by Bryce Kenn
A blog briefly describing and commenting on books as I read them
This year, I have accepted the "52 in 52" challenge here on Writing.com. (Wish me luck!) Next year, who knows? Maybe I'll keep up my one book per week habit. It beats some other habits I could have, I guess.|
If you are interested in learning more about this challenge, take a look here:
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of March 5 is “A book from Amazon's 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime list.”
Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. Foreword by Harold S. Kushner, Afterword by William J. Winslade. Beacon Press 2006.
The first part of this book is Frankl's account of his time as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during Word War II. As a prisoner, he went through unimaginable horrors, but as a psychiatrist, he took note of what happens when people have nearly everything stripped away from them, and these experiences influenced how he lived out the rest of his life in helping people find meaning in their own lives. He had already developed thinking about the importance of meaning before the war, but his concentration camp experience confirmed for him that this is really at the heart of the human spirit: People need a reason to live, and people are always free to choose their attitudes about anything that might happen.
The second part of the book are his brief summaries of his school of thought when it comes to treating people with neuroses or other emotional distress. In these writings, he draws from his experiences in the camps as well as from people he encountered during his years as a therapist.
This book, according to the afterword, has been influential to people in many different fields and walks of life over the years. As I read it, I found things I could take away from it as well. A few of these include
1 With freedom comes responsibility to do the best one can
2 We are always free to choose our attitudes
3 Meaning can come from achievement, from experience and love, or from suffering
4 The experiences of the past are at least as valuable as hope for the future
This has to be one of the best non-fiction books I have read in some time, and I've read some pretty good books lately.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of February 26 is “A book with a number in the title.”
Keller, Gary, and Jay Papasan. The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Rellek Publishing Partners, Ltd. 2012.
As an aspiring writer, I have been looking for advice on how to jump-start my avocation so that it can become a career. This book holds some very sound advice not just for writing but for anything you want to have as your life's purpose. The book advocates finding the thing you most want to accomplish, think big setting lofty goals, and go small with a laser focus on that thing.
The book offers a great deal of practical advice on how to accomplish this. It is at once daunting, challenging the reader to go outside his or her comfort zone, and inspiring as it gives hope that those lofty goals are achievable.
Filled with stories, poetry, and personal anecdotes punctuating the practical advice, the book is as entertaining to read as it is educational.
In terms of my writing career, I have a few key take-aways:
1. I want to block time every day, without fail, to write.
2. I want to write down my goals and share my progress with others for accountability.
3. I want to dream big about the success I will find but at the same time
4. Go small, focusing on just the writing and edging out the unproductive things that have sidetracked me for years.
I realize that self-help and inspirational business books are not for everyone, but for those who are open to advice on how to take things to the next level, I would say this is a good one.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of February 19 is “A book with punctuation in the title.”
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. Duke Classics 2012. Digital
Whether or not there is punctuation in the title of this book depends, I suppose, on your time period. Project Gutenberg has, what I am guessing, is close to the original punctuation from when it was first published in 1818. I checked this book out from the library, and the catalog listing just had a comma after "Frankenstein." The edition of the book that I read has no punctuation in the title, yet it capitalizes "Or" implying that there is supposed to be punctuation. I went with the Project Gutenberg version of the title in my decision to read this book.
There is a Frankenstein story in popular culture that is fed by various movies. I suppose that is what tradition holds in the minds of most people. From movies and popular culture, I thought I knew the story of Frankenstein. I was so very wrong. There is so much more to this tale than what pop culture gives us. There is no accidental death of a girl followed by an angry mob bearing torches and pitchforks. There is no fancy electrical equipment, powered by an electrical storm, that brings the monster to life. In fact, Shelley doesn't go into how Frankenstein manages to bring things to life.
Instead, we have a psychological tale of a brilliant young scientist who tries to construct a human being and bring that being to life only to be horrified by the result when he succeeds. The creature, being eight feet tall and with a hideous visage, only encounters hostility from the humans he encounters. He starts out as a gentle creature seeking virtue, but eventually becomes lonely, bitter, and malicious. Victor Frankenstein, himself, is wracked with guilt for bringing such a creature into the world, and his pain only increases as the monster begins murdering the people he loves. Another difference is that the creature is not the clumsy and perhaps brain damaged thing that you see in the old black and white movies. Instead, he is self-educated, hyper-intelligent, articulate, and physically nimble. Part of the tale is the story from the creature's point of view as he narrates, to his creator what happened and tries to persuade his creator to construct a bride for him. At first, Frankenstein agrees to do it thinking that the creature will take the bride away to parts unknown and away from human beings. As he thinks more about it, though, he considers many other possible outcomes, all horrible. He changes his mind, and the monster promises to ruin Frankenstein's life. This is a tale of the philosophy of what constitutes good and evil, a tale of warning about experimenting with the stuff of life, and a heart-rending tale of what pushes people to joy and despair.
