Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Shack

House M.D.More and more frequently pieces of literary shit are passing as precious metals.  Consumers eat up the most horrible writers, Stephanie Meyers to name just one.  But The Shack may take the Golden Strawberry award for me.  I bought this book earlier this year thinking it would be a good meditation on life and death, since I’d heard so much about it.  I thought the plot sounded fresh and intriguing:  a man’s little girl is kidnapped, murdered, and God invites him back to the shack it all happens in.  I knew something was wrong when the characters started calling God “Papa”, a gross misnomer.  The book got worse from there.  And I mean much worse.

William P. Young, Papa bless his heart, is the worst writer of all humanity.  Worse than a caveman.  Young really wanted to pontificate his primary school take on every single difficult question humanity has ever faced in 200 pages of the worst plot development of all time, and he did so in his book.  He’s the one laughing, since I last saw a fresh new pallet of his book at Sam’s Club earlier this month, but how anyone reads this book after the first fifty pages is beyond me.  Well, I take that back, because I did, but maybe everyone is like me, and when they heard about its crazy success, they read the book and kept hoping something eventually would redeem it, and then they ended up throwing it off the back porch.

Not only is Young’s take on death, murder, etc. the most elementary, simpleton and insulting expression of God ever (besides extremist Islam), he has the writing ability of maybe a high school cheerleader.  You get the analogy.  For instance, “Papa” eventually reveals himself as a large black woman from the south who starts out chapters saying things like “sho is” and “Mmmm Hmmmm!”  Who can make God into a flat literary character?  Then Young’s own typecasting doesn’t even hold up, because when he starts to get preachy, all of his characters lose their insulting stereotypes and just start preaching in white-speak to the reader.  For example, at one chapter, you get to see Mack, the protagonist, sitting at the breakfast table with Papa the black woman God, Jesus the lumberjack, and an asian gardener who is the Holy Ghost.  That sentence is funny enough, but as Mack starts asking all of these questions, all of the characters just turn into your average Sunday School Teacher trying to explain the heavy questions to a seven year old.  Except the Sunday school teacher can do it better.

House M.D.The ending of the book was even more insulting.  After losing his little daughter, Mack comes down from the Shack after his week hiatus with the Godhead, and is [spoiler alert] struck by a car by someone who ran a stoplight.  He’s in a coma for four days which conveniently explains his godly “vision”, but then he leads his family to where his daughter is buried, because “Papa” told him where she was???   Please.  Young obviously wants everything in the world to work out just perfectly, and I think he believes it.  But anyone who gives credence to his explanation for religious dilemmas that have plagued theologians and philosophers for centuries needs to seriously, seriously, seriously reconsider.

Please do not read this book.  Please tell your friends to not read this book.  Please do not support literary trash like this, or else we will continue to be infested with it.

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The Kite Runner

There is a heartfelt vulnerability in this book that unfolds to the very last page. There is nothing that isn’t refreshing and original in this. The Kite Runner. I’ve found that of the books I’ve read, many don’t impress me. Maybe I have expectations that just go unfulfilled. This one delivered. It was sad. It was harrowing, it was jolting. Yet there is a character that actually changes in this book, and there is a deep sea of good we splash in for awhile. It’s what we all want from humanity. And as touching as it is, it isn’t too big to be unbelievable, and it isn’t too magnificent to make it melodramatic. It is simple. One example Amir sees children staring at his watch as they sit on the ground eating their dinner. He asks permission to give the children the watch, then sees them play with it for a moment before tossing it from their play and attention. Later, he realizes, they were not staring at his watch, but at his food. This story is told in such a way, where a real event become a big deal, rather than the big deal being forced to become real.

I was also impressed with the complex side stories that all find their way back to tie into Amir, the main character. Hosseini tells a magnificent tale, and presents in the Kite Runner an overlying unity that all great stories have. Hosseini makes events tangible, then we are almost allowed to forget they happened, then their meaning resurfaces and allows for that aha moment that makes us really smile. The kite competition is a great example of this. First taking place in the beginning of the book, it’s poignant then and you may think that is where the meaning and significance stops. Eventually it comes back into play, and we are left with an unforgettable full-circle ending.

