Friday, January 27, 2012

Changing The Past

Do I really want to read a Stephen King novel? Especially when it's 849 pages long? I'm not a fan of the fantasy/horror genre, so in all honesty I had never read a King book. But years ago (Wikipedia reveals that it was in 1990) he wrote a wonderful essay in The New Yorker called “Heads Down” about his son's Little League baseball team. I thought it was one of the best pieces of baseball writing I'd read in a long time (and I do love baseball) and I vowed to try to read something else by him.

Twenty-two years intervened before I revisited that vow. And it took a book title that resonates strongly for anyone of a certain age to make me tackle his latest novel. The premise is a monumental 'what if'. What if you could go back in time and undo the assassination of JFK on 11/22/63?

That's the challenge that faces high school teacher Jake Epping when a dying diner owner in Lisbon Falls, Maine shows him a rabbit hole/portal in his storeroom that leads to the Lisbon Falls of September 9, 1958. The rules are simple, and laid out early in the story, so this is not a spoiler. First, no matter how much time you spend in the past, when you travel back to the diner of 2011 only two minutes will have elapsed. Second, if you travel back in time again, everything you did on your previous visit will be erased. In addition, Jake has to consider the butterfly effect – what are the ripple effects of any change he makes to history?

Fortunately for me, King spends not much time on the fantasy/supernatural portion of this dilemma, and far more time on its more human aspects. There are some sluggish passages while King navigates Jake from 1958 to 1963, as he simultaneously tracks Lee Harvey Oswald's movements and falls in love, but there's plenty of suspense as well. King creates a poignant love story, a valentine to the simpler 1950's of big cars, rock and roll music, and rotary phones, and a thoughtful examination of the power of friendship and the persistence of evil.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Life on the Stage

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I am sometimes attracted to biographies about people I find intriguing. That was the case with Julie Salamon's Wendy and the Lost Boys:The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein. I admire Wasserstein's plays, especially her Pulitzer and Tony winning “The Heidi Chronicles”, but what really piqued my interest was an essay she wrote for The New Yorker describing how, at the age of forty-eight, she underwent in vitro fertilization and gave birth (three months prematurely) to her daughter Lucy Jane. It was written in such an honest and open way that I felt as if I knew her. And I was shocked when just seven years later she died of lymphoma.

Salaman traces Wasserstein's life from her comfortable childhood in Brooklyn and Manhattan, through her years at Mount Holyoke and Yale Drama School, to her successes and failures in the theater and in her personal life. She was a larger than life character, a mainstay of the New York theater community, a woman with a huge network of devoted friends. And yet it is clear from Salamon's account that although many friends thought they knew her well, each knew only a piece of Wendy.

The characters in her plays were often conflicted and insecure, trying to please their families, find their soul mates, achieve their ambitions – all with a bracing sense of humor. Clearly they reflected Wasserstein's own psyche. Salamon's biography captures the many facets of this complex women.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Three From a Master

Anita Desai has been an acclaimed fiction writer for nearly fifty years, and I'm embarrassed to say that the only Desai book I have ever read is by her daughter Kiran (“The Inheritance of Loss”). So her latest book of three novellas – The Artist of Disappearance – seemed a good place to start.

The three stories, all set in India, have no characters or settings in common, but they deal in different ways with the same theme – the survival of art in a world where traditional and modern cultures clash. In each story a member of the modern community is exposed to art (and in two cases an artist) from a more rural or traditional milieu, and is forced to make decisions about its fate.

Desai lets these stories unfold slowly, painting the fascinating landscapes of rural India as she subtly fills in her characters' complexities. I liked all three stories but I was especially moved by “Translator Translated” in which a mediocre university professor finds new richness in her life when she translates a work by an obscure author she admires, but then must face the consequences when her ambition distorts her judgment.

Desai asks hard questions and gives no simple answers. Her prose is lucid, understated and a pleasure to read.