Sunday, March 16, 2014

Give Me A Break

Amish Vampires in SpaceAmish Vampires in Space by Kerry Nietz

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The story of how this book came to be is telling.  Some people at a Christian publishing house, noting the popularity  of Amish books, vampire books and science fiction in today's culture, thought up a title that would be a sure-fire hit.  What they came up with was "Amish Vampires In Space," a hilarious idea, but so ridiculous that no writer would ever write it and no publisher would ever publish it.

This is the worst book I've ever read.  I gave it one star only because that is the lowest one can go on Good Reads.  As a person who was born Amish, I was offended that the portrayal of the Amish was just as made-up as the concept of vampires and of regular space travel and human settlements on other planets.  The author allows his particular theological views to color his portrayal of the Amish.   In the author's world, the teachings of Jesus about not resisting evil are impractical and he quickly converts the Amish in his book to the prevailing main-stream fundamentalist viewpoint of using physical weapons to fight and kill their brethren who have been infected by vampire bites.

I can take a joke.  My understanding is that the title of the book started as a joke.  If the book had been written in the same vein, it would have been tolerable.  But the author  decided to turn the joke title into an actual book with serious points and a sermon about the necessity of abandoning the pacifistic way of life the Amish have pursued for more than 500 years.  His sermon would have been better preached behind the flag-draped pulpit of a pistol-packing preacher than by using the Amish as his weapon of mass destruction.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective StoryWhy Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert:  No one knows.  But, if you're interested in what philosophers, theologians and physicists have to say in the matter, this is the book for you.  Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker and the book reads like a long New Yorker article.  At times the concepts are far above my head, but overall, Holt keeps the book readable for the lay person.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Literary Life: A Second MemoirLiterary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Larry McMurtry follows Mark Twain's advice for writing a memoir to a fault, i.e. don't do a chronological review but follow threads as far as they interest you (and hopefully, the reader.)  McMurtry never fails to interest me, and this book is first rate in being interesting to me.  But, it does feel a little more like a transcript of a conversation than a planned-out book.  Nevertheless, I now am eagerly looking forward to finding his first volume of memoirs and reading it and waiting for the third volume to be published.

I particularly found it gratifying that McMurtry agrees with me as to which of his vast output is his best -- "Duane is Depressed," is a brilliant book in my opinion, certainly in my top ten books.  He rates "Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen" almost as highly.  I'm going to have to go back and read it again but my impression from long ago is that there was too much literary theory for my limited intellect. 

If all you know about Larry McMurtry is that he wrote "The Last Picture Show," later made into a movie by Peter Bagdonovich, that he won a Pulitzer prize for "Lonesome Dove," and that he co-wrote the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain," then you need to get busy on his ouevre.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Mein KampfMein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Why in the world, you might think, would anyone waste their time reading "Mein Kampf."  My reasons were that 1) it was free; 2) I had never read it; 3) I had read a lot about Hitler but never his own words.  The book is chilling in its hatred of Jews.  It is amusing in the naivete of a man who believed that Germans were more pure than other races and that the purity of races was the most important thing for the survival of Germany as a nation.  Yet, it is insightful in furnishing some glimpse of the message that misled so many people and led to so much destruction and death of his supposedly superior race.  I think reading this book was an important part of my education.

Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit /Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit / by Guy C. Fraker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written by a lawyer, not a writer, and, accordingly is long on lists of names associated with Lincoln in various counties in which he practiced law and short in interesting story telling.  Although the neophyte thinks that history equals boring, it does not have to be in the hands of a skilled writer, for example Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln work, "Team of Rivals," and Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson.  It is a shame because Fraker is very knowledgeable and there is an interesting story to be told.  He just doesn't do it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very well done imagination of what it might have felt like to have been Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Told in the first person, the slim volume (only 81 pages) is beautifully written.  Although the author doesn't explicitly refer to it, this is what Mary might have been thinking when, as the Bible says, "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Traditionalists may be offended because Toibin's Mary is not a Christian; she doesn't even follow the Jewish teachings after her son's death.  There were some strange things that occurred during his life, but she maintains a skeptical stance.  She says that if he died for the sins of the world, it wasn't worth it.  That's the hook that caught me.  Indeed, what mother would be willing to sacrifice her son to die for the sins of the world? And what kind of god have we invented who would demand such a sacrifice?

There are some anomalies in the book.  Toibin's Mary has a 21st century outlook on the role of men and women.  She wears shoes, not sandals.  But the book is very much worth the little bit of time it takes to read it.  Then ponder it in your heart and wonder if Toibin's imagination gets it right.


