medical ethics. The narrative alternates between the personal story of the Lacks family and the scientific history of the HeLa cells. Scientific advancement and discovery is shown along side the darker side of unethical medical practices.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  has won several awards, including the 2010 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the 2010 Welcome Trust Book Prize, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Excellence in Science Writing, the 2011 Audie Award for Best Non-Fiction Audiobook, and a Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award.


As many readers know, I always appreciate it when authors include a few extras. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks includes a section on Where They Are Now, a note on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, an Afterword, a Cast of Characters, Timeline, Acknowledgments, Notes, an Index, and a Reading Group Guide.

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best

Quotes:

This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated. While writing this book, I conduced more than a thousand hours of interviews with family and friends of Henrietta Lacks, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists who've written about the Lacks family. I also relied on extensive archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research, and he personal journals of Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. pg. xiii

The history of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class; I've done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of the Lacks story, and I've included an afterword addressing the current legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research. pg. xiv

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”
          
No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.
          
Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever—bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world.  I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she—like most of us—would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body. pgs.1-2

Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.
          
“Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions—if not billions—of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice. pg. 3-4

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible. pg. 7

Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment. pg. 30

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley
Crown Publishing Group, copyright 2010
Trade Paperback, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307463531
very highly recommended

Description:
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret tells the remarkable story of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe—who did so disguised as a man. In 1766, a French peasant named Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to work as principal assistant to the naturalist Philibert Commerson, royal appointee to the first French circumnavigation. The expedition commander, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, had no idea that the two shared more than simply a passion for botany—they were in fact lovers. In his memoirs, Bougainville reported that Baret was finally exposed by the natives of Tahiti, who recognized a woman where her countrymen had not: a version of events that went largely unchallenged for more than two hundred years. But three members of Bougainville’s crew provide a very different version of Baret’s exposure. Their unpublished accounts suggest that the truth of what happened to her is more brutal than official chroniclers cared to admit.
 
My Thoughts:

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley introduces Jeanne Baret, a young woman who was an expert in herb-lore. She posed as a young man in order to assist her lover, the naturalist Philibert Commerson, on French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's round-the-world expedition from 1766-69. This is a fascinating account of that trip and the oversight history has dealt Baret - ignoring her contributions to Commerson's work, as well as her abuse during that voyage.
 
Ridley's The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is a well researched portrayal of what likely occurred during the expedition based on the few written documented facts available. Because a French Royal ordinance forbade women being on French Navy ships, Baret had to disguise her sex in order to assist Commerson. In her disguise, whether it was truly fooling anyone or not, Baret worked harder than many men and most certainly harder than Commerson.
 
Ridley points out that Baret very likely discovered many or most of the plants on the expedition. She certainly discovered the bougainvillea plant, which was named for named for the ship's commander. The one plant named after Baret during the trip has since shed her name.

While Ridley does have to make some assumptions, I felt like they were very likely accurate ones, based on the information and this period of history. Certainly it must be acknowledged that Baret's major contributions to Commerson's work have been largely ignored until now and, additionally, that this was not a kind period of time for women.
 
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is not only well researched, it is well written.  I would imagine that anyone interested in botany and historical biographies would certainly enjoy this account, but I also felt it is a narrative that would be very accessible to anyone. I know I thoroughly enjoyed this historical overview of Baret's life.
 
As is my wont, I fully appreciate that Ridley includes eight pages of pictures, an afterword to the paperback edition, notes and references for each chapter, notes on source materials and illustrations, sources and a select bibliography, acknowledgements, an index, and a reader's guide.
 
Very Highly Recommended - it's early in the year but this may make the top nonfiction list by the end of the year. I enjoyed it immensely.
 
Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Crown Publishing Group for review purposes.
 
