Tag Archives: personal

Where I Screwed Up

IMG_6419 - CopyI realized today just how and when I screwed up my foray into photography.  The fundamental malfunction came about at exactly the second that I began to care what anyone else thought about what I was doing.

As I look back on many of the posts in this blog I realize, and sometimes even specifically state, that they are written for the benefit of future-Rob only and that anyone else that happens to read them can take them or leave them and I care not a single whit one way or another.  Rereading some of those posts now, current-Rob is extremely impressed and entertained at the moment in time that was crystallized in a few words.  Current-Rob is occasionally horrified at an uncorrected grammatical error as well but one takes the good with the bad.

201 - CopyFor many years, photography went along in much the same groove.  I wandered about, captured what I saw, posted it somewhere in the endless oblivion that is the internet and left it to sit for a decade.  When I look back at those photos now I’m similarly impressed by the feelings they summon up for me.  Does anyone else get the same vibe from them?  I could not possibly care less.  They do so for me and to be frank there is no person I would rather give pleasure to than me.

This all went bananas about 9 months ago.  I started taking photos at live events, founded Indy Live Photography, and began to have a following.  People started to … somewhat … pay attention to me.  Sometimes positively and sometimes negatively but most of the time completely failed to care.  A big chunk of my psyche started to wind itself up trying to figure out what people liked and what might “sell” and would appeal the masses.  I spent thousands of hours taking photos and processing them but somewhere in all that forgot the person I was supposed to be pleasing.  Not dissimilarly to the hundreds of idiotic book reviews you’ll find in this blog, I pumped out quantity and forgot about quality and worst of all neglected my only true audience.  

071 - CopySo from this day forward I declare simply, and concisely, that you are welcome to look at my work and do what you will with it but I sincerely and completely don’t give a damn what you think because it’s not really for you anyway.  You’re not going to look back on it in ten years and think about the nuance of expression in a particular photo or ponder the larger context of the instant in time that was captured… but I am.  This is my life in these photos and in these words and you are more than welcome to share them with me but I can’t let you influence them lest they be untrue to me.

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Woe of Hours Wasted

IMG_9339This afternoon I read a sci fi short story entitled “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” by Frederik Pohl (1973). In it, a scientist devises a plan to strand eight people on a spacecraft bound for Alpha Centauri on a contrived mission to colonize a planet that doesn’t really exist. He does this because he believes that if you put humans into a situation away from distractions and modern convenience and allow them to focus solely on solving difficult problems that the results will be profound and sufficient to change the world. The story, in its detail, is fairly preposterous but I think that there may be a hefty thread of truth winding through this concept.

If you look at our modern workaday world in historical context, we’ve got some amazing advantages over our forebearers only 100 years ago. We have more leisure time than any group of humans ever. Our access to information is mind-boggling; if you want to study the mating habits of Nicaraguan sea turtles you can have access to that information in under 60 seconds. While disposable income varies wildly, the internet allows us to obtain just about anything you can imagine. We are the most intellectually empowered species in the history of this planet.

But what do we actually do with all that power? There are, of course, the elite few who are putting their brains to the proverbial grindstone and pushing to make the world a better place but it seems that for the vast majority of us (and I do not absolve myself from this one iota) we go to work at jobs that don’t really challenge us and then come home to lives that don’t really put us to the test or stretch us as people and simply float by on a cloud of recreation waiting for the next life event to come to pass. In every sense of it this is a terrible waste of an amazing opportunity.

Speaking personally, I look back on previous versions of myself (at times represented in this blog) and I yearn for that person that I used to be. I was far from ideal to be sure but I did more. I wrote more keenly; I thought more profoundly. Perhaps not with so much wisdom as I might hope for now but there was an energy that I haven’t found again. Ironically, I’m much more empowered in every sense than I was 10 years ago yet I’ve still lost something.

Looking at the world as a whole, I believe that collectively we have all the energy both mental and physical to solve all of our problems 1000 times over. What we lack is leadership and direction to point us in the right direction and when humans lack direction, leadership and inspiration the collective psyche devolves to watching cat videos, random complaining, and heavy drinking. I can’t deny that I’ve certainly frittered my share of hours away and dream keenly of what better use they could have been put to.

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The Mother Who Never Was

Deb-SlavenThe needful background for this story is that a little over a month ago my mother died.  I avoid the use of any euphemism or distracting turn of phrase here because more than any other person I’ve ever known, she simply slowly and irrevocably shriveled up and just passed from existence.  In point of fact I’m not sure that she was ever truly alive in any meaningful way at any point when I knew her.  

