Nicholas E. Barron

Words in many mediums

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Tag: Stephen King

Stephen Ambrose’s “Upton and the Army” is a Matter-of-Fact Good Read

Upton and the Army by Stephen E. Ambrose came to us before we met the Band of Brothers or learned about Undaunted Courage.Quote from "Upton and the Army" that reads, "Men, your friends at home and your country expect every man to do his duty on this occasion. Some of us have got to die, but remember you are going to heaven."

Ambrose’s first book, Upton and the Army was published in 1963. This was before Watergate and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination. And it was before the country knew it had in Ambrose one of its most talented historian-storytellers.

The book is about U.S. Army General Emory Upton’s impact on the U.S. military. An officer during the Civil War, Upton’s war experience led him to two conclusions that shaped the rest of his career.

First, he saw the role politics played in military promotions and decisions in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. Secondly, he realized the military tactics used were outdated and overmatched by advances in weaponry.

After the war, Upton focused on overhauling the U.S. military. He recommended changes that were implemented for how the military fought battles and conducted parades. But it was in the area of politics, military organization, and leadership that Upton set his sights on most.

For example, Upton advocated for a large, standing army trained to defend the United States. At the time, most of the nation’s defense fell to voluntary state militias.

Also, Upton believed professional officers make military decisions, as opposed to the Secretary of War. Upton was convinced the Civil War lasted four bloody years in large part due to the leadership of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Stanton was a lawyer who had never served in the military. As was custom for the Secretary of War at the time, Stanton frequently made strategic military decisions throughout the war.

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After surviving and succeeding in the Civil War, you might think changing military policy would be easier. But Upton found it to be anything but simple. The general learned how difficult changing bureaucracy can be.

It’s in his struggle to modernize the American military that Ambrose tells the story of Upton and the Army.

Upton and the Army Book Review

Some authors’ first books immediately announce their talent (i.e., Stephen King’s Carrie or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus).

This is not the case with Ambrose’s Upton and the Army. It is a book that achieves its objective, to educate the reader about General Emory Upton. But readers of Ambrose’s later and more popular works will wonder where the commanding storytelling is in Upton and the Army.

The book reads more matter-of-fact than as a fact-based story. It’s more of an academic paper written by the history professor Ambrose than it is a page turning non-fiction book.

Still, Upton and the Army is illuminating. Through the book, we learn a great deal about military history, especially changes that set the U.S. up for successes in World War I and World War II.

And Ambrose is superb in his grasp of military history. In some ways, Upton and the Army’s greatest weakness, its lack of emotion, is also its greatest asset. The book lays out in digestible and compelling fashion military tactics and history.

You may not feel a grasp for any character outside of Upton, but you won’t walk away from the book without having learned.

Upton and the Army is recommended most for those interested in military history, including battlefield tactics. But even broader students of history will find the book informative and worthy of reading.

Upton and the Army Book Cover Upton and the Army
Stephen E. Ambrose
LSU Press
August 1, 1993

Why Blood Meridian is the Masterpiece of a Genius Artist

Not long into reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy you realize there’s something stuck in your teeth: grit. Yes, the grit and sand covering the land and characters of Blood Meridian are all over you, too. It’s on your tongue, in your pores, and coating your clothes.

You don’t read Blood Meridian. You experience it, every dirty, bloody, nasty bit of the book.

A talented novelist makes you believe their fictional world is real. McCarthy does this in Blood Meridian as well as any writer.

It doesn’t matter if McCarthy didn’t live in 1849 when the book is set. Or that Hollywood Westerns could have been some of his source material for the book. What matters is that you believe the place and people in Blood Meridian are real.

You believe this so much that you feel every paragraph of desperation and fear and violence that echoes like a gunshot in a canyon throughout McCarthy’s book.

This is probably one reason why authors such as Stephen King and Rachel Kushner cite the book as one of their favorites. A writer reading Blood Meridian is an apostle in the presence of their savior.

Another reason practitioners of writing often laud Blood Meridian could be McCarthy’s manipulation of the English language.

It’s as if McCarthy is the boy with the spoon in “The Matrix”. The boy bends a spoon by looking at it. He explains, “Only try to realize the truth…There is no spoon.”Image of the quote from Blood Meridian, "If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?".

McCarthy doesn’t adhere to standards of grammar, punctuation, or definitions. He instead uses words however he needs to tell his story. He is able to bend the language because to him it isn’t a language. It’s a vehicle to his story.

Take this passage, for example: “All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.”

