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* Lew’s review of “The Good News Club” … scary people doing reprehensible things

Posted by Lew Weinstein on November 24, 2014

 

good news club

***

This book describes the activities of scary people, engaged in an activity I personally find reprehensible. Their goal is to take over the minds of the young children of America and inject their version of a Jesus-based religion. Anyone not part of their group, including most Christians who are not Christian enough, will go to hell. The really frightening thing is that they’re good at what they’re doing, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said it’s legal.

The Good News Club, a function of the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), already operates in over 3,500 public elementary schools in the U.S. They function ostensibly as an after-school club, hence the legality, but in fact they are ferociously peddling their message in a way that poses a threat to our system of public education and indeed to our concept of America as a secular democracy.

CEF maintains that America was founded as a Christian nation and that it is the right and obligation of Christians (some Christians) to take it back, including conversion of public schools into church schools. Their work is intended to create an “us” and “them” mentality among all Americans, totally opposed to the spirit of inclusion and tolerance that I believe most of us support. The rest of us are out there as a harvest to be converted.

Now I don’t care what people do in their own churches. Catholics, for instance, including former Pope Ratzinger, have clearly stated that it is the mission of the Catholic Church to convert all the Jews. But it is when these purveyors of a particular faith take aim on our young children in public schools that this becomes a menace that calls out for public attention and aggressive response.

One young girl arguing with her Jewish classmate … Jesus is the best, don’t you want to be with Jesus … If not, you’ll go to hell … You’re a bad person if you don’t believe in Jesus. This is not supposed to happen in our public secular schools. Most of us think this kind of proselytizing is forbidden by our Constitution. But the Supreme Court has held otherwise, as regards after-school religious clubs.

If a Good News Club exists in your child’s elementary school, it is not a local effort arising spontaneously from the community. It is part of a national organization, with Plan Books, manuals, procedures, lawyers, and a substantial budget, and with goals that most of us find about as un-American as it can get. They believe in the literal word of the Bible and they won’t be satisfied until all the rest of us accept their extreme religious beliefs. They could never reach that goal by honestly stating it and trying to argue its merits as they see them. Instead, they have deviously focused on the most impressionable – young children aged 4-14 – in the place where they can most easily be influenced, our public elementary schools.

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* a review of A GREAT DELIVERANCE by Elizabeth George

Posted by Lew Weinstein on March 14, 2013

A Great Deliverance

******

This is the first of the Lynley-Havers stories, and also the first that I am re-reading. I hope I don’t remember too much of the plot (it’s been 10 years at least) but my real purpose in re-reading is to study George’s writing techniques. Her use of setting, development of character, and plot surprises, among other elements, are superb. For fans of Elizabeth George who are also writers, I recommend Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life..

George unfolds the layers of a complicated story in a way that builds the emotion and tension but never leaves the reader confused. There are many characters whose roles keep evolving, but George always gives the reader the 2-3 words that assure you always know the connection of the character to previous points in the story. (NOTE: This contrasts so vividly with books like Wolf Hall and The Casual Vacancy (first half) where the authors make no such effort and the reader is often left adrift.)

Much of the emotion in “A Great Deliverance” comes from the tense and evolving and ultimately caring relationship between Lynley and Havers, as each helps the other deal with debilitating attitudes that threaten their personal and professional futures.

I didn’t realize until very recently that this was George’s first novel. Wow!

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* Lew’s (not so favorable) review of Wolf Hall

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 19, 2013

wolf Hall

I just started Wolf Hall, and I find the relentless use of “he” to be extremely irritating. In the first several chapters, there are dozens of instances where it is not clear who is speaking. Every once in a while, as if recognizing the problem she has created, Mantel uses the phrase “he, Cromwell.” Why not just say Cromwell?

Unless there is some good reason which I can’t imagine, this sort of obfuscation is just lazy writing which disrespects the reader. May I re-think that, based on a comment by another reader. It’s not lazy writing. It’s very purposeful. And very distracting.

… later … 

I just read some of the amazon reviews. There are actually quite a few readers who found the “he” business as disconcerting as I did, and who expressed their displeasure in rather strong terms, along with many *-star ratings. However, many others really liked the book, as do many Goodreads readers, so it must not bother them as it does me. 

Another Goodreads reader suggested that the use of “he” all the time created a closer intimacy with Cromwell. Perhaps, but I see it differently. If you want to create intimacy, use the first person. Then it is clear that everything is seen and felt by the single protagonist, and the reader can share that character’s viewpoint, thoughts and feelings. What Mantel has done is not to bring us close to Cromwell, but to inject herself, the author, between the reader and the prime character. She does this on practically every page and I find it jarring every time it happens.

