Book Review—Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra – by John O’Hara, 1934

It’s been perhaps 40 years since I’ve even thought about John O’Hara’s books let alone read him. I had never read this one, but in an act of pure spontaneity, I picked up a ratty old copy at the city library while browsing through the stacks. Oh, what joys we can find purely by accident!

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Book Review—Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel— published 2002

Highly recommended by a friend, Life of Pi is a breezy fun read, full of adventure and rich descriptions of wild animals. (I’m assuming well-researched.) It’s the story of a sensitive 16-year old son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India who dabbles in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. He finds good in each of them seeing them as not mutually exclusive. His three mentors see it otherwise and are convinced of his undying devotion to each by virtue of their assumptions, not by anything Pi has said. (Perhaps this is a bit disingenuous. Pi always told the truth to each religious leader but not the whole truth of his experimentations; he saw no need to). They are shocked to learn that he has been trying the other religions on for size and argue amongst themselves over Pi’s loyalties.

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Book Review—Blood Orchid—An Unnatural History of America

Blood Orchid—An Unnatural History of America, by Charles Bowden, published in 1995

Buying this book was serendipitous. I purchased it a few years ago because I liked the title and the first paragraph, which starts, “I am not of sound mind. I cannot seem to stop moving…” Also, it was on a sale table—cheap.  I eventually read it and afterward I thought my brain needed a shower.

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First of all, this old but updated essay is not about that stupid song, “Feelings.”

When someone asks me how I feel, I usually respond with the always lame, “I feel good,” but without the James Brown inflection. If I were to give an honest answer, I’d have to think about it for ten minutes. Besides, nobody really wants to hear, “I feel full of complex emotions today,” or “My teeth itch,” or “Being here makes me want to take a nap.” Such responses might force me into conversations I really don’t want; either that, or I’d get a blank stare. It is better to stick with convention, however dull. Social interactions are less complicated that way; so I say, “I feel good.”

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Book Review—Your God is Too Small

Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips (1956)

This book has been around a long time and, for years, was on my ‘someday to read’ list. I eventually read it.

We first learn about God as children and our conceptions can remain in a state of juvenile faith or more likely, the idea of God can become too small to affect “adult loyalty and cooperation.” Or one cherishes a “hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a church.” Phillips acknowledges immediately that “many men of goodwill will not consent” to “mass hypocrisy…to buy a sense of security at the price of…truth.” Phillips addresses the inadequate conceptions of God which lead to this problem and tries to show us “a God big enough” for adult comprehension and respect.

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Book Review—Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924); written 1898-1899

First of all, I cannot imagine anyone, let alone four people as in this story, being able to listen to Marlow’s telling of this adventure in one sitting without ever engaging in conversation. At the minimum, one would think that one of them would at least ask a question. If this seems an unfair criticism, I’ll just say that I don’t personally know anyone who could resist interrupting him. It’s a compelling tale; then why no response from those hearing it? Without response, how could anyone go on and on as Marlow does? On this second question—after thinking about it—I’ve known a few people who could go “on and on” to the point where the listener falls into a glassy-eyed stupor, whose primary desire is to exit. But I remain convinced that most people would find a way to break up the windbag’s speech.

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My First Novel

I give my mother credit for putting this notion of writing a book into my head. In 1976, at age sixty-three, she sat on a stool in a narrow hall closet of our home in Ohio and slowly typed a short memoir on an ancient black Underwood typewriter. My father had her manuscript professionally typeset and printed as a small pamphlet. Mom and Dad then distributed her memoir to the extended family and friends. It was her only real writing effort, and as far as I was concerned, it was an impressive achievement, full of warm reminiscences of growing up on a farm and some signal events in her life. I thought, “One day, I could do something like that.”

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Book Review—To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1926-), published in 1960

I know more than one person who considers To Kill a Mockingbird their favorite book. My friend Bob cherishes his first edition and speaks glowingly of the time when the author signed his copy. Ms. Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, was a young child during the famous Scottsboro, Alabama Case (nine black men were accused of raping two white women). This apparently had a significant influence on her as she wrote the book in the late 1950’s. It was published at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and two years later was made into an Academy Award winning film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

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Book Review—The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) published 1940

Lewis wanted to write this book anonymously because he felt he was too much an amateur and a layman to cover such a theologically difficult subject. He was convinced otherwise, which was a good thing. We can thus put it into context with his other works as well as the man himself, certainly no “amateur.” I read this once, noticing its rich complexity, so I immediately read it again and wrote what I thought were the highlights, chapter by chapter. Unfortunately, it’s lengthy.

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Book Review—The Maytrees

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard (1945-), published in 2007

I’ll start with a confession, actually two: First, Annie Dillard is one of those authors that reinforces the fact that sometimes I prefer books to people. I can become engrossed in her writing—contemplating difficult sentences or paragraphs over and over, wondering where meaning is found for us mortals—without a care for humanity at large while doing so. Reading her work is a form of meditation; and I am not alone when I read her work. It is also like spending time with an old friend, which gets to my second admission…her books are old friends that I never quite fully comprehend. But I relish her company anyway. She leaves me at peace in spite of her dangling philosophical questions. Annie Dillard’s work has touched me, particularly Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), standouts by my reckoning, read many years ago, and again in 2007. Her novel, The Maytrees (2007), is another notch on her belt, so to speak.

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