Book Reviews

stackobooks
  • Old School
    Flat section of trail on a rocky mountain

    I recently read Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, a collection of his musings about books. Fun read, although there’s not much overlap between our reading. Still, his observations were interesting, and he is hilarious in the British-self-deprecating way. I had read none of his stuff since going on a Nick Hornby jag over twenty years ago. I was inspired by his description of certain books and authors… he really likes Dickens (I decided in ninth grade, while reading Great Expectations, that I didn’t care for Dickens… especially after learning he was paid by the word and invented entire characters and subplots just to increase his word count). So much so I may consider picking up a Dickens (Bleak House?). Another author he praises repeatedly is Thomas Wolff. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with his work.

    Based on Hornby’s writing and some quick internet research, two of his books topped the list: Old School and This Boy’s Life. I picked up Old School, a story about a private school in the sixties and the unnamed narrator’s journey. Immediately the reader is immersed in a New England private school for boys, with Masters and ties and leafy campuses. As someone who didn’t attend that type of school, I immediately picture the campus and boys from Captain my Captain.

    Old School uses three author’s visits as scaffolding. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are all scheduled to visit the unnamed elite boarding school where writing and writers are held in the highest regard. Hard to imagine, with the laser focus on STEM and hard studies now, a time when writing would have held such a prominent place in a school’s collective consciousness. Neither of the authors fare very well; Frost is a doddering old man with ponderous eyebrows, Rand is a nasty narcissist and Hemingway, a student favorite, receives backhanded and sideways praise.

    Wolf does some interesting things. One, the narrator and the main character is unnamed. The narrator has secrets but reveals them indirectly, clever, but I asked if I had missed something earlier (I hadn’t). Another is his use of time. Most of the book takes in 1960-1961; the last section of the book fast-forwards ten years. He describe these years over a few pages to paint a picture of how life when for the narrator after school. The shift between real-time dialogue and descriptions to pages of exposition was notable, but worked just fine. Another case of rule-breaking. I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the transition and figure out what stylistically allowed Wolf to pull it off.

    A delightful read, sandwiched in between Cloud Atlas and Hemingway short stories. Compared to its neighbors, it felt light, not to mention blissfully short at 195 pages. The emphasis on writers and notable authors from the middle of the 20th century made the read fun. Recommended, and look forward to reading more Wolf in the future.

  • A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2
    My copy
    My copy of the War of Art

    read Part 1

    The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

    I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

    The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

    My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

  • A Second Look: The War of Art
    Tetons
    The Grand Tetons

    The first book in the Second Look (!) series is The War or Art, by Steven Pressfield. I initially read this in late 2017, a couple of years before I actually set an intention to write. It is part of the canon recommended by people that pursued their own creative, non-standard paths, like Ferris, Holiday, Roll, etc. The War of Art is also part of the set of recommended books for new writers, alongside Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and Stephen King’s On Writing.

    I didn’t have a practice or a goal or the tens of thousands of words behind me during my first read. Many of the ideas and habits in this book made their way into my daily routine and how I approach writing. Do work every day. Treat the work seriously. Don’t worry if the work is terrible. Don’t self-edit while creating. Master technique. Finish what you start. I don’t think I gained them straight from the text; this advice went mainstream and if oft repeated. But The War of Art is the source text. And his main thesis is Resistance and its many forms; naming and describing Resistance is the core of the book.

    The ideas that stood out in the second read were more subtle. The first is around feedback. Specifically (Pressfield contrasts how amateurs and professionals differ), the amateur does not expose themself to real world feedback. “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” (Pressfield, p. 71). How many times, on this website, have I bemoaned the lack of feedback and criticism for my writing? This part, or lack of part, of my writing is amateur. I need to get my writing out there and elicit more feedback, both from editors/gatekeepers (more than just “Thanks for submitting, your piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” etc.) and regular readers. I used to rely on Scibophile for feedback, but it was inconsistent and required so much peer review I had to abandon the platform. Posting more work here will get readers, but not the desired feedback and criticism. Reading this again served as a glorious reminder.

    The War of Art has three sections, Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance, The Higher Realm. On my first read, I just skimmed the last part.
    “The next few chapters are going to be about the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” (Pressfield, 106) Yes! At least it did the first time. So I missed Pressfield’s idea that stories and characters and stories are out there, in the ether… or with the angels and muses. I’m not a spiritual or mystical person, but this grabbed me. It is reassuring and hopeful that the primary job of an artist is to open themselves to the world. Not to rely on voodoo for inspiration, but sit every day, get yourself in a consistent habit of preparing and opening up, and a professional will tap into that energy, muse, whatever. And, if they have done the work on their craft, they can take whatever they receive and turn it into art. “…it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it…It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear.” (Pressfield, p 117)

    (part 2 coming soon)

  • Lost and Found
    Gibson Covers

    Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.

    We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.

    I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.

    A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:

    A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.

    Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.

  • Station Eleven

    Emily St. John Mandel

    Highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I heard of the book via Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler.  It’s a great read; I couldn’t put it down.    I  noticed the craftwork, with the changing perspectives, narration, time shifting and tiebacks.  Not sure if that’s an endorsement or criticism.  I hadn’t noticed it that strongly in other books I’ve read.
    The plot involves an airborne disease that wipes out most of humanity and launches the world (we think) into a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Reading this in the spring of 2020 gives the story extra weight.  St. John Mandel include a lot of typical post-apocalyptic elements, but with a unique twist. Groups wander around this ravaged world and encounter danger and violence; but the travelers are a troupe of actors and musicians that perform in each town, called the Traveling Symphony.  When they find untouched houses, they look for costumes for their plays and parts for their instruments, besides cans of beans.  A great riff on the traditional post-apocalyptic story.  Everything gets tied back, and rewards the reader for learning extraneous details.  Recommended.