C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alistair McGrath

July 2, 2015

c.s.lewis a life Summary (from the publisher): Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker.

In C.S. Lewis—A Life, Alister McGrath, prolific author and respected professor at King’s College of London, paints a definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis. After thoroughly examining recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.


I had never read a biography of C.S. Lewis before, so I have no choice but to approach McGrath’s book as a standalone work. In this regard, I was completely satisfied with the breadth and scope of the information, as well as with the documentary evidence cited.

McGrath tells the story of Lewis’ life chronologically, beginnning with his childhood in Ireland (thankfully, he didn’t feel the need to start with Lewis’ parents’ or grandparents’ lives, as so many biographers do with their subjects) and progressing through Lewis’ schooldays in England, university days at Oxford, wartime experience, and post-war lecturing/writing. All parts were clearly distinguishable from each other, and when woven together, yielded a cohesive tapestry of Lewis’ life.

What I especially enjoyed about this book was how McGrath provided some analysis of each of Lweis’ major writings. When available, McGrath revealed what Lewis himself had to say about a particular work; failing that, McGrath provides the reader with some critical responses from Lewis’ day. This analysis was short enough to make the biography as a whole manageable, yet detailed enough to allow me to read Lewis with some new insight.

Another thing I appreciated here was the way the author didn’t lionize Lewis. Yes, the biography was mostly positive in tone, but McGrath took Lewis to task when warranted.

In thinking back over what I read, I wish that McGrath had delved a bit more into Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore. Not from any desire for salacious gossip, but rather because there seemed some legitimate lines of questioning that McGrath didn’t follow up with. For example, I read in the C.S. Lewis Wikipedia entry (not a great source, I know) that the bedroom layout at the Kilns (the house Lewis shared with Moore and his brother) was such that a friend of Lewis’ at the time thought that the relationship was almost certainly sexual in nature. McGrath hinted as much, but didn’t really explore the issue.

Nor did I quite understand the significance of McGrath’s claim that Lewis’ conversion to Christianity actually happened a year or so later than everyone (including Lewis himself) claimed. Sure, McGrath makes a good case and was sharp to have spotted the inconsistencies in Lewis’ correspondence and actions, but so what? What difference does Lewis’ conversion date make in the grand scheme of things? Is this something that needed to be treated as a major discovery? Perhaps my unfamiliarity with Lewis scholarship in general is obscuring the importance of this tidbit.


On the whole, I found C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alistair McGrath to be a highly engrossing and engaging read. The author was able to paint a full picture of Lewis’ life without getting bogged down in minutiae or overstaying his welcome. I came away from my time with the book knowing a heck of a lot more about Lewis than when I started, which is, after all, the point of reading a biography. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.


Contemporary Cowboys

June 23, 2015

cowboy shirt I don’t read too many novels from the Western genre, but when I do, I tend to imagine the main characters as old-school John Wayne types. That works well enough for Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour; however, when reading something more contemporary, I need to update my image of what these cowboys might look like.

So to do this, I started browsing around some Western clothing sites to check out how today’s cowboys dress. Let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the clothes look! For example, check out the shirt in the picture here. Does that fit the stereotypical image of Western wear? Not for me!

And this isn’t just true for men’s apparel. I found a bunch of great western clothing at Eli’s for girls, boys, and women too — and am very, VERY tempted to buy something for myself.

Anyway, the next time I read a Western, I will have a vastly different mental image of what a contemporary cowboy looks like!


Stone Cold by David Baldacci

May 24, 2015

Stone_Cold_Book Plot summary (from the publisher): Oliver Stone, the leader of the mysterious group that calls itself the Camel Club, is both feared and respected by those who’ve crossed his path. Keeping a vigilant watch over our leaders in Washington D.C., the Camel Club has won over some allies, but it has also earned formidable enemies-including those in power who will do anything to prevent Stone and his friends from uncovering the hidden, secret work of the government.

