I read books. No, actually, I “hear” books on CD while driving to and from work and other places. Your average book on CD is about 10 discs, and your average disc is about an hour and ten minutes long. Based on that, it takes me about a week to finish a book. I especially enjoy books when the author reads it instead of a voice actor, but that’s not always possible. One of my favorites was Born Standing Up, an autobiography written and read by Steve Martin.
I vary between fiction and non-fiction because write better when I’m listening to fiction, but I learn more when I listen to non-fiction. Another benefit of listening to fiction is hearing good and bad writing. Both are enhanced when you listen to them, the good becoming even better but the bad turning over and becoming even worse.
What I also enjoy, but don’t do anymore, is writing book reviews. I had made a good habit of spending about a thousand words to discuss both good and bad books and hopefully encourage or discourage others when they might be looking for something new to read. Because of my focus on my own fiction, which is now beginning to pay off, I greatly cut back film and book reviews. However, because of my willingness to share, this post contains condensed versions of the reviews I would have written if I cared more about you.
In no particular order, here are a few things I’ve read over the past six months.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, is without a doubt the best work of fiction I’ve read in several years. It follows the lives of two great friends from kindergarten into adulthood. The story is told in first person by John Wheelwright, a pastor who went to Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam as opposed to his best friend, Owen, who believed his destiny was to join the Army after a premonition that involved saving the lives of many children from an explosion.
It’s a fabulous portrait of two boys’ lives from two very different backgrounds and how each influences the other. Owen is highly intelligent, questions everything, and is an insatiable learner. Though his parents seem strange in a negative way, Owen’s quirks are mainly positive even when occasionally annoying. John on the other hand has what seems a very stable life aside from never having met his father and being raised by a mother with a mysterious past.
It isn’t a spoiler to explain that very early in the book, Owen accidentally kills John’s mother. It’s a horribly tragic event, but it causes Owen to spend most of his life doing anything possible for his best friend, including some excellent sleuth work to figure out the identity of John’s father. It’s a very long book, but it is well worth every word. The only negative is that John’s present day narration is littered with a great deal of criticism of the Reagan-era United States foreign policy. It’s not wrong, and it’s understandable – given John’s pacifist, anti-war stance – but it was close to being a distraction.
When Irving was contacted about a movie of this book, he had no interest and claimed it can’t be done. When Irving was told it was going to be made with or without his help, he requested that the Owen Meany be renamed. That became Simon Birch. Irving was right. The movie sucked.
The purpose of The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, is apparently to teach that all of the characters in Winnie the Pooh represent different human emotions, or something like that. The book is supposed to explain how we can reach an inner peace by knowing more about which Pooh character we are most like and how we can behave differently, but I didn’t hear as much of that as I had hoped. What I did hear much of, and too much, was straight narration from the actual Pooh stories. I’m not sure why, but it caused me to wonder if I had taken the right book from the library shelf.
I learned a few worthy things, such as that “Nirvana” literally means “no wind.” Not sure what to do with that, but at least I know to pack light if I ever get there. I also learned, or had it reinforced, that Pooh is nice but just damn stupid, Rabbit is on speed, Tigger is either an energetic liar or lacks short-term memory and forgot dropping acid, and keep an eye on Eeyore because he has the potential to one day go “postal.” Still not sure if Piglet is male or female, so maybe he/she represents the LGTB community. I also learned that tai chi is the best form of self defense for lazy people. Other than that, either it wasn’t worth my time or I’m too dumb to get it. That’s a coin flip.
I might have enjoyed Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants more if she had not committed what I consider a literary crime. Jacob Jankowski is 93, or 90, which is a cute touch but worn out by the end of the book, and lives in a nursing home where his family visits about once a week. He’s getting grumpier and grumpier and goes as ballistic as can be expected from someone his age when a new member of the home claims to have worked for a circus. Jacob knows the man’s claim is false and calls him out on it, only to be chased to his room to calm down. This sets off a series of dueling memoirs of Jacob as a twenty-something veterinarian for a travelling circus back and forth with his present day self. That’s where the literary crime is committed.
