Sunday, January 20, 2019

Chronicles of My Mother by Yashushi Inoue; Translated by Jean Oda Moy

Here is Polytonal Studies by Arthur Farwell, a favorite 20th century composer of mine.

"Good morning Facebook family and friends! I hope y’all have a great day! Love y’all!"

That is the greeting by the young man below.  He begins each day with writing this on his wall.  I get it in the morning on my  Facebook feed.  Every single morning.

 I accompanied Antione (pronounced Antwan) on the piano while he was an undergraduate student at ETBU, where I work.  He plays Euphonium and he was a delight to work with.  He worked hard and finally finished his Bachelor's degree and has been accepted into the Master's of Music program.

I have the greatest respect for Antione.  As a teenager he went to a school where, because he tried hard, did better than anyone else.  His two best friends decided they would rather deal in drugs.  Trying at all put him out ahead of most of his classmates.

But it was not as good as he thought, because when he began to attend college, he realized he was academically behind his fellow classmates.  He shared with me how angry and  cheated he felt. But he did not quit.  He struggled, and after wondering if he was going to make it, finally graduated this past December.  

Antione told me that his eventual goal is to teach at a high school like the one he attended and prepare those children so the odds won't be as great against them as they were for him.

And even if those students are in a low performing school, their odds won't be as great as Antione's.

Because when Antione was six years old he lived in a trailer with his mother and older brother.  While he was asleep in bed, the trailer caught fire.  His brother managed to pull him out even though he was trapped in a room which had become a fiery furnace, and saved his life, but the incident left Antione with profound scarring on his face and body.  He could have just decided to take a ride on the disability card, but he didn't.

If I may say so, Antione is my hero and I wanted to share his story.  The above photo shows him at his graduation this past December where he was surprised by an uncle who, though on duty,  arrived from the Army to see him graduate.  One hero embracing another.

Chronicle of My MotherChronicle of My Mother by Yasushi Inoue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the book, Shirobamba, we read about Yasushi Inoue's childhood in a small village in Japan, while the world is on the cusp of WWI and an era is about to be wiped away worldwide. Shirobamba's story of everyday life in Japan preserves a culture and time period that was soon gone.

In Shirobamba we briefly meet Inoue's mother, when she is young and beautiful, whom he does not live with, because she and his father live in Tokyo, where his father is an army doctor. Apparently having more than one child was too much for his mother to cope with so she sent him back where he is raised by Granny, a woman he is not related to but was once his great-grandfather's mistress.

His mother comes one time to the village and makes it her mission to make everyone miserable. Everyone needs to be corrected and reproved for all their deficiencies, of which, according to his mother are many. We see a domineering, self-absorbed woman who is unpleasant to be around. When she leaves on the train, looking back and glaring at everyone in disapproval while she waves, someone says, "Well, she's gone." And Granny says, "What a relief!"

Everyone laughs and Inoue's young Aunt says, "Yes! What a relief!"

That is the mother of which we get a glimpse in Shirobamba.

Chronicle of My Mother is comprised of three essays, each about four years apart. The first one, Under the Blossoms, starts with Inoue's father's death. Inoue gently describes his mother's gradual mental deterioration, starting in her late seventies and the behavior it causes as she lives with him, then, in turn, with his brother and sisters. Light of the Moon takes place four years later and the last essay, The Surface of Snow, four years after and his mother's final days.

The oncoming dementia begins to erase years of his mother's thinking. They realize that her mind is retreating backwards. First she cannot remember anything that happened in her eighties, then nothing beyond her sixties, until she is a teenager and she forgets her husband, no longer recognizes her children, and, because they are now "older" than her she starts addressing them as "Grandfather" and "Grandmother".

There is a lot of struggle and battle of the wills as his mother demands to go home, when there is no home to go to, or when she asks the same question over and over again because she does not remember asking it. Inoue and his family have the unsettling experience of finding his mother haunting the house, walking through the halls and into people's bedroom, peering at their faces with a candle she holds.

I can only tell what this story is about, but I cannot capture Inoue's poignant literary skill, as soft and beautiful as a poem picture scroll (Japanese landscape painting: shigajiku).

That is what Yasushi Inoue has written: a shigajiku of his mother.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Here is Beethoven's Symphony no. 1.

And here is some cuteness to brighten your day.  My blue quaker Sophie is a snuggler.  This is how she goes to sleep every night.