It makes one appreciate the real blessing it is to live in a country where bombings aren’t a normal occurence, and food is in surplus. We take so much for granted. There is so much to be thankful for.

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A million Little Pieces by James Frey

The first part of this book was believable and engaging. I felt the pain that James felt as he entered rehab, threw up every night, and even had his teeth pulled without anesthesia. Yes, I believed that. There is a certain realm where even in fiction an author can create a believable story that makes one forget it is a story. The mind allows a total submersion into the characters and development of the events. Frey did this, but his style, narration, and character development all crescendoed early and plateaued about two hundred pages in. I’ll go ahead and attribute it to his introduction of Lilly.

Here is my beef. There is a point where you respect a guy for being tough and having street cred, but then when that person starts to peacock and show off how tough they are, it is unbelievable and kind of ridiculous. In Frey’s case, he made himself unbelievable by trying to be too tough and too rebellious. He rebelled against the 12 steps. He rebelled against any form of higher power. He put himself in the most ridiculous asinine place an alcoholic should put himself in: a bar with a drink one inch from his face. That, to me, was ludicrous. Maybe it wasn’t even that final act of defiance, it was that he wouldn’t even tell his brother that he wanted to test himself. Instead, he let his brother believe that he just wanted to have a drink. That careless disregard for others made me lose huge amounts of respect for him.

As I mentioned earlier with Lilly, her introduction saw the downfall of a really good book. The story was/is supposed to be about James’s recovery from addiction. I can totally believe him being with another chick and having them help eachother through that. But Frey makes his love affair with Lilly the main plot of the story for the last half of the book, which is not what his original intent was. On top of that, there ends up being no redeeming quality to having Lilly play such a large role in the story. If he’s going to make up stuff (which he admitted to doing, which I don’t have a problem with) then he should have made up some way to tie in Lilly’s character better. Aristotle described beauty and great works of art as having continuity and completeness. All aspects of a work of art tie into the other. If you ever watch a critically acclaimed movie, you’ll see that every character and event ties into a following character or event. It all builds on itself and ties into the end. That is good art. A million Little Pieces, though interesting, was not a well written book in my opinion.

Also, Frey’s style of narration, which I would describe as a type of stream of consciousness (I don’t think it technically is that but whatever) was very applicable when he originally was coming off of the initial drugs he was on. The chaos of the fragmented sentences, or “the million little pieces” going on inside his head made sense. As he came down over the next few weeks, I could even see him applying the type of narration to times when he became angry or upset. But he seemed to carry on the excessive fragments to times when it wasn’t needed, i.e. when he was out in the back yard with Lilly, or when he was content. Either that or he could have done it a bit more tactfully, as I felt he was well over the top, and instead of coming off as chaotic and tense, it comes of as contrived and unintentionally poetic.

That people can overcome addiction is an admirable message however he does it, though I think most people trying to recover from addiction would be more let down than buoyed up reading this. Where only 16% of addicts go into long term remission from recovery centers, and those are the ones that follow the system, Frey disregards every failsafe meant for him and goes solo. That’s not a good message I don’t think.

Two books I’ve read from Oprah’s book club: 100 Years of Solitude and this (which isn’t a book on her list anymore I don’t think) were both sadly disappointing. I’d say read the second one as it is interesting, but stay the hell away from Solitude.

Lastly, I’d like to address the fact that this memoir is probably mostly, if not partly, fictitious. Does it make the memoir any less powerful as a work of literature? This same question has been posed for works about the Holocaust. Several Jewish writers have written accounts that they originally claimed to be memoirs or first hand events, and then later it was discovered they were not. One writer, Binjamin Wilkomirski, wrote a book entitled Fragments, which was later found to be untrue. He said that he wrote it to not be totally factual, but as a way to embody the pain he felt from the Holocaust, though he never experienced it. Some Jewish leaders have hailed works like this as just as powerful as real accounts. Yet, like Frey, there are sometimes great public fallout from less than truthful writers.