Mary Shelley's book was ground-breaking. Some call it the first science fiction novel, others might call it a psychological thriller. I suppose there are some elements of each in this book. Probably, at the time, the best genre categorization was "gothic." There is also some social commentary that I find to be still relevant after more than 200 years. However you categorize it, it is a thinking person's horror story, and I will be considering its implications for some time to come.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of February 12 is “A non-fiction book.”
Finn, Adharanande. The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running. Pegasus Books LTD 2015.
This book took me a little longer to read. There must have been more words on the pages. In addition, I don't digest non-fiction quite as quickly as I digest fiction, even if the non-fiction is journalism as is the case with this book.
The Way of the Runner is not Finn's first book about running. (He has previously released a book detailing his experience with runners in Kenya.) This book discusses the deep and pervasive running culture in Japan, and he refers often to his experiences with the Kenyans as a way of comparing and contrasting his Japanese running experience. From this account, running has been a big deal in Japanese culture for centuries, but given the relatively closed nature of Japanese culture, it has been a well-kept secret. Case-in-point: The ekiden. The ekiden is a kind of long-distance relay race that can vary in length. It is wildly popular in Japan, and has been for many years, but the rest of the world takes little notice. In the cooperative, team-oriented culture of Japan, ekidens make a relatively solitary sport like running into a collaborative event where the individual runner feels a sense of responsibility to his or her team. Running this type of race can at once be accepted as a cooperative team player and yet be acclaimed as a running superstar.
Finn also talks about Japanese running careers, Japanese running style, running as a spiritual exercise, and the Japanese obsession with sports in general. Unlike many works of journalism, this author actually participates in what he is covering. Being a fairly fast runner himself, he finds himself running with people in different stages of their running careers, with amateurs, with professionals, and even talking with one of the famous marathon monks who has run a thousand marathons in a thousand days.
I found the book to be inspiring, and it makes me want to lace up my running shoes and hit the trails myself.
I finished reading this book on the first day of the following week in this challenge, not a PR for me, but I'll catch up on the next book.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of February 5 is “A book by your favorite author.”
Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Shadow. Tor 1999.
To be up-front, I am not sure I have one favorite author, but Orson Scott Card is right near the top of my list of authors to which I keep returning. Having said that, let's talk about this week's book.
Ender's Game, of course, is a very famous novel that was turned into a movie in in 2013. That book was the first novel of many that Orson Scott Card has written within what some call the "Enderverse," and Ender's Shadow is the sixth such novel I have read. There are many more where that came from. From a quick glance at Wikipedia, it looks like I have 10 more novels to choose from along with short stories, comic issues, an audio play, and as I mentioned, the movie.
Ender's Shadow follows the early career of a young boy named Bean who we find living a street urchin in Rotterdam. From being in dire circumstances at the beginning, Bean is able to change his fortunes with a little luck and a brilliant mind. He is taken in by Sister Carlotta, a nun who acts as a kind of talent scout for the International Fleet, and Bean is able to leave Rotterdam to start his studies in the off-world Battle School. As the story unfolds, we learn that Bean is so intelligent because he was genetically altered. There is a side effect to this alteration, but at the beginning we just know that he is a very small, very young boy with a mind practically unrivaled in the human race and a very keen survival instinct. Due to his youth and his personality, Bean does not win the Formic War. Ender does. But Bean plays a very significant role in Ender's life and in the winning of the war.
Orson Scott Card, through his letting the reader in on the thoughts and dialogue of the characters, continues his tradition of providing insightful commentary on war, politics, and human nature, and his insights into how people think and interact are things that keep me coming back to his writings. I found the book to be entertaining and insightful, and it can stand alone as an account of Ender's leading the human race to victory over the Formics. The book's ability to stand on its own is what Card says, in the foreword, he intended. My thought? At the very least, read Ender's Game before you read this book as Ender's Shadow makes a great companion to it.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of January 29 is “A book published in 2020.”
