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Briefly Noted, Fiction

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett. The main character’s attitude toward casual sex (“bliss because she didn’t care what it meant”) was sad and made the entire book feel tawdry and cheap, in contrast to Jane Austen’s more elevated, intellectual, and thoughtful prose and her insightful approach to even flawed characters. Also some dropped plot points and discontinuities marred the otherwise serviceable story.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Everyone and their dog recommends it. I found it fascinating, but mostly because I kept hoping that the protagonist, Theo, would learn something, or grow up, over the course of the novel. He sort of did? But not really. The book should come with a warning label: lots of drugs, lots of illicit (and boring) sex, and then lots more drugs and violence. Theo actually finds “somewhere safe with somebody good” after a traumatic and neglected childhood, but he’s too traumatized to enjoy and appreciate the one person who actually loves and cares for him, Hobie, the antique dealer and friend to the friendless. Theo is a mess, and the “happy ending” seems forced in light of Theo’s choices throughout the novel. I was reading Careless People about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of The Great Gatsby after this one, and Gatsby and Fitzgerald both ended up about the way I would imagine someone who made the choices they did would end up. Theo, in contrast, gets to travel the world and make restitution on his own timetable. Lucky for him.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon. Father Tim Kavanagh and his lovely wife Cynthia, not to mention Dooley and Sammy and Lace Turner and all the other inhabitants of Mitford, return in a safe but enjoyable novel that reads just like cozy, warm cup of tea with the reader curled up in a homey old quilt on a cold winter day. The questions in the novel—Will Father Tim come out of retirement in an emergency? Does Mitford still take care of its own? Will Sammy grow up and forgive and overcome his past?—were intriguing enough to keep me reading and comfortable enough make me smile as I did. It’s well worth your time if you’re a Mitford fan, and if you’re not, you should be. Start with At Home in Mitford, and you’ll be hooked.

I’ve been focusing on nonfiction this month, and I plan to continue to do so. However, I can’t resist slipping in a few novels, now and then. I’m especially interested in reading a really good historical fiction book set in the “roaring twenties” since I just finished the book about Scott and Zelda and the Great Gatsby, and I’m now reading a biography of Florence Harding aka “the Duchess”, wife of Warren G. Harding, who became president in 1920 and presided over the beginning at least of the Jazz Age. Suggestions, anyone?

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

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North Korea in Books


North Korea is notoriously the most closed society and country in the world. I couldn’t take a trip there even if I wanted to or had the money to go.However, reading these books about North Korea and North Korean defectors made me want to know more —and inspired me to pray for those who are trapped in Kim Jong Eun’s “socialist paradise.”

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. The man is Shin Dong-hyuk. His story is just about as intense and harrowing as that of Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, but Shin’s story of torture, tyranny, and brainwashing begins from the time of his earliest memories. Shin was born in North Korea’s infamous Camp 14 to parents who were matched and allowed by the authorities to reproduce in a very limited way, to parents whom he never learned to love and from whom he received very little love or encouragement himself. He is the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” prison camp in North Korea alive. Here you can hear a taste of Shin’s story in his own words:

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story is not over, or even near over, and it remains to be seen what God will do in his life.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick follows the lives of six north Koreans (and their families to some extent) over the course of about fifteen years, from the early 1990’s until 2009. All are former residents of the city of Chongjin, located in the northern part of North Korea near the border with China. All six escaped North Korea to go first to China, then to South Korea. Ms. Demick, a journalist who spent some time living in Seoul and covering both Koreas, interviewed these defectors and worked to understand and enter into their lives to write this book about the famine in North Korea that extended through the last decade of the twenty-first century as it was experienced by average people in that country. The title comes from the children’s theme song of the 1970 North Korean film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World. The irony is inescapable as one reads of children eating grass and tree bark to fill their stomachs and old people dying quietly of starvation. The people of North Korea, for the most part, actually do have nothing to envy because information is so tightly controlled and limited that they don’t even know that the rest of the world does not share the harsh conditions that their succession of dictators, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong Eun, have inflicted upon them.

