16 July 2019

Is this new novel better than Star Wars?

When I was a kid, I adored Star Wars. 

I knew all the characters' names, including Ponda Baba. What kind of a geek knows that? Me. By age 7. I even had his action figure. He's the punk who loses his arm in the cantina.

I was in deep.

And for good reason. Star Wars transformed a generations. It deserves its legendary status. Its archetypes come from a story that belongs to all of us. I love the heart of it--the mythical aspects, the heroism, and the epic struggle between light and darkness.

But I got a little disenchanted with it as I grew up. (Just a little.) You have to admit that some of the later films got less mature. (I'm looking at you, Jar Jar. And don't get me started on Canto Bight.) As an author, I began to see some missed opportunities too--not when Star Wars was bad, but when it wasn't as wholly itself as it could've been. I'll give you one small example. (And please forgive me if it sounds like I'm dissing on Episode IV--I actually love that movie.) Princess Leia's home planet gets blown up by the Death Star--BOOM!--and all we get out of her is a mild, "NO!" That's it. I wanted more. I wanted to feel those millions of voices crying out in terror, like Princess Leia surely must have. I wanted to see her crying alone, caught unawares when needed on the battle deck, morose and distraught. I wanted to see the devastating repercussions of losing her family and friends. We miss that entire arc of her character. The loss of Alderaan is epic! But we hardly hear any echoes of that epicness. 

I still adore Star Wars.

But as I got older, I wanted more from it. I wanted the best space opera to go deeper, to reach even more of its potential. I wanted to explore those types of characters more. I wanted to witness not only the heroic actions but the philosophies behind them.

And that's why I wrote STARCHILD.

You may have already seen the tagline: "It's a story for people who grew up with Star Wars but who wanted Star Wars to grow up too." It's an audacious claim. At least a little controversial. To be clear, I'm not saying Star Wars isn't spellbinding. I'm saying what we haven't yet seen may also leave us spellbound. 

Here's a story you might not have heard: George Lucas loved the Flash Gordon TV show as a kid (see George Lucas: A Life). It inspired him to make a space opera of his own (Star Wars), which he actually called his "Flash Gordon thing." He built on what he loved as a kid and took it to another level. STARCHILD has a similar backstory. Rather than detracting from the Star Wars mythos, it magnifies it, giving us another chance to become lost in a galactic epic. I'm not sure STARCHILD makes the same leap as the gap between Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker, but I hope it does.

STARCHILD is an homage to a great predecessor, and it's much more than fan fiction. The story dives into the hearts of a cast of lovable (and loathable) characters. The galactic setting is exquisite, and it’s based on actual scientific discoveries, with worlds like you’ve never imagined but which likely exist in our own galaxy. The magic system is based partly in fact and might have you personally testing whether it’s real. The story itself is a fast-paced ride that will leave you hungry for more adventure, and luckily, the sequels are already here.

The full synopsis is below. If you're on the fence after that, most readers decide by reading just the first chapter, which you can preview free on Amazon.

I'm excited to hear from you in the comments below and in your reviews on Amazon!

And thank you for being a reader.

It’s a story for people who grew up with Star Wars but who wanted Star Wars to grow up too.

* * *

Tyranny rules the galaxy.

President Taiberos controls the interstellar gates, regulates the media, and monitors the civilians. Like the grip of his cybernetic hand, he maintains a relentless hold on the populace, keeping anyone else from gaining too much power. And the power he hates most of all is the magic of the Song—a force so strong it flows out as light from the eyes. His Witch Hunters kidnap and torment anyone with such abilities.

And the people are afraid to fight back. Afraid to stand together.

Afraid to rise up.

Still, a planet named Solace is poised to counter these fears and strike against the tyranny. One person holds the key to calling its citizens to arms: She’s a radiance named Kalhette. But she too has been kidnapped—and is being held prisoner in the infamous depths of Building 13.

Only the most daring rescue might save her, and the consequence of failure is death.

Yet a small team of rebels dare to try.

