When author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your rel...moreWhen author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your relationship with the Bible." This tends to be the first question I want to ask anyone who identifies as both homosexual and Christian. Perhaps, in terms of a person's walk with God, it is not the most important issue. Still, as a former Mormon Christian and a devout agnostic, it's the most pressing question in my mind. My decision to commit to an agnostic lifestyle was directly precipitated a few years ago when I sought to re-read the Bible.
Mr. Chu responded to my request with a wonderfully thoughtful answer, reflecting the keen observations and nuanced analysis readers will find in his book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? Jeff said he has a great respect for the Bible. (So do I.) He said he loved the poetry of the King James Version. (Preach it!) Then he spoke of the difficulties of conveying meaning, especially filtered through translation. (Hallelujah, Brother!) He astutely described how even with contemporary writing people often miss the point, sometimes willfully misreading text. (Amen!)
However, as Jeff wrapped up his response to me, I gathered that he is less willing than I am to take a clear stand on the Bible's various injunctions regarding sexual morality. (For the record, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalizing gay marriage.) Yet, Jeff never came around to saying what I believe--that whole sections of the Bible are horrifically archaic by any reasonable interpretation, and in consequence it is irresponsible to patronize politically active organizations that persist in marketing the anthology as inerrant. Shucks! I was hoping he had the same opinion I do. Nevertheless, I bought Jeff's book and had him sign it.
"Dear Jake, God Bless You!" reads his personalized autograph on the title page. Thank you, Jeff.
Does Jesus Really Love Me has a great deal of depth with regard to unpacking the larger issues and comparing the various factions Jeff encountered on his "pilgrimage". This is a work of non-fiction, but there is a story arc built in around two people: 1) the author; and 2) a closeted homosexual in Nevada called Gideon. Over the course of the book, I came to see organized Christianity as the well-intentioned antagonist. The tension plays out between individuals and the collective. Most of the time the focus is on relationships, not theology.
The longer I live as an agnostic, the harder time I have sympathizing with people of faith, especially people who persist in practicing religions that oppose their lifestyle. I sometimes forget that many homosexuals are motivated by a genuine Christian spirituality. They have felt the burning in the bosom; they have heard the “still small voice” after praying about Jesus. This book gives them a greater voice.
Yet, Does Jesus Really Love Me is not a one-sided analysis. The stories and heartfelt perspectives of fundamentalist Christians are also examined. There are several fascinating passages rendered as oral histories, where the interviewee speaks at length and uninterrupted. These include a passage of reflection by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard. This diversity of perspectives should ensure that any reader, me a prime example, will find himself alternately validated and challenged in his current opinions.
Jeff's book does have one key limitation--a point on which it opts for exclusivity instead of inclusiveness. He limits his pilgrimage to Protestantism. The question of if Protestantism is the sole synonym for authentic Christianity is one I won't debate here. Through personal study and frequent debates during my Mormon mission, I came to appreciate the theological distinctions whereby Protestants often claim they alone are authentic Christians. However, this denominational focus does mean that people coming from other versions of Christianity will find their traditions neglected by Jeff's tome.
That is arguably a minor criticism though. There are so many gems of humanity in Does Jesus Really Love Me? The insights are keen and affecting. Take this one from Episcopal bishop Mary Glasspool, after realizing her sexual status had become a newspaper headline:
"I feel like only one aspect of the complexity of the person I am is being singled out."
In a world with an Internet, where we repeatedly post our beliefs in an attempt to drown out dissent, Jeff's book has the potential to be an antidote. You cannot read it fairly without setting aside your assumptions and giving your full attention to people with different perspectives. For that reason in particular, I highly recommend reading Does Jesus Really Love Me?(less)
When I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park so...moreWhen I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park somewhere. Next to the park was a nondescript trail. At least, it all seemed nondescript to me at the time. At some point that day a hiker with a lot of gear emerged from the nearby trail. He asked me if he could purchase a meal from our gathering. Turns out he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. To this day I wonder if he made it.
