Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Review - The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Today is Veterans Day, so in honor of everyone who ever served their nation this is a tribute to you.

"What is Past is Prologue"

The war in Vietnam has been written about as extensively as the Civil War and World War II. I hadn't read anything even remotely related to the Vietnam era in some time, so when I happened upon Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" I was intrigued.  The title isn't meant to be taken literally, but you wouldn't necessarily know that by looking at the cover.

What piqued my interest was the huge amount of reviews and accolades that appear on the back cover and on multiple pages on the inside front cover. The kudos for the book kept going and going and going.  In today's day and age that is highly unusual. Then I looked at the print date and saw that the book was published in 1990. Two things: why would I review a book that's nearly 22 years old (any book you have never read is a new book) and why on earth was the bookstore promoting this book as though it were a brand new publishing effort?
O'Brien has been lauded as one of the best writers in America by numerous reviewers over the last 35 years.  He has written almost exclusively on his experiences in Vietnam.  He writes from a non-fiction and fictional perspective and the two meet quite poetically in his volume of work.  

"The Things They Carried" is relatively short, but it packs a tremendous amount of story into its brevity.  He provides far-reaching and memorable portrayals of the individuals he served with and his compassion is displayed throughout the pages.  O'Brien doesn't fear bringing forth his own flaws.  
He paints portraits of the men he knew during the trials of this war experience and the one I particularly was bottomed out by was his recreation of the journey of Kiowa. Kiowa was a Native American from Oklahoma who was a devout Christian. So many Christians are displayed in the worst light in contemporary media accounts and they are currently the only folks you can still pick on without lawsuits and hatred attached. O'Brien doesn't seem to believe in Christianity as a faith walk, but he respects the beliefs of Kiowa.  

Kiowa's death is the most painful moment in the book. This man who meant so much to his comrades literally died in a pile of poop.  A literal pile of poop.  The degradation of the war is brought home repeatedly, but the courage, strength, knowledge and wisdom of the men who served is readily available on every page.

The book closes out on the death of a nine year old girl back in the mid 1950's. O'Brien weaves her death and his love for her into a closing statement on life itself.  Life is brief and fragile indeed.

This is a beautifully written book and dare I say it should be required reading for every human under the age of 22 in this country. We have become so superficial as a society that at times it downright frightens me. We have seemingly lost our moral fiber as a nation.   

Whatever your thoughts are on the war in Vietnam you will gain new insights into the concept of friendship, brotherhood and a united front.  

I'm so grateful someone decided to put that 21 year old book on a display carton. If you didn't know better you would have thought it was just released.  The timelessness of it all makes it seem like it was just released. 

Some of the most captivating and gorgeous writing can be found on pages 76 through 79 of this book. O'Brien sums up the feelings and you feel it.  He bottlenecks the concept of war and what it feels like.   

Read "The Things They Carried."

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now    

Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review - "The Art of Racing in the Rain"

I love dogs.  Dogs have character.  If you have never spent a significant amount of time around a consequential dog I feel sorry for you.  Seriously, I feel for you, since you have missed out on one of the great joys of life.

Ten years ago I started volunteering at an animal shelter in Southern California and then I moved and re-upped my commitment to the shelter world in my new hometown.  I enjoy being around dogs so much that I would rather clean out their stalls than lots of other stupid things most of us get caught up in. Again, I couldn't be more serious.

After I started volunteering at the shelter I started reading "dog books."  I love to read, hence the blog and I enjoy many genres.  In recent years, I became far more embedded in non-fiction books, specifically historical or biographical non-fiction. I still read an occasional fiction book, but usually it's a rereading of a classic, a classic I have never read or a spy thriller.  I have a particular fondness for the brilliant Frederick Forsyth collection.  Does pop fiction get better than "The Day of the Jackal?" 

Dogs books are by and large non-fiction tales, but when I wandered around waxing poetic on how I had found the best dog book ever and several of my friends/acquaintances joyously went out to get their copy of Steve Duno's "The Last Dog on the Hill" I started to hear from folks telling me I must read "The Art of Racing in the Rain."  I hadn't read it, but since I had heard of it I assumed my initial reaction of rejecting it as a read would still hold true. 
I went to the Border's close-out sale (I'm still trying to get over this chain's demise) and bought 22 books.  I read a great deal and I read fast, so that amount won't last that long.  One of those books was "The Art of Racing in the Rain."   The dog pictured on the cover I purchased is definitely not a terrier mix which is what Enzo is, but I didn't know that prior to my purchase, so the fact that they got that wrong is now only a criticism on the back end of the read.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" features Enzo the dog as the narrator of the story.  He is a philosopher and an intensely good judge of character.  His master, if you will, is a sweet guy named Denny who happens to be a part-time race car driver.  Enzo develops a great love for racing and gives his opinions on some of the racing world's giants and even let's you know that "Le Mans" starring the late Steve McQueen is a superbly crafted film and entertaining too.  Denny gets married, has a child, loses his wife to cancer, works and races, struggles to save his daughter from two deplorable in-laws who want and do take pretty much everything away from Denny.  Denny is such a good guy that you can't help but love him, but it is Enzo that you end up falling in love with.  Have you ever fallen in love with a dog?

