Jan 15

PhantomTollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster ★★★★★

This book was recommended to me by Stan Pense. I had never heard of it. It is really a children’s book, designed for the 8-12 year old kid. It is also a fun book for adults. The story revolves around Milo, a kid who is bored at school, at home, and just can’t figure out anything fun to do. A box shows up in his room, which on unwrapping and assembling the contents, results in a tollbooth to a strange land, where Rhyme and Reason, two princesses are held captive. Milo, with the accompaniment of a “watch dog” and giant bug, encounter the insanities of a land without rational thought processes. The author has a beautiful way of playing with words, using phrases that play on homonyms (such as which and witch), or play on the various meanings of words. An example is when Milo and his friends end up on the island of Conclusions, which you can only arrive at by jumping. The book is a delightful read, and would be a useful means of getting children to make use of their time, study hard at school, and try to think in an orderly, rational way.

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Jan 14

Immortal Fear

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Immortal Fear

Immortal Fear, by H.S. Clark ★★★★

Howard is at it again, writing another medical thriller. I have reviewed his past book, Secret Thoughts. As a reminder, Howard Clark is an anesthesiologist at the hospital where I practice, so have gotten to know him fairly well. He writes a lot like how he thinks. This book is a murder mystery, related to the last book only through the central character, Dr. Powers, an anesthesiology resident at an academic center in Seattle, WA. This time, Dr. Powers notes the connection of a string of murders, identifying that they seem to be connected through some sort of blood/tissue born pathogen. The evil mastermind behind all of this will remain for the reader to discover. Howard does write an interesting although sometimes fascinating and spell-bound story. He takes particular relish at expounding on the details of moments when the anesthesiologist needs to do his thing. This is an enjoyable and recommended read, especially if you know Dr. Clark and love medical mystery thrillers.

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Jan 12

SecretThoughts

 

Secret Thoughts, by Howard Clark, MD ★★★★

H.S. (Howard) Clark is an anesthesiologist at the hospital where I work, and he had been in the process of writing novels for a lengthy period of time now. This novel is a suspense thriller with an anesthesiologist, Paul Powers, as the detective, trying to solve a mystery of cyanide poisoning, leading to the death of a number of people, including a colleague of Powers, Valdimire Zhazinsky, who was a radiologist. As the mystery plot thickens, Paul is soon branded as the main culprit.  Paul departs on an international whirlwind effort to clear his name and to identify the real killer. I will not give the entire plot away. The text is not lengthy even though the book is thick since it is printed in rather large type, and so can be read in 1-2 evenings. Howard does an excellent job of keeping the action moving and keeping the reader in suspense.

One side story relates to the experimental use of a hypothetical drug picafentanyl, which puts people to sleep (like the real drug, fentanyl, which is commonly used in surgery). The problem with picafentanyl is that is secreted by the breath, and thus, when used, puts everybody in the room asleep. Though this novel kept me well awake, the next time Dr. Clark starts to put me to sleep in surgery, I’ll suspect that he might have been popping a bit of picafentanyl.

 

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Jan 29

De Profundis

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De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde ★★★

It is hard to rate a book like this. I like the style in which Oscar Wilde writes, but he excels in being bizarre, sometimes  exceeding Franz Kafka. This book, as a select collection of  letters written from two years in prison, is more  autobiographical than an intentional work of literature. The book was actually heavily edited, leaving out names and other items. Oscar Wilde apparently had a homosexual tryst with a young man of royalty, and was convicted. He spent time in three prisons during the two years of his sentence. The letters give one a feel for the intimate Oscar Wilde.

