Review Time: Stephen King- 11/22/63

Sometimes you pick a book based on a review. Sometimes you pick a book based on the author. Sometimes you pick a book based on the cover (although, apparently this makes you a bad person).

But sometimes you pick a book because its 840 pages and you have to be on a plane/ in an airport for 2 days.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I read Stephen Kings’ 11/22/63.

Jack Epping is a divorced 30-something in a small town, living a rather nondescript life. Teaches high school by day, teaches adult literacy at night and frequents the local greasy diner in-between. Until one day, when his friend and local diner owner, Al Templeton, looking 8 years older than he did the day before, approaches him with a rather shocking bit of news: The storeroom of the diner allows him to go back in time. Not to any time, mind you, to 11:58 a.m. on September 9th, 1958 only. And this is a portal with some rules:

You can go to 1958, make all the changes you like, and come back to 2015. BUT, if you then go Back to 1958 another time, everything is reset to the way it was before. Also, when you visit 1958, no matter how long you stay there, only 2 minutes have passed when you return to 2015.

Understandably, Jack is skeptical at first, but after a quick jaunt to the past for the best darn root beer float he ever had, Al reveals the real reason he has shared the portal with Jack. After much research, Al has determined that the death of JFK was a “watershed moment”. A watershed moment is a moment in time that if changed, has a massive effect on all subsequent events. His rationale (abbreviated) is this: If JFK had lived, America would not have entered the Vietnam war (because JFK was far more war-adverse than Lyndon Johnson, among other reasons). If America had not engaged with Vietnam, then the public would not have had as much reason to distrust the government, the civil rights movement may have achieved its aims without violence, Martin Luther King would have lived, etc, etc, all leading to a better world for you and me.

So Al has been plotting to stop the assassination of JFK, by Killing Lee Harvey Oswald. However, the past is resistant to change, and Al will succumb to lung cancer before achieving his goal. Jack must use the portal and continue this quest.

What ensues is a gripping, action- filled book. Jack ends up building a life for himself in the years between 1958 and 1963, and it isn’t entirely clear if he SHOULD stop this assassination for a number of reasons. Ethically, this is a little grey- he would have to kill Oswald, who has done nothing wrong up until this point, IF he was the sole killer at all. Also, the concept of a watershed moment is itself fraught with debate- it is strongly believed by some that there may be a divine being that will force certain events one way or another, regardless of a single change. And of course, there’s the impact that frequenting the past has on our fragile space-time continuum.

11/22/63 was entertaining, thought-provoking (thoughts like: if I was in 1958, I would buy stocks and also go to the opening of the very first IHOP) and intelligently written. Basically, if you liked Back  to the Future (and who didn’t?), you should give this book a try.

And as a note: I think that Stephen King gets a bad rap sometimes amongst bibliophiles. Yes, his books are widely appreciated and mass-consumed. Okay, he clearly is a well oiled machine who pumps out literature, factory- style.  Yes, his books are clearly written with the intent of being made into movies ( I think his last one actually had a stage note..). But come on, The Green Mile? Fantastic. Under the Dome? If you ignore the last chapter, great!

At any rate, I really enjoyed 11/22/63, and I would have enjoyed it, even if I wasn’t trapped in a metal tube hurtling through the air.

Review Time: This is Where I Leave You- Jonathan Tropper

Judd Foxman is not having a great year. Whilst surprising his wife on her birthday (with a cake from her favorite bakery), he catches her in bed (their bed) with another man. His boss, to be more precise. This quickly leads to him losing his job, his house, and doesn’t leave him much in the self-esteem department. And then Judds’ father dies, bringing him, his mother, his sister, and two brothers together for the first time in years. All of this is quickly followed by the news of his wifes’ pregnancy (Judds baby), and cohabitation with her new boyfriend. So, we must forgive Judd if he does not have the most respectful and reverent reaction to his quasi-religious fathers’ last wish: that his family sit Shiva together in their family home.

For one week, Judd the trod-upon, Wendy the perfectionist sister (complete with crumbling marriage), resentful older brother Paul, and lovable screw-up Phillip, along with their mother (who literally wrote the book on having inappropriate conversations with ones children), and their partners, will co-exist inside the same house. They will be together for the longest time since they were children, with only their grief, buried issues and dysfunction to keep them (and us) entertained. Chaos inevitably ensues.