Before my final negative notes, let me say that Mantel clearly has an exquisite command of the language. Even in the few chapters I read, her elegant choice of words often made me reflect and smile. She can paint a picture when describing a character or a setting that is truly wonderful. And, when she chooses to do so, she writes a vivid scene that has power and emotion.

Such continuity of story, however, is the exception rather than the rule. The constant switching of time and place, often without the merest hint of transition, made the reading much more difficult than it had to be. Just a word here or there would have made a huge difference.

Finally, the breezy style in which much of the book is written is entertaining, as many have noted and I agree, but it had the effect of making me wonder if Mantel was as true to the history as I think a historical fiction should be. Of course the dialogue and many of the personal incidents are made up, but does the author, when portraying actual events, present them accurately? I think such concern for the truth is an obligation of an author when writing about historical characters and events. Mantel left me unsure.

I think I’ve had enough of Wolf Hall, and perhaps other Goodreads readers have had enough of my criticism of what is surely a popular book. I don’t usually write negative opinions, but this book just seemed to drag them out of me. I hope I have not offended anyone.

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* Lew’s Reviews … fiction, history, science, politics, …

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 17, 2013

reviews posted on this site

(click to read my review)

***

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Eric Kandel’s “In Search of Memory

All Our Yesterdays by Robert Parker

Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter

Hawk Channel Chase by Tom Corcoran

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Write Away by Elizabeth George

Coming Apart by Charles Murray

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

***

reviews posted on Goodreads

(click to read my review and many others)

***

Reading Like a Writer

Broken Harbor

The Triumph of the Sun  by Wilbur Smith

Wolf Hall(Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Stalin’s Ghost(Arkady Renko, #6)

Paris: A Love Story

Hope of Israel

The Casual Vacancy

 Rebirth

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Silent Witness(Witness Series, #2)

Hostile Witness(Witness Series, #1)

Remote Control(Nick Stone, #1)

Lieutenant Hornblower

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light

The Conspiracy Club

Blood Moon(Inspector Challis, #5)

The Final Reckoning

A Fatal Grace(Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #2)

Faceless Killers(Wallander, #1)

Murder in Montmartre (Aimee Leduc Investigations, #6)

All the King’s Men

A Matter Of Justice(Inspector Ian Rutledge, #11)

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #1)

Lost Lake

Has God Only One Blessing?  by Sister Mary Boys

Careless in Red(Inspector Lynley #15)  by Elizabeth George

The Long Fall

Only Time Will Tell

Sacred and Profane (Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus, #2)

Running Blind(Jack Reacher, #4)  by Lee Child

Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders

The Double Helix  by James Watson

The Sound of Blue: A Novel

The Master Sniper

Père Goriot

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)

Brunelleschi’s Dome

Esther

A Short History of the Printed Word

 The Child in Time

The Joke

The Last Heroes(Men At War, #1)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

 The Ghost Writer

The Turnaround  by William Bratton

 Portrait of a Spy(Gabriel Allon, #11)

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

The Geneva Deception (Tom Kirk, #4)

Mockery of Justice: The True Story of the Sam Sheppard Murder Case

I, Mona Lisa

The Pillars of the Earth (The Pillars of the Earth, #1)

In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison

The Count of Monte Cristo

Winter in Madrid

The Eight

The Family

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

The Innocent

My Name is Red

Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain

In the Presence of the Enemy

Tug of War (Joe Sandilands, #6)

Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Joheved

The Dogs of Riga(Wallander #2)

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory

The Day of the Jackal

The Thieves Of Faith (Michael St. Pierre, #2)

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers(Rhodenbarr, #1)

You Can’t Go Home Again

Comanche Moon(Lonesome Dove, #4)

No Good Deeds

Liberation: A Novel

Night Soldiers(Night Soldiers, #1)

Washington’s Crossing

Skinner’s Mission

Sharpe’s Tiger(Sharpe, #1)

Genghis: Birth of an Empire(Conqueror, #1)

The Exonerated

The Deep Blue Good-By

Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages

The Salzburg Connection

Captain Blood

Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial

A Prisoner of Birth

Island Of Bones(Louis Kincaid, #5)

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

The Forbidden Zone: A Novel

Welcome to Paradise

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

Bone Island Mambo: An Alex Rutledge Mystery  by Tom Corcoran

Trinity  by Leon Uris

Labyrinths

Death of a Red Heroine

The Bourne Identity (Jason Bourne, #1)

Primal Fear

Saving Faith

Walking Shadow

36 Yalta Boulevard

The Crossing

Exit Music(Inspector Rebus, #17)

