Category Archives: book reports

Vonnegut

My experience of the works of Kurt Vonnegut is limited to the reading of three books; Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. But it was enough to make me love him and use him as a shaper of my soul.

I deeply apologize for the fact that even though he only wrote 14 books and a bunch of short stories, I have not read everything I could get my hands on by Kurt. Three novels and one short story (Harrison Bergeron) is not really enough to compare to the many, many things that I have read by Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Louis L’Amour, and Michael Crichton. I can’t begin to count how many books of each of those four I have read and reread. But it is enough that I read those three novels and have a lifelong regret of never buying and reading Slapstick when I had the chance. Vonnegut writes black humor. The ideas are painful, and burn away flesh from your personal body of being. And at the same time, you cannot help but laugh at the pure, clean, horrifying truths his ridiculous stories reveal.

If, in the course of telling a story, you can put the sublime, the ridiculous, and the horrendous side by side, and make the reader see how they actually fit together, then you can write like Vonnegut.

Let me give you three quick and dirty book reports of the Vonnegut I have read in the order I have read them;

I read Cat’s Cradle in college. I was young and idealistic at the time, foolishly convinced I could be a great writer and cartoonist who could use my work to change mankind for the better.

In the book, Dr. Felix Hoenikker (a fictionalized co-creator of the atomic bomb) is obsessively re-stacking cannonballs in the town square in pursuit of a new way to align water molecules that will yield ice that does not melt at room temperature. Much as he did with the A-bomb, Hoenikker invents a world-ending science-thing without any thought for the possible consequences. The narrator of the novel is trying to write a humanizing biography of the scientist, and comes to observe the inevitable destruction of the whole world when the oceans freeze into Ice-9, the un-meltable ice crystal. Before the world ends, the narrator spends time on the fictional Carribean island of San Lorenzo where he learns the fictional religion known as Bokononism, and learns to make love to a beautiful woman by pressing bare feet together sole to sole. It is a nihilistic picture of what humans are really like more savagely bleak than any portrayal Monte Python’s Flying Circus ever did on TV.

Needless to say, my ideals were eventually shattered and my faith in the world shaken.

I read Breakfast of Champions after I had been teaching long enough to buy my own house, be newly married, and a father to one son. It was probably the worst time of life to be reading a book so cynical, yet true.

In this story, the author Kilgore Trout, much published but mostly unknown, is headed to Midland City to deliver a keynote address at an arts festival. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy business man who owns a lot of Midland City real-estate. Trout gives Hoover a book (supposedly a message from the creator of the universe) to read that suggests that all people (except for the reader of the book… meaning Hoover) are machines with no free will. Hoover takes the message to heart and tries to set the machines free by breaking them, beating up his son, his lover, and nine other people before being taken into custody.

The book contains devastating themes of suicide, free will, and social and economic cruelty. It makes you sincerely reflect on your own cog-in-the-machine reality.

Slaughterhouse Five is a book I bought and read when I missed my chance to buy Slapstick and needed something to take home from HalfPrice Books to make me feel better about what I missed. (Of the five books I had intended to buy that day, none were still on the shelves in spite of the fact that they had been there the week before.) It was fortuitous. This proved to be the best novel I had ever read by Vonnegut.

Like most of his work, the story of Billy Pilgrim is a fractured mosaic of small story pieces not presented in chronological order. It details Billy’s safe, ordinary marriage to a wife who gives him two children, but it is ironically cluttered with death, accidents, being stalked by an assassin, and being kidnapped by aliens. It also details his experiences in World War II where he is captured by the Germans, held prisoner in Dresden, kept in an underground slaughterhouse, and ironically survives the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Further, it details his time as a zoo exhibit on the alien planet of Tralfamadore.

It explores the themes of depression, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and anti-war sentiment. Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing, so real-life experiences fill the book with gravitas that it might not otherwise possess. Whether the author was ever kidnapped by aliens or not, I cannot say.

But Kurt Vonnegut’s desire to be a writer and portray himself as a writer in the character of Kilgore Trout, and even as himself in his work, has an awful lot to do with my desire to be a writer myself. Dark, pithy wisdom is his thing. But that wisdom, having been wrung from the darkness is all the more brightly lit because of that wringing. It is hard to read, but not hard to love.

