Gack! I’ve done it again — I’ve self-published a book on Amazon

Kindle.web_Andrea.coverMASTERI’ve been silent today for a reason:  I was putting the finishing touches on my Kindle e-book, The Bookworm Returns : Life in Obama’s America, which has just gone live at Amazon. It’s a collection of my favorite posts from the last three years.  I describe it on Amazon as follows:

In 2008, President Barack Obama promised that he would fundamentally transform America — and that’s one of the few promises he’s kept. In a series of clear, elegant, witty essays, Bookworm looks at the changes in American society since Obama became president. These changes have seen America become a poorer, less safe, less free, more racially-charged nation, adrift in a world that, without America as both protector and anchor, is also become increasingly poor and dangerous.

I had a lot of fun assembling the book.  I was rather delighted to see how prescient I was when discussing Obamacare, the Obama economy, foreign policy, educational trends, etc.  I was also pleased to see that my original posts, which I tend to slam out in bouts of frenzied writing between parenting, household maintenance, caring for my mother, and the occasional legal job, were fairly coherent.  They all had typos (sigh!) and awkward phrases, but once I ironed those things out, they seem to me to read pretty darn well.

Also, please note the bee-yoo-ti-ful cover, which a friend of mine, who is a professional graphic designer, created for me.  If you’re interested in working with him on your own e-book, or have other graphic design needs, you can see his contact information on the inside title page.  (You can see that title page simply by downloading a Sample of the book.)

If you enjoy my writing, please consider buying the book (a bargain at $2.99).  I will receive $2.05 for every book sold.  You’ll get reading pleasure (I hope), and I’ll get a return on the effort I put into blogging.  As you know, I blog compulsively, rather than to earn money, but it’s really nice to see a little money coming in for the effort.

Book Review: Teri O’Brien’s “The ABC’s of Barack Obama: Understanding God’s Greatest Gift to America”

One of the problems I find myself having lately when writing about both Barack Obama, the man, and President Obama, America’s CEO, is my lousy memory, which goes blank when I try to pull up useful information about him.  He’s been connected with so many scandals that I can’t keep track of them.  It would be very helpful, I then think to myself, to have a laundry list of every lie he’s told, every failure he’s overseen, and every scandal on his watch (with Obama always having carefully averted his eyes when his minions carry out their dirty work or display their gross incompetence).

Thankfully, Obama laundry list I crave is now here and, even more thankfully, it’s funny, snarky, informed, and comprehensive.  I speak, of course, about Teri O’Brien’s recently released book, The ABC’s of Barack Obama: Understanding God’s Greatest Gift to America. For those of you unfamiliar with Teri, she’s a self-described “recovering attorney,” as well as a radio personality and a blogger.  All of those skills inform her book.  The lawyer part means that she knows how to put together a strong argument, with each allegation fully supported by relevant facts.  The radio personality means that she has a breezy, friendly style that’s easy to follow.  And the blogger in her means that her writing is fluid and effortless.

In her book, O’Brien takes on the persona of an Obama supporter who keeps getting humorously overwhelmed by Obama’s unsavory reality.  Imagine, if you will, a defense attorney trying to defend a client he knows is guilty as Hell.  The beleaguered attorney keeps coming up with new arguments, only to have the ugly facts float up like long-dead bodies in a fetid pond.  O’Brien has a deft touch that makes this technique work.  One can read about Obama’s many sins without getting bored or overwhelmed.

If you check it out today, you can get the book for free.  If you wait too long, you’ll pay only $1.99, which is a giveaway price.  If you’re a leisurely reader, the 56-page book will take a couple of hours (or more) to get through.  That’s time profitably, intelligently, and enjoyably spent.  On the other hand, if you go see a Hollywood movie for the same two hours you’ll help fund Leftist directors, producers, and actors, be forced to watch commercials and product placements, and it will cost you $12 a ticket.  Also, depending on the movie, you might feel pretty soiled when you leave the theater.  With Teri’s book, for a 6th of the price (or for free, if you act quickly) you can laugh, learn, and tell yourself that, no matter how corrupt our current political scene is, as long as America produces people like Teri, we’re going to be all right.

Book Review: Ray Zacek’s “The Daguerreotype”

The DaguerreotypeI’m always delighted when a friend sends me a book he has written and I love the book, since it means I can write an honest, favorable review.  I’ve already read and positively reviewed one book from Ray Zacek (The Taxman Cometh) and it’s my pleasure to give a positive, albeit short, review of his latest effort, The Daguerreotype.

I thought Zacek’s The Taxman Cometh was an excellent novella.  The Daguerreotype is even better, showing Zacek’s development as a writing.  Zacek is an economical writer who never uses one word more or less than is absolutely necessary to tell his tale.  That technique works very well in this book, which ties together two ostensibly separate stories, one set in early 1840s Paris and the other in modern-day America.  Both stories revolve around a daguerreotype and move, slowly but inexorably, from a prosaic beginning to a thrilling, and entirely unexpected, conclusion.