To understand this one has to go back many years to her childhood.  She was the eldest of three children and the only daughter; her mother was a very kind and simple woman while her father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic.  I got very little information from mother about her childhood but she recalled with great vividness many episodes in which her father careened down the road, drunk off his ass, taking great pleasure at the screams of his terrified children in the back seat.  By the time I knew my grandfather he had mellowed considerably but one could still see the vestiges of a domineering father figure.

When it came time for my mother to head to college, she aspired above all to work with animals.  She ended up at Purdue so she was in the right place at the right time but unfortunately, her father would have none of that.  He insisted, as mom tells it anyway, that being a veterinarian was not a proper profession for a woman and that he would only support her if she trained to become a teacher instead.  My shy and retiring mother didn’t agree but she went along with the plan.  Sadly, uninspired by the curriculum, she didn’t make it past her first year of classes.  Within 12 months she was back in Frankfort working in a factory.

C.T.S 1985 (I Think)After a few years back in town she met my father; in a way they were a good match.  My father was a rebel and my mother needed that influence.  Grandpa, of course, wasn’t terribly happy about it.  Family history has it that there were a few instances in which my grandfather made his displeasure with my father clear using a firearm.  I suspect on some deeper level that my mother married my father at least in part just because he disapproved so strongly.  They married in 1972 and less than two months later I was on the way.  I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my mother’s view on motherhood so I won’t rehash it but suffice to say that a human child was the last thing she needed at this juncture in her life.

My parents remained married for about 15 years and putting both halves of the story together they really seemed to be working at right angles to each other.  To hear my father’s side of the story, his basic issue was that he seemed to just lose interest in her.  She didn’t grow as a person, he said, at all during the years of their marriage.  As a result he ended up seeking fulfillment in his artwork, carpentry and (it is rumored) “outside the marriage.”  On her side, she said she was doing everything she could to make him happy.  I understand completely why she would have done so; given her relationship with her father, this was just how relationships with men are supposed to go.  She tried to emulate her obedient and subservient mother but that was the last thing my father wanted out of a marriage.  He hung on as long as he did only out of some sense of duty to me, I suspect.  

When their marriage ended, things went downhill quickly, but I recall exactly one lucid and connected conversation with my mother from that time.  After my father had left the house for good she sat on the bed next to me and said simply, “well, it’s just you and me now.”  I recall feeling elated; not because I wanted my father to leave but because I wanted desperately for things to change.  Even if they changed for the worse there was a chance that I’d not be stuck in that room.  Sadly, that moment of lucidity passed in a flash.  A few months later she attempted suicide (pills) and I was put in the care of my grandparents permanently.  

My contact with her after that was sporadic at best and when we did speak our conversations were awash in her intense mental illness.  She insisted that my father was still harassing her by driving past the house multiple times a day.  People at work, she claimed, talked about her behind her back and were trying to get her fired.  Eventually she told me in rather impolite terms to stop calling her at all; she honestly believed I was only calling to check up on her so I’d know when she died and could get her money.  At the time of her death I hadn’t spoken to her for years except to tell her when my father passed away.


A month ago when I walked into my mother’s house for the first time in over a decade I didn’t know what to expect.  I had hopes, of course, that somehow I’d find some answers to the puzzle that was my mother.  This woman gave birth to me but to be honest I didn’t really know her.  She was an archetype of mental illness and abused child but at no point did I ever really KNOW her as a person.  I had hoped on some level to finally unravel part of the mystery to find out who my mother really was as a person beyond the high-level view I had.

After spending several hours digging through the contents of her house, it became clear that there were no answers.  There was one photo album; it contained pictures only of herself and every animal she’d ever owned.  All photos of me or other family members were absent.  She had very neatly trimmed everyone else in the universe out of her life because her brain had tricked her into thinking that everyone she knew, past and present, was a deceiver and out to get her somehow.

The only glimmers of her came in the form of a few oddments.  She had become fairly obsessed with Sam Elliott as evidenced by a box of magazines and several movies.  Her cedar chest contained a few remembrancers from past pets: a parakeet perch, her last dog’s collar.  She kept legal documents, tax returns, one letter from my ex wife with photos of the kids.  My mom turned to the Bible at some point for hope and inspiration but it was short lived; she had a notebook devoted to the topic but only the first page was ever used.  All in all the physical footprint she left on this world over almost 70 years was remarkably scant.

Either my mother was very good at hiding herself or (as my father would say if he were here) maybe there just wasn’t anything there in the first place.  He was very intent on the idea that in many ways my mother was a non-person because she never put herself first enough to develop into someone real.  Life was always about making her father happy or making him happy but it was never about making herself happy.  So maybe I went into that house looking for a mom that never existed in the first place.  

