“World Saved, Humanity Lost” (Superman vs. The Elite)

I just finished watching Superman vs. The Elite, an animated adaptation of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? Although Action Comics #775 was published in March 2001, six months before the Twin Towers fell, it’s arguably even more timely now.  At the time it was written as a repudiation of the ‘grim and gritty’ style of comics, seen in Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and especially Frank Miller, who saw principled heroes like Superman as fools, too weak to “finish the job” and kill the bad guys.

No, eleven years later, it feels more like it’s speaking to America, as we’ve bombed and droned and surveilled and tortured, all in the name of protected “the good guys, namely us” (to quote the leader of The Elite, Manchester Black).

The Elite are a band of incredibly powerful anti-heroes who divide the world into “good guys, namely us” and bad guys, and then proceed to destroy the bad guys, with no hesitation, no remorse, and little care as to the consequences.  Their leader, Manchester Black, has psychic and telekinetic powers unrivalled in the D.C. Universe, and he sees no problem with using those powers to coerce, kill, or even torture, as long as his victims ‘deserve it.’

And the thing is, he’s at least partly right.

The movie, especially, takes time to show that the justice system doesn’t always work, that prisons aren’t escape-proof, and that former or escaped inmates can re-offend, often in horrific ways.  Manchester Black isn’t a straw man, or not entirely.  He’s got A point … but I think he’s missing The point.

Superman initially works with The Elite, but quickly realizes that their goals and ideals are incompatible with his.  The movie actually has time to show this in more detail, including scenes of a rescue mission that wasn’t in the comic, one in which they have to cooperate to save the trapped civilians. The movie also gives more time for Superman to explain his position: he doesn’t “fix” the world because he doesn’t think it’s broken.  He knows there is terrible poverty and suffering, but he believes in humanity’s potential to grow and help its own, without needing a caped dictator force them.

Although Superman tries to convince The Elite to mend their ways, Manchester Black is too egotistical, too powerful, and too sure of his own rightness to listen.  Ultimately, it comes to a head, with Superman and The Elite set to fight at dawn.  That night, Lois asks him if he can’t just let someone else handle it, call in the Justice League, or something.  Superman observes that people need to know someone believes in right and wrong, that someone believes in them, and their ability to do the right thing.

I won’t give away the ending, or any of the really emotional points of the story.  But every time I think about it, I am more impressed.  Superman, the ultimate action hero, confronts the myth of redemptive violence head-on, smashing through it like a cheap cinder-block wall.  He confronts cynicism, armchair-macho vigilantism, misanthropy (and the corresponding misogyny that so often goes with it).

And that’s something I hope to someday be able to do.  Not that my goal is to comic-book characters (though I’d jump at the chance to write Superman), but I’d love to be able to so clearly show both sides of something, tell a story with great economy and impact, and convey a message or premise I believe in, all the while telling an engaging and entertaining story.  And that’s part of the reason I keep writing.  I may not be there, but I won’t get there without practice.  Nobody’s born awesome, well, except maybe Superman.


Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, or, The Dawn of the Short Story Challenge

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent series of posts called “Think Like a Publisher,” about how independent authors have to, well, think like publishers if they want to get ahead and make money.  That makes sense.  After all, according to one study, half of self-published authors made $500 or less last year from their writing).

Keeping that in mind, I’ve been plugging ahead, trying to build up a list of books to publish (according to Smith, you aren’t likely to reach the critical mass that attracts viewers until you’ve got 20 novella or novel-length works out for potential readers to find), while investigating methods for building up a platform (You Are Not Alone by Karen Lamb was good, but somewhat dated.  I’m hoping Platform by Michael Hyatt will be even better).  I haven’t actually done any of the promotion methods (unless you count blogging semi-regularly), but that’s okay: until I have more than one book “up,” there isn’t really much point in self-promotion.