I highly recommend this book, which is perfect reading for a dark, rainy afternoon.  The book will make the afternoon fly by, while the ever-so-slightly claustrophobic feel of the rainy day will add a little something extra to this subtle, yet exciting book

What I’m reading right now — and recommend

A friend recommended that I read Dan Simmons’ Flashback.  It’s a futuristic dystopian crime thriller with a twist:  the dangerous, crime-ridden, war-torn disaster that is the United States in the  mid-21st century came into being directly because of Progressive policies.  This could have become a Tea Party polemic — and I’m not fond of polemics, which are boring even when they support my viewpoint — but this book works because Simmons is the real deal as a writer.

Nick Bottom, the story’s “hero” is a washed up detective in thrall to flashback, an addictive drug that allows people to relive their happiest moments.  He’s been asked by America’s Japanese overlords to investigate a crime committed six years before.  Although he’s not much good, since he was one of the chief detectives on the case, he can use flashback to relive his investigation.

I’m only halfway through the book and I can’t put it down.  I know that I’m going to discover why a Japanese documentary maker was murdered, how Nick’s wife died, what will happen to his son and father-in-law, and whether Nick’s eventual discoveries will have any effect on the war-torn America in which he lives.

I’ll let you know if the book jumps the shark (because even made-up futuristic worlds can get to silly to tolerate), but I’m currently optimistic that the second half will be as good as the first.

Remembering C.S. Lewis

I am not exaggerating when I say that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books were an important element in my moral development.  I read them as a child because I loved the fantastic stories.  I appreciate them as an adult because I value their spiritual and moral underpinnings.  I have no doubt that the books’ foundational ideas seeped into my subconscious when I was too young to realize that I was reading a series of beautifully crafted moral and religious allegories.

Sadly, my kids do not share my passion for the Narnia books.  They did, however, love the first movie, which I thought had some important lessons about honor and manliness.

Why am I suddenly talking about C.S. Lewis?  Because (unbeknownst to me) tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of his death.  Peter Wehner has a lovely homage to Lewis, who was one of the last great 20th century moralists and thinkers.

Charles Murray taught me libertarianism in a hurry

One of my favorite songs when I was young was Betty Hutton’s Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry.  Because of the way my mind plays with words, the song always pops into my head whenever I think of Charles Murray, the deservedly famous libertarian thinker and writer.  The rhyming names are, of course, a facile connection between the man and the song.  The deeper, more meaningful connection is that Murray’s 1994 book, Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was one of the pivotal books that hastened my transition from knee-jerk liberal to thinking conservative.

Bell Curve was so relentlessly logical it dealt a death-blow to the cognitive dissonance that is a necessity for a moral, rational Jew who lives in the real world, but who continues to vote the Democrat ticket. I read the book in 1995 and became hungry for more and more books that inevitably destroyed my Jewish, San Francisco, UC Berkeley, PBS, New Yorker, New York Times world view. (Some of those books were Keith Richburg’s Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa; Charles Sykes’ Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education; and, believe it or not, Arthur Schlesinger’s The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, in which an old Leftist mourned multiculturalism without realizing that he ushered it in America’s front door.)  It took until 9/11 before I was able to sever completely the cord between me and the Democrat party, but I never would have reached that state had it not been for The Bell Curve.

As always, there’s a point to one of my meandering introductions.  I was fortunate enough today attend a luncheon in San Francisco at which Mr. Murray spoke.  The theme of the speech was the same theme he sounded in his best-selling book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010:  namely, that 21st century America is experiencing a class divide the likes of which has never been seen before in this country.

We’ve all seen this divide in the responses to the previous and current occupants of the White House.  George W. Bush may have come from an old American family, and been educated at all the right (i.e., Ivy League schools), but he was considered a class traitor by the Leftist elite, who relentlessly mocked his speech (“new-cu-lar,” “misunderestimated,” etc.), and sought to portray him as an ill-educated yokel who squeaked into the Ivies because of family connections.  Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the stoner who drifted into the Ivies on a cloud of marijuana smoke and affirmative action, is held up to the world as the most intelligent president ever to occupy the White House (never mind his staggering ignorance about everything but Leftist cant), in large part because he plays the class game so adroitly.

I certainly saw the class divide in my own world when a liberal family member was horrified to learn that I admired Sarah Palin — a gal who didn’t go to the Ivies, who believes in God, and who shoots moose.  He didn’t even bother to challenge me on political substance.  He simply said, “She’s not one of us.”  We stared at each other over a giant chasm of value differences.  To me, she’s “one of us,” because she believes in American exceptionalism, distrusts big government, supports the Constitution, recognized the inevitable loss of freedom that comes with socialized medicine, supports Israel, supports the troops, etc.  While this relative disagrees with Palin on every one of those issues, her real crime was being a yokel.  If he was the bumper-sticker type, he’d have had one that said “We don’t vote for yokels.”