Last month I grabbed a free copy of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods off a table of periodicals at my local coffee shop. The book had been chosen by a local wellness and library contingent for an event called 5H Community Read. (The H is for health and the 5 is for the number of local towns participating.) Lots of folks like me are reading and sharing copies of the book. Various activities are being held. Good times and a very good book!
Bryson's travelogue centers on his tackling of the famed Appalachian Trail. The trail ends up tackling him. While the book lacks supporting pictures, it does not lack for vivid imagery and a large supply of anecdotes calculated to leave readers laughing or groaning with empathy. In a handful of cases, it also left me thoroughly spooked. This is highly accessible and engaging storytelling. I binge-read the last half as if I was at a campfire and did not want to go to sleep. Just stay on the trail a bit longer and tell me more about being there, I wanted to say to Bryson.
I highly recommend this book as a piece of Americana first and hiking second. This is a character-based narrative with universal appeal, not a technical primer for hikers. I found it as riveting as the many Everest books I have read. Best of all, it is the kind of book that sparks conversation. Read it, share it, and then reflect with other readers. (less)
Unlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engr...moreUnlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engrossing and often quite intense. Author Kevin Fedarko captures the high stakes nature of this historic time in the Grand Canyon's history. He ably pulls together a wide variety of sources to accurately convey the story. The task is challenging given that many incidents happened amid chaos and tend to be scantily documented and skewed by legend loving.
My only gripe is the effusive nature of Fedarko's prose. Restatement gives way to overstatement, and his unmistakable love for the subject matter sometimes runs wild like the rapids in the canyon. His musings on the wooden boats preferred by elite river guides for example, or any of several aria-like passages of reflection. Such unbridled romanticism captures the sentiments of the players; however, it also sometimes gums up otherwise efficiently engineered reportage.
Here is one example from the Epilogue, not the most verbose, but certainly characteristic of the author getting carried away:
"As this new generation ran the river together, the ferocious clashes of the past--motors versus oars, rubber versus wood--fell away and were forgotten, and everyone became friends."
I could forgive every word up to and including "forgotten" as common positivism laced with hyperbole. But when Fedarko asserts universal friendship, he claims the unlikely existence of a utopia.
Nevertheless, one of the things which The Emerald Mile effectively relates is the tension between various groups who are inextricably tied to the Grand Canyon. In particular, the book recounts volatility between the free-spirited river culture and the bureaucratic--though similarly idealistic--society of Glen Canyon Dam. And it is in exploring these tensions that the novel achieves true depth from which every reader can draw meaning and appreciation.
Selling Point: The Emerald Mile comes with a great deal of bibliographic material sure to be helpful for readers who want to pursue further reading about the Grand Canyon. (less)
I was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal d...moreI was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal descriptions, I had to choose a book covered in construction paper, check it out, and take it home before seeing the cover. Even after learning which book I had chosen, I did not experience love at first sight.
This book details a serial killing spree in the recent history of Italy. While the material was unavoidably engrossing, it took me about half the book to truly connect with the players and the struggle. Part of the challenge, pointed out by coauthor Douglas Preston, is the issue of the killer never being revealed or caught. However, I also felt Part One of the book relied too much on impersonal fact recitation. The cumulative effect was a sense of detachment from the personal tragedy in deference to an exhaustive outline. The considerable upside is the comprehensive nature of the authors' research.
The Monster of Florence almost could be understood as two books. The first provides a straightforward rendering of the history. The second part deals with the emotional and professional fallout for the authors. If Part One is the chalk outline of the victim, Part Two is the victim's remains. Moving and spine tingling interviews occur in the second half which enabled me to develop a strong emotional connection. Perhaps the most mesmerizing passage occurs in Chapter 36, as coauthor Mario Spezi recounts a monk offering penetrating insights into mental illness and the nature of evil. Here is only a snippet:
"Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood."
