Thursday, December 20, 2007


All Quiet on the Western Front is, in many senses, a novelization of author Erich Maria Remarque's experiences in World War I. The story concerns Paul Baumer, a volunteer infantryman, and his and his friends' experiences on the front, in battle, and on leave.

I was immediately leery because the book is written in the continuous present tense. This generally means disaster, but Remarque pulls it off astonishingly well. Indeed, the novel is better in the present tense than it would be in the past.

Depictions of war are graphic, brutal, and visceral. Remarque does an excellent job in drawing the reader into the world of the soldier. A prominent and key theme is how war changes these men, and what it does to them. The novel also underscores the fickleness of war – anyone can die, at any time, and the average soldier has nothing against the average soldier on the other side.

While the story may seem plotless at times, or as though it is moving in circles, as some have complained, the novel is short enough that it does not have a negative impact. And, again, the nature of a soldier in war is often so tedious and circular.

All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war novel, a fact which has received much attention. But how could such a frank and graphic depiction of war be anything but?


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was the turning point in the Civil War.

The narrative shifts among numerous commanding officers on both sides, with Longstreet and Chamberlain receiving the bulk of the attention. Shaara does a fantastic job of taking the reader inside the heads of these officers (and clearly differentiating among them personality-wise), and of showing the reader the emotions, the tactics and the chaos involved in war. He also does a solid job of incorporating background facts into the text (although some information is glaringly repetitious) without long and boring expository paragraphs, which occur only rarely.

Particularly early on, Shaara gets bogged down in his officers' rambling internal monologues. He also has the annoying tendency to put "he thought" in the middle of a passage that is already clearly monologue. For example: "Lee signed orders. I do too much myself. He was thinking: retreat is not even an option."

The biggest problem with The Killer Angels is Shaara's writing style, which is incredibly distracting. He piles on the sentence fragments with no regard for human life. Most egregious is the manner in which he puts periods in the middle of sentences. For example: "That hill will be a very strong position. Once it is fortified." Writers are taught that "he said" is preferable to "he shouted", "he whined", etc. But they're all better than Shaara's frequently-used "he gloomed".

Shaara's word choice in his imagery is often questionable, perhaps striving and failing to reach literary heights. He also overuses the word "handsome", particularly when describing characters. Never have there been so many "handsome" and "beautiful" men running around a battlefield.

All told, The Killer Angels is a well-researched, interesting read about one of the pivotal moments in U.S. history. It's not just for war buffs, although they will get more out of it than the average reader. It is unfortunate, though, that Shaara's writing idiosyncrasies are so off-putting.


Monday, December 17, 2007

BLACK LIKE ME by John Howard Griffin

Originally published in 1961, Black Like Me is the account of how white journalist John Howard Griffin had his skin medically darkened and traveled through the Deep South as a black man in an attempt to explain the hardships black people in the South faced. It also covers the backlash against the publication of his story.

Black Like Me is a concise, fast and engaging read. The reader is often able to see things through Griffin's eyes, even as Griffin tries to see things through the eyes of others. He does an excellent job communicating the cultures of fear and despair he encountered. The entire account of his travels as a black man is riveting.

If there is any nit-picking to be done, let it be for this: at times, particularly early on, Griffin's descriptions of mundane, everyday objects and details seem forced and do not aid the narrative.

While today's racial tensions are much less overt (and much less publicized), Black Like Me still has quite a bit to say about the universal elements of human nature and the culture of racism.


Sunday, December 16, 2007


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a fourteenth century alliterative poem of unknown authorship. English has evolved to such an extent that translation is necessary for anyone other than a dedicated scholar to read and appreciate the work. This review is of the Brian Stone translation. The poem is a combination of Arthurian legend and regional folklore, most notably the Irish tale of Cuchullain, and features a prominently Christian theme.

Gawain is traditionally viewed as the most virtuous of knights (and as the most powerful in some traditions, before that position was usurped by Lancelot), and a great deal of the novel deals with his various temptations, particularly by the lady (shades of Morgan le Fay). The action and the story are good, although the author does get a little carried away in the middle with all the hunting.

Stone does a lovely job of translating, keeping the tone and theme unified while maintaining alliterative lines. I am generally not a fan of poetry, but this held my attention. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an engaging read for fans of medieval or Arthurian literature.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

EREWHON by Samuel Butler

Originally published in 1872 and now billed as the "second great satire of the nineteenth century," Erewhon is a critique of Victorian society. In it, a British man comes across a never-before discovered society (which he is convinced is the lost tribes of Israel).

Erewhon has no plot to speak of. Here is its pattern: Butler gives us a bizarre scenario that seemingly makes no sense, takes us through it, and finally explains its parallel to Victorian life. Then this repeats. This is the whole book, book-ended by forty pages of setup (most of which is unnecessary) and a convenient and tidy ending. As such, the reader may feel like he is reading a work on nonsense philosophy rather than a work of fiction.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile here. Occasionally, there are flashes of brilliance, and there are some thought-provoking elements. Erewhonians, for example, treat the sick like criminals and treat criminals like they have diseases. In a modern-day version, perhaps, those who have self-inflicted poor health, like some of the obese and diabetic, would be considered criminal.

On the whole, working through the philosophical meanderings of Butler's scenarios is tedious. It certainly does not help that many aspects of Victorian society are now foreign to us. Erewhon hasn't held up. Stick with Swift.


Saturday, December 8, 2007


Stephen Briggs has compiled a selection of quotes and passages from every Discworld book through Making Money. As Terry Pratchett is known for his clever sentences, puns and jokes, this may seem like a great idea.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work. In the context of the Discworld novels, most of these passages are witty and humorous. Piled together here and ripped kicking and screaming from narrative context, it seems overmuch, and many passages end up giving the reader a "you had to be there" kind of feeling. Timing is everything with humor, but here, it's all out the window.

This is not to say there is no value here. Pratchett's cleverisms are certainly worthwhile and enjoyable. However, fans of Discworld are better off sticking with the novels, and those who are new to Discworld won't get it. Nor should they be expected to.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

MAKING MONEY by Terry Pratchett

Making Money is the second Discworld book featuring Moist von Lipwig, the conman-turned-postmaster general from Going Postal. Here he's put in charge of the mint, and so we get a great many adventures in banking.

I am a huge fan of the Discworld novels; I have read them all, and variously enjoyed each of them, although I have not much gotten into the rapidly growing periphery, which includes books on the science, geography and art of Discworld.

This is a typical Discworld book: the plot moves along leisurely while innumerable supporting characters wander in and out of the story as we approach an ending that is partly random and partly predictable. But that's never been a problem with Discworld novels; the plot is secondary to the characters, and all the fun is getting there.

This isn't the greatest Discworld book (I think most of the Vimes-centered ones tend to be the best), perhaps because Moist has the Midas touch where the plot is concerned – everything he does works out conveniently for his success (although perhaps in unexpected ways). Nevertheless the book is entertaining, because Pratchett's writing is good enough to overcome a deficit of plot.

The series is getting close to forty novels, but the charm is still there. Pratchett's writing is clever and amusing, as always, and one can't help but learn a few new words. And the man can still hit you with the most delightful sentences every now and again. Which is good, because Pratchett keeps cranking them out. Carry on, sir.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus

Camus is here proponing his absurdist theory, as something of a counterpoint to existentialism. The amoral main character, Meursault has a short attention span and an utterly lazy approach to life – not that he doesn't work hard, but that it doesn't make any difference to him what happens. His catchphrase is that things and events are "of so little importance." "It's common knowledge that life isn't worth living, anyhow," is what gets him through the day.

