Showing posts from 2013

The Book that Changed My Life

If it's true we are what we eat, the same must be said about what we read. Few things are as meaningful as a good book. As a source of influence, entertainment, instruction, and inspiration, books have no equal. It shouldn't surprise, then, that some go on to break our hearts and, yes, even change our lives. 

Though my own selection might strike others as obscure, these books mean enough to me that I'm willing to risk a little reproof. One influential read came recommended by a health nut, a book about nutrition, The Sunfood Diet Success System by David Wolfe, a vegan. This was back when I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and drank scotch from the cask. It was a horrid book, poorly written, and self-published back when the term 'indie writer' was synonymous with 'conspiracy theorist'. Wolfe gave the dreaded term 'purple prose' a whole new meaning (the entire book was printed in a purple font color). But his testimony and anecdotes convinced me to gi…

The Question of God; C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

For over half a century, the work of these two pioneers has influenced millions. Yet their ideologies were diametrically opposed. Freud assumed the Judeo-Christian God didn't exist. He based his entire life's work on the premise that the supernatural was at best untenable; until Lewis' conversion, he too held that belief. Then he became a Christian. This changed his worldview. He embraced God's love, meaning, hope, ideas and values Freud, incidentally, regarded as delusional.

The Prologue opens with their funerals – a couple of quotes from attendees, snippets and summaries from their obituaries, and a brief montage of their accomplishments. A tasty appetizer to prime the palate for the entrée to come.
The lives of these two intellectual icons overlapped in both space and time: Freud lived “not far from Oxford” where, and while, Lewis was a young professor, and the two were separated only by a generation; Lewis' body was buried just 24 years after Freud's was cre…

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations (1992)

I have an aversion to driving in the rain. Reduced visibility, lightning, the risk of hydroplaning – these things make me nervous. But years ago, I braved a Texas summer thunderstorm despite these obstacles. I was on a quest for a book of idioms, and being on a quest romanticizes life's challenges, emboldens the adventurer. At least that's what I told myself.

The rain smacked my windshield like pellets. Lightning flared like a heliarc. But I drove on. I finally pulled into the unpaved parking lot of my local library, shut off the engine, and listened to the terrific kettle drum solo on the roof of my Taurus. I wondered whether I should wait for the concert to end before sprinting the sixty yards from my car to the main entrance. Sensing the onset of a migraine, I bolted.

The rain struck my umbrella like a fusillade as I splashed along the sidewalk.Beside me, the heavy traffic eased forward, headlights blazing, creating the appearance of a funeral procession.

If my dash to the doo…

Endless Vacation, by Brad Whittington

Brad and I go way back, but don’t hold that against him. He’s a solid writer, and for the purpose of this review, that’s all that matters. Plus, it really boils down to his word against mine. So he has an out.

I always look forward to his latest projects. Of his novels thus far, Endless Vacationis his best yet.
For those who follow my blog, it won't surprise you to read that I prize convincing characters, similes that smile, and metaphors that epitomize the things described. But if plot is your thing, you won’t be disappointed, either. The twists are as intricate as an angler’s triple knot.
Writers are cautioned against creating flashbacks since such devices can potentially slow down a story. In Whittington’s deft hands the transitions are seamless. The characters’ past experiences are always perfectly placed, brief, smooth, and character driven. By the time I realized I was peeking into someone’s childhood, I was brought back to the present with a richer understanding about his or h…

Speak, Memory (An Autobiography Revisited), By Vladimir Nabokov

My first exposure to Nabokov was in the poorly lit library basement of a local community college I attended a quarter century ago. A handful of his novels stood squeezed against one another on an overstuffed shelf – Pnin, Transparent Things, Glory, The Defense, Look at the Harlequins, Despair. The row reminded me of a three dimensional bar graph. Invitation to a Beheading, dwarfed by the others, represented profit losses in March; the taller bronze one right of it titled Laughter in the Dark stood for gains in April. The titles along the spines ran sideways so that, clumsily, I found myself, as if in some stretching exercise routine, leaning from the hip, craning my neck until my ear nearly touched my shoulder.