Annabelle Conroy, an honorary member of the Camel Club, is also the greatest con artist of her generation. She has swindled forty million dollars from casino king Jerry Bagger, the man who murdered her mother. Now he’s hot on her trail with only one goal in mind: Annabelle’s death. But as Stone and the Camel Club circle the wagons to protect Annabelle, a new opponent, who makes Bagger’s menace pale by comparison, suddenly arises.

One by one, men from Stone’s shadowy past are turning up dead. Behind this slaughter stands one man: Harry Finn. To almost all who know him, Finn is a doting father and loving husband who uses his skills behind the scenes to keep our nation safe. But the other face of Harry Finn is that of an unstoppable killer who inevitably sets his lethal bull’s-eye on Oliver Stone. And with Finn, Stone may well have met his match.

As Annabelle and the Camel Club fight for their lives, the twists and turns whipsaw, leading to a finale that is as explosive as it is shattering. And when buried secrets
are at last violently resurrected, the members of the Camel Club left standing will be changed forever.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • Yay, Annabelle is back! I still liked this character by the end of the book and hope that even though her real business with the Camel Club is done, she’ll drop by from time to time. Heck, I don’t even mind that there were hints at some kind of romance developing between her and Alex Ford. I usually hate that kind of thing, but am willing to accept it here if it means Annabelle can stay.
  • I enjoyed the parts of the story that showed how easy it was for Harry Finn to breach all kinds of supposedly secure/impenetrable locations. People really are lax about security on a day-to-day basis, and it’s true that as long as you look/act like you belong, few will question you.
  • I loved seeing Oliver Stone go all badass at the end! His killing of Simpson and Carter Gray cannot simply be overlooked, even by Alex Ford. And Oliver knows this, which is why he immediately went into hiding.


  • Why did Caleb have to die??? What does this mean for the future of the Camel Club? I know there are more books in the series, but what direction will they take?
  • The resolution of the Jerry Bagger plot was wholly unsatisfying. Having him go off the road and plunge into the Potomac wasn’t personal enough. I would have liked to see Annabelle shoot him (in a justifiable situation, not in cold blood).
  • None of the stuff with Harry Finn’s family interested me at all. I know that was inserted to give the character more dimension and show the reader that he wasn’t a truly bad person (and to drum up some sympathy for when his kid gets snatched later on), but man, it was so boring!
  • The whole thing about Jerry Bagger being a “man of his word” was ridiculous to me. There’s no way a guy like Bagger would honor a promise if it meant letting a sworn enemy like Annabelle’s father go free. It’s not like anyone else even knew about the promise, right? And point of pride or not, a guy like Bagger wouldn’t have that much integrity.


Overall, I found Stone Cold by David Baldacci to be reasonably entertaining. The book featured some things I liked and some I didn’t, so I think giving it 3 stars out of 5 is warranted here.


Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

May 12, 2015

switch chip heath Summary (from the publisher): Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?

The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the critically acclaimed bestseller Made to Stick. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

In Switch, the Heaths show how everyday people—employees and managers, parents and nurses—have united both minds and, as a result, achieved dramatic results:
● The lowly medical interns who managed to defeat an entrenched, decades-old medical practice that was endangering patients.
● The home-organizing guru who developed a simple technique for overcoming the dread of housekeeping.
● The manager who transformed a lackadaisical customer-support team into service zealots by removing a standard tool of customer service

In a compelling, story-driven narrative, the Heaths bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change. Switch shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you, whether your interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.


I am interested in reading more self-improvement books this year, and thought Switch would be a good one. Its premise sounded similar in a lot of ways to The Power of Habit, which I read several weeks ago, so I was hoping to build on what I learned from that other work. And while some things are different — particularly the language used, as the Heath bros. insist on terms such as “rider” (to represent the rational mind), “elephant” (to represent the emotions), and “path” (to represent the specific context of the change), they’re both about breaking habits, i.e. “changing.”

And maybe because I’d already read The Power of Habit, so much of what was in Switch felt familiar and repetitive to me. The Heath bros. did feature a lot of stories, examples, and case studies that I’d never heard of in order to illustrate their points, but the points themselves were mostly common sense and hardly revolutionary. I suppose some people might find it helpful to put specific terms to the components of change, but on the whole, the information didn’t come off as very useful to someone that has read other books on the same topic.

One thing I did like about Switch was how the authors remind readers to look for the bright spots in our problems. Most people have a strong tendency to want to focus on the problems and figure out how to fix them, but sometimes, as in the case of malnutrition in certain Vietnamese villages, doing that would take years of analysis followed by many more years of planning and implementation. Instead, you should occasionally just have a look at what’s working right now and focus on doing more of the good stuff until more far-reaching solutions can follow.


If Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath is the first book on personal or organizational change you’ve ever read, you’ll probably find lots of informative tips and insight here, and would benefit from following the authors’ outline for making change happen. Otherwise, this book comes off as rather simplistic most of the time, and suffers from highly repetitive (almost condescending) language. I give it 3 stars out of 5.


The Guitar Amp Handbook

May 9, 2015

guitar amp handbook My cousin is getting better and better at guitar, mostly just from putting in the practice time. But now he’s also interested in learning the whys and wherefores behind what he’s doing, so I’m thinking of getting him a book like this one. It covers a variety of topics related to guitars, amps, and other accessories such as xtune stompboxes and more. It should be a good one — and if it’s not, he can always return/exchange it for something different.


11/22/63 by Stephen King

May 3, 2015

11-22-63 Plot summary (from the publisher): In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.

It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.

Warning: MAJOR spoilers below!


  • Jake was a mostly good character with whom to go on this journey. Sure, he was fairly vanilla (especially for a King protag), but at least he didn’t have too many annoying traits that would get on my nerves in a book this long. I liked him and was rooting for him to succeed.
  • Despite the book’s length and some boring spots, King still has a knack for making readers want to turn the page. I finished this one in just a few days because, yes, it was that engrossing.
  • The shoutouts to IT and Richie/Beverly were AWESOME!!!
  • When this book was first published, I had zero interest in reading it because I’m just not into the whole Kennedy assassination/Lee Harvey Oswald/CIA conspiracy theory thing. I couldn’t really get past the title of this one and didn’t investigate further. But then I saw some random comment thread on Reddit that talked a bit more about the plot and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because actually the JFK thing was more of a MacGuffin than not. It was the driving force behind the protag’s action, but wasn’t front and center the whole time. Good deal!
  • King’s time travel scenario actually felt plausible. I tend to stay away from books that contain these supernatural elements (and sci-fi is a definite no-no for me), but King didn’t get bogged down in details or try to explain how this “bubble” to the past would even be possible. I guess some folks might consider that weasling out; but I trusted King (he’s earned it for sure) and just went with the flow. I wasn’t disappointed.


  • I thought there was way too much time spent on the minutiae of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life in the period leading up to 11/22/63. Obviously King had to get him involved in the story somehow, but all the arguments with his wife about banal things, the descriptions of his job, his daily routine, etc. just felt like filler in a book that didn’t need the extra pages.
  • I wasn’t that invested in Sadie or the love story. As this turned out to be the major plot point, it was a big miss for me.
  • I didn’t like the ending at all. The shithole the world turned into as a result o JFK being saved made Jake’s choice to reset time and save Sadie way too easy. Who wouldn’t do that? King should have made the “JFK lives” timeline a utopia so Jake would have to struggle with doing what’s best for the country or for just one person.


I actually went in to 11/22/63 not expecting to like it very much. I thought it would be too full of JFK’s presidency, possible conspiracy theories, and LHO’s life. But that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. It was more about Jake Epping struggling to find his place in time and to do what was “right” given the hindsight that he had as a man from the future. The book was captivating and the characters’ motivations convincing. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.


11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

April 24, 2015

11th hour Plot summary (from the publisher): Your best friend

Lindsay Boxer is pregnant at last! But her work doesn’t slow for a second. When millionaire Chaz Smith is mercilessly gunned down, she discovers that the murder weapon is linked to the deaths of four of San Francisco’s most untouchable criminals. And it was taken from her own department’s evidence locker. Anyone could be the killer–even her closest friends.