Quotes:
 
For two years on board, Jeanne Baret had presented herself as a young man, using the name Jean Baret, and had worked as the principal assistant to the expedition's naturalist, Philibert Commerson. When an old leg wound prevented Commerson from collecting specimens around Rio de Janeiro, it was Baret who had ventured inland and had brought back the showy tropical vine that would be named in honor of the expedition's commander: Bougainvillea. pg. 2
 
Taxonomy - the classification of all living things, plant and animal, according to perceived "family" resemblances - may seem an improbable arena for a protracted historical battle of the sexes. But throughout the eighteenth century, women's attempts to engage in this male-dominated field generated a torrent of vitriol. The systematic exclusion of women from the field of taxonomy is so much a part of Baret's story that the historical silence surrounding her cannot fully be explained without understanding something of taxonomy's history. pg. 8-9
 
Even if she had returned to France with the rest of Bougainville's expedition in 1769, Baret could not have expected any public recognition of her work for the expedition: A female stowaway was a curiosity, but a female botanist was a breach in the natural order of things. pg. 10
 
But Bougainville overlooked the allure of the idea she embodied: that one human being, irrespective of the hand dealt by fortune, can have as much curiosity about the world as another. And that, like races and class, gender should pose no barrier to satisfying that curiosity and discovering how far it may take you. pg. 12

So what is the intersection between the world of the mid-eighteenth century Loire peasant and the gentleman scientist? Baret and Commerson came together at the meeting point between two views of the natural world: a folkloric, feminine tradition surrounding the medicinal properties of plants and the emerging field of taxonomy, which aimed to name and classify the natural world. Baret captured the attention of Commerson because she possessed botanic knowledge that lay well beyond the competence of his professors and mentors. She was an herb woman: one schooled in the largely oral tradition of the curative properties of plants. Herb women were for centuries the source of all raw materials to be prepared, mixed, and sold by male medical practitioners, and as botany crystallized as a science in the eighteenth century, a handful of male botanists did not think it beneath them to learn from these specialists. In this light, Baret was not Commerson's pupil, but his teacher. pg. 16-17
 
Baret was twenty-four and Commerson thirty-six. Though they did not know it, they had begun a journey that would help to redraw the known world. pg. 41

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Five

The Five by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press, 2011
Hardcover, 518 pages
ISBN-13: 9781596063419
http://www.robertmccammon.com/
very highly recommended

Description:
The Five tells the story of an eponymous rock band struggling to survive on the margins of the music business. As they move through the American Southwest on what might be their final tour together, the band members come to the attention of a damaged Iraq war veteran, and their lives are changed forever.

The narrative that follows is a riveting account of violence, terror, and pursuit set against a credible, immensely detailed rock and roll backdrop. It is also a moving meditation on loyalty and friendship, on the nature and importance of families those we are born into and those we create for ourselves and on the redemptive power of the creative spirit. Written with wit, elegance, and passionate conviction, The Five lays claim to new imaginative territory, and reaffirms McCammon's position as one of the finest, most unpredictable storytellers of our time.

My Thoughts:
 
I've been looking forward to reading The Five by Robert McCammon and I wasn't disappointed. The Five  is a thriller that celebrates McCammon's love of music and includes in the mix an element of the supernatural along with the suspense. The Five are a struggling rock band following a brutal schedule playing at small venues during what will likely be their last tour together when an unstable veteran decides that their video is an insult to veterans and the members of the band must be killed. The murders will also serve as an example to prove his worth to anyone who wants to hire an assassin.
 
Before they knew they were being stalked and the first member of the band is shot, the members of The Five decide to write one last song together before they split up. Once the first attack happens, the importance of everything this last song symbolizes takes on a life of its own.
 
The Five is McCammon's ode to musicians everywhere. It is a study of human nature, the dark and light side of faith, and destiny. While the band members continue to follow their passion for making music and performing, they are also forced to display endurance, courage, and camaraderie as they continue on their tour schedule while working with the authorities to catch the killer.
 
The many readers who wanted another supernatural novel from McCammon (Swan Song, Boy's Life) may be somewhat satisfied with The Five even though it is not quit like his previous novels. Everyone should be able to readily concede that McCammon is a great writer and he deftly handles the development of both the plot and characters with ease. It should also be noted that at the end of the novel McCammon includes a long list of bands and musicians to whom he is dedicating The Five.
 
