House Made of Dawn – Momaday

A few weeks ago, I was watching a Ken Burns documentary on the American West and there was a man who spoke so eloquently it took my attention immediately.  The text on the screen said this man was N. Scott Momaday, a Native American Writer.  Immediately I started a search for books and found that he was the 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel House Made of Dawn. Add to cart, purchase, ship, read.

I’m about halfway through with HMoD, reading a little here and there over the Thanksgiving holiday.  This novel is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  The theme centers around Abel’s journey from native culture of his family to the assimilation to the white man’s way.  After the American Indian’s legal struggles throughout the 19th century, it seems as if Abel’s generation was really feeling a divide and nearing a decision to carry their ancestors ways or melt into a foreign way of life as many did before him.  Abel was in a difficult struggle to fit in with either culture.

A few observations of the book so far:  Descriptive.  Momaday uses an extensive vocabulary to describe canyons, villages, people, rain storms, death, love, struggles.  I really enjoy how he paints the picture:

“The canyon is a ladder to the plain. The valley is pale in the end of July, when the corn and melons come of age and slowly the fields are ready for the yield, and a faint, false air of autumn- an illusion still in the land- rises somewhere away in the high north country, a vague suspicion of red and yellow on the furthest summits. And the town lies out like a scattering of bones in the heart of the land, low in the valley, where the earth is a kiln and the soil is carried here and there in the wind and all harvests are a poor survival of the seed.”

While the descriptions are enjoyable, the story line is a little confusing.  I hope it will straighten out a little and tie together by the end.  There are dreams, diaries, and different characters that have small connections to each other.  It’s hard to put the connections together at this time, except that each major character has a different perspective of the time.  There is Abel, a young man who doesn’t fit in with either culture; Abel’s grandfather, Francisco, who is Abel’s last link to the old ways;  and Father Olguin, a priest sent to help ‘civilize’ and guide the natives to the European way of life.

At the point I am at in the book now, it is 1952 and Abel lives in LA.  He is struggling with alcoholism and it is painful to read about his physical  struggle.  A religious group of American Indians is mentioned, they had a peyote ceremony, the leader (Priest of the Sun) works to make connections between story telling of his ancestors and the written word of the Bible.

More to come…

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Part 2 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Chbosky

I enjoyed this book and it was written as an interesting and realistic view of a student as he goes through his first year of high school.  The book had a neat style in that the entire book is written as a series of personal letters from the main character, Charlie, to an acquaintance who was never identified and Charlie said several times that they met once but the person doesn’t know him.  Charlie also tried not to give too many names or details to let this person identify who he is.

As many are/were, Charlie was pretty nervous about entering high school.  The previous year, his best friend Michael committed suicide and it was hard on Charlie, as one could imagine. Charlie is a very quiet young man with few friends, so he was elated to meet Sam and Patrick (step brother/sister) and be welcomed into their group.  Apart from driving around and hanging out at the Big Boy parking lot, the group were fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and watched/acted it out every Saturday in a theater.

Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, quickly noticed Charlie was an avid reader who needed more than the established class curriculum, so he gave Charlie  books on the side to read and write essays about.  I liked reading about the books he read and remembering about when I read them, or putting some on my list to read.  He always said his favorite book was the last one he read.  In the beginning of the book, Bill made an integral suggestion that Charlie participate more in life and that really drove Charlie to do more in his freshman year.  Bill and Charlie became friends and had occasional life conversations.  Bill was a great positive role model for Charlie and as a teacher myself, it was nice to see him take him under his wing and be more than just a teacher to him.

Sam was Charlie’s crush (Emma Watson in the film), but through most of the book she was dating Craig, a college guy who Charlie felt didn’t appreciate her as much as she should be appreciated.  Charlie was resigned to the fact that Sam was more of a friend and he couldn’t take the chance in pursuing her and losing one of the dear friends he met.  By the end of the book, Charlie had his chance and Sam made some important points that Charlie needs to be more decisive and make his interest, wants, and needs known to those around him.  Again, the participation he needed to work on.

As the book went on, Charlie had minor panic attacks and talked about his experience with psychologists.  Soon, he was seeing one again and sometimes the questions and conversations made him uncomfortable.  I hate giving away too much but Charlie had an experience as a young child which was repressed and kept him always thinking and worrying. By the end of the book, much of this was overwhelming.

There were a lot of great parts in this book.  Many were of Charlies observations with the world.  He liked seeing old photographs and thinking about what people were like at the time of the photo, which I do as well.  In one part he was talking about ‘glory days’ and how he found a newspaper clipping of his dad when he hit a home run to win a baseball game.  He wondered what his glory days would be like and if he was already in them.  He thought about the fact that every guy he sees that scores a touchdown or hits a home run will be a dad someday telling his kids about that time.  The children will see old yearbook photos and think about how their dad was rugged and handsome and happier than they are.  Charlie said he hopes he remembers to tell his kids someday that they are as happy has he looks in the old photographs.  Things like this reminded me of myself growing up.  Watching people and wondering where they were going, what their own life was like, what my own children will be like, how people change, how certain experiences can change courses of one’s life.