The thing is, I think I’m putting the cart before the zebra, so to speak.  In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer.  Do I really want to pigeonhole myself into writing action horror and urban fantasy because that’s what the first two publishable-quality books I wrote were?  Do I want to make that a big part of my online identity as a writer, knowing that if I do, I’ll have to start over with another pen name if I switch genres?  Do I even want to have to keep different pen names straight?  I already feel a little sleazy with one (I’m currently writing under my middle name, which isn’t technically a false name, but it isn’t what my friends call me, either.  I do have a couple of minor academic publications under my first name, and I didn’t want to cross the academic research and genre fiction streams, so to speak).

And, most of all, what about my conscience?

Fiction should not, as a general rule, be prescriptive or didactic.  It isn’t always as bad as the Left Behind series (you can read the Slacktivist retelling here), but “getting the point across” too often kills the complexity, the ambiguity, and, generally, the emotional impact of the piece, pushing the reader or viewers away by clubbing them over the head with the message.

But every story tells a story, and every story has some kind of premise (I hesitate to use the term ‘moral,’ because the ‘moral’ of a story could be something very immoral, like ‘torture is okay, as long as they’re bad guys’ *cough, cough, 24, cough, cough*).  Granted, some stories are disorganized enough that any premise or moral tone is unintelligible, but that’s hardly something to emulate or brag about.

But if every story tells a story, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure my stories’ premises align with my own beliefs?  Yeah, I know, I talked about this before (link), and I thought I had it solved.  I think that may have been a bit of wishful thinking.  At best, it was a patch to buy me more time to figure the problem out.  By placing Blood for Blood within the context of a trilogy, I gave myself two more books to work out the moral, and I think, so long as I write book 3 well enough, I’ll have a good one (effectively, a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, which I think will be especially effective, given that Benedict is the kind of vengeful anti-hero you’d often find in action movies).

There are a lot of sub-skills to master in order to be a good fiction writer – character voice, sensory descriptions, pacing – but the most important is finding your own voice as an author, and that means understanding what story you’re actually telling, and making sure the premises of your stories actually line up with who you are.

To that end, I’m setting my long-form fiction aside for a while and just practicing.  My goal is to write ten short stories this summer, working hard on improving specific points in my writing with each one (thanks to Dean Wesley Smith, again, for this idea).   Now, with only demanding 250 words a day from myself, I could easily take 2 weeks or more to write a short story, and it may take me longer than “the summer” to write ten of them. That’s fine; the point here is writing one short story after another, working on improving specific things about my writing, working on hammering out my voice in a series of small, contained experiences, none of which have the high-stakes stresses that come from pouring several months of my life into a novel.

I’ll be posting a bit more about my journey of self-discovery through writing as I go.  I’ll be touching on some varied and possibly even controversial subjects, including the role of profanity in realistic dialogue, sexual content, intentional/unintentional messages, and spirituality.  The point of it all is this: before I work to build up a platform, to build an audience, to get the world to hear what I’m saying, I need to be sure I know what I’m saying, and just as importantly, that I believe what I’m saying.

On Symbolism (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about symbolism lately, and the different forms it can take, specifically, how to do it well or poorly as a writer.  Of course, I’m writing this with myself in mind: your mileage may vary, I am not a lifecoach, etc… but this is what I like to read and how I like to write.

People sometimes like to read a complex symbolism into every possible detail of a story.  That’s fine, if they get more out of the story that way, but I don’t think writers should necessarily write with this in mind.  For example, Flannery O’Connor was once interviewed by a reporter who seemed fixated on the color of Misfit’s hat (in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find).  He kept asking, rephrasing, and re-asking why the murderous man wore a black hat, until O’Connor famously replied, “To cover his head!”  Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud.

That said, symbolism can be a good thing, since it can add complexity and emotional depth to a story, if it’s done well.  Basically, there are two ways to do symbolism: internal and external symbolism (I believe these are my terms, but I may be borrowing them without remembering where I heard them).

External symbolism involves the use of common symbols, colors, visuals, etc. that will hopefully convey meaning to the readers.  This would include such things as the color of a character’s hat or eyes, meaningful character names, etc.  Generally, this kind of symbolism is the only kind available to artists, poets, songwriters, and others who work in direct media.

