‘Seriously…I’m Kidding’ by Ellen DeGeneres

August 22, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

ellen

I like Ellen, I really do, and I know she hates people who are judgmental. But I’m going to be judgmental here: her new book, Seriously…I’m Kidding, is not very good. Seriously, and I’m not kidding.

The reason I chose this book is because I haven’t read anything for about four months and wanted to get back into it with something light and easy. And this book is very light and very easy. I finished it while riding on various forms of public transport during a single day.

First, I want to talk about the positives. Ellen definitely wrote this book — as opposed to some ghost writer — because her voice permeates every chapter, every page and every sentence. She’s sharp, charming and kind. She’s personable, affable and funny. It’s watching her on her popular TV show.

And if you like her brand of witty, irreverent, self-aggrandisingly self-deprecating style of sarcastic humour, you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Some of it is almost like a written version of a standup routine.

Being the wonderful human being that she is, Ellen also infuses the book with a few pearls of wisdom about life and how to be a better person. Stuff like not not throwing trash out the window, the courtesy of being punctual and being honest, and enjoying life to the fullest. She doesn’t do it in a preachy way either — most of her messages have a jokey tone will give you a couple of chuckles.

Having said that, this is not the book you would read if you actually want to find out anything new or insightful about Ellen. And really, isn’t that why people would want to read her books in the first place?

In line with the book’s theme, just about everything is a joke. You think she’s telling a story or some vignette that will lead somewhere and reveal something about her, her relationships or experiences, but soon you realise she just made the whole thing up for a laugh. It happens over and over, and before long it becomes clear that you can’t take anything she says in the book seriously.

That’s not a deal breaker, but it can get frustrating. What is even more frustrating is the feeling that Ellen’s just phoning it in with this book. I haven’t read her two previous books so I can’t compare, but I would be shocked if her first two books are of the same quality.

There are some shockingly lazy chapters where she rambles on without making a real point. There are way too many incoherent short stories (some just a paragraph), a bunch of short lists about what to do and what not to do, etc, and even pages of random drawings for children to colour in.

There’s a chapter called ‘The Longest Chapter’, the majority of which just discusses why it’s the longest chapter. There’s a chapter of ‘Additional Thank-Yous’ to people she didn’t thank in the acknowledgments at the start of the book. There’s a chapter comprising just a 140-character tweet called ‘Tweet Chapter’. There’s an aptly titled chapter called ‘Boredom’. By the time you get to the last chapter entitled ‘Last Chapter’, you start to get the feeling that maybe Ellen was just finding ways to pad the page count.

It’s wrong to say this because I’m sure she put a lot of thought and effort into the writing. But if I’m being honest, there were times I suspected that the entire book may have been an extremely elaborate prank on her readers– in which case, bravo — and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I just wasted a whole lot of time. In a book of more than 60 chapters, each with a different topic, I would be able to count the number of genuinely good chapters on one hand. And that just doesn’t cut it.

There are indeed moments of enjoyment the book has to offer, though these all come in bits and pieces as opposed to part of a well-structured narrative. And to me, Ellen has always been this kind of a comedian, great at eliciting a lot of chuckles through her quick wit but never a master at generating the big belly laughs. That is magnified even more in the context of a written book, which is much more difficult to make people laugh than standup.

As such, Seriously…I’m Kidding comes across as a much less funny version of the brilliantly irreverent The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper. In the case of that book, however, it’s at least obvious what the aim was.

If you just want to kill some time and read a bunch of random, silly, mildly amusing jokes from Ellen, then by all means give Seriously…I’m Kidding a try. But if you’re looking for genuine insights about Ellen and her life and experiences or jokes that will make you laugh out loud, regrettably, you’re probably not going to find them here.

2.5/5

Book Review: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

April 16, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

frankenstein

I admit I’ve been somewhat slack on my goal to read more books this year, but I’ve finally made an effort and finished a classic I had been meaning to get to over the last few years: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

As it was first published in 1818, I was wary that the classic could be a letdown, given the way novelists wrote and the way characters spoke back in those days. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, though it does require more focus — especially in the beginning — and readers used to more modern styles could struggle getting into a flow. Madam Bovary, for example, is supposed to be one of the best books ever written from a technical perspective, and yet the experience bored me to death.

