Tag Archives: Coming of Age

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 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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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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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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Dodgers: a novel

dodgers-cover

DODGblood-splatter4-mdERS

by Bill Beverly

gang-kids-sketched

Crown Publishing | Apr 2016
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781101903735
Fiction/Crime/Coming-of-Age

Review Source: ARC trade paperback from First To Read and Crown Publishers in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★ easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

Morning dawns over a Los Angeles suburb known as the “Boxes”. As the early sunlight focuses on the front door of a local drug house, the night U[sers] begin to straggle out of the building. They pass the young street urchins hired as “watchers”. Their only job is to stay alert, awake, and ready to call in an alarm if they observe anything happening in the vicinity of the drug house that seems out of the ordinary. These small gangsters know their jobs and know the rules. Watch everything and everyone! Report anything suspicious or out of place immediately! To mess up was dangerous to their health if not their lives.12930883391149431275blood-scarlet-red-splash-md

As 15 year-old, East, lead watcher, stands guard in front of the building, he hears the sound of rapidly approaching vehicles just as his street scout’s radio squawks wordlessly. Something is wrong and there’s little time to warn anyone inside. Those able, scatter.  The police arrive and mercilessly destroy the house in a hail of bullets; killing an innocent neighborhood child in the melee.

Gang members in charge of the drug house gather for a face-to-face accounting with the drug lord and East’s uncle, Fin.

Fin sat waiting…When he spoke, it was with an ominous softness. What happened? After listening to a report from those inside the house he makes a decision to temporarily close all of his drug houses. Fin dismisses everyone to set that order in motion -except East.

Get up and lock that door. I don’t want nobody walking in on us, what happens next…You wonder what comes next?
There is something you might do for me. You can say yes or no. But its quiet. We won’t talk about it…You keep it till you die.

I want you to go on a drive. At the end of that drive, I want you to do something…murder a man.

East drew in his shoulder and carefully dried his mouth on it… I’m in.
I know you are, said Fin…then shook his head twice, a long shudder…

ramirez-99East’s companions on this delicate mission are his 14 year-old gun-crazed estranged half-brother, Ty, the 20 year-old happy go-lucky devil-may-care, rule flaunting, up-and-comer, Michael Wilson, and the mysterious “pumpkin-shaped” 17 year-old computer geek, Walter. This motley crew of land pirates was hand selected by Fin and as they stand around awaiting their travel orders, it is obvious from the get-go that there is no love lost among the group.

As Ty, Michael, and Walter grouse about giving up their weapons, cell phones and bank cards and receiving new identities, East stands alone processing why he was made part of this group. The group has been told to “blend in”.  Do nothing that would draw attention to themselves and the mission. Stay below the radar at all times. They are “family” headed to a family reunion in Wisconsin dressed in clearance rack Dodger baseball t-shirts.

In [East’s] mind he was boiling it down: Drive the roads. Meet up for guns. But there was nothing to see. Only these boys. Kill a man? More like keep them from killing each other, these three boys, for two thousand miles in this ugly van. That was what they’d brought him in for…

When all you know is the city, “The Boxes” – When you haven’t seen, let alone spoken to more than a handful of whites in your life and suddenly you stand out like black beans in white rice – When you are suspicious of every strange glance or conversation – When you have lived a life where you face danger 24/7…What could possibly go wrong? Answer- Everything.

Reviewer’s Thoughts

Some books are just hard to know where to put your finger on what’s holding you back from expressing your thoughts and Dodgers fits that bill this time around.  The book opens in a housing project where scared little boys find themselves “boxed” into a life determined for them in advance. We meet East and learn straight off that in a world with little hope for the future, East is an oddball out.

East blended in, didn’t talk much…but he watched and listened to people. What he heard he remembered. Unlike the [other boys], East slept alone, somewhere no one knew. He was no fun, and they respected him, for though he was young, he had none in him of what they most hated in themselves: their childishness. He had never been a child. Not that they had seen.

