Italian Author, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose Is One of the Most Compelling Books I’ve Ever Read

This book was spectacular, as my post title indicates. I read it a month ago (maybe longer now) and have been wanting to write this review for a while. Of course, the distance between me and the book grossly jeopardizes the thoroughness, accuracy and quality of my assessment but I suppose that’s a risk you just have to take

….and if you’re still reading have decided to take.

The brilliance with which this book reflected its time period (the first half of the 14th century) is simply marvelous, but I suppose that Umberto Eco is a scholar of the Middle Ages. I once wrote a post about my love of historical fiction and how important I find the accuracy of historical fiction to be, and I think that this book just takes the cake in the quality with which the period was understood and researched. In fact, though the story itself revolves around a series of disturbing deaths in a monastery in Italy, it also focuses heavily on a few key religious issues that were important at the time. Had the characters themselves not been distracted by these issues and literally had their own fascinating story thrust into the middle of them, then the book would never have been as accurate as it was.

One of these issues was the papal seat being moved to Avignon and the decadent lifestyle being lived there. This, of course, contrasts with the centrally important theological issue of Jesus’ poverty (or not) and whether that meant that all devout men (i.e. monks or those associated with the church) should be poor. Obviously the Pope and the wealthy bishops and cardinals insisted that Jesus was not destitute and to whatever degree he lacked property didn’t think that others should, and many different sects of monks insisted the opposite. Some monks took to condemning the pope as an impostor and the anti-Christ and were branded as heretical and persecuted by the Inquisition which had just started to get warmed up at the time. These central issues (pope at Avignon, Jesus’ poverty, heresy of disagreeing monks) were crucial to the time period.

Outside of these fascinating topics were intense and highly relevant philosophical conversations about the value of reason and revelation, learning and knowledge, life and death, the place of religion and so much more. But none was mentioned in some high-minded independent fashion. Rather, it was imbedded in the fascinating story that revolved around these murder mysteries.

Truly, The Name of the Rose is a work of genius. A wonderful book. Get your copy of The Name of the Rose today.

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Andrew Davidson’s Debut Novel, The Gargoyle, is Worth Every Penny of the 1.25 Million He Was Advanced

Now, personally, I have no idea how one gets awarded 1.25 million dollars as an advance on a first book, but when people start bidding, who knows what crazy things can happen. Then again, maybe it’s not so crazy. The book is spectacular. The writing is fresh and interesting, the style engaging and seductive, and the humor edgy and risque. You don’t want to put it down but you’re not annoyingly attached like a crappy Dan Brown novel.

In short, it’s a great read.

One thing I really loved about it was the endless religious imagery and integration of religious concepts, all discussed by the main character, who was, as luck would have it, an atheist. Now, talking about symbolism abstractly in regards to a book you may not have read really seems silly, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you or give any plot spoilers.

I will say, however, that you will be doing yourself a service if you constantly bear the book’s title, The Gargoyle, in mind. It holds beautifully throughout the entire novel.

And the history! Multiple periods, personal characters, a variety of places. You learn so much and from a guy who’s done his homework, too. Great research went into this book, and the author does a wonderful job of integrating and crafting the material, bringing us through times and places beyond our own but that become so very close through the telling of his story.

As you’ll see, Dante’s Inferno has a prominent place in The Gargoyle and as it’s been sitting next to me on my desk for months now, I suppose it’s finally time and only fair that I pick it up. I’ve always wanted to and this provided sufficient impetus.

Have you read The Gargoyle? What’d you think? Will you read Davidson’s next book? Was this one worth the advance he got? Get your own copy of The Gargoyle.

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Irvine Welsh’s Glue, Though Long, is a Fascinating Character Piece

This was a crazy long book – nearly 500 pages. Now, 500 pages is often manageable, no problem, but these 500 pages are all written in varying Scottish accents. It’s an incredible feat, I think, that Welsh can write like this so accurately and consistently, but good lord can it be taxing to read. Certainly it makes the reader feel like he’s more a part of the story and makes the entire situation more tangible but that’s often at the expense of getting through the book in a reasonable amount of time.

I’ve read a lot of Irvine Welsh books, but this is the only one I ever started 5 times over the course of as many years. This last time, however, I was determined to push through the beginning and make it into the meat. And it was worth it.

The book is about 4 friends, and in each of four decades, the 70s when they are about 6, 80s when they’re in their teens, and the 90s when they’re in their mid-20s, we get a chapter from the perspective of each of these four friends. The fourth section, in 2000, is written differently, introducing new characters and bringing it all back around in a way I never expected. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, and I really enjoyed reading it once I understood what was happening and everything fell into a rhythm.

It’s hard, for a long time, to see the plot of this book. Honestly, I don’t know that the plot really registered with me until the end. Mostly, I considered it to be a character piece that told the tale of the lives of these four friends, their trials and travails growing up lower-class in Edinburgh. By the end, though, you realize that there was a story going on underneath, even if it wasn’t presented in standard plot, rising action, climax, falling action fashion.

