There are a couple of reasons you might choose to read the Penguin Classics The Book of Mormon. Perhaps you are someone with an obsession for near priThere are a couple of reasons you might choose to read the Penguin Classics The Book of Mormon. Perhaps you are someone with an obsession for near primary documents (this is Joseph Smith’s last, personally edited version) that shed just as much light on the story being told as it does on the era and author of publication. Oh wait, that’s not you, it’s me.
Very well. Then maybe you are curious about Mormonism and a Book of Mormon published by Penguin instead of the LDS Church removes you from appearing too interested. Or perhaps you’ve had a bad experience with the Mormons or have had a long, preconceived distrust for their religion. Your foray into the Book of Mormon, then, is for the purpose of dismantling its religious tenets or to fend off adherents who might question your criticisms as uninformed.
Of course, there could be a myriad of other reasons, but no matter the reason, I have a modest suggestion. Read The Book of Mormon as a story. If you prefer to call it a fiction story, then do so. Whatever the outside reasons for reading the book, whatever your feelings on organized religion or Joseph Smith’s professed experience--put that away and just read the book for its story. (Clearly, you won’t be able to escape the book’s remarkable origin tale forever, but hey, when growing a plant, you start with a seed and let it grow before deciding whether to toss it, right? Hat tip: Alma.)
Once you’ve decided to read the story of The Book of Mormon, then allow yourself to be swallowed up by the narrators and their personal accounts as you would any piece of literature. Join in on the character arcs of these prophets and their sons as they navigate lives of trials and triumphs, tragedy and fulfillment. Observe the societies that experience up and down moral prosperity and general depravity. Feel the anguish seeing a group of people who have reached the lowest state of human barbarism. Then let joy glow within you as you witness the noble sacrifice of a changed people willing to die rather than revert to their rudimentary, previous selves--and in those deaths, thus changing those around them to become a better people as well. Wow. If you allow this story to penetrate you, what a powerful influence for good it can have on you (regardless of religion or religious belief).
As you read, you may recognize that the narrators are spiritually aware men, but also men who openly admit to their weaknesses. Within their words, there may be some blind spots, especially in some poorly phrased comments regarding race, but beware of being too eager to apply our own “exalted” morals upon a society and time so distant and unique from our own. Especially as you recognize that within those same words are woven sermons that demonstrate an understanding of righteous and meek judgment of others from all walks of life that far excels the rife dissension dividing our own “informed” society in this day and age.
If you follow my suggestion as a sincere reader--as I hope all of us are (some of my best reading experiences have come as I let go of previous prejudices: The Scarlet Letter, The Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, and more)--then you can allow the magic of good literature happen to you. I’m referring to that amazing thing where a book--fiction or not, contemporary or ancient, hardback, paperback, or e-reader--reveals deep, abiding and sometimes surprising truths of life within its word-speckled pages.
Through a narrator’s limited but genuine perspective, or a character’s unexpected change and subsequent actions that inspire and instill a new resolve within you, or by a society’s vicious struggles for liberty amidst wave after wave of scheming despots, you sense something greater than your simple life. You feel that such characters, such societies, such struggles represent something in all of us. Once you allow this to sink in, then The Book of Mormon culminates with the timely visitation of Jesus Christ to an embattled people, thus fulfilling the promises made to characters throughout the whole of the story--promises of something greater than the simple lives they lived. And you sense that this release from the depression of life’s woes, this great plan for redemption, is not just found within the words on that paper for those characters in that remote setting, but that within them there is a truth that manages to penetrate each individual reader in a very real, personable, and humbling way.
But who am I kidding? How can I ask you to treat something that is not literature as literature? It is related to literature, in the artistic sense of searching for truth, but it is both more bold and more humble in that you cannot ignore the fact that the author claims to not be the author at all. He claims, in fact, to be just a translator. His declaration, instead, is that the author is a conglomeration of real people, who lived real lives, and followed a uniform system of beliefs given them from a higher power. So, while I give this book a review as I might a piece of literature, I cannot rate the book itself like I might a product. The challenge at the end of the story, which candidly opens the truth of its writings to rest between the individual reader and God, is the kind of invitation that removes the story from literary critique. The Book of Mormon, I am slowly coming to realize, does not belong with the canon of literature, but as a religious text open for acceptance or refusal. (I mean, I knew that, of course, but I was attempting to read/review it as literature, and I now see the pointlessness behind that approach.)
But you have to start somewhere. So start with the remarkable story of The Book of Mormon. Whatever your reason for picking up the book, open your mind and heart to the truths of life found within as you would/should any book. Then see if anything you find has the capability of changing the way you treat other people, the way you act and think when alone, the way you see the rituals of life all around you. In short, see if it changes the way you view this simple life into sensing something much greater beyond.
After that careful reflection and very personal exploration, comes the next, probably most difficult step--one clearly outlined by a wise character within the story: “If you believe all these things, see that ye do them.” ...more
If there is one person who understands my fetish for the author P.G. Wodehouse, it would be Hugh Laurie. Far before any of you knew him as Dr. House iIf there is one person who understands my fetish for the author P.G. Wodehouse, it would be Hugh Laurie. Far before any of you knew him as Dr. House in the TV series, I knew him as the legendary Wodehouse character Bertie Wooster on A&E (Am I sounding pompous and condescending yet?, because that's what I'm going for). Hugh Laurie played Bertie Wooster to his ridiculously bumblingly earnestly frivolous perfection. The Wodehouse/Laurie connection was the perfect match.
So then I stumble upon a Hugh Laurie written novel and I know, I know, that this man cannot write a sentence without trying to mimic the master. I ordered it and eagerly had it cut to the front of the line of books for me to read, without any apologies to Dante's Purgatory and Clausewitz's On War--in my defense, they didn't seem too enthusiastic about being read either. The first two pages of The Gun Sellerconfirmed to me that this was not a name mix up. This was Bertie Wooster--er--Hugh Laurie, tapping into the clever, pithy writing style of P.G. Wodehouse, yet used in the setting of a modern guns and conspiracy thriller. Ooooh. The kind of writing I absolutely adore, resurrected to the modern age. I just might be able to read more contemporary works after all!