I don't want to give spoilers out, but this is a wonderful book.  Garth Stein has written a near classic.  It is quality literature with a superb take on things that matter in life.  I will be honest, there are some moments in the book I didn't agree with.  I certainly don't think Dr. Kevorkian is a hero (he was an angry and bitter man by all accounts) and I don't believe in reincarnation, but I don't agree with everything my mother says, so at times you have to see the greater values of a story rather than focus on every moment of the author's vision.

Stein crafts a beautiful interpretation of the dog as a compassionate and intelligent sage.  Enzo the dog can't speak and he doesn't have opposable thumbs, but he gets life.  He gets people and he understands the concepts of friendship, family, passion and love.  

This is a book that rises to the level of near perfect fiction.  Naipul, Coehlo, Steinbeck.  Dare I say? Well, I don't want to go too far, but this is a superb piece of fiction writing.  

The best dog book ever written is still "The Last Dog on the Hill," although "Rescuing Sprite" still resonates several years after I first read it. "The Art of Racing in the Rain" is a book you must read whether you like dogs or not.  I seriously predict a weeping session near the end of the book.  The last six pages had me wailing and I am not embellishing.  I wailed. 

One of several book covers

To Enzo.  You are indeed a race car driver at heart.   Delight in the endless fields.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now


Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review -" The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic"

It's difficult in this day and age to relate to the struggles of prior generations, particularly since suffering continues even in this high tech world full of great medical clinicians and all kinds of meds.  This book was released to little fanfare back in 2003, even though I was so keen on it that I sent a copy to my former boss who happened to be running the Discovery Networks at the time.  I have no idea if he ever read it or if he even passed it on to folks at one of the Discovery Networks, including Animal Planet, but I recently reread the book and must admit it was an even better adventure in reading than I even remembered.

Authors Gay and Laney Salisbury know how to tell a good non-fiction story.  "The Cruelest Miles" is the true story of a group of mighty and courageous dogs.  Man's best friend?  How fast can one say, indeed.  Our dogs are great, but a sled team on a mission is a providential gift from God.  "The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic" is one of the finest historical non-fiction books of the last twenty years.  This is that proverbial must-read. 

The men involved in the story are pretty magnificent as well, so I don't want to just point out the remarkable achievements of the heroic dogs, but needless to say, the dogs pushed on through bad weather.  Really bad weather.

To this day, Alaska remains a mysterious place, but in the 1920's the place was basically mystical.  This is long before Alaska had become a state.  The book opens with the then head of the state (a governor, although again, not from an official U.S. state), Scott Bone calling Washington to tell them that they were battling a major diphtheria epidemic and the town of Nome only had one doctor, three nurses and no anti-diphtheria serum. 

Nome is at the upper reaches of the state and it was in the middle of a series of endless nights of darkness, frozen water areas and 60-below temperatures.  People died just from being in the elements.  The only way to save the townspeople was to get the serum, and the only way to reach the town of Nome at this point in the calendar season was via a dogsled team.  A 674 mile dogsled journey eventually did bring the much needed serum to the adults and children of Nome.  The story was a hot news item in the continental United States back in 1925.  People from all over the nation were interested in what would happen in the last American outpost. 

The book details the relationships between the men and their dogs, particularly with their lead dogs.  To be a lead dog you have to have character, courage and intelligence.  The Herculean heroics of all 20 men and all 200 of the dogs that took part in this massive endeavor deserve credit even eight plus decades later. Leonhard Seppala and Gunnar Kaasen were the men who received most of the attention and their lead dogs, Balto and Togo received most of the glory.  They are all legendary in dog sledding circles.  Balto undertook the treacherous and long final leg into Nome, but it was Togo who had the hardest and longest haul.  Balto is now immortalized in a statue in New York city's Central Park.  Stop by and visit.  Pay your respects.  Leave a dog bone.  

The Salisbury's do a superb job delving into the historical aspects of Nome, the Alaskan Gold Rush, dog sledding and the 49th state itself.