All in all, it was very well done, and like I said, though long, quite good. If you’ve never read any Welsh I’d recommend starting elsewhere (classic Trainspotting perhaps?) and if you love his stuff then I’d give this one a ride and see if you can’t get your hole.

Have you read it? What’d you think? Wanna get your own copy of Glue? What’s your favorite Irvine Welsh book?

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Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant is Classicly Twisted and Testimony to a Fascinating Mind

Wow this was a great book. I am a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. I’ve read most of what he’s written, and I really liked it all. Awhile back I stopped reading a lot of Palahniuk, though, because the stories – though always cool and twisted – had a similar trajectory. You know, the one with the crazy twist towards the end. I just got tired of the big twist we were all waiting for.

But Rant is not like that at all. Though there are a million fascinating surprises and weird as hell things going on towards the end as your understanding of his crazy ideas and terms start coming together and you realize that you’re reading about something other than you imagined, there’s no big twist – just dozens of “oh,” and “ah” moments that make for a fun and exciting read.

The other thing that made it different from Palahniuk’s other books is the way it was told: as an oral biography. The first page explains this style, but basically, you’re reading a few paragraphs at a time from dozens of different people whose tales interweave and ultimately tell the story of one person – a person who is dead before this telling begins. It’s a fascinating way to learn about characters and to hear a story – and you are hearing the story.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chuck Palahniuk once and some of the stories he told me were ones that I could detect snippets of in this book. That was really cool. Here’s a photo (taken 6 years ago so cut me some slack) of me with Chuck Palahniuk.

P.S. I'm not the Asian kid

P.S. I'm not the Asian kid

Have you read Rant? What did you think? What is your favorite Palahniuk book?

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Around the World Pic of the Day: Spinoza Street in Amsterdam

Jay at Spinoza Street

Jay at Spinoza Street

After 5 trips to Amsterdam I finally made it to the only place that I ever really wanted to go (aside from coffee shops and live sex shows, of course): Spinoza Street.

I really never cared about seeing that much else in Amsterdam, though I guess I have. Five times there and I’ve still never been to the Anne Frank House. I just don’t care. I’ve taken canal tours, hung out all over the city, relaxed in parks, and seen plenty of the great sites and museums. Once, two friends and I even took a nice day trip to Utrecht (beautiful place).

But here I am at Spinoza Street. Why do I care about this and why am I sharing with you what hardly seems like a religious site? Well, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was perhaps one of the greatest and most important philosophers to ever think and write about religion. His thought pretty much changed the face of the European Enlightenment, sending it in directions no one could have predicted. His intellect was truly mind-boggling and his words sensationally fascinating.

One of my favorite books of all time, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, is overwhelmingly incredible in the scope and depth of its thought as well as the magnitude of its impact. I can read it again and again without my amazement ceasing even momentarily. Everyone should read this book (click HERE to purchase it now!).

Spinoza, though not the first to know it, was the first to make a stink out of the fact that there is no conceivable way that Moses could have written the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy), also known as The Five Books of Moses (I was asked if this could be the subject of a Fun with the Bible Monday – it will be). He investigated the Bible in a truly scholarly way, and indeed, was the first person ever known to live outside of any religious community. In abandoning his Judaism he never actually converted to Christianity, an unprecedented move that resulted in an amazing, if lonely life.

My reverence for Spinoza and his brilliant mind made me concerned only with visiting the street in Amsterdam – his home town – that bears his name. So, it’s a “religious” site for two reasons. First, because it commemorates a man whose life was dedicated to the scholarly study of religion and philosophy and second because I effectively made a pilgrimage there (even though it took me five times to get the pilgrimage right, but hey, Amsterdam can be a pretty distracting place….pretty lights…).

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Topical Tuesday: If I Could Have Been the Author of Any Book it Would Have Been…

Slaughterhouse 5!

First, I jumped at the Bible. Oh to have written the Bible. But hey, I’m one guy in one place and that was written by dozens and dozens over the course of 1000 years so for the sake of keeping it a fascinating text, I let my dream of writing the Bible go.

My next reaction upon pondering this question was to look at my bookshelves and pick out something that I saw there. I love my book shelves. However, upon moving to San Francisco, I left them behind. I packed up hundreds and hundreds of books and stored them in my mother’s basement. With me came about two dozen.

I don’t really wish that I’d written any of the books I have here (other than maybe The Divine Comedy), and so I had to start thinking again from scratch. Of course, there are so many classics that I could have picked but what would my reasoning have been?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could have made a fine selection. Mark Twain was brilliant. The book was sensational, influential, historically relevant, etc. But somehow I decided that I wanted something else. At first I was toying with sci-fi: The Hobbit, Dune. I really like the idea of creating a whole different world and think that it’s very difficult. I would love to move people’s imaginations that way. Stephen King’s epic The Dark Tower could have been excellent but Chandler and I did say 1 book.

Thus, I settled on Slaughterhouse 5. There are a couple of reasons. Personally, I’ve read the book about a dozen times. It reads so quickly and never ceases to amaze me. You can take so much away from this book. There are great one liners that stay with you – i.e., So it goes. There are hilarious quips about life’s odd situations. Billy, for instance, has a huge penis, and says, you never know who’s going to have one.

What’s more, the book has amazing historical relevance (related to the Crusades and WWII), an incredible message about war that it doesn’t just tell you but makes you feel, and makes you think 6000 times about the structure of the universe and time and other such things. I use the image of the Rocky Mountains from the beginning of time until the end of time all the time to convey various points about the nature of time. That and the attitude of the Trafalmadorians about life just make it an absolutely incredible book, with no extra words to spare.

So, thanks a lot Kurt Vonnegut for doing it first. Though I may not get your much deserved acclaim for this incredible masterpiece, I can certainly say that your book has inspired me on a personal level and for my writing. If I could publish – nay, write – anything comparable to the things you achieve inside that book I’ll be a very happy man.

What’s your favorite book? What book do you wish you’d written? If they’re different why? Did you like Slaughterhouse 5?

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Author and Computer Scientist, Hank Simon, Talks about Publishing and Writing

Hank Simon has been a wonderful asset to me as I began the writing, querying, proposal and publishing processes with The Zen of South Park. I wanted to bring him on as a guest blogger this Monday so that you could get to know him a little better and reap the benefits of some of his advice just as I have. Please don’t hesitate to leave questions and comments at the end of the post and he will return to answer them accordingly.

What do you do for a living?

I’m currently a computer scientist/engineer at a major corporation. I’m responsible for the long-term, strategic design of how information flows across the enterprise using Service Oriented Architecture approaches.

What book(s) have you written? What are they about? How do they relate to your day job, if at all?

I’ve written and contributed to 7 non-fiction books about technology. They relate to highly technical topics, such as XML, wireless, expert systems, and spectroscopy. I wrote them because, as a thought leader in advanced technology and R&D, I found a gap in information about these topics. So, as I gathered this information for a forward looking applications, it was natural to organize my findings as chapters in my books.

When were they published and with whom?

McGraw-Hill was my most successful publication in 2001, as well as a few smaller companies, ranging from 1999 – 2005.

Did you have an agent when you were trying to get them published or did you go straight to publishers?

I was very lucky in this aspect, because I was publishing many articles – more than 100 – in various trade journals, as well as making presentations at international conferences. This experience gave me lots of exposure to editors in various publishing houses, and they approached me with ideas for the books.

When you wrote query letters and proposals, what was the most difficult part?

The proposal is the most difficult part, because I had to get a feeling for the marketplace and clearly define my audience. I also had to defend my book idea compared to existing books already published. This was both a blessing and a curse. I found that the easiest way to slip into the market was to discover a gap or niche that I could fill. That niche is unique in all cases, and sometimes it is not a niche that I could fill. It was difficult to admit that.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to get published?

Read a lot by authors that you like and topics that interest you. But if you don’t like authors, don’t choke on them. For example, I read voraciously, but I don’t like many authors who write more than 600 pages. That means I have never waded through War and Peace. In contrast, I do like some of the older authors, Thurber, Benchley, Twain, Shalom Aleichem, Hemmingway, Herriot, Asimov. And I also like Grogan, and Rowland for their straightforward style. When I write, I try to blend aspects of these authors in order to improve my own style. And, I try to write at least 1 hour everyday, saving the edit process until I have a completed piece.

Are you working on any projects right now? Can you tell me about it (the writing process/publishing process/etc.).

I’m working on a Dog book that uses my dog as the central character, to highlight his personality and intelligence, to show interactions with other dogs, and to use this as a canvas to paint the relationships of people and the dogs that they meet along the way.

What advice do you have when it comes to writing?

Write everyday in a style that you like to read. Don’t try to win the Noble Prize.
Write and create first, edit later. It is tremendously easier to create and then edit.
And it is more productive to write a complete work and then edit. If you keep editing, you will stop creating and will get discouraged.
Plan to take 2x or 3x as much time to cut & edit, as you do creating.
Plan for your first book to take about a year from start to publication.

Who is your favorite author? What’s your favorite book?

I like the Harry Potter books.

If you could write one kind of book that you haven’t yet written what would it be?

I’d like to write a book on “Managing Ignorance” to complement Peter Drucker’s classic on Managing Knowledge. I could see many Dilbert opportunities.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Writing is very hard and time consuming. And, it is a job that requires discipline to remain in isolation while you create. Non-writers don’t appreciate the long hours, and the hard work needed to turn a phrase and to chip away everything until only the finely crafted piece remains.