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Life These Days: With Family And Friends Kindle Edition by Ronald McClure

cover

I picked this up on Kindle Unlimited because it hadn’t been reviewed before. Let’s take a look!

* First off, the concept seems…. well, only interesting to a VERY select group of people. Maybe the author and a few people around him, but let’s give it a fair shot.

page1

* Page 1: A photo of fixing a door. And all the comments from family/friends about said photo. It’s not transcribed mind you, it’s just screen captures of the Facebook posts glued into each page.

* Page 2: “We woke up WHITE! Just thought you’d like to know!” – yeah well, everyone in this book is pretty white, let me tell you.

* Page 3: Photo of an unidentified interior of a building. Can’t tell if it’s a bar or a house. Photos are all black and white and VERY small so even if this was interesting, it wouldn’t be.

* Page 4/5: Merry Christmas greetings, the author and wife in Christmas hats. Lots of one-liner Christmas greetings exchanged.

* A few pages on we get an album of apparent vacation photos. No indication of where they are though. Grand Canyon maybe? Seems like something better posted on Flickr or some sort of… oh, I dunno, photo service?

* Couple pages further… picture of a relative holding a cup of soda in some unidentified diner.

* A few more pages further we are treated to a sampling of a Facebook messenger chat with someone else who is unidentified and his importance is entirely unknown.

OK, enough of that. While I appreciate what a pain in the butt it must have been to put this together, I fail to see the need for this there is in the world. The only people who could be remotely interested in this are already Facebook friends with the author. So while by all means I applaud the desire to capture and document the past, I see absolutely no reason to try to sell copies of it online.

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Request for an Interview from an Academic Researcher

Rank48Recently I was approached by a university researcher who wanted to do an interview with me on the topic of writing in social media. He approached me as an Amazon reviewer so I agreed to answer his questions. Below find my responses to his first volley of inquiry.

Can you tell me a little about what got you started writing Amazon reviews?
I’ve always been of a mind to bore people with my online drivel so in 2011 I first stumbled across the GoodReads site. There you can sign up for book giveaways in exchange for an honest review of the book. I reviewed several dozen books and cross-posted these on Amazon and within a year I had offers for other items to review that were much less literary. I started, as I suspect everyone does, with small electronics: chargers, cords, electronic gizmos. It has been my observation that anyone in the top 10,000 reviewers or so that posts an email will be graced with at least one offer for a free product. As time goes on like begets like and whatever sorts of products you’ve reviewed before will find their way to your mailbox.

How would you characterize your writing style when you write Amazon reviews?
Terse. It has been my impression that customers don’t have time for a lot of protracted blathering on so I try to make things as short and sweet as possible, condensing my points to a few bullets that sum up things as succinctly and completely as possible. For those who want a bit more detail, I have tended as of late towards video-based reviews that demonstrate the product in some way or illuminate its shortfalls.

What are your goals when writing Amazon reviews?
This is a tricky and multi-headed question. The prime mover of all things in Amazon land is, of course, the helpful vote. Customers give us direct feedback by voting helpful or unhelpful on reviews as they read or watch them. So the ultimate goal in this game (and, let’s be honest, it is a game) is to garner as many helpful votes as possible. The more helpful votes, the higher your ranking and the higher your ranking the more free crap rolls in the door. At a very fundamental level, this is the most basic and visceral goal of the whole thing.

Attached to this is the idea that you’re helping others to make a buying decision. When I receive a product that’s just downright terrible my number one goal is to do everything I can to make sure nobody actually pays money for it. If I can find some redeeming quality in a product I’ll point it out but above all the goal is to make sure nobody gets taken for a proverbial ride and that when customers actually do buy something that they get what they expected based on the reviews. The vote system drives one to to write reviews but the injustice of the system is what really keeps a reviewer up at night.

Can you ever remember a time when you didn’t achieve your goals when writing Amazon reviews? Why or why not?
As I’ve said previously, the goal that keeps me up at night most is trying to make sure customers get what they expect. When a product arrives at my door it’s my duty to make sure it’s at least a serviceable product. I cannot even hope to tell consumers everything about a product but I can at least point out obvious fatal flaws and do everything in my power to ensure customers get a reasonable quality product. The problem with that, however, comes in two forms. Firstly, many, many reviewers hate to say anything negative about a product. They received it free so they feel they should say something nice or say nothing at all. So even if a product isn’t worthwhile, the ‘yes man’ crowd can drown out even the most circumspect naysayer. Additionally, the power of the vote works in both directions. Often manufacturers will hire services to suppress unflattering reviews with down votes and vote up the positive reviews that cast their product in the best light. As might be imagined, this battle is extremely difficult to win.