Saturday, February 02, 2013

Books and Movies of 2012

Although I didn't do it last year, every year before, I listed all the books I read and the movies I saw the previous year.  It's time to revive the tradition.  I read 69 books, including 25 that I listened to in the car or on my phone.  That double counts Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, because I read it twice.  It made more sense the second time, so I raised my rating from 3 to 4 stars.  I still don't understand it.  I think I'm ready to tackle it a third time to see if I can figure out why the literary experts think it is the greatest book of fiction in the 20th century.  There were 27 nonfiction and 42 fiction books. I watched 46 movies, including 12 that I watched at home, either on Netflix, Amazon or rental DVD's.  Thirteen of the movies I saw were at Ebertfest.  I give stars indicating how much I liked each book or movie, with the highest being five stars and truly exceptional books, or movies, that make me say "wow!" at the end getting five plus stars.


Five Plus Stars

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer

Five Stars

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
Vanity Fair,  William Makepeace Thackeray
Without Conscience, Dr. Robert O. Hare
The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson
Wildlife, Richard Ford
Behind the Beautiful Forevers,  Katherine Boo
March, Geraldine Brooks
The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
Essays From My Life, Miriam Maust

Four Stars

Please Look After Mom,Kyung-Sook Shin
No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
Dear Husband, Joyce Carol Oates
Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver
Middlemarch, George Eliot
A Boy Called "H", Kappa Senoh
Pearl Buck in China,Hilary Spurling
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman
No One Knows My History, Fawn Brodie
By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham
A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Half A Life, V.S. Naipul
The Double Bind, Chris Bohjalian
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
The Men Who Would Be King, Nicole La Porte
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz
Swann's Way, Marcel Proust
Sybil Exposed, Debby Nathan
Newspaper Days, Theodore Dreiser

 Three Stars

Working, Studs Terkel
Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace
Born Round, Frank Bruni
Pulphead Essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan
Die Free, Peter Rooney
Home on the Prairie, Garrison Keillor 
The Man Who Owns The News,  Michael Wolff
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,  Stieg Larsson
Hijacked:  Responding To The Partisan Church Divide,  Mike E. Slaughter, Charles E. Gutenson and      Robert P. Jones 
Atheist's Mass, Honore Balzac
The Keep,  Jennifer Eagan
The Lady's Not For Burning, Christopher; Fry
The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson
Men's Wives, William Makepeace Thackeray
Higher Gossip, John Updike
Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry
The Girl Who Played With Fire,  Stieg Larsson
Hollywood Hills,  Joseph Wambaugh
The Artist of Disappearance, Anita Kisai
How To Make People Like You, Nicholas Boothman
Alexander's Bridge,  Willa Cather
The Communist Manifesto,  Karl Marx
The Wild Things, Dave Eggers

Two Stars

Talking to Myself, Studs Terkel
The Country Doctor,  Honore Balzac
A Cup of Friendship,  Debra Rodriguez
Beautiful Outlaw, John Eldredge
Pushups In The Prayer Room,  Norm Schriever
O Pioneers,  Willa Cather

One Star

Motor Mouth, Janet Evanovich
Answering The New Atheism,   Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker
Strategic Moves,  Stuart Woods


Five Plus Stars

A Separation  

Five Stars

The Descendants
Higher Ground
Queen of Versailles
Vernon, Florida
Life of Pi
Anatomy of a Murder

Four Stars

Today's Special
Big Fan
Take Shelter
The Exotic Marigold Hotel
Europa Europa
Queen to Play
Moonrise Kingdom
Your Sister's Sister
Hope Springs
The Campaign
Days of Heaven
The Words
The Perks of Being A Wallflower
The Master
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Three Stars

Joe Versus The Volcano
On Borrowed Time
Wild and Weird
Citizen Kane
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Happy, Texas
Guilt Trip
2 Days in New York

Two Stars

The Truth About Beauty and Blogs
Phunny Business
Wuthering Heights
Anna Karenina

One Star

Sherlock Holmes       



Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Story of My Life

I was asked to give a "testimony" in church this morning.  This is what I said:

    As I understand my assignment, I have five to seven minutes to give my testimony on vocation, particularly as it relates to my having retired from my vocation several weeks ago.  I won’t even attempt to relate it to the scripture passages, although, if I had 20 minutes, it would be interesting to talk about the fishing story and especially about becoming “fishers of men.”
    Both of my sons are way smarter than I am, as demonstrated by oldest son, Jeremy’s, answer some 30 years ago, when he was five or six years old and he was asked by a relative what he’s going to do when he grows up, is he going to be a lawyer like his father.  Jeremy considered the question carefully and then said, “No, I think I’ll be a client.”
    Jeremy understood, even at that age, something I didn’t grasp in my mid 20s when I decided to go to law school.  That is, that the big enchilada; the swizzle stick that stirs the drink; the king of the jungle is not the lawyer, but the client.  And, then, of course, even above the king of the jungle is the judge, who, to extend the metaphor too far, is “God.”  And, so I spent more than 35 years, trying to please my clients, successfully occasionally; unsuccessfully occasionally, with mixed results usually.  It was frustrating to have to argue with clients about what was in their best interests; what the likely outcome of their cases would be, why they should be willing to accept less than the maximum outcome in order not to be stuck with the worst outcome.  Most listened; some did not.
     As Jeremy noted, even at the age of 5, that involved an awful lot of late nights and weekends, even a number of all-nighters (admittedly some of that was due to my own procrastination,) trying to please the King (and Queen).  And, trying to please the even almightier judge.   True, I could and did fire some clients, but that is not a way to make a living if you do too much of it.  I caught a few fish; a lot got away and a few caught me.
    I sued the University of Illinois many times, mainly because I was one of the few lawyers in town so stupid as to try.
    I guess at my age, 66 and counting, I would be expected to offer some words of wisdom to the younger generation.  Something to help you avoid the mistakes I made.  I actually don’t think that works.  Everyone has to make their own mistakes.  Advice from the elderly goes in one ear and out the other, as it should, because circumstances are different for everyone. 
    But, being old, I’m going to give you advice anyway.  We just can’t help it after we pass 60.  Along with the hearing aids and the Depends, we give advice.  The first piece of advice is,  if you can make a living at it, try to do something you like.  I remember going to work, whistling, and thinking, “Man, this is fun.”   I remember saying to several people over the last 35 years that making a closing argument to a jury is better than anything– well, anything we can talk about in church. (That isn’t exactly how I said it, but it’s the gist of it.)   I won a few of those battles, gloated too much when I did, then bloodied my head in trying again.  Not enough wins and too many losses or draws to consider myself a great crusader for justice.
    But, I would have gone out much happier if I had made my exit 10 years ago.  That’s when it stopped being fun.  My head was bloodied from banging it against the wall of injustice; I had become cynical when I saw how often the law was manipulated to protect the powerful and screw the little person.  I had fished too often with nothing to show for it in my net except a few little shrimp.  So, my second piece of advice (which I fully expect you will disregard, as well, but you really shouldn’t) is quit while it’s still fun. 
    Everyone asks me what I’m going to do now. (By everyone, I mean Rosalee – and others.)  Well, I’m going to be retired.  I have worked since I was 13 years old.  It’s almost unbelievable that I am getting checks deposited into our bank account for which I don’t have to do anything.  It really brings home to me the advantages of being born rich.  
    After it stops being fun sitting around, I hope to do occasional mediations.  That’s when two parties in a lawsuit, usually shortly before the trial, agree to meet with a mediator, with their lawyers present, and try to agree to a mutual resolution they are willing to accept.  Amazingly, to me at least, 85 percent of mediations, nationally, are successful, and with really good mediators the percentage is more than 90 percent, approaching 100 percent.  I’ve gotten the training; I’ve had lots of experience participating in mediations, now I just need other lawyers to refer appropriate cases to me.
    Martin Luther King said in a famous speech that when he is gone he wants to be remembered as a “drum major for justice.”  Obviously, my career should not even be mentioned in the same breath at Martin Luther King’s career.  But, if someone could just call me a “piccolo for justice,” I would be deeply honored.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Shocking Case of Malpractice

Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality CaseSybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This really is an extraordinary story, as the title says.  I have never read the book, "Sybil," nor seen the movie, but I was vaguely aware of it and its subject matter.  The author writes very well and has done an exceptional job of digging up and presenting the actual facts of the matter.  The only reason I cannot give it five stars is the author uses too much "must have thought," "would have" acted in a certain manner and other speculative devices.  Also, she tends to hype her story a little more than she would need to.  Just the facts, ma'am, let the facts speak for themselves.  The facts alone present a startling indictment of certain members of the psychiatric establishment, and unnecessary editorializing distracts from the story.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Is Romney Thinking? (Or is He?)