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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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The Literate but Illogical Introvert (Part 2)

I claim to be a literate individual. But, of course, before they let you teach English Language Arts to seventh graders, you have to prove it. They want you to prove you can handle a classroom, and not only can read and write, but can teach seventh graders to do it too… at least to a minimum competency level. After all, the English language in the hands of a hormonal personality-bomb otherwise known as a seventh grade boy or a seventh grade girl, it is a potential weapon of mass destruction.

I set out to become more than merely competently literate in high school. Even then, I wanted to read all the best books ever written and learn to write like that too. In fact, I set myself a quest when I was a junior in high school taking Mr. Sorum’s version of the novel-reading class set out by the Iowa State Board of Education’s curriculum guide as The Modern Novel, a quest to find and read the greatest novel ever written. I started in that class with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

But that fit too easily into the “Modern Novel” thing since it was written in the 60’s and I was reading it in the 70’s. I had to be more illogical than that. So, I also found a book on the Scholastic Book Order form called The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy and read that. It was not exactly a modern novel having been written in the 1870’s and was actually a 96-year-old book when I read it. And it was a tragic love story where everybody ends up married to the wrong person and true love was thwarted up until the chapter where there are multiple drownings. I, of course, fell in love with the Reddleman, Diggory Venn (Reddlemen go from farm to farm dipping sheep in the reddle to kill ticks and fleas) who is covered head to toe in red dye from dipping sheep. He is the humble soul who loves the good girl that the bad man wants to marry even though he’s actually in love with the bad woman who wants to marry Clym Yoebright (the returning native of the title) for his family fortune so she can escape the hated heath country. I realized from the first chapter onward that I was supposed to identify with Clym as the main character. But, illogical introvert that I am (and that Diggory also is) I had to identify with the humble Mr. Venn. And guess what? Diggory not only saves Clym from drowning as he lets the bad man and the bad woman visit Neptune the hard way, he also gets to marry the good girl in the end.

Goofy choice for a great book, right? But it is a great book. It is about people who love drama in their lives and live for the wrong things in life getting what they probably deserve while the plodders and reddlemen get the real rewards in the end. Victorian hooberglob, sure… but good hooberglob with vivid characters, an oppressive setting, and a darkly comic look at love, repressed love, evil love, and just plain love in the end.

But I couldn’t go on thinking forever that The Return of the Native was the best novel ever written. I would go on to read some very good Hemingway, some x-rated Heinlein, and a couple of dog stories before I finished that class. (I definitely read more novels than anyone else in that class as most of them were making their book reports from the blurbs on the back of the book and the part they hide inside the front cover rather than actually reading a whole book.)

But then, as a freshman in college, I was introduced to Saul Bellow.

Good god! Why had they been keeping this writer a secret from me?

Humboldt’s Gift was the book we read and discussed in class. It was written the year before we read it and it both won Bellow a Pulitzer and helped him win the Novel Prize for Literature the year after I read and studied it. It is the story of a friendship between writers. The narrator, Charlie Citrine and the Humboldt poet from the title get to know each other in a friendship that spans the decades between the 1930’s and the middle of the 1970’s. But it also convinced me that most great writers and the books they write that become great books are totally obsessed with sex and death. Charlie is mourning in the story about his latest divorce, his new love that his last love is keeping him separated from, the death in an airplane crash of his love before the lady he just divorced, and his own obsession with his own death.

Yes, sex and death. Lesson learned about great books.

And I learned all those lessons again in a book I found at the university book store by Bellow and read on my own. Henderson the Rain King is about a rich and socially powerful man who is seeking the meaning of life and totally dissatisfied with everything he has discovered so far.

He goes on a trip to Africa complete with guide and tourist group only to take off on his own when he gets there, hiring a native guide, visiting a native village, lifting a gigantic stone statue of a god, and accidentally becoming the official Rain King of the Wirari tribe. He then goes into a long period of philosophical discussion with the tribal king, pokes around at learning the meaning of life from an African point of view, and then goes on a lion hunt with the king wherein the king is killed by the lion, making Henderson the new king, the next step up from tribal Rain King.