How do you decide what to review and why?
This answer varies wildly depending on my mood at the time I’m looking at an offer. In general, rather selfishly, I tend to offer to review products that I want to have or that I imagine others around me would want. Secondarily I will sometimes choose products that seem like they’d merely be diverting or interesting to try out. In summary, this is almost completely selfish. I review things that I have a use for.

Do you model your method of reviewing on anything? Do you read other professional or Amazon reviews before hand?
Typically, no. I don’t read other reviews for the same product because that tends to have a bias impact on the results. I don’t tend to read professional reviewers because, frankly, I think the more plebeian viewpoint is probably more helpful in some cases.

How do you decide which reviews to update and why?
I update any review on which I receive new information. Sometimes the manufacturer will contact me with updates or sometimes a friend to whom I’ve given an item will provide additional feedback on it. In general, however, I don’t go back to proactively update reviews without reason. Just slogging through new reviews is enough of a chore.

Do you have a particular process for writing reviews? Any steps you take before or while writing?
This varies wildly depending on the product. If the product makes claims that it’s “durable” or “shatterproof” then I put those claims specifically to the test. I’ve taken electronic equipment out into the parking lot and hurled into the air based on certain claims by the manufacturer. Admittedly at least part of the reason for that is because it’s entertaining but again, I want to make sure that manufacturers at least live up to their packaging.

How would you say your style of writing reviews has changed over the course of time (if they have)?
If anything it’s become even more terse than it was in the beginning. As time goes on you begin to get a very firm sense of what the identifying points are for any one sort of product so the whole process becomes rather formulaic. You test the 45th selfie stick in must the same way as the 44th selfie stick so it’s much less like writing than it is simply checking off a list of things to check.

Do you ever respond to comments about your reviews? How do you adjust your reviews in response to those comments?
I do, but not all the time. If the commenter requests information and I can actually provide it, I will do what I can to help out but often I don’t have the product any longer. If I kept every miscellaneous gewgaw that came across my desk I’d have little room for anything else. I have, at times, found myself apologizing to a commenter for missing some nuance of the product that I completely failed to pick up on. Those are exceptionally helpful for the next review but don’t make me feel any less guilty if someone bought a product that didn’t work for them because I gave it high marks. Luckily this doesn’t happen particularly often.

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My What a Beautiful Eye you Have!

Here’s lookin’ at you…

In a book I was reading over the weekend one of the secondary characters, an 8-year-old girl, meets another girl at a pool laying on a raft. The first words are, “I like your raft!” The other girl doesn’t say anything and so the interaction ends awkwardly but it did make me think about the use of compliments as a mode of introduction and in general conversation.

As an adult I’ve always found it awkward to compliment people on anything. When conversing with a woman I always fear that anything positive I say will be taken as flirting and if it’s a guy then… well, that could very well be taken as flirting too. Yet the few cases in which I’ve been brave enough to take the chance, the reactions have always been exceptionally positive. People love to get compliments but I think that as a society (or maybe it’s just me) we’re afraid to give them out for fear of some misunderstanding.

So what say you? Is a compliment really just a compliment or do you always suspect that it carries some ulterior motive? What do you think when a guy comments on your beautiful, bloodshot eye? Personally, from this point forward I resolve to just throw caution to the wind and try to compliment the hell out of people whenever possible. What’s the worst that could happen? Worst case scenario they think I’m some creepy dude that talks too much. This probably isn’t too far off the opinion they’d have if I said nothing and just stared back at them, so what have I to lose? Not a single thing, I say.

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On Keeping a Journal

Over the past few years I’ve heard the refrain that great people of history kept a journal.  Henry Ford wrote down his every idea no matter how nonsensical.  Marie Curie wrote down everything she did for decades (and her journals are still radioactive to this day).  Samuel Pepys is famous for nothing at all except that he kept a diary through such trivial events as the Great Fire of London and the Black Death.  The great people of history wrote and today they are remembered.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no great person.  History will not remember me.  Yet part of me really wants to write.  I think with great romanticism about the idea of going to my bookshelf and picking up a book that I wrote with my own hand years before.  At the moment I can go to my blog and look back a decade yet that doesn’t satisfy the tactile experience of holding a book in your hands and knowing that that physical object was important in years long gone.