At least, that is what I thought within the first couple of chapters. Then, I started to notice the crass language becoming more prolific. It reminded me of one of the reasons I tired of and eventually set down Tom Clancy books. My mind censor can only replace so many cuss words a minute before it begins to overload. Now, here was Hugh Laurie giving Tom Clancy's record a run for the money. I do not dispute that many people, perhaps even the author himself, really do speak that way with that kind of frequency and blitheness, but that does not mean I should have to fight through it to get the story being told.
Fine, though. If the story is engaging enough, then I can put the censors into overtime. More work for me, but ultimately worth my while. For the first half of the book, that was the case. It was worth grazing past some language to see where the protagonist took us next, and to enjoy the clever dialogue and witty observations throughout. Just as we transition to Act 2, however, the story gets jumpy, vague, and meanders. The settings change like a nervous jackrabbit bouncing from one place to another. Once we arrive at a new one, we're given enough description to believe that this is going to be a major stop in the narrative's travels, but just as we're settling in, we're jerked off to another spot. Also, the motivations, which were painstakingly set out in the first part of the story, have suddenly gone off in their own direction. You get the sense that there still are reasonable motivations for the characters doing what they are doing, but we're not trusted enough to understand exactly what they are. Beyond that, we're dealing with a first person narration, and yet, by the end of the novel, I feel like we're not getting all the first person narration we deserve. Disguising the main protagonist plan I get for the sake of plot twist, though I'm not convinced it was necessary to hide from the audience. But this also means some emotions, character development, and relationships had to be hidden as well, so at the end we're getting a first person narrative so distant it feels like third person. When you start a story with such a personable (and entertainingly enjoyable), first person narrative, and then end the story so far removed, you can't help but feel as if your buddy has stopped caring about you and has decided to go hang out with the kids that carry their backpack with one shoulder strap instead of two (sorry, old middle school social status fears resurging!).
I don't know. I simply felt disenchanted with the story. The language, the pacing, the numerous disjointed details of the plot, the political bent, the character motivation/lack thereof--it all trumped what I thought was otherwise clever and interesting. I think that if this is the best that modern thrillers have to offer (and it probably is), then I'm just not that inspired enough to look for more. P.G. Wodehouse, for better or for worse (for better), will simply have to be irreplaceable, it seems. Well, he wrote enough in his lifetime to last for mine, so I will not mourn what could have been.
I started this review thinking I would at least recommend The Gun Seller, and if you are the kind of person that enjoys modern thrillers, then I don't doubt you'll find this clever and engaging. But the more I think about it, the less I like this story. Personally, I don't feel I can even recommend it any more. Though, I hear Hugh Laurie is also a jazz musician. I still appreciate the fellow, so perhaps music is where he and I will make our connection?...more
I don't remember who recommended this book to me. I know that it was years ago and they vividly described how the book contrasts the experiences of thI don't remember who recommended this book to me. I know that it was years ago and they vividly described how the book contrasts the experiences of the various settlers of the Far West--pioneers, miners, homesteaders, enterprisers. I was fascinated. Since then, that contrast stayed with me. So much so that I based a story I wrote just off of the memory I had of its description. Then, when ordering a bunch of books, I remembered Men to Match My Mountains and eagerly added it to the list. Finally, book in hand, I read the story that I had placed on the top of a mountain of expectations for years. I wanted to see if it had earned its elevated station. The result? The Book Matched the Mountain of Expectation ... though it had its valleys as well.
Ivring Stone, a historical/biographical fiction author by trade, must have found stories in the Far West that exceeded his ability to improve upon them through fiction. He was right. The stories of the settling of the Far West are fascinating, complicated, harsh, and beautiful in ways that many fiction authors could only dream of. In fact, they go beyond that. I, who do not delight in assigned readings, feel that Men to Match My Mountains should be required reading for any person living in the Far West area. A proper respect for the wildness of the country we live in, the hardships of the pioneers who tamed it, and the fragility between civilization or savagery, survival and mortality, is something that I think we all lose sight of in our comfortable existences. While reading the incredible accounts of the first pioneers, I could not help but look at the geography surrounding my home and realize that, without years and years of work from farmers, surveyors, engineers, and irrigators, I would be fairly well trapped and without resources. I enjoyed the mountains before for the vista, but I did not wholly respect them for their awesome dominance. Stone helped me to return to the native view of the land that hid beneath the gravel and pavement. He helped me to realize that the pioneers did so much more than walk a long way--they truly caused the desert to bloom.
While enthralled with the settling and original acts of taming the Far West, I was less interested in the thick portion in the middle of the book that covered all of the gold and silver discoveries, their subsequent mines, and the booms and busts that resulted. Here and there an interesting tale could be told and dynamic characters passed in and out of the narrative, but learning about those things, for me, was ultimately as shallow as the mines turned out to be themselves after a few years ... and without the luster that comes with a successful strike.
As a native Utahan, I was very intrigued by Irving Stone's approach to the Mormon exodus and settlement of the eastern Great Basin. I also appreciate the fairness that he gives in judging the Mormons, choosing to come to conclusions by fruits of their labor rather than the rumors of their rituals. The Mormons were appropriately vaunted for their teamwork and industry. At the same time, the detailing of the Mountain Meadows Massacre horrified me, as it should any humanity-loving person--even within context, it is a truly despicable act. I only wish that Irving Stone would have included a chapter on the noble tragedy of the handcart pioneers. I believe (perhaps in a biased way, as my ancestors were a part of it), Stone would have concluded that, in the actions of those pioneers and their rescuers, the Men Matched the Mountains.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of Stone's story is that it is written well before far-too-sensitive political-minded historians would rip the glory from these enterprising individuals. Stone shows us these people in the context of their time, he judges them by that same measure, and he refuses to allow modern sensitivities denigrate truly courageous and noble acts. Equally, he also properly derides what then and now should be considered horrendous and repulsive. Yes, he could have spent more time on the native Mexicans and Indians in the region and attempted to show their point of view. I would have been interested in that. However, he is not altogether ignorant of these perspectives either. They simply do not fit within the scope of his narrative, which covers the transition of the Far West from remote outposts of scattered groups to civilization due to westward migrating Americans.
