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Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/63

3 1/2 STARS

11/22/63 by Stephen King is the second King book that I’ve “read” (hello handy dandy audiobook). Stephen King’s books are perfect for audiobook—they read like a script thanks to the abundance of dialogue and action. Plus, his books are super lengthy (at least the ones on my reading list are) and as someone who always carries around a book in her purse, I particularly hate toting heavy (i.e. lengthy) books.

Unfortunately, I wish I had read this book instead of listened to it. Despite the length (and overall time commitment) the narrator’s voice got on my nerves and his performance was too over the top for me. To make matters worse, I couldn’t connect with any of his female voices. They sounded too stereotypically…feminine. So even though the female characters were likely well-written, his voice prevented me from rooting for any of them—especially Sadie, arguably the most important one.

Here is the setup of the book: Al Templeton, the owner of a diner and secret time traveler, is friends with Jake Epping, a high school English teacher. In Al’s pantry hides a rabbit hole to the 1950s. Stricken with cancer, Al burdens his friend Jake with a secret time traveler’s mission: Stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and change the world.

I was immediately hooked, as I am an absolute sucker for anything time travel related. When people argue whether Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is the greatest trilogy of all time, I insist that it’s actually Back to the Future. (I mean, duh.)

As always, Stephen King tells the story well and continues to keep things interesting. But seeing as how it was more than 800 pages long, there were definitely parts in the story that could have been cut—many in fact. It takes well over two-thirds of the book to really begin to dig into the Kennedy assassination, and that was the most interesting part of the story. The majority of the book is about Jake’s time spent in a small Texas town where he takes on the pseudonym George Amberson, enjoys the quaintness of small town life, becomes an adored English teacher and falls in love with the tall, klutzy and southern librarian (Sadie). This was a cute story in and of itself, but not what I signed up for when taking on this mammoth of a story.

Eventually the story circles back to the main subject of Harvey Oswald and JFK, and the plot gets exciting once again. Unfortunately, King’s handling of the cause-and-effect related to time travel, or rather “the butterfly effect,” was—again—not what I was hoping for. Without meaning to spoil anything, let’s just say King introduced paranormal elements that conflicted with the usual paradigm of time travel. It was still intriguing, just not what I was hoping for.

All in all, a fun read—as long as you have the time to spare.

Stray Observations
Some spoilers ahead

• I think my favorite part about this book was the basic history lesson. I guess I didn’t really know a whole lot about JFK. (It’s a wonder I graduated high school, really.) So taking an in-depth look in such a way was a whole lot of fun. I mean, maybe Kennedy wouldn’t have prevented the war in Vietnam—maybe that was inevitable—but it sure is interesting to contemplate the possibilities.

• I also loved King’s attention to detail regarding the rules for time travel in this universe. The rabbit hole always starts at the exact time and place. You can bring objects back with you to the present from the past, and then when you visit the past again, the object still exists. Also, every time you visit the past it creates alternate timelines.

• The purpose of the “Yellow Card Man” was a little confusing. I’m still not sure if I fully understood his purpose and where exactly he came from. Who would take up that job? Does it have health benefits? Dental?

• I would again like to stress that I really didn’t like the way this book handled “the butterfly effect.” Instead of taking an honest look at what might have happened if Oswald had never assassinated Kennedy, we glimpse a dystopian future where the world has suffered from nuclear warfare—the more extreme a change to the past is (from talking to a stranger to saving someone’s life), the more unstable our timeline becomes. And while this is interesting, I would have much rather seen King’s ideas for what a world with a living Kennedy would have actually looked like—sans paranormal elements. But I guess that’s not the story King wanted to tell.

• Even though I didn’t love Sadie as much as I think I would have if I didn’t have to experience her through the audiobook narrator’s awful voice for her, I definitely teared up at that ending. That was beautiful. Nice job, King. Nice job.

• Finally, have you heard that Hulu is adapting this book, and that they’ve cast James Franco as Jake Epping? Ugh. I love James Franco, but he is not Jake. I really don’t like this.

But I’ll probably still watch it.

*Bows head in shame.

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Book Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Moloka'i Cover

4 STARS

I love historical fiction. Reading from this genre makes me feel like I’m back in school, but instead of memorizing names and dates I’m learning the most interesting parts of the past through a fictional narrative. For instance, did you know that people who were diagnosed with leprosy in the late 1800s to the early 1900s were essentially exiled to the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i? (And here all I knew about leprosy was that that Lazarus dude from the bible died from it.)