And then there was William Faulkner.

Yes, the drunken postal clerk who wrote some of what may be the best novels ever written.

Make that some of the best super-wordy novels ever written, long paragraphs and all.

I have read more Faulkner than just The Sound and the Fury. But this is the first Faulkner I read as part of an American Literature class in grad school.

The title of this book is based on the Shakespeare quote from MacBeth’s soliloquy. “…It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury… signifying nothing.” So, this writer can poke fun at himself.

The three main characters of the book, the Compson brothers, are three very different viewpoint characters that take the swirling toilet bowl of stream-of-consciousness narratives about life in Mississippi and show us how meaningless and pointless our lives are. Benjy is the mentally handicapped brother who barely understands anything about the world around him. Jason is the hot-headed brother working in a farm-supply store and constantly fuming about money and class struggles. Quentin is the lucky brother who gets to go to college and mess up his life on a bigger stage than the other two. Caddy is the sister that all three talk and think about, especially when it comes to the tragedy of what actually happens to her. Everything is one big joke to Faulkner, as demonstrated by the scene in the end of the story where Jason (symbolizing Fury) is beating the snot out of his loudly squalling brother Benjy (the Sound.) It almost seems like the entire story is one big set-up for that one final sight-gag.

I have to say, I considered all of these books as potentially the best novel ever written. But none of these were the final choice. And the four books that I intended to add to this discussion weren’t the final choice either, so I had no trouble editing them out as this essay is way too long already. But the fact that I read and loved these books is basically proof that the reading part of being literate I have down. I’ll bet, if you have read this far, that you haven’t read any of these classics. But I don’t bet money. And you probably didn’t even read this far into a big-windy essay like this one. It doesn’t matter. These books exist. I love them. And I am glad I made them part of my little introverted and totally perverted world.

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A Walk in the Park

We have across the street from our house an extensive green-belt park. It meanders through the city along a controlled and, often, brick-walled creek. It is really a portion of the city’s drainage system that prevents more of the horrible flooding that occurred in Texas cities in the 1980’s and 1990’s, As you can see, if you need to exercise for your heart-and-joint health, it is a perfect spot for a nice, long walk and think. So, today I am thinking about what I walked and thought about.

Mini-Wizards

I started my walk thinking about my current work in progress. It is called The Necromancer’s Apprentice. And it is a story about a fairy society filled with tiny, three-inch-tall magical people. They live in a castle-city made from a living, hollow willow tree. The city is under attack by an evil Necromancer (a death-wizard) who wants something unknown from the wizards in the city. Eli Tragedy is a sorcerer representing the good guys. He has two apprentices already, quiet Bob and chaotic Mickey the were-rat. And he captures the necromancer’s apprentice, and instead of killing her like his superiors want, he makes her into his own third apprentice. He’s a good wizard because he helps students learn and values them as people. The bad guy is the opposite. He is evil because he’s focussed on his own power and wealth, and he’s wasteful of the lives and suffering of others. So, in many ways, he is like a Republican politician in the real world.

The Great Books You Have Read Make You Who You Are

So, I began thinking about what the necromancer’s favorite great work of literature is. Obviously, it would be former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s favorite book, Atlas Shrugged. In that book, the hero John Galt asserts the notion that only certain people, creative types like himself and Ayn Rand and, presumably, Paul Ryan have the right to design the proper life for everybody. And they are capable of doing anything and getting away with it for the reason that it is in the best interests of everybody, even if it kills the poor and other lesser people.

This recognized classic book of fiction supporting a selfish philosophy is the reason why we have things like Reaganomics, Trump tax cuts, and border walls. The perfect explanation to certain readers of, “All the reasons why I should turn to evil.” It obviously is a book read and loved by not only Paul Ryan, but other important weasels in charge of everything like Senator Ted “Cancun” Cruz, Senator Mitch “Turtle Man” McConnell, and former Presidential Advisor Steve “The Human Sweat-stain” Bannon.

A good wizard (or Sorcerer) would have read and been influenced more probably by some of the great books of Uncle Boz, um, I mean, Charles Dickens. His is a much gentler and more generous philosophy which finds value in forlorn and mislaid individuals like Sydney Carton, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, or Tiny Tim. I know these books of magic are the ones I choose to battle evil wizards in my own life.