Was my blind date with The Monster of Florence good enough to merit another date? Yes and no. It definitely rekindled my interest in the true crime genre. It also reminded me how this genre is a bay window view of our whole society. I may not return to the works of these two authors right away, but they have succeeded in strengthening my enthusiasm for excellent long-form journalism. This book is worth getting to know.(less)
This is the second instructional book on Photoshop I have explored. Specifically, it covers Photoshop CS5. It does not strike me as a book for novice...moreThis is the second instructional book on Photoshop I have explored. Specifically, it covers Photoshop CS5. It does not strike me as a book for novice users; certainly the printed portion of this publication is not. For context, I would describe myself as having an intermediate level knowledge of Photoshop. So the book was right at my knowledge level, offering a great deal of review but also insights into tools and techniques I had not yet considered.
The videos on CD, which make up the bulk of the content, are more user-friendly than the text. They are also more comprehensive, laid out in a fashion that underscores the virtues of non-destructive editing and logical work flow. I especially appreciated the segments dedicated to Camera Raw, which is an essential tool in my use of Photoshop at work.
Unfortunately I did not get to try all the videos as I had to get my copy back to the local library. However, on the basis of going through all the printed material, and perhaps a fifth of the videos, I do recommend this manual to Photoshop users wishing to achieve confidence and a broad knowledge of the CS5 version. Had I purchased this manual instead of borrowing it, I would feel I got my money's worth.(less)
For all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,...moreFor all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, one quote from a critic of the religion bugs me most. In Chapter 7, a German labor minister named Norbert Blum says, “This is not a church or a religious organization. Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings.” I appreciate his sentiment; however, “machine for manipulating human beings” strikes me as an apt description of religion, albeit an undiplomatic one. It also makes for a good definition of fraternities, sororities, corporations, political parties, really any organization motivated by self-interest that sets out to sculpt whole societies.
I came to Lawrence Wright’s new book by way of having appreciated his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on al Qaeda in The Looming Tower. Going Clear has proved a less satisfying read, though not for lack of quality. Wright’s work continues to be first-rate long form journalism. He brings together copious amounts of new research, while providing thoughtful analysis of extant source material. Nevertheless, the book is dissatisfying and at times outright dismaying.
My dissatisfaction stems from the impossibility of achieving a complete and factual narrative. A clear picture inevitably remains hidden underneath a mountain of hearsay, slander, counter-slander, and unverifiable speculation by persons actually willing to give interviews. My dismay stems from almost everything Wright is able to verify. For all that is shocking or maddeningly esoteric about Scientology, it proves to be just the latest in an ever lengthening line of religions which pursue existential comfort at any cost: financial or intellectual. I write this as someone with a great deal of personal experience in religion.
It’s a credit to Wright that he can sift through the intellectual rubble, uncover so many troubling instances of ruined lives, all the while keeping a level head and coming back to the larger picture. And the larger picture must grant Scientology and its members some merit and understanding. Wright is able to confront the darker episodes but then pull back to remind worked-up readers like me that many in the church have harnessed the religion to attain fulfilling lives.
Wright is especially successful in making sense of Scientology’s fanatical crusade against psychiatry—a seeming hatred that comes to a head with Tom Cruise’s notorious on-air squabble with Today host Matt Lauer. Wright points out more than once the troubling underbelly of psychiatry, from its early and painful experimenting to its current reliance on profit-driven pharmacology. The fear and apprehension of Scientologists toward psychiatry, though hypocritical, is not entirely misplaced.
Where Going Clear achieves great value is in its perceptive and heartfelt portrayals of John Travolta and Paul Haggis (now an ex-Scientologist). The latter, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Crash and Million Dollar Baby, emerges as the book's protagonist. Wright has a tougher time pinning down founder L. Ron Hubbard, current leader David Miscavige, and cultural icon Tom Cruise. With these men, who lived or live cloistered behind public relations machines, Wright can do little more than report the wealth of critical testimony about them, while dutifully footnoting the blanket denials provided by these men’s spokespersons.