World Without End (The Pillars of the Earth, #2)  by Ken Follett

 You Got Nothing Coming

Joshua, Son Of None

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold(George Smiley #3)  by John Lecarre

 A Test Of Wills(Inspector Ian Rutledge, #1)

The Birth of Venus

Strange Images of Death (Joe Sandilands, #8)

Joan of Arc  by Mark Twian

18 Seconds

Killing Floor(Jack Reacher, #1)  by Lee Child

Ratking(Aurelio Zen, #1)

Biopsychology

Black and Blue(Inspector Rebus, #8)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(Millennium, #1)

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

Death at La Fenice(Commissario Brunetti, #1)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy(George Smiley, #5)

 The New Rules of Marketing and PR

A Farewell to Arms

Tapestry Of Spies

The Plague Tales (The Plague Tales, #1)

The Naked Sun(Robot, #3)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

A Star Called Henry

***

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* Lew’s comments on THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 11, 2013

The Road - cover

The futility of continuing on for any purpose other than to express love,

but that is enough, and so he does, with no hope of any reward

other than that which he feels in the moment.

***

Is it a fearful look into what McCarthy sees as a possible future?

Is it an allegory for everyone’s approach to what we all know is certain death?

Whatever McCarthy’s purpose, which could well encompass both of the above and more, The Road is an utterly compelling read. The sparse sentences express emotion in so few words yet with such power. The absence of names makes the story universal. 

The only part that did not ring true for me was the ending. Why, among the possible choices, was this ending chosen? … any thoughts on that?

***

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* Lew’s review of Eric Kandel’s “In Search of Memory”

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 7, 2012

******

I’m taking a course at Oxford this summer on “The Brain and the Senses.” So this is a little extra homework. The idea of memory, where thoughts come from, etc., is fascinating to me. And, many years ago, before I was there, Eric Kandel had his laboratory at the Public Health Research Institute, of which I was later CEO. Unfortunately for me, we have never met.

******

I HAVE NOW COMPLETED BOTH THE COURSE AND KANDEL’S BOOK.

BOTH WERE TERRIFIC!

The course, offered by Oxford tutor Gillie McNeill, combined descriptions of sensory processes with an explanation of the underlying molecular activity that integrates the incoming perceptions and what’s already in memory to create a coherent narrative. We started by eating a cracker and considering what was involved in our individual perceptions of that event … taste, smell, sight, feel, sound, and memory of crackers and herbs previously ingested. Quite a bit for one bite in the first few minutes of the course.

for more about the Oxford Experience, see our travel blog at …

 http://patandlewtravel.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/another-fabulous-experience-at-the-oxford-experience-2012/

Kandel’s book offers enchanting glimpses of his life story, the history of brain psychology and science, and a description of the experiments (of Kandel and others) which are moving our understanding of the brain forward at an incredible pace while also revealing just how little we still know.

Kandel’s decision, early in his career, to begin his life’s work with the study of a single cell, set the stage for the way he approached his work. He decided to study the giant marine snail Aplysia as his first means to understand how information was brought into a cell and transferred out to another cell. Learn how that happens, multiply by tens of billions, and you have a working human brain.

These quotes may communicate the excitement of Kandel’s journey (which by the way led to a Nobel Prize) …

  • “the realization that the workings of the brain – the ability not only to perceive but to think, learn, and store information – may occur through chemical as well as electrical signals expanded the appeal of brain science from anatomists and electro-physiologists to biochemists.”
  • “I was testing the idea that the cellular mechanisms underlying learning and memory are likely to have been conserved through evolution and therefore to be found in simple animals.”
  • “We pointed out the importance of discovering what actually goes on at the level of the synapse (the place where signals are passed from one cell to another) when behavior is modified by learning.”

This last quote is almost a synopsis of what the course at the Oxford Experience was about. It turns out that there is considerable growth and change in the brain connections and that this goes on all the time.

Your brain has changed since you started reading this review.

******

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* Lew’s Review … All Our Yesterdays by Robert Parker

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 14, 2012

******

This is really an extraordinary book. I expected a typical non-memorable crime/thriller story, of which I read many. Instead, here is a brilliantly constructed multi-generational exploration of the very interesting lives of some very flawed people. And does Parker ever make me care about these people!

There was something unusual and very powerful about the structure of the story. It reached what seemed to me could have been the conclusion of a shorter novel about half-way through, at a point when many novels are struggling with that fearsome middle-of-the-book trough. (Since I was reading the book on kindle, I didn’t know how far along I was and thought the story was about to end. When I checked, I learned I was at 48%.) But exactly here Parker gathers up a new burst of writing energy and the story takes off again, with one revelation after another, until the final resolution many worthwhile reading hours away.