I plan to read more about North Korea soon, including the following books:

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (the same author who wrote Escape from Camp 14).

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Lone Journey by Jeanette Eaton


Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams by Jeanette Eaton. Illustrated by Woodi Ishmael.

Four of Jeanette Eaton’s books received the Newbery Honor (runner-up), but her books, mostly biographies for young adults, never won the Newbery Medal. Lone Journey was published in 1944, and was a Newbery Honor book in 1945.

I found the book quite fascinating in its portrait of a man who was ahead of his times in many ways. Roger Williams began life in an orthodox Church of England family, became a Puritan as a youth, and then moved on to become a separatist and a dissenter who certainly preached and believed in Christ but eschewed all churches and denominations as holding undue sway and authority over the conscience of the individual. Williams, according to the book, made a life study of government and the relationship of church and state, and he came to the conclusion that the civil authority and the church were to be wholly separate, ruling in different spheres, and that the individual conscience before God was to reign supreme in matters of religion.

Betsy-Bee just read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for her English class, and we had a good discussion of which of God’s laws were to be enforced by the state (laws against murder and theft and others of what Williams would call “civil crimes”), which laws should be enforced by the church upon church members (laws against gossip, profanity, adultery, and other sins, perhaps?), and which laws were up to the individual before God. Or should the church become involved at all when its members sin against one another? How should the church discipline its members, if it does?

The Massachusetts Bay colony and its leaders eventually banished Roger Williams, but his exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise, even though it entailed much hardship, since he was able to found a colony in which:

“We have no law among us, whereby to punish any for only declaring by words theire mindes and understandings concerning the things and ways of God.”

In a letter to a friend, Roger Williams wrote of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations:

” . . . We have long drunk of the cup of as great liberties as any people that we can hear of under the whole heaven. We have not only long been free (together with a New England) from the iron yolk of wolfish bishops, and their popish ceremonies, but we have sitten quiet and dry from the streams of good spilt by that war in our native country.
We have not felt the new chains of the Presbyterian tyrants, not in this colony have we been consumed with the over-zealous fire of the (so-called) godly christian magistrates. Sir, we have not known what an exise means; we have almost forgotten what tithes are, yea or taxes either, to church or commonwealth.”

Williams was a friend to the native Americans of the colony, and he led the colony to accept both Quakers and Jews as full citizens with the rights to vote and own land. He was a preacher and a practitioner of religious liberty for all, and it is from Roger Williams and others who followed in his footsteps that we learned many of the principles that eventually went into the U.S. Constitution and became enshrined in American government and culture. This biography is somewhat fictionalized, with dialog that is obviously made up, but the events of Roger Williams’s life are faithfully chronicled, as far as I could tell.

Jeanette Eaton was a prolific biographer, and she wrote biographies of all of the following persons over the course of her career:

A Daughter of the Seine: The Life of Madame Roland (1929) (Newbery Honor 1930)
Jeanne d’Arc, the Warrior Saint (1931)
The Flame, Saint Catherine of Sienna (1931)
Young Lafayette (1932)
Betsy’s Napoleon (1936)
Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot (1938) (Newbery Honor 1939)
Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer of Oregon (1941)
Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams (1944) (Newbery Honor 1945)
David Livingstone, Foe of Darkness (1947)
That Lively Man, Ben Franklin (1948)
Buckley O’Neill of Arizona (1949)
Washington, the Nation’s First Hero (1951)
Gandhi, Fighter Without a Sword (1950) (Newbery Honor 1951)
Lee, the Gallant General (1953)
The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1954)
Trumpeter’s Tale: The Story of Young Louis Armstrong (1955)
America’s Own Mark Twain (1958)

Wikipedia calls Eaton a “suffragist” and a “feminist”, but judging from the subjects of her books, she also had an interest in religion and religious leaders.