The novel begins as Meursault's mother dies, and then takes us through his daily activities, culminating in a rather inexcusable murder. The second half of the novel traces Meursault's trial.

Ultimately, Meursault rejects God repeatedly, although it certainly didn't help that the minister (along with the one other Christian in the novel) is something of a buffoon, and has a very poor approach. Meursault is content to put his fate in the hands of "the benign indifference of the universe."

Considering the implications of some of these philosophies, it remains baffling to me that some people are content to die and then to cease to exist. Put another way, some people have so little regard for their own existence. Certainly both existentialism and absurdism are anti-Christianity in this and many other aspects.

The novel has a little trouble getting out of the blocks, but it picks up nicely and it's a quick read. Ultimately, the degree to which one enjoys this book is dependent on how one feels about its philosophies.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

BRAND AMERICA by Simon Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth

The themes of Brand America are related to the question President Bush asked after 9/11: Why do they hate us? Since its inception, America has marketed itself and its culture as a brand. Looked at that way, America is the world's most powerful brand. Yet in recent years, as America's popularity has plummeted all over the globe, it is evident that this power has declined.

Brand America traces how America's brand became powerful, how it declined, and how it might strengthen again. Much of the suggestions are common sense, and are just good marketing. For example, good companies market a good product rather than dressing up a campaign for a crappy product no one wants. The U.S. has done the latter in recent years as the government has been unresponsive to any outside input, that is, the market.

Few people are aware of it, but the Smith-Mundt Act, passed in the 1940s, prohibits the government from exposing its citizens to its international propaganda. While this act has had hits value, it keeps the citizenry in the dark about what our government is doing abroad. Now, anyone can view this information on the internet, but the fact remains that no matter who is at fault, the American public has been relatively uninformed about and uninvolved in international diplomacy.

The authors do not take the "to know us is to love us" position that some mass communication scholars have, as they appear unimpressed by programs like Charlotte Beers' Shared Values Initiative.

There are many more concepts in this book on how America as a brand can and should handle itself, many of which are thought- and conversation-provoking. This book certainly would be a beneficial read to anyone the slightest bit interested in America's place in the world.


Monday, November 26, 2007


Mark Twain might have been a sad, grim man with the bleakest conceivable outlook on life, but the man could turn a phrase like nobody's business.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fairly short novel, but there's a lot going on. There's a white baby switched at birth with an identical-looking 1/32nd black baby (who is therefore a slave). There are political and financial machinations all around.

Most interesting is Twain's use of fingerprinting as a crime-solving device. He was, in fact, ahead of his time, as governmental police agencies were only beginning to use fingerprinting to identify criminals a few years after this book was published. What seems to us now to be rather common sense and everyday must have been cutting edge, CSI type stuff to Twain's original audience.

Twain uses his trademark distinct, vivid and real vernaculars when writing dialogue, including the heavy use of the N-word, which ignorant people have been fussing about for generations. We also get a very vivid idea of exactly what it means to be "sold down the river" in its original sense.

My copy of the novel has an introduction by Langston Hughes, which I recommend first-time readers skip until they have completed the novel, because he basically walks the reader through the book's plot in five pages.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fast, engaging novel, combining mystery with Twain's typical biting social commentary.


Sunday, November 25, 2007


The title also happens to be the plot outline. Elements of the plot have been duplicated in countless books, TV shows and movies. Army of Darkness and MacGyver leap immediately to mind. The book is a fantasy, and if haters can set aside its numerous anachronisms (A man from 1900, for example, would never be able to understand the language of 6th century England), it's quite enjoyable.

The novel is considerably more adversarial than one might expect. The main character is uncouth, obnoxious, and a jerk, even more so than is necessary given the immensely frustrating ignorance of the 6th century people. I suspect Twain plugged himself in to the Boss character, and had a good old time writing this one.

The main character is out to get the established Church, not in a no-holds-barred, Philip Pullman way, but in a logical way that recognizes the value of faith while tearing down the humanistic and suppressive political and economic machinations of the Church.

Twain also takes shots at England through the ages, at its historically oppressive caste system and at the English people's long-running love of hereditary nobility.

Commentary on politics and on human nature abound, but A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is still a great adventure story. These two elements step on each other's toes sometimes, but Twain pulls it off.

Clunky title. Great book.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

I think pretty much everybody had to read this in high school; that's when I first read it. Along with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is part of the English class dystopian trinity.

I picked the book up again because I recently saw the 1966 film, and it had a gaping plot hole that I didn't recall from the novel. In the movie, there is no printed material of any kind (even the credits are narrated). If this is the case, how is anyone literate? How is Montag able to read his pilfered books? (For the record, it is clearly set forth in the novel that this is not the case.)

I'm not going to talk about the most obvious theme, state-sponsored censorship (you all wrote English papers on it, no doubt). Bradbury, as I understand it, said that he was more focused on how television decreases interest in books. Anyway, there are more interesting themes going on here. Certainly not to be missed is the retarding effect of television; Montag's wife, who consumes television all day long, is a pitiful creature. She has no sense of responsibility to herself or to the world.

Most interesting to me is that the finger of blame for censorship is pointed squarely at the mongers of political correctness. In 1950, when this book was published, political correctness's primary issue was banning of books from libraries.

Today, political correctness has evolved into a fire-breathing hydra. I am not against the principles behind political correctness – that is, I believe that we (particularly as Christians) should be courteous of the beliefs and feelings of others, and should be careful not to give offense. That said, today the beast is out of control. I feel like political correctness these days is not about not giving offense; rather, it is about quickly taking offense. Some people go out of their ways to get offended. Certainly, everybody has an underlying point that is typically valid, but by and large we really need to have more constructive uses of our time.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

THE UGLY AMERICAN by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick

I've had this book lying around for a long time, but I never read it until it was assigned in my International Mass Communication class, even though it's been a classic for fifty years. The novel is set in the fictional southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan. It was written before the Vietnam War, and proved eerily prescient concerning how and why the United States would lose that war. What is most frustrating is how the United States continues to make the same foreign policy mistakes today.

Most significant is the theme that the majority of Americans who go to Sarkhan to help or work are woefully ignorant of what is required of them. These Americans are unable to understand the need to learn the Sarkhanese culture and language. They are unprepared to put forth the necessary effort and unwilling to make such a commitment. Many Americans in Sarkhan are more concerned with their own business interests than with sincerely helping the Sarkhanese. This collective approach culminates in an ineffective policy of throwing money at the problem regardless of the results, which are most often quite poor. The most alarming aspect of this mindset is the consummate arrogance that the American policies will work in spite of continued and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The reader shares the manifold frustration of those few characters who understand how to achieve results in Sarkhan. The powers-that-be are, for a variety of shameful reasons, by and large unwilling to accept these characters' simple, pragmatic solutions, despite the success they have achieved. Numerous characters remark on how simple it would be for America to win the hearts and minds of the Sarkhanese and drive out the communists, but America's continued unwillingness to be flexible in its approach only compounds their frustration. Certainly the irony of the novel's title is not lost here. Homer Atkins, the "ugly American", is one of these few people who understand how to interact productively with the Sarkhanese, and he does so with great success. Meanwhile, the attractive, rich and well-to-do continue to flog America's ineffective policies.

