Review: Demian


Demian
Demian by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This may be one that grows on me as the ideas it planted take root and blossom. For the moment, though, I was considerably less impressed with Demian in comparison to Siddhartha, which I loved.

This novel starts out with young Emil Sinclair making up a story about stealing apples, only to find himself at the mercy of a bully who wants to tell the farmer who’s been stealing apples. Living under this threat nearly ruins young Sinclair, but then a new, slightly older boy named Max Demian comes to the school and realizes Sinclair’s problem. Demian puts an end to the bullying. Then a lot of rather boring stuff happens, such as Sinclair going to prep school, where he nearly drinks himself out of his education, he meets a dark organist, falls in love with Demian’s hot mama, then goes to fight in World War One, where he gets his first kiss.

The theme of the story is basically breaking free of dependence and finding independence, as evidenced in this beautiful quote:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

What I disliked most about the story was that it was past tense and told passively. I did this and then this and Demian did this thing and his mother said that and I felt happy. Seldom is the reader really let in to feel what Sinclair feels and I think the story suffers for it. That said, Hesse puts together some sentences that really sing and shows the depth of his thinking and the scope of his ideas. This is very much an idea novel more than a plot or story novel.

I can see myself re-reading Demian at some point simply for the quote I copied above. I think it may be a short novel that requires more than one reading to fully appreciate it.

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Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine


Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine
Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Consider this a 3.5 star review. There were things I really liked, and things I really didn’t like, but overall I’m glad I read it.

Former journalist Eric Weiner had gas and went to a hospital, where a nurse asked, “Have you found your God?” After a good fart (I presume), Weiner, a gastronomical Jew, decides he needs to fill the god-shaped hole in his life. So he travels the world exploring different faiths until he finds one that fits his hole.

What I didn’t like about the book was the fact Weiner focused on such fringe elements of major faiths, along with just fringe faiths. For instance, instead of exploring some traditional branch of Islam, he went for Sufism to see if becoming a whirling dervish might be his thing. Instead of seeing what Christianity is like, he hung out with an order of Franciscan monks. There’s a chapter on the Raelists, a group of UFO worshippers who follows a dude who picks out the hottest chicks for himself. Another on shamanism that didn’t even have the benefit of being funny, a la the Raelists.

The most annoying thing, though, was that this isn’t an experience your average Joe Blow (like me) could emulate. Who’s going to give me the time and money to fly to China, home, Nepal, home, Italy, home, Las Vegas, home, etc, etc.? Nobody. Plus, he always managed to find transplanted Americans to learn from once he was in the exotic locales.

SKIP THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS

This is a total stereotype, I know, but honestly, Weiner came across as so neurotic that it was obvious by the third chapter that he was going to settle on Judiasm. Seriously, he was like a less annoying and funnier Woody Allen.

END SPOILER

What I liked about the book was, for one thing, the general concept. His search for the faith that “speaks” to him is something I can certainly identify with. I like that the book is episodic, with each chapter addressing a different experience and being pretty much self-contained. I enjoyed his tone and sense of humor, and I especially liked that he included numerous quotes from people who helped shape each of the faiths he explored, and quotes from great literature that helped illuminate the nature of his quest or some other relevant issue.

I liked the book enough that when I had the opportunity to pick up over 50 copies to use in my AP English Language and Composition class, I jumped on it. I think the book will offer a chance to discuss Weiner’s attitude going into each experience, his writing style, and will just be a great jumping off point for many interesting conversations.

I’d give the book 4 stars if it wasn’t for the way Weiner acted like it was no big deal to jet around the world multiple times for his research. It came off as, “Look at me doing this thing you can’t do.” Resentment? Sure. But it’s my review, so …

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Review: Sackett’s Land


Sackett's Land
Sackett’s Land by Louis L’Amour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite my love of Westerns, I’d only read a couple of Louis L’Amour’s novels prior to this one, plus his autobiography. I just wasn’t a fan of his style. But I wanted another Western series to get into, so I decided to give L’Amour another chance and read some of his Sackett series. I’m still not impressed.

Barnabas Sackett is the patriarch of what will become the Sackett clan in the New World, but when this first book of the saga opens in the late 1500s he’s a poor landholder in the fens of England who happens to stumble upon a few Roman coins unearthed in the marshes. While in town selling the coins he makes the mistake of offering a thirsty woman a drink, much to the chagrin of her arrogant and noble brother. The rest of the book is Barnabas selling his coins, buying trade goods, going to America, trading with Indians, coming home rich, and all the while fighting that noblemen and his hired henchmen.

The problem is that Barnabas, who we first think is a rather common dude eeking out a living in the fen, is actually some kind of freaking superman who somehow knows everything about everything, is a better swordsman than career soldiers and lifelong pirates, knows how to sail a ship, can instantly blend with rich city folk despite almost never going into town before finding those coins, etc. Who can identify with that?