Woodi Ishmael, whose woodcut illustrations, grace the pages of Ms. Eaton’s book, seems to have been a rather successful World War II era illustrator, producing numerous advertisements and drawings and paintings for the armed forces, especially the Air Force. You can look at some of his Air Force artwork here. And here’s a blog post that shows several of Mr. Ishmael’s illustrations for another Eaton bio, Narcissa Whitman.

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Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink.

Warning: this book is deeply disturbing. After reading it, I became even more distrustful of doctors and of the medical profession than I was before I read the book. I also lost some confidence in the government and in the justice system (already low). I decided to buy a small generator as soon as possible if I can afford to since we live on the Gulf coast in hurricane country. I thought about end-of-life decisions and hospitals and who to depend on in an emergency. I was reminded of how thankful I am for my sister who came to Texas and spent many weeks caring for my mother last year when she had to go to the hospital and then into a rehab facility. I’m not sure anymore that it is safe to be in a hospital without a family member nearby who will spend time at the hospital with you daily—and at night.

So, Five Days at Memorial is the story of the five days after Hurricane Katrina as they were experienced at Memorial Medical Center (formerly Baptist Hospital) in New Orleans. As you might imagine, or you may have seen or heard news reports, conditions at the hospital went from bad to worse in the wake of the storm. Hospital employees, doctors, nurses, and patients who were stranded at the hospital, surrounded by flood waters and rumors of riots and violence outside, began to think that they had been abandoned. Rescue was slow to come. Information going in and out of the hospital was confused and intermittent. Patients died. The question woven throughout the book is: did they die because of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of government or corporate response to emergency conditions, or did some of the patients die because doctors and nurses gave up hope and decided to euthanize them, “put them out of their misery”?

I’ve thought about what I might do to care for myself and my family in the event of a major crisis such as a hurricane. I’ve thought about the hard end-of-life decisions that health care professionals and families have to make together and about how those decisions could be made easier and more loving and kind to all involved. I’ve thought about how doctors and nurses can sway patients and family members to make decisions that meet with the professionals’ ethics but perhaps not the family’s. And I’ve thought about journalistic ethics, and how a writer of true-life stories can show us a story as the journalist sees it, but not necessarily give full credence and weight to all sides of the story. I think Ms. Fink tried to see all of the possibilities and complications of this particular event and present them fairly, but then again, I wasn’t there.

As I said, it’s a difficult book to read. There are stories of great courage and perseverance, but there are also questions, many disturbing questions. When evacuating a hospital with a range of patients from ambulatory to critically ill with probably very little time to live, who goes first? What is the purpose of triage, and who decides which people will be given the best chance to survive? What is the ethical basis for those decisions? What is a health professional’s responsibility in a crisis? Are doctors and nurses obligated to sacrifice their own well-being, perhaps their lives, for their patients? How can hospitals be better prepared for a crisis? How much should hospitals and other public service agencies spend on preparing for a crisis that may never materialize? What is the government’s role in protecting the public and preparing for an emergency? What is the responsibility of the health care corporation that owns the hospital or nursing home? Many, many more questions, and some answers, are embedded in this very personal story about what happened in a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I would recommend that all people involved in health care professions, especially in hospitals, read this book. You may or may not agree with the author’s conclusions, but you will be given lots of food for thought—and even prayer.

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More 2015 Titles I’d Like to Read

From these lists (Thanks, Phil) and other sources:

All Fall Down by Ally Carter. YA fiction. Grace has come back home to Embassy Row in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s death. In the process, she uncovers an international conspiracy of unsettling proportions, and must choose her friends and watch her foes carefully if she and the world are to be saved. (January)

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan. “Lost and alone a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.” ~Goodreads. (February)

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen. Beaty and the Beast, except the Beast is a girl. (February)

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen. First book in a new series, set in ancient Rome, by the author of The Ascendance Trilogy. (February)

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. Subtitled “a novel of the O.K. Corral,” continuing the story she began in Doc. (March)

The Drop Box: How 500 Abandoned Babies, an Act of Compassion, and a Movie Changed My Life by Brian Ivie with Ted Kluck. (March)

The Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein. (March) MG fantasy by the author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

Jack: The True Story of Jack & The Beanstalk by Liesl Shurliff. (April) MG fantasy.

