Monday, June 3, 2019

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

Imagine watching sports primarily for the athleticism. The power, finesse, and agility of a few choice athletes doing all kinds of impressive things on either the field or the court that celebrates the grace and motion of the human form at its top potential. Now imagine these same athletes refusing to cooperate with their teammates or score. Despite your admiration for their talent, you might grow frustrated, particularly if your team ends up losing the game.

That’s how I generally feel after finishing one of Eddison’s novels. A Fish Dinner in Memison, book two of the Zimiamvian Trilogy, is one such work. (Incidentally, book one, Mistress of Mistresses, published in 1935, suffers the same fate.) Both narrative and dialogue offers stunning, spellbinding craftsmanship in language, phrases flowing in a poignant manner so adroitly constructed as to seduce the reader into turning yet another page for yet more linguistic beauty. The seeming ease with which Eddison composes his prose – prose altogether smooth, erudite, lyrical, piercing, tender, perceptive – is unassailable. His characters feel real. Their temperaments are convincing, their desires relatable.

But like lots of wordsmiths of the medium, this is a writer comparable to a cellist providing stunning finger work and other virtuosity but who lacks a song or composition to perform. It’s with only a passing reflection I bemoan the approach Eddison and some other talented authors employ since, focused on attending to the cast, costumes, mannerisms, witticisms, and environment, they nonetheless fail to provide a plot. 

I don’t dispute Eddison is a great writer, but because I would also enjoy seeing these characters move through a story, l ultimately finish the novel somewhat dissatisfied. If one can’t have both, I suppose it comes down to choosing between a rusty clunker rocketing along the Audubon at breakneck speeds (your average high-octane thriller with only serviceable writing), or a sleek, polished Aston Martin forever in park. Of course, we’d probably all prefer an Aston Martin rocketing along the Audubon, but if life has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t have everything. Rated PG-13. Four out of five stars (principally for the writing).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Southern Fried Sushi, by Jennifer Rogers Spinola

Southern Fried Sushi is a sermonizing novel. This isn’t a criticism, per se. Sewell’s Black Beauty, hailed as a classic, is sermonizing. Dante’s classic poem The Divine Comedy is sermonizing. For some Christians, such reads can be edifying, serving to reinforce one’s faith. For the Christian like me who prefers subtlety, however, these authors approaches are, at times, too preachy.

In Spinola’s defense, she can write. Her narrative is particularly good. The story itself is well plotted, coherent, and touching. Characters are well defined. Several scenes moved me emotionally, including, admittedly, a few of these sermonizing scenes. And that’s what storytelling is all about. But because the protagonist struggles with her disbelief while her new-found friends offer answers to dispel her reservations, sometimes lengthy answers, these numerous scenes serve to address the average nonbeliever’s misconceptions about the faith too blatantly for my blood.

While I can sympathize with a writer inclined to testify to her faith or make the case for Christianity, I’m not this novel’s intended audience since I much prefer a story with a moral rather than a sermon posing as a story. Having said that, I recognize, as a writer who has read several books on storytelling, every good story, religious or otherwise, makes a moral argument.

It ultimately boils down to the individual reader’s sensibilities. For example, I’ve read more than a few novels written by Christians who achieved the same objective in ways I found far more tactful, tasteful. Modern Christian writers such as Lisa Sampson and Tosca Lee, what few books I’ve read of theirs (I highly recommend Lee’s novels The Legend of Sheba and Iscariot), never stop their stories to explore the minutia of their faith. Rather their stories offer a more sophisticated approach by way of hints and suggestions. Their moral argument never hits you over the head.

Indeed, one of the reasons I so love the timeless novels of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and George MacDonald is because these guys were writers first. Tolkien allegedly wrote in a letter, ‘The Lord of the Rings began implicitly Catholic and ended explicitly so.’ Yet at no point throughout the trilogy is there a single reference to Catholicism or Christianity or The Bible.

I don’t doubt these men’s faith was of the upmost importance to them in their personal lives, but when it came to their novels, they didn’t compromise their art for the sake of a sermon. Instead, their faith shined through as a result of their sincerity and devotion to their writing craft. Their themes were woven into their stories in thoughtful, suggestive, and never obtrusive ways.

Another good example would be Graham Greene’s exquisite novel The Power and the Glory. Greene (another Catholic) never pauses to remind you of the historical horrors of an atheist socialist who hates the church, rounding up priests and executing them in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s. Instead, the moral argument is made clear by way of the story itself and the poignant scenes throughout which focus on character and plot development.  

