WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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DEAR MRS. BIRD: a novel

DEAR MRS.BIRD

 A. J. Pierce

On 7 September 1940, the [German] Luftwaffe unleashed a merciless bombing campaign against London and Britain’s major cities. Instead of breaking morale, however,  the raids only galvanized the will of the British people for the rest of the war.”

War-time London is the back drop for this coming-of-age story of young adults trying to grow up in a fractured world. There’s something tender in watching Emmy Lake evolve from a day-dreamer to a “grown-up” with a clear eye to the feelings and needs of others. Figuring out the breach from childhood to adulthood is hard enough but facing your own mortality at the same time is something else altogether.

This  quirky story about pipe-dreams and friendships is nestled among the craters in the road and the blackout curtains of war-time London. When we first meet twenty-two year-old Emmeline “Emmy”, she has a steady job as a legal secretary and serves in London’s Auxiliary Fire Service  as a part-time night-shift telephone operator. She loves the looks she gets when she wears her “smart Navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and [is] proud as punch in [her] cap with its AFS badge”.

corona 1926 typewriterEmmy differs somewhat from her closest friends. The others have jobs that take them up-close and personal to war. One working in the war office and the other involved in a fire brigade that spends dangerous hours putting out fires and searching for survivors and victims. Emmy, glides through the mayhem with a smile and a stiff upper lip. Her deepest wish is to become a smartly dressed lady war correspondent calmly describing how well the Brits are doing to defeat Hitler.

A chance glance at the classified ads of the London Evening Chronicle one day, revealed a job opportunity she thinks was tailor made for her. Believing the ad is looking for a junior newspaper reporter at the Chronicle, she doesn’t realize until after being hired, that she will work for Women’s Friend, a failing women’s magazine, housed in the same building as the Chronicle. It takes several attempts by the office manager to convince her that she is now a part-time typist for The Problem’s Page and working for Mrs. Henrietta Bird, a woman outfitted with a myopic view of life, a foghorn voice and the disposition of an irate howler monkey.

Emmy squares her shoulders and takes on the challenge but it isn’t long before she just can’t help herself from interfering in Mrs. Bird’s business. Just as she involves herself in the lives of her friends, with the best of intentions of course, not always appreciated, she secretly answers letters Mrs. Bird has rejected, forging Mrs. Bird’s signature and violating her Confidentiality Agreement.

As she fights her conscience over her deception and the fear of discovery over her letters at her day job, she receives a telegram about her fiance, and fearing the worst, is shocked to learn he is alive, but married to a stranger he met overseas. Adding to her personal stress is finding herself facing the war head-on at night in the Fire Service. The war is happening right over her head now, literally. The Germans have amplified their bombing runs and the Blitz crushes London.

Returning to her home after a long hard night at the Fire Service, she witnesses her best friend’s boyfriend return to a collapsing building to rescue a doll for a little girl he had just saved. Emmy, unable to control herself, demands he stop putting himself in danger for the sake of Bunty. Emmy and Bunty’s lifelong friendship fractures after Emmy’s continued efforts to stop William from doing his job leads to a terrible tragedy.

ARC EdelweissBut dear reader, not all is lost. Emmy pulls herself out the ashes, finds new love, and sees the world through a broader lens. She learns that life is not just all about you. Emmy and England will recover.

Thoughts

Dear Mrs. Bird is a tribute to the strengths of women in wartime. The letters rejected from Mrs. Bird and answered by Emmy are thought-provoking. The sacrifice of self-interest for a great good during wartime deserves respect and admiration. I was a bit leery in the beginning as stories about sappy goofy young women tripping over giddy visions of themselves turns me off. I grew to respect Emmy and the rest of her friends. I don’t know how I would respond under the same circumstances, but I would like to think I would have done as well to serve my country and my friends and family.

Good read.

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COLOR of LIGHTNING: a novel

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

 

North Texas was a good place to be a black man; slave or free, they were all expected to carry arms… a person could pretty well do what he liked and he could be whatever he took a mind to as long as he had a strong back and a good aim.

 

Color of Lightning, published seven years before the bestseller, News of the World,  illuminates the untamed frontier with its Indian raids, legions of wagon trains determined to settle the land, and the heavy presence of military forts to enforce taibo or “white man’s” laws on the indigenous peoples. 

This is not a made-for-TV setting with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in face-paint and feathers. It is a graphically violent story of two cultures; one struggling to maintain centuries old traditions and the other determined to expand and subjugate the earth and native populations. The book is heavy with emotion and should be read with an eye to each side’s perspective.

In the real-world of 1860’s west Texas lived a newly freed slave, Britton “Britt” Johnson and his wife, Mary. The Johnsons built a home in a settlement along Elm Creek, not far from the Brazos River, and about 10 miles from Fort Belknap. It was a peaceful place with nice neighbors and a promise of new life. The smart and enterprising, Britt, soon established a successful freight wagon business serving the civilian and military communities.

October 13, 1864, Britt Johnson was away buying supplies when over six-hundred Kiowa and Comanche Indians made a murderous raid along Elm Creek. Britt’s wife, Mary and two of their children, Rube and Cherry were among those captured. Britt’s oldest son, Jim, was murdered. The specific details of Mary, Rube and Cherry’s rescue by Britt do vary but his valiant efforts and success are without question.

Through the author’s imagination, Britt is brought to life; a man’s man- proud, brave, courageous, fearless- strong in will, dangerous to his enemies and tender in heart to those in need of compassion and understanding- and capable of mistakes.

We ride alongside Britt as he sets out to rescue his family, making an unlikely friend along the way with a temporary outcast Comanche named Tissoyo. We feel the freedom of riding alone in the unfettered  land and smell the danger that lies in every shadow and thicket.

Our hearts break as we follow behind Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzgerald as they are force marched to faraway Indian villages, suffering unprovoked violence, starvation, and inhumane living conditions. We yearn to offer support as they fight to survive; working long painful hours in the daily rigors of subsistence life with rudimentary tools and ingenuity. We feel each mother’s pain as their children are adopted by tribal families; enchanted by the simple lifestyle, the loving attention and for Britt’s son, Jube, the sense of belonging and power as a warrior. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed Indian agent, arrives in Texas, armed with good intentions and deep spiritual convictions. The newly redesigned Indian Bureau has turned over management of the frontier to various religious denominations. The Quakers have been given control of  Comanche and Kiowa-Apache territory. Sure of his God and sure of his mission, Samuel forbids armed guards to be present when distributing monthly rations of food and supplies fulfilling the agreement of a recent peace treaty. The efforts to force the tribes into submission with garden tools, calico and Bibles fail; the natives determined to maintain their territory, independence, and freedoms to their last breath. Samuel becomes entangled in the orders from his religious leaders to avoid violence and the reality that religious conversion will not happen, that war is inevitable, and that force is the only way to destroy the will of the tribes.

Samuel looked all about himself on the bare plains and thought what a miracle of endurance it was to live like this solely on God’s bounty, on whatever came to hand, in this sere country… People of great courage and fortitude, born with an unsatisfied wanderlust… And he must bring this to an end. That was his job. That was why he was here.

The Comanche and Kiowa leaders and warriors -unduly cruel, seemingly heartless, devoid of civilized morality, and terrifying to behold – are justifiably distrustful of the “Americans” and their threadbare peace treaties and broken promises.The tribes are caught between worlds; one world, that of the past, with no borders or boundaries, free to follow the seasons and the new world with its imaginary borders, fenced in properties, and self-centered landholders. The new people have brought deadly illnesses like smallpox that have decimated their ranks. The majestic buffalo, a vital resource, are being hunted to near extinction. What choice do they have but to rail against an enemy intruder?

Tissoyo said they were near the estado of Colorado… What is an estado?
The name of a place.
There is supposed to be a line nobody can see.
That’s right.
How do you make a line if it can’t be seen?
It’s only on paper.
You never know what the taibo will think of.

THOUGHTS

The book struggles a bit in the beginning but once the characters reach the panorama of Texas it takes off.

Samuel’s story is the weakest link. His character is naive and it is no surprise the tribes have no respect for him.

The unvarnished descriptions of the gang rapes, unwarranted brutality, and dehumanizing murders, necessary to authenticity, led me to the Rolaids bottle more than once.

I was most affected by the inability of some captives to return to their old life, forced by circumstance to be forever stuck between worlds.

And ending on the beauty of the author’s writing and the peace that solitude on the plains can bring, I leave you with an early morning view from horseback.

There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchman walking the periphery of darkness and call out that all is well.

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The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide

Do you know who I am?

A girl?

Yes, I was your first baby.

You were my #1? 

My mother was a cut-up, an RN, an ambulance squad leader, a mother of four and the last living senior member of my family. When she died, I popped to the top of the old age squad.

alzheimer's medical advisor coverBefore she died, she lost her marbles. All of them. But she never lost her humor or her love of ice cream and her hatred of bananas.

In spite of having 2 RNs and a certified EMT as children, my mother was able to hide her failing memory for a long time. She developed tricks of the trade so to speak. She was always sneaky with her memory so she knew the ropes.

mom and ice cream infoWe faced her fading memory and faltering physical health as best we could right up to the end. Alzheimer’s and good old standard full-blown dementia never come with a manual.

The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide comes about as close as a layman can get to a manual. I have had this book for a couple of years; negligent in my responsibility to Sunrise River Press and LibraryThing to provide a review in exchange for this advanced reader’s copy.

Now that my brother faces a severe form of early onset fronto-temporal dementia, I find myself reaching for the book for answers to so many questions. And in doing so, I remembered I owed a review, so here it is.

dementia table of contentsThis book is a gold mine of information. You won’t be smothered in fifty-cent size medical lingo that makes you feel overwhelmed.

The initial chapters cover dementia, general care information, setting goals and stresses the importance of taking care of yourself.

The heart of the book discusses 54 common issues encountered in the care of the patient. Each issue is covered in a two-page spread beginning with basic facts and highlights signs of a possible emergency, lists other important things to observe, identifies ways to handle the issue at home and when to contact medical health professionals.

sampleOne concluding chapter deals with general health issues and gives tips to accomplish the tasks, like taking the temperature or pulse of a confused and scared person, and when monitoring vitals can be helpful.

Another chapter tackles the tricky subject of medical safety and management and does so in great detail.

Quoting the book, “Throughout the course of illness, persons with dementia often require services from multiple types of health care providers in many different settings.” Each level of care is covered from selecting a primary care provider through emergency and general hospitalization all the way to full-time residential care.

The hardest chapter deals with end of life decisions. Everyone and every family must explore their own feelings about the end of life wishes of a person no longer able to make their own decisions. These pages are more of an outline of topics helpful in developing a course of action working with the person while still capable of decisions and understanding the course of their disease or in the case that incapacity precludes that discussion.

The final pages are worksheets that can be reproduced and deal with gathering information necessary before consult with a health care professional. Filling out the personal information and preferences in advance makes a stressful time easier.

I hope this review is helpful. I encourage anyone with ANY long-term illness, not just dementia, to look at this invaluable resource.

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LIES: a novel


It’s a Mummy car. Look, Daddy!
Good spot, matey… It does look like Mummy’s car.
I squinted, trying to make out the
[license plate].

It was her car.
The VW turned into a Premier Inn.
Can we see Mummy?
Can we, can we, can we?

I made a spur-of-the-moment decision
that would change my life.

Let’s go surprise, Mummy.

What’s cuter than a dad and a four-year-old playing car bingo? A kid with his first School Superstar “cerstiff-a kit”. Little Wills spots his mother’s car in traffic and his intense need to share his pride with his mother melts his father’s heart. They track her car into an underground hotel parking garage and bolt upstairs to greet her. Joe comes to a skidding stop when he spots Mel (Mellisa) in the hotel lobby in a heated argument with Ben Delaney, a neighbor. Ben was screaming at her. Joe quickly frog-marches Wills back to the car to wait for Mel.

lies graphicMel swiftly exits the elevator and never sees them before leaving quickly in her car. Once more the elevator door opens and Ben walks out.  When Joe begins to ask about Mel, Ben becomes violent. Refusing to fight the smaller man, Joe gives him a little shove to put space between them, causing Ben to trip over his briefcase and landing on his head on the concrete floor unresponsive with blood trickling out of his ear.

The stress induces a Richter scale asthma attack in Wills. The spare inhaler is not in the car and Wills is in trouble. The two crises force Joe to make a decision – get help for Ben or get help for Wills. Wills wins but Joe does return to find Ben and his car gone along with Joe’s cellphone that he had dropped in the altercation.

With Ben gone, Joe is left to puzzle out the conversation that flipped out Ben. Joe had been pressing Ben about Mel when suddenly Ben shouted, “Just leave it! You have no idea! You’re so f***ing dense that you haven’t seen it, have you?” Just before he fell.

As Joe seeks answers, his warm and fuzzy world begins to fall apart. Ben is nowhere to be found but Joe knows he is alive; he gets regularly cell phone and Facebook messages from him.

Beth, Mel’s best friend and Ben’s wife files a missing person report. The search for Ben gets darker and darker as evidence points to foul play and seems to implicate Joe. On the other side of the equation, Ben’s messages to Joe get more and more taunting and sinister. I am going to destroy you! Mel finally admits she had an affair. All efforts to verify Joe’s claims that Ben has been in contact him are traced back to Joe’s online accounts.

Joe realizes his only way out of this miasma is to find Ben. Against the advice of his newly hired attorney, Joe begins his own private search to clear his name and to save his family.  What he finds confirms what Ben had told him – You had no idea. You never saw it, did you?

Thoughts

I love debut authors and I don’t expect them to rage out of the gate with a blockbuster bestseller. It happens. Not this time. Lies is a easy read, somewhat predicable, and contains elements of mystery and surprise at the end. I found it entertaining and kept my interest. Joe was patently naive and gullible; I think the author was striving for devoted and loyal. Mel, from the beginning, was more worldly and adventurous dusted with a sly and devious capacity to snow Joe. Little Wills was adorable.

Good read for a slow day or long car ride; guaranteed not to make you homicidal.

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JELLO GIRLS

Where to begin. As the book, ostensibly, is billed as a memoir, I’ll begin with the author’s lineage.

In the beginning, Benjamin Hartwell “begat” two lovely daughters, Clara and Edith.  Clara would grow up to become our author, Allie Rowbottom’s great-grandmother. Edith would become the heiress of a huge Jello fortune after marrying into the Woodward family and surviving her husband, Ernest.

Ernest’s story begins with his father, a man with a fancy name of Orator F. Woodward. who spawned six children and supported his family as a manufacturer and selling of a variety of items that included composition balls used by marksmen in target practice. The family lived in the small town of LeRoy, New York where in 1897, a local carpenter somehow discovered a way to make horses hoofs and bones into a tasty fruit flavored dessert labeled Jello. Lacking the wherewithal to market his product, he sold it in 1899 to Orator Woodward who successfully marketed the product into a household name and, in turn, made the Woodwards another newly minted American “nouveau riche” family. The Woodward clan did great things for the town. Their fingers were in every pie from schools, churches to library trust funds, restaurants to factory work.

Clara’s granddaughter, Mary Edith Fussell had a rough childhood; not because of poverty, access to money not a problem. Her mother, Midge, was not a warm and nurturing mother; unsettled and uncomfortable as a woman stifled in world controlled by powerful men. A woman who would have preferred to be a writer to birthing children. Midge dies of breast cancer when Mary Edith was fourteen-years-old leaving her fearful of living under the same cloud as her mother; doomed to a life dictated by “the family curse”, just as her mother had predicted. A curse with as many negative spells as Medusa has snakes. She felt she had seen the curse take her mother when she was a young girl, feared for her own life and feared for the future of her daughter, Allie. She tried to outrun the curse through drugs, drink, sex, and obsession with witchcraft. Always searching for the elusive need to feel loved and wanted in a patriarchal society. Swallowing emotions, repressing and silencing her womanly voice bringing on illness of mind and body.

The curse…It was used to explain all manner of familial misfortune. Death, alcoholism, wealth and the existential boredom it brought with it.  It was, she was told, confined to men and therefore nothing for to worry [her pretty little head about]. Later she would understand…the curse wasn’t confined to men; it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her…and countless women before…

Mary’s story was very much overshadowed by several other themes -the history of Jello and its impact financially and socially on the township of Le Roy. The sweet wiggly product was examined intensely for its marketing and ad campaigns that Rowbottom feels strengthened the patriarchal power and depicted what should be the aspirational goal of every women hoping to please her man at the same time attempting to stay relevant through wars and changing societal norms.

If the intense coverage of Jello didn’t smother Mary Edith’s life, Rowbottom tosses in a mysterious “Tourette Syndrome” like illness that befells LeRoy teen girls in 2011, plays a recurring part; the impression left that these girls, like girls before them, are caught in the tangled web cast by a patriarchal society. Some thin thread alludes to Mary and Allie’s affiliation with the girl’s problems.

In the end, I felt like I was searching through a thick stew to see Mary Edith. There was one scene that physically made me sit back and say…What the? One of Mary’s heartbreaking issues had affected me emotionally. At the chapter’s end I flipped the page to an abrupt change of subject discussing the redesign of the Jello box.

There was no joy, happiness or sense that anything other than doom and gloom follows the inheritors of the great Jello fortune. I never really connected to Mary, Midge or Allie or their assertion that money was at the heart of their problems. Their curse.

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BENEATH A SCARLET SKY: a novel

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE
February 2006

At a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana…I heard the snippets of an extraordinary, untold tale of World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero. My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella’s life could not possibly be true… I [later] learned that Pino was alive some six decades later. The story you are about to read is not a work of narrative non-fiction , but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945. – Author, Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan, true to his word, gives us the harrowing story of a World War II teenage “Forrest Gump” – a child whose courage would have challenged the most stalwart adult. The story was not an easy one to obtain from him; he had buried it very deep in his memory. Pino was mentally crippled for the rest of his life by the spit-second decision he had to make late in the war – a choice to live or die for the one you love.

Giuseppe “Pino” Lella was ten-years-old when Nazi Germany and Italy’s fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, formed an alliance in 1936. By early 1943, Pino was now a pimple-faced seventeen-year-old focused on girls, food, and music; he and his brother Mimo’s attention still centered on themselves and growing up.

Mussolini’s power was waning and Nazi Germany was flooding Italy with troops and supplies to slow the Allies advance from Sicily. The rising scent of war permeated Italy, Pino’s home, and his family’s businesses in the fashion district of Milan. The boys were familiar with and comfortable around the friendly high-ranking Nazis that drove through the city and frequented local shops and restaurants. The evilness and cruelty that lie ahead still dormant in the Italian psyche.

Pino and his younger brother, Mimo, had been fortunate to have been raised in wealth. With foreign born nannies, each had become fluent in English, French, and Italian. Each summer and a month each winter were spend frolicking high up in the Alps at Father Luigi Re’s Casa Alpina, a Catholic boys school. The boys loved their time there skiing and climbing the steep mountain trails.

The trajectory of their carefree lives changed the day Pino “fell instantly in love” with a stranger on the street and asked her for a date. Hoping to meet her at the movies that night, Pino and Mimo headed to the theater (she reneged on a promise to meet him) placing the two boys at the epicenter of the Allies first bombing run of Milan. Both were able to escape major injury but their childhood ended that night.

The boys were sent into the mountains for safety to Father Re. Mimo first, then Pino later when the family home in Milan was destroyed. Pino was soon to learn that the deadly war had reached even the solitude and treacherous slopes of the Alps. At Father Re’s direction, Pino, only seventeen-years-old, spent eight months guiding a multitude of Jewish refuges and downed Allied pilots to safety in Switzerland. Every trip was fraught with danger from the mountains themselves, Nazis, and the murderous partisans preying on the travelers. It is a wonder that the unprepared and inexperienced refugees made it to safety, but they did with the extraordinary help from Pino and other guides that he trained.

Weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Pino’s father ordered him home for a family meeting. At eighteen-years-old, he would be drafted into Italian military service and undoubtedly sent to the Russian front as cannon fodder. Pino’s father and Uncle Albert had, what they considered a better option, albeit one that would require Pino to endure the wrath of the community – enlist in the German Army. With his Uncle Albert’s deep connections, Pino would spend the war in a non-combat Nazi unit.

On July 27, 1944, Pino, aghast at his predicament, donned his uniform of the German Army in the Organization Todt. Everything I have told you about Pino to this point – his courage, his strength of character, his patriotism – pales in comparison to his unexpected role as a prominent spy for  the Allies throughout the remainder of the war in Italy.

It all began at a serendipitous meeting with Major General Hans Leyers, one of the most powerful Germans in Italy overseeing Armaments and War Production and the General’s disabled staff car outside his Uncle Albert’s store. Pino arrived home wearing his Organization Todt uniform on a ten-day convalescence leave for a war injury. The General’s driver stared helplessly at the engine. Pino, grabbed a screwdriver with his good hand, adjusted the carburetor, the vehicle started, and the rest is history.  The General fired his driver and put Pino in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the war.

Uncle Albert, a member of the Italian Resistance as a secret Freedom Fighter, saw the potential of Pino’s close proximity to everything Nazi:

“You’ll go where Leyers goes. See what he sees. Hear what he hears. You’ll be our spy inside the German High Command.”

So began Pino’s life as an Allied spy. Code name: Observer

It is remarkable that this young man could witness the murders, the mutilations, the despair and hopelessness of enslaved captives and pillage of his own country and still retain his composure to relay valuable information that helped lead to the end of the Nazi presence in Italy. He found true love, faced numerous dangers, saw horrors that would scar him for life, yet, Pino held true and served his country well.

It is not an easy read. Many times I felt my stomach get queasy. But read on I did, I owed it to all the Pinos out there that place country over self.

Recommended reading.

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MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

Fri., May 21, 2004
Father, girl reside in Portland park
Portland, Oregon


“Author, Peter Rock, a professor of creative writing at Portland’s Reed College had earned a literary reputation for his skill in bringing to the forefront marginal characters who might easily go unnoticed. As Rock, and most of Portland, followed with fascination the story of the mysterious father and daughter, the writer’s mind filled with questions, characters, and ideas. Eventually he put them all together to create his 2009 award-winning novel, My Abandonment. [In 2018, My Abandonment, was adapted for film and released as Leave No Trace.]

Peter Rock’s work, My Abandonment, is pure fiction loosely based on known facts about Frank and Ruth up to their disappearance. The time after their disappearance, a product of the author’s wild imagination. Frank and Ruth have become Father and Caroline.

We have to be so careful these days.
Why? No one knows where we are, says Caroline
If you think that way, that’s when you get caught. Overconfident.
No one’s ever caught us. No one could.That doesn’t mean anything. You know better than to look to the past, Caroline.

Father is strict. He has to be strict. That doesn’t mean he knows everything I do or think. 

It’s been four years since Father arrived at her foster home in Idaho to reunite with Caroline. We learn about their life together with Caroline narrating through a teenager’s lens as it appears in her daily journal. From this vantage, we never see into Father’s past or into his mind and are left to speculate about his actions and decisions.

As we meet Father, a 52-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Caroline, they are scouring a salvage yard in the dead of night to steal rebar to strengthen their primitive shelter. If we took a bird’s eye view of their home, we would find  signs of a normal life adjusted for the hardship of living in the wild; his insistence on a ship-shape life probably reflective of his military training. In an effort to remain anonymous and undetected, both have become masters of stealth and skilled at camouflage, denizens of Forest Park.

Father, college educated, insists on daily homeschooling for Caroline; guided by a set of thrift store encyclopedias and a Bible. Father has a deep knowledge of classical authors and uses relative quotes from them as punctuation points in his conversations with her.

The pair do expose themselves to the world, traveling to town when necessary to resupply, dressed to blend in with the town folks. Father, a victim of post-war PTSD, receives a monthly disability check delivered to a post office box in town. The small amount of money provides enough income for food and sparse necessities.

But it is not long before things feel weird. Caroline tells us that Father’s paranoid insistence on caution overshadows their lives 24/7.  Even in sleep, danger seems to haunt him with nightmares about hovering helicopters. Caroline would know, they sleep together in one sleeping bag. Randy, Caroline’s comfort toy, a plastic horse given to her by Father, goes everywhere with her; never leaves her side. Plastic Randy, whose stomach holds a slip of paper with her secret secret – something she must guard and never lose, something Father must never find.

There are other homeless folks in the forest, all with baggage from the past. Father barters with one group of slimy characters; until one of them begins to take too much interest in Caroline.

One day, by dumb luck, a stranger stumbles upon their front door while Father is away from camp and surprising Caroline who’s resting in her hideout in a treetop. Her little yip and her sweaty shirt drying on a branch gives them away. She keeps the intrusion secret from Father. But the stranger leads the police to them and the gig is up.

Helpful authorities find them a home with an elderly farmer. Caroline loves the farm, their little “real” home, and the promise of attending a real school. Maybe it was the open sky and constant contact with the outside world or perhaps loss of control over his own life but Father begins to dissemble, marking the beginning of what will become many faulty decisions. Without warning, he tells Caroline to pack a bag; they are leaving. This move, absent all their supplies confiscated by the police, threatens their survival.

Father never recovers from the removal from Forest Park leading the pair through one dangerous situation after another. Throughout their trek to find a new home, Father remains devoted to Caroline, exercising his control over her life by keeping his thoughts and plans to himself. She has no other option but to follow. As Father stumbles, Caroline becomes stronger and more independent thinking. One final flawed decision by Father ends their lives together leaving Caroline to restart her life in whatever fashion she desires. And we learn Caroline’s secret secret.

Book Themes and Thoughts

Anonymity and Use of Nicknames: The importance of discretion and use of false names a central theme. Do names identity us or dictate who we are?

Violence: Several scenes are gruesome and could be regarded as Triggers for adolescent readers.

Social Norms: This slender novel gives ample reason to question what is “normal”. Do “normals” have the right to interfere with alternative living options? At what point should someone interfere?

Relationships: There is a creepy edge to Father’s relationship with Caroline. His constant use of endearments, overprotective need to control her day, and questionable privacy issues lends itself to child abuse and criminal behavior.

The ending was somewhat disappointing but I found the book overall very interesting. Using a teenager narrator keeps things simple and points out that we never really know anyone’s whole story. I have found myself reflecting about their story days after I finished the book.

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LOLA: a novel

I am a country girl where the biggest fight I saw growing up was between the neighbor’s dog and a skunk. Therefore, my review of LOLA should be taken with that knowledge in mind. I know as much about city gangs, illegal drug sales, and ghetto living as they do about milking cows. Hard to assess what you know nothing about.
Huntington Park is a ghetto suburb of Los Angeles, home to the Crenshaw Six, a small-time drug-running gang. Within that community, Garcia is known as the gang leader and strong man but in reality he hides behind, Lola, the anonymous Mexican-American “Khaleesi”.

Lola is more than happy to be seen as Garcia’s girlfriend; it’s the perfect set-up for now. Lola is hungry for more power and territory but she must wait for the right time and place to make her move – always trying to stay in the background – using her dismissive and meek womanly demeanor to disarm and misdirect.

Her chance arrives when El Coleccioista, The Collector for the Los Liones cartel, interrupts Garcia’s community barbecue. Lola, playing the meek and mild woman, dares to enter the room where Garcia and The Collector are talking to offer refreshments as an excuse to learn what’s going on. She gets away with it because, she, a mere woman, is about as important to The Collector as a floor mat.

Several months earlier, the Los Liones cartel’s largest drug middleman, Darrell King, had his warehouse targeted for a LAPD drug raid. Darrell, alerted in time, was able to empty the warehouse but he was too hot to continue business. Los Liones had turned to the small-time Crensaw Six to pickup up some of Darrell’s territory to keep their drugs flowing to their customers. Now The Collector was back with another “request”. Darrell King is back in business. The problem? He  found himself another drug supplier. Los Liones spies have learned the time and place where Darrell’s courier will be for the first drop with this new supplier. The Crensaw Six must stop it and capture the couriers.

“There will be  two million in product, a corresponding two million in cash. We want your organization to make sure Darrell King never gets his product… and that his new supplier never gets his money.
‘That it?’ Garcia asks?
“We would like you to use whatever means at your disposal to uncover the identity of Mr. King’s new supplier. You will be wondering about compensation. Succeed, you will receive ten percent of the product and Mr. King’s territory. You fail, We take Lola, we will open up her stomach, and we will pull out her guts until she dies.

The Crensaw Six fails to intercept the money and drugs thanks to Lola’s brother’s screw up. When Lola metes out gang justice to her brother by viciously cutting off his trigger finger, Huntington Park now knows who is really the gang leader.

El Liones gives Lola a brief extension on her death sentence to make things right. You would think that Lola would buckle under pressure but Lola thrives. She faces a gauntlet of problems that pop up like whack-a-mole.

Her immature brother, continues to defy her leadership seeing her more as his substitute mother growing up. Her inability to administer the painful death gang justice demands for her brother, threatens her role in the Crenshaw Six. Her drug addicted mother is kidnapped.  Her boyfriend begins to whimper, uncertain of his place in her new world and loss of his stature in the community. Amid all that, she takes time to battle a drug addictive mother with a pedophile boyfriend for custody of her five year old girl.

What did I learn? Everyone has potty mouth. The life of a drug addict is no picnic. Gang members have a very short life span and have developed horrifying forms of torture.  It was a rough book to read. I have great respect for anyone able to find their way out of the line of gang warfare and illegal drug culture.

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VOX: a novel

vox populi, vox Dei
(the voice of the people is the voice of God)


In 2017, author, Christina Dalcher, an expert on theoretical linguistics, submitted, Wernicke 27X, a 750-word piece of flash fiction to a doomsday themed contest. The story introduced the concept of destroying people’s memory of language, hence the ability to communicate, by damaging the Wernicke’s Area of the brain through contact with a chemical in food, Wernicke 27X.

Expanding elements from Wernicke 27X, VOX asks the question:VOX graphic

“What if we, as a society, took a giant step backwards, relegating women to traditional roles as mothers, wives, and homemakers? . . . The [Pure Movement] idea was to go back to Biblical roles, to separate men and women. Females are expected to conform in four ways – piety, purity, submission and domesticity.” – Author, Christina Dalcher

VOX achieves this goal by placing the chief proponent of the “Pure Movement”, the Reverend Carl Corbin, in the White House alongside the President. Stage One: All females of any age must be silenced; a period of retraining necessary. The intent, to reset women’s roles in future generations.  Think Stepford wives without language.

Setting
Washington, DC in the near future.

Scenario
One morning dawned like every other over America. Mothers roused sleepy children to begin their ordinary day. Parents headed to work; the children to school. Unaware that in the blink of an eye, Big Brother would strike and the world as they knew it, stops for every female in the United States.

In an implausible scenario, women and young girls are rounded up and fitted with electronic bracelets that limit speech to 100 words per day. The penalty of exceeding 100 words? A painful charge that will lay the offender out flat, its severity increasing with every additional word.

Edicts are enforced. Women are no long allowed to work outside the home or have access to a formal education. These drastic restrictions include access to all printed materials – cookbooks to newspapers – as well as paper and pens, a potential method of communication, are verboten. All household documents, finance accounts, reading materials must but be locked up and available only to husbands and sons.

Behind the scenes in the schools, a redesigned school curriculum advances their real agenda – instill in the young the importance of dividing the roles of the sexes.

The Patrick and Jean McClellan family, in many ways, is atypical of the rest of America. Patrick works in the White House serving as science adviser to the President; an oxymoron in an administration that derides science. Jean is a scientist specializing in cognitive linguistics. They have four children; three boys and one daughter.

brain and languageThere had been rumblings and warnings that religious extremism was spreading like wildfire and women were losing ground rapidly. Dr. Jean McClellan was too busy with her medical research to worry. Known internationally for her work on Wernicke’s Aphasia, a traumatic collapse of a person’s ability to understand or express language, Jean is close to developing a serum that will repair the brain. And just like snapping your fingers, Jean McClellen learned she was no longer a working professional.

As time passes, Jean is struggling to understand what is happening and feels helpless. Her eldest son has become dismissive and surly, her daughter is severely traumatized, and her husband complicit with the new norms. As the effects of the movement advances through society, rebels attempt to break through but are “dispatched’.

All feels hopeless, until the President’s brother has an injury to his Wernicke’s Area of the brain. And just like that, Jean barters freedom for her daughter’s silence against helping restore the brother’s memory of language. She enlists the help of a close (really close, if you get my drift) male colleague and together they learn the true extent of Reverent Carl and the President’s insidious motives. Rating this book was a hard decision and in the end I gave in to my inner voice and gave it 4/5 stars. There were some parts of the story that just jarred against the reality of this scenario ever occurring. But before anyone dismisses VOX and its premise as a pipe-dream of a few radical religious extremists; Google the “Cult of Domesticity” an early 20th century movement in America. If you are a feminist and want to set your hair on fire, look into the True Woman Movement, part of a larger religious campaign active in the US today called Revive Our Hearts or click here to review their True Woman Manifesto.

I’m not saying religion is harmful or frightening! As Christina Dalcher says, “This is a call to [women] to pay attention NOT a call-to-arms.”

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OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,
I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow,
We’re bound to the south’ard,  So steady she goes.
[old shanty song] ” Fish of the Sea”, verse 1

HISTORICAL BACKSTORY
Canada’s 500 year old cod-fishing industry ground to a halt in 1992 when decades of over-fishing of the Northern cod had reduced the species to dangerous levels. In an attempt to allow the cod stocks to rebuild, Canada placed a cod fishing moratorium along its east coast. Overnight, families living on the coastlines of Newfoundland faced unemployment and the end of generations of family fishing heritage. Most took part in a mass migration to the mainland provinces of Canada to support their families.

When the first fisherman settled Newfoundland, they brought a rich tradition of music with them.

“They sang shanties as they worked and shared ballads and tunes at the end of the day. Over time, the settlers and their descendants reworked the old music and created new songs to tell their own stories. Newfoundland music spoke of work, politics, humour, fear, hope, tragedy and the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence. . .” – (Newfoundland Heritage)

FICTION
Our Homesick Songs, set on the east coast of Newfoundland in a small fishing village of Big Running, features the Aiden and Martha Connors family. It’s 1993. A year ago, the last Northern cod was pulled from their bay. Their fishing boat, like that of their neighbors, sits idle at dock. The government sends welfare checks, but these people are proud and productive. One by one, families abandon their homes and head for the Canadian mainland for work in the oil and gas fields. They leave with a suitcase and their musical instruments leaving behind their identity, their music and their dreams.

As we meet the Connors family, Aiden and Martha are sharing a heartbreaking decision with their children, ten-year old, Finn, and fourteen-year old, Cora. It’s time to go where there is work. They aren’t ready to uproot their lives so they will share a job; one parent will leave for a month and one will stay with the children. Every thirty days, they will switch places.

As difficult as it is for the parents, the decision is harder on the children. Alone, the last family, Cora and Finn must use their imagination to fill their days. Finn, with sea water in his veins, dreams of ways to restore fishing to the village and Cora establishes her own world creating artwork in the abandoned houses that take her around the world. When all the houses have been turned into countries, she runs away from home with a plan.

“Finn, I want to show you something. [Inside the Ryan house] everything was bright yellow and pink and blue and green and red. . . There were pieces of green card cut into cactus shapes up the sides of the sofa and fireplace. . . It’s Mexico, said Cora!”

As we track that first year of the family split across Canada, the story shifts back and forth with the tide to the 1970’s. Back when the cod were plentiful and Aiden Connors spent long nights fishing on his boat singing shanties. Back when the orphaned Martha Murphy sat alone on the shore for years, after her sisters had gone to sleep, crafting fishing net and listening to the mermaid sing far out on the dark sea.

“Mermaids need to sing. Sad songs. homesick songs. And the only one that who could hear it was a lonely orphaned girl. But tying knots and listening to the mermaid sing made her feel better.” Until the day she discovers that the mermaid singing is Aidan and she marries him.

Sometimes, aged Mrs. Callaghan (my favorite character), Finn’s accordion teacher and the community’s matriarch, takes the story even further back with  song lyrics crafted by ancient mariners and fables of old Ireland.

The novel itself, moves very slowly, with gaps and pauses in the sometimes long dialogues. It’s as though the sea winds blow away any unnecessary words. During that first year apart, the lonely separation is hard on Aiden and Martha and they each stumble against their marriage vows.  Cora sets out to see the world with a secret plan to help the family. Finn, bless his little heart, is convinced that pulling the community together in song and music will bring back the fish and bring back the boats.

The ending is sweet if not long in coming.

Good reading on a rainy day.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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ADRIFT

ADRIFT:
a true story of tragedy in the icy Atlantic – and the one who live to tell about it

Author Brian Murphy

Adrift coverOn January 16, 1856, the American ship, John Rutledge, left for New York from Liverpool, with 16 crew men and 120 migrant passengers packed into steerage. On February 19, the ship knocked against an iceberg, causing catastrophic damage.
As the ship foundered, passengers and crew raced to the lifeboats – not everyone reached the safety of the 5 lifeboats.

Those souls finding a place in a lifeboat found them ” the simplest of craft. [E]ach lifeboat was about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter.” There was no mast to hoist a sail, only oars. There were no provisions (only a handful of hard tack and a small container of water). There was no way to flag the boat to standout against the vastness of the sea. There was no way to communicate with the other lifeboats or to send a signal of their location to rescuers; these were the days before transatlantic communication, satellite phones or weather planes. 

ADRIFT graphicAs the five lifeboats pulled away from the stricken ship, the question in everyone’s mind had to be – Have I just delayed my death? Am I really better off than those doomed and unable to reach the lifeboats?

Feb 29, 1856, day nine after the loss of the Rutledge, one of the lifeboats was spotted in the rough icy waters. Seaman Thomas W. Nye, frozen and nearly incoherent, was pulled from the sea by the packet ship, Germania. He proved to be the sole survivor from the Rutledge. After a desperate search for the other four lifeboats from the Rutledge; none were ever found.

Here’s the rub that keeps the book a three star in my view. Well, actually the first part is a two star and Nye’s story is a four star so I decided on the middle ranking.

Thomas W. Nye’s story is remarkable. Interviews with him reveal a harrowing and horrifying nine days spent drifting in the dead of winter with twelve other people; one by one the others die from exposure and starvation. Most died painfully quick after ignoring Nye’s pleas to avoid drinking seawater. I’ll admit I never really understood what it was the seawater did to the body and how it killed in such a short period of time. It is heartbreaking.

The demise of the Rutledge and its passengers was but one of hundreds of big and small ships and nearly 1000 souls lost to rough seas and extreme ice flows during the three winter months of 1856.  The author’s research of that time in world history and coverage of that devastating winter of 1856 is admirable; and he felt the need to share every tidbit and trace. Intermingled with the horrors of Nye’s story are the history of maritime commerce, ship designs, history and ownership of specific vessels, biographies of sea captains and their families, and the mass migration from famine starved countries in the mid 1800’s.

The choice to research the “mundane” John Rutledge and its crew and passengers highlights the disparity of books that cover renowned disasters like the Hindenburg, Titanic  or the Lusitania. The Rutledge was a significant ship in international commercial trade at the time, but insignificant to the world-at-large when placed against the great passenger ships ferrying the rich and famous back and forth across the Atlantic. The foundering of several of these high-class ships was covered much more extensively and of much more interest to the general public than a small transport filled with destitute immigrants.