Jonathan Troppers’ “This is Where I Leave You” was very entertaining, an easy and fast read. I am a sucker for a family drama, (as an extrovert, group dynamics always fascinate me). But even outside of that, this book was really funny…a little twisted, but very smart and clever. Troppers’ characters are wonderfully flawed; Judd is not your likable unlucky protagonist. He’s critical, irreverent and self-absorbed, and this makes him real. The family is almost absurdly dysfunctional and you feel sorry for the outsiders who have the misfortune of having married into this mess (or you would feel sorry for them, if they weren’t as messed up as the Foxmans)! However, all throughout the book, the authors’ primary idea remains beautifully clear. When life gets hard, whether you know it or not, you need your people.

I completely understand the need to gather up the people you love in one place. I am extraordinarily blessed with a number of families. Nothing makes me happier than when I have 14 friends in my house, deep frying a turkey. Or when a dozen or so gather at my Dads’ place for a mohito competition and Bocce ball. Or when J and Sophie and I sit outside on a summer evening and play cards.

Because home isn’t a place you go, home is your people.

 

Review Time: The 100-Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

Jonas Jonassons’ sensation “The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared” is one one of the recent “it-books” to grace every list and on the lap of every subway rider. It has the distinction of being the most sold book in Sweden in 2010 and was made into a movie that did very well in Europe and I would not be surprised if a North American debut was in its future. Before I go into my review, I just want to note that a lot of people did like this book, so feel free to read it, we can still be friends if you do! But what did I think of this book?

I thought it was…meh.

It isn’t for lack of intriguing plot setup. “The 100 year old man” is the story of Allan Karlsson who, in the hours before his 100th birthday party, climbs out the window of his retirement home and sets off with no particular destination in mind. On a whim, he steals a suitcase at the bus depot, later to discover it contains a fortune in drug money. What follows is an adventure involving a number of questionable characters, and elephant and an (understandably) angry drug cartel.

Sounds pretty good so far, right?

This story is then interspersed with the tale of the first 100 years of Karlssons’ life, which is a wild tale, to say the least. Like Forrest Gump before him, Allan Karlsson was a key personage in the background of almost every major political happening. He had a 10 year old Kim Jong Il sit on his lap, he shared meals (and vodka…and national secrets) with the likes of Stalin, De Gaulle and Churchill. He was a close personal friend of Truman. The book is absurdly hilarious, well written technically and full of dry humor with impeccable timing.

Again, sounds like a great book. So whats my damage?

The only thing missing, and perhaps this was lost in its translation, is ANY way of connecting to ANY of the characters. By the end of it, I just didn’t care anymore, because none of the characters seemed to care. I mean, I love dry humor, I really do, but this was unreal. The most absurd things happened to this man, and everyone around him, but he remains a completely unlikable man with the personality of a sponge who ambled through fantastic events. I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters, there was no insight or character development. It was as if someone took the most exciting story and read it in a robot voice; neat at first, then boring, then annoying.

Over and over again, the same plot mechanisms are dragged out set against the background of the past 100 years: Allan meets famous historical figure and agrees to help their political cause because he is offered a hot meal and vodka, then it goes bad and Allan is in trouble but gets out of it because he blows something up.

Once is funny, twice is funny, but a whole book of the same with no humanizing element to the main character makes for a book I just couldn’t get into. It was like this book just wouldn’t let me love it, even though I wanted to so bad…

 

Review Time: Crack Town, I mean…Crazy Town by Robyn Doolittle

There’s something really special about reading a book set in a location you’ve been to. You can picture these things happening so much more vividly, and getting into the story has a whole other level to it. Now that I’ve travelled a little bit, I get a nerdy thrill out of reading books set in London or Paris or Rome, and so many good books are! Living in Toronto, I should probably start seeking out books set here, as I hear people talk about local authors all the time (suggestions welcome!).

With that in mind, I was excited to read Robyn Doolittles’ “Crazy Town”. I figured that as well as being a journalistic look at our citys’ mayoral…situation, it would be a really neat look at Toronto politics in general and maybe my neighborhood in particular. You see, I live around the corner from the Ford matriarch and right in the middle of the world outlined in the book. So I got to read about deals being made with gun-runners in the local country style donuts*, and the “Dixon City Bloods”, my friendly neighborhood gang.