Although the authors were experts on the topic, the novel is not without its minor faults. The dialogue is stilted in places, particularly early on. But this is hardly unforgivable; the dialogue is not a focal point of the novel, and the accepted writing style for fiction was different fifty years ago, and continually changes. Additionally, the pacing is good, which helps overcome that particular weakness. The introduction of a new character nearly every chapter is unorthodox, but works fairly well as a means by which to portray the myriad examples of the various strategies of foreign diplomacy.

The novel is not a tremendously enjoyable read, nor is it supposed to be. The authors want the reader to feel the frustrations they feel, the frustrations that the few who employ effective methods feel. In sharing this frustration, the reader comes away from the novel with a clearer understanding of the situation, and with the knowledge that there are alternatives to the United States' ongoing policies of antagonism and alienation.

The Ugly American has become a timeless classic, and this is immensely regrettable. That the plain and simple explanations of how to and how not to achieve success in foreign policy have been and continue to be utterly disregarded by the United States government in spite of repeated failures and constant admonitions is nothing short of a travesty. Had the United States heeded the warnings of this book and changed their policies accordingly, the novel would certainly be left with little to say to a twenty-first century American audience. Until such a sweeping diplomatic overhaul occurs, however, The Ugly American will remain valuable to each succeeding generation.


Friday, November 9, 2007

TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second volume in the continuing No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which is set in Botswana. This is therefore the favorite series of my wife, naturally, and I read this book at her behest. My grandma enjoyed these books, too.

I met McCall Smith at a writers' conference, and he's a nice and funny guy. This series is what made him big, although he has written some others (His Isabel Dalhousie series is strongly recommended against).

I was not thrilled by the first volume of this series, titled The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. There was too much setup and not enough happening. This one is a lot better, as the characters really are charming, and they manage to be entertaining even though there really isn't ever a whole lot going on. The focus of the story is more on the lives of the characters than on the mysteries that are being solved.

As mystery novels go, this is more in the vein of Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who series or other mysteries in the "cozy" genre. No violence, no bad language, and really not a whole lot of detective work going on, either. All in all, I was entertained, but it wasn't quite enough to hook me. I wouldn't actively seek out the rest of the series, but I might read them if they were handy.

RECOMMENDED to those who like cozy mysteries or low-intensity stories with endearing characters.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


The book is over a hundred years old, so you'll forgive a few spoilers. There are actually two related stories here:

First, there's Mr. Bedford, who has no scientific training and mooches a ride to the moon with Mr. Cavor, where he plots all his business ideas and bludgeons scores of moon people to death with a solid gold crowbar. He goes home, a stupid little kid accidentally flies off in the Cavorite sphere, and that's that. Good times. Convenient how he, against the extremely long odds mentioned by the narrator, not only gets back to earth, but back to England.

Next, there's Mr. Cavor, who gets left on the moon more or less out of necessity, and perhaps by his own choice. The Selenites track him down, and begin to communicate with him. How inconsiderate of Mr. Cavor to make them all learn English instead of him learning their language, especially since they only have one language globally. Here we get into the book's social commentary, which Wells was always big on but which posterity has forgotten in favor of his science fiction elements. Is it truly by accident that Cavor mentions that he's the only way humans can get back to the moon, and that he fails to send earth his formula for Cavorite? Or is he conveniently trying to keep the indigenous peoples from being trampled down by the earth's world powers? Plus we have the Selenites' interesting social structure, like communism, to the extreme.

Reading this book for the first time in the twenty-first century, one's thoughts go like this: "Hey, Wells made some pretty decent predictions about helium and the moon…well, except for the moon plants…and the giant moon cows…and the moon ant people. Never mind."

Wells was a great writer, though, and this story is engaging and, early on, humorous. Seems like he was trying to outdo Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel. The First Men in the Moon is over the top in this day and age, maybe, but in 1900 nobody knew any better. Well done, sir.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman

I had heard nothing but good things about The Golden Compass, so I was disappointed when it started off slow and got progressively worse.

Lyra is not a sympathetic character. She gets by lying to and manipulating anyone she can. Conveniently, many characters in the book are one-dimensional enough that she never has any real difficulty, despite the narrator's efforts to convince us otherwise. Can't a kid ever be a main character and be the hero by doing the right thing and not breaking the rules?

Philip Pullman is a more than competent writer, but the story fails to grab. Lyra has the Midas touch – whatever she decides to do in a given situation always works. There's no real suspense. Plus we get arbitrary, unfounded declarations like "Oh, what if, for no real reason whatsoever besides the fact that the bad guys think the Dust is bad, the Dust is really good after all?" No doubt she'll turn out to be right.

The Golden Compass has intense action and complex, adult themes. So what, exactly, makes it a children's book? Because the main character is a child? Or because children are less likely to pick up on all the book's contrived and unlikely happenings?

The combination of magic and theology has great potential, and is underused in fantasy literature in general, but it doesn't work here. This book is a theological train wreck. The neo-Catholic Church is bad. God is bad. The Church manufactures doctrine based on the latest scientific discoveries. Original sin is to be eliminated by human works (which would have to involve killing God).

Christian conservatives rant and rave about Harry Potter and its allegedly insidious messages, there's been little fuss from any Christian group besides the Catholics on Pullman's overt anti-Christianity. Why?

The Golden Compass came highly recommended, but I wasn't impressed with its story or its message. The other books in the series, with their homosexual angels and decrepit god, I will not be reading.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett

This is a review of the text of the play, not of any particular performance of it. I picked up Waiting for Godot with no knowledge of it other than having heard that it was a play in which not a whole lot happened.

Literary types have concocted political, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, biblical and homoerotic (and many other) interpretations of the play. I am not interested in any particular interpretation, for this reason: the play is extremely boring. By the middle of the second act, every last aspect of the play is tiresome. It's billed as "a tragicomedy in two acts." That's great, except it's not funny at all.

This play's influence on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is obvious, except that that play held the interest a little better and actually offered some philosophical insight on life.

Waiting for Godot goes into the category of works that people (pretentious literary snobs and pretentious literary posers) say are so deep and meaningful because they don't have the slightest idea of what it means. I'll be a man and say it's not deep and it's not interesting.


Monday, October 15, 2007

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I picked up On Writing because you can't do it much bigger than Stephen King has. Most books on writing are by grammarmongers or literary types, and I was interested to get the perspective of a writer of popular fiction. Previously, I'd only skimmed through Terry Brooks's Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, but I don't think Terry Brooks is a very good writer, so that was the end of that.

Half the book is King's autobiography, and he focuses on the points in his life that he feels helped shape him as a writer. I felt like I didn't need most of this, although it was nice to know even Stephen King worked at some terrible jobs before he made it big. Those reading this book just for the writing lesson, and who care not for Stephen King, can skip this whole section, although there are some interesting tidbits on the publishing process.

King's points are several. The two keys to good writing, he says, are mastery of the fundamentals and hard work. A good writer should write all the time and read all the time. I agree with this.

King's strategy for writing is this: to come up with a foundational situation, not worry about the plot, and make it up as you go. There certainly is something to be said for this kind of writing, and it has a very romantic ideal, but I think this also explains why quite a few of King's otherwise-amazing novels have lame, deus ex machina endings.