Postmodernists would say that since the author’s opinion doesn’t matter, we can take a piece of literature for what it is: a piece of literature. There are not hidden intentions that we must uncover through its reading. Whatever is discovered is what we think matters, and that is all that matters. Yet maybe an author’s intentions or personality taints their work. Paul H. Dunn, a “fired” general authority, told world war II stories over the pulpit as a Seventy that were heartfelt and extremely entertaining, but then they were proven to be totally fabricated. Could you feel the spirit in a story like this, even though it was totally false?

Or, we’ve had this conversation, does Michael Jordan’s promiscuity taint his status as a sports icon? Does Michael Jackson’s boy loving taint his music? Does Bill Clinton’s dishonesty taint his presidency? They all still did great things from a world standpoint, so do we just take what they did at face value and forget the rest of them?

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The Road

A father and a boy try to survive an apocalyptic world. That is the terrifying story found in this book, and believe me, its terrifying. Then, at the end, it is simply beautiful and heart-warming.

McCarthy tells a story in a way that is subtle in its verbal portrayal of what is going on. There are words in a story, and then there are the images created in the mind. What isn’t said can sometimes help to add certain details that make a character tangible or place the reader actually in a certain situation to experience an emotion or thought along with the character. McCarthy does this. A simple dialogue between the boy and his father is a charged emotional tension that is never verbalized on the page. The recognition of the father of some sound in the darkness or splatter of red on the snow conveys a searing hot idea into the brain that doesn’t vanish away with the turn of the page. I won’t forget the story because it was made real.

I will read this book again for sure. I actually read it while writing my final papers for a couple of my history classes. Some of my memorable quotes are these: (Spoiler alert: I don’t give away the book, but it gives away possibly some interesting parts)

This is a scary part of the book when the man and the boy come across a house with some prisoners and they discover a horror of the evil people who live there:

“He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous. Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us. He turned and grabbed the boy. Hurry, he said. Hurry.”

This is from when the man speaks to his son, in a very moving way.

“I know, I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.
Will I hear you?
Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk taht you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up. Okay?

Another line from the man to his boy.

“Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.”

I can’t recommend a book more than this. It is moving and touching and engaging all in one, and as I scanned the end again trying to put in a couple quotes I was still moved by it. McCarthy takes us to both ends of the spectrum of humanity both good and bad. It’s definitely worth the three or four hours that you’ll buzz through this in.

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The Atonement by Ian McEwan

Until the last ten pages of this book, I was left somewhat disappointed. I felt McEwan had given a showy display of his obvious writing talent, able to detail even the most mundane and dull thoughts and boring events into a character’s thought pattern. Which is actually true, that’s what he did. The book’s plot is based on a shocking night of events and lies that end eventually in…. for you to find out.
Yet as grave as those events are, they, as well as their rippled effects, don’t support the gravity of 350 pages of detail. If you’re going to write a book of 350 pages, then they better have a little more plot and a little less conscious thought of each character about everything they are encountering.

Most of the time, I was able to swim through the paragraphs and link it to developing the character in some way, so you can’t ever say a word was useless. Yet was it all necessary? Until the end of the book, no, it wasn’t all necessary.

Then you discover, the book is actually the main character’s work, that of Briony Tallis, and she, not McEwan or some other narrator, is setting the tone. Then, the showy and detailed consciousness of each character makes sense, since the character of Briony, an ignorant and hard-headed writer who loves attention and much to-do about herself, is the one writing it. And it all comes together.

Atonement. At the end of the book, Briony says, “The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

Briony recognizes her sin as unforgivable. My contempt for her burned hot enough that I vocalized a couple choice words for her at one point in my basement while reading. Her whole story was to show her recognition of this, and then to somehow give an enduring love to her sister and Robbie with each person’s completion of her novel.

We read her purpose in ending the story as she did, then we finish with a autobiographical narrative of the book, learning the true outcome. Briony herself said the real ending was too harsh and had no hope or message for the reader, and so was replaced with what actually was. So why do we, the real reader, get to end on such a sad note? Because the story isn’t about Cecilia and Robbie. It’s about Briony. It’s about her character development, and what happened to her. It’s about her Atonement. Is there still hope? Yes. One of my favorite passages was in a letter to Robbie from Cecilia while he was in France. He carried it in his pocket on the way back to Dunkirk: “I know I sound bitter, but my darling, I don’t want to be. I’m honestly happy with my new life and my new friends. I feel I can breathe now. Most of all, I have you to live for. Realistically, there had to be a choice–you or them. How could it be both? I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one, my reason for life. Cee.” Another letter, she ends: “You’re in my thoughts every minute. I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back. Cee.” It keeps Robbie alive.

