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.

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

The Stranger – Albert Camus

A young Frenchman, Meursault, lives on his own, working a trivial job.  The story opens with news of his mother’s passing.  She lived nearly 80 Kilometers away, at the elderly home he had sent her to live as he had little income to support her living at home with him.  He was disconnected from his mother, the time they spent when they lived together was uneventful, each having nothing to say and wishing to be elsewhere.  At the viewing and funeral, Meursault had not wished to see his mothers body, and had not cried, giving the appearance of indifference.  Upon returning home, he began an affair with Marie, a woman who used to be his coworker.  He thought she was incredibly beautiful, but as she asked him for marriage, he again showed indifference to their future.

Meursault’s friend Raymond lived across the hall in their building.  He was involved with a woman who cheated him and asked Meursault for help in writing a letter to her to have some cathartic revenge.  The woman returned to Raymond’s apartment and he beat her.  The woman’s brother was an Arab who began keeping a threatening eye on Raymond.

One day Meursault, Marie, and Raymond went to Raymond’s friend’s beach house.  After a day of swimming and eating, the men went for a walk on the beach and ran into the Arabic brother and his friend, a fight ensued.  Raymond was cut with a knife and went to the doctor.  Later that day, Meursault was still on the beach and was suffering from the heat.  He considered going up the stairs to the beach home, or back to a cold spring (where they last saw the Arabs) to cool off.  He started walking to the spring and found the Arab there.  The blistering heat got to Meursault and as the Arab’s knife flashed a ray of the sun into his eyes, Meursault began shooting him.

The second half of the book relates the time leading up to Meursault’s trial for killing the Arab.  He was seemingly indifferent the entire time.  His lack of desire to fight for himself and prove his innocence led Meursualt to being charged with the crime and sentenced to the guillotine.

The book had a sense of indifference throughout.  Meursault did not care much that his mother died.  He did not care whether he married Marie or not.  He did not really seem to care whether he was found guilty of murder or not.  In the end, he was resigned to the fact that we are all born, we all live a meaningless life, and we all must die.  The melancholy of triviality that lasted throughout the book ended in his final realization.  Meursault was finally happy.

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