To his credit, the author, in selecting the Rutledge, shows the humanity of the average seaman and the steerage passengers; those now lost souls with ambitions and hopes every bit as important as the high society victims on the opulent passenger liners.

The interjection of lengthy footnotes and history lessons felt like the interruptions in the flow of a good suspense movie by commercials. I understand that Murphy needed to add perspective and background, but in my opinion, a little less coverage would have been sufficient. Perhaps, if the footnotes were placed in a separate addendum, the story would have flowed more smoothly.

ARC NetGalleyI will say this, I learned a lot. Judging from the wide range of reviews on this book, there is something for everyone to like and I would say if you are interested in sea disasters, you will find it an interesting read.

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I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER: a novel

I love a book that makes you sit up straight in your chair with a shocking start. What could be better than an opening paragraph with fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes staring into her dead sister’s face. Olga Reyes, the “good daughter”, distracted by her cell phone, had stepped off a bus into the path of a semi and died at the tender age of twenty-two.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Julia’s parents illegally entered the United States in 1993 fleeing a violent life in Mexico with hopes of a better life. They settled in Chicago and maintained the necessary low-profile. Their Latinx culture and extended family contacts tethered by a phone line back to Mexico. With the birth of her daughters, Amà, strives to do her duty to pass along her culture and family traditions to her girls. Olga proved pliant but Julie fights her hoof and nail.

“Perfect daughters” would be obedient, respect elders, and place needs of the family before needs of the self. They would marry a Latino, raise a family and eschew a life away from their parents and ethnic community. Olga was Amá’s pride and joy. But beneath Olga’s quiet nature lies a deep secret. Julia breaks into her dead sister’s sealed bedroom and discovers something strange. In time she learns her sister’s secret and she must decide whether to reveal it to her parents. What good would it do to destroy their lives?

“Here [Olga] was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local community college. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more? Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls?

Julia is the polar opposite of Olga. While Olga spent her days cleaning and cooking, Julia escapes (literally) the house to visit art museums and the library. She dreams of college and a career. Her descriptions of her favorite books and pieces of art work will drive you to Google to find out what she sees for yourself. (She identifies with Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin.)

She feels she is holding her breath until she can become  a writer and move to New York – or anywhere that wasn’t Chicago.  She and her mother had been at loggerheads forever but after Olga’s death, Amá was on Julia’s back like white on rice. Amá determined to control Julia’s future and Julia determined to be free from her suffocating mother.

When I tell her I need privacy… she tells me I’ve become too Americanized. ‘You kids here think you can do whatever you want.'”

It is hard to like Julia; she’s every parent’s nightmare. A teenage girl. She is foul-mouthed, abrasive, outspoken, and angry all the time. She lashes out and confronts everyone about everything. Her favorite “power word” is f***.  It is evident that the anger is a defense mechanism to mask her severe depression and anxiety disorder. The softer side of Julia reveals a deeply caring person desperate to be loved and feeling unloved. The book’s powerful discussion of depression and Julia’s suicidal attempt might be a trigger for those teens experiencing the same feelings. Julia’s therapy sessions should offer hope to those same troubled kids.

In and among the cornucopia of stressor topics that derail Julia are strong characters that see beneath her bluster and guide her toward adulthood and peace within herself and among her family. She learns she doesn’t need to cast off her culture to achieve her dreams.

“I have so many choices they’ve never had. And I feel like I can do so much with what I’ve been given. What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull mediocre life.”

Recommended reading.

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STATION ELEVEN: a novel

 

The bitter tragedy
of human life
is that it is all too fragile,
our lives are written
not in the rock forever,
but upon the all too fragile
and transitory parchment
and of human flesh.

[Sermon after World Trade Center attack]

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic world that follows a pandemic of the Georgian Flu. Georgia, the Eurasian country, not the state. This latest assault on humanity arrived in North America on a plane from Russia.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, set in a burned-out shell of the United States, is a physically altered natural world, where the sun never shines and survival is cruel and heartless. This is the usual standard of dystopian fiction. A haunting story of a father desperate to retain his humanity and save his son.

Station Eleven, however, is a more sanitized apocalyptic story, picking up twenty years after the pandemic, and is set along what had been the Canadian and American borders. It is more a mystery than a descriptive survival story with cannibalistic humans and parched earth; it lightly touches on how they stay alive physically but concentrates more on the mental aspects of their new lives.

This now sparsely populated and undefined land, freed of political boundaries, is an unfettered world where nature reclaims everything man has tamed. The survivors of the nearly extinct human race, in a blink of an eye, must face the total loss of everyone and everything. The question becomes – now what?

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” 

This multifaceted and multi-voiced story takes highly evolved mankind with its technology and global reach and reduces him to nomadic life. Unlike our early ancestors, these newest nomads have evidence of a past history: rusted cars strung like beads on a broken necklace, crestfallen houses and darken light poles. The further the world travels into the future, the fewer people understand the old world and the old ways.

SYNOPSIS

In the last days of the old world, in a Toronto theater, a Shakespearean play is ongoing featuring the world famous actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear. Arthur, in what appears to the audience as a highly dramatic moment, collapses and dies of a heart attack on stage. Unknown to the theater crowd, death has been twining among their seats and in a matter of three weeks, most of them, as well as most of the world, will be dead.

Arthur had just received two copies of a comic book series, entitled “Station Eleven”, designed by his ex-wife, Miranda. Before stepping on stage, he gifted one set to a charming eight-year-old actress, Kirsten Raymonde.

Kirsten and her brother survive and join the millions of people on the run. She carries with her a few comfort items that include these comics. The struggles of the first year on their own mutes her past; the last thing she remembers clearly is the play, the comics, and Arthur.

Twenty years after the pandemic, most survivors have settled into small communities. Outliers remain nomads caravanning along crumbly roads, as predators, traders and in Kirsten’s case, a caravan of musicians and actors calling known as The Traveling Symphony.

Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.

Kirsten, now 28, while scrounging for supplies and food in abandoned houses, obsessively searches for Arthur in old newspapers and magazines. When she finds a picture or a story, we are transported backward into his life. Arthur’s parallel story line merges seamlessly and is not a distraction. Other survivors who knew Arthur including his best friend, Clark and one of his three ex-wives, Elizabeth tie the two stories together. The stories come closer and closer together finally merging at the end of the book.

Where’s the mystery you might ask? It begins with The Traveling Symphony’s stop in the community of St. Deborah By The Water; a community much like Jonestown with a similar cult prophet. The Symphony had stopped there a couple of years earlier, prior to the prophet’s arrival, and a pregnant Symphony member and her husband stayed there to have the child. This newest Symphony stop was to retrieve them and to entertain the community with a Shakespearean play.

Things seemed a little off; their friends were not there. When they found three grave markers with their friend’s names on them, they bolted town, only to discover a teenage girl hiding in one of the caravan wagons. A teenage girl expected to be the prophet’s next wife.

How far will the prophet go to recover his “bride”? Rumor had it that their friends were still alive and heading for another community known as Museum of Civilization. What really happened to their friends? What is the fate of the cast members that disappear on the way to the new community? How does Arthur’s story fit into the picture?

This isn’t a book that will make your hair stand on end like a Stephen King novel. Nonetheless I found myself curious and entertained throughout. Somehow, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, the survivors have a beautiful world in which to begin again. The sun rises and falls. The earth stands ready to help man get back up on his feet.

Recommended reading. A nice read on a long road-trip.

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WARLIGHT : a novel


by Michael Ondaatje

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals… I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen…

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war… [Our guardian was] “The Moth”, a name we invented. Ours was a  family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. [I was called “Stitch” and my sister, Rachel known as “Wren”].

It’s 1945. The WWII armistice has been reached but the war still rages behind the scenes. A piece of paper and a handshake doesn’t cut it for renegades bent on revenge.  Behind the screen labeled peace, a shadow war continues. Warlight is the coming-of-age story of two abandoned children, living in their family home, under the care of a “guardian” appointed by their mother. The guardian, she insists, is someone they met years earlier.

The narrator is Nathaniel, now an adult. Part 1 covers the time immediately after their parents left in 1945. Part 2 begins in 1959 and chronicles his career in British Intelligence where he is able to surreptitiously scour archives to search for his mother’s deepest secrets. His sister, Rachel, appears in both parts, more as a jack-in-the-box, popping up now and again to be a counterbalance to Nathaniel’s devil-may-care personality.

As I read along, I felt like I was in a Twilight Light Zone episode. The dialogue filtered just enough to obscure the depth of its meaning. Each encounter or observation creating a jigsaw puzzle piece the reader must gather to form the final picture.

Part 1 begins with Nathaniel and Rachel seeing their father off at the airport headed to Singapore for a year on a new job. Their mother, Rose, plans to join him soon. Sometime after Rose left, the children discover her carefully packed trunk hidden in the basement.  If Rose didn’t go to Singapore, where is she and what has been she doing?

The years pass with never a word from either parent. It has been a crazy time with strangers wandering in-and-out of their house at all hours. Who were these people? “The Moth” calls them colleagues, not friends. How does their mother know all these people? Or does she? How do they know this house? Nathaniel is always scavenging clues about his mother whereabouts from these people but never getting at the truth. Rachel grows more and more angry and elusive over the years, exuding an awareness of their mother’s secret but never confiding in Nathaniel or the reader.

ghostly men

Their “orphaned” lives are filled with intrigue and adventure. The two children wander the dark-side of London in the company of “The Moth” and another frequent visitor, “The Pimlico Darter”, named for his penchant for illegal greyhound racing. When Rachel drifts away, her place in the midnight runs up London’s canals is filled with Nathaniel’s girlfriend, “Agnes”.

pearl graphic

“Agnes”

Agnes and Nathaniel complement each other. They seek privacy in each other’s company in abandoned building. They believe their escapades are unobserved. Yet. There is always the feeling of being watched. Maybe that was what The Moth meant when he repeatedly told them to be aware… prepare for “schwer”, moments when things get difficult..  prepare for the unknown.  “It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

The Moth, himself, was unprepared for schwer when it arrived.

kidnappedThe Moth had parked in an alley alongside the theater when a man got into the front seat beside him, put a hand behind his head and swung it forward, banging it against the steering wheel then against the door [killing him]..someone else slid in next to Rachel and covered her face with a cloth…. [He] put the same cloth over my face…“The schwer, I’d have thought if I had been conscious.”

A hand touched me in the darkness to pull me awake. “Hello Stitch.”
I recognized my mother’s voice. [Heard her ask someone.] “How did they get so close to my children?”

Before they knew what happened to them, the children were whisked away from their current lives for their safety. They simply disappeared along with their mother. Rose took her children to her childhood home. It is obvious she cared for her children, but she never warmed to the role of “mother”. Rose Williams, known in the dark underworld as “Viola”, hung up her spurs, but not her vigilance. She knew that revenge has no time limits. She knew she faced a day of reckoning. And one day, it arrived.

Nathaniel, jumping his story to 1959, sits down in the secretive intelligence archives. He hopes to learn why his mother chose a life of peril and intrigue over her family.  He works each newly discovered puzzle piece into a jigsaw puzzle of Rose’s life. The final picture shows there are missing pieces that died with Rose; not enough is revealed to give Nathaniel the closure I think he deserved. Schwer.

If you enjoy a book with code names and buried secrets, this book is for you.

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OUR HOUSE : a novel

She must be mistaken, but it looks exactly as if someone is moving into her house.

The van is parked halfway down Trinity Avenue, its square mouth agape, a large piece of furniture sliding down the ribbed metal tongue.

Fi watches … as the object is carried through the gate and down the path.

My gate. My path.
Whose things are these?

No one expects to return home from a weekend trip to find themselves homeless, their spouse missing and all of their belongings gone. Fi knew that Bram had issues, but she never saw this one coming!

This clever and dark suspense will have you up all night reading!

Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson were separated after she found her husband shagging a neighbor in the kid’s new backyard playhouse. (His second transgression in their twelve-year marriage.) But the martial breakup was based on much more. It always is. Booze, lying, fits of anger, and speeding tickets in Bram’s case.

Anna and Bram reveal the story in alternating viewpoints. Anna, seeking to make sense of what happened, tells her story in a lengthy podcast on a site dedicated to victims; aptly named The Victim. Bram’s detailed story, written while in self-exile out-of-country, is a confessional Word document that begins with a simple bout of road rage that is compounded by one bad decision after another, speeding toward an ending you never saw coming.

The drama is revealed like a cat’s cradle, weaving in misdirection and building intrigue. British writer, John Ruskin, aptly wrote: the essence of lying is in deception, not in words.

Anna, at times, comes across a little too goody two-shoes naive. But there is no doubt that she is caught in a vortex of evil not of her doing. Bram, unable to curb his base instincts, finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, spiraling out-of-control.

Other characters latch on to Anna and Bram like leeches pushing them to the edge; some with souls dark as the devil. How do you define a friend? How do you know friend from foe? How far would friendship go if betrayed?

Somewhere in all this miasma, love lives, despite divorce, albeit now reduced to a level of caring and compassion one would have for an old pet. Humming just beneath the surface are age-old moral codes serving as a balance beam between right and wrong. Who will find a way to stay on the beam; and who will fall victim to the “dark side”?

How would you handle a world turned upside down? Internalize it like Bram; suffocating under the weight of deception? Or project it outward like Anna; broadcasting her pain in attempt to find her way out of the black hole where her life disappeared?

Look for the book in August, 2018.  A good read.

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ONE IN A MILLION BOY : a novel

 

Monica Wood
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt | 2017
Review source : Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory… certain others … move in and make themselves at home…

Ona Vitkus, 104 years old. The One-In-A-Million Boy

The eleven-year-old boy scout, never named, is dropped at 104 year-old Ona Vitkus’ door by his scoutmaster for the purpose of “doing a good turn” for a couple of months. Other scouts have been here before; each sent packing on day one after failing to meet Miss Vitkus’ idea of what Sir Baden-Powell intended in his first boy-scout directive  – provide assistance to the elderly. Ona took a look at this boy and sensed he needed her as much as she needed him.

Saturday after Saturday, the boy arrived without fail, to fill the bird feeders, mow the lawn, and empty the trash. Something about the boy enchanted Ona; perhaps it was his sincerity, his enthusiasm and his precocious observation skills. The boy’s mind was a sponge for facts and compiling lists of everything; always in groups of 10. Unable to make friends and bullied in school, he found a friend in Ona.

On one of his visits, he asked Ona to help him with a homework assignment. He needed to gather information from an older person about their life. At first, Ona flinched. She had never discussed her past with anyone, including her husband, and 104 years has a lot of suppressed memories. But she soon agreed to be taped, of course, in 10 separate parts.

This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. By the time they reached the ninth Saturday, the pair had plotted a way to enter Miss Vitkus in the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest licensed driver, taped ten sessions of her life history, identified birds, and shared more in those nine weeks than words – they found they had become the most unlikely of friends. You will fall in love with these two as they look beyond age and see inside each other.

On the tenth week, the boy never showed up. And the week after. He had dropped dead, from an undetected heart problem, while riding his bicycle at 5 am, waiting for sunrise, and listening for the morning chorus.

The twelveth week, his father arrived to complete the boy’s contract with Ona; goaded to do so by his ex-wife for his failures as an absentee father. He didn’t explain his punctual boy’s absence to a puzzled Ona but it doesn’t take a wizard to know when someone is grieving.

When Ona calls him on his silence about the boy, Quinn Porter begins a journey to examine his relationship with his son and the loss of his marriages and two divorces to the boy’s mother, Belle. As the family heals, new love blooms, futures look bright for Quinn in his life as a professional musician, and Ona faces her past head-on with their help. The boy’s presence seems to live at Ona’s house; drawing all these imperfect people together as if his spirit is directing things.

The stories of the boy’s parents and their struggles to deal with the death of the boy is alternated with the boy’s visits to Ona prior to his death. The boy’s story is never told from his viewpoint but reflected in his interactions with others; the exception is the ending of the book. An ending that will have you love the boy even more.

Don’t think it is a sad story. There is sadness but there are so many more smiles than tears. The message I took away? You don’t have to be born into a family, to form one. You don’t have to accept that you can’t improve your life. And people are remembered by the tracks they leave in life. One of my top 10 books this year.

My absolute favorite sections of the book are Ona’s taping sessions with the boy; his voice depicted by an ellipsis. His absent voice as clear as if the text was there on the page. Reminiscence of the parents’ absent voices in the Peanuts cartoons.

If you want a real treat, listen to the book. Ona’s voice and mannerisms reminded me of Estelle Getty’s feisty character, Sophia “Ma” Petrillo, on Golden Girls.

Highly recommended.

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE : a novel

Sir Percival Glyde produced a parchment paper folded many times over lengthwise and placed it on the table. Unfolding only the last fold, he dipped a pen in ink and handed it to his wife. “Sign your name there,” he said, pointing to the place…
“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.
“I have no time to explain… Besides, you wouldn’t understand.
“I ought surely to know what I am signing…”
“Nonsense. What have women to do with business? I am your husband and NOT obligated [to explain].

As a major fan of historical fiction, I decided to reach back in history and read a book actually written in the past; not a book reconstructed from research. Some time ago I was introduced to Wilkie Collins’ popular 1860 work, The Woman in White, and is it has been languishing on my to-be-read shelf. This week, I dusted it off and read it (while listening to the audio version, I might add. Really enjoyed the novel read in British accent.)

The Woman in White appeared first as a serial in forty parts in Charles Dickens’ newspaper, All The Year Round, in 1859-1860; a publication for the masses not just the elite. As the story originally was printed in those forty parts, it was necessary to create a crisis with enough suspense and tension to keep the masses anticipating the next part of the story. Woman in White, when published in book form in both the UK and US in 1860, locks all the forty segment endings into one work, appliqueing the increasing intrigue layer upon layer to the drama already established. It has never been out of print. Woman in White has been adapted for film and TV including a new 2018 BBC series.

After finishing the book, I believe that it could be been edited to reduce redundancy but overall worthy of its continued popularity. I did my best to summarize the plot below; it is an intricate story that doesn’t lend itself to summary very well. If you decide at this point in my lengthy review to move on, let me say – just read the book. Many women’s issues in 1859 are just as screwed up today.

My husband upon reading my review replied, “Good God. You actually read this book?” Don’t be turned off. Give it a chance.

Women’s Rights in 1850s Victorian England were very restrictive. Marriage essentially transferred all control from a woman’s father to her husband. Under the law, the husband controlled all property, earnings and economic decisions. Additionally, women themselves became the property of their husbands with no recourse if assaulted or mentally abused. It wasn’t a shock to readers in 1859 that Sir Percival needs Laura’s money and has every right to it.

The Woman in White was the key book in establishing what became known as ‘sensation fiction’: breathless and deviously plotted novels that [features] virtuous women menaced by dastardly cads, and the thirst for gruesome and spectacular crimes…  British Library, Author Roger Luckhurst

SETTINGS AND CHARACTERS

LIMMERIDGE HOUSE
Home to the wealthy reclusive invalid landowner, Frederick Fairlie, and his two nieces, the reluctantly betrothed fair maiden, Laurie Fairlie and her strong-willed norm breaking half-sister and best friend, Marian Halcombe.

BLACKWATER PARK
Home to the dastardly and cunning Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, the man betrothed to gentle and naive Laura Fairlie.
Other residents include the humorless and obedient Countess Fosco (and Laura’s aunt) and her morbidly obese Italian husband, Count Fosco; a man with a conniving nature masked behind a bombastic and charming personality.

