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Excelling at Chess
Jacob Aagaard
The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on The Wall Street Journal Guide
William E. Blundell

A Gripping Look at Western Adoption of "Extreme" Eastern Spiritual Practices

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment - Scott Carney

Carney's Death on Diamond Mountain covers far more ground than the death of Ian Thorson; it's a sweeping look at Western adoption (often cafeteria style) of some extreme Eastern spiritual practices without concern for the potential dangers.

 

Scott Carney has done a fine job of researching and telling the story of a spiritual quest gone bad. In many ways, this story has the feel of Krakauer's Into the Wild -- a book about Christopher McCandless' naive (and ultimately fatal) pursuit of wilderness.

 

After years of meditation and divine pursuit, 38 year-old Ian Thorson retreats to a cave, and in the presence of his wife (who was declared a Goddess by her former husband), essentially meditates himself to death.

 

Death on Diamond Mountain reads a lot like one of Krakauer's investigative works; there is no shortage of effective research and reporting, yet I never felt like I was reading filler. For that, Carney's to be congratulated -- with the exception of Ian Thorson's mother, almost no one involved in Thorson's death wants to speak publicly about it.

 

The book winds through a narrative that often feels like fiction. The organization at the center of Thorson's death -- Diamond Mountain University -- offers up a laundry list of misconduct and suspect behavior, and while Carney never goes so far to label the organization a "cult," I'd have little hesitation labeling it as such.

 

Diamond Mountain's charismatic leader -- a person accepted by followers as a near god -- offers a very public front, yet the behind-the-scenes truth is very different. Allegations of financial impropriety, sexual escapades, conspiracy and ultimately a power play for control of the organization all contribute to Thorson's death.

 

My only real complaint is the paucity of detail about Thorson's final retreat and death, but given the reluctance of his wife and friends to discuss the tragedy, it's not surprising. (You can't help but wonder why Thorson's wife waited so long before summoning help).

 

Carney looks hard at the adoption of extreme Eastern spiritual practices (often in search of divine revelations), and how those practices (like extreme forms of meditation and sensory denial) can affect the brains of practitioners -- sometime to the point of death.

 

This is a good, deeply researched book.

An essay collection that has stuck with me over the decades...

We Are Still Married - Garrison Keillor

In the 1980s, I’d heard Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on the radio (and loved it) and read his novels, but hadn’t read his essay work until I bought We Are Still Married in 1990. It’s one of the handful of books that have traveled with me the decades since, and I never really get tired of reading it.

A collection of essays and stories, it showcases Keillor’s unique mixture of folksy humor and urbane, self-deprecating wit.

Most importantly, it’s jammed with the kind of written insights that linger long after the book has been closed, and it prepped me to read more of Keillor’s books (I love the essays more than the fiction).

The writing is consistently good, but the collection is somewhat uneven. I didn’t care, but others might. This collection appeared relatively early in Keillor’s career, yet this book (and the recently released “Keillor Reader” greatest hits essay book) remain on my Top 10 Desert Island books list.

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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Freelance Writing - Scott Carney

Carney's a working journalist who is currently asking questions that other writers seem willing to ignore (chiefly, "Are freelance writers getting paid enough for their effort?").

This guide touches on that question, but is essentially an insider's guide to navigating the sometimes byzantine freelance world.

Thankfully, Carney assumes you can write; he doesn't embarrass himself (or us) with a lot of "How to write gooder" advice.

Instead, he focuses on the big picture concepts that are often overlooked by new writers. (You're far more likely to get assignments if you're the only writer in a news-rich area as opposed to a general assignment writer in New York.)

The online world is filled with dull, me-too articles about succeeding as a freelancer. Too many of these are written by stiffs who have only succeeded at the basement level of the industry, and their advice is typically obvious and lacks insight.

Carney avoids covering the same ground, and while his short (free!) guide is a little lacking in specifics (he does helpfully include several of his better pitch letters), the book still offers plenty of useful advice about making a living in the freelance writing universe.

Endearing, but not as visceral as earlier Hornby efforts

Funny Girl - Nick Hornby

Not quite on a par with Hornby’s best. Funny Girl was endearing and easy to read, but it was a little too cute — a little too tame.

It lacked the kind of visceral detail that lent authenticity to the interior lives of characters in Hornby's prior novels. The gay screenwriters provided a glimpse of this rich interior life, but Sophie Straw -- Hornby's central character -- comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue.

For example, the novel lacked even a single demonstration why Sophie was viewed as a comic genius.

An endearing story, but not really a memorable one -- at least not on a par with Hornby's High Fidelity, How to be Good and others. (I wonder if Hornby’s foray into screenwriting isn't affecting the interior lives of his literary characters).

A grippingly written piece of WWII naval history

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour - James D. Hornfischer

The exhaustively researched story of one of the most dramatic naval battles of World War II -- the 2.5 hour fight for survival by a handful of small American warships facing some of Japan's most-powerful warships.

The story of the tiny destroyers and destroyer escorts of Taffy 3 isn't as well known as some of WWII's bigger naval battles, and that's a shame. While the American Navy ultimately triumphed, it was only through the sacrifice of some of the Navy's smallest warships. Meanwhile, the admirals involved -- Halsey and Kincaid in particular -- end up looking more than a little self-involved and uncaring.

While Hornfischer manages to include a lot information, he never dwells on the arcana needlessly -- this is first and foremost a story of bravery, loss and survival. There was plenty of all three to go around. A welcome read for anyone interested in WWII military lit.

An Unflinching Look at the Brutal Pacific Campaign

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa - Eugene B. Sledge

It's pretty widely known the USA's Pacific island hopping campaign was brutal stuff, but I didn't know how brutal until I read Sledge's With The Old Breed.

