Tag Archives: Book Review

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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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 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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Electricity and the Enlightenment

Electricity is not only a great microcosm for demonstrating larger Enlightenment movements, but it also was the central scientific advancement of the period. In fact, many literary puns playing on the symbolism of reason and discovery were used in connection with electricity.

Beyond light-hearted literary exchange, Electricity demonstrates several important Enlightenment realms. First, electricity and its advances were the cumulative efforts of many peoples in several countries working solely with empirical experimentation and visual, tangible evidence, such as Patton, Franklin, Descartes, etc, as opposed to the more theoretical book knowledge. David Hume even condoned burning books without empirical studies:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Second, according to Patricia Fara, the Enlightenment was not a time for each countries’ natural philosophers to come together into one harmonious blend of thought. Instead, it was a gulf of several currents, sometimes converging, sometimes clashing together.

Third, electricity was an obvious check on religion’s powerful hold on society. It demonstrated through Franklin’s lightning rod (not without a fight) that man was beginning to demonstrate control over nature, or at least over what once was termed “God’s wrath”.

Fourth, electricity was a demonstration of the blending of class lines. Benjamin Franklin, renowned for many successes, one of which was his discoveries in electricity, began his life as a working class printer, rose in prestige, knowledge, and wealth, and demonstrated that not just the aristocrats and professors could contribute to their country. Fara also shows Franklin as a political champion, overturning established governments and tyrants, and compares him to Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus’ heaven.

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The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

In the Sunflower, Wiesenthal recounts his experience in a Polish Nazi Concentration Camp where a dying SS guard asks him forgiveness for an atrocity he committed. The event encapsulates what becomes Wiesenthal’s theme the rest of his life: Justice.

I thought this book was about forgiveness. The reader is affronted heavily throughout the book with the question, “should Wiesenthal forgive the SS guard?” “Is it right for someone to forgive something that wasn’t committed against him?” “Is deathbed repentance truly atoning for the sins committed?” Really, Weisenthal was more concerned with what is just. Would it have been justice to the Jew for forgiveness to be relinquished by Wienthal? When a debt is a life, can it be repaid, and by forgiving the transgressor is one not just committing another atrocity against the victim party?

Wiesenthal uses the sunflower as a symbol of the injustice. He describes the sunflower throughout the book. First encountering it on a sojourn out of the camp to a hospital for the day’s work, the party stops to look out over a German army cemetary. Each gravesite has as its companion a sunflower. “Suddenly, I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.” the sunflower represented, even in death, the injustice between the Jew and the German. From birth until death, the Jew was stereotyped, shunned, and ridiculed. Hitler Youth would beat them with razor-laden sticks. Neighbors would hold protests at local businesses and usurp their work positions. Students prevented them from taking their finals and progressing in school. Then they were eventually sent to camps and worked to death or slaughtered. And, finally, in death, they received no flower as for their epitaph.

The dilemma is razored to a fine edge with the SS soldier’s plea. The injustice is as thick and heavy as the death chamber’s air.

The question plagues Wiesenthal the rest of his life. He goes on to become a “Nazi Hunter”, and helps to track down perpetrators to be tried for war crimes, thus living out his lifelong search to find justice in an injust world.

If you were in his place to forgive the soldier, what would you have done?

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George C. Marshall book review


