On the bookshelf: February 2015

Last month’s reviews… 

John F Kennedy (via Wikimedia Commons)

John F Kennedy (via Wikimedia Commons)

A while back, I was watching TV and RTE’s excellent series Reeling in the Years came on. Non-Irish readers, the concept of this show is achingly simple. It selects a year, puts together its top stories and its biggest hits, summing up with simple captions. It’s a huge nostalgia trip (I was thrilled when they got around to the 00s). It’s also an effective way to educate yourself about recent history. A lecturer in my Masters told us not to bother reading up about Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald and all the 80s political scraps that journalism students are supposed to know all about. Reeling In the Years would see us through. It’s available from the RTE site to buy if I’ve convinced you enough.

Anyway, the year that came on was 1963. Amid a housewives’ protest and ads for Erin frozen vegetables, one face stood out. It was John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s. That was the year he visited Ireland, his ancestral home. He told us that the Irish thought of things that never were and asked why not, while standing at repurposed music stand (now on view in the Little Museum of Dublin). While that concept sounded far more American than Irish, we were- and are, I suppose- in no position to quibble. JFK pressed the flesh in Limerick and Galway. He had tea with his relations in Wexford. He never looked in the least bit concerned about his security.

Later that year, he was shot dead in Dallas, Texas.

One Texan struck me on my last viewing of Reeling in the Years.

He’s –or quite likely, was- a big man. He looks like a man who works with his hands. He may have been a farmer in Dallas to see the President. Maybe he was a labourer or a tradesman. Maybe he didn’t vote for Kennedy (many Texans didn’t). But he describes what he saw, and he cries. He cries like a person not used to crying. He’s  in his late forties or early fifties in 1963. He had surely seen plenty of tough times, but seeing his president shot in front of him is clearly one of the worst.

The Texan came back to me several times while reading 11/22/63, a Stephen King novel equal to any of his classics.

Jake Epping is a recently-divorced high-school English teacher in small-town Maine. He doesn’t have a bad life, although he’s still hurting from his alcoholic wife leaving him for someone she met in AA. He teaches a GED (adult education class) and is touched by one of his pupil’s essays; Harry Dunning is the school’s slightly lamed, intellectually challenged janitor. In his effort to gain his high-school diploma, Harry writes about the night his life changed. On Hallowe’en night, 1958, his father attacked the family with a sledgehammer, killing Harry’s mother, brothers and sister, and leaving Harry with brain damage. When Harry earns his diploma, Jake takes him out to Al Templeton’s burger joint to celebrate. Jake and Al become friends, and later, revealing that he is dying, Al tells him the secret of where he’s been getting all that cheap mince.

There’s a wormhole outside the diner that leads to September 1958. Al has been on a mission; to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy, and thereby curtail the Vietnam War, save Robert Kennedy and maybe even Martin Luther King. Now he has lung cancer, he won’t be able complete it, so he asks Jake to save Kennedy. It will have to be his last trip into the past, too; as every time the wormhole is re-entered, any changes to the past are erased.

Jake reluctantly agrees, but he sees an opportunity; he can save Harry’s family before he saves Kennedy. And so begins Jake’s adventure in mid-20th century America.

There’s no doubt that King has a love for the cars, sounds and aesthetic of the era, but he doesn’t stint from showing us the brutality of the past, especially regarding race. Jake (rechristened George Amberson) soon finds that changing the past isn’t easy, and not always advisable. When he falls in love with librarian Sadie Dunhill, an extra layer of complexity is added; especially as Jake sometimes absent-mindedly sings songs that haven’t been written yet.

Jake drives a Ford Sunliner (via Wikimedia Commons)

Jake drives a Ford Sunliner (via Wikimedia Commons)

King has meticulously researched the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, but the prose wears this very lightly. It’s a heart-thumping, thrilling read, especially as the plot hurtles towards Dallas and the fateful date of November 22, 1963.

The end is a true heart-breaker. The senseless tragedy of Kennedy’s death (King believes Oswald acted alone) is something that America, and the world, must live with. For Jake too, there’s only heartbreak. One of King’s most powerful and intelligent novels.

In 11/22/63, Jake briefly worries that he might have some bizarre brain disorder, like a patient of Dr Oliver Sacks. By coincidence, I picked up Dr Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat  in February. This casebook of some intriguing neurological cases includes a man convinced he is living in 1945, twins autistic mathematical geniuses, and a man who has Tourettes at the weekend.

First published in 1985, it’s a must-read for anyone who is interested in our brains and how they can alter the fabric of our experience. Sacks’s writing is very accessible overall. He has empathy for his patients, and one fascinating case study is of an autistic boy, neglected and ignored, who has a talent for drawing. Some of the cases are very affecting, and linger long in the memory.

Dr Oliver Sacks (via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Oliver Sacks (via Wikimedia Commons)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is not quite the equal of his brilliant second novel, Middlesex, but it’s a haunting and compulsive read. It’s ’70s suburban America, and the five Lisbon sisters are adored from afar by their neighbours, and kept inside by their paranoid mother and weak-willed father. When Cecilia kills herself, the girls’ lives begin to disintegrate, and all five end up dead by suicide. (Not a spoiler, it’s in the title, although the first portion is less accurate).

Narrated in the first person plural by the boys who worshipped the Lisbon girls from afar, the style can take a bit of getting used to. The book is slow-moving and if you like a plot, you’ll be disappointed- the girls kill themselves, exactly as we were told they would.

Despite its slight size, the novel does feel a bit dragged-out towards the end. It’s a strange, unsettling tale, with more questions than answers- were the girls an urban myth? Are the speakers themselves long dead, or is the tale coming from somewhere in their subconscious? A fascinating, melancholy read.

Finally, Joanne Harris’ Jigs and Reels is a fun, darkly comic collection of short stories. Like all such books, it can be a bit uneven at times, but there are some highlights; ‘Class of ’81’ details a school reunion for a school of witchcraft, and it’s great fun. ‘Al and Christine’s World of Leather’ is hilarious, as ‘Gastronomicion’, a tale of a very interesting cookbook.

There are old ladies who breakfast at Tesco’s rather than Tiffany’s, aggressive road hogs, and an insurance salesman who learns you can’t always trust the odds. Harris’ quirky imagination sees the weird in the everyday, and it’s a easy, entertaining read.

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