Monthly Archives: March 2014

UNDER THE DOME | A Review

thIf there’s one thing Stephen King is known for besides the supernaturally horrific overtones to his books, it’s their page lengths. Many readers agree that if you take out the filler in any King book you would end up with a 200-page novel at most. If you remember that most of his books clock in at 1000 pages you can understand the consternation. Rarely do you find any work of fiction that large that actually works as is with no skimming necessary or wanted. Under the Dome is that book.

The town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, is just like any other. There are corrupt politicians, people fighting to survive, a small clinic, and a place where everyone goes to hear and to repeat gossip. But on one cloudy day the impossible happens: an invisible dome drops down over the town, entirely cutting it off from the rest of the world. Now, perhaps you’ve seen the television series of the same name. Forget about that here. While the concept remains the same, the story is a different — and more formidable — one in the novel.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the plethora of protagonists in the sealed-off town. I will  be the first to admit that initially it can be difficult to keep everyone straight. You’ll more than likely get the “light vs. dark” characters from the start, and you’ll support one side against the other. However, just as in real life, the sides aren’t always clearly delineated, because people aren’t always one way or the other. That’s where King excels, fleshing out his characters so that they appear in 3D instead of as flat people with straight agendas or unwavering stoicism.

Dale Barbara (Barbie) has secrets, and he’s not a native to the town, so the seeds of distrust are sown when he’s trapped in Chester’s Mill on that dark day and somehow gets woven into the fabric of the plan to get rid of the dome. “Big Jim” Rennie is the epitome of the seedy politicians who has hoodwinked many into thinking he has their best interests at heart. Both of them would probably draw attention to themselves anyway, but being trapped under the dome reveals them more clearly than anything ever could, pitting them against each other in a war of wills that could ultimately destroy the town.

Where the book truly excels, however, is in its pacing. Revelations and suspense are interchangeable as the plot moves swiftly in and out of issues, dreams, and the supernatural. Nefarious plans that would have never come to light without the dome’s presence suddenly lead to mortal consequences, and it truly is a race against time and ignorance to try and save the dying town from itself, much less from the overarching invisible dome.

I hadn’t been intrigued by any King book in a long time before I picked up Under the Dome at the library on a whim soon after it was published. Previously I had tried to get into Cell but it wasn’t speaking to me like classic King used to do back in the early ’80s. But the cover and the idea of the novel intrigued me, despite its 897 pages, so I went with it. And I read it in seven days from start to finish.

It’s easy to get into the characters, to choose a side, and to be aghast at the nature of good and evil in the microcosmic environment of Under the Dome. The ending is also ultimately satisfying, showing that King can still craft an intricate work with a purpose and a destination. I would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense and isn’t put off by the graphic nature of many things that go on in the town, like violence at its severest.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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Club Mentality

book-club-booksDid you know that most book clubs fail either because members can’t always agree on the books to read, or they get upset that they don’t like every book chosen for the club to read? I honestly think it’s because people are individuals, and reading is such an individual pursuit that they can’t truly wrap their brains around reading “with” others. So, they look for any excuse to stop reading with the club, eventually dropping out altogether and depriving themselves of what could have ultimately been a fulfilling experience.

Here are four thoughts to consider once you’ve joined (or started) a book club:

  1. Keep an open mind, no matter which books are chosen
  2. Mark book club dates on your calendar and follow up
  3. Find a “book buddy” in the club in order to share thoughts
  4. Don’t get discouraged by any lack of discussion

Remember, these are people just like you, with lives and other things they have to take care of, and reading for the book club is just a part of that. Some months are easier to find time than others, and some books are more accessible for readers. Think about why the vast majority of books are chosen for book clubs, and how those books are generally the same. It’s because they lend themselves pretty well to reading in a set amount of time, and then they lend themselves to good discussion.

the-light-between-oceans-378x581These are the top 5 book club selections right now:

  1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
  2. Light Between Oceans, by H.D. Stedman
  3. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  4. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty
  5. Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes

Now, maybe you’ve found an eclectic book club that reads a wide variety of literature, that eschews these popular titles in favor of lesser known works or books that are older. Or maybe your group takes popular titles from a year ago and reads them now that they’re not as popular with book clubs. And those types of groups are fine, too. That’s the point. No two book clubs are the same, so maybe you do your research before joining (or starting) one.