*I did always wonder why that donut shop never actually had any donuts…

The book was really good, but reading about North Etobicoke, apparently also called “Little Mogadishu”, didn’t give me the same feeling as reading about museums in Paris or the streets of London…

It made me want to move.

However, I did enjoy the book. For those of you who don’t know, Robyn Doolittle is the Toronto Star reporter who first broke the Rob Ford crack scandal or “Crackgate”, as the media likes to call it. Doolittle is one of only a select few people to have seen the notorious crack-smoking video and has been following the story ever since. This book is not only the story of the scandal that should have finally taken down that wife-beating, heavy-drinking, program-slicing clown**, but she delves into Fords’ entire career and the history of the Ford family in Toronto.

**For those of you about to email me angrily, telling me about how Rob Ford has kept all his promises as mayor and my pinko friends and I need to lay off him: I see your subway digging and tax cuts and raise you reduction of public programs and library hours and personal misuse of publicly-owned services. Oh, and worldwide embarrassment, association with known gun-runners and support of the drug industry. Your move.

If you followed the news closely, this book may not hold any new revelations for you, but Doolittle does take all of the recent happenings and puts it all into context using the Ford family history and little-known facts about Rob in particular. This is very clearly a reporters book; even-handed, thoroughly researched and written very plainly. No flowery prose here, just the facts. Doolittle does speculate on the upcoming mayoral election, explaining how, despite being a disaster of a human being, Ford might actually win re-election (I swear, I’ll move).  If I have one critique of this book, it would be that it seems to be a little hastily put together, with some typos. Not the end of the world and I suppose understandable as these sorts of books need to be released inside of the time frame of their relevance. (And I guess I’m in no position to say anything about other peoples’ typos…)

Overall though, this book was an informative and interesting read. It was a concise re-telling of the Toronto mayoral quagmire, a revealing look at a surprisingly influential family and an unexpectedly interesting insight into municipal politics and journalism at a big-city paper.

A little note for any Toronto readers I might reach with this review: please cast an informed vote this October. And keep in mind that although the personal life of an elected politician is not necessarily a basis on which to cast a vote, everyone comes to work with their personal life in tow. And if that personal life includes getting so drunk that you thought trying crack cocaine with your gun-runner friends wasn’t the worst idea ever, that will impact the Mayors work. The Mayors work impacts your day to day life. Think about it.

 

 

 

Review Time: Beautiful Day

I’m at that age where many people around me are getting engaged/ married. I myself got married this past August.  So I feel like I can say, with a fair amount of certainty, that weddings, more than any other social convention, are inherently wrought with drama. Of course the negative drama comes to mind first, as it is the subject of many TLC/ Slice reality T.V. shows. Hurt feelings over a mothers’ dress not worn, last minute hair catastrophe (I once had to handle a brides’ last minute toenail emergency!), the inevitable disagreements over the invite list and my favorite: unsavory speech content.
But at the same time, weddings bring out the more “positive” drama as well. Happy tears, Dads who call florists looking for 18 ivory roses the night before the wedding, sisters who overcome public speaking fears just to tell the bride how much they love her.

Like I said, for better or worse, weddings are wrought with drama. This must be why people like writing about them so much!

Beautiful Day by Elin Hildenbrand is the story of the wedding of Jenna Carmichael to Stuart Graham. What would be your typical story of 2 families coming together to witness this blessed union (bringing with them their collective dramatics) is made a little more interesting. The wedding was planned, from readings to cake, by Jennas’ mother Beth, who died 5 years prior. In the 8 months between her diagnosis of ovarian cancer and her passing, Beth wrote out all of her advice and plans and dreams for her youngest daughter in “The Notebook”.

Welling up yet?

Excerpts from the notebook are interspersed throughout the novel, adding another layer to the story. The voice of Beth in these entries is painfully optimistic, the forced cheerfulness of a woman who is planning a wedding she knows she won’t see. She tries to infuse this Notebook with a ‘mother of the bride’-ness, slightly bossy, supportive, sentimental and careful to never be angry at the unfair cards she’s been dealt. The rest of the characters struggle not only with their own individual lives, but to get through the first momentous occasion since losing the family matriarch. At the centre of this story are 3 primary narrators: Margot, the oldest Carmichael child and maid of honour. Margot is working through her own complicated love life, raising 3 children and trying to fill in for her mother. Doug, the father of the bride who is struggling to simultaneously mourn his wifes’ absence and celebrate his daughters’ marriage. Lastly Ann, the mother of the groom, with family drama of her own, learning about humility and second chances.

