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THR's 5 Books of the Week: Stephen King, Formula One, Rock History, and Umberto Eco

Stephen King 11/22/63 Book Cover - P 2011

A time travel novel about JFK's assassination, a thriller about auto racing, and two music histories top the week.

The holiday book season heats up this week with an entertaining Stephen King time travel adventure, a fabulous book about the dangerous days of Formula One racing that is headed to the big screen, Umberto Eco’s esoteric thriller and two music histories that look at the rock era from different perspectives. Here are the week's five most important books: 

11/22/63 by Stephen King, Scribner, 864 pages, $34. Movie Rights to Jonathan Demme.

Deviating from his usual horror thrillers, King offers up a time travel story featuring an English teacher named Jake Epping, who travels from the present to 1958 to prevent President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and change the course of the 1960s. 

It's easy to see the classic King elements — well-developed characters, a familiar plot made fresh, a fantastic climax — that make him such a popular author in Hollywood and indeed Jonathan Demme is already working on a film adaptation. But there’s more here than the usual King — a deep humanity to the characters, an element of romance, and a thoroughly researched love of the period — that make this his best book in years.

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The only downsides? The length (864 pages) and that clunky title.

King’s stories have always featured a Norman-Rockwell-meets-The-Twilight-Zone vibe. 11/22/63 falls squarely on the Rockwell side in its nostalgia. The early reviews have been unanimously positive. Expect this book to not only appeal to loyal fans but crossover into new territory for King and become the hit novel of Christmas season.     

The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit by Michael Cannell, Twelve, 336 pages, and $25.99.  Movie rights to Tobey Maguire.

In 1961, Phil Hill became the first — and only native-born American — driver to win the Formula One Championship. The season was marred by one of the sport’s worst accidents: A multi-car collision at the 1961 Grand Prix of Italy that killed 13 spectators and the driver Count Wolfgang von Trips, Hill’s Ferrari teammate and main rival.

As Cannell makes clear, the accident was not an aberration. Formula One racing was incredibly dangerous in the early sixties, before things like seat belts and roll bars became mandatory equipment. In just the four years from 1957 and 1961, 14 drivers died in race accidents. Watching could be just as dangerous. Once a piece of a car’s hood flew off decapitating several spectators.

The Limit is full of drama, macho drivers and duplicitous team owners, including a wonderful portrait of Enzo Ferrari.  It brings alive an earlier thrilling period of a sport unfamiliar to most Americans.  Tobey Maguire snapped up the rights to develop the project at Columbia Pictures long before the book was published and if he can get it off the ground it could make a fantastic movie.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Music Made New in New York City in the ’70s by Will Hermes, Faber and Faber, 369 pages, $30.

New York’s music scene in the 1970s has been a hot topic this year, notably with the news that Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger are developing a period series for HBO.  Love Goes to Buildings on Fire focuses on the pivotal five-year period from New Year’s Day 1973 to New Year’s Eve 1977, when New York was an incubator of musical talent ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Grandmaster Flash to the Talking Heads. Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone, moves from the post-Dylan environs of Greenwich Village, to the arson-scarred urban wasteland of the South Bronx where hip-hop was invented, to the city’s legendary clubs like CBGBs.

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While others have written wonderfully about parts of the story, for example Jeff Chang’s great early history of hip-hop Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, no one has weaved as large or as vivid a tapestry of the New York music scene in the 1970s as Hermes.

The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield, Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, $30.

The Turkish-born, London-raised Ertegun, who died in 2006, changed American music when he founded Atlantic Records in 1947. Ertegun had fallen in love with American music as a child living in London where his father was the Turkish Ambassador. Atlantic signed some of the greatest names in Blues and Rock starting with Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner in 1952. Other acts on the Atlantic label included Bobby Darin; Sonny and Cher; Eric Clapton; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Led Zeppelin; the Rolling Stones; Bette Midler; and Kid Rock.

The Last Sultan concentrates mostly on the business side of the Ertegun’s life, leaving his well-known womanizing to a future biographer. Even with little personal gossip, Ertegun is a compelling figure, easily one of the two or three most important music impresarios of modern America. The early days, where he was trying to build a business, and the later years, where a 70-something Ertegun could still relate to young stars like Kid Rock, are the best parts. The middle, which is heavy on corporate intrigue and his conflicts with other moguls like David Geffen, sags. 

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, trans. from the Italian by Richard Dixon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, $27.

Eco’s new novel is the fictional history of the origins of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 19th century forgery that purported to show a Jewish plot to control the world. The story centers on Simone Simonini, an Italian spy, who Zelig-like finds himself at the center of the great European events of the late 1800s, slowly assembling what will become the Protocols.

The plot is full of esoteric conspiracy theories, arcane knowledge and convoluted plot twists that make Eco a love him or hate him proposition. The book is already a big but controversial hit in Europe, with sales topping a million copies and criticism of the plot from the Vatican newspaper and the chief rabbi of Rome.