Their mission requires a Bloody Wing: a priceless alien artifact with the power to travel outside the interstellar gates, off the grid, beyond regulations and the grip of the Witch Hunters.

So the rebels enlist a man who stole one of these ships from Taiberos himself—

A renegade pilot named Starchild.

* * *

STARCHILD is the story you’re looking for.

If your favorite space opera (wink wink) hasn’t quite lived up to your expectations lately… If you value flawed heroines, deep villains, mind-blowing plots, and spectacular worldbuilding, then this is it, the story you’ve been waiting for.

STARCHILD dives deep into the minds of an unforgettable cast of lovable (and loathable) characters. The galactic setting is exquisite, and it’s based on actual scientific discoveries, with worlds like you’ve never imagined but which likely exist in our own galaxy. The marvels of the magic system will make you envious, and its basis in fact might have you personally testing whether it’s real. The story itself is a fast-paced ride that will leave you hungry for more adventure, and luckily, the sequels are already here.

Get ready for a reading addiction like you haven’t experienced since you were a kid.

The moment you open the book, you’ll be transported away at lightspeed.

So, are you ready to take an intergalactic leap?

15 March 2017

BOOK REPORT: Hamilton The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda

In 2016 I wrote a bunch of book reviews for dozens of books.

Writing them was fun, and a few of you readers seemed to really like them. But they took a lot of time to create, which is something I don’t have a lot of. This year I’ve decided to transform my book report strategy. Instead of reviewing every book I read this year, I’ll only give you brief pitches for the top 10%.

But if you want to know about every book I read, follow me on Twitter: @jtraviswashburn.

Having said that, I skipped one book report in 2016 that I’m excited to share with you (it just took me a long time to create—producing a video is hard!). It’s for a book called HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION. It’s a short book by Lin-Manuel Miranda about writing his famous musical. Instead of writing a report, I decided to record a track for you. This seemed like a better way to pique your curiosity.

As you'll notice in the video, I bleeped out a few words. This musical has a lot of adult themes throughout and some colorful language. Make sure you check that against your tolerance level before you sink $1000 dollars on tickets.

Thanks for being a reader/listener!

-- J

02 February 2017

When will the sequel to ECKSDOT / SONG OF LOCKE be released?

I’m currently working on a space fantasy called STARCHILD. It will be a trilogy of novellas. 

So why did I start a new series rather than finish an existing one? 

It’s a business decision: The goal is to earn enough money to switch to being a full-time author. Which will mean I can publish books for you faster.

The first consideration is the limitations of a sequel. A sequel can only sell a percentage of what its predecessor sold. So if I write LOCKE: AZURE WINDS, it won’t sell more copies than I’ve already sold of LOCKE: DARK EMPYREAN. And while I’ve sold a couple thousand copies, it’s not enough. The same goes for ECKSDOT and its sequel METAMORPHOSIS. Of course, if I finish a series, that will make people more likely to buy the first volume, right? True. Which leads to my next consideration: how long will it take to finish each series?

SONG OF LOCKE is 135k words long. If I write miraculously fast, I might finish the next book in 1 year. So it’s a minimum of 2 years to complete the series (but, let’s be realistic—it’s probably more like 4). ECKSDOT has 4 volumes in the series, so we’re talking 3 (or 6) years to complete the series. But with STARCHILD I’m taking a different strategy. Each episode will be a novella about 50k long, or 150k total. Basically I can write all three of those in the same amount of time it would take to write one sequel. So I asked myself, which would sell better: a middle novel in an unfinished series, or a trilogy of novellas in which the first one is free?

In sum, writing STARCHILD is (hopefully) a 1-year project. It will give me a quick route to a marketable, finished series, which I imagine will help sales. That income will in turn give me more writing time, which means the sequels you’re dying to read will come out sooner. This schedule just means those sequels will have to wait one extra year. The good news is that I will finish—I promise. Patience, young padawan. And even with this delay, I expect to finish before George Martin finishes GAME OF THRONES. And probably before Sanderson finishes THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE too.

Besides, you’re going to love STARCHILD.

