Tag Archives: Jr.

When our Capitol Burned

Washington Burning by Les Standiford

This is a beautifully written, and ultimately moving, tribute to the founding and building of the nation’s capitol.   It is also a history lesson on the terrors of war; in this case, the destruction of the Capitol by British soldiers in the War of 1814.   In a brief 24 hours, 22 years of construction was destroyed with major damage to the White House and the Capitol building.

But the author’s key goal, well met, is to honor a man who was without honor in his time, the architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant.   L’Enfant was selected by George Washington to design the new Federal City.   His design worked so well that when, one hundred years later, a panel of the nation’s best architects and planners (including Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) was asked to re-design the city, they declined.   These experts affirmed that L’Enfant’s original plan was the perfect one.

L’Enfant is now buried at the highest point in Arlington after dying as a virtually penniless, abandoned, man.   This nation may never adequately repay the Frenchman L’Enfant for his services to his adopted country.   This book is a fine start.Burning 4  Three Rivers Press, $16.00, 353 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Baby Driver: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Art of racing 6There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, “That was some story!”   This is one of those books.   It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death.   As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it as he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary – that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being.   Enzo’s  life-long study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he’ll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life…  which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery.   Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you’ll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion.   But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a magical mystery.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you.   And as with Everything… there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together.   Maybe…   Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be.   This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I just hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a single thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the narrator.   Now, let’s see, who would be the voice of Enzo?   Me, I hear Nicholas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me.   As Enzo would say (or bark out), I know a lot about a lot of things, but not everything about everything.

Joseph Arellano

Notes: This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Also, if you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will also likely enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe.   It’s another fine feast for dog-lovers, now available as a trade paperback (Villard, $13.95).

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Later Than It Seems: Klein on Kennedy

A book that is likely to be significant, Senator Edward Kennedy’s autobiography entitled True Compass: A Memoir will be released on September 14, 2009.   This forthcoming 544 page book, to be published by Twelve, is said to have taken five years to complete.   Contra, a book that I read recently, Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died by Edward Klein does not appear to be as significant.

Back in 2005, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post wrote an article (“Ed Klein, Drowning in Ink and Grasping for Air”) concerning Klein and his then-new book The Truth About Hillary Clinton.   In his article, Kurtz wrote:  “Despite the enormous hype surrounding Edward Klein’s scathing and hearsay-filled book about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the author has been ignored by all but two television shows.”   I’m not positive about this, but Kurtz seemed to find some of the content of The Truth… a bit shaky.

Such is not the problem with Ted Kennedy: The Dream…   Instead, the problem is that most of the interesting things in this “new” biography come from other sources and, to his credit, Klein cites those sources.   It is not the credibility of this account – except in one small instance – that raises questions.   The question is do we really need another biography of Ted Kennedy, an extremely ill man, at this point in time?   If so, did it need to spend just a bit more than 200 pages revisiting ground that has been trod over so many times before?

There’s nothing in here, to these eyes, that clarifies exactly who Ted Kennedy is or what specifically makes the family he came from so unique and/or so significant in American history.   There’s also nothing in this account that is strongly pro- or anti-Kennedy (the author has claimed to be politically neutral).   If dozens and dozens of books about the Kennedys had not already been written, one might find some items of discovery here but – in the words of Jackson Browne – it’s later than it seems.

In one specific instance, Klein does appear to be in error.   He writes, on page 79, of a situation where Ted Kennedy flew back from Alaska in April of 1969 – this was subsequent to the assassination of Robert Kennedy – with other U.S. senators and after possibly having too much to drink repeatedly yelled out that, “They’re going to shoot my a– off the way they shot Bobby…”   Klein calls this ” a particularly revealing – and unreported incident.”   Sorry, but I believe it was reported on back then in the major news magazines.Kennedy Ted 3

If you’ve read nothing about the Kennedys then Klein’s latest might serve as a quick way to learn some relatively recent history.   But there are many, many other choices that will provide you with more information about the three Kennedy brothers and the family itself.   In my view, the two best books about the Kennedys just happen to be two books (both still in print) that focused on Robert F. Kennedy.   The first of these was Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the second was RFK, A Memoir by Jack Newfield.

Joseph Arellano

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The Weight: The Story of Forgetting

We slouch under the weight of our memories…   This is just one of the brilliant notions revealed by first-time author Stefan Merrill Block in his unique and monumental novel, The Story of Forgetting.   I’m not going to play hide-the-ball, I’ll come right out and say that this novel (originally released in 2008) is one of the two best – along with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. – that I’ve read this year.

Forgetting offers two stories melded together…   The basic story concerns the impact on a family of a parent’s early-onset Alzheimer’s; a family which is, shall we say, a bit odd.   “Abel…  is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his family farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs.”   And Seth may be a teenage near-genius who seeks to rapidly develop a cure for the dreaded disease that leads to forgetting – both mentally and physically – and death.

