Monday, November 28, 2011

Stephen King's 11/22/63

I admit it. I got hooked. I let Stephen King work his magic on me. I sat up until one o’clock in the morning to finish King’s massive new tale 11/22/63. It was worth every minute. Stephen King is a master story teller. He may be the greatest living American writer. Since the publication of Carrie in the 1970s, King has told many grisly and spooky tales which have kept many readers awake at night.
11/22/63 is the story of a Maine schoolteacher named Jake Epping. (Other than Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, no fictional world is as fully realized as Stephen King’s Maine. Like Faulkner, King weaves references to his earlier novels into this story). Jake’s alcoholic wife has recently divorced him, and Jake is all alone in the world. Jake teaches the adult G.E.D. classes. A janitor named Hank writes an essay telling about how his alcoholic father murdered Hank’s mother and siblings one Halloween night and how it changed his life for the worse. Jake has a friend named Al who runs a diner. Al has discovered that his pantry is really a portal to the past. Like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe if you keep walking toward the wall in Al’s pantry you eventually end in up in another world. Except in this case, it's always the same day in 1958. Al has been using the pantry doorway to go buy meat at 1958 prices and bring it back and sell it in 2011. Finally, Al gets the idea that he should use his doorway to the past for a greater purpose. What if he could go back in time and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963?
Al has gone back and tried to stop the assassination, but has contracted lung cancer. Even though he has spent years in the past, when he returns to the future it is only two minutes after he left. Al recruits his friend Jake to take up his mission to save John F. Kennedy. Part of Jake's mission is to make sure that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. King is convinced that Oswald acted alone. (King realizes that a conspiracy is actually comforting. A conspiracy means that a group of smart people planned the death of the President. The thought that one nut with a cheap rifle can change history is what's scary).
King spends the first several hundred pages of this 842 page novel setting his hook on the reader. You come to care about Jake and care about the subplots which King has masterfully woven into the story. 11/22/63 may also contain one of the best love stories of the last few years. While waiting to confront Oswald, Jake falls in love with a woman from the past. In fact, he may be willing to sacrifice the future for her . . .
As we all know from watching Star Trek, monkeying about with the past is a tricky business. Jake Epping finds out exactly how tricky. With his left-leaning politics, King realizes that keeping Kennedy alive is a liberal dream. King is also aware of the old adage, “be careful what you want, you might get it.”
King spends a good bit of time feeling nostalgic for the late fifties and early sixties. Everybody smoked without guilt. The milkman delivered real milk and real cream. Gas was cheap and plentiful and big gas guzzling cars were cool. The food tasted better and people left their back doors unlocked. There is also a dark side to what King calls “The Land of Ago.” There is racism and sexism and you can’t get instant answers from the internet. All in all, King likes the Land of Ago a lot better than “The Land of Ahead.” The Bad Catholic advice, gentle reader, is go get hooked. 11/22/63 is a haunting book that will give you much to ponder long after the telling of the tale is done. Let Fisherman King dangle the bait in front of you, and swallow it hook, line and sinker. Then sit back and let him reel you in. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been caught by a master.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Havah: The Story of Eve

The “Christian novel” has been the subject of much derision, including some gentle knocking from yours truly in a previous post.  However, the usual flaws of the “Christian novel” (which include plastic cardboard cutout characters who walk around holding Bible study at every opportunity) are not present in the book presently under consideration.  In fact, I cannot find enough good things to say about Havah: The Story of Eve (B&H Publishing Group, 2010) by Tosca Lee.

Author Tosca Lee

The basis of Ms. Lee’s novel is the first five chapters of the Book of Genesis.  Taking the Biblical narrative seriously, Lee weaves a compelling portrait of what the Garden of Eden must have been like for Adam and Eve (“Havah”) before the first sin was committed.  Her descriptions of life in paradise are imaginative and well conceived.  Ms. Lee’s well written conception of how the world must have changed after the Fall from Grace is some of the best imaginative fiction which I have read in a long time.

 An imaginative photo of author Tosca Lee

In scene after scene, Ms. Lee scores a home run in her narrative which Bible readers will find familiar but also very new.  The reader comes away with the feeling that if the Bible is taken literally this must be very close to what it was really like.

Tosca Lee with the "cowgirl" look

After the initial sin, Adam and Eve begin being repulsed by the killing of animals for clothing and the eating of meat.  As time goes on, however, these things become commonplace.  As their long lives go on, the memories of the Garden of Paradise grow dim.  As their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren become farther removed from God, sin and troubles increase.  And these troubles include disease and natural disasters.  Ms. Lee has brilliantly concocted a story in which the reader is made acutely aware that the world that we live in is not like God intended it to be.

Author Tosca Lee with the "Elvira Mistress of the Dark" look.

I was fascinated that the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Havah is described as a dragon.  This explains how God then changes the Serpent from a creature who walked and flew to a creature that wriggles on the ground.  Although dragons no longer exist, the memory of the dragon stays in the human consciousness to be incorporated into legend and depicted in art.  The dragon is depicted as a creature which was merely the manifestation of the fallen angel Satan.

Ms. Lee also weaves a lot of good theology into her narrative.  The idea is put forward that there is no morality without choice and, therefore, the tempter had to be in the garden of paradise.  Adam and Eve had to be given a choice whether to obey God or rebel, otherwise they had no true free will.  Their bad decision forever binds their descendants and warps the world they live in.

Being written from the first person point of view of the first woman, some will probably describe Havah as "chick lit."  Indeed, with its descriptions of what it is like to be pregnant, this book could probably only have been written by a woman.  In the relationship between Adam and Eve, the novel does have a kind of  "romance novel" feel to it.  However, this is definitely not a Harlequin Romance novel.

According to Wikepedia, the author, Tosca Lee, “was born on December 1969 in Roanoke, Virginia to Sang Moon Lee and Laura Moncrief.  Her father, a first-generation Korean who initially entertained dreams of becoming an opera tenor before he went on to establish himself as a leading academic in the area of business management, named her after his favorite Puccini opera, “Tosca.”  Ms. Lee was the winner of the Mrs. Nebraska beauty pageant for 1996 and a runner up in the Mrs. U.S.A. pageant.  As well as being a writer and a model, she also works for Gallup.  Read an interview with Tosca Lee here.

Ms. Lee is obviously a woman of many faces.

In traditional rabbinic Judaism, Midrash is a storytelling technique that seeks to understand the
Biblical text by telling stories to fill in the gaps left in the Biblical narrative.  It seems to me that this is what Ms. Lee’s novel really is: modern day Midrash.  Havah is a very enlightening and entertaining novel.  Highly recommended.

The mysterious "Girl Next Door" Look (Love the Black Fingernail Polish!)

Tosca Lee as Mrs. Nebraska 1996

The Bad Catholic loves the swim suit competition!