The Water and the Wild by K.E. Ormsbee. (April) MG fantasy.

It’s A Long Story by Willie Nelson. Memoir. (May) Willie’s memoir.

The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson. Robin Hood-character is a really a girl named Odette, daughter of a wealthy merchant by day, huntress by night. (May)

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski. The husband-and-wife team chronicle the writers’ group The Inklings, whose members featured J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. (June)

Valiant by Sarah McGuire. Fairy tale reworking with a girl heroine. (June)

Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy Of Faith by Barnabas Piper. (July)

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3) by Jonathan Stroud. (September)

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone


Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone.

I think I heard about this book on NPR; I’ve had it on my TBR list for a while. I’m glad I finally got around to it because it definitely gave me some things to think about.

First of all, I’ll issue a disclaimer or a warning: a couple of pages in the book are about Mr. Stone’s rather uninformed opinion that Jesus was probably “a magician, and that the gospel miracles—water into wine, multiplying loaves, levitation—were stage tricks drawn from the conjuror’s repertoire.” This superficial evaluation of the miracles of Christ only lasts for a few paragraphs, thankfully, and then Mr. Stone is back to writing about what he knows: the world of legerdemain, illusion, and prestidigitation.

Ninety-nine percent of this book is about modern-day magicians, mentalists, con men, card sharps, and other performers and about how they learn to do what they do. Mr. Stone, to the undoubted dismay of some of his fellow magicians, even reveals some of the secrets of the trade, but not all of them. As he tells about his journey through the world of Magic Olympics (really, there is such a thing), and Las Vegas magic shows, and monte mobs on Canal Street in NYC, psychics and telepaths, and neuroscience research, not to mention clown school, Mr. Stone describes a labyrinthine world of swamis and sages, con artists and card counters, that is “shrouded in secrecy, fueled by obsession and brilliance.”

Show me a world where real people focus their lives and talents on a consuming pursuit or passion, and I’m hooked. I’ve read books, fiction and nonfiction, that introduced me to other communities and subcultures where people spend their lives immersed in a game or a hobby or an interest or a place or even an occupation that it never would have occurred to me to even notice:

The World of Hotel Management: Hotel by Arthur Hailey.
The World of Competitive Scrabble: Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.
The World of Horse-Racing: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.
The World of a Super-Rich Eccentric: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
The World of Competitive Rowing: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
The World of Friday Night Football: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger.
The World of Poverty in Mumbai: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.
The World of ICU in Hospitals: Coma by Robin Cook.
The World of Scientology: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.
The World of a Prison Library: Running the Books by Avi Steinberg.
The World of Ethiopian Adoption: There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Greene.
The World of Chinese Food: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: A Book Adventure through the Mysteries of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
The World of Computer Geekdom: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder.
The World of Fifth Grade: Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder.
The World of a Mental Hospital: Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam.
The World of Mormon Polygamy: When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular.
The World of Chocolate: Hershey by Michael D’Antonio.

I didn’t even include all of the historical “worlds” and the exotic, foreign places I’ve visited in books. Books truly can take us to so many places, times, subcultures, and worlds, and I am so thankful to be able to travel into these worlds through the books I read. I enjoyed Fooling Houdini‘s description of the world of magic and its discussions of the ethics of deception and performance and fiction and trickery. The authors draws interesting distinctions between a performance in which the magician and his audience collaborate in some conscious or subconscious way to create a fiction and puzzle that is fun for everyone involved and the deception that so-called mentalists and mind readers foist upon unsuspecting and gullible people who are looking for comfort and for something to believe in.

As I said, the book was thought-provoking. Anyone who’s at all interested in performing magic or in the techniques and practices of magic performers will find Fooling Houdini indispensable.