So, what do you think of this plan?


(P.S. Oh, and by the way, after I finish STARCHILD, I’ll have readers vote on whether I should finish SONG OF LOCKE or ECKSDOT next. That should be fun to see.)

03 January 2017

My favorite books from 2016

Better-than-the-movie: THE REVENANT by Michael Punke
(But I also enjoyed the movie.)

Best mythology: THE RING by Richard Wagner
(Love how it inspired Tolkien!)

Best manly read: SHOGUN by James Clavell
("I yield to karma in all its beauty!")

Best nonfiction adventure: LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann
(Basically an Indiana Jones adventure in real life.)

Most challenging to my beliefs: ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand
(Seriously, I'm still mulling over these ideas...)

Best rebel yell: Enjolras from LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo
(Such a great book, and it's okay if you read the abridged version.)


25 December 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS! I got you something... FREE rebel ebooks of LITTLE BROTHER and HOMELAND

I watched a documentary about Edward Snowden called CITIZENFOUR. It includes tons of raw footage of Snowden in his hotel room after his escape from the U.S. but before he made his intentions known. The pacing is actually a little slow, and yet it’s pretty exciting to see a real-life fugitive in that vulnerable moment—just before the point of no return.

As I watched that movie, I caught a glimpse of a novel on Snowden’s nightstand called HOMELAND. I Googled it and found out that it’s the sequel to a young-adult novel called LITTLE BROTHER. The title is a reference to Orwell’s 1984, and the book is about a kid who fights an overreaching, surveillance-state government. It’s the exact sort of thing you’d expect Snowden to be reading.

Now, in lieu of review…

It only has a tiny bit of sci-fi in it (but I was impressed that the author basically predicted Pokemon GO). The book hails tech and geeks. A few things even reminded me of READY PLAYER ONE, but this book is much rougher on the edges and more realistic too. (That means it has a little swearing and some scenes I think a few of you will prefer to skip.) Mostly it’s about terrorism, hacking, and fighting a police state. There’s definitely some propaganda in its tone, but there’s plenty of good stuff too.

Who is he? Well...

The guy who wrote LITTLE BROTHER is named Cory Doctorow. And he’s a man who believes in open-sourcing things. Which means he gives away his books for free. (He also sells them, by the way, and they’re available for purchase on Amazon and Audible.) Which means I can legally pass them along to you as a Christmas gift (/discovery)! Pretty cool, huh? I know they may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a few of you will love them.

So here you go.

Now you have something to read on your new Kindle / phone / tablet / Chromebook.

Merry Christmas. : )

19 December 2016

BOOK REPORT: Their Eyes Were Watching God

A close friend recommended Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s one of his favorites.

This is a character drama. It’s not about lost cities, black holes, or spaceships (which is mostly what I’ve been reading lately). It’s about people. Specifically black people in Florida a century ago. A woman named Janie is the protagonist. I appreciate characterization in a novel more than concept, plot, or setting. So I liked this one.

I love that the author shows you characters so vividly yet quickly (it’s a pretty short read). You see a lot of personality, but she doesn’t draw it out. It packs a lot of punch in not a lot of words. Zora Neale Hurston is a fantastic writer. Her diction throughout is poetic, exemplified by the paragraph from which the title is drawn:

“They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator is incredibly talented. She sounds distinguished as she’s reading the poetic sections, and then she’ll transform while reading a character’s prosaic dialog. I was super impressed, and I listen to a lot of narrators, so I would know, ha ha.

The theme is about finding meaning in life through love, through trusting people, but through being respectful to yourself and your own delights as well, summed up in this quote:

“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

This is a book I would quickly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading.

16 December 2016

BOOK REPORT: Einstein's Relativity

Man, this book was over my head.

And yet, it drove me to Wikipedia. So let me share a few of the things I learned.

Einstein developed his theory of Special Relativity first. It’s mostly about space and time. And it says that any two events which are separated by a spacetime interval (a 4D distance) will have variance based on the viewer’s inertial point of view.

What! Yeah, it’s dense. Here’s a down-to-earth example.

