Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden (2017. Flatiron Books. ISBN 978-1-250-17167-2)

Part campaign-memoir-that-never-was, part eulogy to a dead son, part intimate depiction of a bond between president and vice-president, this book was billed by some who knew I was reading it as a “tear jerker”. I shed a few tears, alright, but not so much over the story of Beau Biden, the vice president’s son who died far too young from the same brain cancer that is taking its toll on Senator John McCain (incidentally, a great friend of Joe Biden’s), as I did over the ultimate end of the story: Biden’s decision, despite promising his dying son otherwise, to not run for president. That decision cleared the way for Hillary Clinton, which, as we all know, didn’t go so well. Not just for the Democrats. But for America and the world. As I write this, new revelations of misconduct by Donald Trump, Jr. during the campaign (wiretaps were just revealed that have him meeting with Russian money launderers during the campaign), the collapse of The Orange Headed One’s misguided attempt to best Rocket Man at nuclear poker, and the upset created by America’s defiance of decades of diplomacy in the Middle East by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, all weigh heavily on my mind. But enough of that. On to the book.

Biden is a concise, accurate writer whose prose is easily accessed and whose points are easily understood. This is a precise portrait of the gut-wrenching decision making process that Joe and his family endured in determining that, in the end, he just didn’t have it in him to run. The numbers, as it were, with Clinton securing so many early endorsements, including the tacit support of Barack Obama, made the man from Delaware’s path to a convention win unlikely. That coupled with the devastatingly brutal chemo and surgery and hospice that Beu was forced to endure, yielding, in the end, not only his own lofty political aspirations but his life, make the story readable, compelling, and heart breaking. I didn’t shed so many tears as I found myself angry at God and circumstance for blocking a good, decent, and caring man from becoming our president. The result? We all know what we’ve got, and as Joe Biden would say, “It ain’t pretty.”

4 stars out of 5. A good, quick read that would get book clubs chattering.

 

On Writing  by Stephen King. (2000. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-85352-3)

I bought this book years ago for my teenage writer-to-be-son, Christian. He told me, after reading it, that it was a helpful guide for aspiring authors. That was in 2001 or 2002. The book then went on the shelf until a few weeks ago when, in a funk over my own writing career (don’t get me started!), I decided to take a peek. I’m glad I did.

Part instructional “how to” for would-be novelists, part memoir of King’s early life, writing career, and the horrific accident that nearly killed him, there’s a lot to this fairly slender volume. In the section of the book entitled “Toolbox”, King lays it all out in simple and direct terms, identifying those attributes, from vocabulary to grammar to reading other authors to narration to dialogue to description, that make good writing work, and set great writing (he doesn’t believe he’s there yet, he’s still striving to be great at his craft) apart from the merely good. Using sources as diverse as folksinger John Prine and Steinbeck and his own work, King guides neophyte and experienced scribblers through the process of developing fiction, from idea to polished story.

I have to admit, I’ve never read a King book from beginning to end. I’m a fan of his novellas Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, and his novels, The Green Mile and Dolores Claiborne in their cinematic versions but the only one of his books I tried and failed to read was It. Clowns killing children? No thanks. But then I listened to King’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR, heard her talk about that experience live when she came to Duluth, and ended up buying a collection of Gross’s interviews from Fresh Air that included King’s spot because his story is so genuine and compelling. Having now read what the master storyteller has to share with those of us still trying achieve the label of “good writer”, I may just pick up some of his work and challenge myself to see it through.

4 out of 5. Not Bird by Bird but worthy of consideration and study by all writers.

Peace.

Mark

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