So, if great books made me, perhaps I can write my great book with heroes influenced by Dickens and villains influenced by Ayn Rand.

The Final Turn of the Park’s Sidewalk

As I head homeward from my walk in the park, I have two things gained from the exercise. My legs and back are very tired. And my head is boiling over with things I need to write.down.

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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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In Praise of Louis L’Amour

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This man was my Grandpa Aldrich’s favorite author.  Grandpa had ridden the range in the Dakotas in the 1920’s and early 30’s.  He was basically an Iowa farmer for his whole life, but he rode horseback on the plains just long enough to become addicted vicariously to the life L’Amour so vividly describes in his many western novels.

Grandpa read every Louis L’Amour book the Rowan library had.  He read a few more besides.  And I have no idea how many he read twice, three times, or more.  For the last decade of his life, he did very little sleeping, being used to two hours of actual sleep a night, and spending the rest of the time reading westerns while he rested.

This reading addiction is not only one that I understand, but share.  I, too, love the westerns, the heroes, the manly and poetic prose, and the sheer story-telling ability of Louis L’Amour.  I have not yet read every single book he wrote while he was alive.  But I am working on it.

Recently I reread the book The Daybreakers, a critical cog in the story-cycle of the Sackett family.  Here is my review from Goodreads of the third time I read this book.

Goodreads

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The Daybreakers 
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Michael Beyer‘s review

Jul 01, 2018  ·  edit
it was amazing


This book is as much a hero’s journey as Star Wars. In some ways it is more complex. And in many ways it is a better story.
Louis L’Amour is a master storyteller. He created the narrator hero, Tyrel Sackett, as a young Luke Skywalker. His natural Force abilities are those qualities which make him a competent Westerner and a powerful gunfighter. His brother Orrin Sackett takes the Han Solo role from rogue pilot to New Mexico Sheriff and eventual congressman. Jonathan Pritts is the evil Emperor. He wants to take over the Mexican land grant belonging to the Alvarado family (Princess Leiah’s family on Alderaan). (Drusilla Alvarado is the Princess Leiah character). Ironically, Tom Sunday is a reverse Darth Vader. He befriends Tye, teaches him to read and how to be a good cattleman. And then he later turns on the Sackett family because of a wrong he feels from Orrin. The confrontation between Tye and his dark-side father figure is inevitable.
The writer abilities I see in the author deserve a much more detailed analysis than I can write here, but I loved this great American novel and strongly recommend it.

We have lost Louis L’Amour.  He will never write another book.  Which gives me a chance to read everything he wrote.  But he writes so well, and is such an important part of American literature, that is only the smallest of consolations.

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Filed under art my Grandpa loved, artists I admire, book reports, book review, cowboys, good books

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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Pubby Reviews

I know that today is supposed to be about novel writing. But once the book is published, the author has to promote it in hopes that it gets read, especially by literate people. Pubby is a review-exchange service that allows you to review other authors’ works in exchange for points that you can then spend on getting books reviewed by other Pubby-participating authors. Sometimes the result is not so good. There are authors out there who really need to go school more before publishing their vanity projects. And some may be capable writers who are really terrible reviewers. But it can also work well. https://app.pubby.co/

Here is an example of a review I did for Pubby and posted both on Goodreads and Amazon;

The Epic Book of World War II Heroes

by Chili Mac Books I really liked it, 4 of 5 stars

This is a well-researched and very entertaining book. The narrator has a voice that seems very authentic and soldier-like. I would give it five stars except for the fact that it needs some serious editing. The author warns us from the start that the language could seem crude, but that is part of being authentic. It is the grammatical errors, confusion of pronouns and their antecedents, incorrect word choice, and metaphors that run too long that make the book hard to understand at key moments in the action. A good editor could turn this book into an excellent high-interest book for middle-school students, especially boys who are otherwise reluctant readers.

So, here is the review I got for Sing Sad Songs with the points I had earned for my reviews. SS1967 apparently uses a number instead of his/her real name.