The point Murray made in his speech is that the Bush/Obama or Obama/Palin divides are more than just political.  He began with something simple:  marriage.  Upper middle class white people marry — 84% of them today, as opposed to 94% of them when I was born.  Lower class people have abandoned marriage — 84% of them were married when I was born; only 48% of them are married now.  The problem isn’t just an economic one, although the economic effects of single-motherhood are so catastrophic that even the New York Times has had to acknowledge it.  Two-parent families are the glue that holds a community together.

As Murray said, single dads don’t coach Little League and single moms don’t go to PTA meetings.  In Marin County, Tiburon and Ross moms bring their formidable energy and skills to scarily efficient and excessive PTAs and school plays, while in San Rafael and Marin City (Marin’s genuinely poor communities), those same Tiburon and Ross moms, as charity work, try to do the same in communities that have virtually no parental participation.

It’s not just that the rich are richer and the poor are poorer (although that too is a problem, because it means the middle is vanishing).  It’s that the rich and the poor live entirely separate lives.  Back in 1960, even in affluent neighborhoods, neighborhoods were more blended than they are today.  Incidentally, much as I hate to give any praise to my former law-prof and current-Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, she diagnosed this problem almost a decade ago.  In The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, she pointed out that the upper middle class drive for public schools that offer the same quality as prep schools drove up housing prices in certain areas, making it impossible for middle and working class families even to remain within the school district’s boundaries.  While Warren had the smarts to divine the problem, she’s so ideologically blinkered that she thinks government control and intervention is the solution.

Murray describes a lost American world in which the upper classes and upper middle classes sought to blend in, not to stand out.  They bought Buicks, not Cadillacs, because it was déclassé to flaunt ones wealth.  Nowadays, with stratospheric incomes propelled by information technology, you’re failing the new upper class if you don’t have the $100,000 Tesla.

Our children grow up untouched, not just by poverty, but by a connection to the blue-collar working class.  Many of the children in Marin have never met a parent who makes his living using his body (unless he’s a chichi personal trainer) as opposed to his brain.  I certainly know that’s the case for my little community.  I like to describe my delightful neighborhood as one populated by old people with young children.  This used to be a nice suburban working class neighborhood, with stay-at-home moms and blue collar or low-level white collar (i.e., teachers and clerks) dads.  Now it’s an expensive, upper class neighborhood where every adult has at least one degree, where all the fathers are professionals, and where the mothers were professionals before their income level gave them the luxury of staying home to raise their children.  All of us worked like the dickens in our 20s and 30s so that we could afford these homes in this top-flight school district for our late-in-life kids.

Popular culture has also divided.  As  I like to tell my kids, back in the 1940s, everybody listened to Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman, and in the 1950s, everybody watched I Love Lucy.  Now, our popular culture is divided up by 500 cable channels, God-alone-knows-how-many pop music charts, and movies targeted to micro-stratum demographics.  Murray saw this as a class issue, and I agree.  He pointed out that the audience before him watches Mad MenDownton Abbey, and Breaking Bad, while that other class is watching shows we don’t even know exist.  (Although I do know about Duck Dynasty and one day, if I can drag myself to the TV, a box I usually avoid, I  might watch it.)

I’m very aware of the pop culture chasm, of course, because I have kids.  My blogging means that I know everything my kids know, which is very fortunate.  I’m usually a step ahead of them, and can deconstruct Miley Cyrus or “I kissed a girl and I like it.”  They wouldn’t listen to me if I just concluded that it’s “nasty” or “inappropriate.”  They do listen to me because I can describe the behavior in detail and, in the same detail, explain why it’s destructive.  Most parents, of course, don’t have the freedom to be as informed as I am, and the children pay the price.  They grow up in a pop culture world where it’s not just that “anything goes,” it’s that anything that is base, demeaning, and immoral is elevated and emulated.

I do believe, though, that children are beginning to see through the noise of a sleazy, degrading pop culture, and they’re recognizing that, no matter how much they’re forced to read a second-rate, civil-rights-era play such as Raisin in the Sun, that they’re being lied to.  Whatever pathologies may be plaguing today’s black community, they understand that systemic institutional racism is no longer an issue., especially when there’s a black man in the White House.