I started a book club over a year ago, and it’s online only. We don’t meet physically, but perhaps we will someday. What I love about the medium is that we are from all over the place, so we get so many different perspectives, even related to individual cultures. What I love most about book clubs is the sheer choice available. Sometimes in book clubs we read books we never would have picked up ourselves.

But the truth is in the research. Any book club worth its salt does extensive research before deciding on the books to read, on the length of time members will have to read each book, and also on the optimal number of members to have in each group. If the research has been done correctly, and the club has been adequately advertized, there should be a good mix of readers involved. The key is for each member to keep an open mind, though, as I mentioned earlier. Without that, you really don’t have a book club, but instead individual people who pick and choose which books they want to read and which they will in essence skip.

Perspective is everything. Once you’ve found (or founded) a book club that fits you, and you’ve made sure you’re open-minded to its selections, you’re all set. And happy reading!

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THE LAST TRADE | A Review

660ac3bf273d1be67ad07cc3f84ec37cWhat would you do if you discovered someone you used to look up to was doing something shady? Talk to him about it or try to prove it to others behind his back? At what point can you honestly say it’s better to keep silent than to tell others about what you feel is going on? Loyalty is a big word in our society: loyalty to others, loyalty to our own ethics, and loyalty to societal norms. But what’s really important is looking out for number one. At least that’s the dilemma behind James Conway’s The Last Trade.

I picked up this book with absolutely no preconceived notions. All I knew was that it had something to do with the stock market, with the numbers that make it go around. Last year I read another book about stocks and bonds, called Bond Girl, by Erin Duffy, and I enjoyed it immensely, so I figured “Why not?” with this one. I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Drew Havens used his genius with numbers and predictive quantifying to make his boss a multi-billionaire when he figured out the huge crash of 2007 ahead of time. They all made out like bandits, but then he starts to question the practices of The Rising hedge fund where he works. The book takes place in 2011 after he realizes something is off and decides to do some digging. The digging leads him to a series of deaths he becomes intent on stopping.

The problem is that Drew Havens is wanted for murder, so finding the answers he seeks takes a bit of stealth as well, and for a numbers guy that is a bit of a problem. That is in fact when the novel really begins to take off, when he’s on the run and searching for answers. I really enjoyed watching the decisions he made on the spur of the moment, the confrontations, and the interactions with people he trusts and others that he doesn’t.

Protagonist number two is Cara Sobieski, a federal agent who deals with trader fraud and the like, so she’s on the scent of these misdeeds like a pit bull on a steak. But she has some serious personal issues that threaten to derail her before she can finish the job. If I enjoyed watching Drew Havens make decisions, I held my breath every time Cara Sobieski went one way instead of another. In fact, I found myself talking to her in my head, pleading with her to turn around, to go another way, or to trust no one.

But the book finds its footing in the suspense created by a dead man’s final puzzle. The trick as a reader is to follow the clues before our protagonists figure them out, then to pat ourselves on the back for accomplishing the feat, or kicking ourselves in the shin for being dumb enough to fall for something so obvious. Regardless of the outcome, however, it’s a thrilling ride that has a satisfying ending that stays true to the characters and to the story.

And that’s all that you can ask, right? I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys solving mysteries, and who has an open mind when reading novels or when looking at the world in general. You won’t be disappointed.

I give the book FIVE stars.

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Guilty Pleasures

2013-01-28-JackieCollinsPowerTripcover

Love the boat.

As readers we all have them — those books that would never win a Pulitzer Prize, an Oprah Book Club selection, or any prestigious award, for that matter. Those books that we wouldn’t be caught dead with in public, or maybe we’re secure enough in ourselves to carry them with us no matter what. But regardless, those books don’t define our reading tastes. They’re the books we read when we don’t feel like taxing our brains with meatier fare: our guilty pleasures.