The notion of belief as a prison can seem disheartening, but Wright makes a strong and carefully documented case that it is often just that. Readers of every persuasion will be given much to think about if they read Going Clear. Though it is not a fun or uplifting work, the book candidly relates the pitfalls Scientology has created for itself and its opponents. Ultimately it is an all too familiar tale of religion in pursuit of the best but often winding up at the worst. (less)
When I took a Freshman-level Physics class in college, basically Astronomy 101, I was still a practicing Mormon. The highly enjoyable class played no...moreWhen I took a Freshman-level Physics class in college, basically Astronomy 101, I was still a practicing Mormon. The highly enjoyable class played no distinct role in my choice to leave formal religion and live agnosticism. On the contrary, in the closing weeks of the course, as we delved deeper and further into cosmology, I was impressed by how much room serious science leaves for the existence of god…or at least a godlike force that behaves according to law.
Reading professor and blogger Adam Frank’s book About Time brought me back to those fundamental ruminations on how/if the universe began, and does/will it ever end. However, this book is not an easy read. Many of its chapters are far from user friendly. Nevertheless, free from intellectual obligations to a church, and buoyed by Frank’s balanced approach to competing theories, I had a positive and enlightening experience reading About Time.
The first half of this book is as much a history lesson as a scientific discourse. Frank speaks of a Big Bang of human consciousness that occurred far back in our history, a time when our ancestors became capable of metaphorical thinking. Metaphor and illustrations are two of Frank’s essential tools in making quantum physics remotely understandable. We have come a long way from eras when our ancestors lived according to solar or lunar cycles. Yet we find ourselves in a similar place, on the cusp of a new era of understanding and discovery, led on by prophets (now of math and physics) who promise us the truth is just over the horizon. Though, unlike religion, science doesn’t sell itself with faith.
About Time often drifts into academic speak, utilizing phrases and word choices germane to the university but not to everyday conversation. A key term Frank relies on is material engagement. It speaks to how our notions of time and space are informed and altered by what we build and the culture that results. Stonehenge is an example of material engagement. But in Frank’s book, these rock-hard object lessons soon give way to ever more abstract discussions of gravity, space-time, relativity, and the maddeningly counter-intuitive quantum physics.
As the book drifts into increasingly complex theory that only, purportedly, makes sense to the theorists who know the math, About Time drifts further away from its titular focus: time. This is not accidental. Frank isn’t wandering. Rather, he arrives at a chapter where a scientist theorizes that time does not even exist. It isn’t that crazy of a notion, especially since Einstein proved time is at least relative.
About Time has a carefully constructed narrative. But I strongly suggest taking notes to follow it. Frank often calls back to previous chapters. There is a great deal of braiding in this book, braiding of similar theories and braiding of culture with cosmology. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you are not a scientist and lack the mathematical training. Fortunately, Frank is a gracious author willing to make explicit the limitations of present scientific theory.
Now here’s the irony this book provides. Physicists who try to sell you string theory, or the supposed existence of a multiverse, are asking you to accept as reality something that at present cannot be physically tested, may never be observable by humans, and which has as its only evidence the writings of believers. Sound familiar?
Granted the true believers of string theory are a highly trained academy. They submit their work to rigorous peer review and generally encourage skepticism and scrutiny. Nevertheless, in granting how far out some of theoretical physics is, Frank sheds light on the considerable difficulty of making deep science intelligible to the layman.
Reading About Time is the hardest I’ve yet tried to wrap my mind around quantum physics. Saying I barely succeeded is generous. Still, Frank ably furthers a discussion that needs to happen, and needs to be made intelligible to the public. He speaks thoughtfully to the enticements and limits of current and popular theories of science. All of these have direct implications for how our species navigates what we call the future, and how we frame our values and priorities against both the known and supposed universes heretofore conceived. (less)
I am a big fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his arguments for increasing NASA's budget to ramp up space exploration efforts. As such, I'm not inclin...moreI am a big fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his arguments for increasing NASA's budget to ramp up space exploration efforts. As such, I'm not inclined to do a conventional review. Suffice it to say, Tyson is one of the preeminent voices advocating for space exploration. He also has an engaging writing style, a great sense of humor, and well-honed arguments worth considering. So I strongly recommend reading this collection of essays and interviews.
