Tag Archives: religion

Lost On The Journey

The Point Is

The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death and Everything in Between by Lee Eisenberg (Twelve, $26.00, 279 pages)

Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? Is that all there is? What’s the point?

Over-promising and under-delivering.

Having spent years in college studying philosophy and religion – the very things meant to explain birth, death and everything in between, I was skeptical that Lee Eisenberg could supply these answers. I think I was right. This is a sometimes interesting, sometimes rambling, journal about various insights that dropped into Eisenberg’s mind as he attempted to give meaning to life.

Eisenberg is one of the people that he references as thinking too much about things in life. As such he often seems to miss the living forest while he’s wandering around writing about the trees.

Eisenberg is first and foremost a writer and he sees life and living from a writer’s perspective: “The point is to write the best story we can.” Fine, but being a diligent writer-detailer is not the same as understanding the deeper what and why of existence.

Eisenberg may have intended this to be a book of modern philosophy, but even here it falls short. One often-covered subject he tackles is happiness. The conclusion is best expressed by P.D. James: “…happiness is a gift not a right.”

the point is 3d

The Point Is might have been titled Random Thoughts and Ruminations. It’s less, far less, than satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Over The Top and Far Away

Tribal

The player accepts, even welcomes, the pain he will suffer, a sacrifice for the good of the team. Just like Jesus, come to think of it.

Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America by Diane Roberts (Harper, $25.99, 246 pages)

This book might well have been titled Fear and Loathing in Tallahassee. In theory, this is a book about a person’s love and hate relationship with college football (“A great game or a waste of money…”), specifically Florida State University football. I say in theory because the writer’s Gonzo-style of journalism means that she’s all over the place – as if there’s no filter between her mind and what she places on a page. For example, Roberts spends some time on the topic of football and religion. Oh, yes. After quoting from Saint Paul in Corinthians 6:19 she writes:

“…the (football) player begins to use his body to inflict pain. Not like Jesus… The First Church of Christ Linebacker doesn’t hold with gentle Jesus meek and mild. The Lord is a tough, manly dude, and football is an allegory of the soul’s struggle against evil.”

Wow. Seriously?

Doak 5

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It’s hard to tell if Roberts is putting everyone on – in the style of Hunter S. Thompson (Thompson once accused a major party’s presidential candidate of being an ibogaine addict), or if she’s simply being provocative for the sake of being so. This is a silly work which might have made for a mildly entertaining airline magazine article. But it’s not for the serious, grounded reader.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on October 27, 2015.

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Child Is Father to the Man

Some Assembly Required (nook book)

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Baby by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott (Riverhead Books, $26.95, 288 pages)

I’m a huge fan of Anne Lamott. Having said that, it’s nevertheless hard to fathom who the audience is supposed to be for her most recent memoir, Some Assembly Required. This is the follow-up to Operating Instructions, in which Lamott wrote about the sometimes tense, oftentimes close relationship with her aspiring artist son, Sam. In Assembly, she writes about her first year as a grandmother (“Nana”) to baby Jax, balancing her love for a new male child with the demands of her son’s new life and the often conflicting desires of her daughter-in-law – a young woman who has very strong, opinionated ideas about the best way to raise a child.

The first Scripture reading today was Luke 15, the Prodigal Son. Of course. It’s the only real story – coming back to God, who welcomes us with heartbroken joy, no matter what, every time. I do not get this.

Ask and allow: ask God and allow Grace in.

What makes this memoir odd and often troublesome is that Lamott writes about her strong Christian beliefs (and about such things as the Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit) but frequently does so in language that would cause devoted church goers to blanch. For example, there’s the point at which she thinks about taking her son aside to say “something spiritual like ‘Shape the f–k up!'”. The latter type of language is going to draw the interest of some young, alienated college students – possibly a new audience for the writer, but they may be alienated by the countless references to God in the traditional religious sense.