I’ll admit it. I have guilty pleasures just like anyone else. I even go to the library looking for them, and they’re easy to spot. Just scan any shelf and you’ll see the covers that are stock. They look pretty, but airbrushed. And they don’t have to be romance novels, either, although the one about the time traveling cowboy is interesting enough. They could be mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, or even non-fiction.

My biggest guilty pleasure is Jackie Collins. I found her when I was very young, and I probably shouldn’t have even been reading her books back then, but the covers intrigued me. They were almost always of a well-dressed woman (or women), some kind of large hat on her head, and either leaning on a fancy car, driving a fancy car, or with a fancy car in the background. I just knew those kinds of books wouldn’t take too much of my time and energy, so I checked every single one of them out over a period of a year.

I took her latest novel, The Power Trip, to work while I was reading it a couple of months back. The reactions were funny, but then again I knew they would be. People are always surprised — particularly other readers — that I would be caught reading such vapid material, but there was always something about Jackie Collins’ characters that I identified with. They were always large examples of stereotypes, they were always over-sexed, and they always had one-liners that made me smile. They still do. I read that latest book in three days, and it was refreshing.

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Look familiar?

Another recent guilty pleasure is Eric Jerome Dickey. He wrote a series of books about a contract killer who is being hunted by other contract killers, and while the writing didn’t set the world on fire, his plots move quickly, and they never require me to think, to figure out who did it, or who’s after the protagonist. That’s because it’s all so obvious, but it keeps my interest due to the pace. I’ve grown into a fan, but I would never pick up one of his books with the express purpose of learning something, or when I need something to tax my brainpower.

Other favorite guilty pleasures are Sophie Kinsella, Danielle Steel, Christopher Pike, and Jane Green. Any time they come out with a new book I put it in my queue because I know I will need a hiatus from those deep, intense books that I thrive on so much. Everyone needs a break sometime, and those authors and books are for those times. And oddly enough, I don’t feel all that guilty when I’m reading them.

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LUCKY MAN | A Review

Michael-J.-Fox-Lucky-Man“I woke up to find the message in my left hand. It had me trembling. It wasn’t a fax, a telegram, a memo, or the usual sort of missive bringing disturbing news. In fact, my hand held nothing at all. The trembling was the message.”

That was in 1990, back when the entire world was completely oblivious that anything was even remotely wrong inside of Michael J. Fox’s body. He was fresh off a success with Back to the Future: Part II, Doc Hollywood was invading theaters, and he was hard at work filming The Hard Way. He seemed to have the world at his fingertips, but that’s exactly when those fingertips began to shake, the early precursors that the boyish actor had Parkinson’s disease.

I too was oblivious, laughing at Michael J. Fox’s pratfalls in comedy after comedy, and his wonderful stuntwork in action films, but in his memoir, he talks frankly about how afraid he was, not just over the shaking, but over anyone finding out about it. After getting the diagnosis he was intent on keeping everything as they always had been. In fact, he even signed on for a new television show in 1996, thinking he would be able to still keep things hidden. But that wasn’t the case.

03ueMLbxZ4j9LfHThe book is separated into dates, chronicling the life journey of Michael J. Fox, up to and including his surprising announcement in 1998 that he did indeed have Parkinson’s disease, and his fight to get awareness and research into finding a cure. He is quite frank in its pages about his reactions to the sickness, walking readers through his stages of denial, finally coming to a sort of acceptance. It is at once devastating and uplifting to read his words and travel through his roiling emotions during the time periods before and after the announcement to the world.

“Though I couldn’t yet comprehend the ultimate outcome of Parkinson’s takeover of my body and, with it, my life, my instincts told me to start negotiating now, fiercely, for preemptive control in whatever areas that was still possible.”

Throughout Lucky Man, there is a sense of beauty in chaos, of order in the midst of anarchy. The way Fox discusses the disease and its effects on him is as graphic as possible, but while ruminating on that he is also able to find a ray of sunshine that keeps his mood optimistic. That is what I admire the most about the man I became acquainted with through this memoir, his determination to be himself and never let the disease “win.”

“Parkinson’s. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.”