The Walking Drum was the same way with its American Indian test pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union and had to escape over the Bering Strait.

To be fair, I still haven’t read a L’Amour Western novel. I need to give him a try at what he was best at, I guess.

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Review: To a God Unknown


To a God Unknown
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into John Steinbeck’s novel a little skeptical. His debut, Cup of Gold, was, shall we say, less than impressive. He found himself, though, found his subject matter, found his voice, found his themes, and began laying the groundwork for The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and so many others. To a God Unknown is an important novel for Steinbeck fans.

There was so much here that brought to mind other, better known works from America’s best author. Joseph Wayne is restless in Vermont and finally gets his father’s blessing to move west, to California, before the good land is taken. His father dies soon after Joseph gets to his land in California, but Joseph believes his father’s spirit has taken up residence in a mighty oak tree beside his house. Soon after, his brothers come to live with him and life is good. Joseph, though, is basically living the life of a druidic priest, making offerings to the tree. His uptight Christian brother finally has enough and acts against him, leading to calamity.

That little review leaves out an amazing amount of story for such a short novel, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers. There are so many familiar elements here as Steinbeck draws allusions to the Bible, to Greek myth, and most notably to Arthurian legend, but transforming them to fit into what would come to be known as “Steinbeck Country.”

I’m going with four stars instead of five mostly because the dialogue is still pretty stiff. I found it to be a lot better than some later works, like Tortilla Flat, but it doesn’t have the flow of his later, greater novels.

I highly recommend the novel to anyone who enjoys the classics, and especially for anyone who considers himself a real fan of John Steinbeck.

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Review: A Head Full of Ghosts


A Head Full of Ghosts
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s hard to believe this is the first horror novel I’ve read in a long, long time. Mostly I liked it, but it also reminded me why it’s been so long since I’ve read a horror novel, and why I quit the Horror Writers Association.

Imagine The Exorcist as a reality TV show with running commentary about the evils of a patriarchal society. That’s pretty much A Head Full of Ghosts. The story is told by a grown woman who was an eight-year-old girl when her sister may or may not have become mentally ill or possessed by a demon. The father — who can’t provide for his family after the factory he worked at closed — can’t handle the loss of his power and may also be going crazy, but before he goes he finds the Catholic God and arranges for the Church and his family to do a reality television show called The Possession showing how they deal with the demon-infested 14-year-old girl.

There was too much look-how-much-I-know-about-the-horror-genre commentary thinly disguised as the girl’s research for her Fangoria blog. Plus the social commentary was annoying and just reminded me way too much of the HWA message board flame wars.

And it was pretty easy to see where the story was going to end up.

Since I listened to this in audio I can’t say if it was written in such an annoying way or if it was the woman doing the narration, but I wanted to throttle her. Her male voices were deliberately dumb and her teen girl voices were over-the-top with slang and annoying inflection.

If you like the recent spate of predictable PG-13 demon movies you’ll like this book. If you don’t laugh at Friedkin’s The Exorcist, you’ll likely be entertained enough while reading, but won’t remember much about this one a few hours after finishing it.

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Review: Conversations with John Steinbeck


Conversations with John Steinbeck
Conversations with John Steinbeck by Thomas Fensch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to know something about America’s greatest author but don’t the the time or attention span for a full-on biography, this is the book for you.

Steinbeck was a shy man and, despite his ongoing moonlighting as a journalist himself, he didn’t much care for the press. So it’s nice to have this collection of interviews with the author combined into one volume, showing the progression of his career from when he was first deemed worthy of coverage to very near the end of his life. I didn’t learn much of anything new, but it was good to read Steinbeck’s own answers to questions I’ve seen biographers raise.

It’s short, it’s very easy to read, and it’s John Steinbeck. Of course I recommend it.

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Review: The Lawless Land


The Lawless Land
The Lawless Land by Dusty Richards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dusty Richards is a heck of a nice guy. I’ve met him at a few writers’ conferences and have several of his books, but hadn’t found time to read one. Then I found myself at another convention and I’d forgotten the book I was reading, so I visited Walmart and picked up this one despite it’s horrible cover with a hipster cowboy holding a gun like he’s one of Charlie’s Angels.

I’ve got to say I was less than impressed with this novel. The characters were too cardboard, especially the villain, Lamas. Sam T. had potential, but just lacked dimension once he left Denver. Jesus was supposed to be an alcoholic, but he quit drinking as easily as most people change pants and never once backslid, so what was the point of making him a drunk? Justine flickered between being a damsel in distress and a whore and I’m still not sure which she was supposed to be. The Apache Too-Gut and his wife were the most interesting people, and the ones we learned the least about.

This edition is a reprint of one of Dusty’s earlier books, so I don’t feel burned. I’ll be reading some of his newer stuff soon, I think. Final analysis, it’s like one of those B Westerns you used to catch on Saturday afternoon TV, as opposed to the big-budget flicks with A-list stars. Not bad, but not really memorable.

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