In the end, the scope of Stone's work is impressive, and his management is trustworthy and also worthy of a great storyteller. Stone gets it, and he helps us to get it too. And although the path is rugged in parts along the way, I still feel that the journey is worthwhile. If you are a westerner, in fact, it's indispensable. Heck, I suppose it wouldn't hurt for those soft Easterners to be allowed a glimpse also!...more
What is the cure for over a thousand pages of French literature? Just a couple hundred of a solid P.G. Wodehouse tale.
Sorry, that was set up like a jWhat is the cure for over a thousand pages of French literature? Just a couple hundred of a solid P.G. Wodehouse tale.
Sorry, that was set up like a joke, but it's just a sincere answer. I feel bad. I suppose I should include a joke somewhere in this review to make up for it. Anyway, my point is, I'd just had a tortuous (though commendable) journey through Victor Hugo's unabridged Les Miserables. I needed something light. I needed something silly. And, because it has been over eight months since my last Wodehouse adventure, I desperately needed the master of literature's most earnestly frivolous escapades: the mighty Plum himself.
What better place to return to than the place where I initially fell in love with Wodehouse: Blandings Castle. Of course, I'd been a fan of P.G. Wodehouse since my sister generously poured out his greatness upon me with Jeeves and Wooster. But with Wodehouse's Pigs Have Wings, I found a cast of characters so completely endearing that I felt that Wodehouse and I were meant for each other. (Perhaps I should tone down the praise ... my patient wife might be raising her eyebrows.)
Anyway, on to Galahad at Blandings. Wodehouse sets up the normal shenanigans of hopelessly in love couples with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Enter Galahad, the absolutely charming meddler of other people's affairs, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. The victims--er--objects of his help: Tipton (wealthy heir to a chain food store) and Veronica (Galahad's niece), Sam Bagsworth (son of an old Galahad mate) and Sandy (newly minted secretary to Lord Emsworth), and Wilfred (nephew? or something) and Monica (the stout pig keeper). That's enough to keep anyone reeling--anyone, that is, but Galahad. He meddles with the best of intentions, and perhaps he muddles things up here or there (the advice to go undercover as his brother's favorite pig care book author being among his less successful endeavors), but how can you fault a man so entirely chipper and well-meaning? Well, his sister Hermione can, but we can't. The guy is so dang fun to be around--his long, irrelevant deliberations, his startlingly consistent monocle, and his poor, health-defying diet and habits ... all make him irresistible.
As clever and unflappable as Galahad is, at the end of the tale Wodehouse throws him some definite curve balls, offers us a couple of dead end red herring solutions, and jumps from one mounting non-issue issue to another until we're sure that even Galahad the Great can't get himself out of this one. I kept thinking ... oh, this is it. The impervious Galahad is finally going to blush or snivel or cough ... but, I can state with the greatest admiration, Galahad pulled it off, right up until the very end, against all odds. After I read the final sentence, I closed the back cover on the story with a smile on my lips and satisfaction in the air. Galahad, and Wodehouse, triumphed once more. In their pleasant company, I plan on visiting Blandings Castle for many years to come.
P.S. Don't let all of this Galahad talk deceive you into thinking that he was the only cat's pajamas in the tale (tail? ... does that count as my joke? no? fair enough). Lord Emsworth, as always, is delightful as the pig-obsessed benevolent overlord of Blandings. Beach provides his great moments as the weight-and-watch-obsessed, forcefully reserved butler. Hermione does her job well as the overbearing older sister antagonist (in a phrase: "A psychiatrist, seeing her, would have rubbed his hands gleefully, scenting lucrative business." ... I'll count that brilliant phrasing as your joke, by the way). Of course, the narrator, Mr. Wodehouse himself, is as breezy as he is eloquent. It's a fantastic cast of characters that makes you wish more romantic couples could run into trouble within their scintillating sphere....more
This is another book in the series of books called: Marty's Reconciliation Process With Disdained and Perhaps Unjustly Presumed Pretentious High SchooThis is another book in the series of books called: Marty's Reconciliation Process With Disdained and Perhaps Unjustly Presumed Pretentious High School English Novels. The length of the series title makes potential publishers concerned about spacing issues for printed book bindings, but nevertheless, it is an otherwise prestigious list, among which are included the following: The Scarlet Letter, The Brothers Karamazov, Old Man and the Sea, East of Eden, and Heart of Darkness.
This reconciliation process has gone well for the books, with one exception (*cough* Heart of Darkness *cough*). And now that I've finally read the elusive The Great Gatsby, I can say that it is not quite an exception, though not quite a success story either.
Something that The Great Gatsby has going for it is that it is short. While definitely a mark in its favor, that ultimately does not determine true success (*cough* Heart of Darkness *cough*). So, it also helps that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a truly gifted writer. He is efficient in establishing tone and setting. His dialogue is entertaining while being both relevant and realistic. His presentation of conflict is measured with the right balance of subtlety and surprise. And I think my favorite thing about him is the way he can so effortlessly reveal the profound personalities, motivations, and purpose behind his characters in true, meaningful ways. One page, they were just characters in a novel, the next they were real people. Pretty smooth.
Having said all that, I'm afraid that understanding someone's true character does not immediately grant them "I'd like to hang out with you" status. And that is Fitzgerald's problem. While here and there I intermittently rooted for some of the characters, ultimately I cared about none of them. None of them was particularly sympathetic, some were downright embarrassing. The closest I got was the narrator, Nick, who I truly did have a connection to. But this is not Nick's story, he's just telling it, and he did not really develop enough for someone to be invested in him (even if it were his story, he'd need to grow a spine by the end to capture my full approval).
Hidden underneath this long, short story is the story of America. But it is not one that resonates with me, and if Fitzgerald wanted me to agree with him, then he would have needed to justify the targets of his criticisms and his conclusions with more clarity, rather than artistic ambiguity. I appreciate the depth, just not the obscurity.
