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Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Was Lost, But Now . . .

OK. I haven’t been writing much lately. Actually, I haven’t been writing anything lately. At least not here. I’ve written a couple of articles for my

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

church’s monthly bulletin, but that’s about it. Why? To be honest, I don’t really know. I guess you could call it a dry spell. I’ve been told writers get those periodically. Of course, I’m being generous considering myself a writer.

At any rate, I’ve felt a need for some new direction or purpose in this blog. That last quote I posted back in May has been rolling around in my mind. We definitely need to be more aware of what we put in our heads, especially the stories we consume. Naturally, I’m referring to the books we read, but I could just as well mean the stories we watch on TV or at the movies. The key word is “stories.” We need, all of us, to be telling ourselves better stories. And if this is true for us adults, it is even more critical that we make sure our children are hearing and seeing good stories.

Part of what has brought this into sharper focus for me is a new fantasy series I’ve started reading. It’s called “The Dark is Rising” sequence, by Susan Cooper. There are five books in the sequence; “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” What makes this series of particular interest is the author and her background. You can read a nice article and interview with Ms. Cooper here, but let me just give you an appetizer. She went to Oxford where she attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Then she worked at The Sunday Times of London where her editor was another author you may have heard of: Ian Fleming. Yes, she has the qualifications.

She also has the right story. But I’ll let Great-Uncle Merry explain that to you:

“You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small – ‘once upon a time . . . ‘ Why do you think they always began like that?”

Jane said, . . . “Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember when.”

Great-Uncle Merry turned his head and smiled at her.

“That’s right. Once upon a time . . . a long time ago . . . things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing – the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil.”

And these stories about good against evil are still the great ones, the ones that resonate inside our hearts and minds. The reason for this is pretty simple. To quote Great-Uncle Merry once again, “That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting.” Though today it can be more subtle than a knight battling a dragon, it is there none the less. We are stirred because these stories remind us there are still great things to fight for. This is something all of us need to remember in today’s secular world where the line between good and evil is constantly blurred by the pernicious idea of relativism. Yes, ideas can be evil too. And there are a lot of them out there these days.

Dean Koontz wrote in one of his books that one can spend a lifetime fighting bad ideas. This is so true, and it’s a battle all of us can and should take part in. As for me, I think I will wage my campaign by promoting the good stories, both the great classics and the newer ones that hit the mark. Let’s all of us start reading and hearing and seeing the good stories again. It will take a conscious effort, because it is so easy just to settle for what is put out by today’s culture and media. But it will be worth it.

I plan to start by reviewing the first book of The Dark is Rising sequence, “Over Sea, Under Stone,” by Susan Cooper. And, yes, I promise it won’t take me another three months!

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Children's Books, What I'm Reading, Worries

 

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Early Christmas

Christmas in the post-War United States

Christmas in the post-War United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a pleasant – and unexpected – surprise this week.

When my wife and I got home from work the other night, there was a small package sitting on our front steps. We figured it was something from Amazon we had ordered for Christmas and brought it in the house. Upon closer inspection, we saw that it wasn’t from Amazon but from Random House Publishing and it was the size and shape of a book. Surprise!

Well, actually it was, because when we opened it we found an “Advance Reader’s Edition” of Dean Koontz’ new novel, “Innocence” which was just released on the tenth of this month. It’s a beautiful, paperback copy with the same cover art found on the hardbound edition, except for the reader’s edition seal with “Not For Sale” in it. Yes, I had a big grin on my face.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for several months now. Not just because it’s a Dean Koontz book, although that’s certainly enough reason for me, but because this is supposedly something different for Mr. Koontz. Something other than a typical Dean Koontz book. I was planning on using some Christmas money to purchase it later in the month, but that won’t be necessary now.

As happy as this made me, I haven’t a clue as to why I received this in the first place. The package was addressed directly to me from Random House. There was no note attached to it, save the promotional message in the front of the book from the executive vice president of Ballantine Bantam Dell telling me of the virtues of this new novel. No help.

I only have two guesses. First, I may have won some sort of contest that I was unaware of. I’m always clicking “like” on Dean Koontz’s Facebook page and I may have entered myself without even knowing it. Second, Random House may have a marketing assistant in charge of monitoring book bloggers with tiny followings. Whatever the case, I’m extremely grateful.

My first impulse was to start reading “Innocence” that very night, however, I’m currently well into T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” so Dean will have to wait for a bit. But you can bet I’ll be cracking that cover very soon (depending on what other books I get for Christmas!) and passing along my review to all of you.

I hope all of my fellow book junkies out there get the books they want this Christmas. Whether they’re from someone they know or not!

Oh, and one final piece of info. I emailed said executive V.P. a brief thank you note for the book. You know what? She had the grace to reply. That’s what I call class, people. Random House gets a big thumbs up from this house.