So this weekend I went to Barnes and Nobles and I looked for journals.  Unsurprisingly they have a wonderful selection and you can spend as much as you want.  If you are desirous of such you can spend $40 for a stack of blank pages.  Looking at those, the thought that came predominantly to my mind was, “What could I possibly write in here that would be worth $40?!?!”  As I sit here today I’m rather insulted by my previous thinking.  I’m no genius.  I’m not going to save the world.  But for the love of all that is worth writing down, recording the day-to-day crap that I give a damn about is worth $40.  Hell, to be frank, it’s worth $100.  Maybe $1000.  I look back on my life and I realize that most of it has vanished into the ether.  Thanks to an upbringing that made it very beneficial to forget almost everything, I don’t store a whole lot in ye olde long term memory.  I’d pay a pretty significant sum to look back on my own thoughts from decades ago.  I remember blowing through most of college playing video games and I have a few memories but what was I really thinking?  I’m far, far too keen to just throw away my past.  The sooner that stops the better.  That’s worth a lot.

 

So today I wrote in the $18 journal that I bought on Saturday.  It’s leather-ish on the outside and has a button clasp and despite the fact that it really is “too nice to write in” I did it anyway.  The journal opens thusly:

“- What can I possibly write in this journal to justify spending $18 on it?  Are my thoughts worth such a sum?”

To that question I say, they bloody well are worth that.  They’re worth every bit of cash you can summon and every ounce of effort.  Are they worth that to the world at large?  Will I become the next Samuel Pepys?  Fuck no.  But at some point I’ll look back.  At some point I will have forgotten and the me of the future will be glad that I bothered.  To the current me this is a bitter sum of money to swallow, a wasted $20 bill that makes me curl my fists and screw up my face in annoyance.  To the future me who looks back at the age of 51… to that person it’ll be the best $20 I ever spent.  When I’m on my deathbed I’ll be glad that I bothered.  I’ll also be astounded at my atrocious spelling but I’ll be glad I took the time to sit down and write an open letter to the me that is yet to be…

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This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

As usual I received this book via the grand courtesy of the publisher through a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that great kindness my candid opinions follow.

The summary of this one is a bit tough because it’s so many things at once. It is, in equal parts, the story of children forced to grow up before their time, dark criminal suspense and sad story of parenthood failed. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a thread of baseball history and doping thrown in for good measure. The narrative is done in a panoramic style as we hear in first person from the oldest child, the hero and the villain in approximately equal parts.

On the positive side, the circumspect narrative style really gives the reader a detailed look at the situation from all sides. The story has a lot to say about fatherhood and whether that title is given by right or must be earned and delves into the complex situations of parenting in an intriguing way that’s not often seen in such an otherwise gritty novel. The author’s female characters are charming and evoke a great deal of pity from the reader and one inwardly roots for them as they make their way through the short span of time portrayed in the book. This one touches a lot of genres at once and never fails to keep the reader guessing.

To the negative, the narrative switches can sometimes be rather jarring and confusing. The first transition comes 35 pages in and I completely missed it and had to go back and reread a few pages to figure out why the eldest daughter was suddenly sitting in a bar. Once primed to expect it things settled down but this wasn’t the best executed thing about the book. Also, the female characters were very lifelike but the villain seemed rather flat and we missed his back story. He and his heroic counterpart lacked “pop” and didn’t quite pull the reader along behind them as the girls did. Lastly, on the topic of language, it’s worth noting that the narrators tell the story in their own distinct southern vernacular and this is not limited to actual dialog. So those who are appalled by “ain’t got no” and “ain’t hardly no” should be steeled for the fact that these characters have uniquely southern voices.

In summary, a very diverse and well executed book with something for everyone. Fans of gritty crime suspense will find a bit of something to tantalize them; those looking for child-welfare drama will be well served and baseball fans can relive a bit of the late-90s doping drama.

This title will be released January 28, 2014 by Harper Collins. They have my infinite gratitude for the advance copy.

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These Week(s) in Review…

There’s no denying that I’ve been massively remiss in posting as of late.  Perhaps it’s better if I post things as they come up rather than trying to wait for the end of the week which will inevitably become several weeks.  Anyway, click on the book covers to view the full review.

 

Firstly, and as usual, it must be noted that I didn’t buy this book. Instead, it came to me for free as the result of a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I give my candid opinions in this review. Also, it should be noted that I’m not a Christian so it may seem a bit odd for me to be reviewing Christian literature. Nonetheless, I’ll review this book based on its literary merits and ignore any philosophical differences I may have with the genre.

On the positive side, the book is very competently executed and it’s set in a period of history that’s always amusing and vastly underutilized in literature. Pittman gives us a colorful and alluring rendering of the era and some fairly interesting characters.