Top reviews from the United States (Amazon)

SS19675.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Narrative on The Power of Being Unafraid to Feel Your Emotions, Even the Difficult Ones

Reviewed in the United States on May 28, 2021Verified Purchase

Sing Sad Songs, despite the sad narrative elements, is really a book about the celebration of feeling your emotions. It’s about discovering the freedom, and love that is waiting on the other of feeling difficult emotions, despite how hard it might be. The main character, comes from a past of true tragedy, and loss. In order to navigate the emotional waters in front of him, he transmutes his feelings into songs expressing the specific emotions he encounters. It is these songs that not only help pave the way to a new life for him, but help him find resolution within himself about his past, and how he wants to live his life.

The pros are very descriptive, and the story almost reads like a song itself in how it meanders, and explores moods in different settings. A beautiful book for parents unafraid of exploring the reality of difficult emotions with their kids.

Here’s another Pubby review I did on a very short novella, or possibly even short story by C.S. Jones, Overload

Michael Beyer5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!

Reviewed in the United States on May 27, 2021Verified Purchase

This short story is like a punch in the gut. It hits hard with considerable force. The author’s command of detail, carefully crafted paragraphs so well done they come across as effortless, and well-built psychological tension all give this short story a power that is rare even among great works of literature. There is a stark realism to this story that suggests either extensive research or personal experience. I am impressed. I recommend.

This review was on Amazon only because, apparently, Goodreads doesn’t allow short stories to count as books, while Amazon allows scads of them.

Here’s the second most recent review from a Pubby reviewer, this time on my novel, The Baby Werewolf. Laura uses her first name only on her reviews.

Laura5.0 out of 5 stars succeeds on multiple levels

Reviewed in the United States on May 24, 2021Verified Purchase

I really liked this strange little novel. It is a very fast read, but also layered so it would be as good the second time through as the first. There’s an entertaining mix of reality, fantasy and the often off-kilter perspective of an inexperienced teen. The writing is well edited and proofed, the pacing is tight and effective, and the characters endearing.

This review of Pubby and how it is working for me really focusses on the positives. There are negatives too. You have only 4 days to review a book. And we are not all speed readers. Some reviews are done only on the first half of the book And some reviewers don’t read the book at all. They fake a review based on the prior-existing reviews. Some can’t even do that well. The verified purchase notation on the review means you had to pay $1 to $5 for the Kindle e-book. That, over time, makes for loads of expense to the reviewer. And you don’t make back what you put into that. Verified Purchase reviews count more than regular responses. If you get a bad one, it hurts your average even more than a good one helps it.

All in all, I have enjoyed participating in Pubby. But it is work. And it is definitely expensive in time, effort, and money.

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Books You Should Read If You Desire To Go Happily Insane

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Yesterday I wrote a post about religion that revealed my lack of connection to organized religion (I am still in recovery from fifteen years of trying to be a good Jehovah’s Witness) and my deep connections to God and the Universe and That Which Is Essential.  I feel that it is good evidence for the theory that being too smart, too genius-level know-it-all goofy, is only a step away from sitting in the corner of the asylum with a smile and communicating constantly with Unknown Kadath in his lair in the Mountains of Madness  (a literary allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s world).  And today I saw a list on Facebook pompously called “100 Books You Should Read If You’re Smart”.  I disagree wholeheartedly with many of the books on that list, and I have actually read about 80 per cent of them.  So it started me thinking… (never a good thing)… about what books I read that led to my current state of being happily mentally ill and beyond the reach of sanity.

2657To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is the first book on my list.  The Facebook list had no reasons why to argue with, so here are my reasons why.  This book is written from the innocent and intelligent perspective of a little girl, Scout Finch.  It stars her hero father, Atticus Finch, a small-town southern lawyer who has to defend a black man from false charges of rape of a white woman.  This book makes clear what is good in people, like faith and hope and practicality… love of flowers, love of secrets, and the search for meaning in life.  It reveals the secrets of a secretive person like Boo Radley. It also makes clear what is bad in people, like racism, lying, mean-spirited manipulations, lust, and vengeance.  And it shows how the bad can win the day, yet still lose the war.  No intelligent reader who cares about what it means to be human can go without reading this book.