Merry Christmas everyone, and blessings in the coming year!

 

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2013 in What I'm Reading

 

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Don’t Get Too Close!

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film)

http://www.exophagy.com Frankenstein (1910 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry I’ve been away from the old keyboard for a bit. About two weeks ago I came down with something like a head cold on steroids. Headache, sinus pressure, a small cough and the usual “Yuck!” By the time my wife and I would get home from work in the afternoons the only thing I would be good for was the couch. It hurt to think much less actually put thoughts to paper (or screen, as the case may be!)

But even when I’m sick, there is one thing I still can do. Read. So here’s a brief recap of what I’ve been reading since the last time I put fingers to plastic.

I finished the fourth book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series, “Lost Souls,” in which we meet the third incarnation of Victor Frankenstein, Victor Immaculate. By far the worst of the three, he is even scarier because his views are the same as certain groups of very radical environmentalists today. You might think that there couldn’t be anything funny about this book, but you’d be wrong. Koontz’s pairing of characters and the situations he places them in bring forth some of the best dialog you’ll ever read. Trust me on this. The fifth and final book in the series, ” The Dead Town,” is ready and waiting for me to finish two other books I’m now reading.

One of which is Eugene Peterson”s “Eat This Book.” My Christian friends will recognize Peterson as the author of “The Message.” Some think “The Message” is another paraphrase of the Bible but it describes itself as a “contemporary rendering of the Bible from the original languages, crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language.” Now, in “Eat This Book,” Peterson discusses the best ways to read this amazing book called the Bible. He stresses that we should try to avoid “atomizing” it, chopping it down into little factoids or proof texts for our pet positions. He spends a lot of words exploring a type of spiritual reading called “lectio divina” which has come down to us from ancient Christians. It’s a wonderful, encouraging read.

Finally, I’m reading the second in Thomas Cahill’s “The Hinges of History” series, titled “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” I read his first volume “How the Irish Saved Civilization” last year and was completely charmed by it. This volume is equally well-written and fascinating. Even if you’re not a person of faith, you owe much to this bunch of desert dwellers. Without their beliefs and ideas, the way we view ourselves and our world would not be possible.

Well, that’s it for now. There are plenty of other books lined up for this year as well. I need to put together some sort of reading plan, but since organization has never been one of my strong suits I won’t promise anything. But I will promise to try to be better about getting to the keyboard. Once I’m feeling better.

Better spray your screen with Lysol for now.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, History, What I'm Reading

 

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C.S. Lewis, Dean Koontz, Mad Scientists: Happy New Year!

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello again.

Yes, I’ve been away for a while. As most of you probably know, the holidays can be a hectic time. Not only was our business crazy-busy the two weeks before Christmas, but my wife and I then traveled to California after Christmas to visit my mother and some dear friends. When we arrived home this past week, our small business still demanded we run around like crazy people. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a good thing in this economy. But it kept me from being able to post until now. Which is not a good thing.

I hope and trust that you all had a wonderful holiday season and made it through safely. I also hope you all got the books you truly wanted. I did. I got copies of Eugene Peterson’s “Eat This Book,” Richard A. Burridge’s “Imitating Jesus,” and Dean Koontz’s “Frankenstein, Book Three: Dead and Alive.” That last one I tore through while we were in California. What a book!

Originally intended to be a cable television event, then a trilogy co-written by Koontz and another author, “Frankenstein” has finally been fulfilled as a five-volume series exploring and expanding the themes begun by Mary Shelley in her original novel. Why Dean Koontz agreed to co-author the first two books is somewhat of a mystery, given that he writes novels the way bunnies . . . well, you know.

Anyway, it would be a bit unfair to do a detailed review of “Dead and Alive,” given it’s the middle book in the series and I don’t want to spoil too much in case anyone out there decides to read the whole arc. I will say that it contains the usual sharply drawn characters (including the original Frankenstein’s monster as a hero this time), off-beat humor and the unnerving situations that Koontz is famous for. What he is also famous for is his exploration of important themes, in this case what happens when man tries to play God. (It’s also the theme of one of my favorite television series, “Fringe”) The fact that in today’s world we have genetic engineering going on and biotech companies patenting new bacteria lends a certain immediacy to this story.

Koontz actually dedicates the first three books, the original Frankenstein trilogy, to C.S. Lewis, opening “Dead and Alive” with a quote from Lewis’ book “The Abolition of Man”:

I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.

In his dedication, Koontz credits Lewis for realizing “that science was being politicized, that it’s primary goal was changing from knowledge to power, that it was also becoming scientism, and that in the ism is the end of humanity.” So true. Lewis was well ahead of the curve in seeing that.