To the negative, the Christian aspects of the novel seem to be an affectation and are poorly integrated. It’s almost as if the author recognized that no mention of religion has been made in X number of pages and therefore has the characters suddenly decide to pray. I have great respect for literature in which the characters make Christian choices and live Christian lives but Pittman’s novel seems to include prayerful interludes just for the sake of staying in the Christian genre. Lastly, the cover art appears to be a fairly horrifying photoshop job. Others in my family saw the cover sitting on the shelf and stated rather quizzically, “Doesn’t really look like your sort of book…?” without even cracking the cover.

In summary, this would make an interesting novel if it would only make up its mind what it wanted to be.

 

On the positive side, the author has chosen a great theme. He takes on childhood illness from the viewpoint of the patient and this always makes for a powerful and evocative story. We all too often fail to realize the weight of such circumstances on the afflicted especially when they’re so young.

Sadly, the negative side of this book far overshadows anything positive I could possibly say about it. The editing is atrocious; the text is filled with typographical and grammatical errors. The dialog is stiff and robotic and the vivid descriptions of the sick child are interlaced with this bizarre science fiction sub-plot akin to “Osmosis Jones” or “Fantastic Voyage”. I’m agog that the author would take the book in such a direction. What could have been a heart-rending portrayal of a dire situation is turned into a literary laughing-stock.

In summary, this book is just not worth the time. Generally, I never give out less than three stars unless the book is unreadable or socially irresponsible. This book is as close to unreadable as I’ve seen in quite a while. I hung on to it tenaciously for a long time in hopes it would have great soul but it turned out to be a train wreck. I like the idea but the execution was completely lacking.

 

Firstly, it should be noted that I religiously avoid reading the back jackets of books, so going into this one I had only the cover and the subtitle “A ghost story” to go on. Because of that I spent a fair amount of time looking for the literal ghost only to find that the ghosts that haunt William Bellman are of a completely different sort than one generally expects from children’s literature.

On the positive side of things, this book is a deliciously subtle story of one man’s haunted life. Setterfield weaves her story and her characters together with a sagacious and haunting assiduousness that pulls the reader gently along from one short chapter to the next. This is an acutely wrought novel with a tenacious grip on realism while still washing the entire scene in an afterglow of the supernatural. I’ve not read anything this well written in quite some time. Our author brings us a tale as unhurried and as natural as life itself.

The only real negative I can put forth is really more of a warning to potential readers. This is a great book but it’s likely not for everyone. For those accustomed to the pablum of easy modern literature, I suggest humbly that you look elsewhere. For those reading by the pool in the joyous light of day, perhaps your time is better spent between other pages. But if you find yourself in a darkened room listening to the rumble of far-away thunder, then this may be the book for just that setting. It is not a gripping thrill ride, but it does take you gently by the hand and pull you quietly into another world where the sky harbors a thousand watching eyes and time does not undo all wrongs nor heal all wrongs.

 

Since this is a children’s book it should be noted that I approach the review from a different viewpoint, focusing on appropriateness for young readers and general coherence and execution.

On the question of appropriateness for young readers, this book has done marvelously. In general I scowl at any children’s book that contains sexual or drug content and this novel contains neither problem. It does have some light violence but nothing that kids won’t have picked up from any mainstream cartoon. In the vein of profanity I don’t tend to judge harshly but this novel even avoids that problem and does so in a clever and entertaining way that’s consistent with the general story line. Dukes’ novel is as pure as the driven snow and somehow still remains very real and entertaining. It doesn’t SEEM sanitized but through some miracle of authorship it really is.

Stepping back and speaking more generally about the novel, the author has provided a brilliant and witty take on what is, I’m am sure, a standard daydream of every young person. Our protagonist has ultimate and unlimited freedom but what happens when suddenly he doesn’t? What tangled complications await in a world with no responsibility and limitless possibilities? In addition to its tendency to provoke deep contemplation, the writing style is witty and made even me, a perennial curmudgeon, laugh aloud in spots. The writer has found that intangible balance between teaching the reader something and entertaining them at the same time. Any teen will stumble upon a hoard of new words begging to be looked up in the dictionary and probably spare at least a few cycles for the complexities of causality and consequences of seemingly simple actions. That lesson is worth the price of admission.

In summary, this one was a rare treat. After a long recent string of losers, ‘Caught in a Moment’ is just the sort of book I’d want my own kids to read. Clean, erudite and with a moral or two hidden in spots for those who will only seek.

 

I’d put this book in the genre of concentric psychological horror. The main character is a published novelist and short-story writer and his stories appear as brief vignettes within the main body of the work. I assume that these stories are examples of Conlon’s own short story work. So this is a novel that is several stories embedded in a larger encapsulating (though mostly unrelated) narrative.

