Tag Archives: books

Ten Books that Stuck With Me

I apologize for the lengthy delay since my last post. There are no excuses. Actually, there are many excuses, but no one wants to hear them. But I am back, my faithful dozen readers.

I have been issued the “Ten Books that Stuck with You” challenge. I was going to just post to Facebook, but the blog allows me a little room to ramble. So please, indulge me and enjoy. This may contain some mild spoilers.

If you don’t know this book, you don’t know me. I’ve read it probably a dozen times. What stuck with me: Brian finding the pilot’s body. Gave me nightmares then and still frightens me now.

I would like to list all the Roald Dahl children’s books, but this one was always my favorite (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox). What stuck with me: It’s okay that burps and farts are funny.

Technically a trilogy. Having gone back and reread it as an adult, I can see the flaws in these books, but I read it when I was in their audience sweet spot: 13-15 year old male. What stuck with me: Tasslehoff Burrfoot was always my favorite character.

While I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books of all time, it stuck with me. When I read it as a teen, I was amazed at the alternate history concept: what if racist time travelers brought AK-47’s to the Confederacy to ensure they won the Civil War? Wow! Also, I was a sheltered and prudish young fellow, and the level of violence and (relatively tame) nudity was high enough to make me uncomfortable. What stuck with me: machine-gunned bodies stacking up into a wall.

The film Gettysburg got to me first, but the novel resonated with me powerfully, as well. From here, I didn’t learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. I learned about friendship, loss, honor, heroism, and pride. What stuck with me: Little Round Top, of course. Also the brutal speech by Buster Kilrain about the worthlessness of man, perfect counterpoint to Chamberlain’s lofty ideals.

Do we read because of who we  are, or are we who we are because of what we read?

 

When you are a fifteen year old boy and you read a book about a cat who dies of happiness (that isn’t a spoiler; look at the title), you know you are different from your peers. A beautiful story founded in Buddhism, but accessible to everyone. Jeez, I’m getting a frog in my throat just thinking about the book. What stuck with me: Extreme catharsis from a book that can be read in an hour.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest gets all the attention, and it’s a great novel, but a tidier, better contained one. Kesey pulled all the stops on SAGN. The atmosphere is intense. You will put down the book feeling soaked with Pacific rain, smelling of sawdust, and hearing the roar of the river. What stuck with me: The atmosphere.

Warren won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, and it is evident here. ATKM tells an archetypal story about how the ends never justify the means. Using unethical methods to achieve noble goals does not indicate that you are noble; it actually transforms you into the evil you were once combatting. The prose sings. What stuck with me: the whole, crushing, Greek tragedy inevitability of the book from the first page.

Most people stop reading it because they figure the rewards of the novel can’t be worth all the hard work that goes into understanding it. They are wrong. This is a high input/ high yield book. Joyce literally writes about everything, and after reading it, the world will never be the same for you. What stuck with me: Many parts, but the talk with Deasy, the teacher, still haunts me.

Reading this book was a distinct turning point in my life. I went from being someone who likes to write to being a writer. And King doesn’t glamorize the writing life, either. Succinct, honest, supportive, funny, and revealing, anyone who writes should read King’s memoir, as should anyone who enjoys his writing. What stuck with me: It’s tough to pick one part. My copy has a dog ear or post it on every page. But his “writer’s toolbox” was revelatory to me—here is a professional, successful author, laying out the groundwork for good writing and editing habits.

Honorable Mentions (is that cheating?):

Anything by Ursula K LeGuin (probably my favorite author, but I can’t choose one book. Maybe Lavinia). Anything by Tolstoy (same problem as above). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (so badly wanted this in the Top 10). The Giver by Lois Lowry. The Odyssey by Homer. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. The Worm Ouroboros  by E.R.R. Edding. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (a kid drowns and another kid uses the word “hell.” Both stunned me in 4th grade). Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The Dead Zone by Stephen King.