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Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell is the second book on my list.  This is really not one book.  It is a complex puzzle-box of very different stories nested one inside the next and twisted together with common themes and intensely heroic and fallible characters.  Reading this book tears at the hinges between the self and others.  It reveals how our existence ripples and resonates through time and other lives.  It will do serious damage to your conviction that you know what’s what and how the world works.  It liberates you from the time you live in at the moment.

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The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini is the third book on the list.  This will give you an idea of how fragile people truly are, and how devastating a single moment of selfishness can be in a life among the horrors of political change and human lust and greed.  No amount of penance will ever be enough for the main character of this book to make up for what he did to his best and only friend… at least until he realizes that penance is not all there is… and that it is never too late to love.

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The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is number four.  This book is about an orphan girl, the daughter of an executed communist, living in Nazi Germany in the early 1940’s.  It is a tear-jerker and an extremely hard book to read without learning to love to cry out loud.  Leisel Meminger is haunted by Death in the story.  In fact, Death loves her enough to be the narrator of the story.  It is a book about loving foster parents, finding the perfect boy, and losing him, discovering what it means to face evil and survive… until you no longer can survive… and then what you do after you don’t survive.  It is about how accordion music, being Jewish, and living among monsters can lead to a triumph of the spirit.

Of course, being as blissfully crazy as I am, I have more books on this list.  But being a bit lazy and already well past 500 words… I have to save the rest for another day.

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Ugly Christmas Sweaters and the Criticizing of Them

In the Midwest

where I spent my childhood and early youth, there is a great tradition of making fun of the exceptionally eye-bonking ski sweaters and Norwegian-middle-layer clothing that dads and grandads are given as presents less often than only neckties.

Yes, they are functional in the land of 100-degree-below-zero wind-chill. And they also work as defenders of your male virginity when you are in college in Iowa. But we make fun of them not out of derision, but of love. These are gifts, after all, that are given on winter birthdays and Christmas because the giver loves you. And the creative criticism of them is given only as a sign of appreciation for what they are truly for.

And if you tried to click on the X’s on this sweater of mine, and it did not immediately close on your screen, that’s because this one has special meaning. I didn’t get this as a Christmas gift. I inherited it from my father who died in November 2020. And it will keep my heart warm now until it falls apart, or until the time comes to pass it on to my own eldest son.

What…

this essay is actually about is the nature of good criticism.

The fact that this one is a red Christmas tree decorated with lawn flamingos is not the actual point. One has to look past the flaws and try to judge the effectiveness of how it achieves… or fails to achieve… its intended purpose… apparently to keep rats and small birds out of your yard… or from within a hundred yards of the thing.

And…

if I were to be offended by the revelation of Santa’s sexy black thong, then the thing to do as a proper critic is not to use my power to condemn it, but not to take up the critique of it at all. I mean, if you are actually offended by the thing, you would not want to offer an opinion that some would take as a challenge.

“What? You are telling me that I can’t like Santa’s sexy black thong? I will not only like it, I will love it! And I will buy one for myself.”


Following…

the philosophy of the uncritical critic, I would only review this green nightmare sweater of a Christmas mutant demon-dog if I really liked it. Of course, since you are seeing a review of it here, it means I am actually quite charmed by the sweater itself, and amused by whatever seventy-plus-year-old grandmama that has the kitsch-defiant attitude that allows her to proudly wear it… even if it was given to her as a gift by a relative she probably doesn’t really like but, never tells them so.

Doing book reviews one after another (as I have been doing for Pubby in order to get reviews on my own books in return) I have done a lot of the uncritical critic bit. Some of the people I have been reviewing the books of should never have tried to write a book in the first place. But do I tell them that? Of course not. If I have taken the trouble to read the whole book, even though it may be horrible, I am not going to pour cold water on their flame. I have done reviews with innumerable editorial suggestions of what would make it a better story, or a better non-fiction book, or children’s book, or poetry book, or self-help book… I have read terrible books of all of these kinds. And I know the authors did not rewrite the books as I suggested. But in my many years as a writing teacher, I have learned well that you must always point out the fledgling writers’ strengths and ask them to build on those. And some will. Besides the points I earn to spend on reviews of Mickian books, that is reward enough.

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