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

Arnold Spirit is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, where everyone calls him Junior.  As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, which caused seizures, poor vision, and a perception from his peers that he was different.  Most of the others on the rez picked on him, except his family, and his closest friend, Rowdy.  Rowdy was a tough guy and would fight anybody over anything, especially anyone who got too rough with Junior.

Beginning high school at the rez became a turning point for Junior.  He got upset that the textbooks were so old his mom’s name was in them.  He was suspended for throwing the book, which hit the teacher, Mr. P.  During his suspension, Mr. P visited Junior and convinced him to get his education off the reservation.

Most of the Indians picked on Junior because he was different, now they picked on him because he was a traitor for leaving the rez.

Reardon was Junior’s new school, it was twenty miles from the rez.  Sometimes his dad was sober enough to drop him off and pick him up, but every once in a while, Junior had to walk. He was the only Indian at the white school, and it was a rough start for him.   He was half white at the rez, and half indian at the school.  It took some time but Junior found his place, realizing he was as smart and athletic as anybody at Reardon.  While finding himself there, he also lost some close friends and family back home.  Rowdy believed he was a traitor and went for blood during the high school basketball game. Alcohol was also a major contributor to the losses at the rez.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the character’s in NS Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which focuses on an American Indian’s struggle with modernization- living in the white world. It is a struggle between balancing everything your family knows and has held on to for centuries, or going out on your own to find a better life.  A struggle of honoring your ancestors to keep the culture alive or turning your back on them to leave the rez. It is a tough battle, and many on the rez don’t fight it.  They stay and become prisoners there.

The Quick and the Dead – Louis L’Amour

The day finally came when the McKaskel family set out upon the Santa Fe Trail. Duncan, his wife, Sarah, and their son Tom had only known the city life back East.  Both parents were educated and Tom was eager for adventure as any teenage boy would be.  Little did they know how much adventure they would find.

All of the education they gained in life would not be enough to secure their survival on the dire trail.  Within the first week the horses were stolen, surely they would have had to turn back if- the hero, Con Villain hadn’t shown up.  He was only passing through, and the pretty Sarah sure makes a great cup of coffee.

The McKaskels weren’t sure what to make of Con.  Was he just waiting for the right moment to rob the family himself?  Little by little, Con earned their trust. First of all, he never had to follow Duncan to the outlaw’s town to retrieve the horses.  He especially didn’t have to shoot the man in the barn aiming to shoot Duncan in the back.  Con didn’t even have to stay with the McKaskels when the Indians came to visit.

With his help, the family gained a different knowledge.  Learning what had not been written in the books they read.  The horse thieves followed them on the trail and Con always helped the McKaskels stay a step ahead.  One night, they were split up by the outlaws and Sarah figured they might not ever see Con again. If it were true, would the family make it on their own?  Would they overcome the struggles of the trail or would they become like the thousands of unmarked graves on the dangerous route?

A classic Western, The Quick and the Dead has been made into movies and is one of Louis L’Amour’s most popular works.  The suspense found between the pages keep them turning to find out if the family survives, if Indians attack, if outlaws return, and if Con Villain would be their savior, or a wolf in a sheep’s skin…

Twitter: @blookworm

IG: @83mrlong

 

Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

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

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time is another great fantasy work, focusing on a fair mixture of science and religion.  L’Engle explores topics which focus on ideas that young adults can struggle with on their way to adulthood.

Meg Murray is a young teen who struggles a lot with school, many of her classmates consider her an idiot, but when it comes down to it, she does very well at math and science (with two scientists as parents, it’s easy to see why).  Her father has been missing for a couple of years after leaving on a science mission with the government. Her mother continues her chemistry experiments at home, patiently awaiting her husband’s return.  Meg also has younger twin brothers who do fair in school, get along well with their peers, and they have a hard time understanding why it’s all so difficult for Meg.  The youngest member of the Murray family is Charles Wallace.  He was late in developing speech, and many people in their town believed he would be dumb, but he was actually very mature for his age of five, and he had a very impressive vocabulary, along with a nearly sixth-sense of mind reading as he always knew what Meg was thinking.