All in all, I had a pleasant time reading the book with my wife (who did not like it as well as she had remembered the first time--justifying my avoidance of it in high school!). I'd be willing to go along with the excellent writing of Fitzgerald again, especially if he can give me characters to root for, and most especially if he can keep the length the same!...more
Chalk up another book recommendation to NPR. If they got commission for recommendations, then they’d probably have at least 5¢ worth from me (that traChalk up another book recommendation to NPR. If they got commission for recommendations, then they’d probably have at least 5¢ worth from me (that translates to about .00342 seconds less of their fundraising drives … you’re welcome).
The beauty of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts is his mastery of humor with conciseness before Twitter had ever been invented. (And the quality of them, in retrospect, after Twitter.) Each thought is carefully constructed, in a non-sensical way, to deliver the most punch with the smallest amount of build up. You’ve got to admire that kind of comical precision.
Then, I hear that the guy who is the master of the single-sentence humor has the gall to try and write a novel? As a conoisseur of humor writing, to an almost hypocritically serious degree, I had to check this out. How did he propose to pull this off?
Well, he did.
The trick was, first of all, he wrote a short book. Sure, it says it’s 224 pages. That sounds like a respectable enough number. But the words are bolded and in a big font size, making only 8 ½ words per line--24 lines per page. Beyond that, There are quirky drawings every other page or so. Chapters last about two pages with page breaks in-between. I’m generously estimating 45,696 words in this “novel.” This is not a critique, just an analysis. (Like I said, I take humor writing to a hypocritically serious degree.) I agree with the method. He can’t seriously (pun) expect to write a humor novel of his style to match the word count scope of Gone With the Wind, but if he wants adults to read it (and this is an adult novel), he has to make it look like it’s not a kids book.
The next trick was not expecting to please everyone with every page. Jack Handey manages to tell a paper thin story by throwing jokes at the audience pretty much every sentence. Many of these are too cheesy for my taste, more of them were too dirty for my liking, but a bunch of them landed in the silly, ironical range that tickled me into literal laughter. So, if one joke doesn’t stick, you move on to the next. It might work or it might not, so you move on to the next one. Within three or four sentences, two paragraphs at least, you’re going to get hit. And you will smile, chuckle, or wheeze.
For instance, at one point the main character has an excuse to come up with some ideas, and he fires them off like an old rat-a-tat machine gun. Example: “The more you flip something, like a pancake, the more flippable it becomes.” Okay, interesting, vaguely amusing. Not quite sure it was worth the time to read. Not soon after comes this one: “Street signs would work better if they added the words You Idiot. For instance, instead of just Stop, the signs says, Stop, You Idiot.” Now, to me, that’s funny. It makes me think of a bunch of other possibilities, and then I start to giggle and perhaps even laugh. (“Deer Migration Area Next 5 Miles, You Idiot” just seems hopelessly comical.) Other people might go more for the pancake one. Or, someone might fall for the Superman/Tarzan riff that comes next. Either way, the jokes come one right after another, so you just bounce through until one connects with you.
Blindly driving these litany of puns, epigrams, and witticisms is a plot, per se. A protagonist that no one is rooting for goes off to Hawaii in search of a treasure. The story does its job passably as an excuse for some jokes, and its most effective purpose is introducing characters to play off of our unsympathetic narrator, but for the most part it is quite forgettable … and meant to be so.
As much as I respect the ability to cobble together a semi-coherent story out of a mosaic of diverse comical jabs, I still only find the book tolerable. Among his assorted jokes, Jack Handey leans on quite a few dirty innuendos and sexual quips (especially in the last half, it seems). I feel that if I wanted something brilliant and original from Jack Handey, I’d be getting less of this banal fodder, which has become the tedious staple of TV sitcoms, and more of his clever phrase structuring and incongruity of expectations.
But hey, like I said earlier, part of his formula for success was his ability to recognize that he’s not going to please everyone on every page. I just happened to not be pleased by those particular jokes, and probably some pre-adolescent-minded adult would titter uncontrollably at the simplistic and (now) tired sexual humor. (That kind humor used to rely on results because of its taboo nature being so openly addressed, but modern sitcoms--and Mr. Handey--have apparently neglected to realize that it’s no longer taboo and therefore not funny on its own merit … but, as usual, I digress).
Aaaaanyway. Funny book. And if I read it again, I’m betting that some of the lines that I just breezed past the first time, I would find hilarious on a second read. Some of the jokes that I thought were gold the first time I might scratch my head at--all depending on my mood and circumstances on that day. However, because of the vulgar nature of a lot of the story, I think I’ll just jot down some of the more memorable lines and consider one read enough for me. Stenches are funny to joke about, but they tend to ruin everything else that surrounds them when you experience them first hand. ...more
The reading of this book happened thanks to two coinciding instances: 1) I read H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt and loved it; 2) I readThe reading of this book happened thanks to two coinciding instances: 1) I read H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt and loved it; 2) I read Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography and was amazed by it--only sad that it left out his presidency. I wanted more (of both). Then I saw that Brands had done a biography on U.S. Grant. One of my favorite biographers--more information on one of my favorite presidents--BINGO!
In Grant’s autobiography, you get the sense of a humble, straight-forward guy, but you never know if that is just a canny politician putting on an act. After having read Brands’s excellent work, I can say that I feel confident that Grant has no guile within him. The man lived in truly humbling circumstances for a huge portion of his life before the Civil War. Interestingly, while the Civil War killed hundreds of thousands, it saved Grant’s life. He may have had bad luck, or shown incompetence in every endeavor of his life up until that point (excluding the Mexican-American War), but there is no doubt that he was born to lead soldiers successfully into battle. Grant knows that, but he also knows his own limits in other areas, including politics.
Brands gives a sweeping view of his life and major events, with special, gripping details abundantly offered for every phase of his involvement in the Civil War. Plus, Brands finally offers me the look into his presidency that I pined for. There I found Grant to be an anti-politician, just as I hoped for, though sometimes to a fault … he often found himself too trusting of individuals who took advantage of the soldier to their gain in what would emerge as a list of scandals. Scandals aside, however, among the great what-ifs of history asks what the Civil Rights situation in America would have been had the great General/President’s policies had been kept up after he left office. Likely, Brown vs. Board would not have been needed 100 years later--though at the price of a more powerful federal government.