On Writing is written in King's distinctive, conversational, foul-mouthed style, which is just as engaging in non-fiction, although he runs a bit long-winded at times. The book is pretty short, though, and it's a fairly quick read.

I can't say I learned anything new about writing, but I did have some concepts reinforced (like don't use dialogue attributions), and it was nice to hear it from the most popular novelist of our time.

King says you can't make a good writer great, and you can't make a terrible writer competent, but you can make a competent writer good. If that's you, then to you this book might just be


Monday, October 8, 2007

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

And so we revisit the official novel of high school English, the only F. Scott Fitzgerald most people will ever read. Does it live up to the hype? It's in the highest category of literature where no book can.

The novel concerns a number of extremely rich people, all of whom feel unloved and all of whom are unfulfilled. Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, the main character, we see these characters' destruction like a slow-motion, 180-page train wreck. To a limited degree, the reader is also sucked into this amoral morass.

I also note that there are some obvious similarities in the endings between this book and Sunset Boulevard, which was of course written later.

Fitzgerald was unquestionably a talented writer, and quite often his imagery and metaphors are excellent. However, here and there the reader gets the feeling that he's trying too hard, as sentences and phrases come across as stilted or contrived.

So what does The Great Gatsby do for us today? No real redemption occurs here for any of the characters (this is different from a happy ending; I'm not complaining because it doesn't have a happy ending). Certainly it is a cautionary tale against materialism, but no hope is ever presented for any of the characters.

I wanted to bump this to 4 stars/recommended, but I couldn't in good conscience do it.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

THE CHILD HEART by Louis and Carol Gordon and Kathryn Butler Turner

Louis and Carol Gordon are the founders of a ministry called Heart Menders. Their "strength is revelation from God about unhealed 'child heart' hurts."

According to the book, the way this works is this: pretty much absolutely everyone has wounds that have not healed from things they have suffered in the past: feelings of inferiority, insecurity, stubbornness, fear, self-pity, pride, negativity, and so forth. One of the areas of emphasis for Heart Menders is dysfunctional families, where these feelings can occur prevalently. The message is that people can be healed through forgiveness, repentance, becoming "child-like", and "redefining ourselves through the Word."
For more information, visit

At its core, it seems to me that the underlying issue here is sanctification. Each Christian has different aspects of himself that he has issues with. Some areas are submitted fully to the Lord; others are problematic. Taking Jesus' metaphor from John 15, these areas are the ones that not only do not produce fruit, they cause us all manner of pain and difficulty. As we allow Jesus to take over these areas, and as we become higher-quality Christians, we are freed from hurts that, while not self-inflicted at the start, become so because we are unable to let them go and move on. In other words, if somebody stabs me with a knife, that's one thing, but it's quite another if I never take it out. So we have here an emphasis on sanctification's earthly, immediate purpose, which is a relatively neglected aspect of it, I think. In essence, this book advocates sanctification for quality of life. Which is absolutely fine.

This book comes to us from deep within Charismaticland. Which is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. At any rate, there are some very questionable and eyebrow-raising theological points made, which I will not go into because they are, for the most part, beside the point of the book. The baby to bathwater ratio here is well within acceptable parameters.

This is not a particularly well-written book. These people are in ministry; they are not professional writers. That's fine. I understand that. But this is the kind of book where someone like me has to push past all the excessive and unnecessary bolds, capitalizations, exclamation points, and use of the King James.

The principles in this book are, for the most part, sound. Unfortunately, the quality of the book is not.


Saturday, October 6, 2007

LOOK BACK IN ANGER by John Osborne

Look Back in Anger is an autobiographical play by John Osborne. The main character is Jimmy, a miserable young man. He rants and raves through the entire play, verbally abusing everyone he comes in contact with and taking delight in making them miserable as well. He has no redeeming characteristics at all (unless one wants to say he is "honest" with his feelings), and ranges from detestable to pathetic (his lame attempts at "bears and squirrels" cutesy talk with his wife, for example).

Why is he so angry? How is it that such a person has not one but two women fall in love with him and leave all for his sake? What is the point of people sitting through this? Apparently, none of these questions require more than superficial explanation.

A number of elements in the play feel contrived. I understand that for the stage you have limitations, but here we have a friend of the family hooking it up with Jimmy not five minutes after his wife leaves him. Sure, okay.

Contrary to what many reviewers of Osborne's day claimed, The dialogue is sub-par and stilted. Every character continually shares his innermost feelings in a hostile environment where they are constantly belittled.

Every character in the book is miserable on some level. No doubt this was extremely cathartic for Osborne, but it's just unpleasant for everybody else.


Friday, October 5, 2007


Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and I did not get off on the right foot. He was in my doghouse immediately with his "Rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. Hence music of this type must be excluded from the Church on principle."

From there he started to work his way back a little with his iron-fisted unwillingness to pander to other religions and to the spiritually relativistic. I kind of liked the last pope (the friendly one), and I'm warming up to this pope (the mean one).

JESUS OF NAZARETH is, in his own words, Benedict's "personal search for the face of the Lord." This is part one, and covers Jesus' life from his Baptism to the Transfiguration; part two will cover the infancy narratives and post-Transfiguration. Benedict wanted to get this out in case he died in the meantime, and says as much in his foreword.

The book, seventy years in the making, is part commentary, part exegesis. While it is not ponderous or dry, it does assume a certain degree of scholarship and familiarity with the Gospels on the part of the reader. Something I particularly appreciate is how Benedict picks out certain nuances from different Evangelists, focusing on their unique themes. Benedict is, as one might expect, a fairly conservative theologian; there is not a whiff of liberal scholarship here. Nor is there more than token Catholic theology to which a Protestant such as I might take offense, and it does not detract at all.

The book covers Jesus' baptism, the temptations of Jesus, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the disciples, parables, the principal images of John's gospel, Peter's confession and the Transfiguration, and the identity of Jesus.

In the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount, Benedict discusses the Beatitudes, the Torah of the Messiah ("You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…, the dispute concerning the Sabbath, the Fourth Commandment, and compromise and prophetic radicalism). Interesting insight here on Jesus as the new Moses. The Lord's Prayer he breaks down line by line. In his discussion of parables, he discusses their nature and purpose, and covers the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son (which he re-terms "The parable of the two brothers (the prodigal son and the son who remained at home) and the good father"), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In his chapter on John, he focuses on the imagery of water, vine/wine, bread, and the shepherd. In his chapter on Jesus' identity, Benedict covers "Son of Man", "Son", and "I Am".

I did not get far into this book before I started to get excited about it. There is interesting, insightful commentary on every page. It should go without saying, I suppose, since he's the pope, but the expertise here is refreshing, as are the solid hermeneutics and the utter lack of anything stupid. The reader gets the sense that this is personal for Benedict, not just for scholarship's sake, but because he is as deeply interested as we in what he finds.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN by Joanne Greenberg (Hannah Green)

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is Joanne Greenberg's autobiographical novel about her schizophrenia. In it, Deborah, a 16-year-old girl, spends several years in a mental hospital overcoming her illness.

There is little doubt that the story is rooted in personal experience. There seems to be no other way to explain schizophrenia in such minute detail. Emphasis on certain details, particularly with Deborah's parents and Dr. Fried, clearly indicates to the reader that many aspects of the story have not been fictionalized.