Say you have two perfectly accurate atomic clocks. One stays on earth, sitting on the ground right next to where you are now. The other goes up to the International Space Station, which is zooming along at 17,136 mph! After two years of these clocks traveling at different speeds, the one in space will be about 0.02 seconds behind the one next to you on the ground. So the faster one moves relative to the other, the greater this discrepancy becomes.

No, this isn’t just a crazy theory. This actually happened to Sergei Vasilyevich Avdeyev, who spent over two years in space zooming along at insane speeds, and when he came back he was 0.02 seconds younger than he ought to be.

Einstein’s second big theory was called General Relativity, and it’s about gravity. It says that spacetime gets curved by the energy and momentum of matter. General Relativity actually says that the closer you are to a source of gravity, the slower your time will go.

So let’s go back to our two atomic clocks. This is another actual experiment they’ve done. You put one atomic clock on a mountaintop, further from earth’s center of gravity, and you leave the other on the couch next to you. The one next to you will tick slightly slower than the one on the mountain. Because of this same effect, they’ve calculated that the core of the earth is 2.5 years younger than the crust where we live. More gravity means slower time.

Of course, these are all relatively small numbers. But scifi geeks known that as you go faster and heavier, the effects become greater, like you see when Ender travels at lightspeed (Ender’s Game) or when Murph’s dad lands on Miller’s Gargantua (Interstellar).

Einstein also says that it’s impossible to say in an absolute sense that two distinct events separated by space occur at the same time. Meaning if the speeds and distances are just right, to one person A might happen before B, and to another B might come before A. See this chart:

You’re thinking that’s pretty weird. But it gets crazier.

Imagine you’re in Spaceship X and out the window you see Spaceship Z come zooming by at something close to lightspeed. And let’s say you can see a clock inside the other ship as it passes. To you, in Spaceship X, it would look like your watch is ticking just fine and the clock in Spaceship Z is ticking really slowly.

Now, common sense would tell you that if his watch looks slow to you, then your watch would look fast to him. But relativity is relative. Meaning it doesn’t matter whether you think your ship is moving at light speed and the other one is parked or if you’re the one parked and the other is moving. The only thing that matters is how you seem to be moving in relation to each other. And you’re each moving fast in relation to the other. So that means if someone in Spaceship Z saw your watch, it would look, to him, like it was also ticking really slowly!

This blew my mind. It doesn’t seem to fit. Or didn’t, until I read this metaphor.

Imagine you had a clone. And you magically shrunk this clone so he was about as big as a sylphe. (That’s a thumb-sized being, if you haven’t read SONG OF LOCKE). He seems very small to you. And when he looks at you, you seem very big, even though your size hasn’t changed. This example shows a literal change of scale.

Now imagine you have another clone, and he’s still your same size, but you order him to climb to the top of that mountain in the distance. To you, he now looks very small. But does that mean you will look very large to him? No. Because he is also seeing you across the same vast distance.

In short, you appear large if seen within handshaking range, but you appear small if seen from a great distance. It’s not actually a paradox then, is it?

If I’ve piqued your curiosity for more of this stuff, take a look at the Ladder Paradox, which will teach you about length contraction at high speeds!

15 November 2016


I went skydiving a few weeks ago.

I’m an author, so naturally I wrote about it.

The narrative is visceral, like you’re experiencing it all along with me. In fact, one of my readers thought it was so vivid, he said, “I feel like I’ve actually been skydiving now.”

If you want, you can now buy it on Amazon for $2.99.

Thanks for being a reader!

-- J

10 November 2016

BOOK REPORT: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

Dark matter is a type of matter.

It’s not dark in color. And it’s not evil.

It’s actually more like transparent matter, meaning it doesn’t interact with light or anything else on the electromagnetic spectrum. At least not in a way that is strong enough for us to detect. At least not yet. So dark matter kind of goes on its merry way, ignoring us. In fact, odds are that you’ve had a few particles of this transparent matter pass right through you sometime in the last hour. Yep, it’s true. Dark matter is crazy stuff.