On the lighter side, here is a blog piece I did that involves my copy of Dr. Tyson's book and, well...a cat.
Adobe Creative Suite 5 is more than just software. It comprises the tools of an entire craft. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I undertook to lear...moreAdobe Creative Suite 5 is more than just software. It comprises the tools of an entire craft. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I undertook to learn several of the applications, including Photoshop CS5. At times, using this software has been overwhelming.
Almost as overwhelming is this book, Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual. I borrowed it from my library for a personal crash course in Photoshop. Thankfully, author Lesa Snider leads with an affable, empathetic writing style. As she explains the hundreds of tools and panels in Photoshop, she keeps in mind her readers’ varying levels of knowledge. She even encourages you to skim or skip sections that likely don’t apply--depending on your specialties.
If you want to make a serious effort at becoming fluent in Photoshop, especially if you intend to use it professionally, I believe this book is worth owning (provided you buy the right edition of Photoshop—that’s CS5 in this case). The book offers not only relevant exercises but lots of reference material you can hope to memorize in one read-through. Again, it's worth owning.
Getting through this book took me a couple of months, even with skimming a few sections that didn’t apply to me. Now I have incorporated a lot of new knowledge and am already applying it in my job. Using this book was a decision I don’t regret. (less)
By way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him as...moreBy way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him as an iconic American actor. The first time I watched he and Paul Newman go into haunting freeze frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is etched in my mind. My parents used The Natural as a practical tool for schooling me in allegory. While a college student in Utah, I felt the Redford mystique grow during regular trips into Salt Lake City to watch indie films, including a Sundance Film Festival screening.
Robert Redford the book provided big discoveries for me. Author Michael Feeney Callan spent years drumming up over 300 interviews in addition to many sessions with Redford. He also gained access to notebooks, journals and other original research. Initially the book was mesmerizing. Redford’s roots seamlessly interwove with 20th Century American history.
After about 100 pages, my reading slowed. The book became less fun--not less worthwhile--just less recreational. It turns out Redford isn’t much like what I assumed. His silver screen gravitas belies the reality of an often erratic and stubborn personality. In fact, I found the early Redford to be arrogant and annoying. Still, whether deflating or ingratiating, Callan’s study effectively peeled back the glossy Hollywood veneer. I came to see Redford and his colleagues as real people engaged in risky creative endeavors.
As a work of serious biography, Robert Redford has a couple of weak points. At times Callan’s narrative feels soupy and convoluted. Some passages combine a dizzying list of names and minutia with an 'Oh by the way' quality, leaving me unsure of their particular significance. On a related note, the passage of years is not always apparent. At times I felt disoriented as some major developments were mentioned off the cuff. The variable pace of Redford’s career was difficult to track.
In fairness, some of these criticisms probably boil down to the challenge of delivering a cohesive account of a disjunctive professional life. From the days of his “breakthrough” performance as the Sundance Kid, Redford’s acting career took on a Sugar Ray Leonard quality. He has seemed ever on the verge of retiring or staging a comeback.
Ultimately, I have great admiration for Callan’s stalwartness as a biographer. This is no slapdash expose. And if Robert Redford the book is sometimes a rough read, it is in large part because Redford the man is hard to read. About two-thirds of the way through I sent an e-mail to my Mom saying how much I was enjoying the book, even as it chopped Redford down to eye-level. I summed up my newly seasoned appreciation for him this way: "Oddly, I respect him just a bit less but identify with him a great deal more."