This exercise had me thinking a lot. What makes a book “stick” with us? It isn’t always (or usually) about literary quality or merit. On the path to my Master’s degree, I read dozens of books whose titles I can’t even recall. And on my Top 10 are some books of dubious quality. I think most of it has to do with reading the right book at the right time. Read a book too early, and it won’t register with the reader (or in my case, shock him). But read a book too late, and its magic may be lost. I know several people who worship David Eddings’ Belgariad Series. But they probably read it as teens, who are the intended audience. When I read it as a twenty-something, all I saw was a juvenile parade of fantasy tropes. I had read too much fantasy by then to be impressed. And I wonder, too—do the books resonate with us because they speak to values we already have? Or do the books cause us to foster certain values that, later in life, we recognize as important?

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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Book Review: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Are you looking for a young adult novel founded in wholesome values and featuring admirable young characters who display exemplary behavior and end up being rewarded for their good choices?

Then don’t look at Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky.

Under the Empyrean Sky

Wendig, aside from having written a number of novels and nonfiction books, runs a terrific blog called Terrible Minds. It is always insightful, always frank, frequently funny, and occasionally offensive. In a good way. Definitely worth checking out.

The novel can be called a dystopian future. It has been labeled “cornpunk,” which I think is a very cool term. In The Heartland, corn has become the primary crop for the entire world. It has been so genetically modified that it is like a weed, but a weed that has driven the world into a sharp division of the “haves” and “have nots.” The haves live in a giant flotilla in the sky, the Empyrean. All the other losers live on the ground, scrounging out existence while developing cancer and tumors from the toxic, malnourished soil.

Of course the young protagonist, Cael McAvoy, is one of these ground dwellers. He captains a salvage ship, scrounging out a meager life. He’s in love with Gwennie, his shipmate, but is facing Obligation Day, when the Empyrean arranges marriage for people of the proper age. Without giving away any spoilers, Cael refuses to passively accept the decrees from above, meanwhile trying to navigate the crummy time we call adolescence.

This is not a neat, tidy book. It features teens who: (1) swear, (2) have sex, (3) smoke, and (4) are mean to one another. They make the tough-guy characters of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders seem pretty tame, and they were shocking in their time. Some prudish readers out there might be dismayed. Let them be. Because guess what? These are things that real teens do. Though the setting is fictional, Wendig’s characters reflect real-life people. Above all, however, these characters reflect deep values: friendship, trust, love, and most importantly, fighting for freedom, autonomy, and equality. They’re rough people, for sure, but their hearts and minds are devoted to admirable principles.

In the numerous choices of YA novels, Under the Empyrean Sky stands out for being rough, fun, and thought-provoking. Other novels also present edgy characters, but lack the moral core present here. Still other novels are fun, but not substantive—fluff. And there are other novels that present warnings about environmental damage, too, but do so in a heavy-handed and unpalatable way. Wendig deftly creates a world that is frighteningly plausible, yet fully realized in its own, rather than just a cardboard backing for a moralizing tale. Although I am not really the target audience (too old by about fifteen years), I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and recommend it to all fans of dystopias, environmentalism, adventure, and high fructose corn syrup.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing). #1: Reading and Waiting

Sorry for the delay between posts. I’m involved in a big new writing project, which took a lot of my attention in August. And the new school year is beginning, which takes everything else I have left. Suddenly, the expansive summer hours of creative thought are gobbled up by teenagers and lesson planning, forcing me to scramble for every writing moment I can get. And this led me to think about life habits– the ones that help or hurt writing.

So for my next five blog posts, I’ll be discussing the F.E.W. That is, the Friends and Enemies of Writing. Each post will look at one of each.

Friend #1: Reading

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Comes in many flavors: Hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

Duh. Reading is tops on each “Every Writer Should…” list. So I won’t belabor the critical importance of reading, and reading a lot.

So, read. Okay. But read what? Should a writer read extensively within his/her genre, or read a wide breadth of texts? The answer is yes. A writer needs to know the depth of his/her genre, and all the work that has been done before and is being done now. But a writer also needs to explore beyond the comfort zone. Way beyond it. And not just in terms of genre, but in terms of quality, format (traditionally and self-published), and in terms of the author’s gender, race, age, and epoch.

