Showing posts from 2011

"Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens

Of the few classics I've read over the years, not all deserved the label. So I didn’t automatically expect Oliver Twist to be great. In fact, I’m reminded of that scene in Candide by Voltaire when a guy explains that most of the great celebrated masterpieces are merely models of mediocrity.
This time, however, I struck gold. Oliver Twist is both a classic and a masterpiece. Keep in mind that the book was written 170 years ago, so the grammar is pretty formal by today’s standards. However, the style, if not the vocabulary, grows on you, and you’re soon caught up in a riveting story chock-full of chases and abductions, villains and pick-pockets, deception and murder. Being transported to a time and a place of disease and dishonest toil may not be your idea of time well spent, but if you enjoy irony, sarcasm, and drama, overcoming terrible odds amid squalor and criminality, you’ll love this book.
Dickens criticizes early 19th century English society’s assertion that bad people are ju…

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, from the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory, By John Steinbeck

The King Arthur cycle has always held a special place in my heart. Those gallant knights in shining armor, their code of chivalry, and their everlasting conquests, recall an age unspoiled by our more modern concerns. I, for one, savor a time when a knight’s word was his oath and when the chaste surpassed puberty. Give me banners flapping in the wind, animal horns sounding over the rolling green, and warriors charging into battle – their tragic ends remembered long after their dragons have been slain and their kingdoms lay in ruins.
Everyone is familiar with the tale and the primary characters involved. Reviewing the plot isn’t important here anyway. What matters is Steinbeck’s ability to draw you into an ancient world, make you believe in events both dubious and extraordinary, allowing you to see beyond the words to the pristine pastures, the mysterious forests. But more important still are the convincing relationships – a knight’s steadfast devotion to his king, the sorrow of unrequit…

Character Sketches with Paul

Paul publishes a monthly newsletter railing against successful business. He distributes these colorful works of rage to his friends. In it, he accuses CEOs of every conceivable ill – from the plight of our fragile environment to the homeless on our streets. According to Paul, it’s not media or society or government, but rather evil greedy men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who are entirely to blame for the decline of Western Civilization. Rather than single out indiscretions or scandals, Paul’s newsletter paints a broad brush that essentially indicts every capitalist ever to walk the earth. As far as Paul is concerned (at least according to his newsletter), these evil business tycoons are going to Hell.
Unlike his other friends, I was introduced to his newsletter first. So my impressions were shaped entirely by his prose, not his handshake or his eyes.
All his articles are in upper case, the literary form of shouting, and every sentence is punctuated by at least six exclamation points.…

Stephen King’s Bag of Bones

When I first began this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t post negative book reviews. But what if you're inspired by the storyteller, captivated by the characters, the development of the plot – the pace, the attention to detail – what if you love all those things but just hate the story itself? Should you abstain from saying so? Probably. Still, there are so many things to celebrate about this book. I’m torn.
I tend to prefer prose so well crafted that they inspire me to call a friend and say, “Listen to this.” Granted, those kinds of books are few and far between, but I like to set high standards for others. Not for me, you understand. Just for others. Yet I didn’t find many lines I wanted to quote from Bag of Bones. Although this one I liked:
“Humor is almost always anger with its makeup on …”
In his novel, Welcome to Fred, Brad Whittington’s character Mark Cloud, now an adult, reflects on when, during his adolescence, his family moved from “metropolitan America” to the culturall…

November 2011 Books

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene. Leaven of Malice, Robertson Davies. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien. The Confidential Agent, Graham Greene. The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene.
Someone once wrote that a critic tends to project his views on the novels he reads, that a review is more about what the critic thinks rather than what the writer intends. This may be true up to a point, but my reviews aren't about a writer's intent. I don't pretend my impressions are objective. In fact I'm as subjective as they come regarding novels. I've been known to latch on to certain authors from time to time and devour everything I could get my hands on, as if that writer and I had a soul connection or something. Or in cases where, say, I just felt the writer could do no wrong. But inevitably I’d read something by that writer that would render him or her human again, and they’d fall from the top of my Books To Read Right Now list to take a number a…

"What's Bred in the Bone" by Robertson Davies

My friend Brad gave this book to me, and I should’ve read it immediately. Instead it stood at the back of the line for a year while I read books inferior to it. Which is strange, since everything Brad has ever handed me to read has been exceptional. You’d think I would’ve learned by now. But then, I’ve always enjoyed saving dessert until last.
And what a sumptuous read this was. 
This isn’t a synopsis of the story. I generally don’t read for plot anyway. I put less stock in it than I probably should. For one thing, I’d rather celebrate good style and a solid command of the language. Besides, the obligatory blurb on the back cover or inner jacket often serves only to frighten the bookworm away.
Still, many read entirely for plot or genre. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But consider: Brad and some friends and I once sat in a club together. One friend said, “What if people could talk only when quoting from a book?” I thought I was being clever when I replied, “I bet people would read…

Character Sketches with Gary

Gary lives in a condemned house on the outskirts of the city, and apart from the occasional meter reader and postal worker, he has few visitors. Well, I mean apart from the animals. But unlike the civil servant, the animals have access to the inside of the house, and they come and go as they please – cats, dogs, rats, an armadillo – an array of at least 37 flee-ridden, tick-infested creatures, most of which aren’t domesticated. Since they aren’t bound by leashes, collars, or potty training, it goes without saying that it isn’t safe if you forgot to bring your snow boots.
His yard looks like a mine field after the mines have gone off. Or rather like what a college fraternity on a treasure hunt might look like, assuming all the students had foregone shovels in favor of dynamite. There are so many two to three feet deep craters in his yard that you couldn’t get from one side to the other without a land rover.
The only reason the city hasn’t evicted Gary yet is probably because they feel s…

The Writer in Denial is a Happy Writer

There is no such thing as writer’s block. Nothing is stopping you from writing. A writer simply writes. Or a writer writes simply. Or simply a writer … oh, nevermind. Point is you shouldn’t write only when you think you have something to say. You’ll discover things to say while writing. At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I write this.
When I first began writing (which was last Tuesday morning), I often found myself staring at a blank screen. Ideas in my head like whether it was time to shower, why I haven’t trimmed my toenails since last Valentine’s, and where I put my cell phone nagged me. True. But I also had story ideas. My problem was that blank screen. It was my enemy. I had to attack it with some great and memorable lines.
Once I realized this was silly and that I’d never get anything written if I was waiting for the Famous Quote Fairy to knock me over the head, I began with a simple keystroke – a period. More like a dot really since it didn’t follow a word. But soon tha…