External symbolism can be powerful, if it is used well.  Sometimes it works perfectly within the setting: Benedict wears a long, black coat to conceal the weapons he carries, a completely practical reason.  But anyone who’s ever heard Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” (which itself references John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” will recognize the similarity.  Everyone else will see the resemblance to the black cloak worn by the grim reaper, the black coats worn by gunslingers in old western movies, black as the color of mourning and grief, etc.  Long black (coat/cloak/dress/veil) represents death, but from Benedict’s perspective, he just needs a place to hide his guns and machete.

Naming children after saints was a common practice in the Middle Ages, and so we have Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana.  I almost backed away from this, because ‘meaningful’ names are just about the most hokey and overused piece of external symbolism out there.  The truth is, I couldn’t imagine any other names for them.  These were their names, and everything else seemed terribly false.  Still, I tried to stay away from anything symbolic in other characters’ names.

I believe that authors need to keep external symbolism on a short leash, because it has the tendency to get very hokey and pretentious very quickly.  However, as fiction writers, we have the power to use internal symbolism.

Internal symbolism involves things that are symbolic to the characters:  A pair of ravens follow, haunt, and help direct Benedict, so he nicknames them Memory and Thought, after the two ravens that attended Odin … and because memories of what he has lost haunt him, and thoughts of revenge drive him onward.  He buys a pair of high-powered pistols, and has them engraved with silver raven’s heads and wings, naming one Memory and the other Thought.

You could even call Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana’s names examples of internal symbolism: their parents named them after saints, hoping to encourage righteousness and (perhaps superstitiously) to ensure good fortune, borrowing a bit of the saints’ surplus grace and favor with God by attaching their names to their children.

At first this seemed to be going well: Benedict was a womanizer, but he was a strong man, a warrior, and possessed enough tactical and logistical sense to take over the knightly estate when his father passed.  Augustine was studying to go into the priesthood, since rules of primogeniture meant the elder son (Benedict) inherited the entire estate, and Augustine just got the family name.  Juliana wanted to join a convent, but had submitted to her father’s will that she marry another nobleman’s son, to help unite their fiefdoms and build their fortunes together.

Then it all fell apart.  Juliana was murdered, Augustine became a vampire lord, immortal and incredibly powerful for a millennium, and Benedict swore revenge, if it took a thousand years.  Now, Juliana is dead, Augustine is a creature of darkness, and Benedict is a vengeful, wandering killer.  That they carry the names of the saints is a bitter irony, especially to Benedict, who once believed in the church with superstitious fervor (clearly, that belief didn’t extend to sober living or chastity, but that is so often the case), and now finds himself as alienated from church and God as his brother.

Well, this has turned into an unusually long post.  I’ll leave it here, and perhaps return to it soon.  I haven’t touched on the symbolism in The Red Lands yet, and I haven’t given any advice on where the line is between too much and just right (in part because I’ve hardly “proven in” enough to be giving advice, and in part because that line is pretty subjective).  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.


I’ve heard about this from a number of places, but the source that really taught me the most is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel.  I ordinarily don’t recommend books on writing by people who aren’t currently making a living as fiction writers (Frey is making bank from writing books about writing now, and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t published any novels in over a decade), but this is a good book by a novelist who did quite well for himself for many years, written when that fiction success was still quite fresh.  In some ways, it’s a bit dated, and in others, I just outright disagree (Rewriting is not writing.  Period.  It’s editing, and not all writers are good editors.  Dean Wesley Smith is 100% right on this one).

Modern-Day Fairy Tale

First, let me apologize for the inexcusable tardiness of this post.  I try to do one every Monday, and, well, it’s nearly 2 am on Saturday, and I’m just starting this.  Life has been a bit crazy, and I’ve been spending every possible moment I could steal for writing on a new story I’m writing.

Without giving too much away, it’s a second action-horror series called “The Red Lands,” and it combines Celtic and Arthurian legends, survival horror, and the kind of world-traveling dark fantasy found in Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series.

It also draws heavily from that most ancient of horror-fantasy stories, the fairy tale.