George C. Marshall
Soldier—statesman of the American Century
By Mark A. Stoler
Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt described George Marshall as “the strongest weapon I have always had in my hand… our Army and our people have never been so deeply indebted to any other soldier.” Winston Churchill, a man who didn’t always get along with Marshall, described him as, “the noblest Roman of them all.” Henry Stimson, the secretary of state during FDR’s administration, said of Marshall, “I have seen a great many soldiers in my lifetime, and you, sir, are the finest soldier I have ever known.” A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and namesake of the economic plan that saved Europe after World War II, Secretary of State and of Defense, a military genius who instigated and helped devise Operation Overlord, Marshall deserves the many pages written about him and documenting his outstanding life of service and sacrifice. Mark A. Stoler offered up another one of these memorials in George C. Marshall: Soldier—Statesman of the American Century.
Stoler’s work presents some excellent historical work, as well as room for some criticism. Certain aspects will be evaluated including documentation of primary sources, organization of the work, and strengths and weaknesses of content.
Although Stoler was not the official biographer for Marshall, his thoroughness in research validates him as a capable biographer. At first glance through the early chapters documented in the bibliography, many of the references are made from other biographers and works done on Marshall, including his official biographer Dr. Forrest C. Pogue. Obviously during his early life it would be difficult to find numerous primary sources from the actual time period, as he had no need for a bureaucratic paper trail and he didn’t keep a journal. His interaction with family and friends would be remembered, but hard to document and recite from primary sources. Stoler does a good job in spite of this, piecing together Marshall’s early life of childhood memories and early school experiences. Stoler quotes extensively from interviews between Dr. Pogue and the general around 1956 and 1957 and Marshall’s own memoirs. Although primary sources, recollections recited from memory and memoirs are already tainted by the fog of remembrance. Once Marshall moves to the higher ranks of the army and the situation for the American Army becomes more dire, more primary documents of the time period are quoted from, showing that Stoler did his homework.
The biography for the most part is organized chronologically along the time span of Marshall’s life, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. Not much information is provided preceding Marshall’s life, and the book ends three paragraphs after his death is recorded. Although the life of such a great man is what the book documents, it may have been beneficial for the reader to see a more macro aspect of Marshall’s life and how it fit into the 20th century from the views of others besides his own contemporaries. Without doubt Marshall’s fellow soldiers, subordinates, and the presidents that gave him orders would only bestow the highest praise and honors, but it is interesting and beneficial for historians and casual readers to see how the world views someone well after they have passed away. Aside from this, the biography documents Marshall’s life succinctly and to the point, providing readers with bureaucratic details of his climb through the ranks of the army and intimate moments with his wife and leaders.
Stoler’s work provides some strong points of content that give greater understanding and respect for Marshall’s integrity and character. It may be easy to gloss over difficult aspects of a hero in hopes to portray the man or woman unflawed, but Stoler reveals some of the chinks in Marshall’s armor. For instance, Stoler documents that Marshall was physically awkward and a poor performer as a student. He says of the awkward boy, “By age ten he was quite tall, had large feet, and was made fun of by his classmates. He was also considered a slow learner, primarily because of poor preparation and attitude rather than low intelligence” (6). This type of insight helps the reader understand that Marshall didn’t grow up as some prodigy; instead, he was less endowed with talent than many of his classmates. The realistic portrayal also develops the admiration Marshall deserves as later in the biography he becomes top of his class at Leavenworth (22).
Another example reveals Marshall’s temper. In what could have been deemed an act of insubordination, Marshall grabbed the shoulder of General Pershing and “exploded” (36). He was trying to talk to Pershing about attacking a divisional commander in front of his subordinates, and was only being overprotective. The act, and others, including some with President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, could have been grounds for dismissal or reprimand. Instead, Marshall’s apparent weaknesses became strengths others admired in him. Stoler’s honest portrayal reveals not only a real Marshall for the reader to come to know, but also someone deserving more admiration than some superfluous soldier.

Although Stoler’s accurate account is detailed and well documented, he lacks a proper breadth of Marshall’s life before becoming a soldier. Only a brief six pages document Marshall’s life before he entered the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) (7). Of those pages, only a handful of personal experiences of Marshall’s childhood are shared, including one revealing act when Marshall let the air out of a raft carrying two girls who had lied to him (6). Understanding Marshall’s defining years during and after World War II obviously should be the heart of any biographical work on the man, but by leaving out details of his youth and childhood the reader misses out on knowing Marshall on a more intimate level. In addition to this, beyond brief documenting of Marshall’s first wife and family and second wife, not much is said about his family and children. Stoler makes sure to show how dedicated Marshall was to his country, and admittedly his schedule (arising at 5am and working almost 7-8pm). These details would have provided a deeper connection between the reader and Marshall.

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An elegant equation for life


This blog has seen me start and finish the biography of one of my heroes, Albert Einstein (written by Walter Isaacson). The end of his life was moving for me, and it made me reflect on the relationship I feel I got to have with such a great man. Opening his biography and reading about Einstein’s life, like his theory, made time relative to the observer (me). I read at my own pace, relived moments that happened already, but it all happened like for the first time. But then as the book drew to a close, death reclaimed its guest, and I am reminded that Einstein has been gone for over a half-century. Yet I am still saddened at his passing, even if it was through the text on a textured page. I think it reminded me of how fragile our lives are, and how much we should cherish the moments we are given.
What I think I admire most about the man was obviously his curious genius, but also the humaneness of his heart and his love for his fellow man. To his son Hans Albert, he said during his last week on Earth, “It is a joy for me to have a son who has inherited the main traits of my personality: the ability to rise above mere existence by sacrificing ones self through the years for an impersonal goal.” He was speaking of the field of science which he and his son had pursued and perused their lives through, and how they had bettered the world by their time and sacrifice. It reminded me of my time at Cambridge with the graduate student Fardad Afshari. He was finishing up his seventh year of medical school, and he said to me as we were in the lab, “I knew I needed to be a doctor and contribute something to the world. If I did not, then my life would be a waste.”
I don’t think that there is only one or two professions that people can really contribute to humanity. Nor do I think there needs to be some magnificent unparalleled contribution never before seen by humanity. But I think each person knows deep down what they can give. And they can choose to give it.
I think what is amazing as I have read the book is that I know that Albert Einstein was an ordinary man with ordinary traits and ordinary faults, but by doing ordinary tasks and working hard everyday, he accomplished extraordinary things. This is within the reach of all of us.
I am grateful to such a wise and cheerful icon of physics, and goodness, for a life that gives much to emulate.

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