Throughout the cross-country trip to Wisconsin, East stands out as different. Although known for his observation skills, East doesn’t seem to grasp the reason that the other passengers in the car resent him and the mission. Not going to toss a spoiler with more information.

Testosterone and tensions build in the van. In the end, the group fractures. East finds himself alone, freezing, in the middle of a country as foreign to him as the moon.  With little life experience, East doesn’t expect the world to give him a chance, so when he finds a job at a paintball store, he is satisfied to have a cardboard box mat in a warm building at night. He, again, fails to understand that he is entitled to so much more in life. Although East clearly has a criminal history, there is a part of his soul that is good. I ached for him and hoped that he would learn that he was free to grow and step outside the confines of his past life.

The good stuff? Watching East as he sees the beauty of America first hand.  The author, in this debut work, has the American landscape so vividly described, you feel the depressed small villages, the heat in the desert, and the night sky giving way to dawn.

All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky…He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plant scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.  He couldn’t stop looking…

The suspense and tension rises and falls in the story pulling the reader along. At times it bogs down, but it kept my attention. The violent scenes are tough and real.

One final observation. Boxes. Time and time again, East finds that no matter where you are in this world, people find themselves boxed by life. And he learns that no matter how far you try to outrun your past, it can find you.

Good reading and a good first book. I certainly look forward to future works by this author.

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Looking For Alaska

banned-books-image

# 1 Challenged Book In 2015

looking-for-alaska
Looking For Alaska

Author | John Green
Dutton Bks | 2005
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1

click-on-me-to-find-out-more-q1ztrj-clipart
Genre: Fiction/Interpersonal Relations
Audience: High School

PRESS RELEASE – 2005

Before.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Challenge History
Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, was John Green’s debut young adult novel. The American Library Association awarded the book the  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2006. Visit the link Awards and Challenges for more information about this book and book challenges in general.

The first challenge to the book occurred in 2008 when the book was used as course material in an 11th-grade English class in a high school near Buffalo, N.Y. Some parents challenged its usage in class because of its liberal portrayal of students drinking, smoking, using explicit language and having sex. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book in the school curriculum

Following the phenomenal success of John Green’s A Fault In Our Stars in 2012, Looking for Alaska received a second look by many and soon appeared on the NYT children’s paperback bestseller list at #10.

The American Library Association received  270+ different titles challenged in 2015 but the most challenged book was Looking for Alaska. The ALA has summarized the challenges as offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Other challenges to the book focused on religious objections.

John Green’s Youtube defense of challenges

My Review

First off I was disappointed (tongue-in-cheek) to learn that the story wasn’t about the cold northern state, Alaska; I had hoped. Alaska is a “gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating classmate” (according to the publisher) not an Alaskan musher.

Having gotten over my disappointment, I looked at the bones of the book. Unlike most novels, the book is uniquely arranged in one continuous story-line. No separate chapters.  Breaks in the timeline are spliced into the story by bold headlines – a countdown to some unknown event beginning with one hundred thirty-six days before. This layout did keep me reading page after page always looking for clues, ever aware that something significant is going to happen. A very useful tactic if encouraging a reluctant reader.

My overall impression was positive. I thought the book was age-appropriate for senior high school students. Parents of younger children should probably read the book in advance and make their own decision if their child is mature enough or prepared for some of the themes. The sex scenes and underage drinking reflect the mind of the intended audience as they transition from youth toward adulthood; even if as a parent, you would like to keep your child innocent and close to home. It is my opinion the book could provide a medium through which a parent and child can discuss sensitive topics at a time when it is hard to talk about anything with your child without sulking or surly rebellion.

I particularly liked that Miles’ father, an alumnus of Culver Creek, having been a mischief make himself, advises Miles, “Don’t do anything stupid…No drugs, No drinking, No cigarettes.” While Miles had no initial interest in these activities he was so anxious to belong that he was willing to suspend his better judgement at times.

