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Author Archives: Rob

About Rob

A 50-something guy who's not sure what he wants to be when he grows up.

A Koontz Kwicky

dark rivers of the heartYeah, I know. Another long period with no writing. And I’m sorry. Again. But let’s move on, shall we?

I just finished another Dean Koontz book, “Dark Rivers of the Heart,” (1994, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) True, not one of his newest (or, to be honest, one of his best), but with the amount of books Koontz has written sometimes you need to go back to his earlier works just because. In this case, his theme deals with what’s happening with this country’s government and how, as it gets bigger, its ethics and morals shrink. Still relevant today, no?

Of course, being Koontz, it’s also about the nature of evil. Sorry, no supernatural elements in this book, but he makes up for that by including not one but two serial killers. Combine that with political intrigue, an urgent search, a desperate flight from the authorities and a terrifying encounter with this nation’s property seizure laws and you’ve got vintage Koontz.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but a man walks into a bar and meets a cocktail waitress. Spencer and Valerie (not their real names) strike up a conversation, get along and he goes back in the next night to see her again. But she never shows up for her shift. Now he KNOWS this isn’t because of him, so he goes to her place to make sure she’s alright. Bad move. Someone else is looking for her as well, someone named Roy. Roy is a chief operative of a rogue government agency that pretty much does whatever it wants to whoever it wants. Like this waitress and this guy.

Well, Roy and his boys blow the living you-know-what out of her place with the guy barely escaping with his life. And the chase is on! And being Koontz, there’s plenty going on here. But the main thing in this book is the examination of different kinds of evil: ideological, institutional and stand alone evil.

Let’s start with Roy, the government operative we met above. He’s the first of the serial killers we meet. You see, Roy is a believer in Utopia and the perfectibility of the human race – by a select group of superior humans. He being one of them, of course. Those who can’t fit in to the perfect world need to be compassionately dealt with. With carefully placed bullets. Heck, sometimes people just having a bad day need compassion too. Or those with disabilities. The need is never-ending and Roy is a very compassionate person. And since there is no god but the State, he can make up the rules as he goes.

Not as dramatically horrifying as Roy, but more overwhelmingly oppressive, is the institutional evil of a too-powerful State. You see, Roy isn’t ALWAYS compassionate. Sometimes he’s a bit thin-skinned and gets pissy. Then, instead of showing compassion, he just makes life miserable for his target. Like the unfortunate LAPD captain, Harris Descoteaux. He made the mistake of saying that, “No one’s more dangerous than a man who’s convinced of his own moral superiority,” to Roy. Who, naturally, is convinced of his own moral superiority. Roy considers killing him, but then decides that “Greater punishments than death were within his power to bestow.” Like introducing Harris to our country’s asset-forfeiture laws. Current as of 1994, the laws and government powers Koontz illustrates are scary beyond belief. To think that our own country has this ability and actually uses it against its citizens is chilling.

Finally, we meet the second serial killer, Steven. Steven is the real deal, a serial killer refined and distilled to its essence. He tortures his victims horrendously before inflicting a slow death and then using their bodies for his “artwork.” He has contempt for Roy and mocks him mercilessly: ” . . . you should hear Roy rant on about compassion, about the poor quality of life that so many people live and shouldn’t have to, about reducing population by ninety percent to save the environment. He loves everybody. He understands their suffering. He weeps for them. And when he has a chance, he’ll blow them to kingdom come to make society a little nicer.” So what is Roy doing wrong? Why doesn’t Steven give him the approval and validation he craves? Simple: “Roy doesn’t understand that these things have to be done for fun. Only for fun. Otherwise, it’s insane, it really is, to do it for some noble purpose. . . . He’s the least prejudiced, most egalitarian, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic who ever lived.” Like I said, stand alone evil. Pure, dark nihilism. And, of course, Steven is right. All Roy’s wonderful “motives” are personal rationalizations.

I won’t give away how all these strains of evil play out in this novel. There are plenty of twists and turns to enjoy, and Koontz’ characters are marvelous as usual. But spend some time meditating on the nature of evil as Koontz lays it out here, and you will realize that there are things afoot in our world and our country that we had better pay attention to.

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Book Review

 

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Great Expectations . . . Or Not

Passing thoughts about books and authors:wise_owl_on_books

In keeping with my idea of reading a “bucket-book” list, I recently started Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” I remembered having read it back in high school days and being absorbed in its world. Figuring this would be an easy one to check off the list, I began. Oooops! Something has changed in the forty-some-odd years since I last read it. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Pip or Miss Havisham. Or Mr. Dickens.

