Category: Reviews

Irma Voth

Irma Voth: A Novel by Miriam Toews, 5/5

This is the third Toews novel I have read and I continue to be baffled by her genius. I simply don’t understand how it’s possible to write something so beautiful, unexpected, unconventional, funny and touching, on any subject, much less the story of how an independent film crew provides the catalyst for an excommunicated Mennonite girl in Mexico to find her own path to freedom and meaning.

Why I read it: Trying to see if Miriam Toews can write anything I don’t like. So far, the answer is an emphatic “no.”


Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., 5/5

Life-changing, thought-provoking, fascinating, insightful, convicting–it’s hard to write a review of this book that doesn’t sound super clichéd. Starting with a chillingly relatable description of “learned helplessness,” Seligman then explores the characteristics of pessimistic vs optimistic interpretations of events, makes a compelling (but not naive or condescending) case for optimism and provides a simple approach for changing pessimistic thinking patterns.

Usually, I would try to summarize an impactful point or two for future recollection, but it’s difficult, in this case, because there was so much helpful info that I feel like it would be more useful to simply re-read the book if my memory fades. Also, I don’t want my own summary of the concepts to taint their potential novelty for other readers.

Now, for the answer to the million-dollar question: yes, I am a moderate pessimist (but also, triumphantly, more of a realist than optimists are).

Why I read it: I was intrigued by Stephen Kotler’s mention of it in his book The Art of Impossible.

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams, 2/5

I’m not going to lie: I had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on for large portions of this novel and ran immediately to Google after finishing it to see what overarching themes I was too oblivious to comprehend. I guess it says something that the most helpful-looking analyses were hidden behind academic paywalls…

Undoubtedly, Williams had a more coherent vision than what he communicates through the overlapping stories of a saintly poet, an orphan haunted by her doppelgänger, the ghost of a past suicide, and a historian who creates a succubus from pure ego, among others. In retrospect, it is surprising that a novel with so many interesting characters could have so little plot and so many tedious passages of incomprehensible spiritual imagery. There are several places in which Williams purposefully disintegrates the English language in what I can only guess is an approximation of what having a stroke would feel like.

All in all, not my favorite reading experience, though with themes like art, sacrificial love, death, and the sin of self-absorption, I can understand how it might resonate better with other people or at another time.

Why I read it: the last of Williams’ seven “novels of the supernatural” I had left, since starting with All Hallows’ Eve.

The Art of Impossible

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler, 4/5

The author believes that the average person can achieve groundbreaking results by finding and fulfilling their life passion, a process that he attempts to reduce into a series of replicable steps through analysis of the “flow” state, the characteristics of high achievers (in whose company he firmly places himself, with less-than-convincing self-deprecation), and grossly over-simplified neuroscience.

Ironically, this book both poses and fails its own test. Kotler attempts the impossible and succeeds in writing a book that is slightly unlikable, painfully over-systematized, and, crucially, ascribes prescriptive value to what I strongly suspect are merely descriptive (if well-researched and insightful) observations. This last failing is a pervasive one in the self-help genre and, if the author had promised less, it would be easier to focus instead on the book’s many positive aspects.

While I strongly doubt that one could make long-lasting and meaningful life changes merely from following the steps in this book, it does provide some helpful ideas to fine-tune and recognize good character qualities and habits that already exist and to understand a little of the brain chemistry behind concepts like motivation, creativity, and fear.

Why I read it: a recommendation from a gym friend.

Mind Gym

Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens, 1/5

Determined to develop a healthier mental approach to martial arts competition, I started this book with an optimistic attitude and pencil in hand, committed to completing every exercise and buying into the inevitable inspirational cliché or few. How unprepared I was for the relentless barrage of banalities I would encounter! Every exercise (and they were exceptionally few) was eye-rollingly familiar and the text was a hodgepodge of quotes and borrowed anecdotes that descended into the utter madness that can be found on page 198…

So what happens on page 198? Well, firstly, the author states that “His [Kurt Warner’s] bags-to-riches story is as inspiring as the song I play for athletes at the end of every training session. The song, by Mariah Carey, is titled Hero.” … Let’s take a moment to process that statement. A legitimate counselor of sports psychology habitually inflicts a Mariah Carey song on his clients for its raw motivational power? Really? Every training session? That song? Do they sit there with eyes closed for the full 4 minutes, absorbing all that sweet 1990s inspiration, or does it play on his phone as a sort of alarm to mark the end of a session, or is it background music for a hasty exit? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. And the less sense it makes, the more it starts to throw into doubt literally everything else the author has to offer.

Just two sentences later, the unfortunate reader encounters this clunker of a paragraph: “Competitive sports can bring out the best in people. Instead of playing small, they overcome their self-doubts and fears. They let their light shine. They find courage, which is the opposite of discourage, and tap into their reservoir of potential. Reflect a moment.” The author means for us to reflect on moments of personal heroism, but instead, let’s focus on the much more interesting question of how the phrase “courage, which is the opposite of discourage” made it into print.