Very Highly Recommended
 
Quotes:

Nomad decided he would have to kill the waitress.
How he would do it, he didn’t know. But it would have to be done soon, because in another minute he was going to go off like that dude in The Thing whose alien blood bubbled and shrieked under the touch of a hot wire. His neck was going to grow six feet long and spikes would shoot out of his arms before he tore the room apart. The waitress was cheerful and talky. Nomad hated cheerful and talky. He wasn’t a particularly good guy, nor a very bad one. He was a musician.
Besides, he wasn’t worth a damn before noon, and here he was at ten in the morning sitting in a booth at a Denny’s restaurant just off I-35 at Round Rock, about twenty miles north of Austin. Everything was too bright for him in here. opening

“What’s your name? Your band’s name, I mean?”
“The Five,” Ariel said.
There was just the briefest of pauses, and then Laurie wrinkled her brow and cocked her head to one side as if she’d missed part of that. “The five what?”
“Aces,” Mike mumbled, into his coffee cup.
“A**es,” Berke corrected.
But Laurie’s attention was still on Ariel, as if she knew Ariel was probably the only person in this group who wouldn’t steer her into a ditch.
“Just The Five,” Ariel said. “We wanted to keep it easy to remember.” pg. 11

“One thing I’d like to ask, if I could. Then I’ll leave you guys alone. I’ve seen…like…musicians on stage do this.” She transferred the coffee pot to her left hand, balled up her right fist and did the heart thump and then the peace sign. “What’s that mean?”
Nomad studied her through his dark glasses. She was probably five or six years younger than she looked. It was the hard Texas sun that aged the skin so much. She was probably a little dense, too. Happy with her lot in life, and dense. Maybe you had to be a little dense to be truly happy. Or oblivious enough to think you were. He couldn’t help himself; he said, “Bullsh*t.”
“Pardon?” Laurie asked.
“It means,” Ariel said evenly, “solidarity with the audience. You know. We love you, and we wish you peace.”
“Like I said: Bullsh*t.” Nomad ignored Ariel, who likewise ignored him, and then he swigged down the rest of his coffee. “I’m done.” He slid out of the booth, put a buck down on the table, and walked out of the Denny’s into the hot sunshine.  pg. 13

Everybody got a birthday celebration, that was part of the deal. Not a written deal, but one that was understood. Just as on stage, everybody got their time. Their appreciation, for what they did. That was an important thing, Nomad thought; to feel appreciated, like you meant something in the world and your life and work wasn’t just like a big busted-up truck spinning its tires in a mudhole. Like what you did mattered to somebody. pg. 14

Because hat was the sharpest thorn in this tangled bush where the roses always seemed so close and yet so hard to reach, and everybody in the Scumbucket knew it. How long did you give your life to the dream, before it took your life? pg. 22

And Nomad realized he would mourn this death, maybe more than any other. When I was running on all cylinders, The Five was tight and clean and everybody had their space. Everybody had their job to do, and they did it like professionals. They did it with pride. And thought the life was tough and the money not much to speak of, the gigs could lift you up. There was nothing like being in the groove, like feeling the energy of the audience and the heat of the lights and the pure electric heart of the moment. It was so real. pg. 31

A hit man could make a lot of money these days. But first he would have to show any potential employers how good he was at the job. It wasn't as if he didn't have enough experience already.
That band...with their lies...they shouldn't be allowed to spread their poison. pg. 85

Monday, January 2, 2012

11/22/63

11/22/63 by Stephen King
Scribner, November 2011
Hardcover, 864 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451627282  
 
Synopsis:
Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

My Thoughts:

In 11/22/63 by Stephen King Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, is recruited by his dying friend, Al Templeton, to travel through a time portal located in the storeroom of Al's diner. When he goes through the portal, it will be September 9,1958. Al wants Jake to complete a task he was unable to do: prevent Kennedy's assassination.