In other words, the fact that the Left controls the discourse in the media and the schools, so that children get a monolithic Leftist world view, also means that the cognitive dissonance grows and grows.  In this way, we’ve become like the Soviet Union, where people became cynical as they looked at housing shortages and hunger while the government trumpeted the stunning success of whatever iteration of Stalin’s Five Year Plan happened to be in vogue that year.  Our children too are struggling with cognitive dissonance.  It’s a slow process, as I know personally, but a real one.

All in all, it was a very good lunch.  The meal was delicious (perfectly prepared chicken, wild mushrooms, and fruit tart), and the intellectual food was just as good.  If you live in the Bay Area, I strongly suggest that you get on the Pacific Research Institute (“PRI”) mailing list.  The speakers that PRI brings to San Francisco are always worth hearing.

Book Review: Rorke Denver’s “Damn Few : Making the Modern SEAL Warrior”

Damn Few cover

I had the opportunity to get my hands on a copy of Rorke Denver’s Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, which he wrote with Ellis Henican.  Here’s the short version of the review:  It’s a very good book, and if you like getting the inside story and how the Navy creates its SEAL elites and what they do with themselves once created, it is definitely the book for you.

Here’s the longer version.  Many of you may know who Rorke Denver is, since he was one of the stars in Act of Valor, the SEALS’ foray in film making.  For a non-actor, he was every bit as good as most people one sees in movies.  As you may recall, I have mixed feelings about that movie.  As a movie about who the SEALS are and what they do, it’s a great action adventure film.  My problem was that the movie made the SEALS’ particular arch enemy a terrorist . . . Jew.  Long-time readers may recall that I was extremely upset, as were many other politically conservative Jews.  A military friend of mine put me in touch with some of the SEALS involved in making that movie, though, and I came away pretty darn convinced that, at the end, the scene identifying the terrorist mastermind as a Jew was accidental.

I know that the boots on the ground guys aren’t out there dealing with Islamic terrorists, or Somali pirates, or Latin American drug lords, while all the time dreaming that what they’d really like to do is kill a few Jews.  Nevertheless, the fact that the powers that be involved in making the movie — the producers, director and, most especially, the Pentagon brass — did not delete a scene that should not have been in there, still rankles.  This means that, whenever I think of the SEALS and, most particularly, the SEALS in Act of Valor, 99% of me admires them tremendously and views them as true heroes, while 1% of me cannot quite seem to get over that feeling of snit and betrayal.  I was therefore worried that I might carry a chip on my shoulder that would leave me unable to enjoy the book.

I need not have worried.  Having read Denver’s autobiography about his life as a SEAL, I find that my 99% admiration for these guys has increased in strength (although I’ve discovered that I’m never going to let go of the 1% sense of betrayal against the brass).  The guys on the ground really are the closest things we will see on this earth to super men.

Every SEAL book starts, of course, with BUD/S and that insane subset of BUD/S, Hell Week.  Working together, Denver and his co-author, Henican, provide a gripping picture of the kind of men who make it through the program, as well as describing in detailed, but never boring prose, precisely what program they make it through.

And what kind of men are they?  Well,  in some ways, all types:  short, tall, wiry, beefy, analytical, physical, black, white, brown, etc.  These men are a cross-section of America.  What they all have working for them as they enter the BUD/S program is superb physical conditioning.  What not all of them have, but that the ones who succeed need, is that peculiar inner drive that enables them to suffer just as much as the person next to them, but not to quit.

As is the case with every book I’ve read about BUD/S, while the program is certainly intended to make sure that those who make it to graduation as SEALS are physically able to handle the rigors of their work, the real goal is to separate those who can cope mentally and emotionally in whatever environment they find themselves.  And that doesn’t just mean SEa, Air, and Land; it also means boredom, battle, conference rooms, and film premieres. They must be men with an unshakeable sense of themselves and their purpose, and with a scary level of concentration that allows them to acknowledge yet ignore fear, pain, and any other “distractions.”  Denver walks us through the tests of strength and endurance that these men have to pass in order to become SEALS.  I was tired and sweaty by the end, despite having experienced it only through my imagination, while in the comfort of my armchair.

As with so many people one reads about who become SEALS or Medal of Honor winners, even when he was a child, Denver had a passion for his passions.  I know that sounds stupid, but it’s not.  Those of us who raise children know that they cycle through various hobbies about which they’re passionate, provided that the commitment doesn’t become burdensome.  Soccer is great . . . until it becomes too hard.  Reading is fun . . . until you’ve exhausted the library’s supply of fantasy novels.  History is interesting . . . but it get’s boring after a while.  People like Denver, though, have a deeper drive that enables them, even as children, to sustain their interest in something long after everyone else has dropped out after having discovered that it wasn’t as fun or glamorous as they thought.

Denver describes being a hyper-competitive, hyperactive kid who succeeded at every sport he tried — and who didn’t quit once he’d achieved a goal (he made the team) or when the drill got boring or painful.  He got himself a lacrosse scholarship to Syracuse University, even though he’d only started playing the game a few years before, while in high school.  Once there, this hyper-competitive future warrior was a fine arts major.  As a liberal arts person myself, I liked that touch.