There are some problems with the writing. At times, Deborah reads people, both doctors and patients, in impossible detail that is annoying rather than profound. Just when the reader has decided, "Wow, maybe Deborah should be a psychiatrist," we're immediately told how Deborah never knew why many people disliked her.

The dialogue is also problematic. Deborah certainly doesn't talk like the average 16-year-old, which is fine, but everybody else in the book is similarly refined and sophisticated. The dialogue is stilted. This, combined with the author's narrative style, causes the book to come across as pretentious from time to time.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden starts out promisingly enough, but after its first third it becomes rather tedious. The reader may well skim and then skip page after page of internal rambling monologue and dialogue and interaction with other patients that does nothing to advance the story. Ultimately, the novel is boring.

A note: the book also comes across briefly as unfriendly toward both pacifists and Christianity.

Come for the personal insights into mental illness, stay for- well, there's really nothing else to stay for.


Monday, September 17, 2007


The Time Machine is your seminal time-traveler book, and after all this time, it's still a good one. Eight hundred thousand years in the future, Wells makes it very plain that the earth is very hot. Did Mercury crash into the sun, as Wells suggests? Or, was it…GLOBAL WARMING? How very prescient.

I didn't really get into the storyline with the good, moron Smurfs and the underground, cannibal Smurfs. Seemed like Wells was trying to make an evolutionary point on class structure in England at the turn of the last century. Good for him.

Who really thinks the world will still be going eight hundred thousand years from now? Don't we expect Jesus to come back at some point? Or at the very least, won't we use up all the earth's resources or blow ourselves up?

More interesting to me was the main character's trip to the end of time. That kind of cosmic viewpoint helps one put life, the universe and everything in perspective, giant mutant crabs not withstanding.

The Time Machine is a humorous and engaging little work. The funny thing is, in over a hundred years of science and literature, time travel is one plot device that few people have done better at.


Saturday, September 15, 2007


The Island of Dr. Moreau was originally published in 1896. I had not previously read it, nor had I seen any of the several film versions, although I was familiar with the basic story. It has inspired untold variations on the "mad doctor tampers with the laws of nature" theme.

Wells does not really address the hard science of the story, but that really isn't a problem. Going back in time through literature, the "science" in science fiction operated in increasingly broad strokes.

The novel was not as engaging a read as I'd anticipated. One doesn't really feel much if any suspense, although that might have been a different story a hundred years ago.

However, the novel does stick in the mind, almost hauntingly, and causes one to think about some of its themes (beyond the obvious themes of eugenics, genetic engineering, and the ethics of medical research), particularly human nature and what it means to be human. The main character's reactions when he returns to human society are quite interesting.

On an interesting historical note, the publication of this novel coincided with a massive movement to abolish vivisection in Great Britain.

Ultimately, The Island of Dr. Moreau is an engaging read and one of the cornerstones of science fiction.


Sunday, September 9, 2007


The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is a collection of short stories by Alan Sillitoe. The stories are all vignettes of working class Britons.

The stories are quite well-written, as Sillitoe has a good head for imagery, and he writes dialogue in the vernacular. This is only a problem in the title story, in which the first-person narrator, who is uneducated and barely literate, writes using this lush imagery, which seems unlikely.
The stories have running themes of loneliness and social isolation, often in relation to emotional problems.

The stories are an ocean, fifty years, and quite a bit of socioeconomic status removed from most pampered, middle-class Americans, although the themes on human nature are timeless. There's really not a lot else to say about these stories, perhaps because I am so far removed from them. They are well-written and moderately entertaining, with good insight into the human condition.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of the Highlord Skies is the second in a trilogy of fill-in novels for the original Chronicles trilogy, which had some narrative gaps due to space constraints. These gaps weren't major, and they didn't wreck the series, and so they come across as somewhat unnecessary. But as I'm a huge fan of the original Weis and Hickman novels, I picked this up. Highlord Skies fills in portions of Dragons of Winter Night. It tells how Kitiara got Lord Soth on her side and how the Companions got the dragon orb out of Icereach.

The longer I spend as a professional writer, the more I tend to read like an editor. I have to say I haven't read any of the other Dragonlance books in a long time (except Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, which also had major editorial issues), so I don't know if the narrative here is significantly different from the old books. There are editorial concerns here as well, including a few things spell-check should have caught, since there some non-words here.

The "previously on Dragonlance…" introduction was nice. I was reminded that the Dragonlance world has some of the best fantasy place and deity names around. Coming up with good ones is a skill in and of itself.

The second thing I noticed is that the narration is heavy-handed and repetitive, as though we can't remember what we read early in this same book, and can't figure out somebody's attitude. The book has a ton of adverbial modifiers (as have all the Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels), which are generally considered poor writing, and which serve little purpose (it's telling rather than showing). Their use creates a fair number of minor Tom Swifties. "I'm mad," said Tom angrily. See? There are other problems. You can't use the word "capacious" as a descriptor twice in five pages. Put down the thesaurus and walk away.

The authors seem overly sentimental with the characters, who at times seem like caricatures of themselves. You can only go to the well so many times, and it's about dry. Flint never had a lot of depth to him (he just does everything "dourly"). Even Tasslehoff, who seems to appear in every Dragonlance book ever written, has his comic relief styles starting to feel old.

One of the things that makes the book rough to read is that it's bogged down by a lot of characters you don't root for. There's Kitiara, who you don't root for because you already know what happens to her, and there's Derek Crownguard, who you don't root for because he's a jerk, an ass and a low-IQ moron who's completely oblivious to the world around him.

The book is slow at the start (there's a reason some of this stuff wasn't in the old books), but picks up nicely at the end, and we get a few humorous moments of "behind the scenes with Fewmaster Toede." But ultimately, the whole book feels unnecessary, because we already know what happens to every character. And Kitiara's ending was lame. All build-up and no payoff.

So this was disappointing. What every really wants is more of everybody's favorite black-hearted hero, Raistlin. Good thing the last book in the trilogy is about him.


Monday, September 3, 2007


I picked up Soon I Will Be Invincible because it was a superhero novel with a completely original cast. I was very excited when I heard about it. I love comic books and I love superheroes.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is written in the first person present tense, and chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Doctor Impossible, supervillain and world's smartest man, and Fatale, rookie cyborg superhero. The main problem with this, beyond the use of the present tense (which doesn't work at all here due to the number of flashbacks), is that there's very little difference between the two characters' narrative voices.

Doctor Impossible never sounds like the world's smartest man. He's not articulate at all. He says stuff like "Shut up! It's the Ice Empire, and it's totally going to work." and "They pretty much forgot about me." With the number of times he says "totally" and "pretty much", he often sounds like Napoleon Dynamite.

Grossman's narrative style doesn't work. He likes weirdly-constructed sentences. He throws strings of words together seemingly at random, like he's trying to do stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments abound. They are tacked onto paragraphs. We get lists along the lines of "It was blue, red, green and orange. Yellow." (That's not a quote from the book.) Grossman describes things in detail that the reader has no need to know (and no interest in). We get descriptors that don't fit, like Grossman tried and failed to be "literary", like, "She acts like you'd think a fairy would act - cute and flighty, blond and haughty." These problems are especially glaring because Grossman has chosen to present this in the first person, so we get narrative completely unlike how anyone would talk if they were telling you a story. The dialogue isn't good either; It's corny and wooden.

