Category Archives: Book Review

Columbine – A Book Review


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Columbine by Dave Cullen is utterly engrossing, disturbing and moving. Exhaustively research and intricately told, this story about sadness, violence and its aftermath pulls the reader in from the first paragraph and keeps its hooks in until the last. The players in the story become more than characters, they become people we know and understand. The events of the tragedy become more than plot points, the become signposts of change in the lives of those directly affected and in ours. Columbine is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism that sheds light on a crucible moment when, it is not too hyperbolic to say, the world completely changed.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the book should not shock us anymore: the narrative of the attackers and the attacks is almost entirely wrong. Much of the misinformation and myth of the story of the Columbine High School shootings is being dispelled, especially as we approach the 20th anniversary of the massacre, but the pieces that hang on – the ideas of outcast gunmen, the trench coat mafia, the targeting of specific students, the girl who said “yes” – remain almost fixed in place as if dispelling them would somehow to a disservice to the memories of those who were lost and changed by this day.

As a high school administrator, I can say that my colleagues should, conversely, read this book immediately and avoid it patently. We should read it to allow ourselves into the important what if journey and to open ourselves to the more critical what can we do question. We should not read it because it is a terrifying and maddening experience invoking sadness and confusion and helplessness.

I am not one to avoid truths and there are many to uncover in Columbine. I can write with certainly that I am forever changed having read it.

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The Escape Artist – A Book Review


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The alternating story of two characters, army artist Nola Brown and Dover Air Force Base mortician (you read that right) Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, The Escape Artist attempts to spotlight both characters while telling a compelling story about government secrets and high espionage. The results and very mixed and your mileage with the book may vary. I wanted to like The Escape Artist. I very much want to like novels by Brad Meltzer. I have read a few of them and they left me less than excited. I was hoping The Escape Artist would inspire a different reaction.

It did not.

While Nola Brown has elements that make her compelling, she is no Lisbeth Solander as I have read suggested. She is fairly well written, but there are some parts of her story that are so impossible to swallow that they strain credulity. And her counterpart Zig Zigarowski is the type of character who the reader is supposed to believe can do things far beyond what his experience would suggest simply because he has lived his life around the military. While there are interesting elements to both these characters, especially to Nola, neither riveted my attention for the entire book.

There is a surprising amount of darkness in The Escape Artist. Dark back stories lead to dark plot developments which lead to some very, very dark conclusions for characters. I was not expecting that from a book like this and, while I do enjoy being surprised as a reader, some of the turns were just a little too out there. They took me out of the story.

I will say, from a plot stand point, there is something fun going on here. Brad Meltzer is well known as a debunker of American (and worldwide) myths and an uncover-er of secret portions of history. He lends the plot of The Escape Artist that kind of gravity, suggesting that one of the most famous men in American entertainment history was, in fact, a spy for the US government. The conceit (pun intended) works and the plot hums along at a pretty solid pace.

But the dialogue has two major issues: one, the characters do not have distinct voices. They all sound alike. Two, the characters speak too cleverly by half. Not everyone has razor sharp, Aaron Sorkin-like wit in the real world. In Meltzer’s world, they do.

The Escape Artist is not a bad book, but I wanted it to be so much better…

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When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing – A Book Review


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When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing is a wonderful book and one that delighted, challenged and affirmed. Daniel H. Pink is a television show host, a best selling author, a social observationalist and one of the most renowned business thinkers today. His books, including Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us are highly influential and he is a sought after lecturer.

After reading When, I can see why.

This is a terrific book for anyone who is interested in when successful people do things. The central concept of the book is that when we begin things, when we change jobs or buy homes, when we start diets, when we make decisions is critically important to the success of those decisions, job changes, diets, etc. The central conceit of the book is that people are fairly good at why, or, at least, people are very good at thinking about why they do things. They make check lists and pros and cons columns and flip coins and plunge ahead.

Rarely, though, do even the most careful thinkers consider when.

As it turns out, according to the book, the when of when we do things is very, very important to the success of those very things and Pink cites plenty of data – anecdotal and scientific – to back up the claim. Covering concepts like temporal landmarks, chronotypes and “time-hacking,” the book makes a compelling case that we should factor the whens along with the whys as we set out to make decisions.

For educators, whens are critically important and Pink’s book set me thinking about beginning conversations with my colleagues about why we do things when we do them. It sounds like a basic and simple concept. Pink illustrates that it is neither, but it is a central one to success.

Pink is engaging and funny and easy to read. This is a solid book.

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Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – A Book Review


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Essentialism

Essentialism is not simply a book. It is a philosophy, and a challenging one at that.