LONDON
Home to Walter Hartright, a young handsome art teacher, on contract at Limmeridge House to teach Laura Fairlie and Walter’s best friend, the effusive Italian Professor Pesco.

WOMAN IN WHITE
Anne Catherick, a mentally challenged is a victim of forced incarceration in a private metal asylum by her mother, Jane Catherick, and their overlord, Sir Percival Glyde. Her escape and discovery by Walter Hartright reveals her to be a doppleganger for Laura Fairlie. The search for the missing Anne Catherick is a pivotal plot thread.

Themes and Plot
Woman in White is the complicated story of Sir Percival Glyde and his conspiracy to settle his deep financial debts by marriage to the wealthy young Laura Fairlie; a marriage betrothal established between Sir Percival and Laura’s father before his death.

Shortly before her marriage, arrangements were to provide drawing lessons for Laura Fairlie. A young handsome London art master, Walter Hartright was contracted. During Hartright’s journey to Limmeridge House he stumbles upon an agitated and unchaperoned young lady, dressed all in white, seeking directions. Arriving at Limmeridge house he learns the woman in white is known to the household as Anne Catherick, the mentally challenged daughter of a former nurse to Laura’s now dead mother. Upon meeting, Laura, Hartright, notes to himself, that Anne Katherick is her doppelganger.

As expected, romance blooms between the art student and the art master. Laura’s older half-sister, Marian Halcomb, aware that Laura has no recourse but to marry Sir Percival, does her best to break up this budding romance by secretly arranging employment for Walter out of the country.

With Hartright out of the picture, the marriage takes place, and Laura becomes Lady Glyde. The newlyweds take up residence at Sir Percival’s estate, the dark and gloomy, Blackwater Park. At Laura’s insistence and to her invalid uncle and guardian, Franklin Farlie’s relief, Marian Halcomb moves into Blackwater Park as well. Lady Glyde is surprised to find her subdued and subservient aunt, Countess Fosco, and her flamboyant Italian husband, Count Fosco, friends of Sir Percival, also living at Blackwater Park.

In his own home, Sir Percival’s true nature reverts to his dastardly conniving self, a personality change anticipated by the girls. Laura had received a mysterious letter just before the wedding warning her that Sir Percival has a deep and dangerous secret that he would kill to protect. In time, it is discovered that the mystery author is the missing Anne Catherick.

Moving rapidly ahead with his plan, Sir Percival orders Laura to his library to sign a legal document. He has cleverly disguised the contents transferring all Laura’s inheritance to him. Laura, in a moment of obstinacy, refuses to sign it until she is told what the document contains. Sir Percival, in the presence of witnesses, informs her that as her husband he doesn’t have to tell her anything.

Percival, furious at his wife’s continuing refusal to sign over her inheritance and terrified of his debt holders ability to destroy his life, turns to his cunning friend, Count Fosco, to work toward an unsavory solution.

The plot thickens. Marian Halcomb’s constant influence over Laura becomes a thorn in the men’s side and Laura, cowed by circumstance, is reduced to a simpering shell.  The hunt is on for Anne Catherick by everyone; the ladies, to learn Sir Percival’s secret, and the men to keep Anne from sharing Percival’s dark secret.

As Percival begins to disintegrate, Count Fosco steps up his role in locating Anne Catherick  by tracking Anne and Marian’s every move. He is convinced she will find Laura and tell her the truth about Percival. When his theory proves true, Anne is discovered talking to Laura, he too, notes that Anne Catherick is Lady Laura’s doppelganger and there is a change in plans!

About this time, Walter Hartright reenters the picture having returned from his overseas assignment. Upon learning about Laura’s cruel marriage, steps up to protect Marian and Laura.

Count and Countess Fosco execute their cruel grand scheme by telling Laura she would be joining her sister, Marian, at Count Fosco’s home in London. Instead, Laura is drugged and taken to the mental asylum dressed as Anne Catherick. Meanwhile, Marian is still at Blackwater Park recovering from typhus; hidden in a secluded part of the estate.

A sickly Anne Catherick is taken to London dressed as Lady Glyde. A forgery passes along the inheritance to Percival but things begin to disintegrate when Anne suddenly dies. She is buried as Lady Laura Glyde back in Laura’s childhood home of Limmeridge House.

Marian, recovered, goes to the mental asylum to ask Anne what she knew about Laura’s death and is startled to recognize a drugged Laura. Marian is thwarted at every turn to restore Laura back to life but eventually is successful.

Meanwhile, Sir Percival, now in command of the inheritance, has bigger problems when proof of his dark secret is discovered by Walter Hartright. Percival rages throughout the countryside trying to destroy evidence; in the end he is struck down by karma.

Count Fosco, buoyed by successfully completing his mission to help Percival, sails off to ports unknown, where he too is struck down by unforeseen justice.

And as you expect, Walter, Laura and Marian live happily ever.

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THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

 

Jane enters the frame – but walking slowly, strangely.
Staggering. A dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse;
even as I watch, it spreads to her stomach.
Her hands scrabble at her chest.

Something slender and silver has lodged there,

like a hilt. It is a hilt.

Anna Fox has been landlocked in her upscale Manhattan apartment by agoraphobia for nearly a year. The novel opens on a Sunday and covers a two-week period in her life.

You might think that it’s not a real hardship to be stuck in an opulent 5-story home, but sometimes the biggest prison is in our minds. Her social life is obviously constrained to visitors and online friendships. Her daily routine includes visits to Agora, a safety net website for others with agoraphobia. She uses her background as a child psychologist as a crutch to help herself as she helps others. Her online handle is appropriately, thedoctorisin. Nice background info about that issue.

Anna has very little contact with anyone in the neighborhood; most are unfamiliar with agoraphobia. She’s thought to be weird, strange, crazy and a drunk … you name it. She does have a physical therapist and a psychiatrist who treat her at home, and an obsessively private tenant renting the basement; but drop-in visitors? Not so much.

Anna is separated from her husband, Ed and their daughter, Olivia. She’s not completely out of their lives; she talks to them every day, usually in the evening – but not before she has fortified herself with several bottles of wine. While speaking to them recently and staring out the window, she observes a family moving into a vacant apartment across the street.

A short time after they moved in, Anna was surprised by visits, one by one, from all three members of the Russell family, the new neighbors in apartment 207. She notes, always in her inebriated mind, all is not right with these people! Ethan, the teenage son, seems depressed, Jane has a secret side, and Alistair is controlling.

One evening, properly stewed on booze and drugs, Anna sees Jane in the window slowly stagger backwards with what appears to be a knife in her chest. She falls out of sight as a dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse. Frantically, Anna calls authorities to report a murder!

The police come to interview her. They have already responded once to an assumed problem at the Russell’s reported by Anna that turned out to be nothing. Furious that no one believes her, Anna begins a campaign to find the truth.

Here’s where the story bursts alive on more than one front…. her personal issues with her husband and the battle to prove Jane’s murder will have you holding your breath.

I hesitated to give the book 4 stars. At times the constant lengthy discussion of her addictions took away from the heart pounding part of the plot. Anna seemed to me to be a very weak character often coming across as whimpering. But in the end I did because there were times that I actually found myself nearly hyperventilating to keep up with the drama. Another plus was Anna’s obsession with classic silent films; you might want to view these yourselves.

Finally, the ending will throw you for a loop.

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LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES: a novel

LOVE AND
OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES

by JAMIE FORD

In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.

Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.

The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.

Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.

Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.

His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:

 . . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.

Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.

Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.

As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?

The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.

Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.

It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.

You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.

Recommended reading.

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SILVER SPARROW: a novel

ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
340 pages
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY

★★★☆☆

James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t  plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.

His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.

James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh.  “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.

Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.

Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter  – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.

Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice.  The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.

James Witherspoon’s life explodes the  same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her.  The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.

The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.

With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:

Don’t you love me?

It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.

What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.

Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.

But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .

A good read.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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TO THE WHITE SEA: a novel

 

★★★☆☆

 

MARCH 18, 1945
TOKYO, JAPAN

We are going to bring it to him, the Colonel said with satisfaction.
Fire. This is what you’ve got to look forward to.
This is what he’s got to look forward to.
Tokyo is going to remember us.

black quotation-mark.jpgWe were close to the bomb line… there was that tension you always feel…when the time comes close to drop. Major Sorbo circles us…and I could see two fires [below us]…where we had hit the city.

The next thing was not fire, though later I realized…had fire in it…The inside of the plane had exploded…Then the nose went down, and I knew we were completely gone; everyone on the flight deck was probably dead. The first thing [I felt] was the cold. There’d been a loud pop, a crack like a rifle, and I was sure I had been hit…the chute was open. [As I floated closer to the ground], the smoke came past me. [I landed and thought], I am now in the land of my enemy.     (Sergeant Muldrow, B-29 Tailgunner)

Like every good bibliophile, I cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping. I was surprised and intrigued to find To The White Sea by James Dickey. I knew about Deliverance but I didn’t realize that he wrote other novels; he usually hung out in the library in the 20th Century American poetry section.

The book is a one-man show. Sergeant Muldrow’s story in the opening chapters felt a little stilted as we were given his “Naked and Afraid” background in specific detail. The man has survived on his wits and skills since early childhood with only his “Jeremiah Johnson” father for company in the harsh Brooks Range of Alaska. He operated under one theory – trust no one -ever. Expect the worst to happen any second and always be prepared.

High above Japan, the puffy clouds reminded Muldrow of arctic mountains in Alaska where everything is a sea of white. To survive in that environment requires camouflage; like the snowshoe rabbit, you must become invisible. As he escapes the burning plane and parachutes toward a fiery hell on the ground he faces certain death if captured, he has become the prey. Like the rabbit, he must adapt.

His first days on the ground were pure hell as he blended into the city’s fiery devastation; being a part of the exodus yet always aware of his status – the enemy. He takes account of the Army issued survival kit and finds a silk topo layout of Japan leading north to Hokkaido – cold, mountains, snow. He knows where he must go.

The middle chapters take Muldrow further and further away from Tokyo into the poverty stricken farmlands. As he gains confidence, he is transitioning into a solo predator. Like any beast of prey, he glides seamlessly through the countryside, always on the lookout, always prepared to kill to meet his immediate needs – clothing, food, shelter – always changing his outward appearance to match the locals. Never concerned, never giving a thought to the hapless souls lying dead in his wake.

To The White Sea is a dark story filled with graphic violence. As Muldrow enters isolated and wild land areas, he encounters kindred souls seeking solitude and a reclusive lifestyle. He spent time with them, learning new skills like sewing winter clothing from skins. But in the end, when their usefulness was exhausted, he dispassionately murdered them and moved on.

In the final pages, Muldrow, for the very first time, expresses the slightest bit of humanity and regret. He has made it to the white sea and made a friend of an old man. Together they live in a ramshackle shack hunting daily with the old man’s trained eagles. Life is good. . .until. The day he has expected all his life has arrived. The sounds outside confirm the hunt is over.

It was my time now. I laid my knife in the snow and stood up straight. They fired . . .and the whole ridge sparked and crackled. A bullet went through me but didn’t touch me. It was happening.. . .I made it to where I wanted to be. . . The snow came back .  . .and I will be everywhere in it from now on.

Was this suicide by soldier? Did he mean for death to find him under his own terms?

To The White Sea never garnered the support of Dickey’s first book, Deliverance. Overall, I found it impossible to connect to a man completely hollow of morality. His life is a devolution from civilized man to beast of prey; a dispassionate killer.

The intense descriptions of war and the depth of Muldrow’s inhumanity left me feeling ill. On the other hand, the beauty and silence of winter filled me with peace.

Read it if you are into the dark part of a man’s soul.

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MARY COIN: a novel

 

MARY COIN : a novel

Author: Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press | 2013
322 pages
Fiction|Great Depression|Migrant Farmers
Personal copy
Rated: ★★★★★

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In 1936, Dorothea Lange,  a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, threaded her way through a crude “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, California. She noted an unfortunate overnight freeze had destroyed the pea crop leaving hundreds of migrant families without work. The forlorn workers faced yet another bleak turn in their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this tragic scene, Lange spotted Frances Owens Thompson surrounded by her children and nursing her youngest child. Her series of six photos of the Thompson mother and her young family, that included the now world-famous image entitled, “Migrant Mother” was the capstone of her Depression Era work and did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression.

Marisa Silver crafted Mary Coin based on this iconic photograph (shown on the book’s cover) useing many of the authentic facts of Frances Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange’s lives. In this personalized piece of speculative fiction, Frances becomes Mary Coin and our photographer is known as Vera Dare. Our third main character, Walker Dodge, is a modern day inquisitive professor, who finds a copy of Migrant Mother tucked away secretively in his deceased father’s things. Silver tweaked the known facts and inserts Walker Dodge’s quest to discover his father’s secret in just the right way to create a triad of characters that slowly lead toward an answer.

We learn that no matter how powerful a photograph can be, it is nothing more than a split second of a person’s life freeze-framed for posterity. A single photograph does not reveal a person’s life; only a moment stolen from a full life.

By choosing to focus on each individual’s strengths and weakness amid the deplorable times. we see that, regardless of social status, filthy rich or dirt poor, everyone suffered and survived as best they could.

This is not a maudlin story; it is a tribute to the internal strengths we as humans possess. Mary would be the first to tell you that you just pick yourself up and move on when life slaps you down. Life is not fair and never will be. The past is gone and the future is ahead. A single moment, trapped on film, does not tell anything about a person who lives through the flood of seconds comprising one’s whole life.

Shortly before her death as an old woman. Mary enters a museum and sees herself in the famous photograph. Standing there, she hears someone say, “You can see it all in her face.”

What all? What do you see?

She was a ghost in the room. [Like all] the other ghosts in the photographs lining the walls. . .None of them had known that one day they would be hanging in this museum, a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back.

Mary turned again to face the picture and saw her reflection in the glass… Two women named Mary Coin.

Highly recommended reading.

 

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WHITE HOUSES: a novel

On a recent trip to Germany, I took two books with me for the long flights to and fro: White Houses by Amy Bloom and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Loved them both.

My reviews usually begin with a quote and I had one all picked out for White Houses, when serendipity intervened. While preparing my review of Silver Sparrow, I discovered a recent interview by the New York Times with Tayari Jones in which she was asked:

[What was the last book to make you cry?]

“White Houses,” by Amy Bloom. At the center of this great American novel is the great American love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Eleanor is the name everyone knows, but after this book Lorena will be a name you will never forget. Love is always hard and always worth it.

That sums up the big picture nicely.

WHITE HOUSES

by AMY BLOOM

RANDOM HOUSE | FEB 2018
241 pages
FICTION : PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
ADVANCED READER COPY FROM NETGALLEY

★★★★☆

I am willing to bet that today’s young adults know very little about our longest serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served 4 terms in office (1933-1945).

Eleanor’s funeral in 1962, when I was 14 years old, honored a woman who could be known as the original Super Woman”. As First Lady, she fought tirelessly for labor and civil rights reform and was at the forefront of the women’s movement. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she rose to the challenge of comforting the nation through action and words; never sitting still, always on the move, ever present where ever needed. Her flamboyant husband’s  larger than life personality was balanced by this engaged strong woman capable of challenging the world to seek its better angels.

In 1978, while commissioned to write a biography about Mrs. Roosevelt, Doris Faber (Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World and Life of Lorena Hickok, E. R.’s Friend) unearthed over 3000 letters written by Eleanor to her friend, Lorena Hickok. These letters, donated to the FDR library by Hickok, revealed a previously unknown and deeply intimate relationship between the two women. An unlikely bond; one born to abject poverty and the other to wealth and privilege. The surprising correspondence led to a deeper look at Lorena Hickok’s life story and to this surprising side to the First Lady.

Amy Bloom’s White Houses, is a fiction that turns, what was known about the FDR White House, in-side-out. The story is narrated by Lorena Hickok.

Using historical records and the Hickock letters, Bloom reveals the dichotomy of the official and the personal lives of the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Roosevelt years. With a wink and a nod, Franklin enjoyed close relationships with other women but no one gave a thought about two old women sharing time in each other’s company. Their lesbian relationship, housed in the most public of all homes, was fraught with danger of detection. Their discovery could disastrous in so many ways.

The book opens on April 27, 1945 in New York City. The radio blares, sharing news from the European war-front. It has been two weeks since President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Lorena Hickok is expecting company; a friend that sent her away 8 years before and two weeks ago summoned her. Lorena wonders what to expect after the long absence? She has missed her friend and has longed for her company over the years. Has her friend missed her?

She flits about apprehensively checking every detail – the vases of flowers, the music, the food- will remind her guest of favored times together. The door bell rings and an ashen faced new widow and displaced First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt enters the room. Speechlessly she stumbles through the front door ignoring Lorena’s greetings and  heads toward the bedroom shedding hairpins and clothing as she goes. She calls out, “Oh, Hick. If you don’t hold me, I’ll die. Lorena thinks, here is the elephant in the room. Is she just being dramatic or does she really need me?

The atmosphere between the two women is different. Eleanor is not her usual self. Her grief hangs over her like a shroud. They will spend the next three days together, safe from prying eyes, safe to share their secret life. Over the next three days, Lorena does what she has always done: listen, encourage, and allow Eleanor to be free to let down her guard.

The setting stays in New York City, but almost without realizing it we travel seamlessly back and forth through time in Lorena’s memory. We cry with her when she is raped by her father. We marvel at her time in the circus (a fantasy addition to an otherwise accurate story). But without a doubt, the most endearing and yet heartbreaking memories are of her long-term relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a fly on the wall, we listen to the two women enjoy each other’s company. The first four years are passionate that slowly, over the years, becomes a slow burn that never dies.  As the glitter of Roosevelt life gilds Lorena’s life, she is always aware that she is a shadow in Eleanor’s life. When she is sent away, she tries to forge a new life, make new friends, but she never found her own identity and purpose; she never stopped obsessing over her one true love.

As this all sounds like doom and gloom, I can not end without assuring the reader that this book is full of life. Without a doubt, Lorena’s smartyalecky demeanor is refreshing staged against pomp and circumstance.

When Franklin was governor of New York, Lorena, then a prominent reporter, interviewed Eleanor.

I sat right next to her . . . in the old-fashioned drawing room. . .and looked at her cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, Who in the name of Christ dressed you.?

I loved the book. Recommended reading. Would make a great book club read.

Addendum:

Excerpt from 2016  New York Post article entitled: Eleanor Roosevelt’s “mistress” died heartbroken and alone

After Eleanor’s death in 1962, Hick lived for 5½ more years, worn down by blindness, arthritis and loneliness. She finally died of complications from diabetes at the age of 75.

With great ceremony, Eleanor was buried alongside Franklin at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate in upstate New York; in addition to the ambassador to the United Nations and two former presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy attended her funeral, where she was remembered as “the First Lady of the World.”

In her anonymity, Hick was cremated. Her ashes sat on a shelf of a funeral home for 20 years before being interred in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Rhinebeck.

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ITZEY’S TAKING A SPRING BREAK

Enjoy the Spring Flowers

It’s that time of year when the spring flowers are poking their heads through the weeds and dead growth  I ignored all winter. Time to get outside and freshen up the yard.

Something about digging in the dirt and tidying up the yard helps tidy up my winter stalled mind as well.

I love the sound of rain on my tin roof but I don’t need to hear it every day. It has rained, and I don’t mean drizzled, all winter.  The leak on our back porch has blossomed from plop plop drops to a permanent spillway.

So it is time to put down my books for awhile, pick up my garden tools, badger my husband to deal with household repairs, and take a vacation.

I will return online in May and look forward to checking out what everyone else has been doing.  The cabin will have a pretty new pressure wash and fresh staining, the back porch with have a new roof, and my mind will be freshly fluffed and ready to read.

