Review of ‘Angela’s Ashes’

Angela’s Ashes

By Frank McCourt

Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1996

“Not for the faint-hearted” is perhaps over-used, but in the case of Frank McCourt’s memoir of his growing up years, Angela’s Ashes, it is apt.  (“Angela” is his mother’s name.)

The son of an alcoholic Irish man, McCourt paints a gritty picture without a brush of self-pity.  The prose is genuine and so gritty you can almost hear McCourt’s brogue singing through each page as he recounts life in a tumbledown shack on “the lane” in Ireland that floods and freezes in winter and swarms with fleas and stink in the summer.

His story begins in America, but soon high-tails it back to Ireland, where he details a professional unemployed father, grim family members, the loss of a baby sister, two twin boys, “the hunger” as well as the “Angel on the Seventh Step.”      It’s all there – the almost unbelievable poverty, hunger, filth, disease, despair, religious superstition.

In spite of a childhood chockfull of incredible hardship, deprivation, cruelty and misery, there’s something transcendent and luminescent about McCourt’s story.  Even with typhoid fever, “the shame,” and his father’s habit of “drinking his wages on the pint,”  McCourt refuses to sink into a slough of despond or bitterness.  Plucky Frank (short for Francis, “after the saint”) pulls himself up by own bootstraps and does so in an engaging, almost lyrical manner that’ll have you cheering – and perhaps shedding a tear or two – by the end of this remarkable, heart-breakingly heroic Pulitzer Prize Winner.

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Review of ‘No Ordinary Day’

No Ordinary Day

By Deborah Ellis

“The best day of my life was the day I found out I was not alone in the world” begins this slim, no-nonsense tome by Deborah Ellis, followed by, “This is how it happened.”  Easily read in a day or two, No Ordinary Day is narrated by the protagonist, Valli, a young orphan girl who escapes the coal pits of Jharia, India to roam the highways and byways of Kolkata, India.  The story unfolds through Valli’s eyes, ears, and feet.  Yes, feet.  Feet that have been burnt, cut, and injured without an “Ouch!”

Through a series of circumstances like “washing” in the filthy Ganges River near a funeral pyre, Valli meets Dr. Indra as the doc reads an English Bible.  Noticing how Valli steps into burning coals to escape a bee without any subsequent reaction, Dr. Indra offers, “I’d like you to come with me.  My name is Indra.  I’m a doctor and I can fix your feet.”

Easier said than done.  Overcoming ignorance, apathy, fear, poverty and prejudice is no small feat.  But Valli is not alone.

No Ordinary Day is no ordinary book.  Ellis skillfully weaves science, medicine, socio-economics, class and caste disparities, hunger, alcoholism, poverty, abandonment, stereotypes, education and kindness into a seamless story of hope. No Ordinary packs a wallop while treating its audience with respect, allowing readers to form their own opinions and conclusions.

Includes an Author’s Note debunking common myths about leprosy and a Glossary of commonly used Indian words.  Also the statement, “Royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to The Leprosy Mission.”

Review of ‘Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton” by Mary McDonough

Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton

By Mary McDonough

Kensington Publishing Corp., 2011

For millions of American television viewers, The Waltons was a Thursday night staple.  It was in my house.  Candidly, I considered the second Walton daughter the least credible character in the whole clan.  Mary McDonough’s Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton provides some explanation, connects some dots and offers a glimpse into the girl who portrayed the red-haired Erin and her post-Waltons life.  It also chronicles pranks on the Waltons set (not shot in Schuyler, Virginia but in a studio backlot in Burbank, California), her difficulty in getting other acting gigs, her years of illness, nightmarish experiences with silicone breast implants, and her public speaking and activism.

Looking back on her growing up years on “the mountain,” McDonough
paints a bittersweet picture of gratitude and merriment as well as anxiety and depression.  Lacking any formal training when she was hired to play Erin Walton at age ten, McDonough recounts confusion, angst, fear, anger and frustration when directions on the set were unclear or non-existent.   She also recalls memorable episodes, good-natured teasing and mischief (usually in the kitchen, although once in a “mountain top jacuzzi” a la Richard Thomas and Will Geer),  kindness and camaraderie among the close-knit ensemble that became one of America’s best-loved and most enduring TV families.  She speaks well of fellow cast members and recalls plenty of fun and fond moments, such as working with Jonathan Frakes as her love interest, Ashley Longworth, Jr.  She also mentions at least one (nameless) male guest star and a certain assistant director who vie for Biggest Jerk award and sexual harassment on the set (crew, not cast).