Viewing Recommendation: Obviously a reading of this biography benefits from having seen Redford’s major films. I strongly suggest watching both Jeremiah Johnson and Downhill Racer before or while reading this book. These films are often revisited by both Callan and Redford as major touchstones in “Bob’s” artistic development.(less)
“Voters have come to expect dirty politics and negative ads…” reads a line from the back of Professor Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirt...more“Voters have come to expect dirty politics and negative ads…” reads a line from the back of Professor Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time. I wonder if it would be more appropriate to say that voters have come to settle for negative campaigning. Such injurious behavior seems to constitute not the underbelly, but rather the bareback of American politics. At any rate, Dr. Swint provides a stimulating highlight reel of sorts with Mudslingers. Whatever spin you take, dirtiness and negativity have been status quo since the founding fathers started bitterly founding alongside each other.
As it turns out, our nation almost foundered while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought it out for the presidency. The vicious back and forth of their campaigns culminated in a disputed election. Ever since, the political process has played out in vitriolic fashion. For example, according to Swint the last explicitly racial campaign was just a few decades ago. And implicitly racial campaigning? Turn on your TV.
Mudslingers is not deep scholarship. Doing justice to 25 different campaigns in less than 300 pages takes a lot of summarizing. The upside of this approach is that it results in an accessible and informative work that political laypersons like me can sink our teeth into. Furthermore, the author does not limit himself to presidential campaigns. Campaigns for senate, governor and mayor are explored, including a chapter dedicated to a primary instead of a general election. This gives the reader a chance to peer inside political machines while also getting a palatable dose of American history.
This book isn’t a veritable masterpiece of scholarship. The content is sometimes cursory and in at least one case outright underdeveloped. Swint asserts that the 1934 gubernatorial race for California actually brought the state to the brink of civil war. But his physical evidence for this nearly-martial crisis is lacking. However, by and large I found myself broadening my perspective via a great deal of compelling material. So I do recommend this book. And if you are in the market for well-informed political ruminations, consider looking up @KerwinSwint the next time you are on Twitter.(less)
Over the past year I’ve followed climber Alan Arnette as he seeks to reach the highest summit on each continent--the aptly named “Seven Summits.” (Arn...moreOver the past year I’ve followed climber Alan Arnette as he seeks to reach the highest summit on each continent--the aptly named “Seven Summits.” (Arnette is doing it to raise support for Alzheimer’s research.) In addition to following his blog, I decided to seek out a book about previous climbers who’ve attempted this feat. My local bookstore happened to have The Sky’s the Limit: The Story of Vicky Jack and Her Quest to Climb the Seven Summits.
More than any other climbing book I’ve read, this retelling of Ms. Jack’s adventure gets a light and life-affirming treatment. This book is highly congratulatory and inspirational, in contrast to other climbing tomes that focus on controversy. For a few chapters, I even worried this book would prove too watered down to be compelling.
In particular, the chapter on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro almost reads like a day trip—and climbing that African summit is no small achievement. So my one literary criticism would be that author Anna Magnusson doesn’t appear to have dug especially deep. However, like the heroine of the story, The Sky’s the Limit won me over. In fact, I read the whole thing in one marathon Saturday session.
As the book progresses, and as Ms. Jack’s climbs grow increasingly risky, the narrative likewise deepens and intensifies. This may not be an exhaustively researched biography, but neither is it skin-deep or forgettable. It is personable and engaging in ways that other climbing books sometimes lack. Plus, it’s quite fun to read. I relished the chance to unabashedly root for someone fulfilling her dream.
