W.B.’s Book Report: Men in War

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The first book I’ve read that was recommended by Haunted Bookshop owner Roger Mifflin, Men in War by Andreas Latzko is a scream of rage and unimaginable pain, a primal scream against the inhumanity that Latzko endured as a soldier of Austria-Hungary on the River Isonzo front against Italy in 1916. If I didn’t understand what men in war have been through, now I have an inkling. The book is a powerful, life-changing experience that I must force myself to read again soon.

Men in War is a novel with six chapters, more accurately described as six short stories, linked mainly by the front and by the unrelenting despair and senselessness of the situation. This is a book that should shake the reader to the core. No wonder the Hitler regime had it burned – it exposes far too much of what the war machine is all about.

“My Comrade (A Diary),” the fourth chapter, is a bomb – a rant of common sense from a man diagnosed as mentally ill because he carries the memories of the men he has seen destroyed by war and he cannot fathom the insanity that did them such harm. It’s a clear peek behind the haunted eyes of those who have seen the same: We see that such memories cannot possibly be compartmentalized or tucked away forgotten. I would guess they can only be endured a best as one can.

Latzko wrote Men in War (Menschen im Krieg) during his rehabilitation from physical and psychic injuries sustained during his service; he served on the Isonzo front during 1916, suffering malaria and then severe shock from a heavy Italian artillery barrage. After eight months in the hospital, he moved to Davos, Switzerland, for further recuperation and rehab, where he wrote the book in 1917.

This is the book that Christopher Morley, through Mifflin, says “was so damned true that the government suppressed it.” One prays Latzko got some relief by letting the words pour out of his fingers. He does a service to humanity by sharing the inhumanity he witnessed and by letting us see and feel the damage done to his heart and soul.

Here is a link to the book at Project Gutenberg.

(Photo: © Andrew Emptage | Dreamstime.com Preserved trench network at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres on the Western Front battlefields of the first world war. Photo taken on March 10, 2010)

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W.B.’s Book Report: The Haunted Bookshop

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It’s been a long time since I was as charmed by a reading experience as I was by Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop. Released in 1919, this book is filled (through bookseller Roger Mifflin) with Morley’s passionate hope that the lessons from the recently completed Great Was would be learned and that humanity would never turn to such senseless brutality to solve its differences again.

Seen through the lens of nearly 100 more years of history, Mifflin seems a trifle naive, especially when he puts his faith in Woodrow Wilson, who is about to embark on a peace conference, but Morley also inject elements that suggest he, too, knows that peace is an elusive goal.

The Haunted Bookshop is a wondrous ode to books and literature. a tremendous manifesto against the silliness and futility of war, and an adequate little mystery and love story. There are dozens of good suggestions for future reading and plenty of sound philosophy and observations about life, living, and what the weary world had just experienced.

I finished this book reluctantly, wanting the story to continue and wishing to have more of the loquacious Roger Mifflin – the good news is there is one previous book in Morley’s quiver about the bookseller who so loved books and peace.

Morley peppers the book with references to other 1919-era books, some familiar to me and many not, so I could spend quite a bit of time tracking them down and seeing for myself what delighted Morley/Mifflin so.

I can’t recommend The Haunted Bookshop enthusiastically enough.

Here is a link to the book at Project Gutenberg.

2017 saved the best for last

W.B. at the Movies/W.B.’s Book Report:

I’ve been tracking the books I’ve read since 1994, and no year in this recorded history have I read as many as the 66 books that I devoured in 2017.

Michael Connelly accounted for 21 of those books, and my re-immersion into audiobooks (with a new 45-mile commute starting in March) is responsible for 44 of them. I became addicted to Connelly after deciding to sample his work after falling in love with the Amazon TV show Bosch, based on Connelly’s detective hero Harry Bosch. The books are as binge-worthy as the show, and the latest, Two Kinds of Truth, may be the best yet.

I also discovered Craig Johnson’s series of mysteries about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, and for essentially the same reason: I thoroughly enjoyed the Longmire TV show on Netflix and wanted more. The best thing is that Johnson’s regular reader, actor George Guidall, embodies Walt Longmire even better than Robert Taylor does on screen, so the novels I’ve “read” (the first five of 13 so far) have been a delight.