Or a vicious killer?

Lindsay is called next to the most bizarre crime scene she’s ever seen: two bodiless heads elaborately displayed in the garden of a world-famous actor. Another head is unearthed in the garden, and Lindsay realizes that the ground could hide hundreds of victims.

You won’t know until the 11th hour

A reporter launches a series of vicious articles about the cases and Lindsay’s personal life is laid bare. But this time she has no one to turn to–especially not Joe. 11TH HOUR is the most shocking, most emotional, and most thrilling Women’s Murder Club novel ever.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • Like all of Patterson’s co-authored books, this was a blazingly fast read made up of over 100 very short chapters.
  • The main characters seemed a bit toned down in this book. I remember being turned off from the series because of some over-the-top actions from the Women’s Murder Club members, but their individual “quirks” were less of an annoyance this time around.
  • There was more focus on the casework in this book and less on the personal relationships with husbands/boyfriends or how the ladies need to use the Other Woman house cleaning service since they’re so busy with work, which I greatly appreciated.
  • The cases were actually interesting and made me eager for answers.


  • Although both cases (the severed heads in the movie star’s garden and the vigilante cop) were interesting enough, I felt that each got short shrift by being covered in the same book. Why the need for two main cases here? Either one could have been beefed up enough to fill an entire book on its own — especially a book as short as these Murder Club installments.
  • I absolutely despised Lindsay and Joe’s argument. She became convinced he was cheating on her, so she kicked him out of the house without bothering to listen to his side. I don’t know what kind of relationships people tend to have, but it seems to me that this kind of thing would ONLY happen in a book, TV show, or movie. Who values their husband so little that she wouldn’t even let him speak out in a situation like that??? Especially when Joe had done nothing (to that point) to make Lindsay distrust him. WTF?
  • I don’t really like how these cases are solved. The whole investigation seems very passive, and as a reader, I don’t get a chance to test my own P.I. chops in an attempt to figure out whodunit. The author provides scant suspects, pointless interviews, and zero clues. The whole solution basically hinges on an accidental discovery or a fuckup on the part of the perp. Not very fun from a reader’s perspective.


As far as the Women’s Murder Club series goes, 11th Hour is actually one of the better books in the series. The cases are intriguing, the characters are (mostly) on their best behavior, and the story as a whole was entertaining. But the book comes off as merely average when considered in light of the larger crime fiction genre, so I give it just 3 stars out of 5.


Stalking the Angel by Robert Crais

April 22, 2015

stalking the angel Plot summary (from the publisher): Bradley Warren has lost a very valuable thirteenth-century Japanese manuscript, the Hagakure, and hires Elvis Cole to recover it. Elvis and Joe Pike search through Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and the nest of the notorious Japanese mafia, known as the yakuza.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • So far, Elvis is still funny to me. His wisecracking ways haven’t gotten under my skin (yet), and I still like him a lot. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time building up my tolerance thanks to Myron Bolitar. (Incidentally, the similarities between Elvis/Myron and their taciturn, ass-kicking partners Joe/Win is so strong that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit!!)
  • The plot kept clicking along for the most part. I can’t recall any overly boring parts that made me want to put the book aside in favor of another. This was a breezy, brainless, entertaining read — which is very necessary every once in a while.
  • Some of the Hagakure/samurai code/yakuza stuff was interesting; but then again, I have no way of telling how much was accurate. Everything could be made up or flat-out wrong for all I know!


  • There wasn’t enough Joe Pike! I thought Elvis and Joe were supposed to be full-time partners? (Maybe I’m wrong; I’m still new to the series.) I think the books work much better when the two are together, because Elvis seems like the kind of guy that operates best with an audience.
  • Could have done without the incest angle. Even now I can’t tell you if Mimi was making that up as an excuse to shoot her father or if it was true. I skimmed over that stuff because incest is one of those topics that makes me feel queasy.
  • Elvis and Joe are a little too invincible for my taste. They went up against martial arts experts and got the best of them every time. Yeah, Elvis does some sort of martial arts posing/stretching himself, so he’s not exactly a noob, and Joe did use a shotgun on Eddie. But I have a feeling the constant victories against untold numbers of baddies will wear thin after a while.
  • BTW, Tang? Is sooo not a Japanese name.