To the positive side, Conlon has an immaculate grasp of how to say just enough about a situation to get the reader’s attention and erect an air of tension in a situation. His imagery is vivid and surreal yet still retains an element of plausibility that is rare in any novel dealing primarily with the metaphysical. Conlon’s work reminds me strongly of Lovecraft in its deep yet inexplicable feeling of terror. The reader is on edge but can’t quite explain why that is so. One factor in which he deviates strongly from turn of the century horror though is his raw and unapologetic portrayals of sexuality. While I would not go so far as to call the results erotic, he is certainly not afraid to deal candidly and skillfully with the topic.

To the negative side, the novel as a whole did seem to lack the incisiveness of the individual sub-stories. As a reader I’m tempted to go back and re-read the stories within the story and ignore the more protracted narrative. In the vein of the larger narrative, it seemed to stumble a bit as it tried to explain the metaphysical aspects of a particular event in the story. I was severely jolted out of my reverie of enjoyment at the first mention of the words “soul catcher” and subsequent explanation. I will say no more for fear of spoilers but know simply there are a few rough spots that are easily enough ignored.

In summary, the novel demonstrates a great deal of artistry. The book is very much worth while though at times skimmable to cut down a bit on bulk. The stories-within-a-story are pure gems and if you read nothing else then take the time to read those. They are easily picked out as they are printed in a different font than the rest of the novel.

 

In a nutshell, this is the retelling of the King Author myth spanning from Author’s birth through his rise to the kingship. As Authurian legends go, this one tends towards the strictly realistic and pulls no punches about the state of the world at the time.

On the positive side, Hume’s writing is beyond reproach. I found myself constantly entertained at her use of appropriate and timely language which pulled me to my dictionary repeatedly and with unbridled glee. This is a book that educates while it entertains. Anything she chooses to write in the future will have my utmost attention. Here is a tale that is woven with intricacy and detail that is unrivaled.

On the negative side, and this is a negative side that is rather implied by my perceptions of the tastes of other readers, this is not a book that speeds along with any great rapidity. The book goes on for almost 500 pages and while I was entranced by the intricacies, I can imagine other readers finding themselves in the arms of a rather intransigent ennui. The book does move slowly but the arc that it traces is an epic one.

In summary, this is a book to approach in an unhurried and open-minded manner. It has much to teach you, not the least of which is vocabulary. It’s not a book for a single solitary rainy afternoon but instead one to be taken a few chapters at a time over the course of a week. It is a book to be pondered over and digested slowly. As epic tales go, this is a fresh and delightful retelling but don’t expect to swallow it in one go. Take the time to savor and learn from what it has to tell you. I look forward to the subsequent volumes. This is a book for the thinkers among us.

 

I’m exceptionally late to the party on this book so I won’t attempt the usual Positives/Negatives bit as I usually do. This book was a real perplexity for me. I spent the majority of the text trying to figure out if the central figure of “Life” (as described in the back-cover description) was an actual physical person or a metaphor for human existence. Unfortunately, even after 486 pages I still don’t really know for sure.

This book has a property that I’ve not found in a title for quite some time. I consider myself a fairly attentive and avid reader but it’s seldom that a book makes me late to work and then late to bed and generally takes over my life. For the few days it took to finish it I did little else but read this book and find ways to compress my other daily duties to accommodate more time for it. I learned during this period just the perfect way to balance a bowl of morning cereal while reading. The only problem with all this is that I’m not actually entirely sure why it was such a fascinating book.

At least in part the ambiguity of one of the main characters has a role to play in this miniature obsession. I love nothing more than a good mystery to be unraveled and even now I’m left rather unsatisfied and confused on this topic. It’s also, perhaps, because I can relate to the main character. She shuts herself off from others with lies and keeps the world at a distance. This resonates with me personally but my weapon of choice is humor and deflection. Books are often very personal and in many ways this one was a mirror. At times a terrifying mirror, but a mirror nonetheless.

In summary, I was utterly enthralled by this book. At least to some extent probably irrationally because I’ve failed to understand the concept of “Life Audits” that may be commonplace in Ireland, but still the fact remains that this book really roped me in. It’s probably a good thing I’m not trying to come up with positive/negative analysis because I’d be hard pressed to criticize a book that consumed my entire life rather joyfully for two solid days.

 

In a nutshell, this is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in half a century on the planet. Walls’ story of her childhood is not only easy for me to relate to but it also makes me just downright angry. Her parents reeked of an abominable failure to be responsible and look out for their own children that just shakes me to my very core. While this is 300 pages of small type this is just the sort of book you could inhale at one passionate gulp sitting outside on a summers say. If you start reading you’ll be lucky to escape before the last page.