I would place The Sky’s the Limit alongside Touching My Father’s Soul, as a book that treats an almost mythical quest in a remarkably personal and life-affirming way. There are doubtless more prestigious accounts of climbing the Seven Summits available. But this book caters especially well to readers like me who aren’t mountain climbers. In particular, if you are looking for an adventure book with a worthy female role-model, The Sky’s the Limit is well worth seeking out. (less)
Edna O’Brien’s writing style perplexes me. I remember being mystified by it when I read her excellent novel House of Splendid Isolation. I felt this...moreEdna O’Brien’s writing style perplexes me. I remember being mystified by it when I read her excellent novel House of Splendid Isolation. I felt this disconnect again while reading Byron in Love. I was impressed with the tightness of the plot and the lack of excess in her prose. The trade off is I tended to feel a bit detached and unemotional while reading this book. At times, Ms. O’Brien’s poise and restraint as a novelist unduly bridled the sauciness of Byron’s story.
When I read Ms. O’Brien, I feel like I’m staring in through a mildly warped window at the characters. The scene appears slightly blurred and the sounds are a bit muffled. It is like O’Brien has me off to the side, watching from a discreet distance--as one might do when witnessing a couple argue in public. It’s a compelling style, but not the one I would pick for a biography of Lord Byron--especially one that is delivered like a novel. Yet I still feel this is a great book.
O’Brien’s unvarnished recounting of Byron’s scandals, as well as his chauvinism, challenged me (though I retain my affinity for him). I don’t believe one can take a serious look at Byron without acknowledging his great failures as a father and husband. But it also makes me consider one of the callous byproducts of traditional marriage culture. No child should ever be termed “illegitimate”, even when born out of wedlock to irresponsible parents.
This book also reminded me--as any objective biography of Byron should--of the rampant and abrasive hypocrisy that emanates from intensely heterosexual cultures. Byron could have been subjected to the death penalty for his homosexual liaisons. But when he engaged in heterosexual adultery, he was just fitting in. Ms. O’Brien brings this harsh double standard into sharp relief.
My chief complaint with this book is grammatical. O’Brien’s abrupt shifts between present and past tense annoyed me. Given her abilities and authorial maturity, I have to think the shifts were deliberate. I just found them acutely distracting. Other than that, I don’t have anything much to fault, except my lingering sense of disconnectedness with Byron in Love.
I’ll sum it up with an analogy. I love the musical Les Miserables. I also love composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But even on his best day, providing his finest work, I cannot imagine Mr. Sondheim musicalizing Les Miz to my satisfaction. There is simply an incongruity between his style and the way my heart yearns to experience that story. This also sums up why I didn’t fall head over heels for Ms. O’Brien’s take on Byron, though I found the book excellent. In any case, I feel the definitive portrayal of Byron was written long ago, though its main character is a childe called Harold. (less)
Light This Candle is a biography that adopts the swagger of its subject: Alan Shephard. Mixing new interviews with material from earlier records, auth...moreLight This Candle is a biography that adopts the swagger of its subject: Alan Shephard. Mixing new interviews with material from earlier records, author Neal Thompson delivers a book that proceeds at a steady, confident clip. As such, Light This Candle achieves a gut-level intensity that seems appropriate given the ambitious man it depicts.
At times, this book feels like a piecemeal eulogy. While the bulk of the narrative recounts Shephard’s storied career, chapters dealing with his youth and post-flight years have a summary quality. Even accounts of memorable flights have a no-frills aspect. And this is generally to the author’s credit. It could be tempting to weigh down descriptions of aerial adventure with extravagant prose. However, Thompson wisely takes a no-nonsense approach to rehearsing Shepard’s past.
Light This Candle falls short of feeling revelatory. But this appraisal is not meant as harsh criticism. As the author remarks, Shephard vigilantly maintained privacy in spite of his fame. Like the many who brushed shoulders with the first American in space, Thompson doesn’t gain full-access to Shephard’s personal life. Readers may even be left with the impression that no one, not even Shephard’s beloved wife Louise, was privy to the real story.
Ultimately, Light This Candle is about taking stock of a man who competed and won often. Shephard’s exploits in and out of the cockpit dominate the pages, as they should. In a broader context, Light This Candle is a worthy tome about the American test pilot. It proves a lively read that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other notable books and films about Shepard and his fellow explorers. (less)