In terms of pacing, McDonough’s style is brisk, engaging, and down-to-earth.  Her tone is direct and appealing, a quirky blend of humor and pathos.  Several pages focus on McDonough’s strict Catholic upbringing which led her to equate unintentional mistakes like a blown line with sin.  “I expanded to include and added other religious teaching to my foundation,” she explains. “Learning acceptance of other faiths, cultures, people, and backgrounds created the space for me to being accepting myself.” She currently embraces an eclectic religious cocktail of Shirley MacLaine-isms, connection with her “Source” and “returning to my inner knowing self.”

If you’re looking for a Waltons memoir, keep looking.  Lessons isn’t just about The Waltons, just like it’s not about lupus, implants, acting, or activism.  As McDonough writes, “I am not just one element of my life.  I have been a child performer, former child performer, nonprofit worker, filmmaker, wife, mother, blogger, activist, actress, writer, acting teacher, and producer” (emphasis in original). Lessons offers a candid “behind the scenes’ look into how and why a frequently frightened, insecure girl grew into a multi-dimensional, sturdy woman.

Hearing the familiar musical lead-in to The Waltons the other day, I noticed something.  When the second Walton daughter came into frame, my reaction wasn’t “There’s Erin,” but rather, “That’s Mary McDonough.”  And that’s a lesson worth learning.

“Wanting Mor”

Wanting Mor

By Rukhsana Khan

Young Jameela is determined to follow her mother Mor’s advice: “If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good.”  Growing up in a post-Taliban Afghan orphanage, shy, sensitive Jameela finds this easier said than done, especially since she’s not really an orphan.  Her father is alive, but her mother, Mor, has just sickened and died.  the rest of Jameela’s family was wiped out when bombs fell on a wedding party they were all attending.

In response to his loss, Jameela’s father sells the family possessions and rushes to the big city of Kabul to seek his fortune.  She barely has time to say visit Mor’s grave and say goodbye, let alone pack.  Once there, her father marries a boorish widow out of convenience and greed.  When the new “mother” is unable to get along with Jameela, openly despising her country clothes, manners and cleft lip, Jameela’s father takes her to the local marketplace and abandons her.  Jameela is taken in temporarily by a kind butcher.  Unable to manage another mouth to feed, he reluctantly gives in to his wife’s demands and takes Jameela to an orphanage, where she meets some unlikely allies who help her find hope, courage, and the will to pursue a future that’s not just better, but “good.”

An absorbing story with vivid imagery and rich, composite characters, Wanting Mor leaves readers wanting more.  The author paints word pictures of village life in Afghanistan and bustling Kabul that are so colorful, readers can almost taste the dust and feel the jostling crowds.  She also peppers her prose with Afghan verbiage and colloquialisms, bringing a sense of gravitas and authenticity into this well-rounded story.  A glossary is included.

Wanting Mor is based on real events in post-Taliban Afghanistan.  A worthwhile read.

What’s ‘Secret’ About “The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez”?

The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez

by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Hyperion Books, 2008

Sonia Rodriguez is the family work camel.  The oldest daughter in a family of nine, the 15 year-old wants to keep her grades up and the first member of her family to graduate from high school.  But the demands of caring for her pregnant-with-twins mother (“Sonia….. Ayudame!”) who spends all day, every day watching Spanish soaps, plus cooking, cleaning and caring for her younger siblings as well a endless trips t the tienda for cervezas for her loutish “drunkle” are overwhelming.  In mu cultura, Sonia explains – a culture she both loves and hates – “familia es todo.” (Family is everything.)

So she misses three days of school to make homemade tamales for her drunkle’s birthday fiesta, gets on the wrong side of her manipulate, hyper-religious Tia Luna. And is generally taken advantage of by everyone and anyone except her beloved, hard-working Papa.

Tia Luna insists that Sonia return to “The Old Country,” and demands the young teen spend a summer visiting with the legendary Abuelita (grandmother) in rural Mexico to straighten her out.  Sonia wants none of it.  She’s not interested in becoming a carbon copy of her mother – dependent, whiny, and dominated by men.  Sonia sets her sights considerably higher – and learns that ambition comes at a price when she’s caught in the middle as cultures collide: a daughter of illegal immigrants in El Norte, and a pocha in Mexico.  Where – and how – will she fit in?

***

            Author Alan Sitomer has an uncanny knack for thinking and feeling like a 15 y.o. girl.  His ability to capture teen emotions, frustrations, ambitions and angst is remarkable.  The story is vivid, Sitomer’s characters real, his settings and scenarios crisp.  He also skates perilously close to sermonizing on occasion, and risks losing readers in the process.  The plot seems contrived at times, but is redeemed by solid characterizations and crisp dialogue:

“A tear began to form in my heart for all of the mujeres de Mexico.  I have never realized how much loneliness there was in the hearts of my people, especially the women.  Or how much strength there was to go on, in spite of everything they faced.”

“Do not stoop to their level” is the repeated refrain from Sonia’s proud, industrious father.  And she doesn’t.  By the end of this book, you’ll want to stand up and cheer.

Review of “Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25”

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25

By Richard Paul Evans

“Is this like a series?  When’s the next one coming out?  Can we get it tomorrow?”

High praise for any book, but coming from my twelve year-old son?  We’re talkin’ statospheric.  I mean, I had to arm-wrestle the kid for Richard Paul Evans’s new release, Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25.   Good thing I’m a fast reader.  I zoomed through all three hundred and twenty-six pages in two days.

I’m not kidding.  Vey is a barn burner.  Page-turner.  Whatever.

Fourteen year-old Michael Vey is smack in the middle of life’s “armpit”: freshman year at Meriden High School.  He seems like an incredibly “average” kid.  The only thing that may set him apart is furious eye-blinking when he’s nervous, attributable to Tourette’s syndrome.  Michael’s one – and only – friend is portly, resourceful brainiac Ostin (he was born in Texas.  His mom was a poor speller.  Figure it out.).

Michael would like nothing better than to be left alone and just try to survive high school, but a trio of local thugs won’t let him.  They’re among the first to encounter Michael’s secret first-hand when they try “pantsing” him after school as cheerleader and drop-dead gorgeous Taylor walks by.

Michael later finds out that he and Taylor aren’t as different as he thought.  They both share special electrical powers. Michael, Ostin and Taylor form the “Electroclan.” Everything’s going swimmingly until Ostin detects some coincides between Michael and Taylor that are way too similar for mere coincidence – like the fact that they were born in the same hospital, in the same state, a day apart, and that nearly all other babies born in the same hospital within that time frame died.  The trio sets out to find out why.  In the process, they stumble upon the “Who?” – and wish they hadn’t.  Enter the darkly sunglassed, mysterious Dr. Hatch.

A megalomaniac par excellence, the ‘ethically challenged’ Hatch (that’s an understatement) has been looking for Taylor and Michael for nearly fifteen years.  When Michael’s mom is kidnapped, as is Taylor,  it’s up to Michael and Ostin to launch a daring rescue against seemingly overwhelming odds.  They must rely on wit, tenacity and each other to succeed.  But who can they trust to help?  Who else is after them, and what do they want?  Will the boys arrive before it’s too late?  And what happened to Michael’s dad?

Evans has ranked high on my Favorite Authors short list for years, ever since The Christmas Box.  As a YA novel, Vey represents a significant departure from Evans’s usual themes and treatments. It’s a different “cup of tea.”  Very different.  And Evans pulls it off beautifully!  The story is a skillful combination of action, suspense, mystery, romance, science and humor into an imaginative fiction with characters that are real and genuine.  We want to meet them again.  The plot is engaging, brisk and clever.  A keeper!

And the next title in the Vey series, The Rise of Elgen?  Not to worry.  My son and have it on hold at the library.  In fact, we’re first in line.

Review of ‘Every Last One’ by Anna Quindlen

Every Last One

By Anna Quindlen

Random House, 2010

She’s done it again.  In Every last One best-selling author Anna Quindlen offers yet another poignant mixture of panache and pathos as she traces the effects of seemingly inconsequential choices and actions that turn out to be life-altering.

Every may get off to a slow start, but its gathers steam quickly as we’re introduced to Mary Beth Latham, husband Glen and their three incredibly average teenage kids: popular over-achiever Alex; introverted, morose Max; and independent, free-spirited Ruby.  Neck-deep in “the usual” – proms, soccer games, high school angst, sibling rivalries, curfew, family dinners and sibling spats – this “typical” suburban family turns out to be anything but.  Just about the time the reader starts feeling lost in the dull monochrome of what could be the average American family – as in, ‘been there, done that’ – Quindlen tosses us a curve.  A big one.  The pacing is perfect.

The rest of this remarkable book focuses on how Mary Beth and her girlfriends such as no-nonsense Nancy and “English rose” Olivia help her cope with an immense tragedy. We also discover what’s eating Mary Beth’s former friend, Deborah.  Like the consummate storyteller she is, Quindlen weaves a rich tapestry of roles and relationships that are almost excruciatingly authentic.

Besides the carefully crafted plot and three-dimensional characters, the dormant strength of Every Last One – a phrase uttered by a police officer on one tragic New Year’s Eve – lies in its “every person” appeal.  Readers may feel they know the Lathams.  Maybe this ophthalmologist’s family is their neighbor, colleague, coach, or their kids’ favorite hang-out site.  Or maybe it’s them.  This complicated, beautifully drawn story of struggle, survival, unspeakable loss and love is weft as tight as a Persian rug, and is just as exquisite.  I read the LP version (385 pages) cover to cover in a day and a half.

Full of unexpected twists and turns, Every Last One is another stellar work of fiction like the kind we’ve come to expect from Quindlen.  Much of its strength lies in sturdy characters, believable dialogue and its subtle message of hope.  This one’s a keeper.

***

Coming soon: A review of the autobiographical Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton, by Mary McDonough.

‘because of mr. terupt”: extradordinary (“dollar word”?)

Lisa was right.  Our intrepid Children/Youth Services Librarian usually is.

Roaming the stacks of my local library the other day, I couldn’t quite find “It.”  You know, a title that leapt off the stacks, grabbed me by the throat and hollered, “Read me!”  (Some do, you know.)  So I moseyed over to Lisa’s desk for a recommendation.  She understands my conviction that some of the finest writing and best literature on the planet can be found in Children’s or Young Adult sections because frankly, any author that can catch and keep a kid’s attention for an entire book must be doing something right!

Anyway, Lisa steered me toward because of mr. terupt (Random House, 2010), Rob Buyea’s debut novel.  “You will absolutely love this!” she chirped.

Lisa was right.  I finish a book a week on average.  Terupt is quite possibly the best thing I’ve read all year.

This clever, engaging story is narrated by seven kids in Mr. Terupt’s fifth grade class at Snow Hill School, Connecticut.  Each has a unique “signature” headlining their own chapter – and perspective.  There’s portly, sensitive Danielle; conniving, manipulative Alexia; bookish Jessica, newly re-located from California; Jeffrey, who detests school; Anna, who’s ostracized because of her home life; Peter, the class clown and mischief-maker, and Luke, the brain.

A first-year teacher who is much more than a classroom instructor, Mr. terupt teaches each kid not only how to calculate “dollar words,” the number of blades of grass in the school soccer field or what not to feed a plant experiment, but also about cooperation, compassion, loyalty, faith, forgiveness and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

mr. terupt is packed with enough plot twists and turns to rival a ride down Disneyland’s Space Mountain.  Whizzing down the slopes from chapter one, the story snowballs into an avalanche of real emotion: fear, guilt, anger, love, courage and hope. The characters are so genuine and three-dimensional, you may feel like you sat next to some of them in your own fifth grade class.  Engrossing and brisk, the story has you ready to spit or pump both fists in the air one minute, then tearing up the next.  I finished all 268 pages in a day and a half.

Lisa was right: I loved because of mr. terupt.  I bet you will, too.  (Bring Kleenex.)

Review of “The Longest Trip Home”

The Longest Trip Home: A Memoir

By John Grogan

HarperCollins, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-171324-8

I expected better from John Grogan.  I loved the pithy insights from his first book, Marley and Me, as well as his richly textured three-dimensional word pictures, nimble pacing and quirky chronicling.  Cynical, sour, and almost suffocatingly self-serving, The Longest Trip Home is a like a stiff shot of castor oil after a Florida-sized slice of cherry cheesecake.

Grogan’s “memoir” is coarse, self-absorbed and worst of all, tedious, eliciting the pizzazz of a plate of overcooked cabbage.  It’s essentially 300-plus pages of an anti-Catholic rant in which the author chronicles – and chortles at – his parents’ “Medieval interpretation of Catholicism, with its literal belief in guardian angels hovering over our shoulders to protect us from the dark agents of Satan,” which, among other things, “strikes both him and his wife, Jenny, as “as almost comically superstitious.”  This narcissistic romp though the author’s sexual conquests – both real and imaginary – also includes the horrors of Catholic school, altar boy service, and so on until the author smugly self-identifies himself as a “non-practicing Catholic.”

After grinding out twenty-four chapters running down his parents’ faith while simultaneously patting himself on the back for deceiving and misleading them about his behavior, mores and mindset for most of his growing up years, Grogan then seems baffled by his parents’ sense of hurt and betrayal when he finally comes clean as a thirty year-old about to be married to a non-Catholic.  He crows about how he has “Finally broken free from my parents’ influence” and “no longer felt the need to lie and obfuscate” and seems to think a crate of champagne is in order.  While Grogan crows about being “unapologetically my own person now…,” readers may wonder why we should care.  (I’m not Catholic, but still found this stuff tedious and bloated.) And did we really need to know every sordid detail about his Sister Mary Lawrence fantasies – as a second grader?

Although Grogan spends two-thirds of the book – 234 pages- ridiculing and belittling his parents’ staunch Catholicism and conservative views, Longest retains a glimmer of Grogan’s past panache.  In Part Three, Coming Home, the author seems to be trying to make up for the past 24 chapters by devoting 91 pages to some sort of penitential “maybe they were right” musings.  A trace of Grogan’s former prose prowess shines forth in the final chapters as he softens his stance while his mother and father succumb to old age, frailty and illness.  His tenderness toward his dad who is dying of leukemia and pneumonia is heartfelt and deep, but in a case of “too little, too late,” Grogan doesn’t quite pull it off.  Instead, he leaves the reader wondering if he’s “come home” to stay or if this is just another pit stop en route back to the land of “lies and obfuscation.”  What’s puzzling – and disappointing – is that the author is capable of much better.

‘I am not SPOCK’: Going where no Vulcan has gone before

I am not SPOCK

By Leonard Nimoy

Buaccaneer Books, Inc. 1975

ISBN: 1-56849-691-5

Actor.  Photographer.  Political activist.  Poet.  King Arthur.  Extra-terrestrial.

What are the chances these words can all be connected to one person?  In the case of Leonard Nimoy, the chances are high because he is all of the above.  And much more.

Skimming the Biography section of the local library the other day, a slim black volume caught my eye.  Maybe it was because I was sitting on the floor, trying to escape the notice of a marauding band of sticky-faced toddlers, and the book’s spine just happened to be at eye level.  Maybe it was because my youngest son, age 11, had just checked out the third season of Star Trek on DVD.

Whatever the reason, I picked up I am not SPOCK, checked it out and read Leonard Nimoy brief, engaging memoirs in a couple days.  It’s an enjoyable, occasionally quirky read, providing a glimpse into a complicated and gifted artist who’s much more than a pointy-eared Vulcan  pronouncing “fascinating” with raised eyebrow.

While Nimoy chronicles some of his creative differences with scripts, producers and directors of the ST series, “never was heard a disparaging word” about any other ST cast member.  He tells us about some of his favorite scenes and episodes from the series as well as some of his disappointments in character development and effective dramatic interactions.  Without acrimony, he describes a perceived dip in quality during the show’s third and final season and what it felt like to be hurried off the Paramount lot within days of ST’s production shutdown.

Nimoy also discusses his post-Star Trek work on Mission: Impossible (remember that?), big screen ventures, Shakespearean theater, and subsequent roles as King Arthur in Camelot, the king in The King and I, McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and his special delight in playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. (As a native San Diegan, I took special notice of his descriptions regarding his work with San Diego’s renowned Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park)

We meet some of the ST cast and crew in I am not,  but we don’t stay aboard the Enterprise long and are soon introduced to Yul Brynner, Richard Crenna, Martin Landau, Isaac Asimov and others.  Nimoy avoids narrating such interactions in a pompous “me, too” manner and sticks to matter-of-fact narrative, often rimmed with dry humor and pithy observations.  He also includes a humorous exchange between himself and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock at an ACLU conference.

As an actor, Nimoy demonstrates his devotion to quality as he is always on the lookout for new roles and challenges.  As a person, Nimoy provides glimpses into his family and home, travels, personal appearances, Jewish roots, interactions with “fans,” political interests and activities, and a creative, complex personality that truly has gone where no Spock has gone before.  As example is Nimoy’s inclusions of imaginary dialogue between Nimoy and Mr. Spock, such as:

NIMOY: Spock, … how does it feel to be popular?

SPOCK: I do not have feelings.

NIMOY: I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to offend you.

SPOCK.  I am not offended.  I understand your tendency to judge me by your human standards.  It would however, facilitate matters if you would refrain from doing so.

NIMOY: I’ll try… Are you aware that you are popular?

SPOCK: I am aware of a certain public interest that exists.

NIMOY: People like you.  Do you care about that?

SPOCK: Should I?

And so on.

More than thirty years have elapsed since I am Not SPOCK was published.  By the final chapter, Live Long and Prosper-L’Chaim, we’d like to pour a second cup of coffee for another “kitchen table” chat with an old friend.