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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…

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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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Jailhouse Rock

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $24.95; 416 pages)

“…many of the prophets were either criminals, or prisoners, or had spent time among criminals.”

Avi Steinberg’s story will ring true for anyone who has ever worked inside of or visited a prison.   This is the account of a Harvard graduate, a once highly ambitious and religious person, who accepts a job among society’s outcasts.   Steinberg worked as a freelance writer before being hired as an afternoon shift librarian in Boston’s oldest prison.   He winds up, in Running the Books, telling some great stories of the inmates he was both attracted to and repelled by.   This, however, leads to one of the faults with this telling…  The author never seems to be sure whether the inmates he worked among were unlucky people who were not truly bad, or truly bad people who may have been fortunate to be incarcerated (a number of the inmates died of drug overdoses and violence after being released).

This is like one of those nonfiction narratives where someone with money decides to live without a job to see what it’s like among the working poor.   Here, an upper middle class highly educated young man goes to work in an alien culture and writes about it.   What seems to be lacking is the life’s lesson to be learned from it all.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Come Win a Copy of Come Sunday

Thanks to Picador, we have a giveaway copy of the novel Come Sunday by Isla Morley.   This trade paperback book will be released on August 3, 2010 but you have a chance to win it now.   Here is a synopsis of the story:

Abbe is a restless young mother living on the outskirts of Honolulu with her husband, Greg, the pastor at a small church.   Their lives are suddenly riven by tragedy when their three-year-old daughter, Cleo, is struck and killed by a car.   As Greg turns to God and community for comfort, Abbe turns inward and reflects upon her own troubled past.   Isla Morley brilliantly weaves the story of Abbe’s grief with a gripping tale of her tempestuous childhood in apartheid South Africa  – and how Abbe’s father, a villainous drunk, held her family hostage for decades with his rage, until they finally began to plot their escape from him.   Come Sunday is a spellbinding drama about a woman breaking free of her grief and of her past, and what it takes to revive hope when all seems lost.

Here are some of the critical comments about this work:

“A heart-wrenching tale of unthinkable loss and hard-won healing.   This is a novel to savor.”   Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“A phenomenal debut…”   San Diego Union-Tribune

“A compelling tale of survival, reinvention, and hope, in the end, Come Sunday is…  about personal redemption and resurrection…  Vivid and poignant.”   The Boston Globe

“An intense and ambitious first novel, and an exquisitely detailed exploration of the mother-daughter bond.”   Los Angeles Magazine

“Firmly establishing her in the pantheon of such insightful authors as Chris Bohjalian, Sue Miller, and Anita Shreve, Morley’s…  read-in-one-sitting tale of loss and renewal will haunt readers.”   Booklist

To enter our contest, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, just post another message here or send a second e-mail with the words, “This is my second entry.”   Easy, huh?

The winner’s name will be drawn by Munchy the cat, our contest administrator, and the winner will be contacted by e-mail.   This person will be asked to supply a residential (street) mailing address in the U. S. – not a P.O. box or business address – so that Picador can ship the book directly to him/her.  

You have until Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at Midnight PST to submit your entry/entries.   Good luck and good reading!

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It is Written

Last Writes: A Forensic Handwriting Mystery by Sheila Lowe (Obsidian Mystery)

Forensic handwriting experts and religious cults are not exactly a natural combination.   In this mystery novel, the expert is Claudia Rose and the religious cult is the Temple of the Brighter Light.   Claudia’s childhood friend Kelly seeks her assistance in determining whether the father of her exquisite toddler niece, Kylie, has kidnapped his daughter.   A warning note was left for the toddler’s mom who happens to be Kelly’s estranged half-sister.   These are folks who have had their share of family squabbles and trouble over the years.   Claudia must decide what is fact and what is smokescreen.

Author Sheila Lowe just happens to be an expert in handwriting analysis; therefore, the thriller is loaded with fascinating information one assumes to be accurate.   The reader can’t help sneaking peaks at the writing of friends and family wondering if there are clues to deeper meaning in their scribbles.   The psychological implications that accompany an analysis are used to explain the strange and confusing behavior of the folks who populate this tale.

This novel is filled with enough scary ideas and erratic actions to make it a page-turner.   Lowe’s mastery at describing subtle character aspects brings doubt and confusion to the reader who is tracking Claudia Rose’s progress in solving the mystery of Kylie’s disappearance.   To make matters worse, the threat of a religious sacrifice on the toddler’s third birthday puts a painful edge on the heart-wrenching tale.

Last Writes is more than a thriller, it is a morality tale designed for readers who are not afraid to look into the dark side of religious communal living.   Recommended to those who are up for the challenge.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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