Has anybody out there ever come back to a book you thought you knew and enjoyed and found it somehow . . . lacking? I sure did with this book. The 16 chapters I managed to get through before I finally put it aside required an effort of sheer will. I struggled with the language, the pace, the characters and the plot. And this is considered to be his last great novel. What am I going to do when I come to, say, Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? Or even Dante’s Divine Comedy?

I left my bookmark where I stopped, at the start of chapter 17. When I come back to it, I’ll pick up there. Maybe a cup of PG Tips would help?

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A few weeks back I re-read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Written in 1883, it presents challenges to the modern reader similar to the ones I faced with “Great Expectations.” Issues of style and language were again prominent. Yet I managed to finish it and even enjoy it. Long John Silver is a character for the ages.

And I’m beginning to realize that Stevenson was a writer for the ages as well. He also wrote “Kidnapped” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, ” along with a variety of short fiction and even poetry (the delightful “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”) In poor health most of his life, he died at a young 44 years old, while working on a novel, “Weir of Hermiston.” An amazingly talented writer gone too soon.

In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity.

                    – from the short story “Thrawn Janet” (Thrawn; a Scottish expression meaning lacking in pleasing or attractive qualities)

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One of the area’s thrift stores had a half price sale yesterday, so of course my wife and I were there. I needn’t tell you where I spent my time looking. But while exploring the religion section, I came across two novels that looked interesting: “King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard, and “The Resurrectionist” by Jack O’Connell. I purchased them both.

What I want to know is why these novels were in the religion book section. Sure, the titles would suggest a connection, but a cursory look at either book would have informed the stocking person that these belonged in the fiction area. But then again, I often wonder why Joel Osteen’s books are in the religion section too.

Some things are just a mystery.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Lord and the Vampire Queen

Anne Rice has certainly got range. Long before vampires became angst-ridden teen icons, Ms Rice gave us vampires that were complex, powerful and truly frightening. The vampire Lestat is a character for the ages and “Interview With the Vampire” will be around long after the “Twilight” series has faded from memory. Then she gave us a family of witches from New Orleans and an entity that gave new meaning to the term “willies.” But wait, there’s more! She also has done grand scale historical novels as well as adult erotica based on fairy tales.

Sounds like Anne is the perfect choice to write a modern, fictionalized version of the life of Christ the Lord, right? Well, yes, of course she is. And she has. Twice. “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” and “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.” I read the first one several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve finally come across the second one and I must say I’m impressed with this as well. But why would the modern queen of the vampires write a life of Christ? It’s a fascinating story actually. Briefly, she left the Roman Catholic Church and then returned. As a result she started writing “Christian” stories, including a very short-lived series about a guardian angel. But another time for that.

My concern here is with “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.” As the title implies, the novel takes place just before Yeshua (Jesus) is baptized by his cousin John and performs the initial sign of his ministry. The first half of the book explores his life in Nazareth with his extended family and friends. Rice continues to let Yeshua speak for himself in a first person narrative as she did in “Out of Egypt.” This is a bold approach by a confident, gifted writer and she succeeds wonderfully. Although it may seem presumptuous, who hasn’t wondered what Yeshua’s thoughts were as he approached his “introduction” to the world? Was he aware of who he was? What did he think of his family? Did he have friends?

Ms. Rice gives us a kind, soft-spoken Yeshua. A Yeshua who slips away to a private spot  to pray and meditate. A Yeshua who loves his family but is perfectly willing to disagree with and stand up to any of them should he feel it necessary. Yes, he loves a young girl, Avigail, and though he loves her he realizes he can never marry her. He (and his extended family) knows the stories told of him by his mother and step father, about the angelic visitations, his birth and the attending signs. Some of his friends and family even call him “Sinless One.” This is a very human, self-aware Yeshua, who just before his ministry begins and the world is sent reeling, thinks to himself:

And will I look back on these days, these long exhausting days, will I look back on them ever from someplace else, very far away from here, and think, Ah, these were blessed days? Will they be so tenderly remembered?

The event that prompts this poignant thought is the coming out of the wilderness of John bar Zechariah, Yeshua’s cousin, also known to us as John the Baptist. John begins baptizing at the Jordan and people flock to him, including Yeshua and his family. It takes a while to get to this point (chapter 18) but once reached the story takes off, mainly because from here we know what is coming. And it comes rapidly in Rice’s deft handling. In the last 115 pages of the novel we see the baptism of Yeshua, the temptation in the wilderness, the calling of the first disciples, including Matthew, the wedding at Cana (they were his friends) and the turning of water into wine.