McEwan uses incredible imagery, even if he causes us to OD on it. “the search for the cool corner of the pillow” or “His most sensual memories–their few minutes in the library, the kiss in Whitehall–were bleached colorless through overuse.” Or, “He felt the pain in his side like a flash of color.” Excellent imagery.

While I’m here, let me say a little something about the movie. The cinematography was excellent, as was the acting. But the story becomes about the two lovers, and not Briony. The story is about Robbie and Cecilia, but not centrally, and the movie makes it so, which of course makes sense, it is a love story. Some may argue the film does no such thing, since the final interview contains the remaining details about the truth of Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia, but then we are left with exactly what Briony wants, a happy image of the two on the beach arm in arm. Yes, it makes us feel happy, but it subverts the ending of the book in my opinion. I wonder what McEwan had to say about it.

Then again, you could ask if I subvert the meaning of this blog and of the book itself by my use of photos of the movie in the book’s description? What a post-modern thing to do:)

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Disclaimer: The author of begged me to watch this film so he could “do a review on his movie blog”, so because I’m a good guy, I consented. Also, you can read Cinder’s review here.

Twilight made for a great parody of a drama. Unknowingly, the director made a comedy. The film really plays out like some sort of extended Saturday Night Live Short. What’s amazing, and to me, what exposes what the book actually is (crappy mcrap), is that the movie is extremely accurate to the written account by Stefanie Meyers (a BYU alum. Go Cougs!). That is, a melodramatic compliment-fest between a several hundred year old vampire and a seventeen year old. They’re so in love. They’d die for eachother after only knowing eachother for a few weeks. Please. Bella, you’re seventeen. Are you really going to let Edward make you a vampire for all eternity based on a high school crush? Only like 4% of high school crushes work out.

Most of the movie is staring into Edward or Bella’s eyes as they exhale breath awkwardly.

The first scene that revealed the depth of the film was when Bella sees Edward in the science lab. Edward looks as if he’s about to puke, and covers his mouth. We (the theater audience) laughed. Literally laughed. He then exits rudely.

Another fun scene is during a flashback, when Edward is christened a vampire (pun intended. Get it? Christened a vampire? Christened the spawn of satan? haha!). Carlyle sniffs around Edward’s Choleric and sweaty neck and takes a nice big bite out of him like he was at the Golden Corral. Edward writhes in pain. It was so awkward and funny.

Also, Edward sneaks into Bella’s room and watches her sleep. Give me an fing break. That is so creepy.

Or when Bella rides around on Edward as he runs through the forest, that’s really funny too.

Or that Edward’s skin is made of…diamonds? Meyers I’m sure was as surprised as I am at the success of her series.

There is a major difference in character believability and development between Twilight (I can only comment on the first book which I read and its movie) and the Harry Potter series (which I read all and have seen all films thus far). That difference is stark. Potter would definitely kick Edward’s centurial ass. Beyond that, even though wizards and witches is about as believable as vampires at first glance, Rowling builds a world not singly on a love addiction of a girl, but on a lonely and different boy who has many different areas of exploration for the reader i.e. sports (quittage), education (Hogwarts), revenge (Voldemort), not to mention love tension (Hermione, Cho, Ron’s little sister,). Where Meyers spent the first 300 pages tripping over herself to talk about Bella’s crush on Edward and Edward’s uncontrollable love/sex/hunger for Bella, Rowling throws Potter’s love interest into the mix and lets it simmer on low. Meyers finally introduces a rising tension in the plot about the last fifty pages (or last ten minutes of the movie, right after the ridiculous baseball game in the middle of the forest where Edward and his buddy jump fifty feet into the air and collide with eachother). Rowling introduced Voldemort from the first chapter. And it took seven books to develop to the orgasmic ending.

What scares me, is that after the success of Twilight, Meyer’s publishers decided she didn’t need any editing for her books. Whoa. What? (I will also mention the numerous spelling errors in the book. Maybe she didn’t have an editor for the first one either).