It's elegantly written and you'd have to be a complete curmudgeon not to be inspired.  Only bitter, angry and miserable people will not fall under the spell of these dog sled teams. The dogs had to paw down in blizzards, ice storms and whiteouts. 

Nome, Alaska sits on the Bering Sea two degrees below the Arctic Circle, so it's cold in Nome.  It's a cold most of us cannot comprehend.  This isn't a winter in a bad year in the Northern Plains.  This is cold that is not imaginable.

The authors capture a moment in  American history when a nation cared about a town far, far away and when the goal was accomplished, that same nation rallied behind the triumphant dog team.  If they could have created a national holiday I suppose they would have.  This is a breathtaking turn through a moment in time.  The history changing sled ride provided inspiration for the beginnings of the Iditarod race which continues through today.

The dogs were eventually dragged into a carnival-like tour that took them around the country to adoring fans, but as one would suspect, the evil people that controlled this kooky atmosphere left them dirty and hungry in a Los Angeles location.  A Cleveland millionaire heard of it and brought them to Cleveland to live out their lives in a respectable and humane manner.  Balto was eventually stuffed (after his death) and placed into the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  The Alaskans aren't too crazy about that, but the commemoration is deserved no matter where it exists. The museum even hosts some old film footage of Balto who was a near black Siberian Husky.

Walden Media (the masters behind "The Chronicles of Narnia" films) holds the film rights for this book and it was announced back in January, 2010 that the film would be made, but it still hasn't gone into production and I wouldn't hold my breath that it will ever get produced.  Lots of projects get the greenlight, but few ever make it to the screen.  Hopefully, this film will get made since these men and dogs deserve to be remembered cinematically.   

Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.

Copyright 2011 Read on Read Now       

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review - Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

My father knew more about Native American culture and history than anyone I've known and he gave me a deep appreciation for the history of this nation's native culture.  In my younger days, my dad took the family on a few journeys tracing the history of various tribes.  He had a particular fascination with the tribes of the Plains.  He became deeply involved in the classic Native American book, "Black Elk Speaks."  As a voracious reader, I've read many books on the history of America's tribes. 

Several years ago, I read T. R. Fehrenbach's "The Comanches: The Destruction of a People" and got hit in the head by the brutal trials of the Comanche tribe; and the American military that would ultimately hunt them down.

That book and the more recent "Empire of the Summer Moon" are superb looks at the past with no revisionist history involved.  One of the dangers of Native American history in recent decades has been the false portrait that they were angelic lovers of the land and that's where many writers started with them and ended up leaving them that way.  Yes, they were lovers of the land, but history is much more than that. 

The average American of the 18th and 19th centuries wanted to move westward and they wanted the land for that movement. In order to get that land, they needed to have the Indians out. There were some sensitive souls, but most didn't give the proverbial rat's ass about Indians. The government played into the desires of its citizens and once the Civil War ended, the emphasis was put back on the "relocation plans."  Of course, they were lying and the way things ended up proved to be one of the two most appalling aspects of our country's long and often wonderful history.  Slavery and the treatment of the native tribes.  These are two of the greatest sins of America. By the way, I love my country, but we certainly have to fess up to our flaws as well. Look around now.  America has become a modern day Sodom and Gomorah.   

The most significant aspect of the strength of the tribes was the horse, which was brought over by the Spanish via the Mexican border.  The horse changed the tribes of the Plains. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Crow and mostly the Comanche had life altering balance shifts with the introduction of the horse. The single most significant tribe from the period of 1700 through 1875 was the Comanche tribe. They were also the most violent of all of the American tribes (even though the Tonkawa tribe practiced cannibalism).  They committed torture killings, gang rapes and painful mutilations. They weren't taking prisoners for the sake of it.  They were going to decimate every inch of your body. They ripped through the lower section of the American plains like hell's demons.   

This is not to say that the American army didn't commit their share of atrocities since they did.  S. C. Gwyne explains the pain inflicted on both sides. 

General George Armstrong Custer became the most famous of the American Indian hunters, but Colonel Ranald Slidell MacKenzie in many ways was far more infamous on the Plains. MacKenzie was a Civil War hero, but he found his life niche tracking down the Comanches. He eventually would literally go insane, but today he is largely forgotten.