By the end of this book, I had lost so much faith in author Gary Mack that I became curious about his academic qualifications (conspicuously absent from the author bio). From his obituary, I learned that he did earn a Masters of Counseling Psychology, but what I find far more impressive is that he built a credible career in that field without have a single original thought! Perhaps it is a common failing, though. The next sports psychology book in my to-read pile (Champion’s Mind) was written by a PhD, yet peeking out from under the dust jacket flap was a note from a fellow, disillusioned library user: “Terrible–a bunch of slogans strung together by poor writing. Skip this.” Thank you, kind stranger. I shall.

Why I read it: lent to me by a gym friend.

Shadows of Ecstasy

Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams, 3/5

Brimming with Williams’ trademark brand of semi-plausible bizarreness, this story depicts the “Second Evolution of Man,” a physical and spiritual take-over of Western civilization, centered in Africa and led by the charismatic Nigel Considine. The author (not very convincingly) pits Christianity, spirituality and agnosticism against a cult of super-humanity which, having re-focused the most powerful human emotions to unlock the secret of perpetual fulfillment and eternal life, is on the cusp of mastering the act of self-resurrection as well.

The plot moves along well and Williams refrains from too many of the tiresome and esoteric flights of spirituality that characterize many of his other works. However, I felt ambivalent about the main characters and a bit exhausted trying to distinguish any potential racism amongst the 1930s vocabulary.

Why I read it: the fifth in Williams’ set of supernatural thrillers.

Fight Night

Fight Night: A Novel by Miriam Toews, 3/5

Since I like my dialogue to be punctuated, do not generally enjoy the coming-of-age genre, and think “girl power” is a bit cringeworthy, I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book. However, consistent with the theme of her novel, Toews infuses her writing with so much love and humor that I was challenged to look past my preconceptions and appreciate the power of love to make messy situations, damaged people, embarrassment, mistakes, death, and loss into something beautiful.

Why I read it: I was going through my old reviews to make a book shopping list when I saw Toews’ transcendent novel, All My Puny Sorrows,and realized I’d never gotten around to reading more of her work.

The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams, 3/5

This story of a young couple’s quest to unlock the power of the original tarot deck features beautifully crafted dialogue, fantastical imagery, interesting characters and, unfortunately, some Romani stereotypes that have not aged well.

Why I read it: it’s the fourth book in Charles Williams’ set of supernatural thrillers.

Shakespeare’s Fingerprints

Shakespeare’s Fingerprints by Michael Brame & Galina Popova, 1/5

This is one of the most ludicrous books I have ever read and I could not stop talking about it to my poor husband, who also had to listen to a soundtrack of shocked snorts, giggles, gasps and groans as each page revealed some new absurdity.

The authors disagree with the scholarly consensus that William Shakespeare was a common actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, instead believing that his name was used as a pseudonym by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The most convincing basis for this belief is a timeline of biographical events from de Vere’s life that seem to be referenced in Shakespeare’s plays and poems (assuming these works are semi-biographical, which the authors in no way prove).

Unfortunately, any reasonable and interesting points are obscured by inane literary analysis using criteria so broad that it soon loses all meaning. The authors start by claiming that Shakespeare’s use of certain common letters and combinations (e.g. o, vo, wo, vvo, eo, ver, fer, fair, etc.) should be interpreted as a purposeful play on the letters and sounds in de Vere’s name and title–a “fingerprint” clue to the author’s real identity. Not satisfied with co-opting such a large number of very common words to support their hypothesis, they then proceed to compare Shakespeare’s writing with other literary works of the time, identifying any similar metaphors, phrases, topics, rhyming word choices, poetic forms, even basic grammatical structure, as “proof” that de Vere was the real author. Ultimately, their tortured reasoning forces them to conclude that de Vere used no less than 37 pseudonyms (many representing real people who were alive at the time) and was single-handedly responsible for the development of 16th-century English literature.

Frustratingly, the authors focus on fluffing up ridiculous arguments with academic terminology in an effort to sound erudite, meanwhile studiously avoiding the performance of any real research that would prove or disprove their hypothesis. I really can’t emphasize enough how absolutely embarrassing and ridiculous the end result is. It’s difficult to write a review because the more detail I try to include, the more we fall down the rabbit hole of insanity. By keeping my analysis fairly short, I am not over-simplifying their arguments, but portraying them in a better light than they appear after closer examination. Still, I can’t resist giving two specific examples of what the amused reader will encounter. At one point the authors analyze the adjective “sweet” thus: “sweetsv veetseventeenth Vere” (99). Even the title Much Ado About Nothing is proof of Edward de Vere’s authorship in their eyes, since “Ad is most plausibly a play on Ed, the nickname of the genius lurking behind the Shakespeare pseudonym” (8). Insanity!

Oh, and if you are wondering, as I did, how not just one but TWO academics from the University of Washington could be behind this book, it might help clear things up to know that they were married at the time…

Why I read it: I bought it greatly discounted at a used bookstore many years ago.

The Place of the Lion

The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, 2/5

This is the fourth of Williams’ supernatural thrillers that I have read, and by far my least favorite, since it consists mostly of hallucinatory spiritual ramblings and very little plot. This is all the more disappointing because what little story exists is very interesting: philosophical Ideas (Strength, Beauty, Subtlety, Wisdom, etc.) from the angelic realm emerge into the sleepy English countryside via their representative animals, consuming people with varying effect depending on each person’s tendencies.

Why I read it: I’m working my way through Williams’ novels.