Here are some titles I have lined up to read when in the near future.

Brass, A Novel by Xhenet Aliu

Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of  Discovery by Scott Kelly

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Tumbling Sisters by  Juliette Fay

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FOLLOWING ATTICUS

A friend of mine who is not into mountains or nature or the simple blissful feeling that comes from wind in your face once asked me, ” What’s the big deal? You get to a mountaintop and you see the same view you did from the last mountaintop. I don’t get it.”

While I was looking out on . . . the forty-eight [mountains] we’d encountered. . . I had my answer. How many times can you look upon the face of God?    Tom Ryan, Following Atticus

FOLLOWING ATTICUS

FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG,
AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP

Much like a good country western song packs as many red-neck images as possible in the lyrics, Tom Ryan in Following Atticus reveals a full life packed with heart-wrenching drama complemented by the discovery of the healing nature of the natural world and the power of friendship.

This memoir of an out-of-shape newspaper reporter and his dog, Atticus, is a love story. A love story that opens as Tom Ryan, eleven-years into a one-man community newspaper operation, has grown weary of gathering gossip and political dander in his adopted small town. He struggles with a fractious relationship with his father and yearns to find a source of peace and harmony within himself to counterbalance all the stress in his life.

The story begins when Tom is asked to help find someone willing to adopt an elderly dog no longer wanted by its family. After failing to find anyone else, he reluctantly agrees to adopt the dog himself.

For days we stared at one another thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Although Max was with Tom for a short time, it was time enough for Tom and Max to bond; to share a friendship and to experience love. Tom was ready to take the leap into the next chapter of his life.

Maxwell Garrison Gillis had opened a door,
and Atticus Maxwell Finch was about to walk through it.

ATTICUS TILTED

Together, Atticus and Tom would take the world by storm. The tiny Miniature Schnauzer with an independent streak and the dispirited out-of-shape human became bonded by respect and an intuitive language known and understood only to them.atticus perched.png

A serendipitous opportunity to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire opened a new window in the lives of this oddly paired couple. Day after day, year after year, this unlikely duo forged ahead climbing unimaginably difficult summits in the most extreme winter weather. Their adventures are accurately and vividly described. I’ve been there.

MN and SS on washington[A friend asked me if the winter climbs were actually as arduous as depicted – I assured her they were. See me on Mount Washington with my husband, grasping the summit sign to avoid being blown over.]

Tom found he had deep personal reserves both mentally and physically. He learned he was capable of achieving the nearly impossible.  It never got physically easy for him. But he never quit. Plagued by life’s sorrows and unfair burdens, Tom found the strength to overcome emotional defeat while alone with his thoughts in the isolation. His lifelong fear of the dark traveled with him in the stark dark of night surrounded by things that go bump in the night. He survived these terrors because he wasn’t alone – he had Atticus for company and comfort.

For Atticus, his role changed in the mountains. In town, he played by civilization’s rules; he allowed Tom to be his guide. Surrounded by the natural world, Atticus took charge, roles reversed. Puffed-up proud, the “Little Giant” strode ever onward, stepping instinctively toward each summit, seemly oblivious to the possibility of failure. With one eye on Tom and the other on the way ahead he led Tom ever on and ever upward in more ways than one.

Off the mountain, the emotional rifts and causalities continue in Tom’s life.  Life is a line graph and not every point on the grid is an uptick. There are some seriously Debbie-downer moments; this is true life not fiction. You can’t write away reality. Have tissues nearby.

I was awed by the compassion and affection of strangers when life hands the “guys” a life-altering blow. I was gripped with a sense of Déjà vu over Tom’s dysfunctional childhood. And I share the need to become one with the universe; to be part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion, I  found this book fabulous for so many reasons. There’s something for everyone – small community dynamics, dealing with aging parents, child abuse, puppy farms, mountain climbing, geography, weather . . . et al.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

 

 

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THE CHALK MAN

CROWN PUBLISHING | 2018
288 pages
FICTION : PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE/COMING-OF-AGE
ARC FROM PUBLISHER AND NEGALLEY

★★★★☆

When you get old and start falling apart, there are changes in your reading habits. When you are young, you have the stamina to stay up all night and read a good book then go to work. I am now at the age where I don’t have to do that! Instead, I spend the lost hours sitting in a doctor’s waiting room reading.  I’ve been saving The Chalk Man for just this kind of moment; and I wasn’t disappointed in my decision when the opportunity showed itself this week.

PROLOGUE 

The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves. Her almond eyes stared up at the canopy of sycamore, beech and oak, but they didn’t see. . . A short distance away, a pale hand stretched out from its own small shroud of leaves, as if searching for help, or reassurance that it as not alone. . .

The Chalk Man will disappoint readers that are looking for a hair-raising blood curdling serial murder read.  The story reminded me more of  Stand By Me or Lord of the Flies. There are mysterious deaths that seem linked, and a myriad number of unexplained and aberrant events between the children, town bullies and adults with serious personality defects. Twists, squirms, and turns more than sordid and graphic murder scenes.

The story is told by Edward “Eddie Munster” as an adult in 2016 and flashes back and forth to 1986. Hence, the lives of the town’s residents and Eddie’s friends are slanted by his view and opinions. We learn more about Eddie simply because he shares more about himself than he does the others. Through him, we experience the hormonal throes of early adolescence and budding sexuality, observe his proclivity for shoplifting and collecting souvenirs and oddball items, and sense the anguish of a child/man slightly out of tune with world.

The relevance of the  title, Chalk Man begins with Mr. Halloran, an albino teacher who attends “Fat Gav’s” birthday party and gifts him with a box of chalk sticks. Learning that Mr. Halloran used chalk messages to secretly communicate with others, the children devise their own secret code – until one day – someone outside their group discovers their code.

I am reluctant to discuss the story in deeper detail; it will spoil the read. But I will toss in a few thoughts and prose that have stayed with me.

If you see something, say something. If you know something and keep it to yourself, you will be haunted by the outcome of your cowardice. Every action has a consequence; for good or for bad. No one is who they seem. No one is perfect. Everyone has character flaws. Life is not fair.

Eddie’s father, dying early of Alzheimer’s, left him with an important thought and I will share it with you. You will need to take this tidbit of wisdom with you into the read:

Never assume, my dad once told me. To assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Recommended reading for those that like a murder mystery without stomach churning violence. There’s just enough tough stuff to wince but keep going.

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THE GREAT ALONE


Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans In American Society

Click for more information about their abysmal homecoming reception and lack of medical and psychological help.

Sergeant Allbright –

You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan.

My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that.

In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place [Vietnam], he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska.

It isn’t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can lives off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the lower Forty-Eight. . . . . . . .

Ernt Allbright, unlike his friend, Bo, did return to his family after years in a Vietnamese POW camp; scarred in so many ways. He returned to countrymen projecting their hatred of the war on the emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam War veterans. Vets returned to families that became fearful of their soldier experiencing frightening “depression, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and paranoia.”

Ernt and Cora Allbright along with their daughter, Leni (Lenora) represent a family struggling to make a postwar life together; and failing miserably. The happy go-lucky Ernt failed to return from Vietnam. In his stead, a surly, distempered shell of his former self arrived. Unable to tame his demons, Ernt has developed a chronic history of unemployment and alcohol abuse. But these failings are not the worst of his new personality traits. When something triggers his inner demons, Cora, adept at hiding the abuse from Leni,  becomes his punching bag. Much like other abusive marriages, a sweet honeymoon and serial apologies diminishes the beatings. The cycle repeats itself over and over; exacerbated by the dark of night.

For Ernt, Earl Harlan’s letter and offer of a remote refuge seems like the perfect answer to all his troubles; a promise of brighter future. A place where he can make a life without interference of any kind. A place he is sure that he can be free of those things that make him fly off the handle.

“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. . . We have dreamed of it for years, Cora. Live a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free.”

With little regard for the ambivalent feelings of his wife and child, Ernt packs the family into their beat-up VW bus, hoists a flag -Alaska Or Bust – and heads to what he sees as nirvana. A family about as prepared for the harsh subsistence life as a cub scout leading an Everest excursion.

Arriving in Alaska and dumbstruck by the vastness and the beauty, the family stops at Large Marge Birdsall’s Trading Post/General Store looking for directions to their new home. Ernt announces proudly that they are going to be living full time on the island at Bo Harlan’s old place! It doesn’t take long for Large Marge, a former big city attorney, to spot blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance as well as two women not excited about living in Alaska.

Marge is also aware that Bo Harlan’s run-down one room shack is “on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on [the Kenai] peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you.”

The isolation and the catastrophic condition of the land and buildings move the locals to provide advice and help; they know the Allbrights have a slim to none chance of surviving the fast approaching winter. In time and with guidance from new friends, Cora and Leni take to the subsidence lifestyle like a duck to water. Ernt, on the other hand resents the interference and his anger feeds his paranoia and violent nature. As Ernt reaches a new boiling point he discovers that Bo Harlan’s father and brothers are survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island.

Back at the homestead, Cora finds that living in a one room shack won’t allow her to hide Ernt’s beatings. The truth of her parent’s marriage is exposed and promises only to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does.

Leni looked at her mother’s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood.
You’re saying it’s your fault?
You’re too young to understand. He didn’t mean to do that. He just – loves me to much sometimes.
He MEANT it.

The island folks have a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt that sets off a slow-motion fire storm. The years pass. Leni falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son and fumbles through adolescence in a one-room school house. Cora finds life at the extremes suits her. Ernt, away at the oil fields sends home money and returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life. Cora and Leni face the truth that someday they are going to have to make life altering decisions. . .But not yet says, Cora. I love him.

Related imageThe months he is away, life on the island seems like the nirvana he envisioned to Cora and Leni and the locals. These years are the happiest of times in the book. Right up until the day Ernt gets fired from the oil fields and arrives home to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls.  As he implodes, all the is good inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole and all the evil releases his Kraken.

I’ll leave what happens to your imagination. I want to make sure that all readers take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.

I was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni. I fell in love with Large Marge and her oversized personality and big heart.

So many themes, alcoholism, untreated PTSD, domestic abuse, abortion, subsistence living, Alaska, sense of community and more. Any book club should enjoy picking the book apart!

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

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THE IMMORTALISTS

THE IMMORTALISTS
Chloe Benjamin

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 2018
346 pages
FICTION : Family | Fortune Tellers
ARC: G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

It’s a sticky summer day in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1969. Eleven-year-old Daniel Gold overhears a conversation about a mysterious fortune-teller while standing in line at Shmulke Bernstein’s restaurant. He excitedly races home to share the news with his three siblings: 13-year-old Varya, 9-year-old Klara, and 7-year-old Simon.

EXCERPT From Prologue . . .

What exactly does this woman do?
I told you. She has powers.
Like what?
What I heard is she can tell fortunes. What’ll happen in your life – whether you’ll have a good one or a bad one. And there’s something else. She can say when you’ll die.
That’s ridiculous. Nobody can say that.
And what if they could?
Then I wouldn’t want to know.
Why not?
Because. What if it is bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?
Then it’d be better to know so you could get everything done before.

It’s unbearably hot in their apartment. Their high-strung Jewish mother is driving them crazy. The four children, desperate for diversion, set out to discover the location of this intriguing rishika. Each child is torn with fear but driven by curiosity, challenge, and excitement to find the fortune teller’s apartment and to learn what she has to say about their future.

They are surprised when the rishika brusquely takes them one-by-one into her apartment; diluting their individual courage. By the time the door opens and, Varya, the eldest enters the room, she is filled with panic and guilt. As the oldest, she feels responsible and guilty about endangering her younger siblings. She becomes terrified to discover that she is alone in the room with the strange woman.

Where are my siblings?
[Outside waiting for you.]

She snaps her fingers and gestures to Varya’s left hand
“We got work to do.”

“Your palm.”
Varya scoots to the edge of her chair and offers her hand to the rishika.
Can you really do it? Do you know when I’ll die?

Before Varya hears that fateful date, the rishika studies her hand in great detail, then abruptly says: January 21st, 2044. (We do not immediately learn the fateful dates for Klara, Daniel and Simon.) The rishika tells her, as she has told the others, not to discuss her revelations.

It is obvious, as the children head home, that each has received disturbing news. A lighthearted childhood adventure used as a diversion to abject summer boredom severs their carefree childhoods. The news each received that day will hang like a pall over their future life decisions. The prologue ends as the Gold family sits around the dinner table that fateful night. The children’s sullen behavior a sign that they have learned of life’s impermanence.

Thus launches this complicated family story told over 50 years in four vignettes. One by one, beginning with Simon, we discover each child has a deep ingrained secret that gets amplified by the gypsy’s prophesy. Their lives are much like our own cycling up and down as we make our way in an imperfect world.  The lesson each of these children learns is that if you worry about death, you will miss out on living: in the end we all die and there’s not a thing that can be done about it. You might as well do what you can to make the best of the life you are given regardless of whether it is long or short.

BLOGGER’S THOUGHTS

I always feel weird when my opinion of a book varies greatly from the majority of reviewers. I liked the book and give it a solid 3 star rating but I found several areas needing a little more meat and depth. The book captured my attention right at the beginning with the promise of magic and fantasy but petered out through the middle delving into hedonism and decisions leading to dark self-fulfilling prophecies. The final quarter of the book rises to a richer and satisfying conclusion and gives hope that change is possible.

[Varya asks the rishika]… what if I change? It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her life like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.

Then you’d be special, “Cause most people don’t.

The author has done her homework with background and historical references. I found the discussion of magical history and techniques fascinating.  The deeply emotional coverage of the emergence of AIDS in our country in the 1980s brought back sad memories of people in my past.  I am reminded of a friend near the end of his life leaving me with these words – Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die.

Recommended for book club discussion.

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AMERICAN WOLF : a true story of survival and obsession in the West

Wolves arrived in Yellowstone National Park via truck on January 12, 1995.
NPS photo

AMERICAN WOLF :
a true story of survival and obsession in the West

NATE BLAKESLEE

“When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, there were perhaps as many as two million wolves on the continent. Most of the early colonial governments, eager to make their settlements safe for livestock, paid bounties for wolf hides. . .

By the 1920s, the wolf had been all but eliminated from the continental United States except for a small population in northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Why did our ancestors feel they had to root out every last wolf, and why were hunters still so eager to shoot them in the few places they remained? “
Nate Blakeslee, American Wolf

CROWN PUB | 17 Oct 2017
322 pages
NONFICTION : OUTDOORS AND NATURE
ARC from NETGALLEY

★★★★★

Click for National Geographic Interview with Nate Blakesley

BACKGROUND INFO

Around 1845, the migration of religiously driven pioneers believing in Manifest Destiny rapidly sped across America ripping apart the lives of native human populations and destroying predatory wildlife habitats.  As homesteads and ranches filled the land, the natural range and sources of food for the large predators shrank leading to incursions in farm fields and leased grazing areas. Inevitably the two worlds clashed head-on and the losers were the predatory animals -specifically gray wolves (Canis lupus).  By 1929, the massive efforts to eradicate gray wolves was achieved.

But there were consequences and conflicts as a result of this extermination.  Not everyone agreed that nature should be so radically altered. Quoting Sir Isaac Newton  – for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. 

Advocates for preserving portions of the decreasing wilderness and restoring the balance of the natural world prevailed and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress created the world’s first national park in what was then the Territories of Montana and Wyoming – Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Act provided, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, protection for the wonders such as its geysers and hot springs but also stated:

[The Secretary of the Interior] shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction . . . . .

In time, researchers discovered the role that large predators play in a healthy ecosystem. In 1995, after years of planning, 31 wolves from Canada were released in the Yellowstone National Park sparking a new battle between true believers on both sides of the wolf issue.

REVIEW

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Thanks to Disney and the Three Little Pigs, I can’t get that song out of my head. How about sayings like “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or he’s a ‘lone wolf”? The wolf as predator has been getting a bad rap for thousands of years. After reading, American Wolf, I am not sure who was/is the greater predator these days – the 4-legged or the 2-legged kind.

Flip the cover and begin. Hear the wind whistle though the trees and over mountain tops. Watch and feel the snow as it falls in white sheets. Note that the cold is so intense that the myriad wolf watchers standing in long lines on the roadsides of the park appear frozen in freeze-frames images. Suddenly a wild-eyed elk bursts out of the trees trailed by a blur of snarling fur and the crowd comes alive.

O-6

I’ll set the stage here. The book follows one crowd popular alpha female (including her various mates and off-spring) famously known around the world as O-6 from birth through her death. It will be impossible not to admire and respect her strengths, loyalty, and prowess as a mother and leader of the pack. O-6, having just given birth to her third litter, was shot by a poacher when she trespassed just beyond the Yellowstone boundary. The identity of the shooter remains a secret and is identified in the book by a fictional name. His story is played against O-6’s throughout the book thus providing the negative views of the wolf re-introduction project.

O-6’s death set off a world-wide firestorm, and raised public awareness to the plight of the Gray Wolves. I cried when she died. Yup. If you don’t cry when she dies, you will when you read how her mate reacts.

Ranger Rick McIntyre

Digging in more specifically, let’s take a seat beside Ranger Rick McIntyre as he begins his day peering through his spotting scope. He spots a new den site for a local pack and he leans in to see the new pups as they tumble outside for the first time. We will experience his compulsive need to see his wolves every day. What we see often thrills us, sometimes makes us turn our heads away, and sometimes leaves us haunted. It is no wonder that McIntyre has no other social life; he is unable to leave the park. This is wildlife interacting with the natural world oblivious to cell phones, sit-coms and stock market prices.

Yellowstone, this designated wilderness, the place where a wolf can be a wolf. Where a beaver can make slap happy sounds on ponds. Where ravens elbow around grizzlies for foraged meat. Yellowstone, where lucky visitors shoot only pictures. But this safe harbor exists solely within the unseen boundaries of the park. Trails that lead back thousands of years transect the park leading wildlife through unprotected terrain; into rifle scopes not viewing scopes.

We do leave the park occasionally and head to town to tip a brew with the locals and hear their side of the story. A story often lost in the shuffle about ecosystems and states’ rights – just families and small businesses trying to make a life in an inhospitable environment. We find that the wilderness sanctuary isn’t an island. Its edges rub up against civilization and the two are always at war. Guided elk hunts, ranchers and homesteaders sit on one side of the see-saw with wolf advocates, environmentalists, and biologists on the other. The battle for life and death rages through these pages; some as God intended and others at the hands of man for sport, food, or revenge.

This book is a wonderful read that doesn’t reach an amiable conclusion. The battle between sides continues to this day.

Blakeslee has painstakingly researched this topic and will provide the reader with a balanced view of the see-saw riders. The reader’s bias will have them sitting on their favorite side of the see-saw but hopefully with a better understanding for the opposition.

Highly recommended for nature lovers and wilderness seekers.

RIP O-6.

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The Book Of Ralph: a novel

BOOK OF RALPH

by CHRISTOPHER STEINVOLD

MEDALLION PRESS | 2016
Paperback: 416 pages
Genre: SCIENCE FICTION / HUMOR
Review Source: ARC from Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Publisher’s Blurb

A message appears on the moon. It is legible from Earth, and almost no one knows how it was created. Markus West leads the government’s investigation to find the creator.

The message is simple and familiar. But those three words, written in blazing crimson letters on the lunar surface, will foster the strangest revolution humankind has ever endured and make Markus West wish he was never involved.

The message is ‘Drink Diet Coke.’

When Coca-Cola denies responsibility, global annoyance with the beverage-industrial complex becomes indignation. And when his investigation confirms Coca-Cola’s innocence, Markus West becomes one of the most hated men on Earth.