Wilde is superb at describing intimate emotions, such as his disgust with the prison system. You obtain a strong sense of the pathos that Oscar experienced in trying to survive and remain sane during the two years of inprisonment. One can also see an evolution in Wilde’s thinking. Early in the book, he talks with disdain about God and religion. Later, he spends his entire time waxing eloquent about religion and the virtues of Christ. I would scarcely call it a conversion.  Wilde had no remorse over the consequences of his actions, neither had he remorse over his sin. God is a pantheistic, all-loving, gentle, non-challenging, non-moral creature and so sin is not an entity to contend with. Though Wilde experiences great grief over his actions, it would be the same grief and pity that the typical American experienced while watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ; one felt pity for the sufferings of Christ, but a pity that would have been similar if a cute little puppy dog was needlessly slaughtered, like the pity over the death of Old Yeller. Mel Gibson, like Oscar Wilde, failed to realize the difference between grief for someone or something else’s suffering, and the grief and sorrow that one should experience for sending Christ to the cross because of one’s sin. In the closing paragraphs of the book, Wilde describes his plans for when he leaves prison. He will smell the flowers, meditate on the seashore, and behave as a different person. Inside, it is the same old Oscar. The book is a delightful account of the psychology of Oscar Wilde, which should not be emulated or repeated in the reader.

 

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Jan 24

Babbitt

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Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis ★★★

I don’t recall who recommended that I read Babbitt, but it was that recommendation that led me to download it free and read it on the iPad. Written by Sinclair Lewis in the 1920’s, it was one of the books that led to Lewis obtaining the Nobel Prize in literature. Thus, I assumed that it must be an epic, monumental read. It was nothing of the sort. Lewis was born around the turn of the century in Minnesota, and seemed to have rebelled against his upbringing. Writing satirical novels about the culture of middle America, Lewis achieved temporary fame, leading to his death by alcoholism.

Babbitt is the story of a go-getter real estate salesman in the town of Zenith, a generic large town located in the mid-west. Babbitt is successful, but not flagrantly so, seeming to be bedeviled by those few people wealthier than him. The initial descriptions in the book paint him as a man lacking true character, constantly hassling with his two children and wife, yet not really heading anywhere in life. He goes to church, but most of his life is led in superficial goodness, while never being ashamed of pulling less-than-honest slick real estate deals to get ahead. His relations at the athletic club, the Presbyterian church, and other social community groups maintains his status in society, while demanding little of him. His one friend, Paul R. and he decide to depart on a several week getaway up to Maine, to be met later by the wives. Not long afterwards, Paul ends up in a quarrel with his wife, shoots her, and then ends up several years in prison while she gets religion. Later, Babbitt’s wife takes a long leave of absence, allowing Paul to participate in some trysts, leading to him on a fast downward spiral of alcoholism and liberalism, rejecting everything conservative about his past. Only after his wife returns and lands in emergency surgery for appendicitis does Babbitt realize the errors of his ways and returns to his conservative, superficially high-moral friends and is restored to their company.

Lewis spends much time painting religion as either the occupation of deranged and troubled individuals, such as Pauls’ wife, or as a superficial gloss of morality without any depth of substance or meaning. Realizing that he also wrote a satire on American religion (Elmer Gantry), it is clear that he has a distinct anti-religious agenda. Lewis desires to paint the typical American as culturally naive and socially stagnant. Life for the typical American in the 1920’s according to Lewis lacks originality, is dreadfully goal/success oriented. Unfortunately, Lewis paints two straw characters. Though he is noted have done “research” for the writing of his book, he perhaps paints a description of himself rather than that of any typical 1920’s American. True, Lewis was a liberal socialist and Babbitt was a conservative Capitalist. Other than than, the character of Babbitt is really that of Lewis. If only Lewis could realize how his life would descend into absolute meaninglessness and eventually “suicide” through alcoholism. The straw man of American religion that Lewis paints is even more sorry. It is true that in the 1920’s already, the mainstream churches of America had lost their heart and soul, and Lewis saw that clearly. Unfortunately, particulars don’t form generalizations, and his jabs at Billy Sunday (called Rev. Monday in Babbitt) are frequent and sadly uninformed.

Perhaps the greatest strength in a book like Babbitt is to induce one to question one’s own life. What is it that gives it meaning? Where does one find escape from ennui, trivialness, absence of direction? It is the religion that Lewis attempts to satirize that offers his only chance of escape. In the Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), the preacher explores the idea of everything being futile and meaningless. Solomon was able to resolve the issue of meaningless in life in a way that Lewis was not.  Lewis has unknowingly become the object of his own satire. Pity him and do not make his same mistakes.

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