I give this book FIVE stars, and I highly recommend its follow-up as well, Always Looking Up.

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Reading in Synch

No-two-persons-everIn the early stages of our relationship, my wife and I were fighting to find ways to spend time “together.” You see, we met over the internet, and for the first four months of our relationship all we had were each others’ words, through email and over the telephone wires. So we came up with all kinds of creative ways to “date.” We would schedule cooking times where we would make the same dishes (and I’m sure hers always came out better than mine), work on the same puzzle together, and yes, read the same books and discuss.

I knew she was a librarian, and she knew I was in school for teaching English at the time, so it was a no-brainer, that and the fact that we had both been lifelong readers. The only problem was finding the first book for us to read. She figured that one out pretty quickly, though. In fact, there was a book she was about to read, and she put it on hold in order for me to order it from my local library. It was called A Marriage Made in Heaven, by Vatsala and Ehud Sperling. And the adventure began.

Then the reading began, and the discussion as well. It was interesting reading the same book at the same time, and while sometimes I was ahead of her, and other times behind, it didn’t really matter. It was our “thing,” and it felt so good to pick up that book and read the words on the page. The book was non-fiction, about a woman who is a mail order bride, but she develops a true relationship through letters with the man who “ordered” her, and they fall in love with those letters. It was amazing to see their story progress, and their relationship bloom.

1670693And to talk about it all while we were reading was even better. We were both enjoying the story, also both amazed at the fact that it was true. One thing I love about email is that you can craft your words just like in a letter, and it gave me an idea. Because we had enjoyed an internet/phone only relationship for four months, we must have sent a sheer acre of emails to each other in that time period. So I printed them out, and maybe one day we’ll produce a book similar to the one we read together. It makes me smile.

Then we got another book — H.P. Lovecraft’s collected works — on the suggestion of a friend, and it was so funny that we both, about 50 pages in, pretty much said at the same time that it wasn’t the book for us. Now, we don’t always share the same taste in reading material, so it was funny that neither of us liked the style. So we stopped reading it, preferring instead to choose another book. So, since she found the first one, I came up with book #2.

It was a book on war reenactment in the South, but this time the genre was fiction, and it wasn’t really a book either one of us would have ordinarily read, but we read it and had an enjoyable discussion about it. That was followed by a book about children who were taken and replaced by fairies, and a book about the end of the world, written after 9/11. The books took on new meanings and understandings by sharing them with her, and they kept us connected in more that one way. I am so glad we decided to read together.

And I can’t wait for our next book.

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THE STORE | A Review

6dde02bfc992e5ba0529ef49d8f4d429Have you ever been in Walmart and thought, “this store is evil?” You are probably thinking about the corporate greed that drives mass chain retail stores like that one and many others, or about the young workers overseas who are getting paid less than your child’s allowance to make the goods so that you can get them cheaply. And of course all of these things are true, even though those kinds of stores spend their time and energy trying to make you think otherwise. But imagine if the store itself actually was evil.

Bentley Little delves into exactly this scenario with The Store. He sets up a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and where nothing of any real interest ever happens… until The Store arrives, gives jobs to the community, and begins to literally take over the town. At first it’s seen as a positive, and indeed, to many people it remains that way, but that’s because The Store is brainwashing them, and a whole lot more.

Bill Davis feels like he’s the only one to recognize The Store’s undue influence over the vast majority of the small town in Juniper, Arizona, and as the book progresses we as readers start to realize that he’s right. The Store hasn’t just showed up out of nowhere, but it feels that way, and as he digs deeper into its history and finds out more than he ever wanted to know, The Store fights back. It’s this personification of the store as an entity that sets this book apart from all the others that deal with corporate greed. At least then there’s a solid reasoning and motivation for individuals. None of that exists here.

The book is a thrill ride of horrific proportions. Every time you think the worst has happened, it descends into a new type of horror, and while readers identify with Bill, it becomes very difficult to maintain support for him in the face of everything that happens to him and because of him. In order to fight the monster, Bill must become a monster, but can he find himself again before it’s too late?

