Category Archives: book reports

Is Mickey Icky?


This post is about writer doubt. And Stephen King. Do those two things go together? If they don’t then Mickey is an awful writer and does not know how to do what he does. It would mean Mickey is icky.
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I used to think Stephen King was a totally over-rated writer. Back in the early eighties I read Carrie, King’s first novel, and got halfway through Firestarter, and had to give up. Partly because the book was overdue at the library, and also because I found the books mechanical and somewhat joyless in the writing. I thought he suffered greatly in comparison to writers I was in love with at the time like Ray Bradbury and Thomas Mann. I began to tell others that King was somewhat icky.
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But King was obviously also somewhat successful. He began to get his books made into movies and people who don’t read discovered the evil genius of a man who tells stories to scare them and laces them with a bit of real humanity, real human feeling, and love.
I saw it first in Stand by Me. That movie, starring young Wil Wheaton as the Steven King autobiographical character, really touched my heart and really made for me a deep psyche-to-psyche connection to somebody who wasn’t just a filmmaker, but somebody who was, at heart, a real human being, a real story-teller.

Now, the psyche I was connecting to may very well have been Rob Reiner, a gifted story-teller and film-maker. But it wasn’t the only King movie that reached me. The television mini-series made from It touched a lot more than just the fear centers of my brain as well. And people whose opinions I respect began telling me that the books The Dark Tower Trilogy and Misery were also amazing pieces of literature.
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So I picked up a copy of Hearts in Atlantis at Half-Price Books and began reading a Stephen King novel for the first time since the 80’s. MY HOLY GOD! King is not a little bit icky. He is so NOT ICKY that it makes Mickey sicky to have ever thought King was even a little bit icky! Here is a writer who loves to write. He whirls through pages with the writer’s equivalent of ballet moves, pirouettes of prose, grand jetés of character building, and thematic arabesque penchées on every side of the stage. I love what I have discovered in a writer I thought was somewhat icky. Growth and power, passion and precision, a real love of both the words and the story. He may not know what he is doing. But I know. And I love it.
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And so, while I have been editing the first novel I ever wrote, Superchicken, to make it ready for self-publishing, I have begun to ask myself the self-critical question, “Is Mickey really icky when he writes?” My first novel is full of winces and blunders and head-banging wonders that make me want to throw the whole thing out. But I can’t throw it out. It is the baby in the first bathwater that I ever drew from the tap. The answer to the questions of Micky ickiness have yet to be determined, and not by me. I guess I have to leave it up to you.

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A Perfect Old Book… The Distant Hours

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This book, purchased for two dollars off the sale cart at Half-Price Books, was one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever had in my reading life. I knew when I picked it up that it was not a perfect fit for me. It is a Gothic romance tragedy, possible even in a black-and-white-movie sense a horror story. It is a story for women, written by a woman, and all the most important characters, except the man who is murdered, are women. It is definitely not a story for crotchety old men like me, even though the Mud-man is a classic Gothic horror tale monster.  I can relate to that.

But I will not give away any of the convoluted plot. No spoilers here. For it is not the plot that makes this a truly great read. It is the language, the beautiful, insightful, passionate language that links my very soul to the souls of the characters in this story. Three elderly sisters live in a rotting old English castle that once belonged to their father, a famous author who created the novel The True History of the Mud Man. A much younger woman comes along and discovers she has a secret relationship to the castle through her mother who was sent to live in the castle as a child during the London Blitz in World War Two. The characters are so well developed, you can see them breathe. They are real people in a way that real people, especially mysterious real people, always present you with a mystery to be solved. Who are they really? What did they actually do? Which part of what they said to you is true? And which are the lies? And there was a murder? It happened in the past? We didn’t even know he was missing. Where is he now? And what did a monster character in a beloved old book have to do with it? Okay, I promised you no answers to any of those questions. But if you feel already like you simply have to know, well, that’s the magic in this story. You will fall in love with Edie Burchill and her mother. And also the Blythe sisters, Percy, Saffy, and Juniper. And the story will leave you devastated, the way it did me. Test me and see if I’m merely telling hoo-haws. You will not regret it.

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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Some books come along telling a story that has to be taken seriously in ways that don’t make sense in any normal way.  The Alchemist is one of those books.

What is an alchemist, after all?

An alchemist uses the medieval forms of the art of chemistry to transmute things, one thing becoming another thing.