The bad dialogue compounds the book's style problems. On the one hand, we've got superheroes and supervillains to the absolute silliest extreme, with brightly-colored tights, ridiculous names, and laser beams shooting out of people's eyes. On the other hand, we have every character in the entire book taking everything completely seriously.

Character development doesn't really happen, especially with the non-narrators. We're told early on that Blackwolf is autistic, but he doesn't do a single autistic thing except take five minutes to wash his hands. And while we have tons of backstory on the two narrators, most of it does little to develop their characters or the plot.

There is no plot to speak of, a fact which is made more glaring by the lack of character development. A great deal of the book, particularly early on, is spent reflecting on the past. Everything from Doctor Impossible's past attempts to conquer the world (robot armies, time travel, insect armies, dinosaur armies, fungus armies, fish armies, et cetera) is more interesting than anything that happens in this book.

The editing didn't catch the worst of the writing. We get "Blackwolf stands", "Lily's on her feet, and Blackwolf is, too", and "'...' Blackwolf says, getting to his feet" all within a page, all without Blackwolf ever sitting back down. Only a real superhero can stand up when he's already on his feet. Twice! Can't blame the autism for that one.

Grossman purports that his book is unique because we get "what it feels like to be inside a superpowered body, what heroes and villains are really thinking during a superfight, what they're feeling." It just feels like we've been here before, and none of this is as interesting as it sounds.

Ultimately, Soon I Will Be Invincible is poorly-written and boring. The combination of bad narrative, bad dialogue, undeveloped characters, lack of plot and inconsistent style and tone absolutely sink it. You can get away with a little more of this in a comic book, but this would make a bad comic.


Saturday, August 25, 2007


The Overcoming Life
is a collection of messages given by Watchman Nee in 1935. The key verse is Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

The book concerns how believers can obtain God's full salvation – that is, more than salvation from sin and eternal life, but also salvation from the issues we have in this life, such as temper, pride, and other things we do that are not pleasing to God. Nee explains how we can overcome these things.

The main point is that we can't overcome on our own. Even if we are saved, we can't do anything to change by our own strength. Instead, we must have our flesh nature exchanged for Christ's nature. It is an issue of replacement versus improvement.

Again, we are crucified with Christ. To overcome with Christ's victory, we must admit that we are not able to change on our own, and we must stop trying to change ourselves. This, I think, is the hardest part. Most of us feel like we have to try, to strive, to be good people, even though every one of us keeps failing. Nee gives this kind of example: say you can pick up 100 pounds. There is a load that weighs 200 pounds. You know you can't pick it up. Why even try?

Nee focuses a lot on Luke 18:22, where Jesus tells the rich young ruler who has kept all the commandments "There is still one thing lacking" for salvation. Each person, Nee says, has "one thing lacking", and many more than one. These things that are lacking are the things that we are hung up on, things that God must do for us.

Necessary for living the overcoming life is surrender and belief. Nee's is a very hands-off approach to faith – let God do everything! At first, this seems a little too hands-off. But the more one thinks about it, the more one thinks, well, who better to do these things than God? How far has all our striving gotten us. Real victory though Christ isn't about teeth-clenched endurance. When God overcomes, it's amazing, and you know about it.


Friday, August 24, 2007


Watchman Nee (1903-1972) was a Chinese church leader. He spent the last twenty years of his life in prison, as Christians were (and continue to be) severely persecuted by the Communists in China. The Normal Christian Life was originally published in 1957 from a collection of Nee's spoken messages and magazine articles.

The Normal Christian Life is a Romans-centered exposition of what Christian living should be. The key verse of the entire work is Romans 6:6: "We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin."

This book is refreshingly well-reasoned, and Nee's explanations are simple and his illustrations are good and helpful. Nee brings a eternal perspective (and I like anything with an eternal perspective) to the work of Christ. He has a good theology of sin and the sin nature. He also has some interesting insights on baptism.

Nee deals with some basic yet fundamental and sometimes misunderstood concepts. Freedom from the sin nature, for example, is something a lot of Christians (including Lutherans, of whom I am the worst) neglect, don't understand, or refute.

A lot of Nee's message seems extreme. It certainly is, but the real question is, is it correct? I have never read any meaningful work on Christian living that was one hundred percent doctrinally correct. But most of what Nee has to say is sound, and more often than not, his principles are valid where his specific applications might not be.

This is a great book for Christians who are just getting by – those who are "truly saved and yet bound by sin," as Nee says. Nee's is a Christianity of deep and powerful faith. He takes almost for granted a level of faith that most Christians do not have or strive for.

One thing, and I include this as an interesting aside rather than a knock on Nee: when Nee discusses Romans 7:24 ("Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?") he uses as an example the old Roman tradition punishing murderers by binding the corpses of their victims to them hand to hand and foot to foot (Nee was not the first to use this illustration, nor was he the last). Well, this set off all my urban legend alarms. I did some research and found no evidence whatsoever that this ever happened. It certainly doesn't seem in line with Roman attitudes toward punishment, particularly of capital crimes.

But I do not wish this to be held against Nee that the good of his message should be overlooked. This is an excellent treatise on how Christianity "works". To those interested in the manifold fullness of Christian living, this book must be


Sunday, August 19, 2007

HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad

I picked up Heart of Darkness because I thought Apocalypse Now (not the Redux, which sucks) was a really good movie. As it turns out, there's little in common between the two. The story concerns Marlow, an Englishman, who takes a job ferrying ivory down a river in Africa. He becomes interested in Kurtz, another trader who has set himself up as a god over the tribes in this area.

Heart of Darkness, again, has been elevated to that divine status of "English literature." The same people who have promoted it thus have also attempted to explain away the novel's flagrant racism, although I don't know how that would be possible. How many English professors would be up a creek (you know which creek) if everybody suddenly figured out that authors like Conrad are overrated?

Like The Secret Sharer, Heart of Darkness is boring and difficult to read. Conrad is one of those who liked sentences the size of paragraphs and paragraphs that went on for a page or more. Often, given his penchant for changing topics mid-paragraph, I did not see why he used half the paragraph breaks he did. The boringness of the novel is compounded by the Marlow's rambling narrative. Certainly, this helps define the personality of the character, but it certainly doesn't help the book's readability.

Conrad presents the whole story as told as narrative by the main character after everything has taken place. Here, glaringly, Conrad's style doesn't work. "The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur." Obviously, people write like this, but nobody ever talked like this. You tell a story to an audience like this and every last one of them will be asleep.

Conrad's work is highly symbolic. Far be it from me to say he was not a talented writer. But I think he, as well as those who cling to his coattails, have missed this: you can go to far with symbolism, and most any other literary device, and absolutely kill the story. While Conrad was busy creating vividly-descriptive sentences and cathedrals of paragraphs, the story fell by the wayside, and nobody went back for it.

This is my problem. I don't want to see word pictures of nothing, no matter how lovely those pictures might be. Just tell me a story. If you can do both at once, so much the better. But if you're only going to have one, this is the wrong one to have.


Friday, August 17, 2007

THE SECRET SHARER by Joseph Conrad

First of all, this is hardly a novel, no matter what they might say; it's only 45 pages. Second, it must be noted that Joseph Conrad has been put in that category of amazing, deep and timeless English Literature. The introduction to the book calls it one of the six greatest short novels in the English language. So is it?