The heaviest topic, suicide, threads through the story, often disguised as bluster and bravado. Again, with teenage suicides the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the book provides an avenue for discussion about the symptoms and signals of teenage depression.

I was struck by the deliberate absence of parental contact and limited supervision by school staff during the school year; parents and teachers for the most part seemed to speak in the Peanuts cartoon “wah wah wah” voice as background noise. The “Eagle”, Mr. Starnes, dean of students, appears as a nocturnal guard against late night mischief with little interest in the life of students exhibiting social problems.

By and large, one of the best themes of the book was the world religions class. Miles was not raised in a deeply religious setting but he is intrigued by the metaphysical nature of the class. It speaks to why he reads biographies to learn people’s last words and to his reason for attending this school- searching for the Great Perhaps. The topic of death and the meaning of life is central to the story. As Miles “Pudge” Halter absorbs his thoughts about the meaning of life, the reader follows Alaska’s personal torments toward tragedy.

Mr. Hyde posts Simón Bolívar’s last words, often quoted by Alaska, on the chalkboard as a source for class discussion and reflection.

“Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”

The author places each character in a myriad of labyrinths. Each labyrinth, whether Miles’ efforts at developing friendships, Chips disapproval of the wealthy day students, or Alaska’s deep history of family tragedy and sorrow, lends itself to self-reflection and/or shared dialogue.

When the unexpected event happens and “the before” ends and “the after” begins, life is altered for each character. As in life itself, the characters learn how tenuous the future really is and their self-discovery in response to the “event” casts a bright light on friendship, loyalty, trust, love, religion and reality.

Despite the dark overtones, the book has many positive messages.

The world religion class receives their final exam question two months in advance and the characters’ reflections and discussions on the topic are thought provoking.

What is the most important question human beings must answer?
Choose your answer wisely, and then examine how “Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.

Pudge’s final exam begins…

Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for the Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life.

And ends with…

Thomas Edison’s last words were: ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing what has turned out to be a lengthy discussion of this “banned book.” If this book has such a lasting impression on me personally, I hope it is helpful and enlightening to others as well.

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Wangs vs. The World

wangs vs. the world netgalley

WANGS vs. The World

by Jade Chang

Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt | Oct 2016
Paperback: 368 pages (978-0544734098)
Genre: Fiction/Asian American/Humor/Coming of Age

ARC: NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review. 

 ★★★★

Charles Wang has always felt gypped.  Years ago the Communists confiscated his family’s ancestral lands and Charles lives with the belief that he was robbed of his birthright as a landed aristocrat.  His family was forced to join hordes of Chinese escapees to the island of Taiwan where his fmercedes sketchather built a grim little factory that supplied urea to fertilizer manufacturers.  His disgraced father had been reduced to a dealing in pee.  “Not even real honest piss – artificial piss.  Faux pee.  A nitrogen-carrying ammonia substitute…

Sure that he could regain his family’s fortune and status, Charles headed to the United States to sell faux pee to American fertilizer manufacturers.  Airsick and relegated to the in-flight restroom, Charles practices his English reading the label of a mini-bar of soap and makes a monumental discovery…urea is an ingredient in this sweet smelling soap.

And with that discovery Charles was able to turn “Shit into Shinola” citing one of his favorite American movie phrases.  In fact he made two hundred million dollars worth of Shinola and became an American cosmetics tycoon.

Living the good life in sunny California set his initial purpose of restoring the family lands in China way back in a dusty corner of his mind. He had the money but he was having too much fun with it. So much fun that he let it distract his best business sense and when turned down for a loan to start a new cosmetic line he put his his entire fortune up as collateral… the Bel Aire house, the cigarette boat, the children’s trust funds.  Everything.

The new cosmetics line failed and at the same time America crashed headlong into the Great Recession of 2008. Overnight Charles lost it all.  And by extension his three children and his wife lost everything too.  And he did all this in secret from his family.