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Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn


Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn.

Author Walter Kirn wants his readers to know that he is a published novelist, a graduate of Princeton, and a very intelligent man. The importance of these qualifications will become clear as the story progresses.

Blood Will Out purports to tell the story of Clark Rockefeller, aka Chris C. Crowe, aka Chris Chichester, aka Charles Smith, aka Chip Smith. His real name is Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German national who came to the United States illegally in 1978, obtained citizenship by marrying and then deserting an American citizen, moved to Hollywood to become an actor, and eventually in 1985 murdered his landlady’s adopted son and possibly the victim’s wife. Mr. Gerhartsreiter then moved back to the East Coast, New York City, and became Clark Rockefeller, a rich young banker and art collector with ties to the famous family with the same surname. Clark Rockefeller married Sandy Boss, a high-paid business executive, lived on his wife’s earnings, and moved to New Hampshire. He and his wife had a child, but they eventually divorced when Sandy found out that “Clark” wasn’t who he said he was. Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter then tried to kidnap his own daughter, got sent to jail for that, and was indicted for the 1985 murder in California. Christian Gerhartsreiter was

Most of the facts in the preceding paragraph I gleaned from Wikipedia. Mr. Kirn’s book includes a few of the facts, buried deep or mentioned in passing, but the majority of the book seems to be about Walter Kirn and his very strange, very conflicted friendship with the subject, Christian Gerhartsreiter. Kirn is deeply distressed over the idea that Gerhartsreiter conned him. How could a criminal like CG deceive a Princeton graduate and published author? As far as I could tell, Mr. Kirn lost the price of a few meals that Gerhartsreiter stiffed him for, a trip to New York from Montana to deliver a dog that he feels he was underpaid for, and a lot of time listening to CG’s stories and lies. Yet, Kirn says of himself and CG, late in the book after all has been revealed, “He (CG) knew a perfect victim when he saw one, and I’d sacrificed myself for him before.”

Sacrificed himself? “I was part of his audience, he thought. But in truth I was acting much of the time. He was conning me, but I was also conning him. The liar and murderer and heaven knows what else was correct about the writer: I betrayed him.” Kirn says he “betrayed” CG by writing book about him. I say Kirn betrays himself, in that the book is mainly about Walter Kirn. Maybe that’s because there had to be a book (finances? a contract?), and no one, not Kirn nor anyone else, understood what Christian Gerhartsreiter was all about, what all he did, or why he did it.

“All my questions drew the same response from him, just phrased in different ways. His evil was his prodigious, devouring appetite for other people’s vitality and time, which he consumed with words, words, words, words, words. Clark loved to talk but had nothing much to say, nothing of his own, which was surely another reason that he lied, and plagiarized lies, and recycled his old lies. He had ten thousand ways to tell you nothing. I felt like I’d heard all of them.”

The book is like CG’s lies: interesting for a while, somewhat sordid, but strangely empty and dissatisfying in the end. The topic of lies and deception is one that is much talked and written about recently, both in fiction and nonfiction. This Literature of Deception speaks to something within all of us that recognizes our own fabrications and false images and yet longs to know and trust others and to be truly known and trustworthy. I’m not sure I learned anything about how we get to a place of deceiving others and ultimately ourselves from reading this book. Nor did I gain any insight into how we break free of the lies that so easily entangle us.

There is another 2012 book about CG, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor by Mark Seal. Perhaps that book is more weighted toward fact and story and motivation and less toward amateur self-analysis. If you’re interested in knowing more about “serial imposter” Christian Gerhartsreiter, what he did and maybe even why he did it, I’d suggest you try that book first, although I’ve not read it and so can’t give a definitive recommendation.

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Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin


Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin.