No time for reading? If reading isn’t your primary recreation (surpassing T.V., exercise, Web surfing, napping, cooking, playing music, anything), then you might be in the wrong field. Have other interests, sure. I do. But reading is the Primary Fun.

Enemy #1: Waiting

If you have a life that permits you numerous free hours to write and read at leisure, good for you. If you’re constantly busy and bemoaning the lack of time to read and write, read on.

Stephen King says in On Writing “I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” I read on the train, in the grocery store, or while washing dishes (thanks Audible!). I typically spend an hour at the dentist, 45 minutes of which are spent in a book.

Shit. I left “Gravity’s Rainbow” at home. Guess it’s National Enquirer today.

When I tell people I commute an hour-plus each way, each day, the response is often pity. “That’s terrible,” they say. “Wouldn’t you rather drive?”

I would not. See, there’s nothing to do during a commute. It becomes my built-in reading/writing time, a guaranteed two hours of productivity per day. And since I don’t have endless idle hours, but a strict, limited work time, I work hard and strategically during the ride. Rather than being a burden, the commute has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

commuters

If these jokers are playing Angry Birds instead of reading on a Kindle app, I’m gonna go all sorts of book-ninja crazy on them.

A Cool Idea in London, Four Years Ago

So how can you beat that enemy, Waiting? Fill the tedious moments of the day with writing and reading. Ask yourself always: Could I be reading or writing while I do this?

If the answer is yes, get to it.

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Why World War Z Wimped Out

I eagerly awaited this week’s release of World War Z, the film based on the Max Brooks novel. The New York Times Bestseller is an oral history of mankind’s war against the zombie apocalypse, written in the style of a report with interviews from survivors all over the world. While American characters are frequently the focus of the story, readers get perspectives from South Africa, China, Russia, South America, and all over the world. The tone is realistic and journalistic. The novel is remarkable in several ways:

  • There is no main character. The narrator is almost completely removed from the action. If anything, mankind is the main character. That’s some feat, pulling off a compelling book without someone to root for. But Brooks keeps the tension by making readers wonder how humanity will overcome the challenges from both zombies and from other humans.

  • Social commentary. Most zombie stories carry the same moral: what makes humanity special is the ability to reason. Zombies represent humans minus this gift. But World War Z digs a lot deeper into more cutting issues, including America’s dubious role as “world leader,” the savagery that humans will employ to save themselves, and the power of unconventional thinking.

  • The novel avoids many zombie clichés. Some elements are common to all zombie fiction: the viral origin, the brain as a target, the general uselessness of conventional weapons, worldwide epidemic. However, Brooks puts his own spin on a lot of things (hint: zombies don’t need oxygen, so the sea ain’t safe!). He did incredible amounts of research, so not only does the novel feel realistic, it is actually based on solid information.

I saw the film this afternoon. My expectations were…wary. First bad sign: a PG-13 zombie movie. I certainly don’t need blood and guts to be entertained. But what makes zombies so fearsome is the visceral way they attack and devour. For a zombie film to be effective, viewers need gore. Sure enough, the film featured lots of cutaway shots and off-screen brain-munching, and was therefore bloodless and only occasionally scary. And from what I saw of the previews, it appeared to have all the soulless sheen of a Big Hollywood Production.

After seeing it, here’s why the film wimped out:

  • Main character. The film attempts to make a main character of Brooks’ narrator. Brad Pitt plays the character ably, but there’s not much of interest to him. He’s a generic, Big Hollywood Hero. And the characters around him are totally forgettable. They emerge long enough to move him (and the plot) forward, then die or are abandoned.
  • Complete lack of all that cool stuff from the novel. All the edgy stuff from the novel like pharm companies getting rich off of fake vaccines, a snarl of political issues, and the brutal efforts to reclaim the world are all missing. The focus of the film is on finding a cure, so the “war” against zombies never actually happens (or at least viewers never see it).
  • The film embraces clichés. Good guy hero with emotional scars, called on to save the world? Check. Worried, ineffectual wife and whimpering daughters to fight for? Check. Swarms of secondary characters, human and zombie, to aid/annoy the hero on quest? Check. Unfunny wisecracks by tough guy commandos to lighten the mood? Check. Disproportionately white cast? Check (Side note: there was only one black character in a grocery store in Newark. Come on!). Overall, the film took every opportunity to make a predictable, safe, Big Hollywood Blockbuster. May the production company enjoy their millions.