Overall, though, I felt as if Brands was checking off boxes with this biography--efficiently and commendably--but not in a way that helped me to really get lost in the characters or events. I suppose part of that could be due to the nature of the person himself. Teddy Roosevelt is the kind of character who formed himself for history--he had that much ego awareness. Grant maybe had the awareness, but not the ego. If it weren’t for financial struggles, there never would have been an autobiography from him.
Still, though, part of it feels as if Brands’s heart was not in this one. He gave details on Grant that I would not of known otherwise, but he simply laid them out and moved on. Not a lot of background helped to create depth, and--surprisingly--very little of Grant’s personal feelings or character development were explored. Brands pretty much told what Grant did, but not a lot of his motivations for it, what he hoped for, how he (personally) got to the place he was at. This does not make for a poor biography, just a limited one. Informationally, the biography is superb, characteristically, it is lacking.
In the end, I can set aside a quibble for a historian who has impressed me in the past and will--hopefully--impress me in the future (Ben Franklin biography, I’m talking to you). And as far as Grant goes, I don’t think he and I are done. This so-called sphinx may have hid from the media and public of his time, but we the people in the future can be relentlessly nosey (sorry, sphinx pun); greatness, no matter how humble, can’t hide forever! ...more
Turns out this school year is when I have my (memoir-ish) reconciliation with my parents' taste in literature (see my review of And Then There Were NoTurns out this school year is when I have my (memoir-ish) reconciliation with my parents' taste in literature (see my review of And Then There Were None). Of course, I never quibbled with their taste in literature, and therefore that makes for a pretty lame memoir. Still, I can always make up pretended conflicts, which is what most memoirs do anyway with their pretentious, psuedo psychological explorations into--I'm sorry, did you want a review of The Power of One? Fine.
So, this story set in South Africa surrounding the WWII era, starts off the powerful memories of a brilliant boy isolated and bullied with horrifying effect. The careful detail to setting and events is so meticulous that, even if the story is fictional, it might as well have been real (my friend tells me that it is highly autobiographical, and it is these early events that convince me that my friend had to be right). The steps that the protagonist takes for survival (and make no mistake, in this child's mind, life itself is at stake several times) are as intense as they are heart-wrenching--though ultimately, the effect is one of beauty in the way that Courtenay captures the travails of an innocent person in a cruel world--something every child can tap into, to some degree, at some point in their life.
As the story transitions to a new phase in life, we are introduced to the protagonist's (Peekay) friendship with a local musician/botanist and we experience Peekay's desire to become the welter-weight boxing champion of the world. These passages are inspirational as they demonstrate his determination in training, the development of his intellect, and the bonds that he continually manages to create between fellow survivors, regardless of their background in a country that is fixated on racial distinctions, and the thrilling description of some early, underdog boxing matches.
It is after this point, when Peekay becomes a master of his dreams, that I feel the novel spreads itself thin. We follow his activities into his teenage years, but most of these, while interesting as individual anecdotes, are quite irrelevant to the parts of the story that we most cared about. There is no true conflict, and there is little new character development. Eventually, the climactic phase of the novel comes, where Peekay makes an entirely unexpected decision and once again becomes the underdog in a whole new system. The conclusion is abrupt, yet appropriate and neatly ties the beginning to the end.
On the whole, however, there are quite a few threads left hanging. Threads that are strong pieces of an entire narrative--themes introduced, but never explored. While I could spend time listing several of them, I already wasted a paragraph venting about memoirs at the beginning, so I'll just say The Power of One is packed with interesting idea starters, but only follows through, really, with one of them ... perhaps not even the most compelling one. Plus, in a couple spots, it got dangerously close to sounding like a self help novel disguised as a story (great for some people, irritating for me).
Still, The Power of One, even though it tinkers and does not follow through with its greatest ideas, is a powerful novel. It oozes of truth throughout and gives such a stark, multi-cultural view of a culturally and historically glittering region that you feel wiser, more humble, saddened, and hopeful by the time you stumble across the conclusion. Though it has strong language, some graphic violence, and deals with indirect sexual mores of a maturing teenager (though this is handled matter-of-factly, yet remotely enough to at least be readable), I feel that there are few people who would not be better after having read it.
So far my parents are two for two in their recommendations this year. That's a pretty pathetic track record for an interesting memoir (no less, review!), but at least it's made me want to go to them and see what else they've been hiding from me all these years. (Answer: nothing, I just didn't get around to reading these books until now.)...more
I will forever love Tom Sawyer, if only because he brought me to one of my most cherished experiences in literature, which was readingANOTHER READING
I will forever love Tom Sawyer, if only because he brought me to one of my most cherished experiences in literature, which was reading Huckleberry Finn. Oh, how I want to recreate that moment for my children so that they can see the power that literature can have. My dilemma, however, is that if give them the book and set it up as one of the greats, I will certainly ruin it. The most magical part of reading Huckleberry Finn was that I went into it innocently as a kid reading about another kid, on my own, without any clue as to the book's significance and regard in the world of American literature. I knew I could never hint to my children that they should read it, yet how else would they know to seek it out? The best I can do is to have them follow my same path and hope they would fill in the rest themselves. So, I read Tom Sawyer to them.
(P.S. I'm not under any pretenses. I am fully aware that even if my pseudo-manipulative method works, my kids may simply not connect to Huck Finn the way I did. Still, I prefer that they end up NOT reading Huck Finn due to a failed experiment than reading it because I told them to and thus missing out, forever, on that initial potential of a great reading experience. I'm kind of obsessive that way. No more questions please.)
And we found that Tom Sawyer was a great warm up for Mark Twain's unorthodox masterpiece, Huck Finn. Here, Mr. Clemens explores the fleeting world of youth with all of its temporary earnestness and frivolous passions. In setting up his character, Twain takes his time and meanders through this juvenile world like the … pardon the cliché … Mississippi's circuitous path to the sea. For the first half of the book, the experiences and events are episodic, with little importance placed on chronology or plot development. But the chapters are fun, even if they work like a short story collection. My kids giggled in crescendoes during the scene where Tom gives his medicine to the cat (thanks to my wife's initial chuckles) among with other delightful moments.