The other, imbedded, story is of a fantasy land named Isidora where people live near perfect lives in cities of gold.   Amnesia Clubs are formed “to discover a way to forget.”   In this imaginary and parallel universe memories are prison bars and forgetfullness is freedom.Forgetting large As with Everything Matters! it is virtually impossible to say anything more about the storyline without giving too much away…   What is clear is that Block writes laser-focus fiction in the manner one of our very best writers, Joan Didion, writes of real things and real life.   (What a gift.)   

This book may shake-up your way of looking at the past and present in your own life.   It is very much about the power of now:   “To remember nothing.   What more could one possibly ask of eternity?”

Recommended, recommended, recommended.

Review by Joseph Arellano.   Note:  This book was released in trade paperback form on April of 2009 (Random House).

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Everything Matters!

everything matters

Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie (Penguin Books, $16.00, 320 pages)

Years ago I read a now out-of-print novel about a man who dies but is then given a second chance at life.   I thought of that book while reading this unique and inspirational story from author Ron Currie, Jr.   Everything Matters! begins with an amazing premise:  when John Thibodeau, Jr., known as “Junior,” is born he is informed there is “one thing for certain,” which is that the world will come to an end in 36 years, 186 days, 14 hours and 23 seconds from the time of his birth.

The question is, of course, what will Junior do with this knowledge?   Will he inform others – even if he is thought to be insane – or use his great intellectual skills (he is the fourth most intelligent person on the face of the earth) to fashion a science-based escape for mankind?

Junior must ask himself the key question:  Will anything I do matter?   In the end, he finds his answer:  that in the here and now of life, anything is possible.

This is a work of faith, just not in the usual sense.   It is a tale that validates the saying that even when there is no plan, everything works out according to plan.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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Last Journey: A Father and Son in Wartime

Last Journey (small)There is no doubt that the late Staff Sgt. Darrell “Skip” Griffin was an American hero.   Darrell Griffin, Sr. went on to complete the book that he and his son intended to jointly write.   This is admirable, but I think the story would have been clearer in the hands of a professional writer.

There are too many citations to the thoughts of famous philosophers from Plato to Descartes, Nietzsche to de Tocqueville.   I wondered when the first reference to St. Augustine would appear (it comes on page 88).   I studied philosophy, yet I could not see the connection to the fighting in Iraq.   The high notions of philosophers do not seem to equate with the heavy-handedness of war.

Still, the portions of the book dealing with the war are strong.   This is the tale of a young man who died fighting a war that he was not sure was the right one.   As his father wrote to him, “We both love America, but you are man enough to prove it.”   Despite its flaws, this is a book worth reading.

Atlas and Co., $25.00, 304 pages

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Coming up next…

Everything MattersOur review of the amazing book Everything Matters!  

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Once A Runner, Now A Writer… (a book review)

Do you have a runner in your book club?   If so, you might want to consider adding Again to Carthage by John L. Parker, Jr. to your club’s reading list.

Parker is a former attorney who once ran on the University of Florida track team, where he recorded a time of 4:06 in the mile.   In 1978, he self-published 5,000 copies of Once A Runner which Slate magazine called “the best novel ever written about distance running.”   Runner’s World labeled it, “The best novel ever written about running.”   High praise.

The classic Runner is now out of print – fetching between $70 to $350 a copy on sites like Craig’s list and Bookfinder – but will be sold again via running stores and Amazon.com, etc., beginning in April of this year.

But you don’t have to wait until April to read Parker, as Carthage (published in late 2007) is readily available.   This is the sequel to Runner and deals with an attorney who is going through a mid-life and mid-career crisis.   Guess what he turns to in order to attempt to find his old self?   Yes, you’re right, running.

The lead character, Quenton Cassidy, decides to try to become a world-class marathoner, despite his advanced age.   Frankly, I had my problems with the first half of the book (which I purchased in a Fleet Feet store).   The sentences tended to ramble and run on too long.   Also, there was the fear that this was going to be another John Grisham-like quasi-legal novel. 

Perhaps because the author came close to dying halfway through the writing, and went from typing the book on a computer to writing the finish on legal tablets, the second half is quite different.   The language assumes a laser-like focus whether dealing with life and death or running; although to Parker they are mostly one and the same.

You will think you know precisely where this story is going – a major flaw with me with Grisham – but then something surprising intervenes close to the end.   It may be viewed as a miracle, a near miracle, or simply Parker’s acceptance of the spiritual.   Either way, the novel ends brilliantly and you’ll instantly wish you had a copy of Once A Runner in hand.   In April you will.

I read an interview with Parker in which he made clear that for him the true test of commitment in life is how much a runner gives to his/her running.   Parker, like his fictional character Cassidy, is willing to do no less than die while running.   Luckily for us, Parker has survived to give his all to his writing:  “It was like cutting the top off my head and pouring out everything about running that was in there into this (book) and just making sure it wove into the plotline.”

If I haven’t been clear about this, let me say it here:  runners will love this book!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

Reprinted courtesy of the Troy Bear blog; originally posted on March 2, 2009.Again_2

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