Let me be quick to say I’m not talking about sanitized kid-friendly Disney-style fare (though I have a soft spot for Beauty and the Beast and the furry Robin Hood, and I never miss an episode of Once Upon a Time).  I’m talking about the old tales, the ones that delved, uncensored, into the known and unknown darkness, illuminating not only the evil that lived there, but the hope we have of defeating it.

As G.K. Chesterton famously said, “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

I’m talking about Orpheus in Hades; Gilgamesh and Enkidu; Inanna’s descent into the underworld; Parcival’s grail quest; Dante Alighieri’s walking tour of hell; Alice’s passage through the looking glass; Dorothy’s struggles along the yellow brick road; Gulliver’s travels among the Liliputians and Brobdingnagians; Sam and Frodo’s journey into Mordor; Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter’s journey through the lantern waste and into the heart of Narnia, where is was always winter and never Christmas; and Harry’s many trips to Platform 9 3/4.

In the archetypical fairy tale, a relatively normal person is drawn into a very different world, where everything he (or she) is, believes, and holds dear will be sorely tested.  Victory may come, but it will not be without price, will not be without sacrifice.  A boy may enter the other world, but a man will return.

The Red Lands is a fairy tale, a survival-horror retelling of the legend of Sir Gareth and the Knights of the Red Lands.  It’s the story of Garrett Maines, who steps into the dark world of his own free will, to save the life of the woman who broke his heart.  It’s the story of eight other innocent men and women who were swept along.  It’s the story of a curse, a Red Plague, that plunged one world into living death and is now threatening to spread into ours.

It’s a story of valor, of sacrifice, of coming to terms with what must be done, and still finding a way to show grace, to love mercy, to keep one’s soul together…to face down those who worship death without bowing at the reaper’s altar.

And I am incredibly excited about it.  If you have half as much fun reading it as I’ve had writing it, you’ll be a very happy customer.  Oh, don’t worry – I haven’t abandoned Benedict.  In fact, Blood Oath Book Two: Blood Guilt is waiting on my trusted first reader as I type this.  But I’m bouncing off the walls about The Red Lands.  Not only do I have another series in me, but it’s one I really like.

And Garrett is so different from Benedict, it’s amazing.  Getting to write such radically different lead characters, loving them both in all their flawed, ultimately well-intentioned selves, is a blast.

It’s good to be me, sometimes.

Weapon of Choice

In any action-oriented story, even Action Horror, the major characters’ weapons can and should be an important thematic element.  Shaun of the Dead’s cricket bat was both obviously improvised and iconically British.  Rick Grimes’s chrome Colt Python revolver sets him apart visually as both an old-school lawman and a traditional red-blooded American male.  Roland Deschain’s revolvers, their barrels forged from shards of Excalibur itself, identified him as not only an heir to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, but to the knights of the round table itself (and, of course, Robert Browning’s knight, also named Roland, from his poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came), and through these knightly roots show the sacred quest he is undertaking (hopefully by now everyone knows that Roland Deschain is the gunslinger from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  If not, stop reading this, go read The Gunslinger, and come back).

I’ve tried to continue this trend in my Blood Oath novels.  Ramsey Duvall, a vampire who was once a Musketeer under King Louis XIV, carries a rapier-blade sword cane and a hidden dagger, allowing him to fight much as he did when he was mortal.  So does D’Anton, a French-revolution era duelist, as sharp and thin as his blade.  Greta, the Viking woman, and Harold, an ancient Saxon warrior, both wield axes, befitting their muscular, untamed demeanor.  Some vampires even use guns; a gunslinger from the old west still has her revolvers, but the bullets are silver-tipped, and even they aren’t that effective.  Christie, a big man, formerly of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, carries a Maxim machinegun at one point, a weapon designed to be mounted on a tripod and fired by a crew of mortals.

But these are all secondary characters.  Most of the weapon choices just reflect their personality, and almost serve as visual flair.  The real question is, what does Benedict carry, and what does it say about him?