Parker’s use of time is also worthy of note, especially for me since he does so successfully what I am struggling to achieve in my own novel-in-progress. You start in the present in Boston, with two people who seem to love each other but are not clear if they can be together. Some cataclysmic event has thrown them into relationship disarray. Then you jump back 70 years, and a young man in Dublin is an IRA terrorist fighting British domination in Ireland. The story emerges in a series of flashbacks, and in the very skillful and emotional revelation of the impact of these past events on the original two lovers, getting ever closer to the present. To say more would reveal too much.

Parker has of course been enormously successful, although I have read only 1-2 of his subsequent crime stories, which I do not remember. Another Goodreads reviewer said Parker never again reached the level of excellence of this early novel that did not have much commercial success. If that is true, what a shame that he was not encouraged to reach harder for the literary excellence that was clearly within his potential.

******

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* Lew’s Review … Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 14, 2012

******

I am taking a one week course at Oxford (July 2012) … The Brain and the Senses. This is one of the books to read in advance.

It is a fascinating journey through what is currently known (2010) about the way the brain receives information from the outside world, and how this information is categorized, stored and retrieved. There are many examples at an individual level to illustrate some of the experimental results. The graphics are brilliant.

The book is necessarily stronger on the receipt of information than it is on storage and retrieval. I have many margin notes asking the same question about memory, especially about how a memory is retrieved or, as the book argues, re-constructed. How is it done? How? How? This is the stuff of future research and understanding.

I think much of what we think we know on this subject is still in the nature of conjecture, based on research utilizing brain scans to show what part of the brain lights up when various stimuli and tasks are presented. The research field is new and rapidly evolving. In one of my previous lives, as CEO of a biomedical research institute, I learned a little about the objectives and practice of cutting-edge scientific research: everything we think we know is only tentative … everything will eventually be disproved or at least significantly enhanced by new and better research … sometimes proving something is not true is as important as an experiment which confirms your hypothesis … better to have a working hypothesis than no hypothesis at all.

Funny, but my friend who has studied and taught history for over 50 years tells me the same is true of what we think we know of historical events and patterns. What really happened? It depends very much on what facts you are looking at and how those facts were assembled. Are they really facts? It should be humbling to understand the degree of uncertainty about our past as well as our future. Let alone the present, whatever that is.

Two fascinating thoughts (chosen from many possibilities) are particularly related to my experience as a novelist and my current novel-in-progress …

… the process of retrieving memory of things which have actually happened is essentially the same as the process of imagining the future (and thus evaluating prospects and plans) or the process of inventing people and events which never existed (i.e., creating fiction).

… the killing of Jews by the Nazis required a distinct transformation in the behavior of individuals performing such acts which allowed them to carry out horrific acts of violence without being assailed by normal feelings of fear and disgust … afterward, they fell into a state that precluded normal reflection and self-awareness and thus prevented them from acknowledging the awfulness of what they had done (and would do again tomorrow).

In her concluding paragraph, Rita Carter says, “the findings outlined in this book give only the sketchiest impression of the landscape of the mind … yet I believe (it) is already clear (that) there is no ghost in this place (the mind) …what we are discovering is a biological system of awe-inspiring complexity … the world within our heads is more marvelous than anything we can dream up.”

These are the kinds of thoughts stimulated by “Mapping the Mind.” I recommend the book even if your scientific understanding is limited. It will make you think outside your normal box. It will make you more aware of what incredible potentials lie within all of us.

******

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* a short review of Hawk Channel Chase by Tom Corcoran

Posted by Lew Weinstein on June 8, 2012

I really like Corcoran’s Key West stories. Part of it is I live just a few blocks from Alex Rutledge’s fictional home, so I recognize just about every street, restaurant and landmark.

The story line is confusing. I’m not sure I had it all figured out even at the end. Matter of fact, I’m not sure Corcoran actually explained it all. Many characters and multiple plot lines are woven together in non-stop action.  Only the fact that it’s all from Rutledge’s perspective keeps the lack of coherent transitions from being a major problem. The reader just lives with Rutledge’s life as it comes at him.

Usually confusion bothers me, but this time it didn’t matter. I kept reminding myself there was no examination at the end of the book and let myself enjoy a series of great rides – by boat, motorcycle and Cannondale. The characters are interesting, there is Corcoran’s excellent sense of humor, and the flavor of a place I love. There are some serious aspects to the plot, if you want to worry about them, but they don’t get in the way of the fun.

Oh, and the most memorable quote has to do with a vibrator.

