The Great Good Thing

klavanAndrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ is a great read. Klavan goes back to his youth growing up in the suburbs of Long Island with a mom who was atheist and a father who was culturally, but not religiously Jewish. He chronicles his rocky relationship with his father and his love of writing and reading stories. It’s easy to see that Klavan was a storyteller from his earliest days. What’s more it’s shown in the writing. The Great Good Thing is masterfully written. Now an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, Klavan knows how to make every word and every metaphor count. He’s a delight to read.

This memoir isn’t preachy or saccharine. Instead, Klavan shares how he slowly came to be baptizes after dealing with the demons and mistakes of his early life. He doesn’t portray himself as a saint. He isn’t proud of his rebellion at school. He doesn’t sugarcoat his struggles with depression or anger. He trenchantly describes how anti-semitism plagued him and for years was a barrier to Christianity for him.  Instead he gives us a smart, open look at one very intelligent guy’s slow turning to faith. While doing so he offers a road map to deeper understanding of theology and scripture.

Because Klavan’s writing so good, so intelligent, I’ve ordered one of his novels to read next. (By “next” I mean after I’ve finished the eight books I’ve already started.)

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Fortunately, the Milk

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Sounds like an odd title, right?

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman is a charming and quick read with zany illustrations by Skottie Young. When the narrator’s mother is away, the kids are left with a dad who forgot to get milk for the breakfast cereal. To please his kids, dear ol’ dad trots down to the corner store to get some and the children feel like he’s taken forever to return.

When he gets home, the father returns with a long, zany tale of time travel to explain the delay. It’s an entertaining read probably best enjoyed by kids in the lower grades.

The Moviegoer

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Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer excels at presenting New Orleans at Mardi Gras from an aimless, skirt-chaser who’s about to turn 30. Binx, the protagonist is asked by his aunt to watch over his cousin Kate, who’s battling depression.

There’s a lot of well-written passages on movie watching, New Orleans, Binx’s complicated family and his pursuit of each of the three secretaries he’s employed. The book doesn’t have a plot with momentum as it’s more of a slice of life. At the end there’s a little action for which Binx get’s chastised, but while in 1960, it might have been a big deal, now it isn’t.

Good style wasn’t enough to win me over with The Moviegoer. I need more engaging characters and I need some sort of obstacle for the hero(ine) to overcome. Binx’s ennui grew tiresome. He wasn’t as witty or perceptive as Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. For a rather short novel, this story dragged.

As time has passed, The Moviegoer’s vocabulary regarding race and work relations between men and women has certainly gotten dated. Binx gets romantic with all his secretaries and they’re shown to welcome the boss’ rambling hands. Percy doesn’t expect us to like Binx completely, but for me he wasn’t just flawed but overprivileged and boring.

Quotes

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.” Binx, protagonist

“Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity. Oh, we are sincere. I do not deny it. I don’t know anybody nowadays who is not sincere.” Binx

“The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives…” Binx

 

In a Sunburned Country

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I just finished listening to Bill Bryson narrating his book In a Sunburned Country. This tale of traveling around Australia made me want to return to see the Devil’s Marbles, Ayer’s Rock, Shark Bay, Bondi Bay and even the Telegraph Station museum in Alice Springs, a town Lonely Planet proclaims, “won’t win any beauty contests.” Bryson includes lots of background information on nature and history and its all flavored with his dry wit.

Even when things go wrong and he and his old friend arrive late, have to pay too much or can’t get a hotel room, the story entertains. I learned so much about the origins of the aborigines, how many extraordinarily poisonous creatures populate Australia and how incredibly diverse the flora and fauna are — and I knew there was a lot of natural diversity. I hadn’t known that a 19th century explorer discovered the only species that gave birth through its mouth and then soon ate the only two specimens or that there are so many animals, insects and plants that haven’t been discovered in Australian and that many are few in number and have or will go extinct before they’re discovered and catalogued. I was amazed to learn the theory that because of the extreme climates and conditions in Australian, it’s hard for plants to survive. The earth in a particular place may contain and extraordinary amount of nickel or copper and thus a plant that can thrive in such a spot has taken root there. Then the unique plant life was most fitting for exotic animals to thrive.