That Denver knew himself and had moral courage early on reveals itself in one very nice anecdote he tells about joining the Syracuse lacrosse team.  Denver is a teetotaler.  Like me, his decision to abstain seems to stem, not from any puritanical opposition to alcohol, but because he doesn’t like it and prefers to be in control of himself.  Denver knew, though, that his team was a hard-partying, hard-drinking group.  At his very first party, he came up with a plan to put the drinking issue front and center.  He handed the team caption a bottle of booze (which told everyone that Denver didn’t believe he was morally superior to his friends) and then announced that, not only wouldn’t he drink, he’d willingly to fight anyone who thought they could make him.  Nobody fought him and Denver learned then that having a plan means that, in many situations, you’re already halfway to victory.

As is the case in all SEAL books, readers learn that, while these men love their country, they train and fight and risk because they love the battle and they are deeply committed to the warrior brotherhood.  When you’re on the battlefield, Denver makes clear, you’re not reciting the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, you’re looking out for your buddy, and you know he’s looking out for you.

One of the things that Denver emphasizes with something approaching fanaticism is the practice and preparation that marks every single waking moment in the SEALS’ lives.  He wants everyone to be very clear that SEALS don’t win battles, kill pirates, and take down bin Laden just because they’re strong and brave.  Strong and brave are a prerequisite, but what makes and breaks every single mission is preparedness.  These guys have practiced every move over and over. When they go to battle, they plot out every possible contingency. There is always not just a Plan B, but a Plan C and probably a Plan D too.

What I found fascinating about Denver’s book is a section near the end, in which he talks about the tension between the SEALS and the brass in Washington.  While the 1980s and 1990s were not really the SEALS’ glory years, 9/11 brought them into stark focus again.  Their ability to fight quickly and effectively in just about any situation was a splendid advantage in a war unlike any 20th century war America had fought.  In Iraq, once the invasion was over, big troop movements weren’t much good against insurgent guerrilla tactics.  What worked was the SEALS’ decision to go out, intentionally draw fire, and then mow down the opposition.  Their ability to raid and secure houses within minutes also meant that they could clear the rats out in their dens.

Success is a double-edged sword.  The SEALS were greatly admired, but they also came under pressure from Washington to become bigger.  That’s a problem when you have a pretty open try-out and training process that sees more than an 80% attrition rate.  The only way you can increase the numbers is to decrease the standards.  But if you decrease the standards, then you’re not SEALS anymore.  You’re just another “more elite than the regular military” force.  Denver is honest enough, though, to say that during his post-Iraq years as a SEALS’ instructor, he saw some of the instructors get too caught up in making the training process so rigorous that only perfect specimens would graduate.  That too risked rendering the SEALS obsolete, as they would become too select to sustain themselves.  Denver believes that there’s an uneasy balance now, with instructors recognizing that easing off a little is not the same as abandoning standards.  Time will tell  if this compromise works.

Regarding the way in which the books is written, I have to give Denver and Henican two thumbs up for an excellent structure and a strong authorial voice.  (That latter quality can be difficult in a co-written book.)  Each chapter begins with an apt quotation about war and warriors, and a personal anecdote that relates to the chapter’s topic, whether it’s BUD/S, Iraq, marrying, or making a movie.  (And speaking of marrying, it seems that SEALS, when they’re home, worship their wives, which is as it should be, of course.)  I liked this structure, which helped me understand better the information in any given chapter.

The book balances nicely personal reminiscences, easy-to-understand descriptions of objects and conduct alien to the ordinary civilian, and stories about SEALS other than Denver himself.  That last means that the book isn’t too self-referential, something that can get dull.  Sometimes, after having read a memoir, I’m done with the person, not because I don’t like that person, but because I feel I’ve learned enough about him or her to satisfy me.  With Denver, however, I finished the book with no small degree regret, wishing I could spend a little more time in his company, as well as the company of his wife (she sounds great) and his teammates.

Overall, I give this book an A+ for content and readability.  If you like military memoirs, you should definitely include this one on your list.

Trembling on the brink of war, it’s time for a book review: Jill Urbach’s “Two-Room Flat”

In both personal correspondence and in work for Mr. Conservative, I’ve been writing about Obama and the imminent strike on Syria.  I’ve also been writing legal briefs because, when it comes to work, it’s always drought or deluge.  I’m in a deluge now and pretty much hanging in by the skin of my teeth.  I start working at 5:30 a.m. and finish around 11 p.m.  Blech.

