I finished my June book in a week and a half. Whoops. That might be the easiest testament to how much of a page turner this 850-page thriller is.
For background- I am a huge Stephen King fan. I've read plenty of his novels over the years, and this one is easily in my top 3. It takes a different tone than my other favorites, with a bittersweet romance as one of the main plot lines. The historical novel starts in modern times but quickly transitions to the late 50s and early 60s as the main character, Jake Epping, is thrown into a mission to stop the Kennedy assassination. It was interesting that I chose to start this novel at this time because I was coincidentally coming off of a six episode bender of my favorite podcast discussing the Kennedy assassination. That being said, Mr. King did his research. Outside of the obvious moments where Jake interacts with Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, the facts King gives and incidents he describes are true to the best of my knowledge.
I also found a lot of relevance in this novel. On a personal note, the novel explores what it's like to leave behind the safety and comfort of your well known day-to-day in pursuit of a greater purpose, how we see the past not quite repeat itself but "harmonize", and how our actions now can have an impact on the future and those around us. As someone trying to decide next steps after completing my undergrad and leaving behind what I've known, this novel draws some surprising parallels and begs very real questions.
In regards to the current state of the world, the main character faces the question of whether good intentions can absolve a person of the repercussions of an objectively bad action, something relevant to today's witch-hunt culture. Jake also experiences people panic and truly believe that the cold war will be the end of the world. That there's no possible way America will survive past the early 60s. While Jake-from-the-future obviously knows that society and the world does survive past the 60s, for the people in that time it was very end-of-the-world. The optimist in me hopes that serves as a lesson for 2020: We've faced blow after blow and things don't seem to be looking up any time soon. But if we've survived the end of the world before, we'll make it through another faux-pocalypse.
As I mentioned, I admire Mr. King's work; I have since I started reading him. However, this novel, more than his others in my opinion, highlighted a problem that persists in a lot of literature: men trying to write women. Almost every woman in this novel, from a love interest to a random lady on a bus, gets a multi-sentence descriptor, all of which is primarily focused on her appearance. Most young women, Oswald's wife included, are described from the top to the bottom: her long and slender legs that leave men hoping her skirt slides up a little more, her ample bosom (you have no idea how many times the word "bosom" is used. I've never once heard that in real-life speech), her alluring eyes, and all those other descriptors that lead to a slight objectification of a person.
Women who aren't conventionally pretty get descriptors such as portly, fat, lumbering, and other witch-like synonyms. If men were described with the same eye, sure, that could make sense. But as far as I can recall, I never read more than a few words about a man's appearance, other than whispy white hair or stout. Most of the male descriptions are characteristically relevant, like Oswald's discomforting smile, or a character's limp that is directly related to his backstory. But descriptions of men's tantalizing muscles to compliment the bosoms we hear all about? The sexy way a man might smile to get a girl the same way he describes a woman's eyes as naturally flirtatious? Never.
Obviously Mr. King is very successful in his career, and it's his artistic liberty to write how he wants. Maybe it stems from the fact that the book is written from a man's perspective by a man. But, Steve, at least give the genders equal treatment. Stop putting a magnifying glass on the 50% of the population that identify as women and describing the other 50% with their personality and career-related qualities. I'm not saying that none of the women have heroic qualities or exhibit bravery, because there absolutely are moments like that. But with most of the leading cast being straight white men, there is some work that could be done. We are more than long legs tantalizingly obscuring our garters, after all.
While the book looks intimidating at a glance, I had trouble putting it down from start to finish. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone, even with my aforementioned criticism (there are moments of love over beauty, to Mr. King's credit). Because of this, I don't want to put any spoilers in this review. But if you want a historical fiction filled with big questions, espionage, murder, and romance, this is the book for you.
Regardless of what the book says (you'll have to find out yourself), that still does leave one looming question that we may never truly have the answer to- did Oswald really act on his own?
I cannot recommend this book enough.
Michelle is an absolute icon in her own right, but there are so many things the general public doesn't know about her, and so many things that go underappreciated. She even touches on it in the memoir- sometimes news articles would mention that she was "Harvard-educated", but other than that, she was reduced to "Barack Obama's wife". This page-turner follows Michelle from her humble South Side of Chicago beginnings all the way through the day they left the White House for the last time.
In-between those landmark moments, Michelle unpretentiously describes how she used education, love, and hope to blossom from an anonymous black girl in a big city to a beacon of hope for women, children, and the black community not only in the nation she served as the First Lady, but on a global scale.
I have always liked Michelle Obama- I think, like many do, that she made the first family and politics seem a lot more relatable and reachable- they weren't above us, they were one of us. Whether people saw the side of Michelle that loved children and worked hard to improve America on her own agenda, or people viewed her as an "angry black woman" and couldn't stand the sight of someone in one of the most repressed groups in the nation have one of the most powerful voices in the nation, everyone knew that she was a shining and driving force in our country.
Becoming, however, takes us into those intimate moments that I'm sure she couldn't have shown in her White House residency. She talks about facing your child's first fever and the fears that all new parents have, she opens the doors into how you have to work twice as hard to get anywhere when you're black, or a woman, let alone both, and the criticism one faces just for being born into one of these groups. She earnestly writes about her dislike for politics, and her reservations regarding Barack even running for President. Most relatable to me, she mulls over the difficulty of finding your own path in life, and the struggle to define yourself when you're surrounded by equally empowered people, how she chose what sacrifices to make and which ones she wouldn't give up on to strike a balance between Barack's political career, her family, and her own ambitions.
Throughout the book I felt Michelle was more humanized than ever. We see glimpses of her most powerful achievements and times when she couldn't hold it together any longer. She teaches us that even someone as powerful as the FLOTUS is still human. Regardless of if you're a child in an underfunded elementary school, a paralyzed combat veteran, or quite possibly the most powerful man in the world, through education and optimism, she advocates, we can inspire others and work together to make a change.
I don't think I could have chosen a better time to read this book. This moment in US history, in my personal history, is filled with uncertainty, filled with social justice movements, filled with fear at the current state of our nation, filled with concern for what the next step might be. What Michelle taught me is how to make the best of what you're given, how to always strive for more and strive for better, how to love thy neighbor, and most relevant to my life, how to prioritize your ambitions and never lose sight of your dreams or what makes you you.
Thank you, Michelle.