I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the nuances of horror, but I strongly warn against those who are faint of heart. Bentley Little pulls no punches, preferring instead to lay it all out in the pursuit of showing you both sides of this horrendous war between Bill Davis and The Store. I keep hoping he will write a sequel to this book because he sets it up beautifully at the end. There are so many comparisons you can draw between what goes on in mass retailers and the world of The Store, but also so many subtle differences. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 20 years.

I give the novel FIVE stars.

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How I Choose Books

picking-a-bookHonestly, choosing books can be a daunting task, especially for a prolific reader like myself. So, what do I do when I want to read a book but I’m unsure of exactly the right book to choose? Here are some ways I choose books:

  1. Library-hopping. It’s a tradition I created shortly after moving to upstate New York involving a day where I travel to at least four libraries in the area, sometimes with my wife and sometimes not. I don’t leave any of the libraries without at least one book from their “New Book” racks.
  2. Library-stopping. Libraries are amazing because they offer a wide selection of books for absolutely no money. Library-stopping means going to just one library and randomly choosing a row of books to peruse and choose from. I could spend from an hour to three hours leafing through books, but when I leave the area I will have at least three books to read further.
  3. Book store visit. I haven’t been to a book store in ages, but when I went more often it was definitely an interesting experience. The glory of a book store is getting to see and hear others talking about and exploring new books. That’s the one advantage of going to a book store, all of the new books.
  4. On-line. I’m huge into goodreads, and having that network of friends online who are also big readers, it’s a great experience. Reading reviews and seeing fresh new books in every genre, including the bestsellers and the niche books, all in one place is an eye-opener. The only issue of on-line browsing is that it’s either go with the eBook versions or try to find the physical books after the fact in a library.
  5. Friends, family, and co-workers. Recommendations, recommendations, and more recommendations. They work both ways, too. If someone tells me they really loved a book and it’s worth my time, I will add it to my list to read. I’ll also put it on my list to read of they say it was a horrible read and I should totally avoid it. I like to make up my own mind, and if the book was so polarizing to them, what was it? I place those books even higher up in my queue. The only books I don’t read are the ones they say were “just okay.”

Take today, for example. I stopped at one of the local libraries, one I hadn’t visited in a while. I took a good long look at their new books and brought two home with me, even though I’m already in the middle of reading two books. It doesn’t hurt to have the books here in the house waiting for me. I’ve waited long enough for them.

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THE DRAGON’S PATH | A Review

thRemember high school? The best years of our lives, right? Sure. For many of us those four years were incredibly difficult, dealing with the spoiled preppies, the privileged jocks, and the punishing bullies. That’s because we were on the bottom of that caste pyramid, content to try and fade into the woodwork, which sometimes worked and sometimes simply led to swirlies anyway. Now we look back on that experience and thank God we survived.

The world inhabited by the characters in Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path is amazingly similar to what we remember of high school, just on a much grander scale, with warlike implications and grudges that are centuries old. It is told from various perspectives representing the different social and economic divisions in the society central to the book. While each faction is interesting in its own right, it is the individuals who draw the reader in closer, that demand to be understood and appreciated in their own right.

Representing the bullied and oppressed at the beginning of this dynamic series (there are at least three books to date) is Geder Palliako. He comes from a family that is neither noble nor particularly exceptional, but he gets lucky during the course of a battle and we are forced to change our view of him and his possibilities. In fact, I would venture to say that he becomes the most important character as he exacts his revenge on those who bullied him.

In the opposite corner is Dawson Kalliam, a highly born nobleman with a spectacular estate. He and the king grew up together and have an impressive personal history. But he is worried about his country, and as the book progresses we see the true depth of his loyalty expressed in ways we wouldn’t have expected. While he was the popular “kid” that everyone loved to hate or were jealous of, getting inside of his mind reveals a lot more.

The other two major characters are Cithrin, a slight girl with grand ideas, and Marcus, a soldier who has taken it upon himself to protect her at all costs. Both have complicated histories, and intricate futures that seem woven together after they meet. But just like everything else in the society there are extenuating circumstances and diversions they have to deal with in order to merely survive, much less flourish.