This is a sentence. It contains English, words you understand. But they’re adeptly sewn together in ways unimaginable to most of us. Pieced together phrases such as this make Blood Meridian a masterful work of art. The book is a classic.

Overview of Blood Meridian

Setting: Blood Meridian mostly takes place in Texas, Mexico, and the American Southwest in 1849-1850.

Main Characters:

  • The kid – Protagonist; A runaway teenager from Tennessee, The kid makes it to Texas. He eventually falls in with a gang led by Glanton. The kid is an antihero. He’s no saint, but he does show small amounts of compassion and decency throughout the book.
  • The Judge – Antagonist; He’s a psychopath that comes across as nearly supernatural. He has no conscience and shows no remorse. He seems omnipotent and unstoppable.
  • Glanton – Leader of the gang, he’s nearly as mean and violent as The Judge. But he’s not quite as smart. If The Judge is Satan, Glanton would be his right-hand demon. The character is loosely based on the real-life John Joel Glanton.
  • Toadvine – A character The kid meets that puts him on the path to joining The Judge and Glanton’s group.
  • Tobin – An ex-priest, is a paradox. He maintains some religious beliefs while killing and committing crimes alongside the rest of the gang.
  • David Brown – He wears a necklace made of human ears. That gives you an accurate picture of this character’s makeup.

Plot: The kid runs away from home and ends up in Texas. He meets Toadvine, a relationship that leads both to join Glanton’s gang. The gang is hired by Mexican authorities to hunt Apaches. The gang journeys north and west across Mexico, killing and plundering as they go. They work their way to present-day California and Arizona. The gang takes over a ferry crossing on the Colorado River, a move that ends disastrously for most of the gang.

Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West Book Cover Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West
Cormac McCarthy

Based on incidents that took place in the southwestern United States and Mexico around 1850, this novel chronicles the crimes of a band of desperados, with a particular focus on one, "the kid," a boy of fourteen

New additions to the books to read in 2017 list

At first, my books to read in 2017 list wasn’t for you. It was for me. But of course, a reading list is a great way to discover your next book."38 Books to Read in 2017" written above 38 book icons.

After all, we glom over Stephen King’s reading list. A popular book blog regularly publishes reading lists. Another blog, Brain Pickings, highlights notable folks’ reading recommendations. And many author interviews have the interviewer asking the writer, “What are you reading now?”

Seems like finding out what books others are reading may be the easiest, most effective way to decide what we should read. So it makes sense we readers love reading lists. And it makes sense that my 2017 reading list isn’t a list just for me. It’s a list for you as well.

As you may know, the first version of my 2017 reading list included 34 books. But I’ll read more than 34 books this year. You probably will, too. You see, the plan was always to add books to the list.

Maybe a new book gets released or I find a book I previously didn’t know about. Plus, an author or publisher may ask me to review their book. So I need to leave room on my annual reading list for additions.

Well, we’re three months into 2017. It’s now time to make some additions to my books to read in 2017 list.

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Updates to the Books to Read in 2017 List

There are four books I’m adding to my 2017 reading list. Each book is listed below with a short explanation of why I’m adding it to my 2017 reading list.Book cover of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

  • “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    • President’s Day weekend I watched a friend tear through “Americanah,” and listened to her praise the book. Then the book was chosen for the “One Book, One New York” campaign. OK, Universe, I will read “Americanah.”
  • “Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis
    • There’s a litany of previously published books I’ve never heard about, much less read. That’s why I have a lot of catching up to do. Then on Lewis’s birthday, The Writer’s Almanac highlighted “Main Street.” Being from the rural Midwest and someone who’s writing often reflects that background, I decided to give the book a shot. Here’s my review of “Main Street.”
  • “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer
    • Here’s another book added to my reading list through the “playing catch-up” rule. Since I’ve never read Norman Mailer, I figure I should change that this year.
  • “Fatima’s Room” by Charlotte S. Gray
    • Arc Light Books will publish “Fatima’s Room.” It’s based on the diaries of a young Sudanese woman. I’m reading it now and will publish a review once I’m finished.

These additions bring my list of books to read in 2017 to 38. But there’s still room for more. After June, I’ll give you another update letting you know what books I’ve added to the list.

What books have you added to your annual reading list?

"38 Books to Read in 2017" written above 38 book icons.


Here’s the Joy of Discovering Harry Potter as an Adult

I hadn’t been asleep long when it happened. A noise, like skin slapping wood, jolted me awake.

“Nick awoke with a fright,” my internal monolog said.