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* All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

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* Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Tolstoy is regarded as one of the finest writers of all time, so who am I to say that I found Anna Karenina a less than satisfying read. True, there are some magnificent scenes, such as Vronsky’s horse race, but there are also many incredibly dull and interminable passages. Actually, it’s one long slow soap opera, but that does explain its success as an Oprah selection. I don’t like soap operas and I stopped reading after 400 pages.

* opening sentence … “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Great start, from which we know that this is going to be a story about more than one unhappy family.

* who are the major characters? … Tolstoy starts with the Oblonskys, Prince Stepan and Princess Darya (Dolly), who are not the main characters, although Stepan was, for me, the most interesting. If you didn’t know differently, you might think that Stepan and Dolly are the major characters. When other characters are introduced, it’s still not clear who the major characters will be. I suspect this is not a technique which would work in 2007.

* Karenin is a beautifully developed supporting character, pathetically unable to act in furtherance of his own wishes, motivated only to avoid being embarrassed before his professional and social associates. However, his moments of introspection make us care about him.

* settings. Tolstoy’s descriptions of places are remarkable.

* character development. The interior monologues are always enjoyable and often quite revealing.

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* Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Eye of the Needle is clearly one of the best suspense novels of the 20th century. I recently re-read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time.

Follett utilizes what he calls a “ping-pong” structure, alternating between the characters, switching focus abruptly at the end of scenes, and leaving the reader in suspense for many pages before resuming the thread.

This structure was, according to an essay by Follett appended to the end of my copy, developed in the author’s original story outline and then rigidly adhered to, and it worked splendidly, forcing him to consider the impact of each character’s actions on the other, and offering ample latitude for enriched attention to character, landscape and emotion.

Eye of the Needle is also a historical novel, and as a writer of historical fiction myself, I am particularly impressed with Follett’s ability to write a suspenseful story despite the fact that we know D-day succeeded, and thus that Faber failed.

Follett draws the distinction between fact and fiction with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.” We’re immediately intrigued.

Follett brilliantly, and necessarily, transfers his fictional tension away from whether Faber will succeed … to how he will be foiled. In the process, he creates a superb heroine who rises to larger-than-life status in the greatest two days of her life.

In this regard, Eye of the Needle is much like Frederick Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal, where we know that De Gaulle was not murdered by a sniper but are carried into exquisite tension anyway, again over how the also enormously competent Jackal will be stopped.

Follett’s two main characters are complex and well developed.

Faber of course is the villain. But he is also patriotic (to Germany), quite competent, and even capable of feelings, which he must repress in order to carry out his mission. He is a wonderful lover, which he could not be if he were truly devoid of  feeling. This complex character must be admired even as we hate and fear him. A remarkable achievement.

Lucy starts out as a dominated young woman, who chooses to escape to her father-in-law’s island rather than live among people. But in her virtual solitude, she develops an unexpected resolve, and when faced with the ultimate challenge, she rises to it. Is what she does believable? Maybe not, although in wartime people do extraordinary things. In any case, it doesn’t matter since Follett portrays this larger-than-life character in a way that fully engages the reader’s emotions as we root for her to succeed against the far stronger and better trained Faber. The final scenes and epilogue drew tears from this romantic reader, but then I’m always a sucker for melodrama.

Godliman (What a name! I’d love to know where Follett got it.) is the enabler of the story, providing the narrative links that show lead Faber to Lucy. But how much better to provide these through an interesting character than through narrative prose. Godliman’s growth from passive professor to razor-sharp spycatcher is done a little quickly. We can believe it, but we would like to know more about him. Perhaps as the third character, he doesn’t warrant more attention.

Follett uses several writing techniques that I found quite instructive.

At least once in the story, the omniscient narrator speaks in his own voice, providing a foreshadowing that sets the stage while piquing the reader’s interest. The narrator interjects “Faber … Godliman … two-thirds of a triangle that one day would be crucially completed by … David and Lucy.”

 Follett  has Faber ask himself questions about what he should do … should he bury the five dead men? …what should he do with the boat? … should he jump on a passing train? This technique allows the exploration of options within the context of the story instead of more clumsily by the narrator.

There is also a short flashback scene where Faber dreams about his first arrival in London. We first think it’s a true dream, but soon learn it is not. This allows us to learn both how Faber actually arrived in London and also how terrified he is about being discovered.

There’s much more in this great suspense story, but I think this review has gone on long enough.

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* Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

I had been working my way through Anne Perry’s William Monk series and had not read one of her Charlotte & Thomas Pitt novels for quite a while. However, I was reading Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and Maass, who is Perry’s agent, refers to “Silence in Hanover Close” as her “breakout” novel, attributing her increased sales from that point forward to the enlarged premise of this story … not just crime, but a crime that may also be treason.