And so I am glad to report that Frankenstein was an awesome read. It’s a magnificent idea, well thought out, intricately planned and with captivating characters. While it was quite different to what I had expected, the novel’s classic status is well deserved.

Everyone knows that the story is about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who develops and up session with creating life as a stepping stone towards cheating death. He successively brings The Creature to life but upon seeing the abomination he has a sudden change of mind and wants nothing to do with it. Thus begins two intertwining journeys of self-destruction, filled with pain, regret, discrimination, desire, jealousy, and above all, revenge.

The brilliance of the book lies in Shelley’s depiction of The Creature. She could have made him a zombie-like monster and typical murderous villain, but instead she infused him with a brilliant mind and a complicated heart. The agony he feels is comes across as so real that you can’t help but empathise with his unnatural existence and doomed predicament. In many ways, he is much more sympathetic than his creator, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating read.

The style of the novel also impressed me. Yes, the prose and speech do take a little bit of time to get use to because they are so exaggerated by modern standards and the vocabulary is much more precise, though once you get used to it the narrative starts flowing  downstream.

One thing I didn’t expect was the intentional lack of detail in some of the key aspects of the plot. The scene where Frankenstein brings The Creature to life, for instance, is extremely vague and bereft of specifics. You know he did something amazing, but you don’t quite know how he did it. In fact, there is almost nothing concrete about how The Creature was put together at all, and there’s also no description of his exact appearance other than that he is massive (eight feet tall), has dark hair, and is unimaginably grotesque. It leaves a lot to the imagination, something many modern writers fail to do. It also helps explain why so many movie adaptations have failed because they were forced to show things audiences would complain about no matter what.

I also had no idea that the story is told through so many layers — it’s actually a series of letters to his sister from a sailor who meets Frankenstein in the Arctic. The sailor then records Frankenstein’s story, which then recounts The Creature’s narrative as told to Frankenstein. It’s a clever device that offers three first-person perspectives in one — The Creator, The Creature, and the third party bystander.

My enjoyment of the book was helped by the fact that I didn’t really know what was going to happen. The version of the story I vaguely had in my head was the 1994 movie adaptation by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as The Creature. That one took some liberties with the plot, so it was a surprise to me when the novel began to take a different turn to what I was expecting. I know a lot of people hated the movie but I didn’t mind the alternative storyline.

In all, a fantastic reading experience and a good lesson for aspiring writers. Next up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

Book Review: ‘I Love Being the Enemy’ by Reggie Miller

March 30, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Reggie

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read the one and only book written by my favourite baller of all time, Reggie Miller.

I Love Being the Enemy is an apt title. Reggie made a name and a career out of being the villain, especially in Madison Square Garden in New York, where his play is the stuff of legend. He was the guy who poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Playoffs while jawing against Spike Lee on the sidelines, then killed them with his mind-boggling 8 points in 9 seconds the year after. He pushed off Michael Jordan for that game-winning three in 1998, and remains one of the only people in the world who ever made his Airness lose his cool (and try to scratch his eyes out). He banked in a 38-foot turnaround three in the 2002 playoffs against the Nets  to force overtime, then dunked over three defenders to force another.

No matter what anyone says about him, Reggie Miller is an inspiration. He may be a bit of a dick sometimes, but he owns up to it like a man, gives his respect where its due, and never crosses the line. That’s the kind of dick every dick should aspire to be. And let’s not forget, despite his alien-stick-figure appearance, the massive balls he has to be able to take — and hit — some of the biggest shots in NBA history. No wonder I fell in love with this man right from the get-go.

I Love Being the Enemy, just like Reggie, is somewhat unusual. Rather than the typical sports memoir with clear themes or topics for each chapter, it’s written like a journal of sorts, penned by Reggie sporadically throughout the course of the 1994-1995 NBA season. It came at a perfect time too, as some of you might recall that was the season right after Reggie became a household name with his 25-point fourth quarter at the Garden, and covers his 8-points-9-seconds heroics later in the playoffs. The Pacers were considered up-and-coming contenders, with passing maestro Mark Jackson manning the point, the Dunkin’ Dutchman Rik Smits in the post, and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio, doing all the bruising dirty work down low. It was also the season when Michael Jordan returned to the league mid-way through the season following his baseball stint, and the very first game he played upon his return was of course in Indiana against Reggie.