This book is a fun and easy read, but not lacking in depth or drama. The characters are flawed but likable, and you truly feel for them. As a fictional book about a wedding, Beautiful Day falls squarely under “beach/vacation read”, but it’s one that I would read anytime.

Review Time: The Book Thief

The only thing I needed to hear to convince me to read this book was that the narrator was Death.

The narrator…is DEATH?! Sold.

I’m a sucker for a hook, like a great narrator, a fascinating setting or a talking pig and this hook did not disappoint (with the narrator, I mean-no talking pigs 🙂 ). The characters in Markus Zusaks’ The Book Thief are wonderful people, deep and complex. But the real star, what takes this book from good to great, is the portrayal of Death as the narrator. Death is seen here as a sympathetic but unrelenting entity. Over-worked by the horrors of the second world war, we are almost reminded of a war-weary field surgeon in the mix of despair, necessary detachment and black humour that Death exudes. He (she?) at times laments at the unfair nature of his work and at humankind’s capacity for murder: “So much good, so much evil. Just add water”.

A touching, profound and, at times surprisingly funny, narration.

The story is a beautiful ode to the power of books, set in a WW2-era German town located between Munich and the concentration camp of Dachau. Liesel Meminger, a young German girl is sent there to live with a foster family to keep her safe. Illiterate at the beginning of the book, we see Liesel learning to read first as just something to do when the nightmares keep her up at night. Eventually she embraces reading as salvation, a way to maintain hope while living in a country that would exterminate its own people and having to pretend to embrace politics she has no way of understanding. She also has to learn how to mask her fear and behave with discretion when her foster parents take a huge risk and hide a Jewish man in their basement. This man shares her love of books and together they escape what has become of their world by stealing books.

This is a book about courage, friendship, kindness and compassion. The story has its share of sadness but it is a artfully written and uplifting childrens book that any adult would enjoy just as much.

English essayist and literary critic Walter Pater once said “Books are a refuge, a sort of cloistral refuge, from the vulgarities of the actual world.” A sentiment beautifully captured in The Book Thief.

Review Time: “Someday, Someday Maybe” by Lauren Graham

Probably like most of you, I choose books to read based on a variety of reasons and criteria. Life is just way too busy to research every book you think you’d like to read, and some of my very favorite books are ones I have purchased with very little forethought. Reasons to buy and read a particular book range from well-researched and thought out to ‘irresponsible waste of money’. A sampling:

  • Recommended by Indigo or Amazon (both of whom know me alarmingly well).
  • Recommended by friends/ family/ someone on the bus/ that guy with the fur hat who panhandles downtown and REALLY liked “The Corrections”
  • “If you spend $10 more, you get a 20% off coupon for your next visit”
  • Cover art, Cover font or just a funny title
  • “Heather’s Picks”
  • Filling a gap in my library (“Well,I don’t have any books about what it would be like to be the leader of a gang…”)

In case you didn’t recognise the name of the author, “Someday, Someday Maybe” was penned by Lauren Graham, the actress who played Lorelai Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls”-possibly the best T.V. show to have ever graced the W.B.

…and that’s why I read this book.

Seeing as Graham doesn’t write for Gilmore Girls I don’t know why I assumed that her snappy, entertaining dialogue from the show would be reflected in her writing, but I did, and I was a little disappointed. This book was just O.K.

“Someday, Someday maybe” has a cute premise, it is the story of a young woman coming to the end of her self-imposed 3 year deadline for making it big in the ‘business we call show’. The characters are somewhat relatable at times but a little one-dimensional, with back stories that are tacked on with little depth. The plot is simple but satisfying and the dialogue is clever but falls a little flat. I found myself a little bit bored and disengaged while reading this book.

There was one scene, a conversation between the lead character and her friend when I could see that “Gilmore Girls” spark, which makes me think that maybe if it was read out loud I might feel differently about the work. I could actually see this book doing well adapted into your typical rom-com movie, with the girl who falls down a lot (played by Taylor Swift in her acting debut) and the bumbling but supportive love interest (played by one of those Helmsworth boys). But as a book, I give it a “meh”. Get it from the library or wait for the inevitable movie.