Book Review: In Need of a Re-Write

For a link to buy Ghost Brother Angel, or to join in the discussion about it, go here

Don’t read Ghost Brother Angel if you’re looking for a spine-tingling tale of the supernatural that will keep you up at night. You can read this book just before bed and miss not a wink.

Ghost Brother Angel was written by Grant Schnarr, a Pastor in the Swedenborg tradition of Christianity. It has all the narrative points of a riveting tale. But it is boring. I had trouble making myself finish it. I think the reason why is that the subject matter is too close to the author.

The underlying story is a simple tale of a family so wracked by grief over the death of their first child that they snap the lid shut on their emotions and refuse to talk about him or what happened. This silence locks everyone involved in their separate trauma rooms for decades.

That’s dramatic stuff, but in this book it’s tepid. I think the problem with the writing is that the child that died was Grant Schnarr’s older brother. He himself spent much of his life living with the silent trauma of his grief-stricken parents. He alludes to the fact that his father was an alcoholic, which was certainly another traumatic thing he had to deal with as a child. As a young adult, Schnarr evidently fell into alcoholism himself. Some stories cut too close to the bone to tell.

The book gives the impression that nobody in this family talked about any of this before Pastor Schnarr forced the issue decades later. What led him to do this was a personal breaking point precipitated by two back-to-back brushes with death. 

The first brush with death was a near-crash of a transcontinental airliner Schnarr and his wife were on. They were beginning a flight from America to South Africa when the hydraulic system on the plane began to fail. After a terrifying flight back to the airport and a bumpy landing, they had to spend the night in a hotel then get up the next day and get back on the same plane and fly across the ocean to Africa. 

Schnarr relates all this in a detail-laden narrative that, despite the powerful events he is describing, keeps the reader away from the action. What’s left is a sort of I-see-the-words-but-I don’t-feel-the-pain kind of reading experience. 

After the couple arrives in South Africa, they learn that one of their sons has been hit by a bus. He has a concussion and scrapes and bruises, but is not seriously injured. Schnarr’s wife goes home to the child while he continues his work in Africa. I’ll stop here to say that this is something I don’t understand. Who would not go back to their child under circumstances like these? The action of staying on in Africa seemed as distant as the narrative itself.  

Schnarr relates all this in the same lackadaisical way he does everything else. The whole book is about his thoughts and feelings. The drama of even the most dramatic events gets filtered through his almost clinical fixation on his own reactions. What we read is not what happened, but what he thought about what happened, how he reacted to what happened, and then, his ruminations about his thoughts and reactions. 

The main storyline isn’t focused on ghosts or dead brothers or even a family in need of healing. It’s a numbing recitation of Grant Schnarr’s every little thought and reaction to every little thing. The book is the narrative of the author, taking his own emotional pulse and then reporting his findings to everyone around him, 24/7. After a while, the reading gets about as interesting as watching a cow chew her cud. 

By the end of the book, Schnarr has wandered through the woods of endless mystical explanations of everyday experiences and self-absorbed self-examination to come to the conclusion that his brother is not dead, but probably his guardian angel. He also realizes that the family needs to take the memory of this lost child out of the closet and talk about him. 

I think Ghost Brother Angel needed an editor. I’m not talking about a grammar-checking copy editor. I mean a red-pencil-wielding editor with the ability to cut the story loose from the dead weight. The story in Ghost Brother Angel is hidden behind useless detail and long-winded descriptions of things that do nothing to move the book along. This book needed an editor to hand the manuscript back to the author and say “Write the story.” 

Ghost Brother Angel could have been a fine book. The subject matter is compelling for all of us mortals and the events have enough drama to hold anyone’s attention. But at least for me, what it is instead is one boring read. 

  • Mr. V.

    Sounds like Grant Schnarr needs to read some Hemingway. I didn’t always care for the content and theme of his stories, but he was a master of creating a powerful narrative without a ton of words and exposition.

    Speaking of books, I believe I noticed an exchange of comments between you and a visitor to your blog, wherein y’all mentioned “Tortured For His Faith” by Haralan Popov. I read that book for the first time when I was maybe 10 or 12, and though it’s been many years since the last time I read it, it’s stayed with me. It’s probably one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, and it greatly influenced me.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Well … to be fair … Hemingway was a genius. I hope I wasn’t too harsh in this review. I just think Pastor Schnarr was too close to the story to write it well and he needed an editor to make him re-write and pull the story out of background and into the foreground.

      • Mr. V.

        No, I don’t think you were too harsh. The comments you made are the type of comments a good writing instructor would tell a student. And I think Pastor Schnarr would benefit if someone would do that for him, based on your critique of his book.

        I think all too often, publishing companies will publish a book by an established authority with less critical editing than they would someone with less established credentials. This is no favor for those writers, for they need just as much editing and criticism as any other writer. Just because they’re a subject matter expert does not automatically mean they have the talent to write it down.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          Absolutely Stephen. I think all of publishing suffers from the demise of good editing.

          “I think all too often, publishing companies will publish a book by an established authority with less critical editing than they would someone with less established credentials. This is no favor for those writers, for they need just as much editing and criticism as any other writer. Just because they’re a subject matter expert does not automatically mean they have the talent to write it down.”

      • Mr. V.

        And on Hemingway, yeah he was a literary genius. But his works also are great examples of how to get to the point and tell the story without a ton of unnecessary words. There’s a lot of writers today who could benefit from sitting down, reading Hemingway’s stories, and learning from his style. Hemingway often created powerful moments because he showed it to us, the readers, with few words.

        Another writer I was introduced to in College and subsequently became enamored with was Flannery O’Connor. She was a great one for creating immensely powerful scenes and stories, hitting the reader hard emotionally, sometimes brutally so. I didn’t always like her stories, but there was no doubt as to their power and intensity.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I’ve never read Flannery O’Connor. But I think the scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where they are waiting for the charge that will annihilate them is one of the best pieces of writing in 20th Century American literature. You are right: Hemingway knew how to write, and he never put anything in except the point.

  • Arkenaten

    Doesn’t sound like my kind of book. Even less so now that you’ve torn it to shreds.
    What happened to the stem cell video clip?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I scheduled it to publish accidentally. I have some research to do before I’ll have that one ready.