Not to start off the new year on a down note, but there really are mad scientists in the world today. I can point you to some blogs and websites where they are quite active. We need to approach the future with our eyes open. And a Dean Koontz novel.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Authors, Book Review, Ideas, Quotations, What I'm Reading

 

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Cool Words From Robin Hood

An illustration of the first meeting between R...

An illustration of the first meeting between Robin Hood and Little John, from Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First of all, let me apologize for not posting in a few days. The wonderful monsoon storms this time of year in central Arizona mess with the electronics around here. Sure enough, the internet service has been pretty sketchy the past two days. Sorry.

 

Fortunately, storms have no effect on my books. I can read them rain or shine. As I promised a few posts ago, I’ve started reading the Paul Creswick version of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” originally published in 1902. My copy is from the Reader’s Digest Association and includes some amazing illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Believe me, I could just stare at these pictures for hours.

 

I’m only 10 chapters in at this point, but I wanted to share one of the best things about this book so far; the words. Of course, Creswick conveys a strong sense of Robin’s era with his use of words, particularly the idioms of the day. For someone like me who loves words, this book is a treasure. Here’s a small sample.

 

One of the supporting characters so far is a monk, called an anchorite in the book. Anchorite comes from a Greek word, anachorein, which means to withdraw or to make room. So our anchorite lives in self-imposed seclusion for religious reasons.

 

A little later in the tale, young Robin drops his bodkin in the forest. Before you jump to any conclusions, a bodkin is the Middle English word for a dagger or a stiletto. It can also be an ornamental hairpin shaped like a stiletto, but I doubt Robin would have threatened a robber with a hair accessory.

 

Just one more, I promise. While exploring his room at his uncle’s estate, Robin comes across a “bench in the nook, curiously carven and filled with stuffs and naperies.” Napery means household linen, especially dealing with the table. It comes from the French nappe or nape meaning tablecloth. Our modern word napkin comes from this. Whether Robin and his Merry Men ever used them is another question.

 

There you are, some wonderful old words from the Middle Ages. A special thanks to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary for the great information on the word roots. A good dictionary, used well, is a joy.

 

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Grazing, History, What I'm Reading, Words

 

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A Postcard From A.D. 1247

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland and ...

Cropped screenshot of Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn from the trailer for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently gave you a brief overview of my reading so far in “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. Now I’ll give you a taste, a postcard from the book so to speak.

Hear underneath dis laihl stean

las Robert earl of Huntingtun

neer arcir yer az hie sa geud

And pipl kauld in Robin Heud

This is an inscription on a gravestone in Yorkshire, England. The final line is “Obiit 24 kal Decembris 1247.” Robin Hood lived, folks. Now as to what he was really like, Manchester writes, “Everything we know about that period suggests that Robin was merely another wellborn cutthroat who hid in shrubbery by roadsides, waiting to rob helpless wayfarers. The possibility that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor is . . . highly unlikely.”

Visions of Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.”

However, this two sentence brush-off does nothing to explain how the stories of Robin Hood developed and why he became such a large folk-hero to people then and now. Plain highway robbers wouldn’t have inspired John Keats:

So it is: yet let us sing,

Honour to the old bow-string!

Honour to the bugle-horn!

Honour to the woods unshorn!

Honour to the Lincoln green!

Honour to the archer keen!

Honour to tight little John,

And the horse he rode upon!

Honour to bold Robin Hood,

Sleeping in the underwood!

Honour to maid Marian,

And to all the Sherwood-clan!

Granted, the real Robin was probably nothing at all like Errol Flynn and was more than likely not a very nice man. But something is his life and exploits was tale-worthy. Something endeared him to the peasants who built his legend. A history made of facts alone and stripped of all lore tells us very little about the humans who lived in it. The facts and the stories must go together.

I have a copy of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” by Paul Creswick, who was one of England’s best children’s writers. According to the introductory material that came with the book, it has been in print ever since it came out in 1902. It is filled with the stories of Robin Hood. It also has gorgeous illustrations by a different legend, N.C. Wyeth. If you’ve ever seen any of Wyeth’s work you’ll understand why I used the word legend.

With due respect to William Manchester, I’ll be reading this book soon and hopefully learning more about Robin and life in the middle ages.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2012 in Grazing, History, Ideas, Poetry, What I'm Reading

 

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Like It Or Not, History Is Vital

A world lit only by fire

A world lit only by fire (Photo credit: One lucky guy)

Well, I’m still working my way through William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire, The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.” It’s slow going, but not because it’s boring. Manchester fills the book to bursting with a plethora of facts and observations that keep coming page after page until the mind spins. For people who like to think, it’s intoxicating stuff.I’m not going to attempt a review at this point. Heck, I may not even try when I’ve finished. There’s just too much material here to process. If I may, though, let me give you an idea of the broad story Manchester is trying to tell and why it is so important for all of us to hear.