The YearlingThe Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as I did. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings simply was not an author I had a remote interest in. I went to the library and happened to see some books for sale for a dime. There was one containing the letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Max Perkins. I had no idea who Max Perkins was and I did not care for Rawlings.

But there is something about a thick hardcover selling for a dime that I find irresistible. So I bought it and eventually read it.

I am glad I did, because by the time I finished the 628 page tome, I was enamored with both Max Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; hence this review of my latest finished read, The Yearling.

On the one hand, this book is about the day to day survival of families living off of the land in Central Florida in the 1870s and has a lot in common with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. They both show the joy and hardship of trying to survive by one's own exertion on an often stubborn and unyielding land. The only difference would be location and time period (well, the House Books started in the 1860s; I suppose you could say they overlap). And while the House books take place over several years, The Yearling happens inside one year. Wilder's family farmed on the plains of the mid west. The Baxter family farmed in woods and near swamps and bayous in the humid heat of Florida. However, many of the animals, bears, wolves, panthers, were the same; the Baxters also had alligators to hunt.

We see the Baxter family as they plant, hunt, get sick, endure hurricanes, and plague and we suffer with them. Reading The Yearling is truly a vicarious experience.

Like the Little House series, which are from the viewpoint of a child, Laura, the limited narrator in The Yearling is Jodi, a boy on the edge of puberty. The overall theme of the book is about Jody leaving childhood and entering into adulthood.

The Ingalls family may have had Native Americans to contend with, the Baxters had the Forresters, a wild, lawless, backwoods family that could be good friends or horrible enemies, often depending on how much they had to drink.

While the Little House books had their charm and poignancy and will always be a childhood classic, and also a classic for adults like me, The Yearling also has its place for sheer power in writing.

I found the descriptions of animals killing each other, killing the Baxter's cattle and the men killing bears and panthers to be disturbing, not because I think it was wrong, they had to do what they had to, I'm just glad we don't have to do that anymore.

And, of course, there is the Yearling. Jody's father had to kill the mother to treat a Rattle Snake bite. Something about the deer's liver drawing out the poison or so they believed back then. Anyway, that left an orphaned fawn. Jody takes the fawn home and it becomes his dearest friend, which is sad in its own way, because it reveals the isolation and loneliness a child can experience when he has no siblings or neighbors as companions.

Jody's mother is no Caroline Ingalls. Caroline had a quiet dignity, self-contained, and almost aristocratic, ladylike bearing. Ory or Ma Baxter, is as tough as leather. She buried five or six children. Jody is the only one to survive infancy. She's learned that it's hard to survive and all too easy to die. But she is not without her moments and every now and then her love for her husband, Penny, and Jody peek through.

The father, Penny, balances out his wife's pragmatic, no-nonsense, philosophy with compassion and wisdom.

While the fawn is mostly peripheral to the story, as the book progresses it creeps closer to the center of the story until he comes crashing down as the climax and centrifugal force that propels Jody into manhood. It is a painful life lesson and one that few people would want to learn today and I'm glad I can live a life of ease and grocery stores.

While some may consider this a boy's novel; I would almost consider it too dark for boys. I would not have read it to my son when he was Jody's age. He cried at the end of "Where the Red Fern Grows."

I'm grateful those hard lessons are not required anymore in my first world existence.

In conclusion? A fine, powerful novel, superbly written and fully deserving of the Pulitzer Peace Prize that it won in 1939.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Felix Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

That is the grate in my bathroom.  Yes, Hercule follows me everywhere and sometimes he refuses to leave.  The grate is old and rusty and needs to be removed, but where would my little green T-Rex perch?

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 1957, in Holcomb, Kansas, a rancher, Mr. Clutter, his wife, and teenage daughter and son were found by friends in the home hog tied and dead. Each had been shot in the head. Nothing was stolen. Months went by before anyone had an inkling who could have done such a horrible thing and why.

In Cold Blood is Truman Capote's documentary account of this tragedy, from before the Clutters were murdered to when the perpetrators were finally apprehended and brought to justice. This book was a watershed in that it launched the "New Journalism". Non-fiction written as a novel, rather than dry reporting.

I started this book expecting not to like it. I felt that Capote was exploiting a callous crime for the sake of thrusting himself in the lime light through sensationalism, and, indeed, this book did launch his career, even though he had already published many works, in fact most of his best work, prior to this book, which was published serially in The New Yorker in 1965. But In Cold Blood is what made Capote a celebrity.