But dark matter does have mass. It’s a real substance.

In fact, about 27% of the total mass and energy in the universe is dark matter. So nearly a third, right? Which doesn’t seem like too huge of a number. But guess what percentage ordinary matter takes up? You know, ordinary matter, like carbon atoms and H2o and the other stuff we can touch… Ordinary matter is only 5% of the universe! That’s means our whole planet is a pretty unusual occurrence when you glance around space.

So if we can’t see dark matter using light or infrared or Superman vision, then how do we know it’s even there?

Imagine someone tossed a backpack and you tried to catch it, but it ripped out of your grip and crashed into the floor so hard it broke the concrete. Your natural reaction would be, “What’s in your backpack?”

This same thing is going on in the universe. Galaxies twirl around themselves and interact with each other in a way that suggest there’s something heavy that we can’t see. So scientists are asking the universe, “What’s in your backpack?”

They’re not sure what it is, but they know a few things about it, like that there’s a lot of it and that it doesn’t interact with light. So they decided to call this mysterious thing dark matter. It’s just like the thing hidden inside the bag—we see its effects, but we haven’t gotten a good look at it yet.

This is what Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is about.

Want to know my favorite part of the whole book?

The author, Lisa Randall, speculates on dark matter and dark energy, which leads to her wondering about dark light and dark life. In other words, she, a famous particle physicist and an atheist, believes there could be a type of life with actual mass that is right next to us but undetectable! This, to me, sounds exactly like she’s describing the spiritual realm from Avatar: the Last Airbender. A famous scientist is saying this is possible! Amazing.

I have to say that had I read this book before writing ECKSDOT, the story might have turned out different. (But don’t worry: I have no regrets.)

In conclusion, this is an interesting book. Oh, and aside from dark matter, it gets into comets and meteoroids and the Kuiper Belt, which sounds cool but wasn’t quite Stephen Hawking good.

Still, a fascinating read.

P.S. Dr. Randall reminds me of Ellie Arroway from my favorite book/movie CONTACT.

04 November 2016

BOOK REPORT: Star Wars: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy

This was a fun, quick read.

The beginning is told from the perspective of Princess Leia—the opening scene on the rebel ship and the droids taking a secret message in search of Ben Kenobi. Then the viewpoint switches to Han Solo, and you see his surprise when a strange old man chops off somebody’s arm in a bar. This perspective continues through the whole Death Star tractor-beam and rescue of the princess part, Act II, so you get to see lots of Han’s attitude and get a better understanding of why he’s so concerned with money (Jabba!). The last section, the Death Star trench run, is told from Luke’s perspective. The movie favors Luke’s perspective throughout, so it’s cool to get more depth from these other angles.

The author digs deeper into a couple of things that get skimmed over in the movie. For example, Leia’s whole home planet gets destroyed in the movie, and we only see her mourn for a couple seconds and then it’s never mentioned again. In this book version, this is a lingering theme, which seems more true to human character. The same is true of Bigg’s death. Although I still think Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are a little underplayed.

I have the movie of A New Hope memorized, which made me appreciate this retelling. I can imagine the film could be pretty awesome if it were rebooted. That’s not to say it might not also be dumb, but I do think the story could grow with some added creativity and interpretation.

I’d recommend this book to any young readers who love Star Wars but don’t read very often.

27 October 2016

BOOK REPORT: Cryptonomicon

Tim Ferriss recommended Cryptonomicon.

I was expecting a thriller. Something like Dan Brown with more tech.

Turns out it was quite different.

Mainly it surprised me by its tone. I expected a business-like narrative, gray suits and red ties. Instead, it’s hilarious, filled with wryness (“dry, mocking humor”), much of which is from the narrator, but a lot is from the characters as well. It actually reminded me of Mark Twain, sort of an “I’m cleverer than all this and all of you.” I found myself laughing aloud as I went, quite often. Really, props to Stephenson for his wit. 

