- Links to all previous posts about Big Books are available here.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Hardcover, 842 pages
Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high school English teacher in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. To earn some extra money, he also teaches English to adult GED students. The only other activity in his life is moping around and lamenting the recent divorce from his short-term alcoholic wife. At least he doesn’t have to track her down and go drag her home from some bar any more.
So when Al Templeton, owner of the local diner, asks Jake if he’s willing to take on a secret mission, Jake’s interest is piqued. Al confides to Jake that, at the rear of the diner, there’s a portal that leads to a day in 1958. Al himself has gone through the portal and back several times, so he knows that the passage through always leads to the same day. Also, no matter how long he has stayed in the past, when he returns he has always been gone from the present (2011) for exactly two minutes.
Al believes that the greatest disaster of modern history was the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When he discovered the time portal, he decided to go back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK. Al has spent years researching Oswald’s life and movements, but now he’s dying of lung cancer and can’t finish the job. Would Jake be willing to see the mission through?
After a few trial runs into the past and back, Jake agrees. Armed with Al’s notebook of information on Oswald, he goes back to 1958 with the plan of ending up in Dallas on 11/22/63. He drives through the land of Long Ago and settles down in a small town in Texas to make his preparations. He becomes George Amberson, who begins substitute teaching at the local high school, falls in love with the new school librarian, and finds a life much more satisfying than the one Jake Epping left behind in Lisbon Falls.
Will George/Jake be able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if he succeeds, how will subsequent history unfold?
Stephen King excels at using details to create interesting characters and to build narrative worlds. 11/22/63 presents him at his storytelling best.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
paperback, 679 pages
Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.”
The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.
The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
paperback, 521 pages
I liked this big book so much that I’ve read it twice. Goodreads describes the book as “a richly layered and uniquely rewarding experience,” and it is indeed that. Combining elements of mystery, gothic suspense, and science fiction, the novel explores family relationships, economic and political history, and social conscience through its story-within-a-story narrative structure. If you like to peel back the layers of your fiction to get at the central truth, you’ll love this masterpiece.
For more information, see this post.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
hardcover, 546 pages
Grosset and Dunlap, Illustrated Junior Library ed.
There’s not much left to say about this well known and beloved classic. For many of us born in the mid-twentieth century, this was the introduction to a world of women’s culture and experiences, led by the fiesta Jo, who has ideas of a life bigger than the constraints of woman’s proper place.
A Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
hardcover, 623 pages
Blackstone Audio, 2008
I listened to the audiobook—all 27 hours and 29 minutes of it—of this giant tome by Tom Wolfe. The novel tells the story of wealthy and aristocratic Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy.
From the publisher’s summary:
A car accident in the Bronx involving Sherman, his girlfriend, and two young lower-class black men sets a match to the incendiary racial and social tensions of 1980s New York City. Suddenly, Sherman finds himself embroiled in the most brutal, high-profile case of the year, as prosecutors, politicians, the press, the police, the clergy, and assorted hustlers rush in to further their own political and social agendas. With so many egos at stake, the last priority on anyone’s mind is truth or justice in this bitingly hilarious American satire.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
hardcover, 512 pages
Set at a small liberal arts college on the shore of Lake Michigan, this novel features the intersecting lives of five people. The central character is Henry Skrimshander, a player on the college baseball team who dreams of a big league career. Henry most prized possession is a beat-up old book called “The Art of Fielding,” which offers philosophical advice on how to succeed on the baseball diamond—and, by extension, in life.
At times, reading this book felt like a process that was taking longer than necessary. But, hey, it’s about baseball, a game that I love but that also can seem like it’s going on forever. The book could have been a bit shorter, but then it wouldn’t have qualified as a Big Book.
For more Big Book recommendations, see Rioters’ First Doorstopper Books.
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown