Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thoughts of the Moment

Hard to believe that I created this blog nearly two and half years ago -- ostensibly to review books but also to practice my writing skills. Every successful writer I've ever tried to learn from has stated the importance of writing every single day to practice the craft. Note from the date of my last post that I've neither reviewed a book, nor written a line here for over 3 months. It's not that I haven't been reading; I just finished the latest novel from Dean Koontz and hope to review it as soon as the trauma wears off. I've also been writing a lot of e-mails lately so hopefully that counts for something.

So what, pray tell, motivated me to compose this post after such a long absence? I just saw on Facebook that my middle daughter has started a blog and after reading her initial entry I thought this is great! Now I can keep up with her and her family and never feel guilty for not calling or visiting again!

You see, recently my wife decided to open her own business and I decided to help. We've both been so busy with the store lately that we've sorely neglected the kids and grandkids. In fact, the last time we stopped in to see our oldest granddaughter, she started crying when we left. At the time I thought it was sweet and extremely touching but now I realize it was because she knew we were never coming back! This has weighed heavily on her grandmother and me but now I'm greatly relieved. With the combination of Facebook, text messages, e-mail, and blogs, we can all communicate effectively and efficiently without ever having to leave the house. Think of how much we'll save on gas. And I'll have even more things to read and write about!

Now the only risk to our newly improved family ties is the broadband going down.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Driven, by Larry H. Miller and Doug Robinson

Three months ago, I finished reading Driven, the Larry H. Miller autobiography co-authored by Doug Robinson. Ironically, this book is the main reason I haven’t read a book since. I shall say more about this later.

From a general interest point of view, Driven is easy to read and absorbing. For those of us living along the Wasatch Front who thought we knew this guy, Miller’s autobiography reveals that most of us really didn’t.

Larry Miller’s life story is the classic rags to riches tale. Arriving home from school one day at age 16, he found his clothes and personal possessions packed and sitting on the front porch. By age 50, he had risen to the top of the business world; controlling a group of companies worth millions.

Driven could as easily been entitled Obsessed. Indeed it appears that everything Larry Miller did in life was to excess, or as he would put it, with laser-like focus that precluded anything less than optimal results. From throwing softballs for hours on end to perfect his pitching skills to memorizing every part number in the auto parts catalog to master his trade, if Miller set his mind to something, he would not be denied. Which begs the question: At what price success? In the end, it was his hyper-driven life style that killed him and only when death was imminent was he able to reconcile with his family for years of neglect.

On the other hand, Miller's contributions to society and the State of Utah are well beyond measure ... from frequent small and unnoticed acts of kindness to charitable giving of monstrous proportions. His business empire employs thousands of people across several states and after 3 years of service, children of employees qualify for full college scholarships courtesy of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies. Against all odds, he managed to keep the pro basketball Jazz in Utah, build an arena for them to play in, and turn the organization into one of the finest in the NBA. An effort to support the school of business at Salt Lake Community College resulted in the construction of an entire campus. And without Miller’s financial support and determination, the Joseph Smith Papers would still be but a wish waiting to come true.

It was while reading Driven and learning more about the Miller Group and their business philosophy that I began to explore the possibility of going to work in one of their divisions. Having an inside connection, I commenced to inquire.

(I shall also mention at this point that the “H” in Larry H. Miller, stands for Horne—which also happens to be the name of my wife’s great-grandmother. Perhaps with a little luck, I reasoned, I could not only get a job but weasel my way into the Miller family will!)

The inside connection is my oldest son, who has worked in the advertising/marketing arm of the Miller Group of Companies for sometime and seems to have a bright future for himself as well as scholarships for his kids. He arranged for me and my wife to star in a car commercial and in the process, meet the GM of the dealership where the commercial was to be filmed. To make a long story short, I’m now working 50 plus hours a week at Larry H. Miller Ford in Salt Lake as a car and truck salesman and it’s a good thing because after multiple takes, it was readily apparent there was no future for me in acting! The rigorous work schedule also explains why I haven’t time to read anymore as mentioned in paragraph one.

There is something oddly satisfying about being in the automotive business, in addition to driving the new trucks around the lot. I think it has something to do with the thought that if I can survive this job, I can survive anything: like John McCain and POW camp. Plus we get free lunch on Saturdays.

Driven is a good read and a worthwhile use of time. Working for the Miller Group is a good thing if you’re Deron Williams or Paul Millsap but only time will tell if it’s good thing for me. Hopefully Congress will raise the minimum wage before too long into next year.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In the Heart of the Sea - The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Like a moth to the porch light on a warm summer’s eve. I haven’t a clue why, but for some reason, I’m hopelessly drawn to tales of human suffering and misery. I believe this compelling attraction began some 12-13 years ago when a friend strongly suggested I read Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. This book held me hostage for months. I laid awake at night agonizing over the poor souls trapped on Everest and when finally able to sleep, their excruciating cries tormented my dreams. Years after reading Into Thin Air, I was still following the seasonal assaults on Everest with pronounced anxiety for the faceless climbers.

Similar tragic accounts followed; their unseen beacons acting as forcefully on me as retractor beams: Alexander Dolgun’s Story, Skeletons on the Zahara, The Perfect Storm, Ghost Soldiers, The Road, Tears in the Darkness, The Lost City of Z, just to name a few. And now it seems that if I don’t find these horror filled tomes, they find me!

Such was the case with In the Heart of the Sea - The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I simply asked the kind Barnes & Noble lady for a book recommendation and that’s what I got. She told me nothing else about the book other than the actual historical account of the Essex provided the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Sounds interesting, I remember thinking. Little did I know this book would eclipse all the others in probing the depths of human misery.

On our first trip to Hawaii several years ago, Robyn and I toured the whaling museum at Lahaina on the island of Maui. In the sensibility of current times, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the conditions on a 19th Century whale ship. As we strolled through the museum viewing the photos and reading the historical descriptions, my stomach began to churn. Talk about dirty jobs! From working on decks slickened with whale blood and guts, to sleeping in rat and lice infested bunks, to subsisting on hard tack and putrid water … No thank you to that type of life for me. I can’t even go on whale watching cruises without getting sick!

Such were the conditions on the Whaleship Essex before it sank in 1919 and it was the Ritz Carlton compared to the conditions that followed. Abandoning the wreck, the 20 men constituting the crew of the Essex boarded the 3 small whale boats the ship carried and put forth into the merciless sea.

As any good author would, Nathaniel Philbrick does a nice job of supplementing the historical count of the next 3 months by scientifically describing the psychological and physiological effects of dehydration and starvation on the human mind and body. Not a pretty picture. And when the little food the sailors were able to salvage from the Essex runs out, chilling decisions from deranged minds were made. Rather than providing the graphic details, let me just say that 5 of the 17 whalers that stayed in the boats did not starve to death and it wasn’t because they received manna from heaven. (Three opted to remain on an uninhabited island and survived by eating shore birds until rescued.)

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is for the modern reader. It’s clear to discern that the 8 who survived did so because of superior will, judgment, and luck. I suppose die hard survivalists might find some enlightenment from their examples. For me though, the message is the same as the one impressed upon me from all the other books of harrowing ordeals I’ve digested: That my troubles are small compared to what they could be. It’s good to be reminded of this in the face of life’s little set backs. It’s better to hope than despair. And it’s better to be a moth than a cocoon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Reading, Summer Not

Almost four months since my last post. That’s nearly a quarter of a year if my math is correct. A quick perusal of the updated profile to the right will in part explain my delinquency. But now that the last load of laundry is safely in the washer, I finally have a few minutes to write! Following is a partial list of Mil Silver’s summer reading.

Brave Companions by David McCullough.

Although I’ve yet to complete this book, I have no hesitancy whatsoever in recommending it. It’s a collection of short stories about important events in history and important people in history. Indeed the book is subtitled Portraits in History. For example, Chapter Four (or story number four) entitled Glory Days in Medora, recounts the colorful history of a little town in the Badlands of North Dakota where the “real west” had its origins according to McCullough. This is the place young Theodore Roosevelt came to take a break from politics and find himself so to speak. But Roosevelt did not give the place a name by his presence, Medora was already a bustling frontier town by the time he arrived—Mecca for several competing cattle outfits. “The main attraction, however,” to quote from the book, “was one Antoine Amédéé-Marie-Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa, Marquis de Morés, recently of the French Cavalry, who planned, he said, not just to raise cattle but to found an enterprise unlike any other in the West.” And, who happened to be quite head-strong and preferred to settle arguments by dueling.

I’m tempted to call Glory Days in Medora, the prequel to Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Rider fame. As for the Marquis, his cattle empire went belly-up in less than four years and he returned to France to “proclaim himself the victim of a Jewish plot” and was later murdered by a band of Taureg tribesmen in North Africa, where he was trying to unite Muslims to fight against the Jews and English.

I’m not making this up. Brave Companions contains true stories every bit as strange as fiction and considerably more compelling; including Chapter Six, Steam Road to El Dorado which details the building of the Panama Railroad, prequel to the Panama Canal. I read this account with my own eyes and still can’t believe they did it. If OSHA had been around back then they couldn’t have done it.

Brave Companions contains seventeen “portraits” that history aficionados will love and even normal people will like. I think I will finish reading it as soon as the dishes are done.

Deliver Us from Evil by David Baldacci

Baldacci’s latest best selling novel only has a 2½ star rating on Amazon but I would have given it 3 ½ to 4. Perhaps not as suspenseful as many of his earlier works, Deliver Us from Evil is certainly more plausible and the action proceeds at a nice even pace throughout. It didn’t keep me up late into the night but definitely held my interest.

Deliver Us from Evil is the type of book you can read once the vacuuming is done and put down when it's time to dust. In other words, it's a great read for rest breaks.

Fever Dream by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

If you’re a fan of the Pendergast novels by Preston and Child, then Fever Dream is a must. I looked forward to this release with great anticipation and was not disappointed. This book did take charge of my schedule for a few days and when that happens, I usually just concede and read away until I finish and then return to normal life.

The plot for Fever Dream is engrossing and kept me guessing until the end. As a matter of fact, one of the few things I figured out by the end was that this book is continued—so I’m still guessing.

In Fever Dream, we learn for the first time that Special Agent Pendergast was once married, and that he probably would still be had his beloved wife Helen not been killed in a tragic accident—or was it an accident? Many years after the fact, Pendergast discovers a clue that suggests his wife was actually murdered and with this revelation, he’s off to hunt for the killer.

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Carolina Parakeet (hunted to extinction in the late 1800’s) and because of my love for birds, was a huge fan of John James Audubon. Imagine my delight in finding both this parakeet and Audubon central to the mystery surrounding Helen Pendergast's death. Giddy with glee is an apt description! And did I mention that Lieutenant D’Agosta and Captain Hayward are prominently featured as well?

I enjoy these types of serial thrillers with recurring characters so I’m not disappointed that sequels are coming. Fever Dream is actually the tenth novel in the Pendergast series that all started with Relic. If there are ten more to follow, that will be fine with me.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Random Reading, etc.

For some reason I feel compelled to update my blog but haven’t the slightest idea why. I’m reasonably sure that no one is hovering over their computer waiting for my latest book recommendation so they can rush down to the local library and pick it up. But, because it’s been almost two months since I posted an entry, here’s an update on what I’ve been reading lately and a few accompanying thoughts.

Riptide by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Several weeks ago, I met Douglas Preston at an author presentation and book signing in Sugar House at the Barnes and Noble. He was doing the promotional tour for his latest solo novel, Impact. I had reserved a copy of Impact at the Bountiful Library and received it within day or two of its release. By the time Mr. Preston came to town, I had started and stopped reading Impact, barely 50 pages into it. The book was too crude and vulgar for my tastes and a huge disappointment as I had previously considered Preston one of my favorite authors. The contrast was pronounced compared to previous Preston works and I was left to wonder why the sudden change of style. Perhaps he was going for the movie deal, as my son suggested when I told him about the book. Yes, it does seem that many of the hit movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays are crude and vulgar so maybe my son was right. Still I was disappointed; disappointed enough to post a review on Amazon forewarning others holding similar values to avoid Impact. And I was disappointed enough that I almost didn't go to the signing. However, I decided I wouldn't let one book detract from the dozens of others he has written that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so I attended the author event.

I found Douglas Preston to be warm, friendly, engaging and delightful in person, and not once did he swear or say anything vulgar. So I bought a copy of Riptide at the signing as a small show of support.

Riptide is vintage Preston and Child and a four star recreational read. It’s a page turner that stretches plausibility a bit, but not enough to detract from the enjoyment. It kept both me and my wife (who read it after I did) guessing until the end and that’s how good fiction should be. Riptide would be even better if read on the beach!

Passion & ICE by Stephen F. Steffano. This is a book on leading with values that probably no one has heard of and even fewer people have read. Steve used to be an executive at Glaxo Smith Kline and the type of person you could call Steve because he was as humble and down to earth as they come. I say was because he is no longer at GSK and while I’m certain he is still humble and down to earth, I can’t really say for sure. What I can say is that after reading his book, the mystery of why he unexpectedly took early retirement became much clearer. The I C E in ICE stands for Integrity, Courage and Empathy; attributes which none of the current GSK leaders exemplify.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Apparently, Randy Pausch’s last lecture was so good they pubished it in a book! A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the prime of his life and insisted on doing one last lecture to preserve a memorial for his two young children. The lecture was entitled 'Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams' and it was filled with feel good, win one for the Gipper, self-improvement type stuff. Sad to admit, but I’ve grown tired of these types of motivational messages. It’s because my life experience has made me into a realist—and as one of my missionary companions used to say, “realism is just a euphemism for pessimism.” If I were to give a last lecture, my title would be: 'Dream Small, and You Won’t Be Disappointed.'

Lightening by Dean Koontz. Often when selecting a novel by an author that churns them out at the rate of 2-3 per year and has been doing so forever, I will consider the star rating on Amazon. Lightening is one of Koontz’s earlier novels (1988) and also one of his highest rated: 4 ½ stars according to Amazon reviewers. I checked out a beat-up old copy from the library and devoured it in just a couple of days. This is a great piece of fiction—5 stars in my opinion. In past postings, I’ve suggested that reading Dean Koontz is an acquired taste because of his affection for the creepy and bizarre. Apparently he wasn't as prone to creepiness in his earlier works because Lightening is remarkably sedate in this regard. Lightening is a riveting thriller that's as good as it gets in this particular genre; a book both you and your mother will enjoy.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m not sure how I became aware of The Road. No one recommended it to me. The author was unfamiliar. Probably saw an ad for the movie and discovered it was based upon the book.

Thirty six years ago, I made a personal decision to not watch R rated movies. Occasionally one comes along that tests my resolve. Not really. If the movie is R rated, does that mean the book is too? I don’t know.

Something about The Road intrigued me. I read the book. I would not give it an R rating but I can see how the movie would be deserving. Actual images are generally far more graphic than imagined.

It’s embarrassing to confess my deficiency but I’ve never read anything like The Road. I’m not sure how to describe it. The language adds more to the story than the story adds to the story. But the dearth of words enhances the emotional impact. Does writing style transcend words to communicate subliminally? I think so.

Cormac McCarthy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for writing The Road. I can see why. I can also see this book being dissected in upper division literature classes. It might be a form of poetry for all I know. Some of the metaphor and simile I did not understand. It was okay. Subliminal communication.

Imagine a post apocalyptic earth where nearly everything living has been destroyed and survival instinct rules the few humans who remain. You will not only imagine it better after reading The Road, you will feel it.

It’s about a father and a son. Survival instinct needs not be egocentric.

Is hope to be found where there is no rationale for hope? Yes. If you’re carrying the fire.

The Road is now among my top five favorite books of all time.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Revisited)

A few weeks ago my daughter Sunny made a quick trip from Salt Lake to Los Angeles and back. To increase the odds of staying awake at the wheel for the long drive, she bought an audio copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to listen to. I should point out here that all of our family members are big fans of the Harry Potter books and most of us have read them more than once. Being the nonconformist that I am, I didn’t want to be just another Harry Potter reader though, so I collected all seven volumes of the series in the Bloomsbury Deluxe edition. Bloomsbury is J.K Rowling's publisher in the UK and I say old chap, the language is quite different in several instances. Good thing I had the Internet to look up the British meaning of all those English words! But back to the point: After listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Sunny said to my wife Robyn, “Mom, you’ve got to listen to this - it was like I’d never read it before.”

The Harry Potter audio books are narrated by Jim Dale and he does an absolutely fantastic job. I listened to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban long ago, but still remember being enthralled by how much the narration added to the story. I logically assumed that Sunny was just taken by the audio and that was why she enjoyed this format of the Deathly Hallows so much more than the printed version. Ah, but not necessarily so.

Robyn is always listening to audio books on her MP3 player. She burns through about 4 to 5 books a week so adding the Deathly Hallows was no big deal. Barely a disk or two into it however, she approached me with a puzzled look on her face and said, “I know I read this book when it came out but I honestly can’t remember half of what I’m hearing. It’s like reading a whole new book.”

Now if I would have said that, no one would have been surprised. I used to have a very good memory but age has taken its toll. The little (and sometimes big) mental lapses can be rather embarrassing in business and social settings, but when it comes to entertainment, I’ve concluded that memory loss is a benefit and will eventually save me lots of money. I own shelves of books and DVD’s that will be brand new to me again someday. But again I stray from the point.

Even though Sunny paid the big bucks to buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on CD, she has been very generous in sharing it with additional family members. To date, Sunny, Robyn, Laurie and now I have all listened to the book. In my case however, this is only partially true. I started the book on CD in my car but soon found myself needlessly driving around in order to listen to it so I pulled the Bloomsbury Deluxe off the shelf and read the rest of it. I’m absolutely positive it was the exact same book I read when it was first released but for some reason, much of the story was unfamiliar to me. It was like a whole new book I’d never read before!

Not willing to accept the possibility that all four of us have become daft in the three short years since Deathly Hallows was released, we’ve discussed the matter at some length and arrived at the following conclusion: The final book in the Harry Potter series was greatly anticipated and in our haste to see how it ended, we rushed through the pages in such a hurry that very little of the story stuck. This time around, we were able to relax and absorb the details, and enjoy a much richer reading experience as a result.

Which leads me to the point I wanted to make when I started this post: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a great book the first time around but even better the second time ... at least I think that was the point I wanted to make ... now I'm not so sure I remember.