I was also duly impressed with how he weaves together his plots. One plot follows a U.S. Marine during WWII as he discovers Nazi treasure in a U-Boat. Another arc follows this Marine’s Japanese counterpart/enemy. Another storyline follows Alan Turing and a few other brilliant code-makers and breakers (have you seen The Imitation Game?). And a last takes place in the modern world, deals with internet cryptography, and collects the pieces lefts by the other (historically earlier) timelines. These plotlines all play out simultaneously. I felt ungrounded and lost in the first quarter of the book, not knowing who to empathize with and relate to. But once I gained a footing, I really liked the weaving.

But despite the impressive plotting and clever diction, I quit listening right around 50%, which was a little too far already. Why? It was too crass. Too many base and sexual topics. Oh, and it was sprinkled with strong language.

Tim Ferriss doesn’t like to apologize for the rough language on his podcast, so he probably won’t understand this critique. Sidenote: this isn’t the first time I’ve been underwhelmed by his fiction tips (Zorba the Greek!). I guess we’re not quite aligned on what we like. It’s not that I find it offensive, Tim, and I’m not making a moral judgement against you. I’m just saying I’d rather talk about something else. It’s the same with bathroom functions. Yes, humans use the restroom frequently, but that’s a detail I’m glad to skip over in a book. Thank you very much.

Aside from that, this was a great book. Hats off to Neal Stephenson.

If you’re a sensitive reader looking for a better option, read Catch-22.

By the way, I love titles, and that’s partly how Cryptonomicon caught my attention. But it’s one of those you have no idea what it means till you’ve read it, so I’ll explain. In this story, the Cryptonomicon is a book (or rather a collection of papers) on cryptography that the protagonists both use and compile as they go.

There you have it.

* * *

FYI to my readers, this is the 27th book I’ve read this year. (Yes, I’m still counting it, since I got through around 300 pages worth.)

Here’s what’s coming next, a group of sci-fi-ish titles to help me prepare for STARCHILD. I’d love to have you read along with me!

  • Star Wars: A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy 
  • Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs
  • Issaac Asimov’s Foundation
  • Einstein’s Relativity
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God 

19 October 2016


Seven different people recommended The Name of the Wind to me.

That never happens.

Which inevitably led me to high expectations.

I haven’t read a ton of fantasy. I love Lord of the Rings. I’ve also read Game of Thrones and tons of Brandon Sanderson. Aside from that, I’m a little unfamiliar with the genre. Oh, I wrote one too.

Anyways. My reading history and all the raving reviews made me expect a sweeping epic about the battle between good and evil. The beginning of the book starts in this direction. There’s some terror on the road, which leads villagers in a small inn to telling stories around a hearthstone. It reminded me of Tristram and Diablo. But the initial setting is simply a frame for the actual story. Kvothe, the main character, starts relating the tale of his life, beginning with his boyhood.

And that story is a more mundane drama. I don’t mean that as an insult, just as the opposite of an epic. (In fact, I rather like compelling stories about mundane, real-life problems.) Kvothe’s main conflicts deal with earning and spending money, social battles with an arrogant bully, and winning the heart of a potential girlfriend. Mundane.

It’s also a relatively slow, meandering narrative. Almost like a D&D campaign, with one conflict rolling along into another without a strong central crux. (I read that Patrick Rothfuss is into D&D, by the way.) All in all, you spend 600 pages reading, and you’ve really just gotten through act I of a much larger story.

That said, it’s still a pretty enjoyable book.

For example, when Kvothe defends himself in front of the nine sages on the university council (something akin to Harry Potter at Hogwarts), I’d just arrived at work and had to keep listening to know how the scene ended. That doesn’t happen to me often.

So, yes, I liked it. And I’m excited to read the sequel. But, just so you know, it’s not on my top 10 or anything.

Oh, and I liked the magic system, how it had particular rules, and how the characters cared to learn those rules and put them to their advantage. (That’s one thing that bothers me about Harry Potter—that these kids have nearly limitless power at their fingertips, so easy to grasp, yet they treat it like it’s a boring history lecture; it would be another thing if it were more difficult than simply saying a magic word.)