As the book progresses, eventually Mr. Twain settles into a story and sticks with it. There, I was surprised by how much weight is given to the events. While still seen from the perspective of frivolous kids, the plot takes some serious turns and some truly frightening events occur. Twain still manages to entertain throughout it all and keep his characters true to form while navigating the story's rougher waters. All of this would earn Tom Sawyer a hearty recommendation, but the tipping point that places it among my highest recommendations are, not the carefully balanced serious/frivolous events, but instead those moments where pure goodness of character rises above rough exteriors--something that, on an even more powerful level, I would connect with in Huckleberry Finn. They are subtle and un-extraordinary, but they are there and provide just the right touch of humanity to silly events.
Perhaps a more fitting recommendation is that as soon as I finished reading the book to my kids, my 7-year-old conjured the illustrated classic version of the story and read the whole book by the next day. I could not be more proud … but I won't tell her, because then she might read Huckleberry Finn to please me--which would foil my plans of having her read it for herself!...more
After reading H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt, I knew that I wasn’t done with him. I needed more. And who better to go to than the horseAfter reading H.W. Brands’s biography on Theodore Roosevelt, I knew that I wasn’t done with him. I needed more. And who better to go to than the horse’s mouth? At first, I simply read some of his speeches and his account of the Rough Riders, but then I found his autobiography and decided to take a big bite.
As writers go, Roosevelt is engaging. It’s comforting to be able to recognize his own style and know that you’re not dealing with a ghost writer. That brash, sincere, and self-aware voice is no doubt the boomingly confident Teddy. Whether you agree with his politics and positions, Roosevelt will not be duplicated and will almost always demand attention.
Conveniently, if he doesn’t grab attention, then you can skip to the next chapter, which will take off on a new subject that may be of more interest. Of course, my reading ethics do not allow such an approach, but it was kind of nice to know that once you had your fill of one stage of Roosevelt’s life or take on a particular issue, then you would be given a sampling of a whole new, unexplored area.
Not surprising is the lack of information on Roosevelt’s involvement in the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party and his subsequent loss in the general election to Wilson. The only hint we get of that aspect of his life is his rebuttal to a piece that President Wilson wrote demeaning him and his party.
As far as Teddy’s politics go, he offers a lot of sound advice for anyone who is a level-headed, moderate-leaning person. And if you were unsure as to how he felt about any sort of policy, specific or ambiguous, rest assured he will clarify for you. For the most part, I found Roosevelt to have an anchor of common sense when it comes to political standings--something that make me envious when taking into account modern day politicians. Sometimes, he manages to simplify too much, and sometimes this unwavering man of principle is too quick to glorify his position as an absolute, when it is really just a matter of policy. But by and large, I will take a passionate man of principle tampered with common sense over a cool-headed man of opportunity driven by ambition.
And that leads into the final thing of note about Theodore Roosevelt: his character. Sure, he is strong-headed and perhaps overly-intense in some of his opinions, but in spite of these externally annoying traits, internally Roosevelt genuinely seems to be a good and pure man. Would that more politicians fell under that category. Would that all of us might. ...more
This review goes in conjunction with my review of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. AThis review goes in conjunction with my review of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-time, and still-growing fan of William Shakespeare, I was interested in his contemporaries. We know that Shakespeare has managed to infiltrate the canon of English teachers for centuries much to the dismay (and occasional delight) of their students. But how come Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, well regarded contemporaries, are only mentions in a Wikipedia entry, while the Bard gets new print editions of every single play, quotes in common speech, and--heck--even high school and college courses dedicated to his writings--let alone continuing productions of his plays ranging from local youth theater groups to big budget, big name actor pieces from the top Hollywood studios? Well, I was going to investigate to see if someone missed something. I hunted out one of Mr. Marlowe and Jonson’s most well regarded plays, downloaded them onto my iPad (thanks, Gutenberg) and read. Here is the result:
Ben Jonson introduces what starts out as a vaguely interesting premise as a con-artist setting up shop in a disappeared master’s house, acting like an alchemist and gathering marks to be fleeced. But I didn’t care for any of the characters. I didn’t care for the main pro?tagonist, not for his compatriots, I didn’t even have a particular opinion on any of the victims. Not only that, but I found Jonson relying too much on low humor. Fart jokes? Wow. Men vying to take physical advantage of a dull but innocent woman? That’s entertainment?
But I wanted to read finish play. So I pushed forward. And then, for over nine months, I left it. Sorry, Ben. I was not invested. Then I had just finished The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and I thought that if I could finish Marlowe’s play, then surely Ben Jonson deserved another round. Luckily, by the time I got to the middle of Act III and through the rest of the play, the plot gained enough traction to get me through.
It was in the last half of the play that I got to enjoy Ben Jonson’s craft. All of his setting up managed to come crashing down on the characters in Act IV in grand, messy fashion, and I kept on wondering how they were going to get out of it. Granted, I didn’t care for them still, but I was curious to see the outcome. By the time the story finished, Jonson even, kind of, provided the much-needed character to connect to.
Whether written in the 17th century or the 21st, all con-artist stories face the same challenge: the characters are deliberately deceiving other characters so you have to somehow for the audience to empathize with the con artists or make the victim’s deserving of their fate. The victims are not deserving of their fate beyond being gullible and idiotic, and Ben Jonson eventually finds a con artist to semi-root for, but not nearly enough and certainly far too late in the game. Still, though, the play managed to have its entertaining moments in the last half, even if it took a lot of effort to drudge through the first half to get there.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, wastes no time in inserting admirable or despicable qualities within his characters. After a few lines, you have an idea of who to root for, who to root against and how the character will react to the play’s plot. Jonson here hoped that the plot would conquer all. For the 17th century audience, it must have. Go, enjoy the craziness, leave, forget the characters, go to Jonson’s next play. Shakespeare demanded a stronger bond through the plot AND the characters, making his the longer lasting. (My best guesses, at least.)