The murder of an important employee of the British Foreign Office, and the disappearance of documents which might be relevant to important negotiations with the Germans about dividing up Africa (this in the late 1800s), certainly provides the higher stakes. Perry takes this possibility and develops an exciting detective story.

The unorthodox work of Charlotte and Emily, while Thomas is “otherwise detained,” was a pleasure to savor, and of course there are all the period details that make reading Perry’s work so much fun.

There’s also a major surprise at the end, one that I did not intuit, which brings together all of the unexplained threads that had me properly puzzled. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the ending comes about a little too quickly. But it’s a good one.

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* The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

It’s been many years since I read Asimov’s Foundation (Foundation Novels), or any science fiction at all. Now, from my new perspective as a novelist myself, I see what I’ve been missing.

It’s absolutely fascinating to watch Asimov create a world that never was, and even more so when he addresses the challenge of creating R. Daneel Olivaw, a quite believable and even sympathetic character who happens to be a robot.

He starts by introducing another robot, R. Sammy, who is far less “human” than R. Daneel. Then he shows in several scenes how robots are despised and feared by humans on Earth. Then Detective Elijah Baley makes it clear he does not want to partner with R. Daneel, but has no choice.

Only after all that is R. Daneel himself introduced.

R. Daneel soon shows he is no ordinary robot by taking the initiative to quell a disturbance in a shoe store, an achievement Baley reluctantly admits to himself was impressive. When Baley takes R. Daneel home, his wife Jesse is attracted to the “man” she does not know is a robot.

The shoe store incident and Jesse’s reaction demonstrate that R. Daneel is close enough to human to fool other humans. R. Daneel then discloses to Baley that he is the first prototype of an advanced robot, more closely human, developed for the express purpose of interacting with humans to learn more about how humans think.

As the story progresses, the reader, along with Detective Baley, finds it increasingly easy to accept R. Daneel on his terms, within his limitations, and even to feel emotions for this constructed machine. A remarkable writing accomplishment by Asimov.

Written in 1953, and projecting 1000 years into the future, Asimov’s description of New York City is fascinating, not so much for the technology, where his imagination has not approached even what we already know has come to pass, but in the evolving relationships between people, and more importantly, between people and their government. Here, one fears, Asimov’s insights are too frighteningly accurate.

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* Write Away by Elizabeth George

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Elizabeth George is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all of her Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers novels, and marveled at the way a native Californian has been able to capture the nuances of life and police procedure in the UK. I was very excited when I found “Write Away” and was able to learn how she did it.

“Write Away” describes how George goes about the daily task of getting words on paper, and also a variety of techniques that she has found useful. But, for me, the most valuable aspects of the book were her observations about creating character and settings.

Stating that analysis of character is the highest human entertainment, George admonishes authors not to bring a character to a book unless he or she is fully alive before the book begins. Create an analysis of each character, including biographical facts and a full psychological profile. Know each character well enough to understand how he or she will react in the situations which the novel will then pose. Only then can you begin to write your story.

George tells us to reveal characters slowly, allowing the character to effect events and be effected. Show flaws, mistakes, lapses of judgment, and weaknesses. Characters, she says, are interesting in their conflict, misery, unhappiness, and confusion, not in their joy and security. Obvious, perhaps, but so easy to forget when you’re writing.

George’s approach to setting is just as rigorous as her approach to character. Her goal is that each separate location should create an atmosphere and trigger a mood, but cautions that descriptions of place should be part of the narrative and should never interrupt the flow of the story. She visits each place that she will represent, camera and tape recorder in hand, seeing the land, sky, climate, sounds and scents, seeking to feel the emotions evoked by the setting. She works quite hard to describe settings which stimulate the reader’s senses and imagination.

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* Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Posted by Lew Weinstein on March 25, 2012

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  • “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’” —David Brooks, The New York Times
  • “Mr. Murray’s sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness.” —W. Bradford Wilcox, The Wall Street Journal

It’s always daunting to disagree with such eminent authorities, but I see “Coming Apart” as little more than right wing political screed dressed up in the trappings of the author’s “alleged” research findings. 

It seems to me that Charles Murray decided first on the point of view he wanted to espouse, i.e., that the declining lower middle class is the cause of its own problems due to their failure to maintain what he calls the “founder virtues” (especially industriousness and marriage). Answers clearly in mind, he then selectively dug out data and prepared analyses to support his pre-ordained conclusions.

In my view, Murray didn’t do much of a job with either the data or the analysis, and his conclusions therefore remain little more than an expansion of his original biased speculation.