Aukes, Rachel. Bounty Hunter: Lone Gunfighter of the Wastelands. Waypoint Books 2020. Digital
Rachel Aukes is a local author (I live in Des Moines, Iowa, USA). We used to work together in our day jobs, and when she told me she wrote, I naturally became curious. I have read a number of her books now, and I can tell you: Aukes can really spin a yarn! My favorite of her works so far is the Deadland saga, a series of novels taking the reader through a zombie apocalypse starting here in Des Moines.
Given the quality of her writing, I had high expectations of the Bounty Hunter series, and I am very pleased so far. I thought the bounty hunter on the front cover looked a lot like Disney's Mandalorian from the Star Wars universe, but Aukes tells a completely different tale. This book is set on Earth several hundred years in the future. All of our current problems: Pandemic, environment, government corruption, nuclear weapons, etc. had had their worst possible outcomes, and Earth is literally a wasteland. I saw one reviewer describe it as The Mandalorian meets Mad Max, and that description may be apt. I could see this series becoming action movies that would take you for the same sort of wild ride.
The characters in this book are believable given the situation. There are a few black hats, where you just don't see any good in them at all, but most of the characters have redeeming qualities and are just trying to survive in an inhospitable world. I saw some commentary on socialism vs laissez faire capitalism, and what happens when either is taken to an extreme, but this isn't a political commentary or any sort of moral tale about one being better than the other. These governments are merely tools she uses to build her universe and to set up the conflict (or should I say conflicts?).
True to any good action tale, The good guys win (or get part of a win -- this is a series, remember), and the bad guys take a loss but not before the good guys gets pretty banged up.
Over the course of the year, I plan to read the rest of the series. Look for more blog entries about Bounty Hunter as the year progresses. To find out more about this series, and other writings, check out https://rachelaukes.com.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of January 22 is “A book set in a country you'd like to visit, but never have.”
Steinbeck, John. The Moon is Down. Introduction by David Coers. Penguin Group 1995. Digital
The introduction to this book sheds some light on how this book was written and to whom. During World War II, Steinbeck wanted to contribute to the War effort. He worked with the organizations that would become the CIA as well as spending a lot of time talking with people who had fled their countries to escape German occupation. The Moon is Down is set in Norway, although Steinbeck veils its identity as a fictitious place as well as veiling the identity of the attackers. The masking of these countries, though, is not enough for readers to figure out who and what he is writing about, and the book was heavily redacted in Switzerland as a self-preservation measure as well as being printed, in unredacted translation, and distributed by underground-movement presses in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. Although some American critics panned the book as being too sympathetic towards the Germans, the target audience -- people in German-occupied countries of Europe -- proved to be heartened by its message, and the book proved to be very effective as a propaganda tool.
This book is a quick read, novelette-length, and I found it to be very engaging. Some eighty-years after the war, I found myself feeling defiant right along with the characters in the book whose town had been invaded. While some criticize the book for having rather wooden characters, I found the character development to be sufficient to be able to identify with the motivations of people on both sides. The Germans are portrayed as human beings who are taking orders but really just want to be liked and, more and more as the book progresses, to go home to their families, friends,and home towns. As mentioned earlier, I could identify especially with the defiance of the townspeople. The mayor probably gets as much character development as any of the townspeople, and he is even described by the other characters as being the town. Not a very subtle allegory, but it gets the job done. Like the citizens, he goes from being stunned and confused when the invasion happens to being more and more determined as the book progresses to finally being prophetic at the end about the nature and fate of both conquerors and conquered. Despite the portrayal of the very human motivations of the main characters, there are black hats and white hats. As a reader, there was no question about who I was rooting for, and I had a particular dislike for Mr. Corel who betrayed his town in exchange for political position with the invaders. I like to think of myself as a fairly well-educated and analytical individual who would not be taken in by propaganda, but even knowing exactly what this is, I was captivated by Steinbeck's craft as if I were watching an extremely gifted magician performing a common, familiar trick so well that I was still thoroughly amazed.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of January 15 is “An author's debut book.”
Faulkner, William. Soldier's Pay. Introduction by Frederick R. Karl. Liveright 2011.