Unbroken-coverThe last book I “read” in 2017 was Laura Hillenbrand’s page-turner biography, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. I don’t read many biographies, but I was taken by Hillenbrand’s earlier book Seabiscuit and heard good things about this one.

Her story of Louis Zamperini – who carried the Olympic torch in 1990 through a town not far from the Japanese prisoner of war camp where he lived a hellacious existence for nearly two years – is as good as it gets.

Zamperini lived a remarkable 97-year life that saw him compete in the Olympics, survive 47 days in a liferaft on the Pacific Ocean after a bomber crash, struggle through the POW experience and post-war alcoholism, and emerge to find a way to forgive his tormentors. Hillenbrand’s prose more than does justice to an uncommon man.

Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi-posterI don’t keep track of the movies or TV shows I’ve watched (there are too many), but I do know my favorite movie theater experience of 2017 was also the last one: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. This film starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker was the most fun I’ve had in that long-ago, far-away galaxy since 1980 and The Empire Strikes Back.

Writer-director Rian Johnson filled the story with surprises, some more breathtaking than others, and we had a ball. This is just me, but you should know that back in the 1970s and early ’80s I watched the first three Star Wars films six to eight times each on the big screen. I even watched the much-maligned prequels of 15-20 years ago multiple times in the theater.

The 2015 revival film, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, was tremendous, yet I didn’t watch it a second time until a couple of weeks ago. It was great, but it didn’t draw my inner geek back for repeats. As this latest film reached its climax, however, I felt that old familiar tug of wanting to get back in line for another ride on the roller coaster.

I wholly recommend Unbroken to people who love a great book and Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi to people who love a great space opera. I know some people think Johnson took too many liberties with what they consider the Star Wars canon, but I don’t agree in the slightest. Last Jedi is a rousing flick that adds a small handful of exclamation points to the legend.

W.B.’s Book Report: The Martian

Cast Away meets Apollo 13” is how more than one reviewer describes Andy Weir’s compelling page-turner The Martian. In a world where everything needs to be a reference to something else, I suppose that description works as well as any.The plot of the book does indeed contain elements that will remind the reader of both movies, although Mark Watney never befriends a volleyball.

And it doesn’t cover Weir’s unique voice, the humor, and the care taken to walk that thin line between realism and the absurd. For all of the headaches and dangers that Weir sends the way of his astronaut stranded on Mars, I never once said “Oh, come on, now you’ve jumped the shark,” or “Oh, please, that solution was way too convenient.”
This is a great novel that takes readers to the real Mars — as real a Mars as contemporary science can speculate — and never lets up until the story reaches its powerful conclusion.

W.B.’s Book Report: Unicorn Western

It began as a laugh among friends. It has evolved into a nine-novella epic with the promise of two more epics to come. The story of how Unicorn Western came to be is almost as much fun as the actual story.

Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant are two-thirds of a podcasting team that meets weekly to talk about writing and self-publishing. One day the other third, David W. Wright, took exception to Platt’s stated desire to write a western someday. Too much trouble, too much research needed to make it authentic – for example, do you know what color was the smoke from those old six-shooters? Hilarity ensued.

The solution to Wright’s objection: Put a unicorn in the story. That way when people question what appears to be an unrealistic detail, you can respond that this isn’t the real Earth: “If we’ve filled the world with unicorns, I’d say we can do anything we want!”

 A few short months later, the joke is a series of novellas available as ebooks separately or in ebook and print as Unicorn Western: Full Saga – a sprawling tale of magic and prairie justice that spans decades and pays homage to at least nine films along the way. (Because I need an occasional break from electronic screens, I opted for the 690-page book.) There are plenty of in-jokes and winks that will bring a knowing smile or a laugh-out-loud to people familiar with the films and The Self-Publishing Podcast – my favorites are the prophetic owls – but the story creates a mythology all its own and stands up as a rousing yarn despite its goofy origins.

This is not Atlas Shrugged or even Lord of the Rings – the main thing it has in common with those works of literature is its length – but the payoff is definitely worth the long ride; the authors entertain and make you care along the way. Unicorn Western is the reader’s equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, well worth the time invested and leaving you with anticipation of the sequel(s).