Coelho in this book is himself an alchemist of ideas.  He uses this book to transmute one idea into another until he digs deep enough into the pile of ideas to finally transmute words into wisdom.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this book, and I can actually share some of it here without spoiling the story.

Here are a few gemstones of wisdom from the Alchemist’s treasure chest;

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting…” (p.13)

“It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them.” (p.17)

“All things are one.  And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  (p.24)

“And when he had gone only a short distance, he realized that, while they were erecting the stall, one of them had spoken Arabic and the other Spanish.    And they had understood each other perfectly well.  There must be a language that doesn’t depend on words, the boy thought.” (p.45)

All of these quotes from the book, as you can see, come from the first third of the book.  There are many more treasures to be found in this book.  I should not share them with you here.  Just as the main character of the story learns, you have to do the work for yourself.  But this book is not only an enjoyable read, but a map for how you can execute your own journey towards your “Personal Legend”.  In fact, you may find that the book tells you not only how to go about making a dream come true, but, if you are already on that journey successfully, it tells you what things you are already doing right.

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Mickey the Reader

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I like to think that I am different than other readers, that the quirky, insane way I practice reading makes me somehow unique and individual.  But if you have read very much of my goofy little blog, you probably realize already that I am a deeply deluded idiot most of the time.  So let me explain a little about how I go about reading.

  1.  I am basically guilty of reading anything and everything I can get my hands on.  And the stupid internet puts an infinite variety in your hands.  Some of it is toxic and probably will kill me… or land me in jail.  (Does the NSA really care about what Mickey is reading?)
  2. Here is an example of my internet reading this morning;  Diane Ravitch’s Education Blog , An Article from British NaturismRachel Poli’s Article about Fantasy Writing, and Naked Carly Art’s post about creating a painting.  My browser history portrays me at times as some kind of communist brainiac pornography-loving terrorist painter or something.  I hope the NSA is using telepaths to investigate me, because the reasons I look at a lot of this stuff is important.  It is a good thing I don’t write mystery novels so they would be upset down in the NSA break room about my searching out creative ways to kill people.
  3. Besides being Eclectic  with a capital “E”, I am also obsessive.  My daily reading project now is Garrison Keillor’s novel, Lake Wobegon Days.

I only spend about an hour a day reading this novel, but I am totally immersed in it.  I am living inside that book, remembering the characters as real people and talking to them like old friends.  I tried to read that book before and couldn’t make progress because I like so much to listen to Keillor tell stories on A Prairie Home Companion on the radio and it just wasn’t the same entirely in print.  When he tells a story, he pauses a lot.  In fact, that moment when he stops to let you reflect on what he just said is critical to the humor because you have to stop and savor the delicious irony of the scene.  His pauses are funnier than the words.  Man, if he just stood there and didn’t talk at all, you would probably die laughing from it.  So, in order to get into the book, I had to read it with Garrison’s voice in my head, pausing frequently the way he does.  Now the stories of Clarence Bunsen and Pastor Inqvist break me up all over again.  I will soon acquire and read everything he has ever written.  I truly love Garrison Keillor.

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So there is a description of how strange a practicing reader I am.  Think about how you read.  Is the NSA watching you too?  Do you ever read two books at the same time?  Do you read everything and anything in front of you?  If you are self-reflective at all, even if you are not pathological about it the way Mickey is, you may well decide that as strange as my reading habits are, they are probably normal compared to yours.

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David Mitchell is Genius!

Yes, David Mitchell is a very smart man… a very smart English man.  (That isn’t to say that his genius is any less genius than an American Genius.  Just that he is a genius who also happens to be English)

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And I, of course, don’t mean this David Mitchell either, though this David Mitchell is also a genius and also from England.  I have to tell you, though I have always loved British humor, this particular tongue of silver fascinates me enough to make me binge on hoards of old episodes of “Would I Lie to You?” from the BBC on YouTube.  He’s a quick-wit, Brit-wit, smooth-talking  bit-wit who can make you laugh even when he’s playing a thick-wit… which he is certainly not.

Anyway, that is the wrong English genius David Mitchell.

I mean the other English genius David Mitchell.  The one who wrote Cloud Atlas.  Also the one who wrote The Bone Clocks.  And, of course, the one whose book Black Swan Green which I just finished reading early this morning.

