Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son portrays single serving slices of what it means to be alive. According to this provocative collection of short stories, there is more to being alive than simply breathing and eating.  This examination is relayed to the reader in terms of altered states of consciousness, jaded recollections and sexual fascinations.

In some of the stories, Johnson’s unnamed protagonist comes close to eloquently depicting the quintessential essence of life. Yet there are also times in the book when the main character’s outlook on life is noticeably sarcastic, morbid and morose. These odd moments of clarity are surprisingly off beat.

Although Johnson attempts a serious glance at the true meaning of being alive, the main character is often preoccupied with the trivialities of life. Characters come and go throughout the book and Johnson’s protagonist seems to regard them with little concern at all. Their lives seem to pass like a picture show before his eyes, lacking any real substance and consequence. In the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General”, the main character asks Bill if he’s still alive in the deeper, spiritual sense of the word. Bill replies that “it don’t get no deeper than the kind of shit we’re in right now.” (131). Perhaps at this point, the reader can surmise that the main character will delve further into this intellectual puzzle, but Johnson pulls back. Instead he compares the deeper sense of being alive with the stark reality of being on drugs at a hospital. Denis Johnson seems to be toying with the idea at this point. He never quite pulls the trigger.

Throughout the book, Johnson expresses a fixation on the existential triviality of being alive. This book reads more like a philosophical discussion that the reader is invited to eavesdrop on. Overall, I love the lack of rules and conventions in this book. It’s challenging and therefore, a great read.  In the year 2000 the book was adapted into a movie and was brilliantly directed by Alison Maclean.



Author Quote of the Week

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” — Franz Kafka

The Eye of the Hunter – Dennis McKiernan

The Eye of the Hunter is a fantasy novel by Dennis McKiernan that was first released in 1992. It’s the generational tale of two little people called warrows on a quest to find and destroy the world’s most heinous foe. It’s a controversial book for some, mainly because of its many similarities to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. (Hey, if you don’t like it….write it better.)

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Tolkien has Middle Earth. McKiernan has Mithgar.

Tolkien has hobbits. McKiernan has warrows.

Tolkien has Elves. McKiernan has…well, also elves.

Clearly, there are similarities between these two fantasy series, but The Eye of the Hunter was a standout book for the entire genre. Personally, it was a milestone in my literary reading history. This was one of the first epic fantasy novels I had ever read, and it was truly EPIC. The adventure story trekked across the entire known world, going from frozen mountains to arid deserts, from side story to side story. In fact, anybody who actually finished the book should have won a medal. It was a long read, but well worth it.

Dennis McKiernan clearly read Tolkien’s novels and decided what was best and worst about them. It’s like revenge fiction, not fan fiction. Most noticeably, The Eye of the Hunter provides a greater depth to the different races of Mithgar. There is more focus on the long-lived nature of the elves. There are different races of humans in Mithgar. The vulgs are much nastier and horrifying creatures. The warrows also have more depth than Tolkien’s hobbits. Instead of being shy little humans with large feet, the warrows are more like a mythical class of creature all their own, with talismans and spellcraft worthy of any fantasy race.

The reason for the mythic and scenic triumphs of this weighty novel is McKiernan’s writing style. Although some would call it overdone and tedious, others would say it’s highly-detailed and descriptive. McKiernan is a master at using description to heighten suspense. Each scene is thoughtfully set up and the reader is placed so firmly in the setting that it becomes real. There were tense moments throughout the storyline that were magnificently written in terms of pacing and readability.

Like most people, I never read the other ten or so books in the Mithgar series. Yet I always came back to The Eye of the Hunter. It’s a standalone hit. I’ve read it nearly half a dozen times and can’t wait to introduce this fantasy tale to my little brave warrows in the future.

book cover
book cover

Cannon to Right of Them, Cannon to Left of Them

Lord Alfred Tennyson was one of the most celebrated poets of the Victorian Era and one of my favorite poets of all time. He had a tumultuous childhood and adolescence for someone with such a noble pedigree, and his body of work reflects a tormented soul.

His poetry was widely read and at times Tennyson earned over 10,000£ a year. Any contemporary poet would love to earn that much in today’s economy. One of my favorite poems by Tennyson was “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. It was released on October 25th, 1854 and it focuses on the heroic deeds of Lord James Cardigan during the Crimean War. Since then, this poem has held significance for members of the armed forces around the world.

Join me as I revisit this legendary poem:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

The Charge of The Light Brigade
The Charge of The Light Brigade

Ben-hur by Lew Wallace: A Clinic on Writing Historical Fiction

My favorite movie of all time is Ben-Hur, the 1959 Cecil B. Demil epic film starring Charlton Heston. The costumes. The sets. The drama. The chariot race. I couldn’t wait to read the book, the original Ben-Hur that was written by Lew Wallace in 1880. Surely, this would also become my favorite book, right? Well, not so fast.

Ben-Hur was the first Biblical novel, and it was widely successful in its early days. Until Gone With the Wind, this was the highest selling American fiction novel of all time. Ben-Hur was even blessed by the Pope. But was it a great novel?

Ben-Hur, the movie, was an epic motion picture. The book felt even longer and spanned more time than any of the films adapted from the book. The author’s description of setting and character was absolutely unparalleled. Wallace spent pages and pages just establishing scenes, placing the reader completely in the world of a young Judean prince out for revenge. Yet, the novel tended to drag on. It was middle heavy and stilted in places. Truly, the greatness of the work was in its historical backdrop and not in its character or plot development.

Then, there was Jesus. I loved the way that Lew Wallace placed Jesus as a supporting cast member in this story and not as the focal point. Ben-Hur is a Tale of the Christ, but not directly. It’s a book about the effect of Jesus Christ on someone’s life at the time. Judah BenHur encountered Christ once as a prisoner and once again while Jesus was on his way to crucifixion. These encounters were pivotal moments for the book’s main character and allowed the reader to imagine what it would be like to see Jesus through the eyes of a contemporary. Overall, this was a very effective literary element and made this Tale of the Christ stand out as a must-read American classic.

Ben Hur Illustrated Classics 1st Edition