I haven't posted any political diatribes in about four years; but it's that time again. All the pundits are talking about the latest Romney "gaffe" in which he told $50,000 a plate donors his dismissive view of nearly half of Americans.  I don't think it was a "gaffe," I think it was Romney being honest about what he believes.  The fact is what he believes is not only wrong, it's stupid.  The 47% of the American people who are dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters are not all moochers.  I'm not.  I support Obama and I pay income taxes -- lots of them.  The best discussion I've seen about Romney's comments are by John Cassidy in The New Yorker.  They're worth your while to read.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Beyond the Beautiful ForeversBeyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very well-written book. Although non-fiction, it reads like a story. The author tells about the lives over several years of some of the people in one of the slums around the airport in Mumbai, India. Real names are used and the stories are not pretty. The book pretty much demolishes the romantic notion that poor people help each other and live a good life without money. The people she describes live a miserable life and they know it. Several characters commit suicide by drinking rat poison. The book is so detailed with conversations and thoughts that I have some questions about whether liberties were taken for the sake of the story. The author claims not. Time will tell. If it is a work of fiction, it is still extremely well done.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Richard Ford: Wildlife

WildlifeWildlife by Richard Ford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great example of the kind of writing I like to read. Nothing fancy, just a straightforward story told in simple prose. It's about three days in the life of a 16-year-old in Bozeman, Montana. His life seems to fall apart when his father goes off to fight a forest fire and his mother has an affair with a wealthy man in town. Ford doesn't insult his readers' intelligence by spelling out for them how as characters are feeling. The reader figures it out by the characters' speech and actions. I need to read some more of Ford's books.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Book Report: You Must Read; This Book

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an extraordinary book -- unlike any I have ever read. The narrator is Death and the story is about a family in a suburb of Munich in World War II. This is not a book I would pick up to read on that description. I read it because our reading group is doing it and I'm glad I did. Somehow, despite the subject matter and the narrator, the book is compelling. One feels oneself a better person after having read it. This is one of the few books that I rate higher than five stars, when the maximum is five.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

JACK Report: Free Concert Sunday on Governor's Island

I have been fairly quiet lately about one of my passions, the JACK Quartet; not because they haven't been active but because I've been doing most of my publicizing on Facebook.  But for those few readers I have left who are not Facebook friends, you should know that JACK is playing twice on Saturday (rain date, Sunday,) at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Governor's Island in New York City and you can listen for free.  Here is one of the pieces they will be playing. 

And here is an interview with Ari describing the show. Here is another article describing the show. The Wife and I will be there,so come say "Hi," if you make it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Report: I Am Not A Fan of Mormons

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph SmithNo Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn M. Brodie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who was the first Mormon to run for president?  No, not Willard "Mitt" Romney, but the founder of Romney's church, Joseph Smith.  I wanted to read this book precisely because I am curious about the origins of Mormonism, considering that the Republican candidate for president this year comes from an illustrious Mormon family and was a bishop in the church, the head of the Boston "stake" (what would be a diocese in Catholic terminology.)

This is an objective book, as objective as a book can be whose subject is a fraud, a liar, a convicted swindler and a child molester.  Smith started out his career by swindling land owners into paying him to locate buried treasure.  He was tried and convicted for that.  Even if you believe his preposterous story about finding golden tablets, which he could never show anyone, which contained stories pretty much plagiarized wholesale from other accounts extant in his day of the lost tribes of Israel being the ancestors of the Indians, the proven lies he repeatedly told as head of the Mormon church makes any straight-forward account of his life seem like it's picking on him.

Some of the more egregious lies were the ones he told about his sexual practices.  It is well documented that he repeatedly seduced women by convincing them that God had commanded them to "marry" him and that it included girls as young as 14 and 15.  These "marriages" were not conducted as one might think a religious prophet who believed he was commanded by God to engage in polygamy would conduct them.  These were not marriages conducted in the open "in front of God and these witnesses" with women who then became part of his household. They were done in secret, some with women who were already married and who continued to live with their "earthly" husbands, and he repeatedly denied that he was doing it to his wife and the bulk of his church members.

Although Mormons claim to be Christians, Smith didn't teach the familiar Jesus who urged his followers to renounce earthly possessions and to turn the other cheek when oppressed.  Smith had his own militia, with himself as the "Brigadier General" and they were ordered to turn the earth red with the blood of those who persecuted them.  At Nauvoo, IL, the scene of the death of Smith at the hands of an outraged mob, he controlled all of the land.  He bought it at low prices and sold it at inflated prices to followers coming to the town.  Smith ran for President of the United States and told some of his followers that God had told him he would be "King of the World."

So, what does all this have to do with Willard "Mitt" Romney?  He comes from a background and religious tradition where deception is part of the heritage.  Look at the way he is running for president and then read this book. It's all part of who Romney is.

Yes, I believe in freedom of religion.  I don't have a problem with electing a man president of the United States who believes in myths which I cannot accept.  I don't have a problem with electing a man president who believes in or even practices polygamy.  Polygamy has at least as much support in the Bible as monogamy.  But, I do have a problem with electing a man as president whose religion is based on fraud, lying and sexual predation.

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