Murray’s “facts” are concocted according to rules which do not come close to conforming to the kind of rigorous investigative procedure practiced by researchers who really want to learn something. Mostly derived from census data, Murray excludes any categories which would complicate his conclusions (like blacks, mixed-marriages, scholarship students), and groups the rest of America’s humanity into two over-simplified constructs he calls “Belmont” (the elite ones sort of like him) and “Fishtown” (some imaginary lower middle class group that none of the elite know much about). Finally, Murray camouflages this highly selective witches brew with a patina of mostly obvious observations which, while often true, do nothing to buttress his conclusions.

Of course Murray, and the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank of which he is a part, have a serious right wing agenda, and it is within this context that “Coming Apart” must be viewed. It is a political document – nothing more – which should not be accepted as sociological or demographic or any other kind of disciplined analysis. It is intended to blame the poor for their problems, and even more importantly, excuse the wealthy from any responsibility towards the less fortunate among us.

Now, I do not argue that every aspect of what liberal government seeks to do for its poorer citizens is successful. Some of it is horribly conceived and incompetently executed. Some of it is corrupt. Murray points out these failures, and in this he is correct. But there have also been significant successes (voting rights for minorities, equal rights for women, early education programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods, diversified admissions programs at elite colleges), and the goal to enable all Americans to have a fair chance to engage in “the pursuit of happiness” was and is critically important.

Here’s why: If our country does not figure out how to help those who are now spiraling downward become productive members of our economic and political society, they and their children will continue to be a serious drag on America’s ability to succeed in a competitive world. How will we fare as a country where many of our citizens contribute little and an ever-larger percentage of our resources must be devoted to their support? This is one of those instances where compassion and self-interest are perfectly aligned.

Murray’s analysis, which I see as both wrongheaded and poorly argued, does serve one useful purpose. It gets us talking about political issues which we ought to be addressing, although not perhaps in the way Murray and his group would like.

Let’s see, where do you think contraception, universal healthcare, education and broad electoral rights fit into this discussion?

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* A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Posted by Lew Weinstein on March 25, 2012

“A Soldier of the Great War is a very different kind of World War I novel …”

A Soldier of the Great War is a very different kind of World War I novel. Sure there is fighting and people die, as Helprin’s novel shows slices of the Italian action in World War I, on the mainland and mountains, on the sea, and in Sicily.

But the primary focus is a lingering portrait of a man named Alessandro Giuliano who reflects back many years later on a life which has been horribly distorted and largely wasted by the experience of war. We meet brave men, loyal comrades, confused leaders, an absence of purpose and integrity, significant corruption, and a total lack of ability to control the outcome.

This is mankind’s repetitive experience of meaningless killing. Helprin presents it in a way you will remember with compassion for Alessandro and a greater understanding and some contempt for many others whose actions were far less meritorious.

This is a book which starts slowly and you might be tempted to quit. I urge you not to.

There are a series of pre-war scenes, establishing the relationship between Alessandro and his father, providing poignant views of what his privileged life might have been if not interrupted by the war. We see early on what an excellent observer Alessandro is and begin to anticipate how his sharp humor and sense of irony will illuminate the dark experiences he is soon to have.

A very sweet aspect of Alessandro’s tale is that he tells most of it to an uneducated but curious young man he finds on the road and hikes with for several days. The relationship between these two men and the patience of the older for the younger add a great deal to the book’s enjoyment, serving as intermezzo between recollections.

Having survived the war and forsaken other career options, Alessandro became a professor of aesthetics, seeking beauty as a contrast to the ugliness he has experienced, permanence as opposed to the always truncated love he has felt for those who died too soon. He is far too cultured a man to imagine him killing other people, but the needs of war, of course, take no cognizance of people’s real talents.

Helprin’s writing technique (in this book and in Refiner’s Fire, which I read a year or so ago, and also recommend) is to present a sequence of what may seem to be unrelated tales in the life of a single character.  Some may find this disconcerting, at least in the beginning, but as you let yourself accept Helprin’s flow, it all seems to work. The transitions, or more often absence of transitions, reflects how it must have been to be wrenched from one life to another.

The war scenes are nothing like Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” or Junger’s “Storm of Steel,” because everything is seen through the eyes of a seeker of beauty who does not succumb to horror even as he is unable to make his many small triumphs amount to more than a shadow of the life he had envisioned; there is always another senseless challenge. I wondered if Alessandro would ever express the frustration he must have felt, but he just kept “soldiering” on, even as the goal if there ever was one kept receding faster than he could approach it.