When the novel starts, Benedict has only one of the three weapons that would become his signature.  His first weapon is a heavy machete, like the ones used to cut sugar cane or bamboo.  It’s short, so it’s easier to conceal than a sword, it’s heavy, so it has the force to sever a head, and, thematically, it’s ugly.  Machetes are about as unromantic as you get.  Swords romanticize violence, making it seem like something from an Errol Flynn movie.  Even in relatively gritty movies like Highlander, swordsmanship still paints the character in a romantic light.  Swords are elegant, often beautiful, and remind us of a romanticized time (we probably all know the quote from Star Wars).  To date, I have never heard anyone romanticize a machete.

Benedict also carries two double-barreled sawed-off shotguns, which, at close range, create a big enough path of destruction to kill most vampires with a direct head shot, and slow many vampires down with a more prosaic torso shot.  Lacking superhuman speed, strength, and other powers, Benedict needs every advantage he can get.  He even carries at Tommygun at one point, but the ammunition proves too weak to be really effective against vampires.  He eventually replaces the sawed-off shotguns with a pair of double-barreled .45-70 pistols, a round that killed many buffalo in the 19th century.  These guns are engraved with silver ravens, and called “Memory” and “Thought,” which has personal significance to Benedict.  Large gunshot wounds are similarly not romantic.

The choice of coarse, heavy weapons that carry no hint of romanticism was intentional.  Part of my goal with this ongoing story is to de-romanticize the violence.  Sometimes, the violence is necessary.  Not always.  Sometimes, violence protects the innocent and weak from predators and tyrants.  But it never does so cheaply, prettily, or innocently.  And that de-romanticization is why I can, in good faith, call my work Action Horror, instead of Action Adventure: violence is by its nature horrific, and I try to remain faithful to that truth as I write.

A New Era

In my last post, I mentioned that Blood for Blood was the first book of my “New Era.”  I imagine that either sailed right by you or left you asking ‘what new era is this dude talking about?’  Well, here goes:

Prior to 2009, I had pretty much lost my love of writing.  I didn’t have a firm grasp on how to do plots, I spent more time rewriting than writing, and I “polished” things until they were homogenous lumps, because that’s what I thought I was “supposed” to do.

In other words, I had no story, and I had no voice.

It’s no wonder I lost my love of writing.  Fortunately, and I have no idea how it happened other than divine intervention, I stumbled across Dean Wesley Smith’s blog.  Being liberated from what writing meant, I was able to start writing again.  I did, and I found that I really enjoyed it.  I was writing, mostly longhand on paper, with very little editing (pen and paper allows for very little editing: sometimes I think word processing applications are as much hurdle as boon to writers today).  I actually created the character of Benedict during this time (Spring 2009, as I remember).

It started with a quote from Stephen Jay Gould, which I heard in a statistics class.  “Central tendency is an abstraction, variability the reality.”  I understood its meaning in relationship to the stats we were studying, but the lyricism of the quote set off the writer in me.  I imagined a figure in a “long black coat” (to quote Bob Dylan – or, if you prefer, Joan Osborne) staring down through a skylight at a scene below, ready to intervene, saying or thinking of that quote, almost philosophically, thinking how everyone he’s ever met has been, at heart, some kind of freak, “searching and yearning for acceptance, hurting others, from time to time, to ease our own pain,” remembering people (vampires and humans) he’s lost, killed, or pushed away.  Then, he jumped down into the midst of six vampires to rescue one human.

I ended up not using that scene in any of the novels, though it’s featured in a “supplemental material” novella I’m working on.  But it was my first image of Benedict, my first sure sign of who he was – part Bob Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, part Nick Cave’s man with the Red Right Hand, part Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, part Stephen King’s Gunslinger, part Andrew Vachss’s Burke, part Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, and part Christopher Lambert’s Russell Nash – weathered, but with the strength of youth, largely alone, deadly, unattractive but somehow magnetic, a man of his word to a dangerous degree, torn between protecting the weak and upholding his oath of vengeance.  If mortals have nightmares about vampires, then vampires have nightmares about Benedict.

I knew that writing Benedict’s story would require me to go places I had been hesitant to go before, to write, as Nietzsche said, in blood, and not worry too much about who might get offended.  I also knew I needed to get more serious about writing regularly.