The story concerns a new ship's captain, who while on watch discovers a swimmer in the sea. This man has (inadvertently?) killed another man on his own ship, and jumped overboard after he was put under arrest. The captain, for some reason, considers this man his "double", and takes care of him, hides him, and helps him to escape.

There are, as those who bow down before the altar of literature observe, themes of self-knowledge and identity. This is well and good, but I think it's hardly as profound as it's made out to be. This seems to be one of those times where the intelligentsia has all jumped on the bandwagon of discovering profound revelation where it may or may not exist.

Conrad has a very wordy and heavily descriptive style. Sometimes this works well, as there are scenes vividly portrayed. More often, it drags the story down. The feeling the reader comes away with is "This story is slightly boring." But that, I think it at least in part due to the writing style of 100 years ago.

So is there something deep here? Or am I too stupid to see it? That may well be, because I certainly don't see it.

This book seems to fit with my long-held Deepness Theory. The Deepness Theory is this: when you see a piece of art or read a piece of writing, and you just don't see what's so great about it, or you don't understand it or what the big deal is, you have to have a reason why, particularly when others think highly of it. So you could say "it's boring" or "it sucks", but then you look uncultured to the others, all of whom apparently think it's the cat's pajamas. So then you say, "Oh, it's so deep! I can't even understand it!" So then pretty soon everybody's doing that. It's like the Emperor's New Clothes. I also think it's similar to the way we treat the theory of evolution, but that's a whole other discussion.

So I'll say it. The Secret Sharer was slightly boring, and I didn't think it was anywhere near as profound as the literature kings say.

Next, we will give Conrad one more chance with Heart of Darkness. The Secret Sharer, however, is NOT RECOMMENDED

Sunday, August 12, 2007


American Propaganda Abroad is former United States Information Agency (USIA) employee Fitzhugh Green's history of American propaganda from Benjamin Franklin to Ronald Reagan. The book also covers some of how USIA operated and what it did.

Green begins with a fascinating account of America's first public diplomats, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. He clearly idolizes them (and others, including Charles Z. Wick, USIA's head under Reagan). Green was notably less impressed with Jimmy Carter's handling of USIA.

The majority of American Propaganda Abroad is not particularly interesting, as Green seems to have been writing for an audience more familiar with the USIA, and as such has included little in the way of background information or introduction to his subjects. There are also little or no transitions between topics. Green includes a little of this and a little of that, seemingly as the mood strikes him.

Green's two fiction chapters, A Typical Overseas Post – Fiction and A Nation-Building Post – Fiction, are not introduced or explained. As such, the reader may wonder if these stories are fictional accounts of how these posts really are (which is the correct interpretation) or if Green is showing the reader fiction to illustrate that things never happen like this. As such, they can be confusing to the reader. Fiction writing is clearly not Green's forte – his narrative and dialogue are stilted.

As the USIA no longer exists, much of American Propaganda Abroad is no longer relevant. Those historical elements are; much of the rest is not. This is because Green at times is more concerned with singing the praises of an administration's approach to the USIA.

Green's recommendation that the United States continue to invest in public diplomacy certainly has not been heeded in recent years. As a result of this and other factors, anti-Americanism is up across the globe and America's image is relatively poor.

American Propaganda Abroad
contains some valuable information, but it is not a true history of the USIA, nor is it a full history of American propaganda. It also is not particularly objective.


Saturday, August 11, 2007

The HARRY POTTER series by J. K. Rowling

There are a few small spoilers here. If you have not read all the books and you plan to or if you for some reason don't want to know what happens, then just walk away.

I decline to deal with Harry Potter as a children's series. The hype and response to the Harry Potter books is such that we are now well beyond "Harry Potter is children's fantasy" and into "Where does Harry Potter fit in the pantheon of fantasy works?" And now, my thoughts on the individual books. These are by no means comprehensive reviews; rather, they consist of what jumped out at me.

This is a charming little book. It's quite obviously for kids. The Dursleys' treatment of Harry Potter is so over the top and so far beyond suspension of disbelief that it only flies in a kids' book. Not a lot actually happens, as most of the book is focused on introducing the school and the classes, which is okay. Harry Potter inadvertently saves the day by wandering around where he's not supposed to, and when you look back and consider how severely he set Voldemort back without even knowing what's going on, well, it makes you kind of wonder about Voldemort, doesn't it?

The book and the series are very engrossing, and they have good humor. Harry Potter is a pretty rash little kid, and he's not very likeable, although Ron and Hermione are both good characters. The knock against this book, nay, against this series, is that many things happen with exceptionally convenient timing. Also it was here that I began noticing some questionable comma use that pervades the series.

Harry Potter is more rash here, and less likable . Every other page, Harry Potter's getting ready to get kicked out of school. More characters are more over the top than ever – notably, the Dursleys, Malfoy, and Hagrid. The reason this doesn't really work in Azkaban is because Rowling is beginning to shift the series toward more adult themes and audiences.

There are some plot holes here. One concerns the pointless amount of time between events in the competition, which would never happen and which only serves to make the competition last the whole book. A second involves the feeble explanation for why Voldemort can't just go kill Harry Potter when he's with the Dursleys. Furthermore, it is astounding that everyone's favorite hippie Gandalf, Dumbledore, never knows what's going on in any of the books. You'd think he'd take a more active hand in actually running the school.

In this book, Harry Potter is more unlikable than ever. He's shady, deceitful and tricky, he's immature, he's prideful, and he throws tantrums. At this point, he's really starting to put a damper on an otherwise charming series. Snape, who is presented as the villain in all respects, is proven absolutely right in his accusations against Harry Potter.

Harry Potter's crush is underdeveloped here, and it's pretty lame. There are also some semicolon use issues. In spite of all this, Goblet of Fire is one of the better books in the series.


The first time I read this book, I thought it was the worst of the series, and way too long. The second time I read it, I thought it just might be the best. Here, we've made the full transition to adult novel.

Harry Potter's crush is much better developed, although the romance is extremely poor, and it consists of nothing but arguments.

Harry Potter himself is in full-blown tantrum mode. He's a pompous, prideful jerk, and he yells at absolutely everyone. He's not the slightest bit sympathetic. I know his parents were murdered when he was a baby and he was raised by jerks, but that's just not an excuse for lashing out at anything that moves. So because of this behavior, in spite of everybody and their mom telling him to learn occlumency, he decides he's not going to do it. As a direct result of this, Sirius dies, in no small part due to the fact that Harry Potter forgets he has the magic mirror because he's too busy running around throwing a tantrum and trying to save the day.

Everything in this book not named "Harry Potter" is excellent. This book has a frenetic tone and there are a million things going on. Rowling has created good supporting characters, and lots of them. She's done a good job of creating a world that feels populous.

One note: young witches and wizards seem to be habitual drug users, yet nobody cares. They have potions for everything. There are stress-relieving potions, sleep potions, love potions, et cetera. If you have any kind of problem, there's a potion for that. They'd all be potion addicts. Plus they'd all be fat because they always eat whatever they want every single day. They must have a magic carb-blocker potion.

This book is a throwback, with everybody mostly taking it easy around the school. Instead of any real plot, we've got low-key fill-in mysteries like "Who is the prince?" and "How did Voldemort go crazy in the first place?" Only at the end of the book do we get some excitement.