Later, five miles above the White House, a cylinder is discovered floating in the night. It is 400 feet tall, 250 feet in diameter, and exactly resembles a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Nearly everyone thinks the cylinder is a promotional stunt gone wrong, just like the lunar advertisement. And this is exactly what the alien in the cylinder wants people to think.

Ralph, an eccentric extraterrestrial who’s been hiding on the moon, needs Markus’s help to personally deliver a dark warning to the White House. Ralph has a big heart, a fetish for Andy Warhol, and a dangerous plan to save the world.

Looking upon the cylinder, Markus realizes we are not the ones in control. The unexpected guest becomes the host, and somehow humans never belonged: “We are the homeless orphans peeking through the banquet window. We are the frills of the universe gazing upon something unspeakably more central than ourselves.”

Blogger’s Review

 An alien landing at the White House in a 400 foot tall Campbell’s soup can was not the way I envisioned “first contact” would happen but it sure captured my attention. So despite my aversion to sci-fi, satire, and dark humor, I knew I had to read this book. In the end I rated the book 3 -stars and that decision rested more on my unfamiliarity with this genre. It would be like asking a kindergarten to tell you how to play a game of chess.

The first chapters were filled with quirky humor as the Earthlings try to rationalize what was happening with an irrational situation. The sideshow alien, Ralph, has been holed up on the moon for 10 years scanning Earth records and transmissions devising a lighthearted way to arrive on Earth thus avoiding panic. (Ten years not even a decimal point in time to a 19,000 year old.)

Ralph’s continued juvenile and giddy responses when pressed about an impending alien invasion began to bug me. Excruciatingly slow in my opinion, Ralph shares his message with his new “Earth brother”, Mark West. Rather than concentrating on character development, the author concentrated on convoluted references to Biblical passages and lectures on philosophy and Freud’s theory of the ego that confused me along with the protagonist, Mark.

About 75% of the way through the book, the story picks up a little steam leading to an interesting conclusion. Sorry. No spoilers.

Switching to a more positive note, I enjoyed a good part of the book. Much like raising children, there are days you could pack on them on an ice floe and send them out to sea but overall you want to treasure their time with you. So, I’ll end by saying this – if you like quirky mindless sci-fi with a tinge of violence and satire this book is for you. Personally I am going to stay away from apocalyptic alien invasions; we Earthlings are doing a fine enough job on that topic by ourselves.

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The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

I don’t understand, whispered Tilly.
How does God know which people are goats and which people are sheep?

I think that ‘s the trouble, Grace said,
it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.

 

THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP

by JOANNA CANNON

SCRIBNER | 2016
Hardcover: 353 pages
Genre: FICTION / COMING-OF-AGE / MYSTERY
Review Source: PERSONAL COPY

1st Published in UK in 2015

★★★☆☆

In the midst of an extraordinary heat wave enveloping England, ten-year-old Grace leans out her bedroom window hoping for a breath of cool early morning air and overhears a neighbor tell his wife, “Margaret Creasy never came home last night. Perhaps she finally buggered off.”

She stumbles downstairs for breakfast sharing the news and sets off a tremor that shakes the neighborhood’s complacency. Thus begins a tale about community secrets buried in the past that now begin to bubble up to the surface, one by one, in the blistering heat of that 1976 summer. The story’s lens never leaves a small middle class England neighborhood where it focuses on the ten or so homes tucked into the curl of a cul-de-sac.

What really happened in 1967? Who knows the truth? Has that nosy Mrs. Creasy figured things out? What has happened to her?

Our narrator is young Grace, a budding ten-year-old, teetering between adolescence and childhood. With her feet still glued in the world of friendships and games, she has begun to view life outside her home as something to explore and challenge.

After attending a local church service, where the Vicar lights a fire in her mind, Grace enlists the help of her best friend, Tilly to investigate Mrs. Creasy’s whereabouts and the reasons for her abrupt departure.  She knows what she must do to help. Assured by the vicar that the lost can be found when they find God, they set out to find God.

How do you stop people from disappearing?
You help them to find God.

How do you find God?
You just have to look.
And if we find God, everyone will be safe?
Of course.
You know that the Lord is our shepherd, Grace. We are just sheep. If we wander off the path, we need God to find us and bring us home.

Oblivious to the buzz in the adult stratosphere, Grace and Tilly set off on their myopic quest of finding God inside the various homes on the Avenue disguised as Brownie Scouts seeking a way “lend a hand”. Through their journey through the neighborhood we see things about each resident that the girls do not.  The rattled adults toss clues to the girls left and right that just fly over their heads, at first, but gradually, the more astute Grace begins to see discrepancies in the neighbors’ stories about Mrs. Creasy and others. They take their little investigation up a notch often to the consternation of everyone, at times jeopardizing their safety.

Those expecting this to end with some explosion of horror will be disappointed. This cozy mystery amuses at the same time offers insight into the dangers of discrimination, innuendo, malicious gossip and the potential for mob violence.  Layered at the girls’ level are lessons on friendship and the frailness of life. The lesson I learned, sometimes it is better to be a goat than a sheep.

I rated the book three stars but do note that it is a good read.  I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this book to my friends. As a matter of fact, I had received an e-reader advance copy from Edelweiss a while back and forgot; then purchased my own copy that will now be available in my local library. I’ll leave you with my two favorite quotes:

People tend to believe things just because everyone else does. . .They don’t search for proof, they just search for approval from everyone else. [Walter]

I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they left your mouth, they have a breath and life of their own. . . I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, become the owner of you.” [Grace]

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ENDURANCE : Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of
physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.

― Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

ENDURANCE

Author: ALFRED LANSING

MCGRAW- HILL | 1959
282 pages
NONFICTION / ADVENTURE

Review Source: 2014 ed. /Basic Books
358 pgs with photos

★★★★★

The first time I read this book I was probably in my mid-30s and struggling with some major life issues. I yearned to lose myself in an unfettered wilderness and turned to adventure stories to transport myself to a different place and a different time. Undoubtedly distracted at the time, I enjoyed the story and appreciated the trials but never truly identified with the men and the strength of character displayed by Shackleton.

Now 40 years later, my book club has chosen Endurance as our first read of 2018 and with the wisdom of age and experience, I felt the cold and isolation deep in my bones. We have already read about the unlikely Holocaust hero, Schindler, and look forward to future reads about the courageous Harriett Tubman, or Japanese prisoner-of-war hero, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey (Bridge over River Kwai).

This year we chose Sir Ernest Shackleton; a man hard-wired with courage, resiliency and loyalty who led The British Imperial Transatlantic Expedition (1914-1916), a crew of 27 men, to attempt the first crossing of the Southern Polar continent from sea to sea. A feat, even today, with all our advantages of communication, motorized equipment, and high tech camping equipment, is not guaranteed.

Legend has it that an ad was placed in the London Times that read:

shackleton wantadMEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street [London]

Although the authenticity of this London ad has been debunked, the sentiment and reality of the dangers did exist. Anyone volunteering or recruited for the expedition could reasonably assume they were placing their lives in mortal danger. The legacy of previous Antarctic exploration by Shackleton and the stories of his interest in conducting another expedition published in the London papers provided enough attention to garner men willing to tackle the challenge.

The Endurance, a triple masted barquentine (similar to today’s tall ships) was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built for Arctic conditions; designed to maneuver well in loose pack ice. She departed her last port of call at the whaling station on the island of South Georgia on December 5, 1914 heading to Vahsel Bay where the crew was to begin the overland journey across Antarctica by dog sledge. By January 15, the Endurance had arm wrestled her way through loose pack ice to within 200 miles of their destination. A “perfect storm” arose resulting in the Endurance becoming frozen in place as solid as an almond in chocolate. 

Endurance, now one with the ice, drifted for months beset in the ice in the Weddell Sea; the men hunkered below deck waiting for warming conditions that would break the ice pack and hopefully allow them to complete their expedition. When the Antarctic spring arrived, it brought grinding forces that splintered the ship eventually pulling her under – abandoning the men, supplies, dog teams and three life boats on a ice flow drifting north at the mercy of the currents.

Thus begins Shackleton’s incredible journey back to safety and home. The opening lines of Lansing’s book reads:

The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. . . There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly . . .and lost. . . 

They were simply too tired to care. . . . The date was October 27, 1915. . .[The ship was] deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s treacherous Weddell Sea, just about midway between the South Pole and the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.

Shackleton’s mission now changed from exploration to delivering his men safely out of the Antarctic. He wrote in his diary – I pray God I can manage to get the whole party safe to civilization.

Thanks to the crew diligently maintaining daily diaries and the remarkable presence of a photographer, incredible  considering the hardships endured in the harsh conditions, a record of the journey exists. The book’s dialogue may seem a bit stilted as the true facts are enough. There was no need to create sensational scenes or to interject opinion or supposition; the diary statements tell you everything straight up.

We learn of their deep trust and loyalty for the “Boss”. We feel the humanness of Shackleton’s faults and deep sense of duty he felt for his men. The diaries reveal so much about the indefatigable nature of the men facing food shortages, and the indescribable living conditions.

There were times I had to turn my head when the men had to make choices that would leave emotional scars. Some scenes, necessary for survival, made me cry. Others made me smile. Throughout it all, I leaned into my experience with long winter days and nights spent on long distance wilderness backpacks to try to imagine the perpetual cold and wet conditions they endured. In the end, it was unimaginable.

There is a reason that the story of Shackleton and the Endurance are considered heroes still today.  These men set the bar for overcoming the impossible.

HIGHLY recommended.

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time: a true story

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME :
a true story

I think it is every parent’s nightmare that your young adult child will make some regrettable choice that will affect the rest of their lives. Having raised a wild child myself, there were many sleepless night worrying for his safety and future. Once they have tipped over that spillway of regret and misdirection, there comes the hope that they can pick up the pieces of their lives and find their way back to their better angels.

by DAVID P. PERLMUTTER

SELF-PUBLISHED | 2013
217 pgs
MEMOIR / TRUE CRIME
BEST SELLER IN CRIME & BIOGRAPHY

★★★★☆

 

in the wrong place at the wrong time :

in a situation where something bad happens to you because you are unlucky, not because you do anything wrong 

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary

SO. What happens when indiscretion is mixed with unlucky circumstance AND you are in a foreign land? David Perlmutter tells us – NOTHING GOOD!

It’s London in the 1980s. David, a young buck in his twenties, is a highly successful real estate agent. One fateful night leaving work, he joins a friend for a pint at the local pub. With a heady glow of success suspending his better judgement, he unwisely extends a friendly pint into a late night revelry that lands him in a London jail. The crime of “driving-under-the-influence” costs him his job, his future and damages his relationship with his parents.

Running away from his shame, he heads to Marbella, Spain to spend the summer there to clear my head and to try and regain my almost shattered confidence. 

His father’s parting words exude caution. There’s little more that a parent can do when an adult child walks through a mine field.

Son, have fun but please be careful, you’re in a foreign country so don’t do anything silly. . . Just watch out for those Spanish cops. He paused for a second, looked into my eyes then went on, Some of them are cunts. I was taken aback. I’d never heard my father swear before.

Take a nearly penny-less hormonal twenty-something young man with a damaged ego and place him in a foreign city famous for topless beaches and an extravagant lifestyle – what could go wrong? To go any further would spoil the story for the next reader.

Personally, I was impressed that the author would be so candid and open about this period of his life. If you have a child clambering for that fun filled summer abroad, make them read the book. There are lessons to be learned here.

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The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr

THE SEVEN RULES OF ELVIRA CARR

Published in UK as The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr

by FRANCES MAYNARD

 

Image result for british custom cream biscuits

Paul’s dad said I knew more about biscuits [cookies] and their history and packaging than anyone he’d ever met.

I hugged myself at the memory. Mother had never thought I could be an expert at anything.

Genre: FICTION / AUTISM
Hardcover: 393 pages
Review Source: ARC e-book from edelweiss

★★★★☆

REVIEW

Elvira Carr is different. She knows this because Mother has made a point of telling her for 27 years. She has a “Condition” that makes it impossible for her to function unsupervised in the world outside their home.

I needed to be kept safe at home for my own protection. I was far too trusting, she’d said, and a target for predators, and she reminded me of the various Incidents that had happened when I’d ventured out and done things on my own.

Father was always away on business trips to Japan. Elvira knows this because Father’s return brought lovely Japanese themed gifts and colorful descriptions of faraway lands. She enjoyed her time with her father immensely and in a way, grateful to have his undivided attention as a balance to Mother’s rigid routines and snarky comments. Sadly, Father dies of a heart attack while “Abroad” when she was 23 leaving her solely under Mother’s thumb and subject to her acid personality.

Elvira’s life changes abruptly the day Mother, the omniscient ruler of her life, suffers a debilitating stroke and is confined to a nursing home.

Left alone to her own devices, Elvira finds the courage to step out into the world – one baby step at a time – on her own.

Thinking about going to the hospital scared me. I didn’t go to new places very often and, since the Incidents, never on my own.

 Successfully taking that first journey, unaided, and arriving safely at her mother’s bedside, Elvira was very pleased. I’d been resourceful, a word Mother used about herself. She would be surprised when I told her.

Elvira continues to challenged herself to find ways to remain independent and capable of interfacing with “NeuroNormals”. She learns to use a computer and discovers that Mother was wrong!

Mother said computers kept people imprisoned in their bedrooms, not communicating with the outside world. . . . And she thought I’d find learning to use one a struggle [and] I could be targeted by predators. I’d failed to understand what Mother and Father meant [by predators] and they wouldn’t explain.

With the discovery of the Internet and word processing, she can now write her own rules – bye bye Mother’s rules! She falls in love with spreadsheets and sets about identifying seven situations that confound her. She hopes to change her life following these guidelines and enlists the help of friends to identify the reasons behind her difficult interactions.

Rule 1: Being Polite and Respectful is always a Good Idea.
Rule 2: If you Look or Sound Different, you won’t Fit in.

Lacking a filter for innuendo, figures of speech, and deception, Elvira struggles but she never stops believing that she can define her own happy place in the world. 

Rule 3: Conversation doesn’t just Exchange Facts – it Conveys how you’re Feeling. 
Rule 4: You learn by making Mistakes.
Rule 5: Not Everyone who is Nice to me is my Friend.
Rule 6: It’s better to be too Diplomatic than too Honest.

Elvira’s journey will amaze you.

OPINION

The author’s choice to use the first person voice gave Elvira a chance to expose the difficulties facing those with disabilities. I found myself cheering for Elvira’s chance at a real life after her Mother died. Her spunk, sweet nature, and obvious yen for life was inspiring. I wanted to reach out and slap a few people for their attitudes about the disabled as well as give bear hugs to those with grace and understanding.

There are two instances of sexual assault in the story. I felt the author missed the mark when Elvira’s parents failed to provide a life lesson on the dangers of predators and how to spot them. The second “Incident” was more dramatic and left the vulnerable Elvira unable to differentiate between friendly interest and exploitation. This heightened sense of outrage on my part is the result of the #Me Too movement and the deep roots of sexual abuse and gender bias in our modern world. Rule 7: Rules change depending on the Situation and the Person you are speaking to.

I want to end on an upbeat note so I will leave you with Elvira’s closing thoughts as she writes one more rule:

And, Rule Eight: Use the Rules to help with difficulties, to make life easier, to understand what’s acceptable, to enhance your strengths, but after that, . . . do things your way.

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WINTER SISTERS: a novel

 

WINTER SISTERS

        Robin Oliverira

Child after child was scooped into welcoming arms, but no one claimed Emma and Claire. Stunned by the cold, the two girls (7 and 10 years old) shivered on the iceberg of snow blown up against the school steps until Emma took hold of Claire’s hand and forged a mountain goat path over frozen drifts in the direction of their home.

Penguin | Feb 2018
Hardcover: 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / 19th Century Women’s Rights
ARC e-book from Edelweiss

In Winter Sisters, Dr. Mary Sutter [My Name is Mary Sutter (2010)] returns and is now married to her Civil War colleague, Dr. William Stipp.

BLOGGER’S NOTE:

The catastrophic 1879 blizzard that ravages the lives and landscape of the American Northeast in the opening chapters of  Winter Sisters is based on the Great Blizzard of ’88

On this day in 1888, one of the worst blizzards in American history kills more than 400 people and dumps as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. . .

On March 10, 1888 temperatures in the Northeast hovered in the mid-50s. But on March 11, cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged. Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11, gusts were recorded at 85 miles. . .

★★★★☆

REVIEW

It is early March of 1879 in Albany, New York and 13 years after the Civil War. The Reconstruction period saw many new “families” formed from the remnants of the carnage; neighbors, distant cousins, siblings and orphans found comfort and solace creating a whole from their broken individual pieces. One such post-war family includes Drs. Mary (Sutter) and William Stipp and longtime family friends Bonnie and David O’Donnell along with their two beautiful young daughters, Claire (7) and Emma (10).

The Albany weather is balmy for early March and the O’Donnells head out for the day dressed for early Spring; Bonnie to her millinery shop, David to the lumber yard and the girls to school.

By mid-morning, snow flurries suddenly appear. By mid-afternoon a catastrophic blizzard cripples the town. Temperatures plummet. Winds rage. Snow, measuring in feet not inches, races sideways striking windows and any unfortunate being outside like silver bullets. Visibility zero.

Claire and Emma O’Donnell are trapped, along with their classmates, in the Van Zandt Grammar School; their parents unable to retrieve them. As the storm finally abates, desperate parents race to the school to bring their children home. No one notices the two little girls amid the sky-high drifts left waiting for their parents in the bitter cold.

The O’Donnell family has disappeared. Bonnie’s body is found in a snow drift outside her millinery shop. David O’Donnell’s frozen body is found in the street near home. Claire and Emma are never found.

Like many other devastated families, Mary Sutter Stipp begins a desperate search for the girls; her now famous take-no-prisoners style testing the ire and patience of the male dominate community. Mary’s life’s exposes the struggles of women in general, and poor women in particular to survive and thrive in a patriarchal society. As she turns over every leaf in her search, she exposes life’s underbelly.

With the warmer weather returning, the Hudson River ice breaks-up and the melted snows from the blizzard cause record setting flooding. In the midst of this new crisis, the girls are found – alive, alone in the freezing waters, and traumatized. As the mysterious whereabouts of the girls is unraveled, the story becomes painful and unspeakable. Yet, the story doesn’t lose its sense of hope as the extended family surrounds the girls with love and patience allowing them to regain a brighter future.

There are some very positive and touching moments that seem especially necessary for the little girls and for the recovery of the other extended family members suffering their own life’s trials.

The story is painfully slow when the blizzard overshadows the lives of the characters but picks up steam when the girls are discovered and diabolical secrets are exposed. I found myself cheering at justice, albeit poorly rendered, when it arrives.

As much as society would like to think that women’s rights and roles have improved over the years, there’s a contemporary awareness that achievements toward equity are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Recommend reading. Many timely themes for book club discussions. The book should be as popular as My Name is Mary Sutter.

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A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

by CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE

Morrow/Harper Collins |2017
Hardcover: 320 pages
HISTORICAL FICTION/
Christina Olson/Andrew Wyeth
Source: Library Book

★★★★☆

Shortly after completing her popular work, Orphan Train in 2013, Kline visited the NY Museum of Modern Art and viewed Andrew Wyeth’s iconic work of mid-century realism, Christina’s World (1948). Unlike Orphan Train with its vast list of characters, A Piece of the World‘s story focuses on one woman, Anna Christine Olson, a crippled spinster who lived her entire life in the harsh terrain of Cushing, Maine in a home without electricity or running water.

Andrew Wythe met Christina when he was 22, newly married and summering in Maine. The reclusive Christina, then 46 lived with her slightly younger brother, Alvaro, and together they maintained the centuries old family farm. The Olsons instinctively found themselves at ease with the painter and he soon spent every day he was in Maine at their house. Andrew, himself inflicted with disability, spent the next 20 summers lurching up the grassy slope, lugging his art supplies, to Christina’s house to paint undisturbed in a third floor room.

In 1948, when Christina was 55, Wythe observed Christina, now unable to walk at all, crawling through the field using her forearms and elbows. That sight inspired him to create Christina’s World, so named by Wyeth’s wife, Betsy. Christina is portrayed as a young woman and viewed from the back as she slowly and painfully crawls toward her home on the hill. I cropped the young woman out of the painting so the reader can see her determination  to propel herself on those withered limbs through her piece of the world.

Kline, in A Piece of the World, turns Christina around so we can face this incredible strong-willed woman head-on as she tells her life’s story. First believed to have contracted polio when she was 3 years-old, it is now thought that she had CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth), an incurable, inherited disorder that progressively degenerates muscles tissues and touch sensation throughout the body. As this is a work of fiction based loosely on facts, Kline spares us the worst side effects of Christina’s life as her painful disease progresses through the years. Spared those details, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in her steadily closing conch shell of a body.

Christina tells her story flipping from her childhood with her large extended family to her isolated and debilitating adult life.

Who are you, Christina Olson? he asked me once.
Nobody had ever asked me that. I had to think about it for awhile.

If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys, the shells from the distant lands, … The Swedish Sailor marooned in ice. [The]false smiles of the Harvard man, and the hand wringing of the Boston doctors, the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea.

Chistina Olson, Prologue

And that is all Kline and I will tell you about this remarkable woman. It is best you travel with her to find out the answer to Who are you, Christina Olson? As winter is fast approaching in Cushing, Maine, it is the perfect time to grab a hot chocolate, a warm blue knitted blanket, a comfortable chair and A Piece of the World.  A woman crawling through life moves at a snail’s pace.  Take the slow walk through Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the author’s simple yet beautiful prose.

Recommended reading for book clubs.

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Lilac Girls

 

 

 

 

LILAC GIRLS

by MARTHA HALL KELLY

RANDOM HOUSE-BALLANTINE | 487 pages
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION | HOLOCAUST
Source: ARC e-book from EDELWEISS

★★★

Don’t be fooled by the lovely cover photo.  This book will be rough on the emotions.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was inspired by two real life women who represent the yin and yang of the Nazi era – New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for women.

Kelly spent nearly 10 years researching the background story for Lilac Girls and based on war crimes tribunal reports, survivor interviews and family records, the fictional Kasia Kuzmerick emerged  to tell her story about life before, during and after the Germany invasion of her native Poland. The three narrators alternate chapters and present the war from three vastly different perspectives.

America, still reeling from WWI, wanted no part of unrest building in Europe. It’s 1939 and a frantic wave of immigrants arrives daily in US ports hoping for safety. Most are sent back; often to their deaths. Caroline Ferriday, a retired stage actress, has found volunteer work at the French Consulate assisting wealthy refugees obtain documentation to stay stateside. The Ferriday’s are Francophiles and have a vacation home in Paris. Caroline is aghast that America has turned a blind eye to those in need and hosts fundraising galas to help French orphans. Her generous spirit is admirable but her lack of understanding what the children need goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Herta Oberheuser has received her medical degree in Dusseldorf, Germany and has found that gender bias prevents her from furthering her education as a surgeon.  While working well beneath her education, Herta spots an advertisement that will change her future:

I picked up The Journal of Medicine and noticed a classified ad for a doctor needed at a reeducation camp for women. . .near the resort town of Fürstenberg on Lake Schwedt. There were many such camps at the time, mostly for the work-shy and minor criminals. [It] had an appealing name. Ravensbrück.

Herta’s naivety upon arrived at Ravensbrück is abruptly shocked. She adapted  quickly to become a sinister criminal but left me thinking of so many in that time period that swallowed the party line – what makes a person become incapable of seeing the humanity in others? In the end, one has to wonder if those perpetrators of such horrific crimes could ever receive adequate justice.

Kasia Kuzmerick’s carefree childhood ends when Hitler declared war on Poland in 1939. Kasia and friends are spying on Jewish refugees hiding in a potato field when German bombers arrive and massacre everyone. The horror motivates Kasia to join the underground movement; a step that ultimately costs her dearly. One misstep and Kasia along with her mother and sisters are captured and sent to RavensbrückKasia and her sister, Zuzanna, were selected for medical experimentation surgery by Dr. Herta Oberheuser. The mutilated women were known in the camp as “Rabbits”.

The author softens the story with Caroline’s adventures in love and luxury but it is hard to look away from Ravensbrück with its inhumanity, pain and death. Caroline’s post-war efforts on behalf of the Rabbits is much stronger than her initial foray into war-time charity with her homemade gifts for the children. Her relationship with her married love interest felt oddly out of place weighed up against the horrors of the concentration camps; it did not occur in real life.

The strongest part of the story lies with the Ravensbrück inmates for their efforts to survive. The stories of the compassion and friendships they showed toward one another and the attempts to “normalize” their lives with little things like hair ribbons and lace collars is heartbreaking. The post-war lives of Kasia and Zuzanna illuminates how long-term trauma of malnutrition, torture, PTSD and disease has changed the arc of their futures.

It was difficult to rate the book. I gave it high marks for several reasons. The author’s research exposed the depth of depravity exhibited by the Nazi doctor’s and camp guards. As unsettling as the subject is, it happened; and stepping away from our creature comforts into that unimaginable horror reminds us that it could happen again – anywhere. The book reminds us that charity begins at home, suppressed hatred is corrosive, and that discrimination of “others” does not make a society stronger.

As a debut work, Kelly did a remarkable job of exposing a little known horror of the Holocaust and the generosity of the Americans for the surviving Rabbits.

Post-War Photo of Surviving Ravensbrück Rabbits living in America

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The Book of Polly: a novel

 

THE BOOK OF POLLY

by KATHY HEPINSTALL

Pamela Dorman Books | 2017
Hardcover: 322 pages
ISBN: 9780399562099
Genre: FICTION/COMING-OF-AGE
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

EXCERPT

I’m not sure at what age I became frozen with the knowledge, certainty, and horror that mother would die one day. . . One of my earliest memories was reaching up and trying to snatch a cigarette from her lips. Even then I knew my enemy.

[Polly] had conceived me in something close to a bona fide miracle, when she and her soon-to-be-late husband of thirty-seven years consummated their love for the last time. From the absurdity of that union came the news that my mother received from her doctor three days after my father’s funeral: Polly, [58], was due to have one more child in the year 1992. [Me.] Willow.

Eight months later I  was born, my family already gone like a train pulled out of the station: my father dead, my brother and sister grown and gone. . . 

Don’t you love a book that latches onto your funny bone? My first impression of Polly Haven reminded me of my favorite cartoon character, Maxine; brash, fearless and prickly. This is truly a southern tale filled with a small cast of unique characters much like Fried Green Tomatoes’s Iggy Threadgoode or Steel Magnolias’ “Ouiser” played by Shirley MacLaine.

Willow narrates the book beginning when she is a 10-year-old sharing her feelings, thoughts and emotions about living with a gun-toting, Virginia Slims smoking, foul-mouthed, Margarita slurping mother who loves her dearly; but Polly’s actions, viewed through a child’s eyes make you wonder if she was a spawn of the devil. The novel covers the next six years of their lives. Six years filled with tit-for-tat conflicts between a septuagenarian mother and a teenage terror with a propensity for lying. The narration in a child’s voice is a softening agent for adult topics like alcoholism, marital disharmony, religion and terminal illness and engenders sympathy for teenage angst and budding first love.

One of Polly’s traits that drives Willow crazy is her unwillingness to share her past life – life before Willow – one that includes deeply held dark secrets.  Willow is determined to peel the onion on that story and other guarded truths in order to find a place for herself in the family timeline. Some place where she understands where she came from and where she will be in the future. She is terrified of finding herself alone in the world without – her mother.

Polly’s cigarette habit frightens Willow the most. She does everything she can to make her mother miserable in attempt to ward off the “Bear”, her mother’s term for cancer.  Her efforts to prolong her mother’s life produce some deeply touching moments and some rather explosive reactions between them.

Polly’s over-the-top reactions to perceived or actual attacks rankles school authorities, her equally cantankerous neighbors and the world at-large. That includes the squirrels that invade her precious pecan tree.

I loved this coming-of-age story and I had more than a few hearty chuckles over the neighbor’s cat straddling the rickety fence, the next door neighbor’s free-range undisciplined Montessori twins, Dalton and Willow’s budding romance, and the bond between her brother’s friend and Polly.

Underlying all the spats and bluster lies the meaning of life for all of us. And the feel good ending, seen coming a mile away, reminded me of the last verse of Desiderata:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Desiderata by Max Ehrman

 

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Before We Were Yours: a novel

BEFORE WE
WERE YOURS

by LISA WINGATE

RANDOM HOUSE/BALLANTINE | June 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION/
ADOPTION/FRAUD/CHILD ABDUCTION
Review Source: ARC from NETGALLEY

★★★☆☆

Novel based on . . .

From 1924 through 1950, Beulah George “Georgia” Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from a stately home on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, TN.

Tann used it as a front for an illegal foundling home and adoption agency that placed over 5,000 newborn infants and children, from toddlers up to age 16, to sell to what Ms. Tann called “high type” families in 48 states. 

She used manipulation, deception, pressure tactics, threats, and brute force to take children from mainly poor single mothers in a five-state area to sell to unsuspecting wealthy parents.

Source: http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/

After researching the [Tennessee Children’s Home Society] story, I couldn’t stop wondering about the thousands of children who had been brokered. . .

What became of them? Where are they now?”

Lisa Wingate, Author
Before We Were Yours


At the heart of Wingate’s newest novel lies the question – Do you really know your family history? Do you know what secrets are buried, that if exposed, could change your whole perspective on who you are and where you came from? What would you do if you suddenly found out something that could turn your life upside down? Could you live a life chosen for you rather than the life you were born to live?

The story unfolds in two voices – Avery Stafford, young, beautiful, and living the high-life in present day South Carolina and Rill Foss and her four siblings afloat their father’s scrap lumber shanty-boat in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee. As these two stories unfold, secrets and mysteries of the past are revealed that will forever change both of their lives.

Present day. . . Aiken, South Carolina

Wells Stafford, like his father before him, is known for his long and distinguished political service in the Senate. Senator Stafford is currently struggling after a cancer diagnosis threatens not only his life, but the traditions and lifestyle of his family. Is it time to groom his beautiful “brainiac” daughter to be his replacement?

While touring a local nursing home facility on her father’s behalf, Avery spots a photograph of four women; one of the ladies bears a striking resemblance to her Grandmother Judy. Why would this patient, May Crandall, have a picture of her grandmother? Avery’s inquisitive nature sends her on a mission to discover how this patient and her grandmother know each other.

As Avery Stafford is stalked by a staff of social secretaries and races through a power packed daily schedule day after day, she finds herself nagged by the picture of her grandmother frolicking with three strange women on a beach.

She begins to sneak time between photo shoots and ribbon cuttings to search for clues that eventually lead her to her family home on Edisto Island. What she finds there changes everything she thought she knew about herself and her future.

Memphis, Tennessee backwater, 1939

Briny and Queenie Foss, along with their five children, live the shantyboat life floating from river to river scrounging and hustling as needed to survive. Our shanty boat narrator, Queenie’s twelve-year old daughter, begins her story with her mother near death laboring to deliver twins aboard the boat. It soon becomes obvious that Queenie will die if she isn’t taken to a hospital for care and Briny makes the decision to take Queenie to town. He is forced to leave the younger children alone in the dead of night with his eldest daughter in charge. As the children hunker down terrified, fearful of bandits and mischief makers, the police arrive and take the children off the boat telling them they are taking them to see their parents. The confused and traumatized children are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home where they are given new names and subjected to unimaginable horrors intended to break the children’s bond to the past.

While Avery searches for answers, May Crandall reminisces about life in 1939 and beyond.

She muses on her childhood life on the shanty boat with her free-spirit parents viewing it all through rose-colored glasses; right up until the happy times for the Foss family ended abruptly. Her fictional memories of the dark world at the Home will traumatize the reader with the truth that actually happened to real life children. Children forced to live in squalor and horror in the shadows and paraded in public as perfect models of angelic behavior for adoption to the highest bidder.

With each secret uncovered, Avery and May’s stories blend toward an inevitable revelation.

Blogger Thoughts . . .

The ending was obvious to me right from the beginning. There’s usually some misdirection to keep the reader engaged and in this case, I found myself staring at the incredible treatment of children as incentive enough to keep reading. The segments on the Children’s Home were hard to read.

It was difficult to rate the book. In the end, I found myself thinking a lot about the underlying theme that children’s futures are predetermined by the circumstance of birth. Can a child with memories of one life ever resolve what might have been had something dramatic not intervened and changed the course of their life?  Can the past stay in the past? How will a future be affected by the past? Will secrets protect or harm future generations?

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Artemis: A Novel

ARTEMIS

by ANDY WEIR

 

Published:
Nov 14, 2017

Crown Publishing Group
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0553448122

Review Source:
ARC from Edelewiss and Crown Publishing

★★★★☆

I live in Artemis, the first (and so far, only) city on the moon.  It’s made of five huge spheres called “bubbles.” . . . Artemis looks exactly like old sci-fi books said a moon city should look. . .It’s pricey to get here and expensive as hell to live here. But a city can’t just be rich tourists. . . It needs working-class people too. . . I’m one of the little people.

Jasmine Bashara (Jazz)
Porter and Part-Time Contreband Smuggler

Andy Weir’s The Martian and Matt Damon’s depiction in the movie makes it a hard first book to top! As I prepared to write my thoughts about the newest book, Artemis, I came across an interview with the author that matched my sentiments about the two books.

[Artemis] is my second book. . . It’s likely that The Martian is going to be the most successful book I ever write. . . If [readers say Artemisis not as good as The Martian, but it’s a good book. I’ll call that a win.

The Martian focused on the science of traveling to and living on Mars. Artemis is loaded with science but it primarily focuses on life in the vacuum of space and the richness of the mineral deposits on the moon.

Unlike Mark Watney’s status as the sole inhabitant on Mars, Jazz Bashara, our main protagonist, is a permanent resident of Artemis, the moon’s first city with a current population of 2000. As a low level employee working as a porter (delivery girl), Jazz aspires to become  an EVA trained tour guide for outside the domed city. Don’t ask me what EVA stands for…I couldn’t find the answer but it is obvious that it implies equipment necessary to sustain life outside the oxygenated city.

Artemis, the city, is much like any Earth city: upper class living with access to casinos and upscale hotels, suburbs with shopping centers, recreational sports and theaters, poor district with slum housing and low-paid worker bees. Crime, drugs and a laissez-faire view of whorehouses and sexual activity has been encouraged by the local organized crime syndicate. The city is a mecca for  tourists but the resources and low-gravity setting on the moon is the real reason for it’s success. The biggest money maker is the Sanchez Aluminum operation.

Jazz and her father moved to Artemis when she was six years-old. Her father is a master craftsman specializing in welding; a skill in big demand in the city.  When you live in a welding shop, the lingo and skills become part of your daily life and Jazz is a talented welder in her own right. She was more than a handful in her teen years leading to a break in their relationship. Those rebellious years have stymied her future now that she is in her mid-20s.

Lying to Dad transported me back to my teen years. And let me tell you: there’s no one I hate more than teenage Jazz Bashara. That stupid bitch made every bad decision a stupid bitch could make. She’s responsible for where I am today.

Part of her left-overs from her delinquent years are routine run-ins with Rudy DuBois, Artemis’s head of security. Rudy quit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to become “what passes for law in town”. He still  wears his Dudley Do-Right uniform but he is anything but a bumble-foot. Rudy is sharp, smart and tough.

If you commit a serious crime, we exile you to Earth. For everything else, there’s Rudy.

These days, Rudy is trying to nab Jazz when she delivers smuggled contraband. She has an extremely efficient smuggling operation going with a friend back on Earth. Nothing really naughty…simple things like cigars, lighters – anything flammable. Flames and oxygen are not compatable.

Out of the blue she receives an offer for a major job that would solve all her financial problems but could get her expelled to Earth. Accepting the challenge leads to exponentially larger problems that threaten not only her family but the city.

The remaining cast of characters, unlike The Martian with Mark Watney’s solo act, provide tension, humor, love, friendship, fisticuffs, terror, and randy dialogue.

Thoughts

I had a hard time liking Jazz.  Her behavior seemed very immature and reminded me more of Gavorche, the street urchin in Les Miserables than a mature adult. It seemed to conflict with her well developed problem solving skills and her talents in improvisation. What was quirky and funny on Mark Watney was less fun on Jazz Bashara.

On a positive note, there were moments when Jazz showed that beneath the baudy banter was a caring soul. She was especially kind when dealing with a troubled teenager.

The science and technology aspects of the story were well researched and rang true to this space novice. I wished I could  tour  old moon landing sites pedaling in my own oxygen inflated “hamster ball”.

Would I read another Andy Weir novel? You betcha! But I sure hope it has nothing to do with welding and chemistry. I learned all I would ever need to know from Jazz.

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The Mountain Between Us

 

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US

by CHARLES MARTIN

 

Broadway Books | 2010
Paperback: 331 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-59249-1
Genre: Fiction/Survival/Adventure
Review Source: Purchased

★★★☆☆

blue quotation-marks

We climbed into the [small] plane. . .Two minutes later we were airborne and climbing. . . [Look out the window.] The High Uintas Wilderness – the largest east to west mountain range on the continent. . . [E]ver seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson? . . .That’s where filmed it.

Scout_Plane

 [Grover] coughed. . .grunted. . .grabbed his chest. . .

Then, as if he’d done it a thousand times, he pancaked the plane against the mountain.

olympic-mountains

My friend had just finished reading the book The Mountain Between Us and recommended it.  Our “cotton-head” gang of old friends will be heading to the theater to view the movie and she thought we should first read the book. I rated this 4 out of 5 stars but this rating came with mental adjustments from what I expected and what I found between the covers.

Adventure/survival stories snag my attention every time. If they involve struggling in snow and ice, all the better. I was raised and played in the mighty Adirondacks and loved the dead of winter. So I want to clear up something right away – it would be impossible in the real world for these two to have survived.

I suspended my hopes for a heart pounding adventure as I smelled a contrived story ahead. Foregoing expectations of something like Jon Krakauer’s Into The WildI settled down and found the story entertaining in its own way.

flight cancelledAshley Knox, a magazine writer, strolled by Dr. Ben Payne, an emergency room trauma surgeon, in the airport and I knew right away where all this was headed. Pretty woman meets married but separated doctor.  When I finished the book, I was mostly right with my preconceived ideas.

A big bad storm of epic size is bearing down on the western states. Commercial aircraft are unable to de-ice their planes and cancelled all outgoing flights. Dr. Ben Payne has numerous surgeries to perform the next day and needs to leave town. He arranges a flight out with an elderly charter plane pilot. Moments before they leave, Ben sweet talks the pilot into taking a second passenger – the sweet young thing he had been eyeballing in the airport. Ashley had confided to Ben that she was to be married in a couple of days and needed to fly out immediately for a wedding rehearsal.

Conveniently as it turns out, the doctor had attended a medical conference and traveled with his backpacking gear. Great care was taken to detail what was in that backpack. The crusty old pilot, while preparing the plane for flight, takes the time to tell them he stores a sleeping bag under his seat and keeps a fishing pole and hunting bow with arrows on the plane at all times.