The story is about 70% young Jacob with the circus and 30% in the nursing home, yet both narrations are told in present tense. That’s just wrong. Unless Jacob had been a time traveler, the younger Jacob’s narration should have been in past tense, not present. Don’t tell me that you can do anything you want in writing because I will always contend that “just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.” I will also contend that you can do anything you want as long as it improves the story without annoying the reader.
I recently heard someone say, “I want to write a story in second person.” When I asked why, he said “Because I wanted to see if I can do it.” How about just tell me a good story without attempting to do it with one hand tied behind your back? If one tries to invoke some kind of awkward element when writing a story, one will inevitably affect the story and not likely for the better. The primary goal of any fiction is to tell a story, not to do something different or quirky just to see if you can get away with it. If that were the case, then I actually would have gone to school naked instead of dreaming about it. Not likely I could have explained it away with, “Because I wanted to see if I can do it.”
Jacob is a veterinary student at Cornell University when his parents are killed in a car accident. Unfortunately, their entire lives were mortgaged, so there is nothing for Jacob to inherit. No house, no veterinary practice, nothing. After realizing his future is greatly in doubt, he walks out of his final exam and eventually wanders along train tracks at night. What else could have possibly chugged on by but a circus train? He jumps aboard and luckily is not thrown back to his death, as sometimes happens. Instead, his boyish charm and relatively superior intellect influences the Benzini Brothers managers to keep him as a vet because they don’t really have one.
There are romantic involvements, mistreatment of both animals and personnel, and other fun things that make it pretty good but never great. If you won’t be bothered by the double present days, then you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. I didn’t and don’t plan to see the film.
Though I consider myself well-educated on World War II, Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley proves me wrong. This historic piece of non-fiction is not just a biography of the six men who happened to be in the right place at the right time without having done anything more than been brave enough to be there. These marines are sent on what could have been a death mission: climb a mountain to see if any of the enemy might still be alive and hiding in the endless nooks and crannies on the volcanic skeleton on a strategic but worthless island. Instead, they became history.
Yes, to learn about how the six men were born and raised and also how they’re treated both before and after the historic battle is a worthy book on its own. However, to follow the step-by-step, eye-witness account of the fighting, living, and dying should be required reading for an American History class. The Battle of Iwo Jima was expected to take maybe a week, but it turned into five weeks. There was no doubt from even before the start that the Marines would be triumphant. What nobody could have guessed was how many Americans would perish along with the 22,000 Japanese hiding throughout the catacombs of the island. If I didn’t cry while reading it, I should have.
Drama by John Lithgow is exactly that, both literally and figuratively, and it’s made even better by hearing the author’s own very recognizable voice telling how he went from being onstage as a two-year old extra to a bona fide star of stage and screens both big and small. Lithgow holds back nothing, including his goofs and blunders in his personal life including various extra-marital affairs and acting jobs won and lost.
Early on in his career and with some influence of his father, Lithgow seemed destined to be a director instead of an actor. However, a series of opportunities and coincidences steered him differently, and aren’t we all lucky for it? You bet. His early and collegiate career crossed paths with the likes of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Francis Ford Coppolla, and a few others.
As for the extra-marital affair, it was with a big theatre star, and I have to wonder just how fair it was for him to announce her name. She too was married and thus unfaithful, so in my opinion it was not something for Lithgow to share unless it was already openly known. Perhaps it was, but it’s nothing I had heard before. However, there are other stories in which he describes actors with diva-like tendencies, and there he kept the names quiet.
I’m always interested in learning about performers who experience the climb from nothing to something, and Lithgow includes plenty of that. He was fortunate to have parents who were so involved in the performing arts, and from where his influences arrived is very clear. What is also clear is how invaluable and lucky some people are to get that encouragement and experience that sends them into a show business career.