Joshua Yang’s Book Reviews


“11/22/63” hardly fits into the genre Stephen King is most well-known for, yet this long, winding, sci-fi-historical mashup nevertheless showcases King as a versatile author capable of writing more than just horror fiction. “11/22/63” is first framed as a time travel story with an extremely simple premise: high school English teacher Jake Epping must travel to the date of President Kennedy’s assassination and prevent it from occurring. However, it is soon apparent that the bulk of the novel is dedicated to the years Epping lives through before 1963. Indeed, at times, the grim plot to avert the Kennedy assassination is almost completely ignored for a story brimming with heartfelt drama and charm. It’s at those moments that “11/22/63” truly shines.

A Farewell to Arms

The last words of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” are plain and simple: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” Outwardly, the words seem sloppy and poorly strung together with superfluous “ands” in defiance of conventional grammar. Yet by the end of all five sections of the novel, the final sentence resonates deeply and profoundly. In a way, the simplicity of Hemingway’s prose, especially in “A Farewell to Arms,” forms the appeal of this novel, which details the romance of an American ambulance driver and a British nurse in the Italian front of World War I. The emotional weight of the novel, combined with Hemingway’s prosaic descriptions of war, creates a beautifully gut-wrenching story.

The Alchemist

If the criteria to be considered a great work of literature is to be subtle yet complex, focused yet nuanced, “The Alchemist,” a novel by Paulo Coehlo, barely qualifies. The characters are simplistic, the language never overreaching; the plot, about a shepherd named Santiago in search of buried treasure, moves along at a steady, untroubled pace. Yet the true appeal of the novel lies in its deeply allegorical nature: central to Coehlo’s theme is a belief in the fulfillment of each person’s true purpose, a motif carried forth throughout the course of Santiago’s journey. The philosophical arguments made are admittedly laid bare for all to grasp, but maybe that’s the point: the accessible, easily understood nature of this novel is an accomplishment in and of itself.

When Breath Becomes Air

“When Breath Becomes Air” is the memoir of a brilliant doctor who is on the cusp of achieving all his dreams when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The memoir is a poignant reflection on the life of Dr. Paul Kalanthi. Part of it is autobiographical, yet interspersed throughout are philosophical musings and literary scraps collected from Kalanthi’s favorite authors. “When Breath Becomes Air,” then, isn’t a narrative of three decades of a life so much as it is a struggle to perfectly encapsulate one man’s philosophy about life and death in his final moments. Yes, this novel is heartbreaking and tears flow freely, but a certain solace is found in being able to understand Paul Kalanthi’s world, if for just a second. After all, that’s his legacy.

Of Mice and Men

Don’t be fooled by Steinbeck’s deceptively thin novella: “Of Mice and Men” possesses deep insights into human nature and a devastating yet all too inevitable ending. The story, which is set in California during the Great Depression, focuses on two migrant ranch hands, George and Lennie, who travel from in search of labor. George and Lennie have a seemingly impossible dream of purchasing their own land and dictating the course of their lives, yet a growing sense of dread develops as it becomes increasingly clear that their dream will never come to fruition. Indeed, the climax is entirely possible to anticipate, making it all the more heartbreaking.