Each entry is written under a specific date like a diary, though every now and then he would go back in time to talk about things in his past, his family, his teammates, his opponents and what he thought about the game in general. As a result, the book is all over the place. There is no doubt an invisible structure holding it all together, though when reading it you feel as though it’s jumping from person to person and place to place. I didn’t have a problem with this approach per se, but it does make it harder to go back and search for passages you enjoyed.

Stylistically, the book is Reggie through and through. Though it’s technically co-written with sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski, the feel is all Reggie, and you can almost hear his voice in your head as you read the lines. It’s chatty, it’s funny and it’s sincere. On the downside, this also means it’s not the most well-written book, complete with all of Reggie’s rambling and superfluous verbal habits, like “To be honest”, “Let’s face it” and so forth.

For me, the book is a confirmation of many things I already knew about Reggie, though there are some things in there that surprised me. I knew he was an unlikely sports star, having required braces on his legs until he was four. He wasn’t supposed to walk or run, let alone become the best shooter in the best basketball league on the planet. I knew he lived in the shadow of his sister Cheryl — arguably the greatest women’s player of all time — for most of his life, and wouldn’t be able to beat her one-on-one until he could literally dunk on her. Just about everyone now knows about the infamous story when Reggie was gloating about his 39-point game in high school until Cheryl casually noted that she scored 105 on the same night. I knew he was superstitious and taped two quarters under his wrist band to remind himself to always play hard because his father once told him that his play wasn’t worth 50 cents.

reg cheryl

Cheryl and Reggie at the latter’s Hall of Fame ceremony

What I didn’t realize was how ridiculous Reggie’s work ethic was. He was always the first in to practice and the game arena and the last to leave, no matter who else played on the team. It was just the way he was. I didn’t know how much respect he had for all his coaches, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. In fact, he treated everyone on his team with respect, never talking behind anyone’s back or airing grievances to the media. As his ex-coach Larry Brown said, Reggie approached the game “the right way.”

With so many airheads, problem childs and douchebags in the league, Reggie was a surprisingly reasonable guy whose on court and off court personas were completely different. Like most professional athletes, he has an ego, but for him it was all about winning and not scoring a whole bunch of points. At various times throughout the book he notes that his teammates, coaches and the media all questioned why he didn’t take more shots, though for him it was about doing whatever he could to guide the team to victory. He also never took his success for granted. I knew he wanted to win a ring very badly, but I didn’t know he had such an appreciation for how hard it is to win games and survive in the NBA. That’s why he actually said he would have retired by 35 if he had won a ring.

I have many favourite parts in this book. I loved the respect Reggie had for Michael Jordan, whom he felt sorry for because of the way he was hounded by the press. Reggie spoke with a passion and anger when it came to the way Jordan was forced to live his life in a bubble, and it was his belief that Jordan retired because he was fed up with the constant attention and drummed-up controversies. For Reggie, Jordan was the ultimate measuring stick — he would hold and push and grab and trip Jordan to beat him in a game, but the amount of respect he had for No. 23 as a player was unparalleled. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when Jordan told Reggie that he was the second-best shooting guard in the league. Oh, and I absolutely loved this story, which he recently retold on Jimmy Kimmel.

Larry Bird, who was not yet Reggie’s coach at the time, also featured in a few golden nuggets. There was of course the infamous “present” he delivered to teammate Chuck Person during a Christmas game, and I also laughed out loud when Reggie recounted how he once tried to psyche Bird out by trash-talking him at the free throw line. Michael Jordan might be the GOAT, but for me, Larry Legend will always be the man.

The young Reggie tales were also great. The battles in the backyard with Cheryl and his brothers, his “crazy” college years, and my personal fave, the street ball hustle he and Cheryl would pull on unsuspecting players. Reggie would play against bigger, stronger kids on the block, and when money got involved he’d call out his shy-looking sister from behind the bushes. They’d up the bet after looking amateurish, and then, BAM, turn on their games and smoke the poor bastards. I so wish they had footage of that.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was all the stuff Reggie said about players and other issues at the time, which we can now reflect on 20 years into the future.   For instance, Reggie raved on about two rookies at the time, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, calling them future superstars in the making (they’d go on to win co-Rookie of the Year and fulfill that prophecy), but he also said Kidd was great because he doesn’t get involved in politics with his coach. As some of you might know, Kidd would go on to be ushered out of Brooklyn as coach precisely because he got too involved in team politics.

reggiejordan

Reggie also spoke of the need for a rookie salary cap, noting that it was crazy and detrimental for players for rookies to come into the league earning more than the vets. He was right about that and he was also right about the greatness of Penny Hardaway, who would later eliminate the Pacers that season. The best prediction, if you can call it that, is his thoughts on former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whom he didn’t think very highly of.