The centerpiece of this final whirlwind, indeed of the whole book, is chapter 22, Yeshua’s confrontation in the desert with Satan. It is classic Anne Rice, a meeting of Good and evil as only she can render it. Appearing as a richly-dressed duplicate of Yeshua himself, Satan uses his celestial lore to try to lure the Savior of the world into his service. The dialog is crisp and quick, like this exchange:

“You know nothing of me. You have no idea! I was the firstborn of the Lord you claim as your father, you miserable beggar.”

“Careful,” I said. “If you become too angry you may dissolve in a puff of smoke.”

“This is no jest, you fledgling prophet,” he said. “I don’t come and go at whim.”

“Go at a whim,” I said. “That will be sufficient.”

The wedding at Cana is also a treat, with Rice showing us how Mary actually convinced Yeshua to turn the water into wine. (It was worthy of Jewish and Roman Catholic mothers around the world.)

The book ends with an unexpected but well deserved healing, and the promising final line: “And we started for the road.” Unfortunately, that promise will likely never be realized because Ms. Rice has again left the Church, and it’s doubtful her series “Christ, the Lord” will ever be finished. I hope I’m wrong, because this book was a wonderfully realized and well researched imagining of the Lord’s ministry at its beginning. It would be sad for it to end here.

As they say, “mysterious ways” and all that. We can pray.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2015 in Book Review

 

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Here’s a Bucket List Anyone Can Afford

Image Courtesy of Irish Welcome Tours' Flickr Stream

Image Courtesy of Irish Welcome Tours’ Flickr Stream

Is there anybody alive who hasn’t heard of Bucket Lists, as in the bucket that shall be kicked by every one of us? I thought not. Between out-of-the-way places to visit or rare experiences to arrange, it can be very expensive to get out of this world. You may have no money left for that genuine Viking funeral you wanted. Pity.

Have no fear. Here’s a list anyone can afford, and you needn’t wait until you’re middle-aged to start. I call it the Bucket Book List. All you need is a library, a library card and a list of classic books you wish to read before meeting your Maker. Heck, they don’t even really need to be classics. Just books you’ve always wanted to read. They can be fiction or non-fiction or poetry. Read a cookbook if you’d like. And if you MUST, you can buy them if you wish.

Actually, I prefer buying. Books make wonderful companions and look marvelous in bookcases or just stacked up on a desk or the floor. And they’re a whole lot less expensive than airfare to Borneo. Or Chicago for that matter. But it’s more than the money. It’s like time-travel. Exploring the greatest stories and ideas from human history. Ideas and stories that get deep inside your mind and into your very soul. Ideas that shaped civilizations. Stories that escorted you into dreams. And still can.

I’m working on my Bucket Book list now. I am 60 after all. The Bible says I have about ten more years to go. I’m hoping for more. Whatever the actual number is, it’s past time to get going. There’s so much to read. I like both fiction and non-fiction so I’ll need two lists to start. Well, three actually. I like so-called “children’s” books. So I’ll need adult fiction, children’s fiction and non-fiction. Should I sub-divide things any further? I probably will.

For now, in fiction, I’m looking at the Divine Comedy by Dante, Paradise Lost by John  Milton, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, of course. Oh, and don’t forget Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In non-fiction I’ve got Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization (not all 10 volumes, though), Churchill’s The History of the English Speaking Peoples and Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg. I will also be putting together a list of American classics as well as children’s classics. I’ve got some work ahead of me.

So what do you think out there? Does this sound like a good idea? Let me know what you think. Tell me what books you’d put on your list. Or give me a few additions for my own. I’ll keep you posted as I develop this further.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Uncategorized, What I'm Reading

 

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Le Morte d’ Danny

I know, I know. I haven’t been writing for quite a while. I’m really sorry. Honest. It’s just that my family has been going through some trials the past few months. Trials dealing mainly with the nanny state. I’ll leave it there for now because I have no desire to recall even the tiniest bit of having to deal with bureaucrats with no common sense.

Fortunately, I have continued reading. Indeed, reading is one of the things that has kept me somewhat sane amidst the lunacy. Reading something good is especially helpful. Reading John Steinbeck can be life renewing. It can also be just plain fun. So I picked up a collection of Steinbeck’s short novels and started reading “Tortilla Flat,” which I hadn’t read before. It’s a pretty easy read and, at a mere 207 pages, a pretty fast one too. But what got me interested in this particular novel was its background.

Now here’s something most people don’t know. To really appreciate “Tortilla Flat” you need to be familiar with the Arthurian legends, particularly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It seems that Steinbeck was a big fan of Malory’s book. He even claimed that his love for the English language came from reading it. In the preface to “Tortilla Flat” Steinbeck comes right out and tells the reader that “Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it,” Danny, of course, being the stand-in for Arthur here.