“I survived the war, but then I had to survive myself coming home from the war. Despite the good times and all the attention, I was under a cloud that kept growing darker. I had nightmares about killing the Bird from which I woke up shouting and swearing. My running legs were gone and I couldn’t compete anymore, which broke my heart. I wanted to strike it rich, but lost money instead. I drank and fought. I knew I was on the wrong path—but didn’t know what to do about it.” ~Louis Zamperini

If the movie Unbroken, or even what you’ve heard about the movie or the book by Laura Hillenbrand, is your only acquaintance with Louis Zamperini, then you already know that he was an amazing man with an almost unbelievable life story. What you may not know is what Paul Harvey used to call The Rest of the Story.

I would suggest that anyone who was captivated by Mr. Zamperini’s story in the movie should immediately, without delay, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. If you just aren’t a reader and can’t bring yourself to read that wonderful biography, then Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In tells the rest of Louis Zamperini’s story in a much shorter format, 224 pages laid out in easy to read chunks or chapter of three or four pages each. If you’ve already read Unbroken, but can’t get your friends or family members to read it, give them a copy of this book. Louis Zamperini’s character, warmth, and wisdom shine through the pages here just as they did in the pages of Unbroken.

David Rensin, who had already worked with Mr. Zamperini on his autobiography Devil at My Heels, met with Zamperini again for about six months to complete this book because Louis said he still had stories he wanted to tell. The stories in the book, which was completed two days before Mr. Zamperini died on July 2, 2014, continue to illuminate the life of this man who not only was a hero, but also a very broken and vengeful man after his return from prison camp. In Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand tells what it was that made Louis Zamperini whole again, in her words. In this book Mr. Zamperini gets to tell us about his recovery in his own words.

“I had nothing left to lose.
That admission itself was the beginning of my recovery. I’d always known that I’d come home from the war with a problem, but I had never been willing to ask for help—from anyone.
But now I had, and my whole body and spirit felt different. Wonderful. Calm. Free.”

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Short Takes on Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta
Mr. Scaletta’s previous books, Mudville and Mamba Point, were both good solid middle grade reads, and The Winter of the Robots continues on in that groove. If your child is into robots or robot wars or science-y adventure tales, then The Winter of the Robots is a just the ticket. I got lost in some of the science of how to build and operate a robot, and I had to believe pretty hard to swallow some of the events that take place in the novel (kids build a self-propelled robot out of an old car?), but I bet most kids could believe it without even stretching.

Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey. I like the idea of secret society of “lybrarians” who are given the task of making the world, past and present, safe for the written word and the free expression of ideas. And I liked the opening two paragraphs a lot:

“Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don’t even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens’ wings. Dorrie’s plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So, why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?”

However, the story sort of meanders along and doesn’t get much better than that opening gambit.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This Harry Potter-ish novel about a boy who is sent to magic school to learn to control his magical abilities is well written and intriguing, but the ending is horrendous. After another episode in which a different character lies about being abused by a teacher, our hero ends up concealing a secret so horrible that he cannot tell anyone about it, believing that his very soul is evil, and that no one will help him or believe him or love him if he tells. That’s creepy and disturbing.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. This Norwegian fantasy is written by a Norwegian author, but I don’t see any translator credit. So I suppose it was written in English. Nevertheless, there’s a culture gap as far as I’m concerned. Lindelin Rosenquist (lovely name) is the Twistrose (rosa torquata), sent to the land of Sylver to save the Petlings and Wilders there from imminent danger. However, she and her own special petling, Rufocanus, a redback vole, spend a lot of time wandering about and getting into fixes, then taking turns rescuing one another. They talk about having a plan, but the plan is rather muddled, and various characters show up and disappear randomly. I think I missed something in the non-translation, but maybe other readers will be able to think more Scandinavian than I do.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. Aileen and her Aunt Beck, the most powerful Wise Woman on the island of Skarr, are sent on a journey to rescue a prince. The characters in this novel do nothing but argue and undermine one another while they travel on a mission that none of them really believes in. The arguing isn’t even witty or funny. It’s a posthumous novel, completed by Ursula Jones (Diana Wynne Jones’ sister). I think the idea had potential, but someone dropped the ball.

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These books were also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.