A month before, a friend had recommended the author’s most famous, or infamous, novel Lolita. Based on the subject matter, I vowed to avoid that book. But the promise of impressive prose made me tug a random copy (a collection called Tyrants Destroyed and other stories) from it…

Arilla Sun Down, by Virginia Hamilton

Pretty good young adult fiction. Arilla is the younger sibling of an interracial couple. Her father is Native American, or Amerind, while her mother is African American. Set in the 70s, the family attracts unwelcome stares in public, but Arilla’s primary plight is lacking a sense of identity. She doesn’t relate to her peers, and what few friends she has is due to her mother’s profession – she teaches dance to the girls in the community. Her older brother Jack Sun Run’s popularity grates on her; he embraces his Native American roots and celebrates its more romantic elements by riding his horse nearly everywhere, wearing a bandana, and expertly using a lasso. The young men envy him and the girls fawn. In contrast, Arilla feels inconsequential. Her brother calls her Moon, and while fitting, the name annoys her.
What appealed to me most throughout the story was, ironically, the very thing that initially turned me off. Arilla recounts her youth with a writing style that reflects her age, me…

Philosophy Digestibles

Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates, Four Dialogues, edited by Shane Weller.Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC), like any noted philosopher, had his protégés. Chief among them was Plato. In fact, without Plato’s writings chronicling his mentor’s ideas and approach, Socrates’ contributions would not have survived. To this day, his famous Socratic method is an invaluable technique for understanding the essentials of any intellectual or moral dilemma. Socrates is famous for the line ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He stressed the value of reasoning through the important things in life to determine truth.
As the title implies, the book focuses on Socrates’ ideas (four dialogues), which went against the authority of the state of Athens. This led to his imprisonment and his death. His devotion to logic shouldn’t deflect from his humanity. His love for reason, beauty, and justice was astonishing. I wept when he drank the deadly hemlock and paced his cell before his legs gave out.

Candide, by Voltaire (1694-1778), translated by John Butt (1947)

All you need to know to appreciate this delicious one hundred and forty page satirical novella is that during Voltaire’s lifetime, the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, known as the last ‘universal genius’ (instrumental in the invention of the calculator, by the way) wrote that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’. While Leibniz wasn’t thinking in terms of gradations of quality, such as good, better, and best (since he knew of no alternate universes with which to compare and contrast this one), this philosophy, certainly in its summarized form, struck many as a dismissive and flippant excuse for evil, a callous refutation of worldly sorrows and wickedness. In fairness, Leibniz based his claim on the notion that, given what he called the ‘sufficient reason’ or the belief that nothing happens without a reason, God, being omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t allow evil to exist if He didn’t see some need for it. Still, small comfort to those in pain.

Voltaire had dealt wi…

More Rick Riordan

Southtown by Rick Riordan
As anyone who reads my blog knows, my requisite for reading anything is the writing quality. This trumps plot or genre. Which is why my favorite dead author is Nabokov, despite many of his novels being either perverse or plot free. Same reason I love Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, P.G. Wodehouse, everything by J.D. Salinger, Brad Whittington, and the handful of novels I’ve read (so far) by Robertson Davies.

This is why I’m a big Rick Riordan fan. Even though crime fiction isn’t my favorite genre, I can’t keep away from his Tres Navarre crime fiction series. Riordan’s lean prose and well-planted similes are irresistible. That the pace breaks the sound barrier and makes your heart out pound the timpani section of the most vigorous percussion orchestra is, as they say, an added bonus. ‘They’ being the voices in my head. Riordan blends humor and tension so well you’ll find yourself biting your nails on one page and snorting coffee out your nostrils on the next…

Woe is I, The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner (1996)

If you’re like me and love the English language, particularly the written word and its impact and power to persuade and beguile and move the reader, then you might enjoy certain facets of this book. I can’t find much to recommend it, though. The chapter titles – Plurals Before Swine, Comma Sutra, and Death Sentence – are better than the chapters themselves, which are too cursory for my tastes. But if you’re intimidated by the rules of sentence structure, if you associate English professors with the grammar Gestapo or ruler-wielding nuns eager to rap your knuckles when your tenses are wrong or your noun and verb don’t agree, the subtitle says it all: this book is for those frightened by word rules. O’Conner offers a Grammar Guidelines for Dummies kind of approach with mild humor and friendly advice and none of the intimidating jargon normally associated with the subject.
If, however, you’re a grammarphile – if you like to play name-that-gerund at parties, can conjugate verbs in your sle…