That’s the story Alan Brennert’s new book tells through the experiences of his fictional character Rachel Kalama. When Rachel is seven-years-old, her mother notices rosy patches on her skin. Even though her mother tries to hide it, Rachel is later discovered and forced out of her home, away from her mother, father, brothers and sister, and cast to the leprosy colony at Moloka’i. It’s here that she makes friends, falls in love, finds her faith and grows up—away from everything and everyone she once knew.

Suffice it to say, if you are looking for a happy, upbeat book, Moloka’i is not for you. Although there are many happy moments sprinkled throughout the story, it’s utterly heartbreaking, and a lot happens. Imagine being torn from your family at such a young age, losing your freedom and being forced to live among strangers in a far-away place. You can never leave, not unless you are suddenly cured; you’re trapped. And even though the people of the island are wonderful, it’s unnatural for humans to be tethered to one place forever.

The book was interesting from the very beginning, but after Rachel arrived on the island I didn’t feel very attached to the plot. The story lacked soul. I felt for Rachel and everything she was going through, but I didn’t feel particularly attached to her story. Instead, I just felt as if the author was going through the motions, placing her in situations but not making those moments come alive. It wasn’t until the second half that Brennert’s story finally picks up. Suddenly I was invested and my interest carried all the way through until the end of the book.

Despite learning so much about leprosy, better known as Hansen’s disease, this book takes you on a journey through history. During Rachel’s time on the island, major historical moments take place, including the invention of planes and movies, world wars, and even the overthrowing of Hawaii’s queen. All this change is taking place while Rachel and her friends on Moloka’i simply observe from afar. Get ready for some tears.

Stray Observations
Some spoilers ahead

• Favorite quote: “Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”

• Rachel’s father was the sweetest man. I loved how he brought her back a doll from every place he visited. Very clever.

• I enjoyed the theological discussion from the nuns at Rachel’s school. I didn’t feel like it was particularly overdone, but rather addressed questions you know everyone would ask—and still ask—during difficult times: How can such awful things happen to such innocent people?

• Did anyone else wish for Sister Catherine to quit the convent and go live with her family? She was such a good person and deserved so much happiness. She cared so much for those young girls, I just wish she would have cared for herself, too.

• It was beyond touching how Rachel’s husband Kenji wouldn’t leave her behind when he is told he can finally leave the island. But doesn’t anyone else think he should have used his free pass to visit the outside world just once in his life? With the tragic events that follow, it breaks my heart to know that he never got to see outside of Moloka’i as an adult.

• Despite that, at least Rachel was awarded a somewhat happy ending. She finally got to travel and see the world. My heart is breaking all over again.

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Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 Cover

1 STAR

First published in three parts and originally printed in Japanese, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a book that sounds fascinating: Set in 1984, a ruthless assassin named Aomame starts to notice small changes to the world around her. She soon realizes she’s become transported to an alternate universe, which she later names 1Q84. Meanwhile, an aspiring author named Tengo takes on a ghostwriting project that involves him with a mystical cult. Their stories eventually converge and the mystery begins to unfold. Intriguing, right?

Wrong. This was one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.

Well, not read, I guess. I listened to 1Q84 on audiobook. And I’m glad I did. This beast of a book—at nearly 1,000 pages!—did not deliver an enticing story. Instead of creating a multilayered plot that drew me in, I continuously zoned out during my morning commutes. It constantly repeated itself (no wonder it was so long) and delivered a mediocre “mystery” with an anticlimactic ending. Aomame, the “ruthless assassin,” makes Inspector Gadget look like a savvy adventure series. And the major emotional draw for the entire book is the love she feels for a man whose hand she once held in elementary school, and whom she never saw again. That’s right folks. She fell in love with a man in the third grade. Not really a man, I guess. A boy. She has spent the last 20 years of her life pining for a 10-year-old. Gross. Apparently, not one single man she met in all of her life compared to the boy she fell in love with 20 years ago.

On top of that, the literary device of a parallel universe that really attracted me to this novel was completely wasted. The changes Aomame notices around her when she switches worlds don’t affect her past life in any way. And the cult that Tengo finds himself entangled in is as tame as a kitten. And did I mention that the book is nearly 1,000 pages? At that page length I expected an epic tale of love, war and mystery. What a letdown. I do not recommend it.