Eventually, the other important characters joined the story.  Augustine Sanguinis, the vampirelord, and his half-human daughter Anastasia, arrived from a story I’d written many years earlier, called “Dawn.”  The Sanguinises were nice enough to bring a lot of worldbuilding with them (don’t worry; that’s the last ‘nice’ thing they’ve done).

It then became clear that Augustine and Benedict were brothers, and so the theme of a thousand-year war between brothers was brought in (I had tried to write a story about that several years earlier, but didn’t have strong enough characters to make it happen.  Well, now I do).

So not only did I finally have the right leading man, but I had all these elements and supporting characters I’d been wanting to write about in the past, but didn’t know how.  Everything was ready for me to get started.

The only problem was, I still didn’t know how to do plots.  Fortunately, someone on Dean Wesley Smith’s site told me about Algis Budrys, and his wonderful book Writing to the Point (which I talk about  in more detail here).  It was absolutely the perfect remedial text for a wannabe writer who can’t do plots.  I mean, BAM!  I read that short little book, and it was like Popeye eating his spinach; I immediately figured out how to plot the Benedict stories.

Of course, that didn’t mean I’d mastered the art and craft of writing.  Once Blood for Blood was done, I realized I’d inadvertently put a frankly horrible message in there, so I trunked it for several months.  Then I realized how to fix it, simply by adding a few scenes, changing a couple of scenes, and placing it as the first book in a trilogy.  The dark outcome, the nihilistic message, vanished when it became ‘the first third of the story’ instead of ‘the whole story.’

I still had, and have, a lot to learn.  The point is, I’m finally learning, creating, building, and writing … and loving it.

This is a new age, and nothing I wrote before will be brought forward, except as raw material.  The Blood Oath Trilogy (Blood for Blood, the work-in-progress Blood Guilt, and the not yet begun Blood Oath) couldn’t exist if I hadn’t carved Dawn and the unnamed two brothers stories up, and there simply is no comparison between the quality; Blood Oath was worth the sacrifice.

More than that, the new happiness I have in my writing (both the process and the product) is worth any past works, writing theories, or practices I’ve left behind, a thousand times over.

The Best Books I’ve Ever Read on Writing, Part Three

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, starting with my post on Dean Wesley Smith’s electronically publishedKilling the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and then blogging about Algis Budrys’s classic Writing to the Point.

The third and final member of this triad is a bit different, in that it is only partially a book about writing, by a relatively young writer who had great success with some books and not-so-great success with others.  While the first two books were (rightly) by experienced professionals, long-time writers and publishers (both Dean Wesley Smith and Algis Budrys have been involved in “both sides” of the writing experience), the third is a powerful, personal book about the nature of narrative, and finding the storyline within your life.

It’s called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and it’s written by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and Through Painted Deserts.  Miller is an openly Christian writer (the first printing title of Through Painted Deserts was Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and while I find that a plus, some of you may not.  I ask you to bear with me, and bear with him.  The exploration of the nature of story and narrative in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is worth reading even if you have an abiding disregard for Christianity.

Through A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller walks through the shadowlands of minor celebrity, writer’s block, and the fear that nothing he writes will ever be as good as or as successful as Blue Like Jazz – taking us on a first-person journey through the realities of what Dean Wesley Smith called the myth of ‘If I can ____, then I’ve made it.

Don Miller taught me to expect more of my characters, to make them deeper, and to make their narratives have meaning to them and to me.  I’m also trying to learn a few things about living my own life (my New Year’s Resolutions have survived into February, though they’re a bit ragged, so that’s something, at least).

Miller has also helped correct one weakness I sort of “took away” from Algis Budrys’s work (not Budrys’s fault, I’m sure): the tendency to make the main character somewhat passive, or at least reactive, coming into action only when a problem happens to him (or her). Miller’s description of story, “a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it,” is at once the most succinct and powerful description I have ever read.

Again, I strongly recommend you check out A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  It’s very different from the other two books I’ve recommended, but no less valuable.