Quickly I realized the noise was innocuous. Then I returned to the sentence that ran through my mind as I was roused: “Nick awoke with a fright.”The book cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Where did that come from? This is when I realized the impact Harry Potter was having in my life.

Much is made of the downsides of aging, but here’s at least one benefit to getting older. You unearth something delightful that was there all along, waiting for you to discover it at the time that’s right for you.

A recent example of this for me is the Harry Potter series.

The first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published in 1997. I was a junior in high school at the time.

This is to say I was a closeted gay teenager in rural America hoping religion would save my soul. I had no friends and little hope my life would ever be more than a daily struggle against sinful homosexuality.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In hindsight, I was depressed.

Stories for some people, reading and writing them offer an escape. This was not the case for me. I was too obsessed with fighting my gayness, and too depressed about the hopelessness of it, to read anything other than Sports Illustrated or the Bible.

This means I was unaware of the Harry Potter books that quickly dominated young readers around the world starting in the late 1990s. In hindsight, I could have been part of the first wave of Potter fandom, but instead, I was focused on avoiding hell for being a homosexual.

Over time I accepted my gayness and emerged from the depressive, closeted state of my teenage years. By then, Harry Potter was too big to ignore, but I was an adult now and saw little reason to read a children’s series.

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The book cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing. King lists as the end of the book other books he read the year prior to On Writing being published. Three Harry Potter books made the list.

I realized if the master of storytelling Stephen King is reading Harry Potter, maybe I should, too. And that’s how I came to reading Harry Potter for the first time at age thirty-six.

Harry became my constant companion for fifty-seven days. I tore through the books, immediately understanding why so many made such a fuss over Harry Potter. So obsessed was I while reading the Potter books that my inner monolog took on the series’ narrative voice. Hence my waking from a dream thinking the sentence, “Nick awoke with a fright.”The book cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It wasn’t until after finishing the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that I began to think about some similarities between myself and Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and I are the same age. Harry’s birthday is July 31, 1980. That’s within two weeks of mine.As a boy, Harry faced down dark magic that sought to destroy him. So did I. While Harry was fighting Lord Voldemort in England, I was fighting the destructive belief that being born gay is wrong.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

As a boy, Harry faced down dark magic that sought to destroy him. So did I. While Harry was fighting Lord Voldemort in England, I was fighting the destructive belief that being born gay is wrong.

Harry eventually defeated Voldemort. I defeated being a closet case.

Of course, seeing my fight against evil as similar to Harry’s is what makes still today Harry Potter such a draw for kids and adults. It’s a story onto which we all can project our personal struggles.

After finishing the Potter series, I wondered if I regretted not having discovered them when I was a teenager. Could reading Potter have helped me deal with my homosexuality earlier, avoiding years of missteps and pain?The book cover of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince.

I doubt it. My existence was too bleak back then to be open to the fantastical world of Harry Potter. I would not have been receptive to his story, and certainly in no position to see myself in his shoes.

Besides, the tumult of the years in which I slowly came to accept my gay self provided for me experiences that today make me a better writer.

There were the interesting jobs, such as working in a mental hospital. And jobs, like being a newspaper reporter, that taught me useful skills. There was living in different states, meeting numerous people with varied backgrounds.

There were the experiences, like passing a herd of antelope grazing in a Wyoming ghost town at midnight. Or standing alone in an Oregon rain forest listening to raindrops patter onto the leaves of enormous, green ferns.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And had I read Harry Potter earlier in life, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading his story through adult eyes and understanding. The world is full of treasures awaiting our discovery, and sometimes they stay hidden until we’re ready for them.

Finally, at age thirty-six, I was ready to read Harry Potter.

How old were you when you first read a Harry Potter book?

2017 reading list: Time to have an accomplished year

Update: Four books have been added to the 2017 reading list. Find out what it’s included in the 38 books to read in 2017 list.

Tis the season for new endeavors and an annual reading list fits the bill. Below is my 2017 reading list.

Maybe you’ve always kept a yearly list of books you want to read. This is a first for me. Now that I’ve become more practiced about my reading, there are books I want to be sure and read.

A reading list helps. And it prevents me from forgetting a book I come across.

The 2017 reading list is organized into categories. As the reading list organization is for my purposes, you won’t find these categories in a library or on Amazon. (See “Oldies but goodies”).

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The year I got serious about reading

There were classics and there were new books. There were two weeks in China in which books about China accompanied me. There were authors newly discovered and previously read authors revisited. More than anything, 2016 was the year in which I rededicated myself to reading.

Halfway through 2016, I realized my folly. Actually, Stephen King helped me realize it.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” King wrote in On Writing.

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