Helprin’s ability to describe places, things and people is extraordinary, something any writer can learn from. The mountain climbing scenes in particular are marvelously frightening. A mild criticism is that he is so good at description he may do it too often and in too much detail. There were times when I wanted to know what happened to Alessandro and was frustrated by yet another descriptive diversion.

But having said that … the overall impact of the story is so very good, thoughtful, entertaining, enlightening, and of course sad.

Alessandro’s musings about death, finally facing his own while remembering all the others he has seen, are by themselves worth the read. The best evidence, he hopes, of some future after death is contained in the hints of a past before birth. There’s a thought that will stay with you.

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* Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

First impression … “Hemingway’s Boat” is a wonderful combination of Hemingway gossip and Hemingway writing.

Unfortunately, this view was not sustained as I continued reading. After about 100 pages, my enthusiasm began to wane.

There is much repetition and a confusing lack of focus. The timeline and cast of characters has become very jumbled. I have the sense the author has lost control of the material and is just pumping out everything he knows. Yet, every once in a while there is a fascinating story.

Almost 200 pages to go. I think some serious editing would have made “Hemingway’s Boat” much more readable and memorable.

100 pages to go. I am so thoroughly bored and confused by the frequent leaping from decade to decade and character to character that I’m not interested enough to do the work to figure out the connections and point of what I confess I’m now only skimming.

Finally finished. Ernest Hemingway is one of our best writers and he lived a fascinating life, full of triumph, failure and tragedy. A biographer, it seems to me, would need to approach a life of Hemingway much as a historical novelist might, with focus and selectivity. But while “Hemingway’s Boat” contains many interesting anecdotes, my conclusion is that the author was simply overwhelmed by the huge amount of material he has obviously studied and absorbed.

Believe me, I know the feeling, having succumbed to it more than once in writing my own historical novels. Fortunately, several of my early readers pointed out to me that it was not necessary, and indeed distracting, to write everything I knew. “Hemingway’s Boat” would have been a far better read had Hendrickson received and taken that same advice.

It’s a real shame this book wasn’t shorter and more focused, in no small part because there are numerous really terrific insights into Hemingway’s love affair with writing … which turns out to be no less compelling and interesting and tragic than those with his wives and friends. For example …

  • p 16 … so much more fear inside Hemingway than he ever let on
  • p 17 … a bookish man in glasses trying to get his work done … finding it harder with each passing year
  • p 35 … his onetime mentor Gertrude Stein had turned on him savagely … EH calls her “that fat old lesbian bitch”
  • p 40 … every chickenshit prick who writes about my stuff writes with a premature delight and hope that I may be slipping.
  • p 77 … Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night … close to a commercial failure … had to terrify Hemingway
  • p 80 … Hemingway conflates and rearranges several women and several events … he emphasizes writing “true” … but what is true? … does he believe that fiction can be truer than true
  • p 82 … in “Snows of Kilimanjaro” he portrays an author still so young and in seeming control … yet able so vividly to foresee his own doom
  • p 112 … when you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place, and you know what’s going to happen next … that’s the time to stop … then leave it alone and let your subconscious mind work on it” … Hemingway’s technique for dealing with the terror of tomorrow’s blank page
  • p 132 … “save your best stuff until you’ve learned how to handle it” … keep something in the tank
  • p 133 … “look, it doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a day or a year or ten years as long as the knowledge that I can write is solid inside me” … trying to convince himself?
  • p 134 … “I’ve got it all and I know what I want it to be but I can’t get it down … I can’t!” … and that’s all he had, so if he didn’t have that, he had nothing.
  • p 156 … one by one, he lost all his friendships, with men and with women
  • p 211 … Stein … “he was so tough because he was really so sensitive and ashamed that he was” … “I doubt if he will ever write again truly about anything” … Stein knows that Hemingway will read what she said … she is taunting him … she is killing him …
  • p 333 … NYT Sunday review … Hemingway on the cover … the most important author living today has brought out a new novel (Across the River) … that’s a very high bar .. and what if you know that what you’ve written really isn’t so good … it’s not true
  • Across the River and into the Trees stands as Hemingway’s statement of defiance in response to the great dehumanizing atrocities of the Second World War. Hemingway’s last full-length novel published in his lifetime, it moved John O’Hara in The New York Times Book Review to call him “the most important author since Shakespeare.”
  • p 345 … in 1925 … The Sun Also Rises … its seeming miraculous, falling-out whole, first draft, which in effect was the final draft … and now he couldn’t do that any more
  • p 459 … in spite of all his illnesses, he kept on writing, or tried to – that’s the heroic part
  • p 464 … the irrational fears returned … he felt incapable of writing one sentence

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