Fortunately for everyone, Harry Potter's tantrums are finally on the downswing. Unfortunately, we've got some story issues, mostly concerning his relationship with Ginny. The "monster within" is pretty stupid, and kind of creepy, like he's some kind of stalker. However, the kiss scene with him and Ginny is exceptionally well done. The problem with this whole relationship, though, is that Harry Potter's like for Ginny is out of nowhere, and Ginny herself has not been well developed throughout the series. That is, she receives character development, but unevenly, and much if it is done completely apart from any interaction with Harry Potter. And then at the end we have the lame Spider-Man movie breakup.

Other issues: Harry Potter is "pure in heart"? Really? And how in the world did Harry Potter get an "exceeds expectations" in potions? Dumbledore is cooking the gradebook. Also, there is absolutely no good reason why Harry Potter couldn't use truth serum on Slughorn, except that we would lose part of an already slim plot.

Finally, and this issue does not belong to Harry Potter alone, but to many fantasy worlds: how can you see with an invisibility cloak over your face? Your eyes wouldn't work if they were invisible. Yes, I know, it's a magic cloak. Maybe you can see through the plot holes.

I thought this was the worst book of the seven (when the last book is the worst, well, you've got trouble, my friend) and that it made quite a poor ending to the series. Here is why.

Books 5, 6, and 7 continually prove that Death Eaters are bumbling morons. The students always beat them. Harry Potter could have killed nearly all of them if he'd really wanted to. They're like a cross between Stormtroopers and Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes. What a bunch of freaking losers.

I had long suspected that the charm in this series lay in the school. Hogwarts is a brilliant setting. Who doesn't want to go to a school and learn to make potions and do magic and have a good old time? This book confirms my suspicions. There's no school for most of the book, and there's no charm, either. The middle of the book is slow and boring, and the mysteries in this book aren't particularly interesting (more so even than book 6). And I was right about Snape all along. Ron's tantrum and abandonment of Harry Potter are completely out of character and bring nothing to the story.

Rowling made a big deal about how she was going to kill more characters. She starts by killing a character we haven't even had mentioned in any of the books, and moves on to killing scores of minor and irrelevant characters that we quite frankly don't care about. She also uses this forewarning as an opportunity to toy with the reader early on, but in a bad-sported way.
We've got deus ex machina out the yin-yang here. We've also got the belaboring of the pureblood/half-blood issue that has permeated this series like it was set in Germany in the 1930s. I guess Rowling's trying to make some kind of point on elitism or racism, but it just gets old.

Here is a glaring plot hole that irritated me thoroughly: Harry Potter is told that the Deathly Hallow cloak provides "constant and impenetrable concealment" (whether it actually does or not is irrelevant). How, then, does he immediately think his invisibility cloak is it when Moody could always see him while he was wearing it?

I believe that it is not the readers' place to second-guess the author about plot points. Who lives, who dies, who does what (so far as the actions are in character) are solely the business of the author. You can't rewrite their history. So I do not complain about what happened as much as I complain about the way it happened. After all this build-up, we get a thoroughly pedestrian ending, more or less by the numbers, with little real emotional punch. And we end the series with a poor, worthless "19 years later when everybody's grown up and had kids" epilogue that does nothing for any character and adds nothing to the story.

On the whole, the books are quite enjoyable. The dialogue tends to be quite good, as does the humor. If only Rowling, like so many fantasy writers before her, did not rely so heavily on magically convenient solutions to all their problems.

There are some themes in this series that I would like to discuss.

First, Harry Potter is a monument to "ends justify means" philosophy. That evil magic's pretty handy, isn't it, Harry Potter? And pretty lucky that Voldemort had the maturity level of an eight year old, huh?

I always feel that it's copout when a book focuses on death to this extent without getting into religion. When Rowling finally does get into some discussion of afterlife, all we get is "oh, they're in a better place." Poor.

Why does Harry Potter run around doing his own thing with no regard for anyone else? Because he didn't have a mommy? Or is it because he suffers from deeply-rooted inadequacy and low self-esteem? He needs counseling. He needs a psychiatrist. He was about one tantrum away from murdering some little kid in book 5. And he never shows any remorse for his tantrums, either. His behavior is just fine, because he's Harry Potter.

Will you die for Harry Potter? Everybody else is doing it. The books strongly support hero worship. First, we've got everybody blindly following Dumbledore, which really didn't ever seem like a good idea. Then we've got everybody blindly following Harry Potter, like he's Jesus, which also turned out to be a pretty bad idea. It's ridiculous that any adult didn't ever sit him down and make him explain what was going on. Who lets teenagers run around like secret agents?

Rowling is not adept at writing death scenes. This is particularly glaring given the number of deaths in this series. I understand we don't want to get into all the gory details for the kids' sakes, but we need a little more than the equivalent of "Character X died somehow. Harry Potter got real angry."

Those of us who read a lot of high fantasy are frustrated by the Harry Potter magic system, which is completely unexplained, and which has problems. Where does the magic come from? Do you need a wand to do magic or not? Harry Potter did magic inadvertently when he was little, but in book 5, nobody can do jack without a wand. It's inconsistent. Sometimes Rowling makes it sound like wands just help you channel your magic; other times, wands are like guns.

Harry Potter is the Devil
There has been a ridiculous lot made about how Harry Potter is evil, the devil, and will take your kids straight to hell. Why? Because it has magic. Magic, as a literary device, is not inherently good or evil, but reveals good and evil by its origins and the purposes for its use. If we throw out Harry Potter, we have to throw out The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. And that's just stupid.

But there is a legitimate gripe against Harry Potter. Here's why Harry Potter is bad (or could be, let's say): it teaches kids to disobey authority and to do their own thing. Sure, little kid, you know better than those adults do, so run amok. There's nothing but upside. This disregard for adults/authority, incidentally, is the same reason E.T. was banned in many countries.

Quidditch is flawed and kind of dumb. You've got a game that has seven players on a side, but you only need one of them. The seeker is the only one relevant to the outcome of the game. Everybody else is kind of doing his own thing, scoring points that ultimately don't matter. There's not even any crossover allowed. I think Rowling figured this out, and so she had to put an exception into book 4, where the seeker who caught the Snitch still lost the World Cup, which was pretty stupid, since they were only one goal away from being eligible for a tie score. Get rid of the seeker, and you've got a much more interesting game, although there'd be less to do for egomaniacal Harry Potter.

A lot of critics of the Harry Potter series have said that it's unoriginal. But writing, particularly fantasy writing, is like building with Legos. Everybody plays with the same Legos. There's nothing new under the sun. Once in a while somebody might show up with a new piece, but by and large, everybody's building with the same set. Most people build something close to the basic castle: elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, and so on. But by constructing a thoroughly engrossing series, Rowling has built something pretty impressive, even if she does use most all the retread fantasy elements.

So where does Harry Potter fit in the pantheon of timeless fantasy? Well, I don't know that it does. Harry Potter certainly isn't great literature. Hogwarts is immensely charming and delightful to read about, but by the end of book 6, even that was getting old. We've got good characters, a great setting, and generally mediocre plotting. The setting can carry the story only so far, and when the characters got off and had to walk, it didn't turn out so well, and the drama didn't end up being very dramatic. However, Harry Potter ends up being somehow more than the sum of its parts, and as such is a wholly enjoyable series.