Not all his predictions were right, of course. Reggie did think JR. Rider was going to be something special, and he believed Kevin Garnett should have gone to college. He also thought OJ Simpson was innocent and that his marriage was going to last forever (oops!). Oh, and he thought he’d never make it into the Hall of Fame.

If I were being objective, I’d tell you that I Love Being the Enemy is just another sports memoir on the market that doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its competitors. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, though it reads better today than it did 20 years ago because we now know what kind of career Reggie will be remembered for and the hindsight to reflect on the things he wrote at the time. I’d say it’s a solid read for the average basketball fan and a must for lovers and haters of Reggie alike.

4/5

Book Review: ‘A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions’ by John Dickson

January 25, 2015 in Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews by pacejmiller

spectator's guide

My dear Christian friend has been giving me religious-themed books as gifts for years, not so much as a tool to convert me but more as a friendly nudge in my ongoing spiritual journey. His latest present, decidedly in more neutral territory, is A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions by John Dickson, an Aussie Christian minister and religious historian who has written more than a dozen books.

Having read more pro-Christianity and anti-Christianity literature than most sane people, I found this book to be an excellent and insightful experience that achieves its central aim — to educate people about the world’s five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism (even though Sikhism, as I shockingly discovered, is actually more widely practiced than Judaism).

It would be natural, of course, to be sceptical of a Christian writer setting out to “introduce” readers to a book about four other religions, though unlike the furore sparked by Reza Aslan’s Zealot a couple of years ago, Dickson’s book barely caused a ripple when it was first released in 2004. Like Aslan, however, Dickson is a bonda fide historian with the credentials to back it up (he’s an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University), AND he tries really really hard to maintain a neutral stance in this book. If anything, he could be criticised as too cautious in his approach, as he sometimes goes overboard in defending himself to forthcoming doubters about his Christian background.

On the whole, however, Dickson does an enviable job of laying out the history and fundamental beliefs of the five major religions with fairness and respect. He starts with Hinduism because it’s the oldest, and ends the youngest of the five, Islam, which he spends perhaps a little too much time in defending — though to be fair, the defense needs to be placed in context because the book was written in the aftermath of 9/11.

The ideas and terms, especially those in Buddhism, are sometimes difficult to grasp, though for the most part they are described as simply as possible. The book is, after all, merely an “introduction” (it’s only about 240 pages),  so those interested in any particular religion are encouraged to conduct further research.  Most helpful is the summary section at the end of each chapter, where Dickson would boil everything about the religion down to a couple of pages of bullet points. A great cheat sheet for anyone doing an exam on the religions.

Another strength of the book is that it is not, at least on its face, proselytizing any religion in particular. Each religion is given roughly equal treatment, with the focus being on what the converts believe about their religion as opposed to whether the religion itself stands up to historical scrutiny. The message Dickson sends in the book, as summarised in a rather unnecessary final chapter, is that religions are not “all the same,” and that each religion deserves to be respected on its own merits. For me personally, I found the tone of the final chapter a little condescending, as though readers can’t make up their own minds from reading the rest of the book, but perhaps it might strike a chord with some of the agnostics out there.

The subtle way Dickson promotes Christianity in this book is by making readers read between the lines (and look, it wouldn’t be fair for a Christian minister to not even try, even if it’s subconsciously). By contrasting the religions against each other, Dickson highlights the unique nature of Christianity in that it is the religion with the most “witnesses” and the most  down-to-earth foundation, and that the Bible is probably the “reliable” religious text of the big five religions. When pitted against Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism look airy-fairy, Judaism seems archaic, and Islam is just all based on the words of a single man. There are lots of fundamental questions about all religions, but when framed in this way, Christianity appears to have the least. It doesn’t necessarily make Christianity a “truer” religion, but the book at least sows a couple seeds in that field.