Let’s talk of pleasant things.  One of those pleasant things is Jill Urbach’s Two-Room Flat, a novel about a slow-growing love between two people who have a tragic death standing between them.  I’m not giving anything away when I say that these two people do find their way to love.  In romance novels, the ending is a foregone conclusion.  What makes or breaks a book is how the author gets her (or, occasionally, his) readers to that ending.  Urbach gets her readers there very pleasantly.

Preliminarily this is a “clean” romance novel.  There are allusions to sex, but the book isn’t about sex; it’s about friendship and about love.  I’m growing quite fond of these “clean” romances.  Good erotica is hard to write, and too many romance novels sound like pornography run through a euphemism filter, so that one is drowned in an embarrassing sea of throbbing hardnesses and heaving mounds.  You won’t find any of that here.

The novel’s female protagonist is Claire Gissler, who became famous writing slightly spicy fictions about a cheerfully adventurous heroine.  Since her husband died in an accident two years before the book begins, she’s had writer’s block.  Her publisher has fired her and she’s in deep financial straits.  Help and hope comes from an unexpected source — Adam Lambright, a widower who was once her husband’s best friend, but whom she now hates because of his connection to her husband’s death.  When Adam has the opportunity to go to London on business, however, he invites Claire to share his two-room flat.

Once in London, Claire and Adam explore the city, meet new people, and start coming out of their spousal-death funks.  They also begin to learn more about each other, and about the need for forgiveness and generosity of spirit.  I can’t say more than that without giving the book away, but I can say that, for the most part, the characters’ trajectory is realistic.  Additionally, they’re nice people.  I need nice people in my books, because I give myself so wholeheartedly to a story.  I don’t want to spend a couple of hours with icky, boring, selfish people.  If I wanted that, I’d just talk to myself.

The book stumbles occasionally, leaving a few loose ends regarding Adam’s and Claire’s relationships with their own adult children and with the other’s children.  Additionally, there are occasional plot points where Urbach has the character’s behave irrationally in order to move the story forward.  These are minor quibbles though, regarding a book that I otherwise found to be a fun, romantic read.

One more thing.  After I had already finished the book, Urbach sent me a very charming promotional video she (and her friends?) made to help publicize the book.  I think you’ll like it.  Also, after you watch it, get back to me and tell me whether Urbach doesn’t look like a younger, prettier Annette Benning (and I totally love her haircut).  The “abs” aren’t bad either:

Schools’ war on boys

Two things come together in this article by Christina Hoff Sommers about the war that schools routinely wage against American boys.

First, it’s written by Christina Hoff Sommers, a writer I’ve deeply admired since I first read Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. I give her a great deal of credit for helping strip the so-called “liberal” blinders from my eyes and allowing me to see human nature and the world we live in as they actually are, not as the Marxist propagandists claim they are.

Second, the article supports something I’ve been saying at this blog since the day I started it, back in (gasp!) October 2004:  Our culture is incredibly hostile to boys, and this hostility is reflected in our schools.  My pet peeve is the way education revolves around “feelings.”  I’ve said a zillion times that boys tune this out.  If you want to engage them in literature, have them read Ivanhoe, not Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I loved that second book (in a chastely salacious way) when I was 11, but Judy Blume-esque books are so not for boys.

If you give boys books about adventure, and heroics, and honor, and decency, they gobble them up.  If you foist on them relatively stagnant books about navel-gazing, they will zone out and become disengaged from education.  Wrap that up with games that deny boys the opportunity to play rough (in a fairly safe way), and compete, and learn how to win and lose, and you will have emasculated a generation.

“What’s in a name?” when it comes to a new “biography” of Jesus

I haven’t read Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, so I can’t weigh in on its factual veracity or the quality of the conclusions Aslan draws from the facts he does assert.  This Jewish Review article certainly suggests that Aslan is, if not all hat, no cattle, at least short a few cows.  As for me, I have a bias that leaves me suspicious about Muslim-authored books that seek to re-write Jesus and then are embraced by the Leftist mainstream media.  Suspicions, of course, are neither fact nor proof.

But here’s one thing I can say with absolute certainty:  Reza Aslan’s given name is a brilliant, ironic joke in this context.  You see, for me, there is now and always will be only one Aslan:

C.S. Lewis's Aslan, from the Narnia books.

C.S. Lewis’s Aslan, from the Narnia books.

C.S. Lewis’ Aslan is, of course, an allegorical stand-in for Jesus — the very same person Reza Aslan seeks to deconstruct.