A couple small things bugged me, like the fact that no one had heard of “the Common Drakus” before. This creature is too extraordinary and living too close to humans to have been anything less that the stuff of popular legend. Denna and Kvothe’s relationship seemed a little weird to me too, that their only problem is that they never communicate. I hate finding that in stories. It’s frustrating. But maybe it’s more true to life than I’d like to admit.

The Name of the Wind is a good book. A fun book.

I think you will like it.

27 September 2016

BOOK REPORT: Crucible of Doubt by Fiona and Terryl Givens

My buddy Tom bought me this book for my birthday. The Crucible of Doubt gathers philosophy, poetry, and reason together into a treatise for those who doubt their faith in God. It is written by the Mormon couple Fiona and Terryl Givens. They cite classic literature throughout to support their perspective; in lieu of that, I’ll share with you four of those:

My hosanna has come through the great crucible of doubt.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky

 “When I am grateful, I tend toward a higher mental (and spiritual) state. I take things—people, order, air, roundness, everything—less for granted. Hence I notice things otherwise invisible to me. It is as if I have a sixth sense, taking in more context, more reality.”
— Philip Barlow

“Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. And if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further, and say I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those that deny Him.
— George MacDonald

Our Creator would never have made such lovely days and have given us the deep hearts to enjoy them, above and beyond all thought, unless we were meant to be immortal.”
— Nathaniel Hawthorne

20 September 2016

BOOK REPORT: Happiness by Matthieu Riccard

Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman, earned a Ph.D. in molecular genetics—so his origins are based firmly in science and intellect. When he began searching for a missing piece, he found answers in Buddhism.

Happiness is a scientific look at obtaining the supreme emotion, which he defines as follows:

“By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” 

He includes parables from the buddhist tradition and personal stories. Here’s one that reminded me of Avatar Aang:

“I remember one afternoon as I was sitting on the steps of our monastery in Nepal. The monsoon storms had turned the courtyard into an expanse of muddy water and we had set out a path of bricks to serve as stepping-stones. A friend of mine came to the edge of the water, surveyed the scene with a look of disgust, and complained about every single brick as she made her way across. When she got to me, she rolled her eyes and said, ‘Yuck! What if I’d fallen into that filthy muck? Everything’s so dirty in this country!’ Since I knew her well, I prudently nodded, hoping to offer her some comfort through my mute sympathy. A few minutes later, Rapha√®le, another friend of mine, came to the path through the swamp. ‘Hup, hup, hup!’ she sang as she hopped, reaching dry land with the cry ‘What fun!’ Her eyes sparkling with joy, she added: ‘The great thing about the monsoon is that there’s no dust.’ Two people, two ways of looking at things; six billion human beings, six billion worlds.”

One of my favorite metaphors was this: Imagine the sea roiling and enraged with giant waves. Now dive beneath that surface and discover that underneath the water the sound and fury and motion have all been stilled. That’s the inner peace that Po from Kung Fu Panda was looking for, the deeper stillness that exists even during immense storms.

By the way, as of this writing, I have meditated for 10-15 minutes for 227 consecutive days. (This was inspired by The Happiness Advantage and The Power of Now, two of my favorite books.) Mostly I do breathing and presence exercises. But this book helped me understand compassion meditation better. If you want to know more, I plan to write an essay about meditation at some point, as soon as I reach Nirvana. In the meantime, here’s the foundational principle: To my understanding, all meditation rests on meta-consciousness, that is, being aware of what you’re thinking about. Again, I don’t expect you to deeply grasp it in this review, but here’s a preview from a master:

“Buddhism... stresses enhanced awareness of the formation of thoughts, which allows for the immediate identification of an angry thought as it arises, and for its deconstruction the next instant, the way a picture drawn on the surface of water melts away as it is sketched.”

I really like Buddhism. It has taught me a lot of cool concepts, for example, the perspective on self-control:

“If a sailor looses the tiller and lets the sails flap in the wind and the boat drift wherever the currents take it, it is not called freedom—it is called drifting. Freedom here means taking the helm and sailing toward the chosen destination.”

