Book Review: ‘Heaven is For Real’ by Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo

March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.

It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.

The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.

You see, the one crucial  thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.

Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.

But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.

The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?

That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.

My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.

What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.

3/5

PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.

Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) – earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet – which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.

5/5

Book Review: “Dream Team” by Jack McCallum

June 26, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I was one of those millions of kids around the world who was awestruck and inspired from watching the Dream Team — the first US Olympic basketball team featuring NBA players — obliterate their opponents at the 1992 Barcelona games. Oh sure, I didn’t quite make the NBA like Dirk Nowitzki or even Pau Gasol, superstars who credited their careers to the Dream Team, but my love for the game grew exponentially after seeing these 11 Hall of Famers (in particular legends Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) plus one college legend (Christian Laettner) take the floor together.

I didn’t totally grasp the significance of the Dream Team back then, but the recent 20 year anniversary (which coincided with the  team’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a collective unit) reignited my interest in the historic team (especially as there was a plethora of articles and documentaries dedicated to them).

If you love basketball, or even just sports in general, then I would highly recommend Jack McCallum’s 2012 non-fiction book Dream Team (which has a super long subtitle: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever). McCallum is a Sports Illustrated veteran who was one of the privileged reporters who managed to get up close and personal with all members of the Dream Team when they were in Barcelona. The book is unique not only because of McCallum’s front-row access at the time, but also because he re-interviewed all of them again, nearly 20 years later, on how they look back upon that experience from where they are today.

It’s a book that, apart from the obvious reasons, could not have been written shortly after the Olympics, or even 10 years ago. Writing the book 20 years later — as their careers ended and the Kobes and LeBrons entered the league — provides the just the right amount of perspective on how the team has gone down in history. The original Dream Team (there really only should be one) is compared and contrasted with the US basketball teams that would follow, and it makes you realize that there has never been anything like this immense collection of special talent (on and off the court) and there never will be again. It was particularly amazing to read about how the play of these 12 basketball players in Barcelona inspired a whole new generation of ballers from around the world.

dream team photo

The tone of such a book is undoubtedly difficult to get right — but McCallum does it. His writing style is effortless and easy to read, and the story is told straight — without hyperbole or excessive sentimentality — but infused with a healthy dose of nostalgia, making the book at times poignant and even goosebump-inducing. Bill Simmons’ legendary and encyclopedic Book of Basketball, one of my all-time faves, is a massive book filled with tiny nuggets of gold. Dream Team, on the other hand, is one giant nugget with many more tiny nuggets growing out of it.  Having seen several documentaries and read many articles about the Dream Team I thought I knew it all, but there were so many fascinating tidbits and anecdotes in this book, described as vividly as though they happened yesterday. Every quote is a gem that unveils something about that person’s character — it could confirm some preconceptions you may have had, or it could contradict your biases against them.

It’s not a gut-bustingly funny book like say the Book of Basketball, but McCallum does have a razor-sharp wit and there will probably be a lot of chuckles and smiling shakes of the head as you read some of the vignettes he recreates on paper.

The book is broken down into 36 chapters of varying lengths plus a number of interludes that provide mini-profiles of the Dream Teamers. The narrative thread, at first glance, feels like it jumps around aimlessly, though once you get into it it becomes clear that a lot of thought went into planning the structure and the pieces eventually fall together to build a complete portrait of the team and its parts.

Naturally, the three biggest stars of the team, Jordan, Magic and Bird, get the most attention, but every member of the team has their moments, including the late great coach Chuck Daly. Parts of the book are dedicated to the history of how the team is out together, including the man behind the idea of having NBA pros playing in the “amateur” Olympics, the man warmly referred to as the “Inspector of Meat.”

Various other sections focus on Isiah Thomas, the HOF Detroit Pistons guard whose remarkable skills should have landed him on the Dream Team, but whose penchant for burning bridges and his icy relationship with the top dog, Jordan, denied him a place in history. But if you want to know exactly how all this stuff went down, you just have to read the book.

And of course, there’s the ancillary stuff, like the money, bureaucracy and squabbles, as well as security concerns surrounding the team’s presence in Barcelona. All of this is dealt with in the book, or at least craftily touched upon.