The book did start slowly, and at first I thought the writing was a bit juvenile. However, the story picked up speed and soon I was completely involved in the lives of the poor family whose lives were cut short, the townsfolk who reeled in the aftermath and finally, the murderers.

The murderers get the most attention, no doubt because the victims were dead and could not be interviewed, so the least is said about them. Truman Capote and Harper Lee spent an extensive amount of time interviewing the criminals, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who were in prison by this time and also the detectives and policemen who helped bring them to justice.

In the end I must say this book was written forcefully yet objectively and with an adept understanding of human nature.

Capote does not sugarcoat the two young men or their murder, but he makes them real live human beings. He effectively describes their psychology, allowing the reader to understand how two young men could kill a whole family in cold blood.

It is the first novel in a long time where I keep expecting to pick the book back up and have to remind myself that I finished it. It seems the people, even though they are all (or most of them) gone, they somehow have become a part of my life.

That says something about the power of Truman Capote's writing.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Stamboul by Graham Greene

One more by Placido Domingo before the season's completely over:  Silent Night.

Stamboul TrainStamboul Train by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story takes place mostly on a train. They are traveling ultimately to Istanbul. Some are getting off at Vienna, some to Budapest, others all the way to Istanbul. We have a variety of characters. When we first meet them we don't know who any of them are, but as their lives intertwine, sometimes colliding, we discover that someone is traveling on business, another is a chorus girl, another a famous writer, one is a crook, one is a rapid reporter who by accident discovers yet another passenger whose purpose is more important than all of the others'.

Graham's narration passes from person to person showing us their inward thoughts. Some are confused, others desperate, a couple are intensely selfish and one is sincerely noble, although in my opinion, the most misguided of all.

The story line moves at a healthy clip and there is also suspense as the readers wonders how each individual's fate is going to conclude, but for me the most fascinating was Graham's insight into human character and how people think.

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 Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you all!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories by Truman Capote

Here is O Holy Night by the master, Placido Domingo.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three StoriesBreakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories by Truman Capote

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I had heard so much about and to be sure, Capote's writing is strong and convincing. However, Jesus said that the words of the mouth are the overflow of the heart, and that would also be true of our written words. So I ask myself, why did Capote write a story about a vain, vapid, self-absorbed woman with little intelligence and less conscience.

He knows Holly Golightly (that's her name, yes, it's a name she invented for herself; as we read we find that she entirely invented herself) has these qualities. He created her. I believe, however, that he was inspired to write about her based on women he knew and also that they must have fascinated him.

The story is written in first person and I suppose we are to assume the narrator is Capote himself. He is a young, gay writer trying to succeed in Manhattan. Holly GoLightly lives in the same apartment complex as he does. Golightly is young, beautiful and an enigma. She could have been a movie star, so a man who wanted to act as her agent says. We should believe him, because he is a Hollywood agent.

But she leaves Hollywood and makes a living working in the bathroom of a restaurant. Her apartment is a wreck and always filled with friends, mostly men who are drooling after her. She is friendly, promiscuous even, with all but close to none.

I found nothing in Holly's life attractive. She wanted a life filled with noise. She moved to one of the noisiest places in the world to live and, if that wasn't enough, she keeps her apartment crowded and noisy all night long. It was exhausting just to read about it.

She does exude a certain naivety and compassion. She's not a mean person, but there is no getting beneath the hard gloss, the veneer that is always on. We get glimpses of her past, which I won't share because it's a spoiler, that show a different side and a very different life from the one she lives now.

There seems to be only one person in the world she cares about, a brother, but that is all.

It seems tragic that someone is willing to live their life in a shallow cesspool. What satisfaction do they get out of it?

And it has a shelf life. Will men still be surrounding Holly Golightly when she ages, her looks leave her and all that's left is the paper thin personality?

Once again, Capote reveals himself in his characters. He is the observer in this story, but he is also the center. He is lonely and isolated and perhaps that is why he is attracted to people like Holly Golightly. She is surrounded by crowds, yet also alone, a misfit.

The other stories are equally poignant. In House of Flowers we meet a woman who grew up in the mountains of a Caribbean island but after losing her family, becomes a prostitute in a nearby town. She meets a man who loves her and marries her and takes her back to the mountains, but has a mother who seems to be a supernatural witch. The woman must choose which life she prefers: prostitution or living with a witch.