Generally, I try to balance my reviews by describing both the positive and the negative of a novel but in this case I’m hard pressed. “The Glass Castle” could easily be described as a modern classic as it sums up with great vividness an all too common situation in the half-century. The free-thinking hippies cum parents who completely failed to give a damn about their own children are all too prolific and Walls describes her own beautifully. My only realistic negative results from the ending which seems clipped and far too succinct. I suppose in this format there’s little choice in the matter but I could have anticipated another 300 pages or complete omission of the end.

In summary, this is by far the best memoir I have read in recent recollection. The author’s view is candid and heartfelt but does not commit the sin of meandering into self-pity like many would in this situation. This title is a best seller with a heart and soul and a pointed comment to any parent who fails to recognize the needs of their own child. I cannot recommend this one enough.

And so ends the weeks that were. As always, click any of the book covers to visit the reviews in question and feel free to vote them ‘helpful’ if you find them so once you get there.

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Flies, their Lords, and Amateur Literary Interpretation

This summer my eldest daughter was tasked with reading “Lord of the Flies” for her AP English class. All summer I heard, “Dad. I hate this book. It’s boring.”
“What’s it about?” I’d inquire, despite knowing darn good and well what it was about.
“It’s about some kids on an island.”
“OH! Is it an adventure story? Or maybe young romance?” I’d posit.
“No. It’s just boring.”

And so it went on and on through the summer. Finally, the summer came to an end and it was time to for the kids to talk about the book in class. After a few days Amanda came home with a 3-page worksheet of questions about the first chapter of the book. (As an aside, it turns out the teacher found this list of questions online and printed it for the class to answer. Imagine the teacher’s naive surprise when the kids found the same study guide through a quick Google search, including the answers, and handed in identical perfect papers. But I digress…) Frustrated, Amanda came to me and asked for help, “This question says ‘what is the meaning of *dumb* in the phrase, ‘the hot, dumb sand‘?  what does that even mean?”

We went through the usual ritual…

Me: “Did you look up the meanings of the word *dumb*? Are there any alternate meanings that might apply?”
Amanda: “It means silent, not saying anything.
Me: “OK, so how might you apply that to the sand?”
Amanda: “Well, duh, the sand isn’t saying anything.”
Me: “Of course not, but why is that important? Why would it? Are the kids in a happy situation… or a bad one…”
And so it went…

After several minutes we came back around to “the old drone of ‘I hate this book, it’s boring'”.

“But why don’t you like the book? Why is it boring? What makes it different from other books you did like,” I inquired. Then came the shining moment; I didn’t really know where this was going until these words bounded out of her mouth and around the room.

Amanda: “I read it but I just didn’t really care. I didn’t care about the characters. They were just on the island and some stuff happened. People died and it was like ‘so what’?”

It was just as the ‘so what’ was coming out that the lightning bolt hit me and an epic diatribe formed in my mind the likes of which I’ve not had since. I’m far from a master of literary interpretation and it’s probable that everything that came out of my mouth for the next 10 minutes was complete hogwash but at the time…. it felt fairly inspired. What I said went something along the lines of what follows.

“You say that people died in the book and you didn’t care. But is that normal? Are you supposed to care when people die or are you supposed to just move on with whatever you’re doing? Do you think your reaction is an appropriate one given the situation? I think what you’ve hit upon is the exact point of the book. When someone died on the island did the island care? Did the birds fall out of the sky? Did the sun stop beating down? Did that hot, dumb sand object? No, of course not. Things just went on as normal and nobody really gave a damn. Perhaps the real genius of the book isn’t the story, but instead how it makes its insidious way into the mind of the reader. All the main characters are dropping dead and the world didn’t care. The trees didn’t care. The animals didn’t care. Not even the READER cares. Isn’t that the true power of writing? To somehow subtly bring someone’s mind around to a certain way of thinking, and in the most ingenious of cases, do it without the reader even realizing it? What you have cited as the ‘boring’ part of the book, my dear child, is exactly the point of the whole thing and you have fallen wholly and completely into its trap without even realizing it.”

I like to think that on some level my impassioned speech found fertile ground in her mind. For a brief moment I saw a bit of awestruck realization on her face. Of course a few days later she was back to “this is boring” but that is the teenage mindset. After my outburst Laura said to me that she wishes her own English teachers had been so eloquent on the topic of literature. I may not know much of anything about the literary process or proper form but it seems that I sure can get wound up about it and boy I sure do adore the stuff.  Even if my interpretations are rather unique creations.

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