But let’s return to Southern Fried Sushi. Shiloh is a young, modern American woman living in Japan and working for the Associated Press until she learns that her self-destructive mother has died. She flies back home to Staunton, Virginia to attend the funeral. There she discovers from her mother’s friends, most of whom are simple Christians with southern hospitality oozing from their ears, that Shiloh’s mother had found religion and devoted her remaining years to helping the deaf and blind.  
So far so good, as they say. Over the course of getting her bearings in a new town and attending her mother’s funeral, Shiloh befriends these hayseeds with reservations. Sure. They’re gracious, generous, and apparently sincere. And she’s humbled by their hospitality. At the same time, she’s irritated by their religiosity. She has convinced herself, as most modern, nonreligious people do, that faith is a crutch, most likely a fiction, and that she can succeed well on her own without relying on some pie in the sky belief.

Meanwhile, Shiloh discovers, by way of phone, text messages, and Skype, that back in Japan her fiancé Carlos, a fiery Spaniard, is cheating on her. We as readers already know Shiloh, pressed for time, plagiarized an article for the Associated Press before boarding her flight from Japan to Virginia. In the interim, her boss back in Japan finds out about her unethical blunder and fires her.

Without a job in Japan, she has no valid visa for returning there. Now she’s stuck with all these backwoods rednecks in Staunton, in mounting credit card debt, unemployed, and bucking at these native southerners’ lack of sophistication and poor grammar.

Despite Shiloh’s smug exterior, however, anxiety has set in. As she prepares to sell her late mother’s house, utility bills accumulate. She needs a job, maybe two. But the prospect of employment at a local Barnes & Noble and then, concurrently, as a waitress at a local restaurant, are such blows to her ego, such steep steps down from her career as an AP writer, she initially feels humiliated and ashamed.  

Gradually, after a series of scenes intended to address the modern secularist’s reservations regarding Christianity, Shiloh gradually discovers her misconceptions were only that. Indeed, as she explores The Bible, she realizes the faith makes sense. She needs God in her life.

It’s a touching story, with a balanced amount of well composed detail. Apart from the sermonizing, my only other complaint is with the format. My Kindle version had errors. (I blame the conversion software.) Words would be pressed together in places, with no spaces between them. At other times, lines would drop arbitrarily midway across the page and resume on a line below it. Additionally, several times dialogue between two people would share the same paragraph.

Such interruptions drew me out of the moment every time. However, excluding these software hiccups and the sermons about Christianity via elongated conversations and testimonials, and instead reminded of the emotionally powerful moments and solid narrative, I give this novel four out of five stars. Rated PG 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Story of O, Pauline Réage (aka Anne Desclos)

Published in 1954, shortly thereafter banned, later hailed as a classic, this was one of the most depraved stories I’ve ever read. O, because of her love for Rene, becomes his and his private club members' willing sex slave. Used to satisfy every conceivable fetish and catering to every sexual appetite under the Parisian sun - from anal sex to chains and whips – she is beaten, debased, humiliated, and defiled. Every orifice is violated. Eventually her derriere is branded like chattel and her labia is pierced and tagged. Tragically, the initial reason she submitted to these horrific indulgences was for no other reason than to please her lover Rene. Rene passes her off to his step-brother Sir Stephen because he wants O to serve someone she doesn’t love and who doesn’t love her. Sad, shocking, and written by a female writer, no less, who kept her identity under wraps for forty years after the novel’s publication.

This novel has been described as erotic by some. I didn’t find it the least bit erotic, however. Instead, I found it utterly tragic. Still, the prose style is phenomenal. Extremely well written. And for that reason and that reason alone, I give it four out of five stars. I don’t recommend it, though. Too heart-wrenching and disturbing. Rated NC-17

Friday, April 19, 2019

Old Greek Stories, by James Baldwin (1895)

This isn’t the James Baldwin of the early to late 20th century, raised in Harlem, New York, social critic and author of several books and plays, three of which I’ve read: The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country. Instead, this James Baldwin was born in 1841 in Indiana and became a school superintendent at age 24. This James Baldwin died a year and a half after the Harlem James Baldwin was born. This James Baldwin, the school superintendent, wrote and edited so many school text books that, at one point, over half of the school books in use in the U.S. had been either edited or written by him. He wrote primarily for younger students, roughly 50 books, including, of course, this one.