A Diamond Guitar is about an old man in prison for murder who meets a young man from Cuba or Puerto Rico who plays guitar. The ensuing story shows their complicated relationship with a surprising ending.

The last, A Christmas Memory, is Capote's enduring story about living in the south with an elderly Aunt, both of whom are shut off from the rest of the family, but make their Christmas joy with each other.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Hue by Mark Bowden

I could listen to this carol over and over again.  I hope you'll listen at least once.  It is performed by the Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter.

Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in VietnamHuế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Riveting account of the battle the was a turning point in the Vietnam war.

Mark Bowden meticulously writes of one battle in the Vietnam War. His argument is that this battle, the American fight to take back the city Hue from the Vietcong was the battle that showed America that they were fighting a futile war.

Bowden treats the subject with sensitivity and objectivity. His chapters rotate from members of the Vietcong, whose stories he got years later, to the American marines who fought them and the hapless civilians who were getting slaughtered or left homeless by both sides.

Bowden's description of the war and the individual battles and individual experiences of several of the men who were there pulls the reader in and this reader was as horrified as much as she was enthralled. The author makes you feel as if you were there and you suffer along with each person as we learn their story.

The only negative I would give is the occasional use of raw language. Not so much when he is quoting marines. If anyone has the right to drop some "F" bombs it's marines who serve in wars. My objection is the gratuitous use of the word, as when he uses it in his chapter titles. That does not come across as honest, but rather like the author is trying to prove how edgy he is, which I find rather juvenile.

But that one objection aside, I really liked this book. I learned so much about the Vietnam war, particularly this battle in a key city and all the individuals involved. Yes, that is what I liked most. This war was not fought by "armies". It was fought by individuals, each with a life that was and is sacred as all life is. There was a lot of waste of sacred life and, thanks to Bowden's realistic descriptive narrative, I felt those lives deeply.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Schmuck the Buck by Exo Books, ill. by Karina Short

Here is Alison Krauss singing Wessex Carol accompanied by YoYo Ma on the Cello.

Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer

Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer by EXO Books

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Schmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish ReindeerSchmuck the Buck: Santa's Jewish Reindeer by EXO Books

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I was offered this book for my honest review. Further disclosure, I bought the Kindle version because aspiring authors are trying to make at least a little money with their writing.

Luckily, Exo Books gave me a download which allowed me to read the book and enjoy the illustrations, which are in color in the hard copy.

Here's my review: I personally, as a Christian who cherishes her traditional Christmas, which does not include Santa Claus, and avoids the secular, commercial Christmas as much as possible, this book was not exactly my cup of tea.

However, it does not follow that it would not be anyone else's cup of tea, therefore I'm going to give as objective and neutral a review as possible. I assume people read reviews to see if a book is something they'd want to buy so hopefully I will lay the facts out there so you all can make an informed decision.

First of all, the book was well-made. The illustrations are as good as anything you will see in a young adult's reading list. They are highly expressive and amusing. The story is in written in poem form with funny rhymes.

And I should say, that this book's age range would be Middle School to young adult. The humor is definitely Junior High, a bit off-color at times to the point of raunchy (Schmuck is Santa's "pimp daddy"?) and the theme is about a young reindeer, Larry, in a Middle School setting (even if it is with other reindeer at the North Pole).

Larry, or Schmuck, as you may have guessed is Jewish and, while faithfully, celebrating Hanukkah with his family, he also works for Santa. Unfortunately, he is a small, nerdy reindeer and the object of taunts and bullying. He is Rudolph with a slightly different twist.

But Rudolph was able to redeem himself and so is Schmuck, (hence becoming Santa's pimp daddy).

There are positives and negatives. The negatives is that it reduces Christmas to some tinny, hyper-commercialized past time adults engage in to appease their selfish materialistic children.

The positive would be that an overarching message is that Jewish people do not need to treat Christmas like kryptonite. They can, in fact, enjoy Christmas like everyone else, because for most everyone else it is merely a secular holiday and not the celebration of the birth of Christ.

The biggest positive is that is shows someone using their talent and their mind, regardless of other people's immaturity and narrow-mindedness. Larry doesn't let other people determine his identity. That is a good message, especially for students going through the purgatory of middle school.
For me it's a precious, Holy day, but everyone has the right to celebrate Christmas as they see fit.

I hope this review allows everyone to decide whether the story would be their kind of stocking stuffer.

And Merry Christmas to everyone!

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