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 prompt for the week of November 12 is, "A book with a cover that puts you off."
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Gallery Books, 1999.
The cover is just a blank pea green with a little picture in the upper, right-hand corner. The picture shows somebody's legs and feet from the knees down. It's a very weak cover by most standards. This book, though, is living proof that you can't judge a book by its cover. While the cover is weak, the story is powerful. The story is told in the form of a series of letters by a boy who calls himself Charlie but is writing, more or less anonymously, to someone he doesn't know but who he has heard is a very good person.
This is the boy's account of his freshman year in high school. He starts writing because he is nervous about starting high school, and he wants to share his thoughts with someone. Charlie is shy, a true wallflower, but it soon becomes evident that he is very observant and insightful. Parts of this book are funny. Some are profound. Some are heartbreaking. There is also something wrong with Charlie, besides being more of a spectator than a player, and this underlying issue grows and comes more to the forefront as the book progresses.
Throughout the year, Charlie grows a great deal. He learns about drugs, music, sex, literature, friendship, family, and human nature. Most of all, he learns about himself and the importance of participating in life.
The book was a New York Times Bestseller and was also made into a movie. Although the novel is considered YA, I believe it is powerful enough to captivate older audiences as well. It may be the best YA I have read.
|The 52 in 52 prompt for the week of November 5 is, "A book with an element in the title (earth, air, fire, water)"
Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Narrated by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones. Highbridge, 2006. (Audiobook)
This book takes place in two time periods: 1. The present where nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski is in a nursing home, unhappy with his present circumstances and reflecting back on 2. The thirties when he lost everything and joined the circus. The author paints a vivid picture of circus life during the Depression Era. The book has some action but really has a lot of character development and development of the relationships between the characters, especially Jacob who becomes the circus veteranarian, August the animal trainer, Marlena the star of the equestrian act and wife to August, and Rosie the circus's new and only elephant.
These characters, and others who are also very well developed over the course of the book, go through many hardships, but they know the alternative could very well be the life of a hobo. August and Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, are unscrupulous in their business practices and in the treatment of both humans and animals. Back in the present, Jacob is struggling with his aging body and mind, trying to maintain some autonomy in the nursing home setting, and coming to terms with his family members -- those closely related enough that he can keep track of who they are -- not having time for him. He fades in and out of reality as he spends time remembering the circus days.
There is a love story in this novel, but given the main character has survived the woman who became his wife and is now leading a less than happy life, the love story is more of "happily for many years after" rather than a "happily ever after." The novel ends on a positive note, but I will not give that away. Good book; I highly recommend it.
|The 52 in 52 prompt for the week of October 29 is, "A book with horror elements."
King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday, 1974. (Digital)
There is no better way to get ready for Halloween than to read a good horror novel. Carrie was Stephen King's first novel, but even for a first published effort, the book is amazing. Carrie White is treated badly by everyone. Her mother is insane and practices her own brand of Christian fundamentalism, one that regularly puts her daughter in danger. The other kids pick on Carrie, and she is often the butt of their practical jokes and mean comments. Carrie has no friends.
The story takes place when Carrie is in high school, and she is ridiculed and verbally abused in the girls' locker room because Carrie experiences her first period, later than most girls, and nobody has bothered to explain about female biological processes or how to deal with them. The gym teacher comes to her rescue and then has to explain what to do. Only classmate Susan Snell seems to have any remorse over Carrie's treatment and tries to make amends by persuading her boyfriend to attend prom with Carrie. Another girl, Chris Hargensen, is particularly mean and entitled. She persuades her boyfriend to help her play a practical joke on Carrie and her date, dousing them with pig blood when they are elected prom King and Queen.
Unfortunately for nearly all involved, Carrie has powerful telekinetic abilities, and she finally snaps after this latest indignity. Before dying herself, she destroys the town. She causes her mother to die. She exacts revenge on everyone who has wronged her.
The story is told as a series of excerpts from news accounts, Sue Snell's memoir, and the testimony given during the "White Commission" investigation into the matter. While the telekinesis is described as a threat to humanity and something to be seen with horror, the reader cannot help but sympathize with Carrie as the underdog and an antihero. It is only at the end of the book that one is snapped back to the ominous realization that others have this ability, and this is a sort of monster to be reckoned with.
Overall, a great book for Halloween.
|The 52 in 52 prompt for the week of October 22 is, "A book with a title that starts "The"."
Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. BBC Radio Production Narrated by Danny Sapani, et al. BBC Radio, 2021. (Audiobook)
This play is Shakespeare's take on the Griselda tale told in previous centuries by Chaucer and Bocaccio. Unlike his predecessor's though, Shakespeare has the king suffer for his unfair treatment of his queen.