What I love most about The Dragon’s Path is its ability to thread a tale between the four characters, not unlike what George R.R. Martin does with his Song of Ice and Fire series. Abraham, however, takes the extraordinarily magical as well and puts it into service from the very start, daring readers to contradict the power it has over everyone, from the lowest to the highest in the book’s caste system. This book is the first in his The Dagger and the Coin series, and it sets up the world very nicely, getting readers caught up in the successes and failures of its protagonists. We are invested, and that’s the mark of a good story told well.

I recommend The Dragon’s Path to anyone who likes questions that don’t always have answers, or at least answers that we can approve of, because not one of the characters is entirely sympathetic all of the time, but neither can we hate any one of them constantly. The characters are for the most part well-rounded, which is the important mark of good, quality characters. The plot, however, tends to drag on occasion when we’ve spent too long with any one protagonist. The book moves along best at a fast pace, switching seamlessly back and forth between perspectives. But it’s a good start to a series that I will read to its conclusion.

I give the novel FOUR AND A HALF stars.

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Ode to the Personal Library

“The room was full of bookshelves, from front to back, from wall to wall.”

I haven’t seen a room like that outside the confines of a library in about a month of Sundays, maybe even longer. It seemed like in another era it was common to have rooms such as the one described by a colleague of mine yesterday. And the house that contained such a room didn’t even have to be a mansion, even though those bastions of civility also had large insular libraries. A regular, standard house in the olden days would have perhaps a converted closet as a book repository, but it was still there. What happened?

This is one thing we cannot blame on technology, or at least not entirely. The personal library began its demise a while before the rise of the internet, or even computers for that matter. During Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, coming out of the Great Depression and leading into the second great war, the United States began to wholly embrace more and more the idea of the public library. It was no secret why, either. Books were expensive to own, and even the rich realized their own monetary vulnerability after the stock market crash.

“It’s that smell of opening up a new book, and cradling its spine carefully, that sparks that fire.”

Federal and state funds began to be pumped into maintaining, increasing, and creating public libraries throughout the country. For the first time, the popular novels of the time were being purchased and advertised by the library system, and people were going in droves to get those books without paying their hard earned money for the privilege. It was the golden age of the public library, a time that many older people look back on wistfully. That flourishing time started to fade by the 1970s with the increasing popularity of the mass-market paperback that was finally cheap enough for the average American to own, and it continued to decline with the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s.

But then came the audiobook, digital reading devices, iPads and other digital tablets, as well as other forms of home entertainment, such as DVDs and surround sound, and the personal library received a further hit. Now, of course, we are in an age where more often than not the personal library is not a room, but is a folder or “bookshelf” on those digital reading devices. Many people who own them brag about being able to fit hundreds of books on one device, those same hundreds of books that would have been physically on those bookshelves in that library that used to be a major bragging right among homeowners.

“To maintain a personal library in the current architecture of the country is to be avant garde.”

So, you can see why this personal library my colleague spoke of arrested my interest so completely. My own personal library has taken a hit just as so many others have as well during this past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong — we have bookshelves — but the books we own are more likely to be in boxes or they’re children’s books now, sitting sweetly in a small corner of those shelves. The rest of the shelving space has been commandeered by DVDs, CDs, and board games. But I haven’t given up.

Books can be found relatively on the cheap these days, by visiting library book sales that hand out books for 10 cents or a quarter. And they’re not horrible books either, but books that were popular a mere year or six months ago. I could outfit my future personal home library with the entire Twilight series for less than a dollar, in hardcover. That’s one way to renew my faith in mankind, or it’s just another nail in the coffin of the personal library as the books I’m getting for fumes have been donated in droves by people who were dismantling theirs.

Soon, we’re going to build a new place, in five or seven years. In that new home I will have a private study, the walls of which will be lined with bookshelves filled with books. Books old and new, books large and small. Lots and lots of books will finally commingle with each other in the spirit of brotherhood, and none will be left out in the cold. Maybe it will be one pebble tossed into the pond of disinterest that can spark the interest of others. Then I will be the one talking about my room “full of bookshelves, from front to back, from wall to wall.

And I just might invite you, if you’re lucky.

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