Reviews of books we liked (or didn’t)

Reviews of Books from Others

By Eagle Peak Press publisher John Maberry

As a writer, editor and publisher I am still a reader. So here’s a small sample of reviews you will find from my Goodreads author page, with very slight editorial revisions. You can’t be much of a writer if you aren’t also a reader. Politics, religion, classic works–you name it, I have read it. So here’s an eclectic mix of books I think you should know about. You may or may not agree with my take on all of them, but they all contribute in one way or another to how I look at the world and how I myself write.

Waking the Buddha  by Clark Strand, 2014 (read 2015)

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Clark Strand has been a Zen monk and a senior editor at Tricycle magazine (devoted to multiple sects of Buddhism). Several years ago he noted that Tricycle had given relatively short shrift to the Buddhism of the Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organization. This despite the fact that the group has 12 million members in 192 countries and territories. The popularity of the SGI is not what struck Strand. Rather, it is the fact that his research showed that the SGI is unique among the various Buddhist sects and practitioners in enabling the latter to realize direct benefit in their daily lives in terms of overcoming obstacles to happiness, success and well being. Strand spent many hours, days and weeks researching the history of the SGI, attending its discussion meetings and interviewing its members. The result is this very lucid, exceptionally well-written and accessible book that could be accurately described as extolling the virtues of practicing the Nichiren Buddhism that the SGI espouses and assists people in practicing. It should be noted, however, that while Strand sees enormous value in this Buddhist practice, he has NOT joined the SGI or abandoned his own beliefs. Whether that satisfies anyone who might be concerned about Strand’s objectivity or not, is not for me to say, but he came to this book as an outsider and remains one.

Writing a Book That Makes a Difference  by Philip Gerard, 2000 (read 2004)

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No instruction manual can really tell you how your book should be written. In fact, many can dull your senses and arouse doubts in your mind about structure, organization and other aspects of how you want to tell your story. Nonetheless, desiring to do exactly what the title of this book describes, “writing a book that makes a difference,” I found it very useful in stimulating my thinking during the process of writing Waiting for Westmoreland.  It helped rather than hindered my choices, although, as I suggested, it really couldn’t tell me what I needed to do. Only after reading many such books did the winnowing process of my own brain absorb a little from this and a little from that. So if you too want to write such a book, go ahead and buy this early on in the process. [Note: you will need to find a used copy of this; there are many available on the web.]

11/22/63  by Stephen King, 2011 (read 2012)

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This is NOT a typical King horror story. Instead, it’s a story about what happens when Jake Epping, high school teacher, is introduced to a time portal surprisingly hidden at the back end of the pantry of Al’s Diner. Al, in his wisdom, doesn’t spend much time explaining the phenomenon beforehand to Jake; instead he urges him to check it out. Only after the experience with the portal does Al explain his purpose–Jake needs to go back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. The portal, coincidentally, takes one back only to one certain date in 1958 and no matter how much time spent in the past, the time elapsed in the future is only two minutes. The why of these functional elements is never explained, nor is it necessary for the story’s evolution.

I have read countless books that include or predominantly revolve around time travel. This may not be the best time travel book ever written, but it is very good. Without adding spoilers, it does a decent job of showing, not telling, the complications of traveling through time–clothing, money, time-bound cultural norms, etc. King does a very good and very interesting job of illustrating the resistance to changing events that the warp of time imposes on one who tries to do so.

Along the way, King treats us to an evolving love story, a partially factual and partially invented (the details at least) history of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, his wife and “friends.” King also does a good job developing the characters. What I found compelling about this book, is how it wound to the not entirely unexpected conclusion.

Not until the very end do we get a brief explanation of the portal from a gatekeeper of sorts, that Jake encounters each time he comes and goes. That this character is a gatekeeper is hinted at, but the foreshadowing is not heavy handed.

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War  by Tobias Wolff, 1995 (read 2003)

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Despite what the critics say (who genuflect before Wolff), this is not among the best of the Vietnam books out there, in my opinion. There is something about Wolff that puts me off. I couldn’t empathize with him in reading This Boy’s Life, his main claim to early fame I could understand how critics would think well of that book–it is well written and READS well. But as a person, I didn’t like him. He carries this unlikability into In Pharaoh’s Army. I didn’t like how he managed to become an officer in the Army, somewhat like how he cheated his way through earlier parts of his life. His book seems much less authentic than other books about Vietnam. Compare it to any of Tim O’Brien’s books or Philip Caputo’s (especially A Rumor of War or even my ownWaiting for Westmoreland) and he comes out too detached and sometimes not entirely believable.

Mercedes Wore Black  by Andrea Brunais, 2014 (read 2015)

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I don’t know much about Florida politics or newsrooms there, but political corruption along with corporate greed are probably much the same everywhere in America. Brunais offers plenty of local color, the transition to web from print for news and the dangers of exposing the wrongdoers. She holds the reader’s interest as threats escalate. Who among the potential culprits is the one that wants to stop coverage of which collusion between developers, ports/shippers or gaming interests and politicians? When it’s finally revealed who is who, it’s a bit of a surprise but adroit/suspicious readers will pick up on a little foreshadowing if they look for it—as is the case in a fair percentage of mysteries.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1973 (partially read for the last time in 2008)

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Recommended for reading by literary masochists and pedants only. 

To be great is to be misunderstood; to be misunderstood is to be thought great by many critics apparently. To ordinary mortals, even those capable of graduating with highest honors from college and getting a JD from a top ten law school (like me), this book is a paradigm of turgid prose. I tried and failed 3 or 4 times to read it but had to give up 2/3 of the way through on my most exhaustive (and exhausting) effort. I have read U.S. Code sections, legal casebooks and economic texts that were both more understandable and entertaining than this. Oh well, it won the National Book Award for fiction in 1974. The Pulitzer Board had the good sense to turn down an award recommendation from its fiction jury. If you do want to read it, stay near a web source to look up the wealth of allusions.

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2 thoughts on “Reviews of books we liked (or didn’t)

  1. Hi John. I’ve been going through some of your quarterly articles and for some reason, the ‘like’ button refuses to load on all I’ve visited. You may want to look into this. 🙂

    • John Maberry

      Thanks for the message. I didn’t see this problem before, but the “Like” button keeps hanging saying “loading” on all after the first article in an issue. UPDATE–belatedly; you no doubt noticed I got this fixed.

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