And then things get even worse, as the memoir detours in another direction. Notwithstanding her Christianity, Lamott writes about traveling to India in a seemingly sideways search to find the meaning of life:

We were on the Ganges at five in the morning, in a riverboat in the fog. One image that had called me to India for years, besides the Taj Mahal, was a dawn visit to the Ganges on a riverboat, for the sunrise.

How does all of this come together in a manner that makes some sense? Well, it doesn’t. Reading Assembly is like reading the diary or journal notes of someone whose life heads in all directions at once, without meaning or apparent purpose. If Anne Lamott does not seem to know how to tie the loose ends of her life together, then – trust me – the reader is certainly unable to do so.

Some Assembly Required reads like an overly-rough draft of a memoir that screamed out for a very talented editor – a figure that apparently failed to appear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Question

“Why do we never get an answer, when we’re knocking at the door?”   Question, The Moody Blues

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing Company, $27.95, 309 pages)

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (Plume Reprint, $17.00, 448 pages)

“Could it be… that the world exists precisely because it is, on the whole, better than nothing?”

Reading Tim Holt’s extended treatise on life and the universe is the equivalent of listening to a classic philosophical album by The Moody Blues – one hears numerous questions about being and existence but receives no answers.   All in all, Why Does the Earth Exist? is an entertaining read but it’s far too clever by half; one gets the impression that Holt is trying to dazzle the reader with his brilliance – supposed or real – as he all too often gets off track.   Holt never answers the question raised in the book’s title, and much time is wasted on diversions such as mathematical formulas and the rules of formal logic.

The writer seems to be at his most engaging while pondering deep thoughts after nights of imbibing far too much alcohol at the world’s glamorous hotspots.   As such, he comes off as a tamer, more intellectual version of the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary); one whose entertainment value (unlike the late Thompson’s) runs thin very, very quickly.   Another flaw with Why concerns Holt’s unwillingness to acknowledge that much of the interest in time, and the birth and death of our 13.7 billion year old universe, relates to our personal fears of death and non-existence.   Occasionally, he grudgingly concedes the point:  “Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being…  might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning.”   “The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

“…philosophy is a terribly difficult subject, and sorting out the hardest questions in the finite time of a human life is asking a lot.”   (Emphasis in the original)

This book’s recommended only for those few selected – if perhaps strange – individuals who felt they didn’t take enough tough philosophy classes in college.   And if you want to cover the majority of the same ground – from Einstein to modern physics, time travel and more – and get even deeper into the weeds of existence, existentialism and science – a better choice would be From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (2010).   Carroll offers less entertainment value, and fewer side trips than Holt but he delivers more content that actually helps us understand “how we came to exist” and where our existence (our world and our universe) is headed.

From Eternity to Here is well recommended, although it has the feel of a very serious college textbook.   The universe itself is a terribly difficult subject, one not for the timid, weak or lazy.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of Why Does the World Exist? was provided by the publisher.   From Eternity to Here was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:  Tim Holt was raised as a Catholic.   Undoubtedly, some will find that he spends far too much energy on religion in this work, while others will decide that he’s not said enough about God.   What cannot be denied is that he gives full space to the arguments (and views) of all of the great modern and ancient existentialist philosophers – a matter that some will find pleasing, and others extremely painful.

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Gotta Serve Somebody

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk (Little, Brown and Company, $23.99, 192 pages; Hachette Audio, $26.98, 5 CDs)

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, all the different planets, and all these atoms with their motions, and so on,  all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has.   The stage is too big for the drama.”   Richard Feynman

Having a scant knowledge of Herman Wouk (the movie version of “Youngblood Hawke”) and having a great appreciation of Richard Feynman (the book Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow) put this reviewer in a one-down situation for listening to the audio book, The Language God Talks.   Moreover, the author’s age of 94 at the time of the book’s completion puts him in my late father’s generation.

The book is brief, a five-CD set.   Bob Walter, the narrator, provides a worldly and mellow voice that one can easily believe to be reminiscent of the author’s.   The smooth wording lends itself well to an audio book.   Sometimes, the somewhat self-indulgent musings of the author drift along pulling the listener into a past that is only partially shared.   Yes, the space age is fascinating and was most riveting at the time of the biggest breakthroughs.   However, those glory days are nearly gone as are the days enjoyed by Mr. Wouk.