Lots and lots of book reviews

One of the nice things about taking a cruise is that I have time to read. This trip, I was able to get a lot of free books, with the understanding that I would review them. So, without further ado, my reviews:

Romances

Love Overdue, by Pamela Morsi.  On the one hand, this was a stock romance:  Dorothy Jarrow (DJ), a buttoned-up young woman planning on being a librarian, let’s lose on a vacation and has a fling with a “hot” guy.  Several years later, when she moves to a small town to run the library, she discovers that Scott, her landlady’s son is that same young man.  Because DJ is embarrassed about that uncharacteristic fling, and because she assumes Scott is a player, she’s delighted when he doesn’t recognize her.  Scott, on the other hand, is not a player, but he’s put off by DJ’s manifest discomfort around him. The rest of Love Overdue is about DJ’s and Scott’s growing attraction to each other, helped along by a gossipy small town, and a charmingly meddling landlady.

As you can tell, Love Overdue doesn’t deviate from the romance script.  The thing is, though, that all romances stick to the script.  Without it, they’re not romance novels.  The difference between one romance and another doesn’t lie in the story arc, which, subject to the applicable gimmick, is always the same.  Instead, the differences lie in (a) writing quality; (b) character development; and (c) believability.  Love Overdue scores high on all three metrics.  While Morsi is no Shakespeare or even a Jane Austen, she’s a solid, grammatically correct author who hits the right note when it comes to the delicate balance between description, dialogue, and the character’s interior monologues.  I especially like the way DJ and Scott are nice people, who live in a fully realized, but not overly done, community that feels real.  DJ’s “uptightness” is a bit overplayed, because it’s necessary to the plot line, but Morsi does a skillful job of letting DJ unwind, even as Scott decides that, maybe, romance is in his future.

For romance lovers, I recommend Love Overdue.

***

Against the Mark (The Raines of Wind Canyon), by Kat Martin.  One of the things that savvy romance novelists learn to do is to build on previous novels, by having each novel feature a different friend or family member.  Years ago, while on vacation somewhere, I got hold of one of Kat Martin’s early books in the series and enjoyed it.  Martin’s writing is anything but simplistic, but she had all the right ingredients:  tough, beautiful woman who needs help from a tough, gorgeous man.  The plot, dialog, and character were all decent.  I ended up reading a few more of her novels and, while I wouldn’t rave about them, I enjoyed them.

Against the Mark, however, didn’t work for me.  The plot isn’t bad:  gorgeous woman hires gorgeous, strong man to help her reach closure by proving that her father, from whom she was estranged didn’t die accidentally but was, instead, murdered.  For some reason, though, Martin’s writing grated on me this time around.  I felt as if she was writing on autopilot.  She didn’t seem interested in her characters.  Instead of writing witty or intelligent dialog, she fell back into the lazy writer’s habit of having someone say something inane or ordinary, and having the other character think “Wow, she’s so brilliant (or charming or witty).”  Good writers don’t use such cheap tricks.  Rather than instructing us repeatedly about their character’s virtues,they actually let us see those virtues played out in real time.

I haven’t given up on Kat Martin, because I think she’s a solid genre writer.  I just wouldn’t bother reading this particular book in her Raines of Wind Canyon series.

***

Three Little Words, by Susan Mallery.  Susan Mallery writes some of the best dialog in the romance novel business.  Her female and male leads are incredibly good at repartee.  As the plot requires, they’re funny, insightful, loving, seductive, or romantic.  I could read a whole book made up solely of Mallery’s by-play between her lead characters. Sometimes, though, no matter how good the dialog and romance, the rest of the book can drag down the story.

Mallery used to write trilogies:  books about three sisters, or three friends, or three brothers.  Lately, though, all of her romances are set in the fictional town of Fool’s Gold, which is located in the California foothills.  In the first few Fool’s Gold novels, Mallery’s gimmick was that Fool’s Gold was a town that had ended up with a preponderance of women, making romance a rare and special thing.

In recent novels, though, Mallery simply places her plots in the imaginary town of Fool’s Gold.  To that end, all of her Fool’s Gold books have recurring characters, some of whom were the leads in past novels and some of whom will clearly be the leads in future novels.  This repetition can actually be a very nice quality in a romance novel, because it presents a fully-realized fictional universe.  However, if a writer gets lazy and forgets to explain who all the various recurring characters are, it can become very frustrating, even for someone who has read some or all of the past books.  As a reader, you find yourself reading through pages and pages of dialogues between people who clearly know each other, but to whom you don’t remember being introduced.  I kept feeling as if I was at a cocktail party, trying to catch up with an ongoing conversation between people a group of people whom I barely know.

Three Little Words is the perfect example of both Mallery’s strengths and her weaknesses.  I loved the romance between Isabel, a woman temporarily managing her grandmother’s wedding dress store even as she prepares to open a high end fashion store in New York, and Ford, a former Navy SEAL who has returned to his home town.  The two have known each other for years, since Isabel’s sister jilted Ford.  Isabel, who had a teenage crush on the slightly older Ford, wrote him letters over the years while he was away in the military.  Ford never responded, but the letters form a bond that allows the two to start a pretend romance to get Ford’s marriage-minded mother off his back.  Both Isabel and Ford (especially Ford) are people I would enjoy meeting, simply for the pleasure of their conversation.