My favourite chapter of the book is the blow-by-blow (in the competitive sense, not the Wilt Chamberlain sense) account of the scrimmage between the Dream Teamers in Monte Carlo before the Olympics, a game McCallum described as the “greatest game nobody ever saw.” Guys like Jordan and Magic have called it the greatest game they have ever been a part of. Just imagine it — 10 (2 guys were injured) future HOFers and alpha dogs duking it out for ultimate bragging rights. I would give my right ball to have watched that game in person, but reading McCallum’s brilliant account of it isn’t half bad either.

I learned a thing or two about each of the Dream Teamers from reading this book. I didn’t realize how badly Magic Johnson was refusing to give up his throne to Jordan, even though he had just been handed what was believed back then to be a death sentence by becoming infected with HIV (annoyingly referred to as the AIDS virus by McCallum a few times). I forgot that John Stockton broke his leg in the team’s first outing (before the Olympics) and barely played in the games. I found out that Karl Malone was pretty much a black redneck who had no qualms with speaking his mind, for better or worse. I was fascinated to read about the team’s most controversial and possibly “best” player, Charles Barkley, being Charles Barkley.  I was astonished to discover that Chris Mullin was an alcoholic for most of his life and it wasn’t until he got sober that he took his game to a new level. I never knew David Robinson was such a saint (he really is) but also an outcast because he’s too intelligent. I had no idea that Clyde Drexler was the last NBA player added onto the roster, a fact he resents, and that he also believes he is as good as Jordan. I gained a few insights into Scottie Pippen as a player and his relationship with Jordan, and his hatred towards Tony Kukoc because the Bulls held off giving him a multimillion dollar extension so they could sign the talented Croat. I was amused by Patrick Ewing’s unlikely friendship with Larry Bird, as they became the odd couple known as “Harry and Larry.” Of course, there’s also the college kid who never could fit in, Christian Laettner, who actually beat out Shaquille O’Neal (then in college) for the final roster spot, and turns out was quite the pratty dickhead back in those days.

The book’s descriptions of Larry Bird confirmed what I have come to appreciate (especially in the last few years): that while Jordan may be the greatest player of all time, Bird is the greatest f%*&ing legend to have ever lived. It’s not just his play, but the bravado, the trash talking, the wisecracks, the one-liners, the team-first mentality, and the genuine humility he radiates, even if he did love to ask McCallum regularly whether he has “blown Magic yet.”

Last but not least — well, Jordan is just Jordan, the man whose endless energy baffled even his fellow Dream Teamers. This was someone who could play cards all night until 6am in the morning, go play 36 holes of golf and come back just in time to catch the team bus to the game venue, and put up 20 points and shut down the opponent’s best player without batting an eyelid.

Most of all, I learned about the amount of respect they all had for one another, for their opponents, and most of all, for the game of basketball. That’s what made them so great. The greatest.

I devoured this 384-page book in four days (60% of it on a day where I caught two short flights and a handful of public transport), which is miraculous for me considering how little time I have to read on most days. It’s a testament to what a page-turner this book is.

5/5

New Year’s resolution 2: keeping an ideas/observation pocketbook

January 10, 2013 in Humor, Misc, On Writing

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I’m going to steal this one from the great man himself, Larry David. I don’t know where I saw or read this — I think it might have been one of those behind the scenes things on my Seinfeld DVDs — but anyway, apparently Larry has this little pocketbook filled with funny ideas and observations that he can use whenever he needs a good joke on one of his TV shows (boy would I love to get my hands on it!). He says he keeps it on him at all times because you never know when you’re going to see or hear something hilarious.

That’s going to be my second New Year’s resolution for 2013 — keeping an observation/ideas pocketbook in my back pocket at all times (well, whenever I am wearing pants, of course). I’ve lost count of the number of times I have come up with what I thought was a brilliant idea or joke or one-liner, only to forget about it later because I couldn’t or couldn’t be bothered to write it down. There is so much gold all around us — we just need to keep our eyes and ears open, AND have the initiative to make a record of them. I think I might also keep this book by my bed, so if something good pops up while sleeping then I can jot it down immediately.