In other words, Twilight will get you a few laughs, or if you just are a sucker for ridiculous, unbelievable stories about passionate and overbearing puppy love, then you may like the movie.

My guess is you won’t.

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The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

What an interesting way to explain Taoist principles. I will be honest though. I liked the book for its philosophical anecdotes and citations from actual Taoist stories and writings, not the interspersing of Winnie the Pooh. In a way, trying to use Pooh and his mates as illustration for the supposedly simplest Eastern model of thought is, in the words of Joey Tribiani, a moo point. (Useless, like a cow’s opinion. You know, moo).

I read this a couple months back, and when I decided to blog about it, I couldn’t remember one damn thing. Rereading it, I found that I skimmed over all of the Pooh stories and just found what Hoff was trying to get at, which were very easily understood and useful Taoist principles. But you can’t fault the guy for trying.

He explains the principle of the uncarved block, or simplicity of life. The power of wisdom and not of knowledge or “useless learning”. The awareness of our inner nature. One excerpt in particular I enjoyed:

While sitting on the banks of the P’u River, Chuang-tse was approached by two representatives of the Prince of Ch’u, who offered him a position at court. Chuang-tse watched the water flowing by as if he had not heard. Finally, he reamrked, “I am told that the PRince has a sacred tortoise, over two thousand years old, which is kept in a box, wrapped in silk and brocade.” “That is true,” the officials replied. “If the tortoise had been given a choice,” Chuang-tse continued, “Which do you think he would have liked better–to have been alive in the mud, or dead within the palace?” “To have been alive in the mud, of course,” the men answered. “I too prefer the mud,” said Chuang-tse. “Good-bye.”

We can see from this that if we have an inner purpose or inner nature, it would be pointless to go against it. Rather than trying to cut a particularly knotted tree which would have required vast amounts of work to turn into lumbar, Chuang-tse recommends realizing the tree’s inner nature and using it for shade, or protection from the wind. LIke this, Hoff points out we shouldn’t stay in jobs or relationships or cities that don’t match up with our inner nature.

Another principle, Wu Wei, literally “without doing, causing or making”. It is to go with the flow. To not fight against the current, like when you’re caught in a riptide along the beach, you swim with it to get out. We shouldn’t fight our inner nature or circumstances, but go with them, and things naturally will work themselves out.

Hoff seems to have some disdain for the Puritans and other early settlers of America, for they seemed, in his eyes, miserable. They were so busy changing everything around them, they didn’t notice that everything was already beautiful. They couldn’t live off the land like the American Indians, but had to work desperately to till it, and couldn’t find happiness because they were waiting for it somewhere else. Like them, we spend most of our time running from one thing to another to do, and miss out on being aware of our lives, and being aware of the contentment and happiness we could enjoy day to day. Tao, or the way, is realizing that goals are important not for their attainment, but for the path towards them, which is really what we should reap our enjoyment from. Once the goal is attained, the excitement is over. Much like Christmas morning, when all of the presents are being opened, it’s over in a moment, and the real enjoyment was the anticipation of opening the actual presents.

True, but opening presents is still fun.

Chuang-tse said, “It is widely recognized that the courageous spirit of a single man can inspire to victory an army of thousands. If one concerned with ordinary gain can create such an effect, how much more will be produced by one who cares for greater things!” This is very beautiful. It makes me think of all the things that happen in the world that we just don’t care about. If we did, we could make such a difference.

The Great Nothing can be described with the writings of Lao-Tse in the Tao Te Ching:

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” So, the Great nothing is something Hoff says. Instead of being so busy, we should fill our lives with emptiness. We will find wisdom and tranquility.

We realize that all of the characters of the book: Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Piglet, and Pooh, are in all of us. They all have their pitfalls. We should become more like Pooh, and Hoff shows us the Tao, or the Way, with Pooh’s stories.

I find this great truth in my life, that I learn many valuable principles and seek them out constantly, but the mere application of a few would be sufficient to change my life dramatically. Why not cut out everything else and focus on the few? Why not simplify? Maybe doing so is the Way. The Tao of Pooh.

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