If only the rest of the book was as good.  It’s not bad, mind you.  It’s just not as good.  The first page skipper is a kind-of boring romance between Ford’s math-teacher brother and Ford’s military-hardened colleague.  Even if you track that romance, you may just want to skip the endless dialog between Isabel and her friends.  Most of it doesn’t advance the plot, and it’s just not as much fun as spending time with Isabel and Ford when they’re on their own.

So, I recommend this novel highly for the central romance, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself skimming a lot of the pages that aren’t central to the main romance.

***

Fantasy

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker.  This book crept up on me.  When I started reading it, the plot (dissertation student dumped by boyfriend who’s about to marry someone else) left be assuming it would be another ordinary romance, maybe with a little witchcraft thrown.  I assumed that the heroine would get revenge against her boyfriend or find Mr. Wonderful.  That, however, was not what happened.  Instead, the book really begins when Nora Fischer wanders away from a rather depressing wedding to find herself the darling of an A-list crowd garden party — and it turns into a party that never seems to end.  Nora is reinvented as a gorgeous woman, married to an even more gorgeous man, living an enviable social whirl.

But all is not as it seems, and Nora finds herself plunging into an ever darker world, inhabited by ordinary people, fairies, and warlocks.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I couldn’t put this book down.  The plot was never predictable, but always satisfying.  The characters were fascinating and seemed like real people.  Nora was indeed a thinking woman who intelligently dealt with the completely unforeseen challenges that kept coming her way.  I’m scared to say anything more about the plot, lest I give too much away.  Suffice to say that it was imaginative, but sufficiently grounded in the characters’ very real personalities, so that it never bogged down into silliness.

I was actually surprised how much I liked this book, because I really don’t like the whole magic/fantasy romance genre.  Too many of them draw their inspiration from the Twilight series, with moody vampires struggling to protect their whiny heroines from fellow vampires who lack that loving feeling.  Bleh.  The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is not one of those dreary Twilight derivatives.

If you’d like an imaginative take on an ordinary woman’s journey into a magical world, I recommend The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.

***

History

History’s Greatest Scandals: Shocking Stories of Powerful People, by Ed Wright.  I’m not sure why this book was available on a review website, since it was written in 2006, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, and am happy to throw it a kind word.  This book, which was originally published in Australia, contains a (very) few factual errors, but is otherwise a straightforward and enjoyable series of short chapters detailing all sorts of famous scandals involving famous people.  The author covers political misconduct (Did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with Sally Hemings?); murder in high places (Was Catherine the Great a husband killer?); false prophets (what would a scandal book be without Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker?); dugitives (anyone remember Lord Lucan?); and much more.  This is the kind of book you can dip into when you’re waiting for a bus, or just want to read for a few more minutes before sleep overtakes you.  Of course, it’s also the kind of book that, with its bite-sized chapters, leads you on until you discover you’ve missed your bus or read all night.

Bottom line:  an enjoyable light read that takes you dancing through the sordid side of the history of famous people.

Autobiography

What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life, by Tim Conway.  Tim Conway’s book was exactly what you’d expect from Tim Conway:  it’s a light, charming read, written by a talented blithe-spirit who never met someone he didn’t like.  If you’re looking for sordid revelations about Tim or the comedy geniuses with whom he worked (Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, etc.), you are looking at the wrong book.  Tim sees himself as an “everyman”
who fortuitously could make people laugh and who ended up having wonderful experiences because of that.

Tim describes growing up in a half Irish (his father), half Romanian (his mother) household.  His entire family consisted of these two, slightly eccentric, but lovable and loving people.  One of the gifts they gave him was that they were anything but helicopter parents.  He had a simple, wholesome, all-American upbringing, without being burdened with too many expectations, or the overwhelming parental focus that is often the lot of the only child.  To hear Tim tell it, he was born well-adjusted, but with a strong sense of humor.

I would have preferred the book if it had a bit more gossip about the many fascinating people Tim met throughout his lengthy show business career.  Not mean or sordid gossip, but just a few more stories that bring alive the great comics and actors of the past.  Tim reserves that narrative depth only for Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, both of whom come off as wonderful people.

What’s So Funny doesn’t rank as a great show business autobiography.  Tim Conway is just too diffident and self-effacing for that.  It is, however, a light, lively jaunt through one very funny man’s life.

I actually have several more books that I still have to read. I blush to admit that they’re the more “serious” books. I just couldn’t seem to bend my mind to anything but light reading while on vacation. Apparently my brain needed a vacation too.  And to end on a light note, one of the most brilliant Tim Conway/Harvey Korman sketches ever: