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.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, resonates as a cornerstone of required reading in schools over the last fifty years, winning the Nobel Prize in 1983.  While it plays out well as a captivating story, it also serves to teach young students about using symbolism in writing.

Ralph and Piggy find themselves together after their air transport makes a crash landing on a deserted island during a wartime air transport to keep the children safe.  Piggy annoys Ralph but he decides he might be helpful in some ways, on an island with no adults.  They find a large conch shell and Ralph blows it because Piggy has asthma and shallow breaths won’t make the shell bellow. Soon, a large group of children gather around the boy with the conch and they begin a meeting in which Ralph is elected leader over another confident boy named Jack, which builds jealousy in the latter.  Ralph assigns Jack and his choir boys as hunters to try to capture meat and food. Others are assigned to build a fire for a rescue signal, and others are to build shelters.

Nothing seems to go right.  While Ralph and Piggy have the right ideas, most of they boys are looking for adventure and fun, and half of them are ‘littl’uns,’ too small to be much help in any way.  The boys used Piggy’s glasses to light the first fire, which burned a large section of the forest, and seemed to have also killed one of the young boys. The first shelter the group built was pretty good, but the second had fewer helpers, and the third only had a couple of the boys, so each one was progressively worse.  Jack’s jealousy kept building and when Ralph was angry about all of the boys hunting instead of minding the fire, Jack started trying to talk the boys into choosing himself for leader, which was unsuccessful.  A few days later, Jack saw his chance when most of the boys were expressing their fears- ghosts, monsters, and beasts.  Jack offered to keep them safe, besides, weren’t the boys all tired of all the rules Ralph was trying to push on them?

Two tribes formed and by luring with roasted pig along with the fear of violence to keep them, Jack pulled most of the boys to his side of the island. In their first hunt, as a new tribe, they killed a big female pig with small piglets suckling.  They put her head on a stake to offer to the much feared beast nobody had actually seen.  Simon, one of the boys sleeping near the pig’s head became entranced in his thoughts, projecting his own voice into the fly-covered head. The Lord of the Flies told him that the fear they felt was close, in fact, it was inside each of them… Simon ran away to escape the head, finding another secret, the boys need to know.  He ran to Jack’s tribe and they saw him in the darkness as a beast. Their fears came alive and they beat the boy to death.

In a couple of night raids, Jack’s tribe had stolen fire, then stole Piggy’s glasses to take all of the power to their tribe through the ability of making their own fire.  The four remaining boys of the original group, Sam and Eric, Ralph and Piggy walked together to the boys fort to ask for the glasses back, Piggy was practically blind without them.  A fight escalated, and an accident happened.  Not really an accident, the wild tribe hoped to cause damage, but it seemed they really didn’t understand the falling rock killed Piggy. Sam and Eric were captured and forced into the new tribe, and Ralph became a hunted boy.  Through the next day, Jack’s tribe systematically hunted Ralph, spreading through the island and walking it together, being sure not to miss a hiding boy.  They also started a fire to push Ralph out, and at the last moment, Ralph ran and darted out of the forest toward the beach, where he found a sailor who had come ashore to check on the fire. He took the boys onto their warship,  the boys were safe.

Symbolism:  Ralph projected the ideal society with rules and order. Piggy served as his brain trust, no power, but good ideas if they were heeded.  Jack represented the opposite end of society- evils, lack of morals, acting on emotions.  The large female pig symbolized sex and desire.  The head on the stick, or the Lord of the Flies, represented subconscious thought, or what some psychologists term the Id. At the end of the story, the sailor stumbled upon the boys fighting a battle to the death, while they were then safe from themselves, the sailor would be taking them on a ship in war time, to essentially fight an adult battle to the death, a sort of transfer of boys to men fighting.

 

Twitter: @83mrlong

Hollywood – Charles Bukowski

 

Bukowski’s book, Hollywood, gives the reader a backstage pass to see how the gears move behind a Hollywood film. Many pieces fit together to line up the financial backers, the writer, the director, all the way down to the movie premiere.  From the late nights drinks to make a deal, to the ghetto BBQs, this one digs deep for the unedited glimpse behind the scenes and characters.

Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski is an alcoholic writer, late in life.  Most of his old friends have died from their habits, but his most recent wife, Sarah, has been pushing the health foods and Hank thinks this is the reason he’s outlasting all the other alcoholic writers from his generation. He’s done several novels and poetry, but his friend, Jon Pinchot, a director, is urging him to write a screenplay.  Pinchot has some connections, money, which will help it along.  What would an alcoholic novelist write  a movie about?…  His glory days of course.  The dirty bars, the seedy motels and apartments, the women, the fist fights.  Hank barely believes his movie will amount to much of anything, but the eager support of Pinchot has him playing along.  Financial backing appears and disappears, actors want their own directors, production companies withhold payments and threaten to shut down the movie.  Pinchot takes matters into his own hands when Firepower Productions tries to back them into a corner by refusing to release the movie deal while they also refuse to make the movie.  Finally the day of the big premiere, and Hank gets to relive the good ol’ days.

What does a writer do when his first screenplay is developed into a mildly successful movie?  Write a novel about writing the screenplay, of course!

Veronica Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho

As morbid and depressing as the title seems, this Coelho book takes the usual turn for understanding of the universe and an inspiration for readers to strive not to settle into the kind of routine they don’t wish to be in.  Coelho’s books have been NY Times Best Sellers and translated into dozens of languages, he’s one of the top selling modern authors.  It just takes one book to understand why, and this book certainly fits into that category.

Veronica is a young woman with a happy life.  She has loving parents and a nice job.  She lives in Ljubljana, the capital city of the newly formed country of Slovenia (after the Yugoslavian civil war). With as many positives points in her life, Veronica found nearly as much sadness.  She believed the routine of her life was inconsequential and secretly vowed to kill herself to leave the world behind.  After feigning sleeplessness, she collected strong sleeping pills and went about the deed.  She slowly fell into a drowsy state, but the peaceful death was not coming, a burning throughout her body led her into a coma and she woke in the infamous Villette hospital for the mentally insane.  Upon waking, the doctor told the girl she would survive, but her heart had taken the toll from the suicide attempt.  The state her heart was in, she could expect a week of life before she succumbed to the death she had wished for.

Not to give too much away, Veronica reluctantly made friends, and rediscovered her passion for the piano.  In fact, her piano playing was said to lift many spirits in the gloomy hospital.  With a week left to live, what would you do? Veronica searched her soul and others joined.  Her weak heart pushed the limits and she found herself having heart-attacks through the week.

In a previous interview, Coelho explained his need to write this book.  He had been put into a mental asylum himself as a young man. Coelho even modeled a character in the book after himself. His parents expected him to become an engineer, but his thirst for writing could not allow him to complete the studies the family expected of him.  He made his way out and the rest is history.

Whether you’re feeling ‘in a rut’ or just enjoy Coelho’s books, this is a good read.  Coelho never lets you down. Enjoy.

 

Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story – Paul Aurandt

Hearing ‘The Rest of the Story’ programs by Paul Harvey was always a treat.  It has been several years since I’ve heard one on the radio.  I found this book last year and finally picked it up off the shelf and read it.  Most of the anecdotes are about 2-3 pages, all of them were interesting.  I’ll share a few here that I found especially captivating, without his signature suspense…

Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named for Butch O’Hare, a WWII hero, the Navy’s number-one ace, and the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The rest of the story centers around Butch’s father.  Artful Eddie worked for Al Capone in the 1920’s Chicago and lived comfortably.  He had no reason to turn on the master crook, but he did.  He made a decision to go straight for his son.  Capone’s men ended up killing Butch’s dad but without going against Capone, Artful Eddie’s son might not have ever had the opportunity to be the war hero he became.

A novel named ‘Futility’ described a gigantic ship which sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic.  The ship’s name was Titan, and along with the name and demise, it also shared similar dimensions to the real-life Titanic. With all of the similarities, ‘Futility’ is still considered a work of non-fiction, with no copyright infringements.  The reason is because the book was written in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic set off on it’s fateful voyage.

In New Zealand, an old salt known as Pelorus Jack was known for leading vessels through the dangerous Cook Straight.  For years Jack led many boats through the challenging waters for no fee, as a kind of retirement.  After a long time in service, Jack disappeared and many knew that his time had come.  The rest of the story is that the Maori natives had a story that two men fell for the same maiden.  The one who lost the woman went into a rage and killed the other man and woman. The punishment was for the man to forever be reincarnated to be the Pilot of Pelorus Sound.  Jack was a Dolphin, and many of the locals believed he was this reincarnation.

All of the stories had that Paul Harvey signature, a very enjoyable feel of suspense as you read.  As the stories are all short, it makes is so difficult not to glance at the end of the story and reveal the rest of the story too soon!  This was a great read and different twist on history.

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

Twitter: @blookworm

A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal

I’m always intrigued by first-hand accounts of the Holocaust.  Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, is no exception.  This is a unique story, others of this kind are not known to me.  He was ten years old when he was finally liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1944.  He survived over two years in the harsh conditions of these labor (concentration) camps as a child.  Most children in those camps were collected upon arrival and killed in the gas chambers.  He considers it nothing but luck that he and his father were witty enough to get around the fate that fell upon so many others of Thomas’ age.  At the first camp, Thomas’ father was seen as a factory manager and stated that his son was useful.  Thomas mustered the courage to let the commander of the camp know that he could work!  In Birkenau, Thomas had several close calls as the infamous Dr. Mengele sought out children or special cases to perform ‘scientific experiments’. Thomas’ father taught him to line up for morning counts near the doors to the barracks and then sneak back in as soon as counts concluded, to avoid selection if possible.  Thomas also spent time in Auschwitz before moving to his final camp in Sachsenhausen.  During that final march, the cold took two of Thomas’ toes with frostbite.  He spent a few weeks in the infirmary, scared to death as that is the most likely place for SS guards to round up people to exterminate. As he was nearly healed, bombs dropped in nearby Berlin and the camp was liberated.

While in the infirmary, a man known as Odd Nansen visited often.  He shared candy and bits of food with Thomas, even bringing him some books to try to get him started with education as the war had taken that opportunity away.  Later, during the reconstruction, Thomas was reunited with his mother after a year in a Polish orphanage (his father died with unknown circumstances in the camps).  While he was with his mother, they told each other their many stories, reconnecting from all the time spent apart.  Thomas mentioned in fondness of the kind man who had helped him in the infirmary and soon they came upon a news article about Odd Nansen from Norway.  Thomas wrote Odd Nansen and reconnected with him, visited him in Norway, and was proud to learn that Odd Nansen had published his personal diaries from the camps, dedicated them to young Thomas.  Thomas had become somewhat of a celebrity!

Buergenthal spoke of many friends and family he lost during the war.  Many times in the book, he sadly stated that ‘I never saw or heard from him/her again.’

As he was reconnected with his mother, he wrote ‘I could be a child again.’  He spent years of his childhood thinking and surviving as an adult.  He had no chance to play or let others take care of him.  It was quite a relief to know that his mother was responsible for him again.  A tutor was hired to help Thomas catch up with his peers and the man realized that academically Thomas was far behind, but in maturity, the camps had made him think and act much more like an adult.  They had many adult conversations and discussions about the war, the strategies, the losses. At first, Thomas wished to have a mounted machine gun to shoot all the Germans he saw walking the streets, but after further reflection, he realized that would not accomplish anything.  Like many other survivors, he found that a dedication to the improvement of human rights was a paramount cause as he had seen first-hand how low humans could go without help from others.  As he wrote in the book “I began to think that it was important that individuals like Nansen and the rest of us who had been subjected to terrible suffering at the hands of the Germans treat them with humanity, not because we sought their gratitude or to show how generous in spirit we were, but simply because our experience should have taught us to empathize with human beings in need, regardless of who they were. At the same time, of course, I was convinced that those Germans who ordered or committed the crimes the Nazis were responsible for should be punished.”

Thomas Buergenthal left West Germany in 1951 to study law in the US.  He became focused in human rights law and served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, worked at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, and eventually served a ten year tenure as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is currently a professor of international law and human rights at the George Washington University Law School.