The book seques from the overall Comanche history to a study of the Parker family.  In 1836, an eight year old Cynthia Ann Parker was captured by the Comanches after a brutal assault on the fort she lived in with her family. Her relatives would spend the next 20 plus years searching for her. By the time she was captured she was so deeply embedded in Comanche culture that she didn't want to be part of the white culture she was born into.  Of course, all she knew at this point was her life on the plains. A rough life, but it was her known life. She had children with an important chief in the tribe. That relationship would provide the last historical notation for the Comanches.  Her son, Quanah Parker would become the last of the Comanche chiefs.  His reign would be short, but the Comanches would become the most dominant and influential tribe in American history. When it was all over, Quanah Parker and his fellow Comanches would be the last free Indians as they entered Fort Sill in Indian Territory in Oklahoma with a white flag. Quanah Parker would remain the tribe's leader until his death in 1911. He acclimated more easily into the white man's culture than any other tribe member in all of Native American history. 

One of America's most gifted filmmakers, John Ford created one of the finest films in American history with "The Searchers."  The film is loosely based on the Parker family's situation.  

Shortly before Quanah Parker died he spoke before a large crowd and these were among the last words he ever spoke.  "I used to be a bad man, but now I am a citizen of the United States. I pay taxes same as  you.  We are the same people now." 

This is a superbly crafted book.  It is breathtaking in its scope and the historical truth on all sides is mesmerizing as history and as art.  "Empire of the Summer Moon" is beautifully told.  It is written with the deliberate pace of a novel. It's a non-stop interesting narrative and you will read it quickly.  Even if you know a great deal about this time period you will be enthralled with the vivid portraits of the characters long lost to history. 

This is a fascinating read.  Highly recommended for all readers.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now

Book Review - Last Dog on the Hill - The Best Dog Book of All-Time!

The Cover of the Hard Back Version of the Book - Lou, the Mighty Lou

I love to read and I love dogs, so the bonus in life of reading a good book about a dog is just one of life's big pleasures. I’ve been volunteering at animal shelters for the last ten years. Some of my best moments are when I’m cleaning out cages, walking the dogs or just giving them a good shoulder hug! 

I’ve read many books on dogs and the dog’s life.  I’m a sucker for a dog biography and if it happens to be well written then that is an added bonus.  Some “dog” books are good, some are just okay and some are downright magnificent.  I loved “Marley and Me” and “Rescuing Sprite.”  Of course, “Old Yeller” can still get me to that moment of teary-eyed bliss and that’s just when I'm thinking about it.  I haven’t read it since childhood, but it did an amazing thing on my emotional shelf life. 

“Marley and Me” and “Rescuing Sprite” are two of the more recent books on our glorious canine friends. One looked at the life of a mischievous dog and the other was the bio of a rescued dog. They were both beautiful non-fiction tales (with tails) that were written so wonderfully that they could have passed for some version of poetic fiction. Of course, the real reason why I loved them – I cried.  Dog books always make me cry. If I don’t cry in a dog book, then there is something wrong with the book. 

Not to get overly generous here, but the single best dog book I have ever read is “The Last Dog on the Hill.”   Steve Duno’s 16 year biographical journey of his life with the Rottweiler/Shepherd mix is stunningly beautiful.  First and foremost, Steve Duno is a gifted writer. He’s witty, giving and loving. I say this having never met the man and as much as I love dogs I have never read one of his other “dog” books.  It turns out he has written several of them.

Duno clearly had one of those wake up and smell the coffee moments when he realized that the greatest dog story he had in him was his very own personal story.  Duno met the puppy on a hill in Northern California when Lou was a part of a dog pack watching over a criminal landscape (literally), but the pup was being feasted on by fleas and ticks and he was smothered in infections that would have killed him had it not been for a young couple driving through the area.  The dog was smart enough to look down that hill and he spotted them. He wanted a home. He wanted to be loved. 

The overused term for a good read has usually been the go to line of “I couldn’t put it down.”  In this case, that is true. I literally couldn’t put it down. I felt if I left the book I’d be missing out on a moment in my own life.  Lou became my buddy. My friend. My companion. 

Lou was a working dog.  He managed to accomplish more in his 16 years of dog life than many humans accomplish in five dog lives.  He built a huge vocabulary. He was heroic on more than one occasion. How often are we heroic?   It’s the story of redemption for a dog and a man. This relationship is what relationships are about. Trust, loyalty, friendship, admiration, respect, honor. 

Lou, would become one of the mighty dogs of all time. I don’t want to spoil the moments since each chapter gives the reader not just a good doggie tale, but it reaches deep into our hearts, minds and souls and delivers a story filled with purpose, meaning and love. Eventually, the lovable Louie tackles a rapist, befriends a homeless man, catches armed robbers, assists other dogs in becoming better dogs.  He knows the meaning of words and hand signals. He comforts senior citizens and children.  He is capable of great love and he was fortunate to receive great love.