As Meg and Charles Wallace were walking through the woods to their new neighbor’s home, they befriended Calvin, an older boy who was a star athlete and student.  Calvin also had some extra perception capabilities, like Charles Wallace.  Together, they met the ‘witch’ neighbors and were soon whisked away to find their father who was on a distant planet, trying to save the universe from an evil darkness that was taking over stars and planets.  Mr. Murray was not the first to battle evil, as the witches explained, others like Jesus, the Buddha, and famous artists and scientists also had fought against the evil forces.

As the book explains, they use a form of travel called ‘tessering’ which gets them from planet to planet and into other galaxies in the universe.  Soon, they land on the target planet, Camazotz, where they found a society that was completely conformed to do every task at the same time and citizens were exterminated or retrained when they ‘fell out of line’ or caught an illness. Charles Wallace in his naivety, decided to challenge the man who was explaining the order and conformity to the group, and he became hypnotized.  The new Charles Wallace led the other two children their father and Meg used a special gift to free him.  Together, Charles Wallace then led the crew to ‘IT’ to try to have them hypnotized and join the society as well, he was a completely different and untrustworthy person at that point. Mr. Murray tessered Meg and Calvin to another planet to escape, leaving little Charles Wallace to IT.

The group had tessered to another planet in Camazotz’ solar system and there Meg was nursed to health and found a true belief and good and love and is sent back to Camazotz to use her love to untrap Charles Wallace and return home.  The conformity of Camazotz and IT were essentially short circuited by this emotion as they left little free will or capability of truly understanding love.

As mentioned before, important topics in the book focused on young adults gaining a better understanding of the world.  L’Engle emphasized the importance of the perseverance of good over evil frequently in the book.  She also stressed the fight against conformity and importance of free will as the children explored Camazotz.

This was a fun and quick read.  I generally enjoy sci-fi, and those of course were my favorite parts of this book.  I liked how they explained ‘tessering’ and traveling at hyperspeed.  L’Engle did a great job of describing the emotions and physical feeling of tessering through Meg’s character.

Quick amateur sketch of my thoughts of A Wrinkle in Time: (Kids skipping rope and bouncing balls with a conformed rhythm, boy on end is out of sync, mothers leaning out of houses to call the kids in all at the same time while Charles Wallace, Meg, and Calvin watch. Evil darkness rising behind the houses.)

WrinkleSketch.jpg

Rating: ********8/10

On The Road – Jack Kerouak

On The Road, “Yass, Yass, egad, whoopee!” as Dean would have said.  The book that shot Kerouak into notoriety also catapulted the ‘beat’ generation.  What is beat? Beat is not knowing but seeking, not just living but experiencing, not just observation but immersion, it is IT!  Kerouak’s characters felt like getting out and living to the fullest.  Driving or hitching across the US in a couple of days just to say hi to a friend, endless drunken parties, going just to go.  While they seemed to have wonderful lives, they also had periphery lives that included aunts, parents, grandparents, and multiple wives and kids they had to neglect to fulfill their longing of seeking.  When he had enough of one wife, Dean would leave her with child and head to the other coast to live with his other wife and kids, spending every dime to get there.  A constant life of spinning wheels.

“What’s your road, man?- holy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.”

The main character, Sal Paradise, started the series of journeys in 1947, leaving from New Jersey to visit friends in San Francisco with the intentions of meeting a friend and finishing his novel.  He hitched to Denver, stayed a few days, and went to the West coast.  He stayed with a friend, Remi, and guarded a camp for shipmen.  He carried a gun and was supposed to keep the sailors quiet and sober instead of joining the fun.  Not his cup of tea.  Eventually he moved on to Los Angeles where he met a nice Mexican woman and joined her village to pick cotton.  Her family was not accepting of Sal so he moved on and went back to New Jersey.

“I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.” 

The next year, Sal had finished his book and his friend, Dean, came from Denver to New Jersey to pick him up and drive West.  They went south to New Orleans, across Texas and up to Denver.  In New Orleans they stayed with an old friend, ‘Old Bull Lee’ (said to be a character based on William S. Burroughs).  Lee was wise but a heavy experimenter of drugs, spending most of the day in a haze of heroine.  When he was alert in the mornings, Lee kept the crew entertained and tried to convince Sal to stay with him and forget his friends who lacked much in ambition. When the time came, Sal joined his friends and continued on to Denver.  Upon arriving, Dean left Sal and his ex-wife, Mary Lou, to meet up with his wife Camille.  For nearly a week Dean was gone and in the meantime, Mary Lou left with some other guy.  After Dean’s return he was solemn and careless of Sal, so Sal decided to buy a bus ticket back to New York.