While Old Greek Stories is well written, since it’s geared toward the young adult reader, its telling lacks the more sophisticated style and diction found in the works of Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch. Assuming kids read anymore (though I suspect video games have replaced that pastime), I highly recommend this book for that age group. Five out of five stars. PG

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Glance Behind the Curtain

Writing well requires practice. For me, lots. Practice, that is. I don’t mean the mechanics of typing words on a computer document or putting the nib of a pen to paper. I’m talking about the craft of composing one’s thoughts into sentences and paragraphs that utilize words effectively.

Think about it. Most everything we do involves our five senses and, apart from traffic signs, few words. Good writers struggle to convert or transpose these sensations into an arrangement of words that allow the reader to genuinely experience these moments. When Ignatius turns on the faucet in the dead of Winter and the shower head splits the freezing current into forty-seven tiny needles blasting his chest and causing his body to recoil, we can, hopefully, feel that ice cold water against our own skin, putting us there in that moment.

A good writer is always searching for new ways to describe the ordinary, such as the appearance of the stars in a night sky as pulverized glass. A barefoot child running along the Serengeti as the grass tickles his ankles like a cat’s whiskers. A single engine plane rushing low overhead and roaring like the angry exhaust of a revved motorcycle.    

That’s initially why I began this blog back in November of 2011. My intention was to prod myself to write, to play with words. Similes make me smile. I remember relishing the exercise of describing my journey to retrieve a book from the public library during a Summer thunderstorm in Texas. As you can see, I laid it on a bit thick. “The rain smacked my windshield like pellets. Lightning flared like a heliarc. I finally pulled into the unpaved parking lot, shut off the engine and listened to the terrific kettle drum solo on the roof of my Taurus.”

I figured establishing a modest blog would force me to periodically note the lapse of time, recognize I hadn’t posted anything in weeks, and then sit down and churn out an amusing review that revealed more about me than about the book in question. Instead, the opposite happened. I concurrently immersed myself in a fresh composition, a manuscript for an epic saga, began reading more than I had in ages, and wrote more reviews than I saw fit for posting. I invested my remaining free time in things I regarded as either too personal or irrelevant to a blog I’d subtitled ‘A Blog about Books, Writing, and Anything Else Word-Centric.’

In retrospect, I should’ve opted for the term ‘ego-centric,’ since my pride appears the motivating factor for most of what I post. At the time, I was trying to distance myself from the bloggers who wrote about common everyday occurrences in bland, ordinary ways. Instead, I wanted to write about what I regarded as important and say it in a way hopefully worth reading.

But then a series of things happened in my life, phenomenal things, some of which were related to books I’d read insofar as they changed my life or my outlook. I’d also lost weight, got fit, and switched jobs. All the while, I elected to blog about some of these things while refraining from mentioning others.

Meanwhile I was emailing a friend about things I didn’t consider fit for my blog, amusing encounters I’d had with strangers, acquaintances, and clients on my job. One began “I don’t know what time it was, but the sun was in my eyes. When I said ‘hello’ to her, she smiled wide and giggled, and it was then that I knew she wanted me.” Or this entry from two months ago:

Walked into the office of one of my clients as one of the guys at his computer was telling a fellow employee, ‘I don’t care if you want to wear a dress and heels and take a shit on the floor, you’re still a guy and not a woman.’ To which I, deadpan, rejoindered, ‘Hey! I did apologize for that,’ causing the office to erupt in laughter.    

I’ll never know what impact if any my blog has on anyone. My blog gets lots of hits, but this says nothing about whether these hits represent readers. If someone is searching for a book I’ve reviewed, a link to my blog appears in their search results. They might click on this result, read the first line of my post, ask themselves, “What the hell is this?” conclude, “This isn’t what I wanted,” and close the tab without reading any further. Which is fine. I’ve come to view my blog as more of a diary at this point, chronicling my edited, sometimes ever so slightly embellished, life, regardless whether anyone cares.

This only makes sense, since I write primarily because I enjoy the process. This also explains why I use this medium to reveal my more contemptuous views about society, why I spurn mediocrity, abhor television, mock atheists, and ridicule popular but poorly written novels. I’ve reached a certain age in which I care little about public opinion. I’d much rather tell the truth and risk scorn than ingratiate myself for approval.

Ultimately, I write because I can’t help myself. What I write about isn’t as important to me as the words used to convey it. Hopefully, my eclectic approach, my love for the English language and its malleable properties, entertains and resonates. This blog is my canvas, my practice pad, my vehicle for improvement. That’s my mission, anyway. My impetus. Fuel. Dharma. It’s about time I discuss my extracurricular activities beyond what my current writing projects entail or the books I’ve read.