He starts us in the Dark Ages, about A.D. 400 to A.D. 1000, after the Roman Empire had perished. Say what you will about Rome, it was the unifying force of civilization in the world at that time. Without it, order collapsed and chaos rushed in to fill the void.  Chillingly, Manchester points out that among the many reasons for Rome’s fall were “apathy and bureaucratic absolutism.” Sound familiar?

During this time the intellectual life of Europe was gone. Manchester describes the Dark Ages as a portrait of “incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” At this point the future did not look any too bright.

Fortunately, we humans know how to push ahead. At about the halfway mark in the book, the story I see is humanity’s struggle to reclaim civilization and the battle for which ideas  will be its cornerstone. Yes, Christianity and humanism are the main combatants again. But in this arena neither side is attractive. As Manchester tells us, Christianity survived despite the medieval Christians, not because of them.

I’ll write more as I get further into this book, but so far it is an amazing story. The older I get, the more I come to realize how important history is and how poor a job our schools are doing teaching it.

Here’s a little thought experiment for you. Imagine that the United States collapses tomorrow, for whatever reason. Take your time and think. What would happen in the short-term and in the long-term? What would happen to the world?

Later.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2012 in Book Review, What I'm Reading

 

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What Do You Read on the Fourth of July?

English: Frontispiece of the 1922 edition of R...

English: Frontispiece of the 1922 edition of Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg. Illustration by Maud and Miska Petersham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realize this may be a rhetorical question. After all, who actually reads on the Fourth? What with picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach or lake, who has time to read, right? Well, maybe the Declaration of Independence, but beyond that?

Yes, I did read the Declaration earlier today. It is still a remarkable piece of writing that retains its strength and relevance for our day. I’ve also been perusing a book called “American Fairy Tales: From Rip Van Winkle to the Rootabaga Stories,” compiled by Neil Philip (Hyperion, 1998.) This is a collection of fairy and fantasy tales by some of America’s finest writers: Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, L. Frank Baum, and Carl Sandburg are just a few of the writers included. The wonders of the American imagination are on full display in this book.

So, if you were going to read something today that represented the American spirit of freedom and independence, what would you choose? Heaven knows, our country has been blessed with some amazing authors. Who would you choose? Would you pick stories from history, or fiction?

What stories speak to you of our country?

 

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A Miscellany for Monday

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, if there is such a thing, “Happy Monday!”I have finished the writing assignment about Johnny Appleseed that I posted on about a week or so ago. Not having written under a deadline in many years, I must say it went pretty well. Now it’s up to the editors. I’ll tell you more when I’m able.

____________________

I was thinking about my previous post on Chesterton and the opening quote has stuck in my mind: “This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.”

It seems so obvious, yet everywhere one looks there is an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, things that divide and separate us as a people.

In the “Dictionary of Phrase & Fable” there is an entry titled “Divide and Govern.” Here’s what it says: “Divide a nation into parties, or set your enemies at loggerheads, and you can have your own way. A maxim of Machiavelli. . .”

So, who’s having their own way?

____________________

The book I’m currently reading is “A World Lit Only By Fire; The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance” by William Manchester (Back Bay Books, 1993).

Be glad you don’t live in the Dark Ages. It was a nasty, brutish time when human life was very cheap. Manchester is an excellent writer and brings to one’s attention many fascinating aspects of this time in history. Like this: “The most baffling, elusive, yet in many ways the most significant dimensions of the medieval mind were invisible and silent. One was the medieval man’s total lack of ego. Even those with creative powers had no sense of self.”

What a contrast with today, where even people with no creative powers are absolutely full of self!

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Quotations, Reading, What I'm Reading

 

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A Moment With Gil: The Ethics of Elfland

A Moment With Gil: The Ethics of Elfland

So here we have chapter four of “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. As you can tell by the chapter title, Gil can get a bit whimsical. To be honest, I’m not sure where the heck he pulled this one from, especially since one of the first quotes from the chapter has nothing to do with ethics or Elfland.

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.

I happen to agree with this wholeheartedly, as I suspect most people with any degree of common sense would. But how does it fit in with Elfland? My guess is this:

We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.

We all hold in common the need for a sense of wonder and we find it in Elfland. As for the ethics thing it’s a bit of a stretch, but if you’ve read many fairy stories this should sound familiar.

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

Chesterton believed in the world as a magical place and the fairy story was his template for understanding it. Most fairy stories had conditions which the hero or heroine had to uphold for order and happiness to continue. Ethics are those conditions which keep the story going. The conditions, or ethics, are put there by the author of the tale.

In other words, life has a purpose. It is a story. It is “intended” by someone. This is opposed to the materialists who mostly saw the universe as a vast machine.

The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will.

There you have it. Without the purpose, without the storyteller, true ethics do not exist. A machine has no choice.

This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast, but it is not free.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2012 in Authors, Ideas, What I'm Reading

 

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