“I realized these were all the snapshots, which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking that their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.”

The following spring in 1949, Sal loaded up from New York and went to meet Dean in San Francisco.  Dean had had part of his thumb amputated after an infection caused by hitting Camille.  He was starting to show his age, he went from a bright beacon for Sal to a load of  childish nonsense, but Sal stuck with him.  Together they left for Denver. Few friends were left there and they spent a few days digging the jazz joints.  One night, Dean stole car after car for drunk kicks and the next morning they found out the last car they drove back to the where they were staying was a detective’s car.  They quickly left Denver and headed to New York.

“As the cabby drove us up the infinitely dark Alameda Boulevard along which I had walked many and many a lost night the previous months of the summer, singing and moaning and eating the stars and dropping the juices of my heart drop by drop on the hot tar, Dean suddenly drove up behind us in the stolen convertible and began tooting and tooting and crowding us over and screaming.”

The final trip in the story saw Sal planning to go to Mexico City, via Denver.  While in Denver, Dean came from NYC to drive them, with plans to get a Mexican divorce from Camille so he could join his new love, Inez, in New York.  After the long journey, Sal stayed in the hospital with dysentery for several days and Dean left them to go home as he accomplished his own goal of the divorce.  At that point Sal realized how unsympathetic and shallow Dean’s life and friendship was.

Decided to try to sketch my image of the book:

ONtheRoadDraw.jpg

Uncle Tom’s Cabin -Harriet Beecher Stowe

I recently finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a fan of history and morose literature, I really enjoyed this read.  During an unfortunate period of our history, Stowe took an initiative in the fight for abolition and the equality of humanity in the U.S.  This book was written over a decade befor the Emancipation Proclamation, and I’m sure her writing made a strong fight in the abolitionist movement.

Prior to reading this, I had always heard allusions to ‘Uncle Toms’ being an African American taking a subservient stance toward Caucasians.  I feel the book had a completely different point- a point of forgiveness and kindness.  The atrocities Uncle Tom experienced never faltered his Christian beliefs and his hope that there was a chance of goodness in everything.  As each episode he went through became worse and worse, his love and drive to ‘save’ everyone became stronger.

The book begins with Tom’s owners, the Shelby’s, selling Tom and Henry as a financial decision to help their farm.  Tom submitted to the situation, but Eliza, took her son, Henry, and fled North in hopes of Freedom in Canada.

Tom was taken to sale at an auction in New Orleans and along the way a wealthy man named Augustine St. Claire bought him as a driver and caretaker of his daughter, Eva.  Eva was a delightful girl and as the story drew on it was apparent she was ill and would soon be lost.  Tom enjoyed Eva and her interest in his bible and before she passed away she declared she would be spending the rest of her time in heaven and wished all the people in her life would remember her and strive to treat each other kindly, quit enslaving people and meet her in heaven when their time on Earth was finished.  Upon her death, St. Claire announced he would free Tom and the other slaves, but his life was taken in a pub before he could make the necessary legal provisions to free his slaves.  His wife sent most of the slaves to auction and Tom was bought by Simon Legree.  Legree was an evil man and used two overseers who he pitted against each other.  He was harsh in his treatment of the slaves he owned and resolved that there would be no talk of God or the bible on his land.  He decided one way or another he would beat the religion out of Tom.

Eliza’s story took a different path as she fled North.  She was taken in by a family of Quakers and soon found her husband, George, miraculously coming to the same family on his own path to freedom.  They joined together and found freedom in Canada and lived happily ever after.

This was a fairly sad book, in looking back on the common treatment of slaves in the South, and the indifference of the Northerners. A repeating theme was that many Southern farmers said they planned on freeing their slaves, but this usually was put off too long and their deaths brought their slaves to the auction block to continue their servitude at another plantation.

I’ll finish with my favorite quote of the book, which was from a conversation with Tom and St. Claire –

St. C- “Why Tom, you couldn’t have possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you.”

Tom- “Knows all that, Mas’r St. Claire; Mas’r’s been too good; but, Mas’r I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ’em mine, than have the best, and have them any man else’s, – I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s nature, Mas’r.