There are two known facts about the time portal, according to Al. First, when you return from the past, no matter how long you've been there, only two minutes have past in the present.  Second, each time you go back everything you've done before is erased so it's all back to how it was originally.

Jake decides to honor Al's request and change history. He travels back in time, calling himself George Amberson. Jake has motives of his own for going back in time. He'd like to prevent a horrific act of violence that occurred on October 31,1958, in Derry. Although it appears to be possible, obviously any effects from changing history are unknown. And it seems that the past pushes back - it doesn't want to be changed.

11/22/63 is not what many people would consider a typical Stephen King book. There aren't an abundance of supernatural events. Fans of Kings work are going to recognize many references to some of his previous books, especially those set in Derry. And, although 11/22/63 is a time travel novel, it's really much more than that. What about the Butterfly Effect? Can history be changed? What will altering a major event set into motion? Will love complicate Jake's mission and change events?

Clearly King has done his research. He masterfully set the time and place, which is clearly evident with all the little period details he includes throughout the story. All the details of Oswald's life are also interwoven into the story.  He combines all these real life details into the plot, which is populated with wonderfully developed fully realized characters. The narrative seems very plausible because the people and the setting seem so real. 

This is an excellent book by a highly skilled author. Had I finished it a few days earlier it would have certainly made my top list of 2011.  
11/22/63 is very highly recommended

Quotes:

I have never been what you'd call a crying man.
My ex-wife said that my "nonexistent emotional gradient" was the main reason she was leaving me.... opening

As for me, I only wish the former Christy Epping had been correct. I wish I had been emotionally blocked, after all. Because everything that followed - every terrible thing - flowed from those tears. pg. 5

If I'd known what the future held for me, I certainly would have gone up to see her.....But of course I didn't know. Life turns on a dime. pg. 14

“So,” he said. “You went and you came back. What do you think?”
“Al, I don’t know what to think. I’m rocked right down to my foundations. You found this by accident?”
“Totally. Less than a month after I got myself set up here. I must have still had Pine Street dust on the heels of my shoes. The first time, I actually fell down those stairs, like Alice into the rabbithole. I thought I’d gone insane.”
I could imagine. I’d had at least some preparation, poor though it had been. And really, was there any adequate way to prepare a person for a trip back in time?
“How long was I gone?”
“Two minutes. I told you, it’s always two minutes. No matter how long you stay.” He coughed, spat into a fresh wad of napkins, and folded them away in his pocket. “And when you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 a.m. on the morning of September ninth, 1958. Every trip is the first trip. Where did you go?”
“The Kennebec Fruit. I had a root beer. It was fantastic.” 
“Yeah, things taste better there. Less preservatives, or something.”
“You know Frank Anicetti? I met him as a kid of seventeen.”
Somehow, in spite of everything, I expected Al to laugh, but he took it as a matter of course. “Sure. I’ve met Frank many times. But he only meets me once—back then, I mean. For Frank, every time is the first time. He comes in, right? From the Chevron. ‘Titus has got the truck up on the lift,’ he tells his dad. ‘Says it’ll be ready by five.’ I’ve heard that fifty times, at least. Not that I always go into the Fruit when I go back, but when I do, I hear it. Then the ladies come in to pick over the fruit. Mrs. Symonds and her friends. It’s like going to the same movie over and over and over again.”
“Every time is the first time.” I said it slowly, putting a space around each word. Trying to get them to make sense in my mind.
“Right.”
“And every person you meet is meeting you for the first time, no matter how many times you’ve met before.”
“Right.”
“I could go back and have the same conversation with Frank and his dad and they wouldn’t know.”
“Right again. Or you could change something—order a banana split instead of a root beer, say—and the rest of the conversation would go a different way. The only one who seems to suspect something’s off is the Yellow Card Man. pg. 44-45

"You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live." pg. 59

"Also, I'm angry. I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?" pg. 581