After recently reviewing some of my old blog posts and catching myself thinking, “Oh! I’d forgotten about that book” or “that event” or “that period in my life” or “that metaphor,” I decided to be a bit more forthcoming about the happenings in my life – my sudden and somewhat endearing fascination with gentleman’s hat apparel, as well as my recent immersion into the Japanese language.

If you visit this blog for the scandal, I can always plead the fifth. If you’ve come for the literary insight, you’ll most likely leave empty-handed. But if you’ve stopped by for an older esquire’s laudable, betimes amusing, efforts to expand, improve, and enrich his life via literature and self-indulgence, please make yourself at home. I’ve left the kettle on. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

To Catch Her Death, The Grim Reality Series, Book 1, by Boone Brux (2013)

I’d like to think of myself as hopeful, optimistic. Will I ever meet that special someone? Probably not. Will I sell ten million copies of my debut novel? Let’s be reasonable. Still, will my investments rise above their double-digits? On second thought, perhaps I’m not as hopeful or optimistic as I think I am. And yet when it comes to art, I’m as eager and as enthusiastic as a teen with fervent hormones on his first date. In fact, I tend to frighten people, particularly non-readers.

Sure. It’s well established that I’m a literary snob. A man of letters, a prose elitist of sorts. However, not everything I read was written a hundred years ago. Not everything else I read is scholarly or highbrow. Indeed, gentle reader, despite my better judgement, I frequently enjoy shutting off my brain and reading a modern high-octane comedy of errors devoid of substance or profundity.

A few months ago, I subscribed to Bookperk, a promotional service from Harper Collins Publishers. The service sends me daily deals via email showcasing ebooks in all genres ranging in price from one to three bucks. To Catch Her Death was one such deal. Based on the cover and the blurb, I anticipated a mildly amusing romp through frivolity. At a mere ninety-nine cents, I figured I couldn’t go far wrong. In that sense, I got what I paid for.

The novel marks my first foray into urban fantasy, and, to its credit, the story provides an interesting concept told tongue-in-cheek. Lisa, an Alaskan thirty-five-year-old mother of three, is a sassy, overweight, unemployed widow whose husband died in a car accident only one year before this story begins. She brandishes sarcasm and wit to cope with all sorts of conflicts, from her mother to her children to her grief to her recent funk. Unfortunately, the humor is extraordinarily predicable, low hanging fruit quality, and hence rarely induces even a grin.  

Happily, the catalyst to the plot happens within the first few pages, when our protagonist witnesses a death and finds herself entangled with the deceased man’s soul. Shortly thereafter, she’s introduced to a secret organization known as GRS (Grim Reaper Services). Yes. Apparently, a secret organization of professionals exist who get paid to reap souls. Lo and behold, Lisa discovers she’s a grim reaper. Not the one and only Grim Reaper but rather one of many.

Obviously for such a premise, the reader must suspend disbelief. Which is fine. Recommended. Commendable even. However, this shouldn’t mean the story abandon its own internal logic. And this is where the eye rolling comes in. Despite my efforts, the analytical part of me kicked in and I couldn’t help wondering, among other things, who funds this organization.

Loved ones of the deceased don’t pay these employees to reap souls. Presumably the government is unaware of the organization’s existence as well, so it obviously doesn’t fund it either. And since income is the primary selling point for our protagonist Lisa who, heretofore unemployed and struggling financially, reluctantly accepts the job, the author should’ve provided some explanation as to how this organization, which works out of a brick and mortar, makes payroll, much less pays its electric and water bills. Hell, tell us a billionaire mystic funds it or that a secret society of millionaire spiritualists contributes proceeds from its share dividends or that the organization poses as a legit bureaucracy the government unwittingly subsidizes. I don’t know. Something.

Unfortunately, the premise, while promising, is a gimmick and nothing more. We’re expected to assume much for the sake of story. This would be fine if the story itself were done well. Unfortunately, the narrative is bland, predicable, and full of clichés. The humor Lisa employs would be better served coming from a teen rather than a 35-year-old mother of three.

Some poor word choices and a stray homonym appear too, such as “… I was not willing to except [sic] more humiliation.” On the plus side, it cost me only a buck and it’s a quick read. But I won’t seek out the rest of this Grim Reality series. Too many other great books are out there I have yet to read. Three out of five stars. Rated PG-13.     