We live in a world where more and more animals are being abused, neglected and treated in such cruel ways that I can’t even imagine what evil is lurking. Lou was blessed when he encountered Steve, but for everything Lou got, Steve got much more.  He met his best friend and he was fortunate to share 16 beautiful years with his buddy. 

Randy Alcorn wrote one of the definitive books on heaven and he lays out a couple of chapters on what the Bible says about animals and their existence in God’s eternal glory. Lou will be there. I never had the opportunity to meet Lou on this earth, but I have no doubt that I will meet him in the new earth which is where heaven will be located. The Bible says we will recognize those we encountered on earth.  Well, I encountered Lou in a magnificent book and I look forward to our meet and greet.

Whether you like dogs or not, you must read this book. Seriously, go to Barnes & Noble, log onto Amazon, support the small book stores, visit your public library. You will not want to miss this book and I hope after you read it you will post your comment and then thank me for pushing this book on you.  It’s a superb bio on the life of a gallant and dignified dog named Lou. 

A part of you dies with Lou, but life does indeed go on.  We all have a purpose.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review - One Minute After You Die

The old adage of you only have to do two things in life – die and pay taxes doesn’t define truth.  The only thing you will have to do, is die.  You don’t have to pay taxes.  If you refuse, you will end up in prison or face a penalty and/or a fine, but there is no escaping death.  Each one of us will conclude our earthly lives with a death. Death is a part of life.

For all intents and purposes most people rarely think about death.  I mean seriously ponder the concept of death.  What will death be like?  When will I die?  How will I die? Will I suffer?  Where will I go after I die?  Heaven or hell?  This certainly can’t be it.  If this is it, then justice doesn’t exist and Plato defined the concept of justice so profoundly that clearly there must be justice for all.

Thinking about death is often depressing, but it is amazing that so few of us think of death even though we are surrounded by it.  We live in a culture of death.  Look at the news. Read a paper, listen to the radio, catch the headlines on any news site. We do indeed live in a culture of death. 

Just in my lifetime alone, I have witnessed the deaths of three grandparents, one father, one brother, 13 aunts/uncles, three cousins and numerous associates, friends and various other extended family members; and a whole host of other people I’ve known during my life. They are gone.  I will never see them again on this earth.  I will never hear their voices.  I will never see their faces.  I will never get to enjoy a summer barbeque, play a round of gin rummy or take a long walk with any of them on planet earth ever again.   However, some of them I will see again, since scripture states that we will recognize those we knew on earth once we are in heaven.

18 months ago I was diagnosed with a severe internal carotid artery occlusion and quite frankly I thought I was going to die.  I was prepared for death and in some ways I looked forward to it. I had become a Christian at the age of 17 and as flawed as I was I knew the concept of saved by grace through my faith would secure me a spot in eternal glory.  Not that I deserved a spot in eternal glory, since none of us do, but I had honestly and sincerely repented of my sins and humbled myself at the cross of Christ. 

After my near death experience I needed and wanted to know more.  I proceeded to read two books about the concept of death and heaven.  One of the books I read was “One Minute After You Die” by Erwin Lutzer.  Lutzer is the Senior Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.  He is also a relatively prolific author.  I’ve read most of his books, but this one quite literally embraced and then comforted my soul.  Lutzer is a Biblically sound teacher who bases everything he puts on the page on scripture. 

Lutzer takes on tough situations regarding heaven and hell and uses theologically sound doctrine to do it. Dr. Lutzer clearly and eloquently articulates what the Bible says about our eternal destination.  We will all have an eternal home and eternal life, but depending on where you go will depend on what your eternal life will be like. Lutzer lays out the glories of heaven and the horrors of hell and he does it all with a determined, authoritative and biblical approach.

Depending on your perspective, you will either be comforted or troubled by the book.  It will certainly make you ask the question – what if I died today.

I was calmed knowing that my father and brother were going to spend eternal life in the arms of their Lord and that one day I would join them. 

Lutzer is a powerful writer.  He packs more into 100 pages than most authors can slide into 1000 pages.  He is not only a knowledgeable and wise sage from a scriptural perspective; he is also a gifted writer.  The book is short and if you read quickly you can accomplish the goal of reading the book in a couple of nights.

It is a thorough and satisfying read and it shows that everything in your life is under the providential hand of God.  Your illnesses, accidents, trials and tribulations are not necessarily God’s perfect will for your life, but they are God’s permissive will for your life.

“One Minute After You Die” is one of the best books you could possibly read in your lifetime.  It is one of the essentials.  Every Christian should read it; and for that matter every non-Christian should read it.  It is powerful, thought provoking and scripturally on-target.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now