In 20 very readable and engaging chapters, author Greg McKeown explains the origins of the philosophy of essentialism, the fact that he has embraced it in his life and the manner in which his readers can make it a part of theirs. He also makes no apologies for the fact that essentialism is a challenging – some might say “difficult” – pursuit and that becoming a true essentialist takes mindset, energy and time.

The book is entertaining, the material presented with a very appealing mix of research and humor. McKeown is a talented writer, balancing anecdote and data deftly. And, while he is clearly proselytizing for his vision of the world and is championing the essentialism philosophy, his approach is not off-putting in the least. Yes, there were moments when he would share how this lifestyle works and my response would be “nice, but how does that work in the real world.” There were elements I found, for me, far more aspirational than achievable. However, the overall concept is very, very appealing.

Do less. Do it better. Do what is essential. It is difficult to argue with those maxims and, when presented in such a compelling fashion as they are, who would want to?

The world seems to demand ever more of us and, in the world of education in which I work, it surely demands ever more of students and teachers. The idea that a significant analysis should take place, that we in authority should slow down and ask if we need to do all we are doing is powerful. What can stay? What can go?

What is essential?

Great questions.

While daunted by the philosophy and intrigued by whether or not I would have the discipline to become an essentialist myself, I heartily recommend the book!

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And There Came The Best of 2016


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Here are my favorites in film, television and books from 2016. These are my favorites, listed in order of my liking. I make no claim that they are the best. I don’t say they are all tremendous works of art. I am not sure they would all make anyone else’s lists, Simply they touched me, amused me, entertained me and inspired me this year. As a friend of mine might quote: “This is just one man’s opinion.”

FILM

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  • Hell or High Water
    • This is a truly wonderful movie which showcases a breakout performance by Chris Pine. Touching, disturbing and surprisingly funny, this one ought to be nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards.
  • La La Land
    • Another film destined to be highly nominated, I can say that not many movies have ever made me feel as existentially good as La La Land. I love musicals. I love magic. I love this movie.
  • Hacksaw Ridge
    • Absolutely inspiring. It is terrific to see a movie about a hero who doesn’t resort to violence of any kind. It’s more terrific to know the story is true. What a great film.
  • Captain America: Civil War
    • This was the most fun I had at the movies all year. It was not perfect, but it was pretty darn close and the brilliant manner in which Spider-Man was portrayed forgives ALL sins. In the top five of all superhero movies, ever.
  • Arrival
    • Deep, powerful, heartfelt and stirring, Arrival features a tour-de-force performance by Amy Adams who has to be one of the best actors of her generation, right?
  • Honorable Mention: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
    • This movie didn’t work for everyone, granted, but it worked OVERTIME for me. (It must have, it beat out Star Trek Beyond for “honorable mention.”)

TELEVISION

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  • This Is Us
    • My favorite show of the year. It should be yours, too. Smart, engrossing and emotional with a cast that is all but perfect, This Is Us is absolutely appointment viewing.
  • American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson
    • I knew how this story ended and yet I couldn’t look away. With performances that were riveting, a plot that was smart and dialogue that was sizzling, The People vs. OJ Simpson was one of the best things on tv this year.
  • Stranger Things
    • Admittedly late to the party for this one, we made up for it by bingeing the entire series in two nights. What a terrific wave of nostalgia balanced with edge-of-your-seat thrills. The perfect combination of Stephens Spielberg and King.
  • Westworld
    • We caught on to this one before the end of the season and WOW were we glad we did. Without question, Westworld showed me things I never thought I’d see on television and its twists and turns led to a real payoff. Loved it.
  • Pitch
    • Anyone watching This Is Us should be watching Pitch. Less complex but no less involving, Pitch comments on the price of fame while telling the story of what it takes to do what we love.
  • Honorable Mention: Timeless
    • Silly, fun stuff about time travel that might have been higher on the list except for a massive inconsistency in the first episode that the show has never solved!

BOOKS

born-to-run

  • Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
    • Yeah. Read this one. There is no ghost writer here. It’s just The Boss telling his remarkable story. If he’s pulling punches, I’d hate to see the full force of them land.
  • Star Trek: The Fifty Year Mission by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
    • Frankly, I thought I knew just about everything about Star Trek. After reading this 2 volume book of memories told to the authors by the people involved with the Star Trek phenomenon, I stand very much corrected.
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon
    • Michael Chabon is clearly a genius and, when I read him, I know that I am not understanding everything he’s putting on the page. But I understand enough to know that I love it.
  • End of Watch by Stephen King
    • The final book in the Gil Hodges trilogy, King completes his attempt at writing a “straight” detective story in fine form. Though he veers a bit into supernatural territory, I enjoyed each of these books and really loved the characters.
  • DC Comics: Rebirth written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver and Phil Jimenez
    • This was my favorite comic book of the year. Beautifully illustrated by a team of top notch artists and lovingly (the correct word) written by one of the best in the business, DC Comics: Rebirth launches the stories of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest in a bright and hopeful direction.
  • Honorable Mention: Batman: A Celebration of the Classic Series by Robert Garcia and Joe Desris
    • The craziness that was Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman tv series is documented in fine detail here. This book is fun to read, beautiful to look at and reminds us that Batman used to be all about the funny.

