Books I Read Recently

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip by Nevin Martell 7 out of 10 stars (7/10)
This is a well-written biography of Bill Watterson, the author of the best comic strip ever, Calvin and Hobbes. The author writes about Watterson’s reclusiveness a lot, describing how few interviews are given. Martell interviews lots of friends and people who know Watterson, and provides an interesting portrait, although you don’t learn a lot if you’ve read all of the Calvin and Hobbes books; however, I do recommend this if you’re interested in the man behind the comic.

A Midnight Clear by William Wharton 9 out of 10 stars (9/10)
This is a semi-autobiographical story about an American squad on a mission around Christmas in 1944 – World War II. It’s a powerful tale about war and humanity – a classic. Highly recommended. The movie is worth watching, too. The author, William Wharton, writes touching, readable, poignant stories and non-fiction. We’ve posted a lot about William Wharton.

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A. J. Jacobs 7 out of 10 stars (7/10)
This is fun non-fiction about a guy who does social experiments with himself as the main subject: impersonating a movie star; saying whatever is on your mind; pretending to be a woman… he doesn’t come across as narcissistic, although he makes fun about that. His self-deprecation and awareness of his reputation as one who does odd things in the name of journalism is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I did get tired of his experiments towards the end, but he has enlightening observations about his experiences. A good read.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski 7 out of 10 stars (7/10)
This is a wonderful story about a boy, his family, and the dogs he grows up with. The boy is mute: he can’t talk, but he can hear and speak sign-language. Their family breeds dogs, dogs you wish you could own. The story has sections that are better than others – it seemed the author threw more variety in the tale to keep himself and the readers entertained – it seems deliberate. I found myself not caring about some of the story and then engaged in others. “Dog people” may enjoy this more than authors: there’s a lot about breeding, training, and dog behavior, which was fun to read. Not a great book, but good.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins 9 out of 10 stars (9/10)
This is non-fiction about the science of evolution. It’s a thorough but fascinating explanation of the facts behind evolution and what it is. There are some chapters that are heavy into scientific description, which you may have to read twice; the author warns about those chapters, too; but one needs them to get a complete picture of the complexity of evolution. Highly recommended.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama 7 out of 10 stars (7/10)
An autobiography of Barack Obama written before he become President of the United States, it describes how he was raised, worked hard, went to university after various jobs, then slowly became involved in politics – how his work experience and mentors influenced him. Obama is a wonderful writer and he makes his story interesting, although I grew bored when he went on about his extended family in Africa – too many damn names to remember.

King Leary by Paul Quarrington 6 out of 10 stars (6/10)
This amusing novel is about hockey, which may turn you off right there and I thought the same – but it won the CBC Canada Reads competition in 2008, which compelled me to try it. It’s about a former famous hockey player hired to advertise ginger ale. I laughed a lot at times, but I also found it dragged often too. It’s well-written and amusing, but I grew tired of the characters half way through.

Some rumblings about Birdy by William Wharton

I’ve been re-reading some William Wharton novels since he died a little over a month ago. It’s been slow going because I’ve been busy, but the first title up was Birdy. It’s about two guys, Birdy and Al, who becomes friends in school and raise pigeons together. Birdy has such a love for birds, he eventually begins to dream he’s a bird. Then they’re drafted into the army to fight in WWII. After the war, Birdy ends up in a mental hospital and Al, having gone through some traumatic experiences too, tries to talk Birdy back to reality. The novel switches between the two of them narrating: Al talking about some of the things they did as kids; Birdy recalling (and reverting back to) his dream life, which may be the most compelling aspect of the novel.

I first read Birdy when I was 17, around the same age as the characters in the book. I read it over a long weekend by myself and became completely immersed in its reality. It is easily the most influential book I read during my formative years. I even began to breed finches a couple years later and used the book as a guide. I didn’t dream I was a bird or any of that, but it was certainly a rewarding experience. I loved it. I’d get back into having finches again, but my lifestyle can’t accommodate it (having 2 cats doesn’t help).

Birdy the film, directed by Allan Parker, with its excellent (though somewhat dated) soundtrack by Peter Gabriel, isn’t a bad film, but I can think of more than a few things I would have done differently. The best parts are the flashbacks showing Birdy and Al meeting each other and becoming friends. Birdy’s internal life from the novel, however, is virtually absent and WWII becomes Vietnam. I’m glad I saw the film because it led me to read William Wharton, but I’ll take the novel over the film any day of the week.

I don’t think I’m capable of being objective about the novel, or about the experience of getting to know William Wharton over the years from reading the rest of his books. That’s how it seemed sometimes anyway, especially with his later books where he does little to hide himself from the reader. The more I got to know him, the more I wanted to know him. He wrote under a pseudonym and lived in a houseboat in France as a painter with his wife. That’s a pretty damn cool life.

Here are two quotes from Birdy that may or may not have anything do with whatever the hell I’m going on about.

“Birds, like people, have been living in cages so long they’ve forgotten many things they should do naturally.”

— Birdy (p. 119)

“Before you know it, if you’re not too careful, you can get to feeling sorry for everybody and there’s nobody left to hate.”

— Al (p. 216)

Related posts:
Where is William Wharton?
William Wharton, 1925-2008

William Wharton, 1925-2008

As a commenter noted on my previous post, William Wharton, Author, Dies at 82:

William Wharton, a successful impressionist painter who at 53 published his first novel, “Birdy,” which won a National Book Award, became a critically acclaimed movie and led to a dozen more books, died Wednesday in Encinitas, Calif. He was 82.

Phillip and I are saddened to learn about this, that we won’t be reading anything new from him. You learn a lot about him and his family through his books, and he seemed to be someone you’d want to hang around with.

I’m going to reread Houseboat on the Seine: it’s a celebration of his life. Highly recommended. It’ll make you laugh and make you cry. I enjoyed ALL his books.

William Wharton was an accomplished painter but I never saw much of his work until Phillip found this YouTube video of his paintings:

Phillip and I were coincidentally discussing an old interview of Wharton the day before we heard of his death: Reasons for Life: A conversation with William Wharton.

I believe that we constantly have to keep our ear to the ground, our ground, and all the rest of it, in order to know what seems to fit the morality and the persona of what we usually call “God”. But the very word “God” is meaningless. The word itself does not mean anything to me, I do not care for the word itself, it is just the word “dog” spelled backwards.

He talks about influences in his life including painters. An interesting interview.

Now go read one of his excellent books.

Update: An informative obituary of Wharton from The Guardian.