Am I done with Jonson? Naw. I’ll most likely forget the characters and most of the action from The Alchemist, but I’d like to see if another of his plays can provide similar (perhaps more clean?) entertainment, besides giving me characters to care about throughout the whole play. So far, though, Bard 1, Jonson 0....more
This review goes in conjunction with my review of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-tiThis review goes in conjunction with my review of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, so I’ve copied the first paragraph and applied it to both. As a long-time, and still-growing fan of William Shakespeare, I was interested in his contemporaries. We know that Shakespeare has managed to infiltrate the canon of English teachers for centuries much to the dismay (and occasional delight) of their students. But how come Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, well regarded contemporaries, are only mentions in a Wikipedia entry, while the Bard gets new print editions of every single play, quotes in common speech, and--heck--even high school and college courses dedicated to his writings--let alone continuing productions of his plays ranging from local youth theater groups to big budget, big name actor pieces from the top Hollywood studios? Well, I was going to investigate to see if someone missed something. I hunted out one of Mr. Marlowe and Jonson’s most well regarded plays, downloaded them onto my iPad (thanks, Gutenberg) and read. Here is the result:
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is immediately, within the first Act, more overtly religious than all of Shakespeare’s plays put together (at least the ones that I’ve read). Interesting. While the religion practiced at the time is still, relatively, strong, you might wonder how that would manage to make a play less attractive to modern audiences. This is just a review from an amateur reader, so I can (and will!) only speculate, but I wonder if the change in religious focus has any part in that. Fire and brimstone seemed the popular means of motivation back then, whereas “love and peace, man,” appear to dominate the modern era of Christianity. Doctor Faustus definitely falls in the “fire and brimstone” category, though any religious person could still find the themes of mercy and forgiveness there if they looked for it.
As for the plot and the play itself (finally), it is marginally interesting, but not particularly engaging, even as a morality tale. Probably a lot of the draw to the play at the time were the visual aspects, which sounded like they would include cool/creepy costumes of demons and long dead historical figures, some fireworks, and possibly other tricks of appearing/disappearing, objects lifting, etcetera.
The moral to the story is, basically, don’t sell your soul to the devil (I’d say in all senses, both literal and figurative), yet Marlowe really delves into the perks of selling your soul to the devil for pretty much the whole play. Every now and then he sends in a good and bad angel to remind us of the wickedness of Faustus’s course, but then we’re back to the fun shenanigans that having the devil’s power gives you, you know, like crashing the Pope’s party (definitely entertaining, but morally questionable at best, even for a seventeenth century Protestant) or plopping some antlers on a guy that rightfully regards Faustus with distrust. It is not until the very end that Faustus has his moment of deep regret and panic which takes him through a surprisingly quick couple of monologues, before the play is over.
If Marlowe wanted me to learn something from this, I think that he should have manifested the perks of godliness to contrast with diabolical soul-selling. More than the occasional good angel coming in to make a brief, half-hearted appeal, perhaps Faustus could have seen another character at peace with their own, simple life of giving to those around him, loving and serving others. He could have shown acts of charity that … uh-oh, sounds like my modern day Christianity bias is shining through here--love and peace, man!
Oh well. It’s not a terrible play, and there are moments of interest. But I can see why Marlowe would have been a draw in his age, and I can definitely see why he is not as big a draw now. Will I read more from Marlowe? I think so. I’d like to see what he does when he’s not stuck trying to tell a religious story, but so far: Bard 1, Marlowe 0. ...more
This is one of those reading experiences that can never be duplicated. It’s also just the kind of thing that I thrive on. (If you wanted an actual revThis is one of those reading experiences that can never be duplicated. It’s also just the kind of thing that I thrive on. (If you wanted an actual review on the actual story--silly you--you’ll have to skip to the final paragraph. My story about reading this story is going to take a while!)
Looking to appease my regular Wodehouse fix, I decided to try something a bit different from those I’d already read. I did this as someone who completely respected, if not adored, Wodehouse’s response to a critic who accused him of using all his old characters under different name. In the preface to his next novel, he responded by saying, “I have outgeneraled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names.” The sameness of his stories is definitely a big part of the draw--I wanted to enter familiar, silly, pure Wodehouse territory.
At the same time, Project Gutenberg has a surprisingly small selection of Wodehouse’s titles available (considering he wrote nearly one-hundred). So, as I browsed the books available, one of them mentioned a prince. Huh. Royalty. That’s new for Wodehouse. I downloaded it and began reading.
I was pretty engaged right from the start. Suddenly, a combination of school and home business, and the fact that the story setting switched from an island in the Mediterranean to turn of the century New York City, brought my progress to an immediate halt. While I’ve yet to find a Wodehouse novel I haven’t liked, I think I have the least patience for his New York setting stories.
Finally, once things settled down externally, I decided that I really needed to finish that Wodehouse novel. I jumped into it with new resolve. The task was not easy. Not only did the story stubbornly stay in New York, but a lot of the plot began to feel really familiar. Again, I like the familiarity of Wodehouse’s works, but this bordered on self-plagiarism--even using some same side characters from another story I recalled, with those characters doing the same things. I plugged forward, determined to give Wodehouse the benefit of the doubt.
Suddenly, I found myself in a scene that I remembered as an exact replica of another one I had read, down to the dialogue and minute details of description. I had enough. Wodehouse, by jove, had gone too far! I searched my mind to remember the other story ole Plum was lifting passages out of and recalled Psmith, Journalist. I almost laughed, the main character, Psmith, directly correlated with a minor character who had suddenly become a main character in The Prince and Betty. Wodehouse named him “Smith.”
I appealed to the Internet to see if it knew of this outrageous bait and switch. Well, don’t let anyone tell you the Internet is completely useless, because not only did it verify my doubts, but it also dispelled my angst against my temporarily-fallen-from-his-pedestal comrade in literature, Wodehouse. The version of The Prince and Betty that I was reading was a compilation of two British stories Wodehouse had written (Psmith, Journalist being the other one) for an American audience. Okay, so he was stealing from himself to create a new story for a new audience: Wodehouse was now acquitted of all charges of deliberate fraud.