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The World According To Garp – A Book Review

GarpI am not sure when I first read John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I know that I was young, like middle-school young. I know that I pulled it down from the massive shelf of books that my grandparents had in their basement. I suspect I was searching through those books for covers that showed something salacious – some scantily clad women or some romantic scene that I thought would be played out within the selected books’ pages – to tantalize my teenage libido. My guess is that the cover to Garp showed something like that and, for this reason, I took the book home with me.

That, today, I would consider The World According to Garp wildly age inappropriate for someone in middle school didn’t cross my or anyone else’s mind when I was working my way through its pages. No doubt I was pleased with myself for attempting to read an “adult” book – my motives for doing so notwithstanding, and I guess my parents were happy to see me reading anything that didn’t feature Batman, Superman or other so-called “four-color heroes.”

I can hardly imagine what I understood from the book on my initial reading. Having revisited it on a couple of occasions in my adulthood, most recently earlier this spring, I can barely articulate what I get out of it now!

One thing that I certainly took away from the book was my love of the prose of John Irving. Upon first completing that novel, I knew that I loved Irving. That is an affection that has stayed with me my entire life and I look forward to the publication of each of his works. A Prayer for Owen Meany remains, far-and-away, my favorite of his books, but The World According to Garp cracks the top five mainly because you always have a special place in your heart for your first, don’t you?

The World According to Garp tells the story of T.S. Garp, novelist and seeker, whose complicated relationships with the women in his life propel the book through multiple vignettes, each more outlandish than the last. Each stage in the main character’s life is passed in association with women and Irving populates his novel with a fascinating collection of them. One of the critiques of the book is that, while the women may be fascinating, they may not be entirely realistically drawn. That’s a pretty fair assessment, I think. Where Garp is a fully realized creation, even the most important women in the book can be stereotyped to a certain extent. Likely, Irving knew this and, skilled writer as he is, employed stereotypical women for a reason: to make his point about sexual relationships and sexual politics in the 1970s.

As one might expect, Garp’s most powerful connections are with his mother and his wife. From his mother, Jenny Fields – the author of the account of her own life entitled A Sexual Suspect, Garp discovers that not all popular writing is good writing and that radical feminism was a growing tide to be reckoned with in late 20th century America. From his wife, Helen Holm – English professor and intellectual, Garp discovers that even those who know and love you best may not always fully understand you.

A motif that Irving returns to in many of his works is introduced here: writing-within-writing. Apparently suggesting to J.D. Salinger that, if you’re going to write about someone writing something brilliant and make that idea a cornerstone of you narrative, you better actually show the goods, Irving supplies examples of Garp’s prose throughout the novel. The stories the main character writes are esoteric and inscrutable but, thematically, always tied to Irving’s main purpose: that of showing his main character trying to understand his path through life.

At its core, The World According to Garp asks the fundamental question: what does it all mean? That Irving leaves the answer to the question up to the reader is hardly surprising. Great works of fiction – and The World According to Garp is surely one – pose the questions and prod the reader to engage upon them before letting the reader make up her or his mind on their own.

Some of the themes that will permeate Irving’s books are on display in The World According to Garp. Life is charged by sexuality. People are slaves to it or liberated by it. Men need to know who their fathers are to be whole. Life can be violent. Death can be a sweet release. These ideas, powerful and clear, are addressed, time-and-again, in Irving’s books and, in later works, to better effect. But they are first on view here and watching the author work with them is exciting. Also on full display is Irving’s ability to create Dickensian characters who populate the imagination long after the reading of the book is complete. Interweaving the stories of a myriad cast of characters into the life of a single protagonist is a strength of the author and it really stared in The Wold According to Garp. Characters are introduced for a reason. No characters’ story is unimportant. They are all tied into Irving’s broader themes.  Upon completion of The World According to Garp, the reader knows that Irving is something special.

Hell, I understood that in the 8th grade. And, while I’ve not loved everything I’ve read by him, I have loved him enough to sample everything he’s ever published.