One part of the book had Sam crawling into the back of the truck as they drove through a tunnel. As Charlie talked to Sam and Patrick he said ‘We are infinite’. That was the tagline of the movie posters.  Charlie really loved the feeling he had with the pair and occasionally longed to be infinite again.

  • In the back of the book there was a clip about the group http://www.moreloveletters.com.  It’s a group which asks for people to write love letters to strangers in need of a positive word or encouragement.  I thought that was a neat idea and tied in well to the book, check it out if you have a chance.

Rating: **********9/10

Part 2 – The Kitchen Boy – Alexander

SPOILER:  The Russian Czar and his family along with a cook, maid, doctor, and another helper all die.  But, this is all in history, and we already knew this happened.

Something I didn’t mention in the original post, this is a work of narrative fiction.  While there are some parts that are true, the central theme of the kitchen boy living on to tell his story was fiction.  Unless you are an expert on the Bolshevik Revolution, you probably wouldn’t know enough details to realize that not all of this was true (The author notes at the end that all indented parts in the book were true).   It was written well and it made me want to believe that all the pieces fit. This could be a tale knit together so well that it makes you think twice about the truth of the demise of the Rominov family in 1918.

I had to look up some facts after I read the story:

-The Rominov family was held in Serbia during the revolution by the Communists

-There were personal servants along with the family in exile (including a kitchen boy, Leonka)

-Two members of the Rominov family were thought to have escaped the mass killing – Alexei and Maria

– From 1918 until they found the mass grave in 1998, many believed at least one of the two missing had made it out alive

-DNA testing in 1998 proved that the mass burial included all family members thought to be missing

As the narrator (Mishka/Leonka) tells his story to his granddaughter, Katya, he alludes to secrets he has kept from her and steers the reader (and Katya) to believe certain things about him and his deceased wife as far as their involvement to the Rominov Czar’s family.  To say the story has a twist at the end (Epilogue) would be a vast understatement.  Without reading the Epilogue, I would have really missed a lot.  (Always read the Epilogue!) The ending is tied together.  It all made sense.  Everyone likes a story with a twist, and this one I could hardly see coming.  I think the author did an excellent job blending his facts with fiction to develop a sharp-twisting ride for the reader.

Final thoughts: If you like historic mysteries, or you like feeling like a fly on a wall to historic events, this was a nice read.  It’s pretty short at just over 200 pages, even so, at times it felt pretty slow and repetitive through out the book. What really saved it for me was the final twist.  I liked how it ended, and I did my best not to completely spoil it here.

Rating: ******* 7/10

The Kitchen Boy – Alexander

I found a copy of The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander at a Goodwill store at the end of this summer.  I’ve enjoyed reading other history books like 1453 (Siege of Constantinople that changed it to Istanbul) so I was looking forward to learning about the last days of the Russian Czars (Nikolai and Aleksandra, and their five children) during the Bolshevik Revolution.  This was a detailed account of the last days of the royal family in their exile, as told by their kitchen boy, Makhail Semyonov.  Nearly 80 years after the incident, this kitchen boy told his secrets on his deathbed in an audio recording to his granddaughter.  At the time of the exile, he had only been working for the family for around a month, and he was exiled with the family to The House of Special Purpose in Serbia.  Patrolled by guards day and night, those in the house were not allowed to leave without permission from the Soviets.  As the kitchen boy, he was not considered to be a relevant piece of the family, so the Soviets were unsuspecting of him.  This overlooked helper was allowed out of the house for errands, some for everyday use, and some errands were in secret, passing messages from the Czar which build hope to save the Czar and his family. Not only did the irrelevance of his position allow him out of the house, but it saved him from being exterminated with the Czars and the rest of the staff in the house.  He was the sole survivor from the House of Special Purpose, and the last person to see the Czar family in their last moments before their assassinations.

So far, I’m about halfway through.  It is slow going, but enjoyable- it’s like hearing a secret.  The lowly kitchen boy was such an important part to the mysterious crime that happened in 1918. I like how he remembers little details, like what they ate, and the little problems and victories the family had in their exile.  He talked about how the Czar gained his wisdom much too late in life, while the son, the heir, gained his wisdom too early.  If the Czar had planned better, the revolution could have possibly been thwarted.  If the son was older, he could have had more insight to save the throne.  Time was a disadvantage.

Perks of Being a Wallflower – Chbosky

This week at the school I teach, I found a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  I saw the movie a few months ago and it was a movie I considered to have a lot of depth and relevance as a former high school  student and current high school teacher.  These characters seem so real with so many common issues and connections.  I liked the movie and I’m enjoying the book.  The book’s author also wrote and directed the movie, so they are closely tied. It can be frustrating when a movie differs so much from the book. Today we had parent-teacher conferences.  Since I have so few show up, I made sure I had a book on hand, and this was the one. I started reading and made it through chapter one without any visitors showing up. So far, Charlie (main character) has met Patrick (Nothing) and Sam (crush).  It seems like for the first time, he finds people who understand him and accept him. For so many adolescents, this is a big deal.  This is the happy part, so many sad parts in the book, but the happy part is the main idea for me in this one.