Unplugged and loving it

[Found in notebook, written April 20, 2011]

In his influential book Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money (I describe it as influential because it has influenced me so deeply), Rabbi Daniel Lapin encourages his readers to make goals and delve into their life’s purposes but not before spending two or three days avoiding all electronic screens. Those brightly colored images have a mesmerizing effect, much like a deer confronted by headlights, Lapin said. Better to clear the mind before focusing on weighty matters.

As I pen these words (literally, pen to paper), I am one-third of my way through my first day of avoiding screens. The impact is uncanny. The urge to flip on the computer or the television is occasionally overwhelming, like the urge to take a drink must be to an alcoholic.

But the difference in productivity is astonishing. Without the ability to switch gears and multitask, I’ve filled six pages of a composition book in little more than an hour, preserving in a flurry thoughts that had been bouncing around unfinished in my mind for days.

As I’ve been writing, no email popping into my mailbox has diverted my attention. The urge to Google the information I need to insert into my essays has gone unfulfilled and, with it, the impulse to wander to other familiar Internet haunts to see if anything has changed since my last visit.

Lapin is an orthodox Jew who takes the Sabbath seriously and literally. His family abstains from work from sunset Friday through Saturday for a time of worship and introspection.

In this plugged-in and hectic era, a regular sabbatical makes a great deal of sense. Even a few hours into this unplugged exercise, I find myself tapping into reservoirs that have been neglected – not just stopping to smell the roses (difficult anyway after a spring snowstorm) but assessing where I am, what I’m doing and why. Too often the quotidian (i.e., the everyday routine) drags us along and we hardly have time to think – and making an appointment with ourselves to take the time to think is essential, lest we collide with life the way a deer collides with an oncoming car.

And so I put pen to paper, I play with the dog, I prepare a meal, I read books, I perform chores that have been neglected – in short, I do everything except fire up the computer or television. I will cheat for a time tonight when Red and I meet our weekly appointment with American Idol. That will be a setback of sorts, but the achievement of spending an unplugged day or two has already begun to bear fruit.

What will I learn from this exercise? We shall see.

But it has given me time to contemplate questions that deserve answers. What will you do with the time that’s left? Why are you here? What is the best use of your gifts? How can you make the world a better place? How can you make your life a better life? What makes you happy? What makes you free? What gives you life?

The power of short books

Books are getting shorter. The Domino Project launched by Seth Godin and friends has been publishing a series of manifestos, as they call them, all fewer than 100 pages and 5.25″ by 7.5″ – and all of them pack quite a punch. They took it to an extreme Wednesday with the release of what they’re calling a “one-page book,” a poster detailing the federal budget.

My own A Scream of Consciousness and Refuse to be Afraid run about 90 pages, in part because, well, I said all I needed to say in that space.

In his introduction to his translation of Abandonment to Divine Providence, a k a The Sacrament of the Present Moment, John Beevers writes:

Short books often have great power. A few that come to mind are Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, the Communist Manifesto, Paine’s The Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, St. Thérèse’s The Story of a Soul and, of course, the Gospels. There is a very human reason for this. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to plough through a five-volume treatise. They want the message, whatever it is, given to them in as few pages as possible. This is no new phenomenon. Pamphlets may not give as much enjoyment as a many-volumed book, but it is arguable that they have had vastly more influence.

And it is not only the reader who is affected by a short book. Its writer is. The effort, whether conscious or not, to concentrate his thought into a hundred or so pages instead of a thousand, gives this thought a sharpness and urgency which would inevitably be diffused over many volumes.

I would heartily recommend the Domino Project books – Godin’s We Are All Weird or Poke the Box, Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli, Anything You Want by Derek Sivers, or Do the Work by Steven Pressfield, for example – or of course my own humble efforts (see the right sidebar for previews).

I’m not going to suggest that these are as good as those books Beevers rattled off, but they do pack a punch, if I say so myself.

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, of course, plays an integral role in the ideas in A Scream of Consciousness. From the pages in the Amazon preview I think Beevers’ translation might be a little more accessible than the one I read by Kitty Muggeridge, but it’s the ideas of Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade that resonate in any case.

Happy reading!