After shocking his spoiled and pampered wife, Barbra, with the news Charles packs a confused Barbra and his childhood nanny, Ama, into the only car available to him…the powder-blue 1980 Mercedes station wagon long ago sold to Ama.   Lights off on the old car they roll down the long driveway in the dead of night to avoid the embarrassment of discovery by their neighbors to begin a long arduous journey across the US to move in with their oldest daughter in her old farm house in rural New York State.

Along the way they will pick up the other two children both away at school. The children discover abruptly that their own world just collapsed; their lives reduced to fast food restaurants and sleazy hotel rooms as they travel cross country.

And this is where the story gets crazy. Anyone who has ever taken a family vacation stuffed in a station wagon with all their squabbles and perceived injustices can relate. As the reality of their sudden drop in social standing hits them, they all work their way through the emotions of loss and the realization that their future will be far different from their recent past.

Bumping along in the old car, we watch, look and listen as we are taken back to Taiwan, disco lounge or college dorm flipping around the past and present of each character.  Slowly each character changes, often subtly, until this family discovers the heart is the true source of riches.

The book was hyped as hysterically funny.  Nada.  But I did smile often and found it entertaining.  Sometimes I wanted to reach over and step on the gas to speed things up a bit. At times Charles was so shallow and narcissistic I was turned off.  Barbra, playing the role of the unloved step-mother, discovers her softer side.

When an unexpected event turns the road trip into something much more serious, I was surprised. Talk about a knock up side of the head to realign your priorities. And the final chapters were very engaging leaving me sad and hopeful at the same time.

I couldn’t help but think that this was a nice read but would make a great movie.  So read the book, it will be out in October 2016.  I am willing to bet you will see it screen soon after that!

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My Summer With Gramps

My Summer With Gramps

My Summer With Gramps

by Ignatius Ryan

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform | Nov 2014
Paperback: 330 pages (978-1503221512)
Genre: Fiction/Coming of Age

ARC:  NETGALLEY in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★

Want a crash course on world history, American civil rights, religion, economics, philosophy,  modern day politics… and much more?  Grab your bike (don’t forget your helmet) and ride on over with the boy to Gramps house.

The nameless narrator, a 13 year old boy, hasn’t seen his Gramps for at least eight years although as he says, “I seem to remember him fondly“.  The reader is left pretty much in the dark about the bad blood between the boy’s parents and Gramps and the long silent years. If their relationship was like my family, who can remember why.

It’s the end of the summer, the boy’s parents are going through a rough patch together, and his mother tells him he needs to visit his grandfather.

Go see your grandfather,” she suggested in a way that sounded distinctly like an order…”It will be a nice surprise for him.” …So here I was riding along this bumpy trail… I reached Grandpa’s …house [and] I spotted him in a rocking chair.

I stepped up on the porch and said,”Howdy, Grandpa!”
Grandpa cracked an eye open and said,”What brings a young lad like you over here on such a find summer day?”

What was probably intended as something to do one fine day to get him out of the house turned into a summer’s project by Gramps to cram a lifetime of knowledge into the boy’s memory.

Warning to the reader.  You will want a dictionary and perhaps a tab open on your computer to www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com  The boy won’t be the only one learning a thing or two.  At least once during each visit Gramps uses some highfalutin word which prompts the boy to ask what? 

I got to Gramps about noon.  I was beginning to think my constant bloviation had driven you away.”  Boviation?  “Yes, pompous speechifying.”

The boy is an information sponge and Gramps is a walking encyclopedia.  As the summer progresses each of them undergoes significant character development.

As a proud Baby Boomer myself, I enjoyed Gramps style of music always playing on the old radio somewhere in the house.  Couldn’t help myself but start humming a very familiar tune to my old ears.  I wasn’t too happy that Gramps enjoyed his “jug” so often but he had some quirks that were very endearing.

And I personally want to thank Gramps for introducing me to a new word: snollygoster. Look it up.  A very apropos word for this political season.

Enjoyed the book tremendously although at times I had to admit I was overwhelmed with Gramps bloviation.

 

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