Something New: Book Reviews

Something New–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 have contributed in one way or another to how I look at the world and how I myself write.

 

Candide, read in 1971 [in English]

I read this book while in college, in a Humanities class. It moved and influenced me greatly as it came early on in my quest to come to grips with the disillusionment that my experiences in Vietnam caused me. I found myself identifying with Candide. For those of you old enough to remember Hubert Humphrey, he once referred to the Vietnam War as “our great adventure and a wonderful one it is.” I imagined him as a latter day Pangloss. Professor Pangloss had a ready perspective on life in this world–“everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” If God created it, it must be wonderful. Suffering? It must be for the best; how could it be otherwise? Rape, robbery, torture–all for the best. After experiencing all manner of sufferings or viewing the suffering of others, Candide finds it difficult to accept Pangloss’s optimism. He hooks up with the pessimist Martin. Eventually, Candide comes to realize that cause and effect in the world does exist. Simple work, rather than idle philosophical speculation–toiling in the garden, will yield the appropriate balance. It presages my own eventual acceptance of the notion of karma–a much more rational explanation of events in one’s life, along with a means to make the best of them not by foolishly accepting them in Panglossian terms but taking control of one’s own life. If you didn’t read it in college, read it now. Voltaire makes contemporary satirists look like Pollyannas.

 

Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson. Published 1994 by Harcourt Brace. [read 2014]

An excellent book. What I found most interesting is the extreme diversity of opinions about the book–ranging from those unable to finish it and seemingly finding it difficult to give it one star to those who found it outstanding. I can only surmise that any writing instructor will tell you–readers bring their own perspectives to a book. If you are looking for serious suspense, crime fiction, action adventure, a spellbinding legal drama or romance, just skip this book. If instead you are looking for a primer on how to develop characters using a literary equivalent of a fugue and see the locale as if viewing it in a Nat Geo documentary, read this book. It has vivid imagery that takes you to small town (island) life in the Pacific Northwest of fishermen and strawberry growers. It provides a sometimes painful depiction of the racial tensions between Japanese-Americans and the Caucasians of the island community following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the detention of those Japanese-Americans and the lingering animosity among people in the early 1950s. Before the war, all were friends, for the most part. After the war, especially among those who had fought in WWII or lost loved ones during the conflict, resentment festered.

Guterson does a great job of showing the reader the conflicts through the eyes of the various characters in the book. All of the exposition revolves around the murder trial of a Japanese-American. From there, characters shoot out like ribbons from a May pole. While not being a lawyer, Guterson does a great job of handling the narration of the legal proceeding. Throughout the book, the author defines each character through one scene after another–never just giving heavy doses of background but bringing out their lives over time. Some might object that some of the racial characteristics are stereotypical or the biases knee jerk; I don’t think so. Rather, I think they show specific people as they really are–warts and all. The back story of the youthful romance between the Caucasian reporter, Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Miyamoto, wife of the accused, is particularly well done. I would say more about that relationship, but I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.

 

The Buddha in Your Mirror, by Woody Hochswender, Greg Martin and Ted Morino. Published 2001 by Middleway Press. [read 2005]

I am [now] a 38-year Buddhist so I read this book not to be informed but to learn how well it might serve to introduce others. Despite being a long-time practitioner, I still found it fresh and informative. If you know next to nothing at all about Buddhism but want to learn how and why it might be useful to you, this is the book you should start with. It is NOT rocket science but it hits all the key points you need to know and is readily understandable by almost anyone. Above all, it makes it fundamentally clear that you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to your own life. Stand up for yourself, take control of your destiny and read this book.

 

Waking the Buddha, by Clark Strand. Published 2014 by Middleway Press. [read 2014]

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, it is the fact that his research showed that it 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 Creative Non-Fiction, by Carolyn Fourché, Associated Writing Programs, Philip Gerard. Published 2001 by Writers Digest Books. [read  2004] 

This book may not be 100% comprehensive (a tad redundant, perhaps), but if there is any other one out there that has more to offer on addressing the varieties of style, structure, form and the creative nonfiction process, I haven’t seen it. Being new to the business in 2003 when I began working onWaiting for Westmorelandin earnest, I found the instuctions and insights illuminating, inspiring and confusing all at once. How to choose?! I felt like Alice on her journey after the rabbit. Still, it gave me plenty of techniques to consider–that would not have been as readily discernible had I simply tried to read every book of actual creative nonfiction I could get my hands on.

 

Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, by Philip Gerard. Published 2000 by Story Press Books. [read 2004]

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. 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.

 

Beyond Vietnam: The United States and Asia, by Edwin O. Reischauer. Published 1967 by Borzoi Books/Alfred A. Knopf. [read 1970]

This is the definitive book about the Vietnam War. If you want to read this book, you will have to buy a used copy somewhere and I am not parting with mine–sorry. I read it in 1970, seeking an understanding of how it was that I wound up being sent thousands of miles away to participate in the Vietnam War. As a former intelligence officer during World War II, a Harvard professor of Japanese history and with extensive knowledge of the Far East, Reischauer was eminently qualified to write this book. Several years in advance of the Pentagon Papers, he revealed much of the same history of U.S. decision making errors. If you still think the U.S. could have “won” this war, you need to read this book to see why we were doomed to fail by decisions that had been made many years before. There is plenty of blame to go around, from president to president and from Democrat to Republican. The essential point that can easily be seen, in 20/20 hindsight, that each time a fork in the road appeared, American officials took the wrong turn. At any point, had a different direction been taken, the outcome could have been much less costly (in terms of dollars and lives lost). NOTE: This book is out of print; you may find it in the library or from used book sellers.

 

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, by Tobias Wolff. Published 1995 by Vintage. [read 2003]

This is not among the best of the Vietnam books out there, in my opinion–despite what the critics say (nominated for but did not win a National Book Award), who genuflect before Wolff. There is something about Wolff that puts me off. I couldn’t empathize with him in reading This Boys Life. I could understand how critics would think well of it–he writes well and it does READ well. But as a person, I didn’t like him. He carries this unlikability into In Pharaoh’s Army. A picaresque protagonist is not so unusual in a novel, but kind of odd in a memoir. I didn’t like how he managed to become an officer in the Army; his getting over on others carries forward from the rendition of himself in This Boy’s Life. Somehow his book comes off as 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 own, Waiting for Westmoreland) and he comes out too detached and sometimes not entirely believable.

 

Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, by Liddy himself (or an uncredited ghost writer)? Published 1980 by St. Martins Press. [read 2002]

This has to be one of the most hilarious, surprising and ultimately tragic books I have ever read. Far into the book I remained convinced that Liddy must have been writing a self-deprecating satire of his life just to spite all the liberals, Nixon-haters and antiwar protestors of the Watergate era. Who would brag about tying himself to a tree in a lightning storm to overcome his fears? Who would describe choosing his spouse in major part for her strong Teutonic stock? Who would extoll many aspects of the Third Reich? Well, Liddy did in his book. I eventually concluded he was serious. He really did do all the nutty stuff he described. He really believed all the nonsensical things he professed. He really did all the criminal acts he was charged with and did so proudly–thinking that his self-perceived set of American values superseded the Constitution and the applicable laws. It explains a lot about his behavior during Watergate. That he not only was but still is so deluded is the tragedy. [He drives a car with a vanity plate that reads H2OGATE; or least he did the last time I saw him driving around the beltway in Northern Virginia] You should read the book, but check it out of the library–don’t buy it.

 

 

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