I am NOT one who demands that a film adhere strictly to its source material. Many fine films have been made from fine books. Some films are better than their novels. (The Prestige). But everything that made the book an engaging read was eliminated in this film, and that’s what left me disappointed.

The film wasn’t a disaster. Brad Pitt makes the character sympathetic, if not interesting. And I was excited to see Marc Foster at the helm—he’s done great stuff in the past. And his artistic touch was evident in some of the lighting and some intense dream sequences. And the band Muse contributed to the more ambient sections of the soundtrack, and they’re the band to write a soundtrack for the apocalypse. It wasn’t a terrible movie, just a disappointing, wimpy one.

Here’s what I’d love to have seen: a mock-documentary. Make it much, much closer to the novel. It’s not like mockumentaries are unprecedented or even all the unusual to American audiences. It would lack a main character (and a Leading Man Role), so I can see why Big Hollywood would back away from that idea. But I would be riveted to my seat watching a series of interviews serving as voiceovers to the scenes from all over the world. Show me Patient Zero in a peasant hut in China. Show me the massacre at the Battle of Yonkers. Show me zombies, frozen in Minnesota in the winter. Show me the damn underwater zombies, pounding on the submarines! It would not have been an easy film to make, but it would have been a more compelling and much braver one.

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Poe and Clarke– On Tour Again!

If you have any interest in speculative/weird/horror fiction, or have taken a 19th Century American Lit course, you probably have a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. I obtained my “Complete Tales and Poems” from my grandparents. It’s a staple to any self-respecting bookshelf. Certainly, if you already have a tidy Poe collection that includes the word “complete,” you wouldn’t need any other collection.

Right?

So thought I, until I was perusing the bargain section of B&N. I came across a handsome, tempting, eerie hardcover of “Tales of Mystery and Imagination.” Forces beyond those of the natural world placed the book–which I had first seen reviewed a couple months ago— in my hands.

The cover. The background design is an illustration in red and black; a skull and a woman in profile stare in opposing directions, imposed over a twisted vortex. In the foreground in black and white, a cloaked man stares at us probingly. The cover design tempts us — and challenges us– to open the pages and discover the dark things within.

I opened.

The frontispiece is an illustration of the pivotal murder scene from “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The figures are long, lean, and mad-eyed. Like Poe’s writing, Harry Clarke’s illustrations forgo realism and sweep us into the dark and unfathomable recesses of the psyche. Fingers and toes are sharp and pointed; a cape swirls parallel to the floor with no apparent breeze. We are entering a dream-state.

There is really no need to comment on the stories themselves here, or discuss Poe’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I’d need a separate post (or college course) for that. What makes this edition really special are the illustrations. Harry Clarke was an Irish artist and illustrator from the turn of the twentieth century. His illustrations to a 1919 edition of “Tales” put him on the map, and he went on to illustrate a number of other important works: Goethe’s “Faust,” Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In an eerie twist of fortune, he died at the age of 41– the age of Poe’s death– of tuberculosis– the disease that killed Poe’s wife.

Why seek out this book? There’s something special about finding illustrations that capture and enhance the essence of the prose, and that is the case here. Reading stories in this volume is a different experience than reading them online, or on an e-reader, or even in a “Complete Tales” collection. It’s also the type of book that’s great to leave lying around conspicuously, so that houseguests can idly pick it up, thumb through it, and be either enchanted or disgusted. Think of it as a litmus test of the weird.

Keep an eye out for my next post, in which I’ll talk about a different take on “Tales of Mystery and Imagination.”

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Adam Knight

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