In fairness to the author, his works will, no doubt, keep their places on required reading lists for some decades to come.   The quality of his writing puts him far ahead of many of his generation.   His Hebrew scholarship is quite notable and admirable.   Perhaps the comfort he has found in his studies is well matched with the acquaintances he shared with the luminaries of science and philosophy like Richard Feynman.   Wouk’s exploration of science versus religion is a personal one – and not a new one – but his efforts in that regard are exhaustive and lengthy by his own statements.

For this reviewer, the book felt like an honest retrospective of an enormously intelligent man reaching the end of his life’s path.   The book also seems to fulfill a personal promise of exploration that he has kept to himself.   Being honest about why we believe what we believe is something that few in middle age or younger actually ponder.   Perhaps it is left to the last part of life due to the enormity of the subject.   It would be a good listen for persons of any age, as exploring the meaning of life is a most worthwhile pursuit.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy of the audiobook was provided by the publisher.   Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Leonard Mlodinow is available as a trade paperback book (Vintage, $14.95, 192 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   Also recommended is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Mlodinow (Vintage, $15.00, 272 pages).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk.

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Heaven

Proof of Heaven: A Novel by Mary Curran Hackett (William Morrow; $14.99; 336 pages)

Grief never ceases to transform.

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Mary Curran Hackett has drafted a stirring and remarkable, life-affirming novel.   This is the story of a very sick and courageous five-year-old boy, Colm, who suffers from a rare disease that will kill him within two years.   He knows this and wants simply to see the father he’s never known before he departs this earth.

Colm’s mother, Cathleen, is an intensely religious Irish-American Catholic woman who will do anything to extend her son’s life, although she knows that “if her son were a dog, they would have put him out of his misery already.”   This includes taking him on a pilgrimage to the Abbey of San Damiano in Italy in the hope that Colm will be cured by a miracle.

Colm was one of a kind.

Colm’s disease is idiopathic, meaning that its origins and treatments are unknown to the medical world.   Colm suffers strokes  which put him into a condition of appearing to be dead before he returns to consciousness.   Colm believes that he has literally died on at least one or two occasions, and comes to accept that there’s nothing waiting for him after his death.

Colm (pronounced “calm”) is quite reminiscent of the character Tim Farnsworth in the novel The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris.   Farnsworth comes to give up hoping that the medical profession will save him, and he remains – despite having a wife and family – ultimately alone in his struggle against a unique, crippling disease.   Colm also thinks of himself as being alone, despite the smothering efforts of Cathleen to protect him, until a potential savior – a physician – arrives on the scene.

Dr. Gaspar Basu is a man who lost a son at an early age in India, and comes to love Colm as a type of replacement for his late son Dhruv.   Dr. Basu also comes to fall in love with Cathleen.   And so, he installs a pacemaker in Colm’s chest – in the hope of preventing further near-death experiences for Colm and agrees to accompany Colm and Cathleen on their journey to Italy.   Dr. Basu also joins with Colm’s uncle in supporting Colm’s efforts to find his father who was last known to be living as a musician in Los Angeles.

…by Colm’s seventh birthday he hadn’t had any other near-death experiences after leaving Italy.   To Cathleen it was a sign that God was answering some of her prayers.   Colm may not have been physically healed, but at least he hadn’t died again.   Perhaps the worst was behind him.   Perhaps the miracle took…

proof-of-heaven-rear

The other details of the story should be left for the reader to discover.   Kudos to Hackett for presenting a real world, gritty, yet soaring tale in which humans must make their own choices between hope and hopelessness (in a spiritual sense).   And rest assured that  once you’ve finished reading Proof of Heaven you may well look at life and its inevitable conclusion in a new way.

He had loved her.   She had loved him.

It was enough.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. 

“…it was the tale of one boy’s search for heaven that brought me to tears.   I loved this book.”   Shelley Shepard Gray, author of Christmas in Sugarcreek

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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