The play starts with a groundlessly jealous king of Sicily attempting to imprison and eventually execute his queen and to murder his dear friend the king of Bohemia because his is sure they have been having an affair. Despite entreaties by all of his trusted advisors and a reading of the words of Apollo’s oracle, Sicily proceeds with his order of execution. Bohemia escapes with the aid of Sicily’s cupbearer who himself flees. As soon as Sicily defies the oracle of Apollo, he receives word that his wife and his son have died, and it dawns on him just how wrong he was. He has a baby daughter, but believing her to be illegitimate, he order her placed in the desert to die. Sicily now has no one and goes into 15 years of mourning.
Through a series of coincidences and through some trickery, the play ends happily, but I am still left with a bit of a feeling of imbalance at the injustice done to the queen. I guess I am going to have to write my own take on this story, but trying to improve on the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Bocaccio may turn out to be a tall order. Stay tuned.
The BBC radio play was very well done. Although I couldn’t see the characters, and I wasn’t reading along, I eventually caught onto the relationships between the characters, and once I did, I thoroughly enjoyed the production.
|The 52 in 52 prompt for the week of October 15 is, "A book with a date in the title (day, month, year etc.)."
Orwell, George. 1984. Narrated by Simon Prebble. Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2006.
Like Psycho, here is another book I had heard a lot about, and even remembered seeing at least part of it on film, but I had never read it. The pulls the reader into a dystopian world that is controlled by a party personified by the figure of "Big Brother." The party manufactured news, rewrote literature, erased history, and reduced vocabulary in an effort to control the very thoughts of the people in the society. Everyone was watched closely by the "Thought Police," and children were raised to betray their own parents. In short, there was no trusting anyone. Either you gave yourself completely, and mindlessly to Big Brother, or you were arrested by the thought police and put through unspeakable horrors before your execution.
The story focuses on Winston Smith, a member of the "Outer Party" whose job was to work on news manipulation as an employee of the "Ministry of Truth." Unfortunately, Smith was not good at "Double-think" or the ability to immediately forget what Big Brother wanted you to forget and to accept the new reality. Eventually arrested by the Thought Police, Smith's mind is broken down and imprinted with a new reality and a love of Big Brother.
Orwell lived in a time where communism and socialism were buzzwords for evil, and he used a single-party state that owned everything as the jumping off place for the totalitarian state in which Smith lived. What I find significant about this story today is it doesn't take communism and socialism to breed totalitarianism. In fact, these are just systems that are not good or evil in themselves. What breeds totalitarianism, to my mind, is the suppression of ideas, and I see a lot of the truth manipulation happening in many places around the globe.
To everyone here at WDC, keep reading broadly, and keep on writing! Our thoughts our our reality.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for Week 28 is "A book with an animal on the cover."
Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books, 2006.
Jonathan Haidt was a philosophy major who went on to do his graduate work in psychology. He combines these two disciplines to try to get at what makes for happiness and what gives life meaning. The animal on the cover is an elephant who has a rider on his back. The picture is taken from below as the elephant swims in a body of water. The first image Haidt explores is the elephant and the rider. The elephant symbolizes our natural tendencies and the rider our reason and willpower. He draws a connection to Plato's image of the dark and light horses drawing a chariot, one horse being our controlled nature and the other our wild nature. He talks about how the rider doesn't have too much control over the elephant if the elephant really doesn't want to do something and that there needs to be a slow coaxing to get the elephant to change its behavior.
Haidt spends a fair amount of time talking about morality, about religion, about love, about adversity, and about other facets of our lives. Haidt, himself and atheist, sees value in religion as a source of finding meaning and of building relationships among people.
The book is sprinkled, here and there, with quotes from eastern and western philosophy right alongside psychological studies into human behavior. The big take-away for me is finding balance. Straight dichotomies (e.g., good vs. evil, right vs. wrong) are not really accurate when one is looking for wisdom. These dichotomies tend to be painted by one tribe, religion, or school of thought in order to assert the rightness of their position and the error of the other position. To find wisdom, one needs to find the way between. The same goes with our relationships. The external aspects of our lives do not give our lives meaning, nor can we find meaning independently of the realities of our existence. What gives meaning is the relationship between us and our work, between us and other people, and between us and something bigger than ourselves.
Although it took me a while to finish the book, it was definitely worth the time spent. It holds a great deal of insight. I think I will hang onto the book and review it now and again.
|The 52 in 52 Challenge prompt for the week of October 8 is "A book you've wanted to read for a while, but haven't gotten around to it."