 

He takes an unflinching look at several island campaigns, where Marine units would fight for days to capture just a few hundred yards of rough, almost impassable ground.

 

I don't know how they did it. Hollywood certainly glamorized the fight for the Pacific, but this title (and a few others) quickly disabuse the reader of those notions. A good -- if occasionally uneven -- read.

Perhaps A Little Too Inhuman...

The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations - 'Cory Doctorow',  'Charles Stross'

One of the issues with post-singularity, post-humanity SF novels is that you can quickly lose any sense of connection with the characters; the world becomes so foreign that you stop caring who lives or dies.

 

Though I stopped caring about the characters in the book, kudos to Doctorow for creating a world bizarre enough to hold my interest until the end (just barely).

 

I flirted with that sense several times during this novel, though ultimately, I'd suggest it was a well-written, reasonable book that others would probably find interesting.

 

 

A smooth, inspirational read about life with Parkinson's Disease

Lucky Man: A Memoir - Michael J. Fox

It's easy to like Michael J. Fox's memoir about his career and life as it's been shaped by Parkinson's disease. It's a smooth read and the glimpse behind the curtain is sometimes fascinating.

 

I admit to starting this book in the grip of a teensy bit of cynicism (a plucky, out-of-control actor is stricken by a life-threatening disease, maturing even as it tightens its grip on him), but ultimately, I believe Fox is sincere when he says he wants to tell his story, and inspire hope instead of sympathy.

 

In a smooth, straightforward way, he tells the story of coming to grips with his disease, and how he's grown as a person in the face of his symptoms. There's little doubt that Fox is not delving into the deepest recesses of his struggle with Parkinson's, but then, this isn't a story about the disease; it's a story about what it means to not fall before it.

A lovely, witty book about adoption

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet - Melissa Fay Greene

A wonderfully funny and touching read, Meslissa Fay Greene's book about raising four children -- and then adopting five more -- is a little disjointed at times, but the overall effect is charming.

As the proud daddy of two adopted Ethiopian girls, I loved this book, both for the shared experiences and the insight I gained.

Greene writes in an engaging, witty style that I found impossible to resist; I stayed up late to finish the book. She paints clear pictures of the joys -- and the difficulties -- of adopting children from other cultures, and wraps them up in heartwarming vignettes of everyday life.

At times the book reads like a folksy family memoir in the style of Erma Bombeck, but it also takes a realistic (and unflinching) look at the difficulties transracial adoptees face (thankfully, it largely avoids arguments about the pros and cons of international adoption, which are being hashed out elsewhere).

I really enjoyed this book, my only caveat being that some of the chapters felt out of place, as if they were adapter from other essays. The overall effect is of slightly rambling narrative, but frankly, that's being picky.

Good Night, Moon: A Tor.Com Original

Good Night, Moon: A Tor.Com Original - Rudy Rucker I found myself alternately enjoying this story and losing my way with it, but my overall impression was favorable. These short works are presumably being published by Tor as promo pieces for their writers, and I suspect this will create a few fans for Rudy Rucker.

Vast

Vast - Linda Nagata

I picked up Vast after a few commentors on Charlie Stross' blog recommended Linda Nagata's work, and while epic post-humanity fiction isn't exactly my sweet spot, Nagata writes so forcefully and clearly that I finished the book right away.

 

Nagata's characters are lively and flawed (making them recognizable as people), and the technology at work is interesting and (at times) surprising, but not so odd that it became difficult to follow.

 

My only complaint is the convenience of a couple plot points; a crew member boards an alien ship and somehow picks up warp-drive nanobots by accident, and in all the vastness of a nebulae, the crew stumbles on the radio emissions of a human civilization, despite the fact they're a bazillion light years from a now-defunct earth.

 

Otherwise, I really enjoyed Nagata's Vast, and plan to buy a few other novels. If you're a hard sci-fi fan, Vast is well worth a look.

The Desecrator: A Tor.com Original

The Desecrator: A Tor.com Original - Steven Brust A very short piece that was nicely written, but didn't cover enough ground to warrant the $1 price tag. This reads like a loose sketch of an idea for a larger story or a simple story fragment. One of a series of short works of fiction published by Tor (I'd guess to introduce their writers to new readers), this falls in the same category as many of the others I bought en masse; nice, but at just a handful of pages, it's not enough.

The Shipping News : A Novel

The Shipping News - Annie Proulx Stunning book.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2

Bad Dirt - Annie Proulx Annie Proulx writes so sharply that she defines her characters with what feels like a razor's edge. This isn't a collection of happy stories about a West that never existed; it's a collection of taut essays about a hardscrabble life. Excellent writing, if not always the easiest stuff to read.

Trout Bum (The Pruett Series)

Trout Bum - John Gierach, Gary LaFontaine Gierach's probably fly fishing's most widely read essayist, a testament to his deceptively folksy writing (he packs a lot of meaning into a few words) and his absolute commitment to the fly fishing life.Fly fishers will have to admire his tenacity; early in his life, Gierach decided to fly fish for a living, and he made it happen. Trout Bum was first published in 1986, and this 20th Anniversary hardcover edition of Trout Bum includes new forewords from other fly fishing writers. In between, Gierach has published a long list of essay books (and a small handful of how-to efforts). Gierach doesn't waste a lot of words on gear and how-to information -- he's living the life so many fly fishers can only dream of, and writing about it in a direct, friendly, accessible manner.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer Most who read this book are polarized by the main character; he's either an idealist or an utter moron who died through stupidity.It's a testament to Krakauer's skill as a writer that he manages to leave this question up to the reader, and like all his work, it's a gripping read.