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1386), Introduction by Nevill Coghill (1951)

If you were to do a simple search for “great books,” or “most famous books,” or “best books” online, each individual category would yield all manner of material. “One Hundred Best Novels,” “Fifty Books You Should Read Before You Die,” and so on, is subject to the whims of those who compile them. Yet I’ve never spotted a list based exclusively on the celebration of a superb prose style. Guess I’ll have to put together that list myself one of these days.  

Over the course of my own reading career, I’ve discovered that the best books are comparable to good medicine – perhaps difficult for some to get through but beneficial to the mind or the soul. Others are literary cheap thrills, not particularly great but guaranteed to amuse, what Bertie Wooster’s valet Jeeves would term “light but attractive reading.” (I was recently informed that employing the parlance of today would render this sort of book ‘a beach read.’)

Everyone is partial. I’m no exception. As a starting point, as I’ve said elsewhere, even tons of mediocre paperbacks beat some of the best television and film. Of course, my love affair with words in general influences my views on the matter. I’m more likely to read garbage if only for the purposes of learning what not to do when I write. I’m also drawn to the forbidden stuff, books that were once banned or are still regarded as either taboo or perverse or both. This is partly due to what books can achieve – challenging our assumptions, exposing us to issues or ideas none of us would consider otherwise, or, as Sol Stein wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, dealing with subjects we’d never see entertained in any other media, important things, controversial things, things that require more exploration than a mere sound bite can do justice.

Curiously, I’ll read nearly all manner of material, in any genre. Yet when it comes to film, because I don’t fancy gore, I avoid horror. I don’t mind reading horror, but I wouldn’t watch the stuff if you paid me. You’ll never find me watching a romantic comedy, either. Yet I read romance. I’ve avoided most films in the fantasy and science fiction genre as well, primarily because such subject matter is treated so poorly. Yet I read more than my fair share of same.

I say all that to prepare you for this. Some books rub me the wrong way. I immediately dismiss any list that includes Hemingway, for example. His writing has always bored me. Not the subject matter but rather the unfolding of it. Those who hail William Faulkner’s travesty of a novel The Sound and the Fury might as well sell snake oil as far as I’m concerned. I hated that novel. An absolute mess. The same could be said for Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. That story nauseated me. And while I finished it (you can read my review of it here), I couldn’t get past ten pages of Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the writing style reminded me of grade school. See Spot run. See Jill swing. See Jack drown himself in the sea. I couldn’t stomach Plaith’s The Bell Jar for the same reason. Call me a jerk, a snob, an ass, I don’t care. Though I’ll usually read and finish it, I prefer prose a bit more sophisticated. 

In short, I’m not easily fooled by book lists. I know what I like and why. That said, I still depend on book lists as a guide. One reason is that such lists, for all their faults and bias, have exposed me to certain authors I never would’ve discovered otherwise, subject matter and genres to which I might not have been introduced.

Suppose you’re a fan of film. Further suppose you’re a film critic who watches anything and everything because it’s your job. Now consider how this might make you, over time, more discriminate, more particular about what qualifies as quality filmmaking. Isn’t it safe to say you’d become a bit more analytical, slightly harsher in your criticism, more demanding?

The same holds true for avid readers. Expose yourself to enough high-quality prose, storytelling chops, and skillful wordsmiths and it’ll take more than mere mediocrity to impress you. (There are exceptions. One particular film critic who shall remain nameless evidently loves film so much that once he has pointed out all the film’s flaws and I’m ready to give it an F based on his own critique, I’m bewildered when he concludes by giving the film in question a B- or a C.)

With that in mind, when I saw The Canterbury Tales on a few of these lists, I decided to set aside my high school memories (portions of the book were required reading) and give the book an honest try. I’m glad I did. Not only is The Canterbury Tales the best book of verse I’ve read; it’s one of the best books of both verse and prose.

Chaucer is a master. His knowledge of meter, subject matter, varying diction based on the specific narrator (each character offers a tale), lyricism, not to mention his staggering versatility in approach and mood, is stellar. Setting aside the mechanics, the themes, plots, events, and characters comprising his poems (which are varied and at times hypnotic), the author’s accomplishment in delivery is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Here you’ll find content ranging from the reverential and glorious to the scatological and perverse. The stories are told with both unflinching and engrossing mastery.

Yes. It’s that good. Five out of five stars. Rated R.

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

Imagine watching sports primarily for the athleticism. The power, finesse, and agility of a few choice athletes doing all kinds of impre...