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Yes, I mean this David Mitchell.  The absolute genius writer who creates exactly the kind of books that I long to read.

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Now, this post should probably be more of a traditional book report than it is.  This book I just read is swimmingly, swannishly excellent in a David-Mitchell-is-GENIUS! sort of way.  It is about an English boy from Malvern, England undergoing the trials and tribulations of his thirteenth year of life.  The boy is a stutterer and secretly a poet.  The girl he pines for is the girlfriend of his greatest enemy, the boy who relentlessly bullies and taunts him.  One even suspects that this portrait of a Margaret Thatcher-era boyhood written in exquisitely horrible detail might be based on the author’s own boyhood somehow, so vivid is its detailing.

But this is already too cacked-up to be a proper book report just because of the two David-Mitchell-English-genius thing.  If you really want that sort of book review, read it elsewhere, or read the danged book yourself.  This report is more of a vow of fealty.  I must now turn my hoarding disorder sufferer’s exacting zeal on the matter of reading everything this living author writes.  I did the same thing to both Michael Crichton and Terry Pratchett because they are geniuses too.  But they are both now no longer living and writing new books, at least, not unless there is new meaning to the term ghost writing that I don’t know anything about.  So now it is David Mitchell’s turn to be the object of my intense fan-boy love of good writing.

Here are some David Mitchell books that I now must stalk and make my own;

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And hopefully, there are many more yet to come.

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Liars Run the Animal Farm

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Napoleon the PIG.

Napoleon the Pig makes himself ruler of the Animal Farm in Orwell’s 1945 book by lying about Snowball, his rival Pig, and blaming the destructive acts of the former human Farmer Jones on poor Snowball.  He is driven away from the farm by the farm dogs whom Napoleon has taught to think since they were puppies. This, even though Snowball was actually the hero of the animal rebellion that drove the humans away.  Collusion?  Perhaps.  But definitely a lie.  And the PIG Napoleon, once in power begins to keep all improvements to living conditions for the PIGs.  Other animals, he says, are happier with a simpler, hard-working life.  The PIGs begin to dress like men and walk upright and wear long red ties.

Keith Olbermann in the video is very much like Benjamin the Donkey, who is cynical and skeptical about Napoleon’s methods.  He also reads as well as any Pig.  When Boxer the workhorse is wounded defending the farm against neighboring farmers who attack and destroy the windmill, he shrugs off the the wound and works at rebuilding the windmill until he collapses.  Then Napoleon declares Boxer will only get better if he’s taken to the vet’s animal hospital.  But he calls the Knacker (the man who renders dead horses into glue) to take Boxer away.  Benjamin calls him out.  He points out that it says “Knacker” on the van that takes Boxer away, not “veterinarian”.   He points out that Russian Facebook trolls used targeted troll-posts to help get Napoleon his position of power.  But Napoleon gets away with his lies.  Boxer apparently dies in the so-called animal hospital.

Now, I am not sure which tiny animal on the farm Robert Reich is like, but he is pointing out in this video that once the PIGS got themselves into power on the animal farm, they lie in order to get their agenda operating, enriching all PIGs (or is that GOPs?) and their political donors.  They are doing it all by LYING.  Pigs lie.  We should have learned that lesson by now.  They don’t care who dies and gets rendered into glue.

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In 1945 Orwell intended Napoleon to be a satire of Joseph Stalin in communist Russia.  But I truly believe, as we are living on the Animal Farm now as the hard-working farm animals, that he has a bad wig on his head with whippy straw-yellow hair, and a distinctly orange face, with the same little piggy eyes he always had.  And he is in power because he tells lies.  And what’s worse, he gets away with the lies.  As long as the PIGs are in power, controlling both houses of congress and the Supreme Court, he will not lose his lying grip on the farm.  We are all doomed to continue being hard-working animals who eventually get rendered into glue.

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Books That Make You Hurt

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Yes, I read this book.  Yes, it scared the poop out of me.  Yes, it made me cry.  This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime.  Only the names of the characters would be different.

I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer.  He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago.  Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose.  And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time.  They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people.  I know those people personally.  Of course, they have different names in real life.

But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces.  It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator.  Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail.  I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending.  For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt.  A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.

This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings.  I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp.  But the bad guy wins.  No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does.  I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends.  It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  They mistook him for the monster.  I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.

The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could.  Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone?  I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live.  Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read.  It will hurt you.  But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.

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