I don’t want to suggest that this book is not balanced because it is — and much more so than I had anticipated. I’d recommend it to anyone with an open mind about religion and wanting to learn about the basics of the big five. It hasn’t turned me into a religious expert, but at least I now have a better grasp of general knowledge stuff like the differences in the central beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists and the ideological split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

4/5

Book Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card

October 23, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

EndersGameCover

After being thoroughly dissatisfied with last year’s Ender’s Game (review here), the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 military sci-fi novel, I was advised to give the source material a try, with assurances that it will be “much much better.”

Well, I finally had a chance to get around to it. The book is indeed better than the novel — I don’t think anyone disputes that — though I must admit that I don’t quite get why so many people love the book to death. In a fascinating introduction to the book written in 1991, Card acknowledges that Ender’s Game divided readers, but many of those who loved it thought it was a life-changing book that got them through some tough times.

For me, Ender’s Game was an interesting read but not a particularly impressive one. Perhaps I needed to have read it when I was a child, or at least much closer to Ender’s age than I am today, or maybe I’m just not quite on the same wavelength as Card (I suspect it is a bit of both). Either way, while I was engaged by the book I don’t think the story ultimately resonated with me the way it has with countless others.

Like the movie adaptation I watched last year, Ender’s Game is set in a future where humanity is engaged in a protracted war with insect-like aliens known as “buggers”. The buggers attacked Earth, causing catastrophic damage, but mankind was saved when a brilliant pilot by the name of Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the enemy fleet, earning humans a short term victory. Now, the International Fleet is recruiting gifted children in the hopes of training them up to become future saviours, and Ender Wiggin is selected to enter Battle School for training, where he quickly excels to become humanity’s best and last hope.

Reading the book, I understood why the film adaptation took so long to be realized. Apart from the special effects that were needed, the adaptation was made difficult because Ender is so young at the beginning of the book (7 years old) and is just 11 by the time the book ends.

To make the adaptation work, The filmmakers made Ender much older (Asa Butterfield was already about 15 when they shot the film) and dramatically condensed Ender’s Time at Battle School. Key characters such as Ender’s sister Valentine and his brother Peter were basically written out of the film completely. Unfortunately, these changes gutted the film, and other aspects could not do enough to compensate.

On the other hand, I was surprised that the book failed to address some of my biggest issues with the movie. I thought the film did a horrendous job in conveying what the kids were doing in the Battle Rooms, which frustrated me because I had no idea what they were doing or trying to accomplish. But now, I realise it’s because the book isn’t exactly clear either. You get bits and pieces, like how to win a game and how to disarm opponents, etc, but there are still so many missing slabs that you never feel like you know enough to be truly immersed in their world.

The other major problem is that the entire premise of using child geniuses to fight a war is a shaky one. I bought into it after having Card repeatedly beat into my head that Ender and his cohort are the best the entire world has to offer, as well as numerous reminders from the characters that these are not “normal” children. But I can certainly understand why some readers just couldn’t swallow the story.

My issue was less with the premise and more with the actions of the children, in particular the Wiggins trio of Ender, Valentine and Peter. Even when I accept that they are extraordinary children I still have difficulty believing many of the things they are capable of. I guess that is why I believe I would have received the book very differently had I read it as a child.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. For starters, the central idea itself is quite brilliant, and Card does not waste the golden opportunity to make some astute observations about human nature and the way we perceive children.

Secondly, Card’s writing is strong and confident, such that you tend to not question (at least not immediately) the plausibility of his narrative. There is an enviable clarity and simplicity to his voice and style; even though the sci-fi terms can sometimes get a little technical, Card appears to have the uncanny ability to always explain things in the most straightforward manner.

Thirdly, Card does an excellent job of developing Ender’s character, which is not easy considering that he is not a normal child nor your typical protagonist. Yet, Card makes us care about Ender and empathize with his plight. The book is at its most engaging — by far — when Ender is put through one grueling challenge after another and is pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, while trying to cope with the stresses of training as well as the jealousy and prejudice of his fellow cadets. Notwithstanding how unlikely the situations are, there is an air of genuineness about the interactions between the characters.

Overall, I can’t say I was fully satisfied with Ender’s Game, even though there were sections I either really enjoyed or thought were executed with impressive skill and creativity. I think the book ends on an apt note, so I have no interest in checking out any of its sequels.

3.5/5

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