Overall, Stalking the Angel was just your average crime thriller. It has a fun main character and good pacing, but some of the plot elements were hard to swallow or just plain distasteful to me. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

April 19, 2015

quiet Summary (from the publisher): At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.

In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts—from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.


I thought Susan Cain presented her case for introverts in a clear and logical manner. She used anecdotes throughout the book to back up her points about introverts being just as (or more) intelligent, capable, and thoughtful people as extroverts, and most of the anecdotes were interesting.

I particularly appreciated the way Cain demonstrated that presentation is often valued more than substance in business settings. The part where she talked about Asian businesspeople in Cupertino taking classes to help them be more assertive and vocal was especially poignant. These were highly intelligent men and women who should have been able to go far based on ability alone, but who were reduced to having to take this kind of extra class essentially because they weren’t as loud and obnoxious as their extroverted counterparts.

I did have a few issues with the book. First, I would have liked it if Cain worked from a more rigid definition of introversion. She basically admitted she was using a cultural (read: pop psych) definition rather than anything found in an actual textbook. With such a flexible definition, it’s easy to stretch and mold the “data” to support her case. Almost anyone can be made to be an introvert — or at least have introverted tendencies.

Another problem I had with the book is that it started to feel very repetitive by the end. Then again, I guess there are only so many ways you can show that being quiet, thoughtful, deliberate, bookish, etc. aren’t negative qualities.

And finally, I wish Cain hadn’t ended the book with tips on how to deal with/overcome introversion. After spending all that time showing how introversion should be viewed as a positive rather than a negative attribute, it seemed odd that she would need to include such tips. Thus, I’m choosing to ignore that part and embrace the side of me that’s more comfortable staying at home on a Saturday night looking for an organizer for my pots and pans than going out with a group of people.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a decent read that provides some good insights into what makes introverts tick and shows that they can be every bit as productive and valuable as extroverts. However, it’s not a hard-hitting book that plumbs the depths of the topic or that offers much in the way of further research. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.


A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

March 28, 2015

tramp abroad Summary (from Wikipedia): A Tramp Abroad is a work of non-fiction travel literature by American author Mark Twain, published in 1880. The book details a journey by the author, with his friend Harris (a character created for the book, and based on his closest friend, Joseph Twichell), through central and southern Europe. While the stated goal of the journey is to walk most of the way, the men find themselves using other forms of transport as they traverse the continent. The book is often thought to be an unofficial sequel to an earlier Twain travel book, The Innocents Abroad.

As the two men make their way through Germany, the Alps, and Italy, they encounter situations made all the more humorous by their reactions to them. The narrator (Twain) plays the part of the American tourist of the time, believing that he understands all that he sees, but in reality understanding none of it.


It’s been a long time since I’ve read Mark Twain, probably back to Huck Finn in high school. But I’ve now gone through A Tramp Abroad and Life on the Mississippi in a matter of a few days, and am totally reevaluating my thoughts about Twain. He might turn out to be my favorite American writer yet!

The humor in A Tramp Abroad has held up surprisingly well over the years. I found it to be laugh-out-loud funny in a number of places, and absolutely loved his diatribe about the nonsensical assignation of gender to certain German nouns. As a former language student, I could feel his pain through every bit of that hilariously written passage.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it would probably be the portrayal of all Americans as oafish, rude, and unworldly. I had no idea that negative stereotype of Yankee travelers dated back so far!


I truly enjoyed A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain, not particularly as a travelogue, but more as a humorous series of sketches about odd people and situations encountered while wandering through Europe. This book makes me want to revisit all of Twain’s work, which is why I give it 4 stars out of 5.