“Tortilla Flat” is more a series of misadventures than a sustained tale, and that works very well for illustrating the vagaries of human nature as Steinbeck does here. We begin when Danny gets out of the army and returns home to find he has inherited two small houses from his grandfather on Tortilla Flat, a small district just above Monterey, California. At first he’s happy about it. Danny moves into the larger house and his friend, Pilon, moves into the smaller one. Over the course of the book several more friends move in with Pilon and eventually with Danny. These are the “knights” of Danny’s Round Table.

Of course, these friends are not knights. They’re not even British. They’re what Steinbeck calls “paisanos” which he defines as being “a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods.” They aren’t saints either. Quite the opposite, as Steinbeck makes clear throughout. But neither are they completely devoid of good. As the book’s episodes illustrate, good and evil in human actions and motivations are rarely well delineated. Indeed, they are usually jumbled together and can change from one moment to the next. Steinbeck puts it this way: “It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow. And it is saddening to discover how the concealed parts of angels are leprous.” Yes, he does have a way with words.

The other theme that parallels these tales of good dancing with evil has to do with what causes so much of both: material possessions. Danny, who had little of such, at first enjoys being a man of property and shares his good fortune with his friends. But over the course of the book the weight of ownership and the responsibility it brings are too much for Danny. Even small possessions can be like chains.

How Danny gets free from them I’ll leave for you to discover when you read this wonderful book. And you should read (or re-read) it. This is an American classic by one of our best writers.

 

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Book Review, Old Books

 

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A New Year

But I’m not promising anything. I mean, a few months back I wrote here that I was going to be more regular about posting reviews, especially about young people’s books. I really meant it too. But everyone knows how to make God laugh, right? Just tell Him your plans. Sure enough, after my promise to write more, life threw me two hard, inside sliders followed by a slow, rainbow curve on the outside corner. Whiff-City, folks!

So why haven’t I been writing? Can’t really say in this forum. Personal family-type stuff.

I haven’t stopped reading though. Reading is one of the few things that has kept me somewhat sane the past few months. I did finish Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of books. My opinion? Read the first two books and leave the other three. It’s not that they’re awful really. They just don’t match the quality of the first two. Cooper tries to introduce all sorts of Celtic legend and myth in too short of a time period and it gets rather confusing, especially in the last book, “Silver on the Tree.” For a series finale, it lacks that certain punch I was hoping for. Stick with the first two.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” at the request of an old friend. Halfway in and still interested in spite of the Ye Olde English language used at the time. I’ll let you know how it finishes, though I won’t promise you when.

Well, that’s about all for now. I have a few other thoughts and ideas rattling about in my skull but those will have to wait for another post. Hopefully that won’t be too far away. In the meantime, watch out for those slow curves!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2015 in Book Review, Uncategorized, What I'm Reading

 

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Winter’s Tale: A Short Movie Review

I read the novel Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin, many years ago when I was a much younger man. While I don’t remember a whole lot about its plot or characters, I do remember the wonderful language Helprin used to describe incredible, fantastic scenes from New York at the turn of the 19th century. It was a beautiful novel and I hope to read it again someday. But until I do, there is a great film based on the novel that I highly recommend.

Winter’s Tale, the film, captures much of the magic of the book. At least of what I can remember of it. The story itself is a sort of romantic fantasy, philosophical musing on the battle of dark versus light, with a bit of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters thrown in. A thief, Peter Lake, breaks into a New York mansion in order to rob it and comes face to face with a woman who is his reason for being. Or so he thinks. Lake is also being pursued by an evil crime boss, Pearly, who also happens to be a demon, giving new meaning to the phrase “criminal underworld.” Fortunately, Peter has divine assistance in the form of a white horse that can fly. Peter thinks his purpose is to save his love, Beverly, from his demon enemy. Of course it isn’t really that simple. As the story careens from the 19th to the 20th and, finally, to the 21st century, we see with Peter, and Pearly, that Providence isn’t always what we believe it is.

A wonderful cast includes Colin Farrell as Peter, Russell Crowe as the demon Pearly and Will Smith as Lucifer (yes, really.) Though a bit slow moving at times, the visual beauty of New York in winter and the great writing and acting will more than repay your attention for the nearly 2-hour running time. Rated PG-13, the film is about the story and not about sex or violence, which makes it refreshing. There are a few frightening parts, so keep the very young ones away. They wouldn’t understand the themes explored anyway.

For those who love good books and films based on them, I highly recommend Winter’s Tale, the film.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Movie Review

 

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