The World According to Garp is a complex novel about significant themes. I cannot say that I agree with Garp’s conclusion – that everyone is a terminal case – but I can say that I don’t know upon my re-reading of the book that Irving agrees with that conclusion, either. Bad things happen in The World According to Garp, the types of bad things that can destroy people, that can make them run and hide from the world, that can batter them senseless. Garp might experience moments of retreat and there are certainly times when he’s cut off from both his writing and his voice, but he never gives in. He never considers himself a terminal case.

In the end, The World According to Garp is a hopeful novel. In fact, all of Irving’s works are and that conclusion keeps me coming back.

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The Stand – A Book Review

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Photo from amazon.com.

Stephen King’s The Stand is an expansive work. In character, plot and theme, King’s novel asks very big questions about the nature of good and evil, how people relate to one another, how societies rise and fall and how meaning is found in life. The Stand is characterized as a “horror” novel and King himself is often brushed off as a writer of terrible tales and schlock literature. Perhaps, at points in his career, this has been true. When King was cranking out a novel each October, the quality was not always wonderful. I suspect King would admit this himself.

But, in recent years, as King has allowed himself to publish when he’s ready, not when the publisher is, the work has been outstanding. One of my favorite novels of the last decade is his 11/22/63. You can read my review HERE. And, though it’s a great book, excerpts from it are probably are not going to appear in any anthologies in the future. It’s a good read. Not a literary one.

The Stand is literary. Excerpts from The Stand certainly will be anthologized. The book is that good.

Anyone who dismisses The Stand simply as horror or a thriller is utterly missing the point.

I understand King took years to compose this novel. I have heard he started it and abandoned it multiple times. I know he intended it to be a great statement of himself as an author.

The Stand is the best of his work and it proves him a wonderful author of American novels. At his best, he’s up there with his contemporaries: John Irving, Pat Conroy, Toni Morrison and Phillip Roth.

The Stand is King at his very, very best.

Ambitious and sprawling, The Stand rises above every single convention it embraces.

Is it horror? There are certainly elements of horror from gruesome violence described in graphic detail to impossible magic done at impossible times to malevolent forces ranging across the country.

Is it a thriller? King creates amazing set pieces – creative and compelling – that keep the reader excited and engaged. One’s heart does, indeed, race at certain points during the narrative. It’s powerful stuff King is packing, powerful and thrilling.

Is it post-apocalyptic? With the entire country (and the entire world?) ravaged by an Army-created plague and population reduced by over 99%, it is very much a story of the end of the world.

But The Stand is so much more than these parts.

Though the plot actually takes just over three months to run its course, the breadth of the book feels much longer. King introduces character-after-character who capture and hold a reader’s attention completely. Interwoven in the plot, each character has enough “screen time” to make an impression and to add to the complex narrative that The Stand is. Literally,there are over a hundred characters in the book, ranging from major to minor, each of whom is utilized by King to advance the central theme of the novel: There is good. There is evil. People have a choice of which to follow.

Following a plague of “Super Flu,” American society begins to reform in Boulder, Colorado and in Las Vegas, Nevada. Care to guess which city is the locus of Evil and which is the locus of Good? The survivors of the plague are draw by their dreams either to Mother Abigail in Boulder or Randal Flagg (“The Dark Man” or “The Walkin’ Dude”). In Vegas, there is law and order and electricity all directed by an iron fist. In Boulder, there is a community trying to give its citizenry a voice. Clumsily. Inevitably, the two will clash, one looking to overcome the other.

It is in this conflict that King underscores the themes of the book for Randal Flagg’s minions are very clear about what they will do. Evil exists to wipe out Good. In Boulder, Mother Abigail’s followers are much less sure of their approach. Should they hope for the best? Should they confront Flagg? Should they send spies or emissaries?  Should they leave well enough alone.

Evil knows its course whereas Good seems unable to find its path until it engages in a series of moral compromises that leaves it wondering if it’s any better than the evil it opposes.

It’s a thought-provoking conundrum that King brings to life against the backdrop of a modern-day re-telling of the Book of Revelations. The central trick of the novel is that King populates both cities with every-person characters with whom the reader can identify and for whom the reader can feel sympathy. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. Their motivations are the framework around which King constructs the novel.

I read the abridged edition over 20 year ago and returned to the story two months back, unabridged version on tap. I don’t remember enough of the first published version of the work to compare the two, but I can say that the expanded edition seemed rich and full and did not drag at all. Each scene and each character felt a necessary edition to the plot. It’s long, but I love long books. I love to spend time with intriguing characters and get invested in them.

The Stand asks for an investment. The pay off is worth it.

If you’ve avoided Stephen King but have wondered what all the fuss is about, give The Stand a try. Select either the abridged or the unabridged version. You won’t be disappointed.

And, sometime soon, a review of It is in order!

The Stand receives FIVE BOULDER SUNRISES out of a possible five.

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