Okay, that’s all I got. Thanks for reading!

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14 September 2016

BOOK REPORT: Tom Sawyer (plus a crazy story from my childhood)

This is a true story.

When I was a kid, our neighbor’s cat died.

My little brother and I found it freshly expired. (I promise we didn’t kill it.)

I was about 10 years old, which means my brother must’ve been 6. That made him the perfect sidekick. I told him to call me Tom, and I called him Huck. When Mitch was around, we called him Joe Thatcher, but Joe wasn’t around for this one.

We didn’t want to touch the dead cat, so we got a plastic bread-bag and stuffed the fluffy corpse inside. And we felt awfully lucky to have found it—because we’d read Tom Sawyer.

We made a plan to sneak out at midnight to use the dead cat, only we hadn’t yet made a ladder for sneaking out the bedroom window. It would’ve been easy enough to just walk out the back door, only that wouldn’t have been proper, and we wanted to do things proper.

Over the next few days, we built a ladder out of a couple sapling trunks and baling string, thanks to what we’d learned about lashing in Cub scouts. It was pretty wobbly, but at least it was tall enough.

Putting the ladder against our window meant going to the side-yard, which had enough trees and shrubs that it never got much sunlight. Think Mirkwood.

And crawling between the brick wall and the unruly junipers meant entering an alleyway of spiderwebs. Also, any time we touched the junipers, stuff would fall down the backs of our shirt necks. We squinted and braved our way forward, using a stick to clear our path. Then we deposited the ladder in its place below our bedroom window. We also pulled the screen off.

I promise, this all really happened.

Incidentally, our bedroom had a window in the back-yard too, which was completely clear of foliage. But, again, that was too easy. It wouldn’t be proper.

My brother and I slept on bunk beds. I had the top. And it was the perfect dock for climbing down and out the window. We stayed awake, talking quietly so mom and dad wouldn’t come shush us and give us a talking to. At a quarter to midnight, we crawled outside into the night. The moon wasn’t full, but it was bright.

We ran down through the front yard, across the street, and into the cow pasture where we’d left the cat in its plastic bag behind the shed.

“Oh, gross!” I said when I smelt it.

As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a bag of fluff anymore. It’d had gained a layer of juice. You can image our faces.

We jabbed a long stick at the bag till the end caught. When we lifted the bag, the cat didn’t flop around anymore like it used to. It stayed in the exact same shape, stiff as a board. We carried it about 20 feet from the shed to roughly the same spot dad had buried a dead calf not long before. We dug a shallow grave and put it in.

Even if we’d had a ripe cat, we hadn’t planned beyond midnight, so we decided to head back inside.

We climbed our wiggly ladder and crawled into our beds, giddy about having been out so late. We didn’t feel bad about how things went down either.

We’d probably waited too long to do anything with the cat’s spirit anyway.

* * *

If you understand that passage, then I suppose you’ve already read and loved Tom Sawyer. If you haven’t read it, well, that’s the sort of escapade you’re in for. There’s murder and romance and other intrigues. Mostly it’s a solid character novel. 

I’ve probably read Tom Sawyer four times, which includes the times my parents read it to us. The most recent was just this year. This book really shaped my childhood. (Sometime I’ll tell you about baking knifes into pies and digging under foundations to rescue prisoners.)

I’ll quote just one passage—so you’ll know what a dead cat’s good for:

“Why,” said Huck, “you take your cat and go and get in the graveyard ‘long about midnight when somebody that was wicked has been buried; and when it’s midnight a devil will come, or maybe two or three, but you can’t see ‘em, you can only hear something like the wind, or maybe hear ‘em talk; and when they’re taking that feller away, you heave your cat after ‘em and say, ‘Devil follow corpse, cat follow devil, warts follow cat, I’m done with ye!’ That’ll fetch ANY wart.” 
“Sounds right,” said Tom. “D’you ever try it, Huck?” 
“No, but old Mother Hopkins told me.”  
“Well, I reckon it’s so, then. Becuz they say she’s a witch.”