-blizzardmaninsnow

Moments before Grover has his fatal heart attack, he tells them that this is the largest god-forsaken wilderness in America. Suddenly, with the pilot dead, the broken plane nearly invisible in the snow, a non-functioning locator beacon, no flight plan filed, and no record of the passengers aboard the plane, the survivors must fend for themselves with nothing more than a bag of gorp for food.

Ashley is severely injured in the crash. She is bleeding profusely from several lacerations and sports a maligned leg caused by a broken femur. Ben has broken numerous ribs and a deflated lung and a history of breathing issues at high  altitude. Disregarding his own problems, he sets Ashley’s broken leg and splints it with parts from the plane. He finds Grover’s fishing gear and sews up her wounds.

The action now slows down and leaves the two survivors with only two options. Stay where they are huddled in the fuselage, no one knows they’re there.  Or head out into the unknown wilderness in a blizzard hoping to find civilization and food.

Ben fashions a sled for Ashley out of a broken wing. He gathers all the survival goodies stored on the plane and stuffs them into the sled with Ashley and heads out in thigh deep snow pulling the sled with a harness created from plane parts strapped over his broken chest. For a month he drags Ashley up and over mountains, across rivers, through subzero weather and frequent snow storms.

Amid the swirling snow, sub-zero temperatures, harsh terrain, and wildlife, Ben assumes the role of porter, doctor, hunter, and guide. Ashley, incapacitated by injuries, can offer little help but her upbeat spirit and sense of humor offers levity in the bleak story. Their repartee is a relief to the danger of the situation. The pilot’s Jack Russell Terrier has also survived the crash and his indomitable personality makes him my favorite character.

Ben trudges hour by hour through the snow thinking of his wife and their last argument that has kept them apart.  When settled for the day, he whips out his voice recorder and dictates long conversations about his day, difficult childhood and of the deep abiding love he feels for her to this very day.

The conversations between Ashley and Ben are interesting and it is easy to see that neither of them will ever forget the strength of character and compassion each exhibited through starvation, pain and the isolation of the wilderness.

There’s a surprise ending.  Sorry no hints. I didn’t see it coming.

.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

THE
ABSOLUTELY
TRUE
DIARY of a PART-TIME INDIAN : a novel

Author: Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown and Co. 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Hardcover: 229 pages

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appears on the Top 10 List of Challenged or Banned Books in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, religious viewpoint, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depictions of bullying.

Author Information

Sherman Alexie

The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation – the “rez” – in Wellpinit, Washington State. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, “with too much grease inside my skull”. And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skillfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.

Source: https://theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/04/teenage.sherman.alexie

Excerpt

 Arnold Spirit, Jr says:

I was born with water on the brain. . . My family thinks it as funny when the doctors. . . sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum. . .

My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other so my ugly glasses were all lopsided. . . I ended up with [42] teeth. . . Ten more than usual.

My head was so big. . . the kids called me Globe.

And oh, I was skinny. . .[but] my hands and feet were huge.

I also stutter and have a lisp. . . Every body on the rez calls me a retard. . . Do you know what happens to retards on the Rez? We get beat up. . .

Every kid wants to go outside. But it’s safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and draw cartoons. . . [I] draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. . .

[I] draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.

Book Review and Comments

Life on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation is rough on everyone but especially difficult for 14 year old Arnold Spirit, Jr aka Junior. His physical oddities and stuttering make him the perfect target for the mean spirited bullies on the “rez”.

Trapped by poverty and the effects of rampant alcoholism, he finds safety turning inward and dreaming of a better life off the reservation. He hides out in his room with his favorite books and resorts to writing about his life events – drawing relevant cartoons that express his deepest feelings and thoughts. One of my favorite cartoons depicts his parents lives if they were not handcuffed by culture, poverty and alcohol.

Determined not to be identified by his culture and circumstance, he never gives up hope to be seen as an individual on his own merits. We learn of his joys and sorrows through his diary.

Junior’s diary entries are written after the fact. They are openly honest and matter-of-fact; not offered as excuses or for shock value. They are sometimes startlingly emotional, often lonely, and at all times, written with unabashed candor and filled with optimism and hope.

As a child of two alcoholics, Arnold has seen first hand what alcohol can do to a family – hunger is a constant as Dad leaves to get bread and comes back drunk. His beloved Grandmother, who never touched a drop of alcohol, was run over by a drunken friend of Arnold’s father. His father’s friend was later killed in a drunken fight. His sister, Mary, and her husband were inebriated when they died in an accidental house fire.

FACT:   A popular blog on Native American life says that alcoholism is a disease that takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. It seems appropriate that this candid view of the subject by Junior presents readers with an opportunity to view the ramifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Junior’s life takes a turn when he begins his first day in high school and he is issued an ancient textbook that he discovers had been used by his mother in the past. Faced full-on with the dead-end future he could expect from the inferior education on the rez, he reacts by pitching the text book injuring his teacher, Mr. P.

A week into his school suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home.  Junior, expecting Mr. P’s wrath, is surprised, when Mr. P says –

When I first started teaching here. . . we beat rowdy [students]. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian [in you] to save the child. . . We were trying to kill the Indian culture. . . I want to say you deserve better. . . If you stay on the rez, we will kill [the spirit] in you. . . You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.

Arnold is disheartened by his father’s dependence on alcohol but he never doubts that he is loved by both of his parents. He tells them how important it is to him to leave the rez and transfer to the  high school twenty-two miles away for a better education. His father supports his decision although he knows that Junior will face deeply entrenched racism. His best friend on the rez, Rowdy, gives him a black-eye and a swollen nose as a going-away gift.  He might have been the victim of bullying on the rez but his leaving the culture in his rear-view mirror now labels him a traitor. Indian families follow tradition and stay together.

[His first day at the new school begins with] the white kids. . .arriving for school. They surround me. Those kids aren’t white. They were translucent. . .They stared at me like I was Bigfoot. . .[Their school mascot] was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town.

Junior/Arnold has a very hard time on all sides of his new life battling bullying and insults on both fronts. But as time goes by that first year, the “white” Arnold begins to emerge from his repressed rez cocoon at the new school excelling in academics and sports. He also finds racism, bullying, violence, drugs, girls, and hormonal explosion with exposure to raw sex.

FACT: According to the The Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan it is estimated that 40-85% of children will engage in at least some sexual behaviors before turning thirteen years of age (Friedrich, et al, 1991). It is believed by experts that 80% of children have masturbated by the age of three (Parenting, 1997). Children need to learn about sexuality. If children do not receive information about sexuality from their parents, they will receive it from their peers, TV, magazines, movies and other media, which may provide them with misinformation and cause confusion. 

I understand that some parents will prefer that their children acquire sexual knowledge at a time and place of their choosing. However, I am an old woman and I can affirm that when you learn about sex is usually far earlier than your parents think you are ready.

Junior’s life on the rez remains downcast until tragedy strikes his family and the entirety of the Spokane reservation pulls together in their grief and he is accepted back into the fold – with reservations- pun unintended.

By the end of his Freshman year, Junior/Arnold has a girlfriend in town and has his life on the reservation. He has learned many lessons during the year.  The view of the “white’ town, seen as a meca for educational advancement, turns out to be less than perfect- normal in its own way. The problems that plague the reservation may differ based on culture, but all communities have their good points and their bad. He has learned first hand how  poverty can make you feel inferior to those with money for new clothes and fast food. But he also learns that love and friendship can be color-blind.

I think that Arnold/Junior sums it all quite nicely. Yup. A cussword, Often my favorite.

format_quoteI used to think the world was broken down by tribes, I said. By black and white. By Indian and white.But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.

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Still Waters

STILL WATERS

by LINDSEY P. BRACKETT

easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

 

Firefly Southern Fiction (Sept, 2017)
Paperback: 274 pages
ISBN: 978-1946016232
Genre: WOMEN’S FICTION/CHRISTIAN FAITH
Review Source: Purchase

★★★★☆

I am a Yankee transplant who has lived over 30 years in the South – long enough to appreciate that religion is wrapped around everything and prayer is served with every meal. On the night of September 11, 2017, Hurricane Irma was screaming around my mountainside home. She had already cut the power to the house and I found myself reaching for something to read. I remembered I had a debut novel written by a local author on my Kindle. I lit my oil lamp and I read Still Waters while monster trees were crashing all around my home and I feared for my life. It proved to be a good choice on a bad night.

I was thrown off-guard by the cover of Still Waters – the image of a loving couple embracing on a beach. I was right to assume the book has the central love story – the typical story filled with conflict and tension that ends with happily ever after. But there is so much more – family dysfunction, friends, healing faith in God, forgiveness, and the final mystery – death.

Still Waters depicts humanity in all its imperfections and insecurities. We mere mortal humans are gifted with free will and will freely make both good and bad life decisions; but we do not have to be defined by our mistakes. The free will that allowed us to falter also allows us to pick ourselves up and begin again.

Cora Anne, now an adult, was scarred by a terrible decision she made as a child that resulted in the drowning death of a family friend. Unable to forgive herself, she now lives an unfulfilled life always running from the memory that follows her like a shadow. Choosing to see herself as unworthy of love and attention, she shields herself from the affection and joys of life by deflecting and rejecting the things in life that would make her whole. Looking inward, has also kept her from seeing the humanity and needs of those that love her.

Cor has just graduated from college and has been wait-listed for her graduate program in the fall. Her grandmother, Annie (Nan) has requested she spend the summer on Edisto Island helping her restore the family’s ocean-front cottage in preparation for an upcoming family reunion.  Edisto Island, the scene of her worst nightmare. The last place on earth she wants to spend the summer. Reluctantly she agrees to return to the island to help.

ghost on beach frameMy favorite character is Grandma Nan. This feisty lady is dying but no one knows it. She has set the stage to reunite the fractured family and to bring them home in time to spend her final days surrounded by those she loves. The gruesome scenes of facing cancer head-on are tempered with Nan’s acceptance and readiness to join her beloved Thornton in the afterlife.

The setting of Edisto Island and the ocean are key to the novel. The ocean within each person, the rolling emotions, are calmed by the healing nature of the slow paced life on the island and the unencumbered solitude of Botany Bay. In Still Waters, Ms. Brackett hits the bulls-eye describing the restorative and spiritual nature of the natural world.

I encourage all lovers of Clean Reads and Christian Fiction to take the long slow ride onto Edisto Island where life travels on “island time”.

She closed her eyes and let the wind and the salt and the gray-green surf loosen the burdens she’d carried so long. Here, on this haunted strip of beach, she listened for forgiveness, and she let the surety that her life was bigger than one choice made twelve years ago settle into her soul.

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Ordinary Grace

ORDINARY GRACE

by WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER

Atria | 2013
Paperback: 315 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4585-9
Genre: FICTION/ Families/Minnesota/Murder/Grief
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★★

It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus. He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. . . . I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

Years ago, Garrison Keillor invented Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and I found myself yearning to live in that simpler time, a town “where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average”.

In that same vein, William Kent Krueger has introduced the world to his fictional hometown of New Bremen, Minnesota – a small town seated in the valley of the Minnesota River. A town divided by class, prone to racism, and proud of its deep Christian values. A town where the wealthy homes fill the scenic “Heights” and the working class fill the lowland “Flats”. A place so isolated, the Methodist Church fulfills the spiritual needs of other marooned faiths. A community where everyone knows your name and just about everything else about you – or so they think.

From the first page, the first words, I knew that I was going to be transfixed. The book isn’t perfect; I saw the end coming early but it didn’t detract from the story. It is a fabulous coming-of-age story akin to To Kill A Mockingbird. I would like to add that I am not a deeply spiritual person but this carefully crafted book left me filled with wonder.

The story progresses in a linear fashion and you feel you are standing alongside each character as they are tested mentally, spiritually, ethically and morally. Sometimes you will feel the rush of panic or the agony of despair. Other times you will find comfort in the kindness. Above all, you will cheer the small miracles and the frequent signs of ordinary grace. There are some passages that will stay with you long after you finish the book.

Frank Drum, now middle-aged, narrates the story – a story of New Bremen in the summer of 1961 when he was 13 years old and his brother, 11 year-old Jake followed him around like Peter Pan’s shadow. For the rambunctious Frank and insecure stuttering Jake, summer time meant tempting fate on the railroad tracks that traces the river’s edge and “seemed to reach to a horizon from beyond which came the sound of the world calling.

That tragic summer started when a little boy wandered onto the tracks and was killed by an approaching train. We join the Drum family during the funeral as Pastor Drum tends his flock. His daughter, Ariel, is playing the organ and her brother, Frank thinks – There are [musical] pieces I cannot hear without  imagining my sister’s fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.

Little did  anyone know that Bobby Cole’s death was the first of a cavalcade of deaths that would forever change two families – the  Drums in the Flats and the Brandts in the Heights.  Each of them in their own way will learn the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

As the years have passed and all that’s left are memories of that fateful summer and the people, Frank leaves us with this thought that he heard from Warren Redstone, an Ojibwa  native.

 

Highly recommended!

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The Salt Line

THE SALT LINE

by HOLLY GODDARD JONES

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | Sept 2017
Hardcover: 394 pages
ISBN: 978-0735214316
Genre: DYSTOPIAN FICTION
Review Source: ARC e-book from Netgalley and

★★★☆☆

Decades ago, a particularly virulent tick invaded the United States causing a nation-wide epidemic that divided the Old Republic into factions deeper than the Civil War. Most of the survivors retreated behind quarantined barriers in several geographically defined Zones. Each of these  zones devised some method of limiting tick infestations; some more successfully than others. The most secure and safe zone is the Atlantic Zone; rich in resources and power left over from the Old Republic – safe behind the “Salt Line” – a chemically burned area extending several kilometers beyond the guarded perimeter “Wall.”

“A pregnant miner tick releases a numbing agent, which allows her to work without detection. By the time you feel the itching, [she] has settled in place, laid her eggs and died. In a matter of hours the ticks spread through the body, mature and erupt through the skin creating an unbearable itch. The bites can be survived but 45% of female miner ticks carry Shreve’s disease that spreads rapidly, causes total paralysis and death in a matter of days.”

– OLE Training Course

The pervasive  miner ticks are bit players here. Their lethal presence a source of existential anxiety. They are pawns in a much greater threat – domination and greed by the seedier side of human nature.

Four years ago, a private enterprise, Outer Limits Excursions (OLE), began offering expensive three-week guided trips into the Out-Of-Zone. Some of  their clients are enticed by stories of the purple mountains majesty and the abandoned history and culture of the past. Others are seeking the nefarious pleasures unobtainable in the highly regulated Atlantic zone but provided by the Out-Of-Zoners – free spirits choosing to live free of rules and regulations and chancing Shreve’s in the castoff world.

For personal safety, OLE excursions require each client to undergo a regimented three-week training program in survival skills. When ready, they will leave the Zone in a protective SecondSkin microsuit, -given a “Stamp”, an intense burner much like an old fashioned car cigarette lighter used to fry embedded ticks – and assigned a partner who must stay as close as a conjoined twin.

It’s September and the OLE brochure promises a once-in-a-lifetime view of the mountains in colorful foliage and visits to the remnants of the Old Republic way of life. The training is over – the van  has pulled away from the Salt Line – the emptiness- the vast isolation ahead overwhelms them.

Among the 12 clients are a popular jazz musician and his girlfriend, a young techno entrepreneur, and a middle-aged housewife; each with a hidden agenda and a specific purpose for being there other than viewing the scenery.

At this point background stories of key characters have been defined. The clients have been  together for three weeks  and  have established friendships – or at least allies – and enemies among themselves.

A couple of days into the adventure the startled passengers are kidnapped at gunpoint by their guide and force marched to a rustic commune in the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Ruby City. What looked like a three-week sightseeing tour now has turned violent – one of the passengers was shot – two have had been bitten by miner tics – and the future of the remaining passengers looks ominous.

field of poppies.jpgJune proceeded to shake the hand of each of her captives. . . When Marta’s turn came . . . [June] fixed her hazel eyes on Marta’s demanding contact. ‘You look tired’, she said. ‘That trek is a bit much for women our age. I do apologize.’

‘The trek was fine’, Marta managed to say.  ‘The treatment we received wasn’t’

‘I’m afraid that prisoners of war don’t often get the red carpet rolled out.’
‘What war?’, Marta asked.

Buckle up . . . things are about to take off. And no one is who they seem. And no one’s future is guaranteed.

Recommended

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Banned Books Week : 2017

banned books graphic.png

Celebrate 2017 Banned Books Week

 Sept. 24 – Sept. 30

Support the freedom to read with out censorship.

The American Library Association’s
Most Frequently Challenged Book List

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

To continue to raise awareness about the harms of censorship and the freedom to read, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) publishes an annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books, using information from public challenges reported in the media, as well as censorship reports submitted to the office through its challenge reporting form.

Source: American Library Association

My 2017 Challenged Book Selection

What book will you choose?

part-time indian cover.jpg

This year I have selected:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Little, Brown and Co.| 2007
Hardcover: 229 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-01368-0
OCLC: 154698238
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

This young adult book won a 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has been on the list five times since its publication in 2007.

It was the #1 Challenged Book in 2014.

The reasons cited for the library challenges are: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence and “depictions of bullying”.

  • National Book Award, Young People’s Literature, 2007.
  • Odyssey Award, 2009.
  • Notable Book for a Global Society award winner, 2008.
  • American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner, 2008

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Ban This Book

 

BAN THIS BOOK

by ALAN GRATZ

It all started the day my favorite book went missing from the [school] library. I didn’t know it was missing. Not yet.

Publisher: Starscape/Tom Doherty
Pub Date: Aug 29, 2017

Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8556-7
Genre: Juvenile Fiction (Ages 9-11)
Problem Solving/Censorship
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

ALAN GRATZ is a New York Times bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers. This newest book, BAN THIS BOOK introduces young (and older readers) to award winning books that have been challenged or banned in libraries. The book will be released in time for the 2017 American Library Association’s Banned Books Week slated for September 24 – 30.

BAN THIS BOOK opens with the 9 year-old avid library lover, Amy Anne, racing to her school library to check-out her favorite book for the umpteenth time. This day, Amy Anne discovers the book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not on the shelf. 

After a complaint by a concerned parent about the moral messages several books in the library teach readers, the local library board skips protocol and has ordered the books, including From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, removed from the library shelf. The library board will hear public comment about the pros and cons of permanently banning the books at their next meeting.

But – it isn’t inappropriate! . . . It’s a great book! It is my favorite book!

I know, [says the school librarian]. . .Nobody but your parents has the right to tell you what books you can and can’t read. I promise you, I’m going to fight this. . .You can help get it back, Amy Anne. . . .[Tell the library board] why you like that book so much. . .

Amy, a shy and reluctant public speaker, attends the board meeting but fails to summon the courage to speak up.

The librarian reminded the library board they had approved the Request for Reconsideration form and specific procedures for considering the merits of a book but they chose to sidestep the rules. The highly influential community matron’s highly emotional speech won the day.

Amy Anne take matters into her own hands and begins an underground effort to keep the books available to other students. She is caught and suspended from school for three days. The librarian, having had no part in the deception, was fired. Mrs. Spenser, emboldened, goes on a rampage stripping more books off the library shelves.

Mrs. Spenser’s own son devises a way to outsmart his mother and to show the library board the need to follow rules. It takes bravery and courage on the part of all the students to pull it off. As expected, all ends well.

There are many lessons  for children here. Reading exposes situations in a non-threatening way that prepares their own life crisis as they grow up.  They learn that even adults break rules but that rules are necessary and failing to follow them have consequences. Amy Anne shows that finding your own voice and standing up to what you believe in is important. And most importantly, free speech is a guaranteed by the First Amendment and no one but your parents should have the right to stop you from reading something.

Recommended.

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