Stray Observations
Some spoilers ahead

• Can I reiterate this once more? It was nearly 1,000 pages! That’s more than 45 hours in audiobook world! Edit yourself, dude.

• There’s no way Tengo’s ghostwritten novel, Air Chrysalis, would have become a best seller. Just saying.

• What was the deal with the faceless fee collector? I had to listen to 20 minutes of him berating Aomame and Tengo’s door, never to hear from him again or discover the purpose of his presence, which must have ate up at least 50 pages. Was he Tengo’s dead father? And if so, what was the point? What was the point of the whole story, really?

• How have these two characters clung to that one moment in a grade school classroom for 20 years? The strongest crush I had in grade school involved me saving a pair of scissors my crush had borrowed from me. I preserved them in a Ziploc bag. But then I needed to use the scissors for a class project, so the next day I took them out of the bag. Then my feelings for this boy waned the following year because we no longer shared the same teacher. And also because we were in grade school!

• Who are the Little People? Why did Murakami never spend more time with these mystical creatures? That would have made a much more interesting novel—much more interesting than sitting around with Ushikawa for a third of the book as he investigated Aomame and Tengo, uncovering information about them we already knew.

• I will say this for the book: Reading 1Q84 made me want to read the classic novel its title was based on, George Orwell’s 1984. I have even gone so far as to buy a copy of it from my local used-book store, The Dusty Bookshelf. (My favorite place in Lawrence.) So there’s that. Thanks 1Q84.

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Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

5 STARS

If you’ve ever read a book by Jeffrey Eugenides, you will probably agree with me when I say he’s a great writer. Phenomenal, in fact. But with that being said, I’ve never felt attached to the characters in his first two works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I mean, you’re not exactly supposed to in Suicides, but still—I never found myself falling in love with his work, despite the great writing. That is until this wonderful, amazing book.

The Marriage Plot is about three wayward 20-something college graduates who, quite simply, experience the profound effects of love in the 1980s. Madeleine, an English graduate writing her thesis on the Victorian literary device “the marriage plot,” doesn’t know how to turn her love for literature into a career, and finds herself even more lost in the ways of love. She falls for the charismatic Leonard, a science major who, despite his intellect, finds himself on a path toward self-destruction. And finally, there is Mitchell, the straight-laced religious studies major who embarks on an extended, spiritual journey around the globe, from France to India, while clinging to his unrequited love for Madeleine. This book follows these three characters as they graduate, travel the world, find jobs, fall ill, help each other heal, and figure out this tricky thing called love.

I think the real reason I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book is because I could identify with the characters. It was only six years ago that I graduated from college. (Wow, has it been that long?) I remember the classes that bored me, and the classes that left an everlasting impression. I remember sitting around with my classmates, sharing ideas, goals and passions. I remember seeing that special boy for the first time, not knowing he would go on to change my life. I remember walking down the Campanile hill, realizing that it was time for me to choose my path in life, and that my choices were endless.

Eugenides’ characters are not perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. But Eugenides does an excellent job of allowing the reader inside their minds to understand their actions. As he jumps back and forth through time, perspectives constantly switching, he tells the complete story, and reminds us what it’s like to be at that place in your life. I was enchanted.

Stray Observations
Some spoilers ahead

• Favorite quote: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” –François de La Rochefoucauld

• Second favorite quote: “She became an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”

• Setting this novel in the Reagan years was a brilliant choice. This was a decade that was met with a dramatic shift in how women saw themselves—as someone who could choose a career rather than a husband and 2.5 kids. Madeleine is a woman of the 80s and she fancies herself a feminist. In fact, her thesis is a deconstruction of “the marriage plot,” the popular storyline that insists the happy ending for its heroine is marriage. But despite her desire to go along with this shift, the truth is that she secretly yearns for the traditional husband, and wishes Leonard would just conform right along with her. This is a struggle many women continue to face today: career or family?

• This novel felt especially timely, as Eugenides reveals Leonard’s deep and darkening manic depression. The inability for those around him (his mother, especially) to understand that he wasn’t simply “down in the dumps” felt all too relatable. Although this was set in the 80s, it’s surprising how people today still truly don’t understand this unbearable disease.

• With that being said, I couldn’t stop laughing at the image of Leonard running all over Paris in a cape.

• I absolutely loved the spiritual journey that Mitchell underwent. I’ve always found religious studies fascinating. His final decision to join the Quakers felt like a perfect fit. Plus, I can absolutely relate to this sentiment of his: I love religion, but not necessarily religious people.

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