There are a few authors I have managed to mostly avoid until fairly recently. As an English major in college, I had a small brush with William Faulkner's writings and knew that they were complex inasmuch as you need to have a good handle on the familial relationships among his characters. In reading this book, I found that Faulkner's writings did not start out that way. In the introduction, Frederick Karl points out that this first novel was simpler, carrying fewer plot lines than his other works. While there are parents and their young adult children in this novel, it doesn't get into aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and the like.
In this work, Faulkner makes some very interesting observations on how people treat each other during and after a war, in this case World War 1. Most of the characters are sympathetic to some degree. Faulkner doesn't really paint people with black hats or white hats, although one might have the least sympathy for Januarius Jones who comes off as rude, selfish, and manipulative. Even he, however, is not a big villain. In fact this book really isn't about good guys and bad guys. It is about an unfortunate situation where a dying young man is returned to his home after being gravely injured in the war. He eventually passes, but in the meantime, the characters around him react to him and to each other in various ways depending on their relationships to him. His best friends are people who found him on the train returning home. There are his father ("Uncle Joe" and his fiancee (Cecily) who both thought he was dead and were in for a shock when he turned up. There is Emmy who was in love with him but is not bold enough to assert her love for him, even when she has the chance to marry him. There is George Farr who is Cecily's current beau and whose life is obviously complicated by the return of Cecily's fiance.
One aspect of Faulkner's writing in this novel, that I found to be interesting is he three layers of dialog. There is the spoken dialog where people communicate with each other. There are people's thoughts, which they might say to out loud or to themselves as they consider things. And there is the parenthetical thoughts. Sometimes it is unclear who is having these thoughts, but they are a subtext, nearly an expression of unconscious intention.
I was not previously much of a fan of Faulkner given the limited exposure I had to his writing, but after reading this book, I may want to give his works another look.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of January 8 is “A book written in first person POV.”
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Introduction by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2003. Digital
I would imagine most people read this book sometime during high school. I am no exception, but that was decades ago. I not only have only a vague recollection of reading it, but I am in a different time in my life now. I am am married, have children, and am old enough to be the main character’s father. While I might have identified, as a teenager, with the aspirations of the young men and women in this book as well as their abilities to strike off on their own, I now identify with the relationships between the characters as well as the feelings of pride that Gatsby’s father had in his son’s accomplishments. The story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a young man getting started in the bonds business in New York City. The city is new to him, and he does not have a circle of friends. The friends he finds end up being rather shallow and self-centered in the case of his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. He dates a young woman whom he knows to be dishonest. Then there is the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is very generous, but he has another problem: He is living in the past. He had dated Daisy five years before when he was penniless. Now that he is wealthy, he thinks he can win her back from her husband. Time has not stood still for Daisy, though. She is married and has a child. Things does not go well. It turns out in the end that Nick was really Gatsby’s only loyal friend, and Nick does not particularly approve of Gatsby’s decisions either. At the end of it all, Nick does not seem to be any better off in his personal life than he was at the beginning of the book. He does, however, gain some insight into what wealth does to people and how people, at some levels, are basically alike. I know this is vague, but if you have not read it recently, you will want to pick up a copy and discover what I mean for yourself. As Jesmyn Ward's introduction observes, the book says different things to us as we move through our own life circumstances. I recommend reading it again and again.
|For the 52 in 52 challenge, the prompt for the week of January 1 is "A book with the first letter of the title being "A".
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Anchor Books, 1998.
From others of his books I have encountered, Bill Bryson has a unique way of looking at the world. With this expectation in mind, this book does not disappoint. The book is at once funny, informative, and a good study in what goes through a guy's head when he is faced with challenges on a level he has never before experienced. Though he claims his journeys on the trail are tedious, the book is not. A Walk in the Woods retained my interest for all of its 397 pages.
The book can be used as a travel guide for large chunks of the trail. Although Bryson only covers 39% of its length, he experiences weather extremes, challenges with land forms, beginner's mistakes, satisfaction as he encounters people less seasoned than he, and descriptions of his walks through many national parks, national forests, and state parks. While acting as guide, he also spins a captivating tale of man against nature and an account of the dynamic of his friendship with fellow hiker Stephen Katz.
Bryson, true to form, also does his research. Throughout the narrative, he takes side trips into history, commentary on governmental agencies, background on the weather, and geography. All these serve as refreshing diversions to break up a very long series of hikes.
If you are looking for an entertaining and informative travel log and more, this book is worth the read.
One book down, 51 to go.