I learned what stromatolites are and how they seem dull and inconsequential but were instrumental in increasing the oxygen on earth and hence should not be scoffed at.

The human history and anthropology was as fascinating as the natural history. It’s believed that humans have lived in Australia as far back as 65,000 years ago with some experts putting the date back 100,000 years. The history has its share of tragedy and exploitation, but there’s also plenty of courage and exploration. I learned that the first European explorers to go to Australia were the Dutch and that Napoleon had sent an explorer to claim Australia for the French but he arrived just a couple weeks after the British.

In a Sunburned Country was a joy to listen to (or read) and I didn’t want it to end. While Bryson wanted to stay on to see the mountains of Bungle Bungle, obligations back home made him put off that desire. All detours seem to be long in Australia and alas, Bryson couldn’t make time for the bee hive-like mountains of Bungle Bungle.

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Bungle Bungle

Some favorite quotes:

“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”

“It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. …It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as the players-more if they are moderately restless.”

“In the morning a new man was behind the front desk. “And how did you enjoy your stay, Sir?” he asked smoothly.
“It was singularly execrable,” I replied.
“Oh, excellent,” he purred, taking my card.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that the principal value of a stay in this establishment is that it is bound to make all subsequent service-related experiences seem, in comparison, refreshing.”
He made a deeply appreciative expression as if to say, “Praise indeed,” and presnted my bill for signature. “Well, we hope you’ll come again.”
“I would sooner have bowel surgery in the woods with a a stick.”
His expression wavered, then held there for a long moment. “Excellent,” he said again, but without a great show of conviction.

“Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.”

The Pink Refrigerator

5113jn92IcL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Written and illustrated by Tim Egan, The Pink Refrigerator is a charming book that tells the story of a mouse with the love of the cosy and familiar that reminds me of a Hobbit. Dodsworth owns a second hand store and loves running his store and living a predictable life where the main form of recreation is television.

One day Dodsworth acquires an old, pink refrigerator. He plans to sell it but becomes intrigued by its magic. You see, one day Dodsworth goes to the fridge to get rid of it, but he’s surprised by a note that says “Paint Pictures.” Inside the fridge there are all the supplies needed to paint.

Day after day, the fridge challenges Dodsworth to get outside his comfort zone and do something new and creative. Before you know it, Dodsworth’s transformed. It’s a cute, cosy tale that inspires.

Elvis is King

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The cover of this children’s book about Elvis grabbed me. Elvis is King is a biography that introduces kids to the early life of Elvis Presley. Written by Jonah Winter, the book consists of illustrations made with clay and realia and short passages that describe the singer’s life from birth till he strikes it big.

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Readers learn a bit about Elvis’ family, his first guitar, his move to Memphis and his first record. It’s a quick read. I liked the illustration on the cover better than the book because the style of the faces was more angular than I like. Nonetheless, it’s a fun book, and one worth checking out from a library.

Uneasy Money

I just finished the audio book Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse, whom I discovered just last year. The audio book’s packaging stated that Jonathon Cecil narrated the story, which was why I got that particular set of CDs. Actually, that was a mistake and someone else, not as talented narrated. How odd.

The story itself is entertaining. The hero, William (Bill) FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, wants to marry but his fiancée won’t consider living on his measly allowance. So Bill decides to seek a fortune in the US, where he believes money is easily plucked from trees by the bushel. Just before he’s about depart, he learns that a man he happened to meet and happened to coach on how to straighten out his golf swing, has left him 5,000,000 £! Feeling guilty, that the tycoon gave his fortune to him, Bill decides  to seek out the man’s niece and nephew who’ve gotten a pittance. They’re both living outside New York.

In the meantime, Bill’s fiancée comes to America when her newly rich friend sends her a ticket to visit her. On board, the fiancée meets a millionaire and agrees to marry him.

New romances, mix ups and misunderstandings ensue all described with Wodehouse’s delicious, witty language.

While the story is entertaining, it’s not on par with the Jeeves stories. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Uneasy Money.

Quotes:

“At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.”

“The ideal girl . . . would be kind. That was because she would also be extremely intelligent, and, being extremely intelligent, would have need of kindness to enable her to bear with a not very intelligent man like himself.”