That did not change the fact that I had invested in a new story that I was truly interested in. Not only that, but my sources told me that the original story did not take place in New York, but in Britain … back to Wodehouse territory that I reveled in. I needed to find the original The Prince and Betty story. The game was afoot.
Gutenberg and Archive.org both came up empty (at first). They simply held the Frankensteined American version. Then I found out that the original had come out serialized in a couple magazines. The first magazine I tried to hunt down looked like I would only get a hold of through an inter-library loan--something I was not averse to accomplishing (it would not have been the first time I had used it to find a Wodehouse gem written while he was in a German prison camp for WWII). Luckily, the second magazine had been meticulously stored back at Archive.org. While I had to do some digging through issues (The Strand Magazine, 1912, Jan.-Jun. file, in case you wondered), eventually I got a PDF of what I wanted, and sliced out the unneeded portions (though I kept the fascinating article succeeding the story in the magazine, titled, “Which Is the Finest Race?”--thank you, 1912). Wha-la! Previous Wodehouse story restored as well as my faith in the great British successor to the Bard.
As for The Prince and Betty itself (the non-American version), it clips along at a good pace, proving to be a short, amusing read. The romance is engaging--it takes itself a bit more seriously than Wodehouse’s later novels, but it never becomes tedious or too unrealistic. My favorite parts were the politics of the silly island nation of Mervo, and then the return to England with its standard, upper class buffoonery, contrasted to satisfying effect by some American down-to-earth-ness. Was it worth all the trouble? That’s like asking someone if the action scenes in Indiana Jones were worth watching to see him get the Ark of the Covenant at the end (yes, I just compared finding Wodehouse’s original story to Indiana Jones’s finest action scenes--I’m a book nerd, okay?). Read it and enjoy it … if you can find it! ...more
The last, remaining plays of Shakespeare that have evaded my grasp are the Greek/Roman ones, though I have managed to knock off the obligatory JuliusThe last, remaining plays of Shakespeare that have evaded my grasp are the Greek/Roman ones, though I have managed to knock off the obligatory Julius Caesar and the lesser known (though fantastic, in my opinion), Pericles, Prince of Tyre. So as part of my Shakespeare team's endeavor to collectively read all things Shakespeare, I took a stab at (oooh, poor phrasing) the most Roman/Greek sounding one I could: Titus Andronicus.
This one pits the noble(ish) Roman general Titus Andronicus reluctantly against the new emperor of Rome, a messed up goth queen he captured--with her conniving moor--and even his own sons (in a disturbing scene). Things unravel pretty quickly at the beginning, and then they descend to ugliness for the middle part of the story. It is not until the very end that the story's ickiness redeems itself in a sweeping revenge blood bath. I was actually relieved by the ending, satisfied that most characters got their due, but I still think that the vast majority of the play gives very little motivation for pushing through to the small payoff. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that Titus is not a character I sympathize with much. Just when I start to feel like he is a guy I can invest myself into, he does or says something that puts me off. So even the payoff at the end is not as powerful as it could be. Still, I felt that his son, Lucius, with the little time he has, provided just that. If only the noble tragedy could occur in the middle, instead of the end, then I would be excited about following the aftermath and characters that appealed to me (like Lucius in this one or Mark Antony in Julius Caesar). This way, however, the characters are swept clean and those that remain have only a few lines of reflection, and then it's done.
Oh well. Definitely interesting. Definitely dark. Definitely not my favorite. Definitely not a waste of time. Most importantly? Definitely Roman … and I am definitely done....more
Sherman Alexie is a super funny guy. I've loved his previous stuff for its entertainment value plus a new and often poignant literary perspective. ButSherman Alexie is a super funny guy. I've loved his previous stuff for its entertainment value plus a new and often poignant literary perspective. But I also have cringed at a bunch of it. Some of it I haven't even had the stomach to finish. But none of that changes the fact that he is a funny and fresh voice in literature. Then I heard that he wrote a young adult novel. The amazing writer Sherman Alexie, but being forced to stay within certain grounds of decency … this was something that I had to read.
So I checked it out from the library and jumped into it. What I did not anticipate was that not only is Sherman Alexie restricted by language and situations, but also by the genre boundaries of teen fiction. In other words, this turns out to be a high school misfit tale. These are stories that really resonate with a lot of teens, but they never have for me. Because I'm not a misfit? I have plenty of high school classmates that will attest otherwise. I simply did not find high school to be as divisive, horrific, awesome, and/or exciting as most of these stories portray it. Of course, that does not mean that I can't relate with a character who truly does find it to be all these things, as Junior/Arnold does in this story. But the other turn off to these stories is that the storyline is basically a year of school. That works fine in Harry Potter, since there is usually a goal or high stakes conflict that everyone's working towards, but in realistic fiction this basically works out like a regular school year with its anticipated--definitely not gripping--ups and downs. And as someone who spends his life in school, I'm not looking for new ways to relive it in a meandering, short-story collection-ish, checklist of adolescent conflict/resolutions sort of way.
So, stuck in a genre that I'm not a fan of, with an author whose humor (which I usually find sharp) now descended to a sophisticated boys locker room level, plus the obligatory comments of sexual exploration that teen novels feel they must include for the sake of daring openness (?) or shock factor honesty (?) (or, if I were to be less generous, I'd say that it's included to ensure it gets some censorship publicity) … you would think that this would not bode well for the novel-reading experience. But if you thought that then you underestimate the underlying power behind Sherman Alexie's writing. This is a guy who, deep down, has a feel for the beauty and tragedy of life and cultures and people, regardless of the form it is presented in. He writes with a bit of angst, but he's also big enough to look past it. And he has a few memorable scenes that resound with raw, poignant truth.
I guess, in true teen fiction form, I had a love/hate relationship with this story--well, maybe not that strong (and therefore less teen fiction): like/dislike relationship. What helped tip the scale into the recommendation status? The fact that Alexie managed to make me cry a couple times. I cringed and yawned more, but the writing did make me cry. And, as the basketball coach in the story says at one point, "If you care about something enough, it's going to make you cry." Well, Mr. Alexie, you got me to care enough....more