Patterson, Kerry, et. al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw Hill, 2012. (Electronic)
I've seen this book in a couple of different workplaces where I've been over the past decade. I have heard people allude to it like people allude to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Crucial Conversations is on par with these other two books. The book contains many illustrations of difficult conversations, ways to diffuse conflict long enough to talk about the issue, and the best ways to approach these difficult issues in a way where the parties come away with a better understanding of the other's point of view if not a complete resolution.
As a writer, I feel a little sheepish saying this, but I would say that 90 percent of the big regrets I have in my life have been the result of failed communications. This may be because I didn't engage in conversation with the right person at the right time, I assumed what the other person wanted and didn't ask enough questions to find out if that assumption was really correct, I rushed to some judgement and closed off communication, or I wasn't direct enough with what I was trying to say in order to get my point across. Conversely, the biggest successes in my life have been from times I have truly listened to another person, and we deeply shared our thoughts and feelings.
Crucial Conversations gives good advice on how to navigate the tricky waters of human communication, particularly when something big is at stake, whether it is business or personal. At least one of the testimonies sprinkled throughout the book mentions that the person went back and reviewed the material in this book before engaging in a meaningful negotiation. I think that is good advice. I own a copy of this book, and I think I will be referring back to it when there is something at stake.
An important tactic in a crucial conversation is being observant of the situation. How am I reacting? How is the other person reacting? Do we both feel safe talking with each other? If there is not a feeling of mutual safety in a situation, the book advises stepping back and re-establishing the safe environment before proceeding. Failure to do so may result in a deterioration of the conversation and a negative outcome. There is also good advice on listening, on dealing with strong emotions, and on being persuasive rather than abrasive. It also talks about tough cases that don't fit into a neat formula.
Human communication is like dental work. We aren't going to achieve perfection that we can just ride on for the rest of our lives. We need to be mindful of how we are communicating and always working to improve. I think a lot of people on Writing.com know this; that's why we review each other's written communication as a big part of our activities. Just as this site contains some very good advice on effective reviewing, Crucial Conversations does something similar with our interpersonal dialogue.
As non-fiction books go, this is not a terribly thick tome. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to add to their communications library.
|The 52 in 52 Challenge prompt for the week of October 1 is "A book with food or drink in the title."
Hessler, James A. and Britt C. Isenberg. Gettysburg's Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles and the Bloody Fight for the "Commanding Ground" Along the Emmitsburg Road. Narrated by Bob Neufeld. Savas Beatie LLC, 2019. (Audiobook)
This was a very interesting book to consume. As licensed Civil War battlefield guides, Hessler and Isenberg have a wealth of information to share about the Battle of Gettysburg with a focus on an area of the battlefield for which both sides fought fiercely and with a terrible death toll. The problem was, both sides overestimated the strategic importance of that particular area, and when the Confederates won that part of the battle, they found they did not have the advantage they thought they would get. The ridge further back, where the Union troops held fast, was on higher ground and was much more defensible. The battle in total went to the Union.
That's only one aspect of the historical recounting, though. The authors do a great job of interspersing backstories of various soldiers on both sides, Union women who served as medical staff, and the inhabitants of Gettysburg, putting a very human face on the run-up to the battle, the battle itself, and its aftermath. This provided more emotional impact with respect to the tragedies of the battle than would have been the case with a history that only recorded troop movements and casualty counts. The book also held my interest when the authors provided the different viewpoints on the battle. There was a lot of controversy over just how important the peach orchard part of the battle was to the final outcome, regardless of its actual amount of strategic advantage. There is also a fair record of drama among the commanding officers as their opinions differed as far as how best to conduct their respective units. This was true both of the Union and the Confederate armies.
The book also recounts what happened to a number of the survivors of the battle and to Gettysburg itself. Tourists and commercial developers have been forces to reckon with when trying to preserve the memory of the battle, and life in Gettysburg was never the same again. Those soldiers and commanders that made it out alive have some interesting histories of their own. Longstreet and Sickles, generals on opposite sides, became good friends as they would meet for Gettysburg reunions and recount what took place during the battle and their reasoning behind the decisions they made.
When one thinks of battles, it is easy to just think of which army and which commander was best at gaining strategic advantage, making some histories seem more like a chess match. This book not only covers those parts of the battle, but it also brings home the actual human consequences. Sending armies into battle ends up in loss of life, lives of people who have their own histories, their own loved ones at home, their own hopes and dreams . . . people like us. Regardless of what the authors were trying to convey, this is what I took away from this history.
The book was very well researched and written. The narrative was also well done as the narrator adjusted speed and tone of voice along with the relative intensity of the battles that took place. Good read!
|The 52 in 52 Challenge Prompt for the week of September 24 is "Wildcard! You can choose any book you wish."
Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 1987. (Digital)
Although I read some comic books growing up, this was my first experience reading an entire graphic novel. I understand this book was turned into a movie and a television series. I've seen neither of them. A friend of mine tipped me off to this book. He mentioned how groundbreaking it was, effectively changing the direction of comic books and the superhero genre.
The book starts out with a murder. A middle-aged guy is thrown from his high-rise apartment. This wasn't just any guy, though. This was The Comedian, a vigilante who had been a crime fighter and special forces operative. He was a force to be reckoned with. Not a whole lot of people knew his alias (although his costume really didn't do much to conceal his identity), but further, who would have been tough enough to take him? He wasn't shot. He was beaten and thrown.
Then, other heroes, active and retired, started becoming targets. For the most part, masked vigilantes were outlawed unless in the employ of the military. One who is running around illegally, is a half-crazy fellow named Rorsharch. He is putting the pieces of this mystery together and is warning the other heroes. Some of the targets are killed, some are framed, and some are exiled. Along with the superheroes, a number of preeminent scientist, artists, and other creatives are disappearing. As things become more dire, humanity draws closer and closer to nuclear war. What is happening? Who is behind all of this? Why would they want to put humanity in a position to try and destroy itself? The handful of heroes who are available struggle to find out, culminating with a big reveal and a solution that leaves the reader feeling a little ill.
This book has a lot going for it: Action, angst, relationship problems, science fiction, political issues, difficult moral and ethical decisions, and even a comic book being read within the pages of the larger story. Interspersed in the comics are news clippings, memos, interviews, and other documents that shed background on the characters and situations that give rise to what is happening in the novel.
While the term "comics" may have referred to funny things at one time, there is not much funny about this book. It is really a superhero/action story dealing with some rather deep and somber topics. I found this digital copy available through my local library. It is the first in a series, and like many of the series I have started during this challenge, I think I will want to try and find the subsequent volumes -- if they are available and affordable.
Good read. I highly recommend it.
|The 52 in 52 challenge prompt for the week of September 10 is "The first book in a series you've never heard of."
Wells, David A. Thinblade. Alexander Publishing, 2011. (Amazon Kindle)
I don't read a lot of fantasy, so picking up a book from this genre was a refreshing treat. For this prompt, I searched the Internet for book series I had never heard of and had good ratings from readers. Once I started reading, I got caught up in the magical world David Wells put together for this first book in the Sovereign of the Seven Isles series.
Alexander Valentine is the second son of a minor noble on the Isle of Ruatha. The family operates a cattle ranch on their estate, and he, his older brother Darius, and his younger sister Abigail are hunting a pack of wolves that has been killing their cattle. Accomplished archers, the three siblings had taken down a few wolves when an arrow coming from another direction hits Darius in the chest. Alexander quickly returns fire as the assassin attempts to retreat, and then he and Abigail get Darius to the ranch house as quickly as they can. Darius dies that day. He had not only been Alexander’s brother, but he was his friend, mentor, and idol. Darius as firstborn had been the heir. The family is devastated. Anatoly, their man-at-arms, quickly captures the assassin who had lost his horse to Alexander’s arrow. The assassin was an agent of the Reishi protectorate, and his mission had been to kill Darius. It soon becomes clear, though, that the overall mission failed. The overall mission was to defeat the one who would pose a threat to the Reishi prince. There is a magical shockwave that everyone feels, and Alexander feels an intense pain on the side of his neck. The shockwave is a warning to all of the Isles that the Prince Phane Reishi has awakened from his 2000 year slumber and will subdue the Islands under 1000 years of tyranny. This is a certainty unless the King of Ruatha emerges and defeats Phane. Alexander finds that he has a mark on the side of his neck where he had felt the pain. Anatoly, Lucky (the family alchemist) and Alexander’s parents all know what this means. Alexander, now heir to the Valentine estate, is now the rightful King of Ruatha. The must muster an army and defeat Phane. The mark is only one sign that he is king. In order to convince more of the nobles around the Isle of Ruatha that he is actually king, he must find the Thinblade, a sword wielded by the Island king, long thought lost. Alexander’s quest starts sometime that same night when Phane sends a demon to destroy him. Alexander, Anatoly, Lucky, and Abigail make it out alive, but the family manor is in flames and Valentine’s parents stay behind to keep the demon occupied.
All this occurs in the first few pages of the book. The rest of the book is the story of how Alexander comes to terms with the responsibility thrust upon him, finds allies, learns more about magical powers that he himself possesses and becomes an increasingly powerful wielder of magic and warrior, finds the love of his life, and searches for the Thinblade all while being pursued by, and skirmishing with, Phane’s agents, troops, and various monsters.
I really want to know what happens in the second book, but alas, next week is a new prompt. I am glad I am writing these books down so I can come back to some of the series I’ve started, starting with this series, I think.