Since making this decision I’ve already come up with an idea for a film script and a gag that could potentially be used for it. In the absence of a pocketbook I have created…a Microsoft Word file.

I’m going out to get one of these pocketbooks tomorrow. A small pen might also not be such a bad idea.

Book Review: ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins

July 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

A post-apocalyptic world where two children from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a televised battle to the death – where there can only be one winner. That was the premise of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Not entirely original (you know, Battle Royale, etc) but with enough originality and differences to be an enticing and exciting hit in its own right.

The second book in the series, Catching Fire, amazed me by taking the story to another level when I thought it had nowhere to go. Catching Fire widened the intensity and scope of the games, provided more context and upped the characters and action. Save for a disappointing ending, it was all fans could have hoped for.

Now I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about Mockingjay, the third and final instalment in the trilogy. Collins had already milked the “reality TV goes too far/totalitarian rule” concept for all it was worth, and now faced the daunting challenge of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. But how was she going to do it without getting repetitive?

Well, I’m glad to say that Mockingjay is a fitting finale to the Hunger Games trilogy. It might not have the freshness and creativity of the first book or the excitement and innovation of the second, but what Mockingjay does is wrap up the story extremely well and in a way that I certainly did not expect.

For starters, the tone of Mockingjay is very dark. It’s a brutal world Katniss Everdeen lives in and Collins does not sugar coat it. Think of the darkness of the final Harry Potter books and multiply it by…a lot. There’s blood and guts and the horrors of war. There’s military strategy and politics and propaganda. There are a lot of serious themes here, and at times I had to remind myself that I was reading a young adult novel. And if you’re expecting a wonderfully gift-wrapped ending with cream and cherries on top then you’ll likely be shocked. Mockingjay is a stark reminder that the “real” world rarely turns out the way we envisage.

Without giving away too much, the story picks up from the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire. The Hunger Games are over and this one is all about the final battle with the Capitol that ensues. Katniss finds herself thrust into the spotlight again as the rebels want her to be the symbol of the rebellion against the evil President Snow, but is she really saving the world or is she merely another pawn in their game? And what about the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale? Who will she choose? And what kind of world will she find herself in when it’s all said and done?

So as you can see, there’s lots to ponder in Mockingjay. This third book reinvents itself by stepping back from the Hunger Games to provide the bigger picture, including why the games were necessary in the first place. The focus here is no longer on reality TV but on the nature of war and power and the politics that go on behind it. The concepts and structure are arguably more intelligent and thought-provoking than the first two books in the series, and that’s saying a lot.

Collins continues to handle the action scenes with great skill, and there’s even a clever link back to the Hunger Games as the story nears its conclusion. I was also unexpectedly drawn to the ongoing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which never forms the centerpiece of the narrative but is always there and itching to be dealt with. For the record, I think it was resolved brilliantly.

My main problem with Mockingjay is a feeling of inevitability. You know things will end with a bang and you’re forced to wait patiently through the book for it to happen. While there are twists and turns and highs and lows, I got the feeling that Collins was to some extent padding the pages in the lead up to the big finale. In that sense, Mockingjay lacked the compulsive page-turning capabilities of The Hunger Games and in particular Catching Fire. Not to say it wasn’t still a brisk and exciting read, but let’s just say I would have gotten less paper cuts turning the pages (had been reading a real book instead of an e-book).

Ultimately, I guess you could call Mockingjay a satisfying conclusion of sorts. It might not be the perfect Hollywood ending some had hoped for but I for one preferred it this way. Some may gripe that the various loose ends in the book are not tied up very well – I personally thought an extra chapter or two was warranted – though the epilogue has a haunting quality that totally kills JK Rowling’s abomination from Harry Potter 7 (and do I even need to mention the vomit in Twilight: Breaking Dawn?).

So there you have it. Mockingjay is a flawed but strong conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy, one of the rare literary phenomena these days that actually deserve much of its praise and success. I don’t think I have ever devoured a book series as quickly as I did this one.

3.75 out of 5

 
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