book review

Book Review: The Outsiders

The OutsidersThe Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ponyboy narrates the story of his teenage life within a sewn together band of brothers and young ‘greasers’ in small town America (reminiscent of American Graffiti) who include working class orphans, school dropouts, criminals, athletes. He provides an emotionally-centered account of these trying circumstances for kids on the back side of the mainstream. Desperate times give rise to fierce loyalties, and it’s easy (as a reader) to love Ponyboy and root for him and his friends as they fight the rich kids and steal the hearts of their girls. The action includes drive-ins, cars, turf wars, switchblades, leather, cars, hair, grease, cocacola, madras, cops, heaters, music, ‘weeds’ (smokes), denim, runaways, sunsets, vacant lots. A whole lot of fun as you get to know some of the characters on deeper and deeper levels. Ponyboy’s not afraid to give you his opinion on people and things, and he’s not cool with all the greasers, either, but he sees the good in people when he can. It’s a sweet and tragic story and you might feel it all ends too soon.

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franny and zooey. book review

Book Review: Franny & Zooey

Franny and ZooeyFranny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Franny and Zooey. What was the book about, anyway, if not about what we do to ourselves in a world of criticism and judgment, when we get carried along that way and lose sight of what our indy purposes are, if not about what happens to a family that was once seemingly so united and celebrated for its little unit of togetherness and genius, when it deteriorates and gets cut up by suicide and sending some to war and leaving the rest to smoke and think and worry and carry on in pursuit of something or in pursuit of not pursuing anything, detachment, if not about the funny window into a messy nuclear home life and the quirkiness of moms and sons and sisters, if not about prep schools and homecoming football games and lunches and fainting spells… if it wasn’t about all that, to me, it was about something a bit more thoughtful, less fanciful, more serious even grave, gravely concerned with how we go about our lives faced with the butchers and fat ladies, the disappointments, the faded dreams and painful realities, the fakers finally unmasked and left with what if i’m a faker too, the horrifying naked truth somewhere… and alot of this was also covered in the Catcher In the Rye, so you know it was Salinger in that little bunker on his property in NH where he stole away for weeks at a time in his infantry boots and clothes, probably touching his dogtags from time to time not knowing day or night, night or day, trying to get off the edges and into the heart of something even if it left him with no peace of mind, celebrated in a world he once wanted to celebrate him then reclused himself from, the painful residuals of an earlier attachment, having to detach but going on writing all the same and living a pretty damn long and pretty well respected, earned kinda life… not caring about being prolific or getting his work out even while he was alive necessarily… and i love that about the man and the work… and what i most love about Franny and Zooey whatever it was about, was the smallness of the book in my hands, and the spareness of the cover, the clever east meets west font… but most of all, just the way the two grown kids got around-about-way to the heart-centered business of helping one another out. That’s what i loved about it most of all.

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Review: Bombardiers

BombardiersBombardiers by Po Bronson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book is overall an easy read and almost like watching tabloid television, what with all the misfit mortgage-backed security salespeople and the anecdotal narrative. I had a lot of laughs. It is helpful to hit the ground floor running as there is a lot of industry jargon. I briefly worked an institutional sales floor -in a past life- and you can tell the author was in the business; this is an inside job. I think the character Mark ‘Eggs’ Igino may be a foil for the author. He’s the new guy who seems to have both talent and a conscience, and we hang our hopes on him to maybe find a way out of an ultimately degrading profession. Everyone’s in the game for quick money and devoting a few solid years (body, mind and soul) to ‘the company’ for financial security for themselves and their families. The company gets to treat them like dogshit. They bounce you at any time for any reason with 15 minutes notice. They bark at you like a boot camp drill sergeant. They spy on you and steal your phone records, all in the name of protecting trade secrets. They use your vices and vulnerabilities against you to keep you docile in your chair for 12+ hours a day. The author tracks the lives of several company men and women and they do indeed have the elements of the horror stories we hear about a life in high finance (misogyny, greed, deception, adultery, addiction). All wrapped up in a closed system of money chasing money in an abstract, global, electronic market. One of the telling moments is when Igino demands to hold a real-live paper bond in his hands so he can see what he’s really selling – the company is horrified! Good luck getting out because your ass is owned!

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Review: Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party

Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner PartyOrdeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party by George R. Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stewart focuses on forming an accurate logistical picture of the travels and trials of 87 members of the Donner Party against a harsh environment, whose wagon train came together around July 1846 near the Great Salt Lake and headed to California over a newly inspired yet little tested route over a dangerously steep pass in the Sierra Nevadas, which the trusted and well-traveled Hastings recommended they try in order to save 300 miles had they taken the known (and therefore safer) emigration trail around the mountains. Unfortunately the going is rough in Utah and Nevada, and they are doomed to hunker down and camp beside what is now known as Donner Lake. This tale of tragedy and triumph ends in April 1847, after several relief parties (often comprised of family members of the original caravan) made successful rescues over the course of the long and brutal winter featuring several devastating storms packing snow 30+ feet in some parts. Amazingly, 42 of the 87 characters (many of whom are painted in thin brushstrokes by the author, but just enough to begin caring about them) make it out of the mountains and down to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, a lush valley ripe for settling, and the promised land which was the basis for most of the families making the trip in the first place. Many, including the Donners, had been farmers in the midwest, and envisioned taking a grand adventure in a well-orchestrated way (books and goods and kitchen utensils and blankets all packed into wagons driven by teams of oxen with cattle and pack animals behind) providing comfort for the many women and children, some as young as one year old. The families were mainly of Irish and German and English descent, and we get a glimpse into the different and resourceful ways they survive, as the elements ultimately cause each family to fall back on itself for support. As a city dweller in the 21st century, I could only marvel at the kind of grit and determination displayed by these pioneering folk 200 years ago. As the winter progressed, the snowbanks rose far above the chimney tops of the cabins they built lakeside. Game was scarce. Only timber and religion were of endless supply to them. The ones who were snowed in at the camps had mostly to combat slow starvation and cramped conditions. They lived off of rawhide before resorting to cannibalism as a last resort on the well-preserved bodies of the dead in the snow. Some went mad. The ones who ventured out from time to time in last ditch efforts to cross the towering pass to the 100 mile or so stretch of canyons and valleys which lay on the other side to take them down to Sacramento, showed incredible tenacity and spirit. Others were selfish and cowardly, and abandoned all scruples in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Such was the kind of language the author used to recount the stories. A bit old-fashioned but powerful nevertheless, and kept me reading well past my bedtime!

Here are some vivid images circling my mind still, well portrayed by the author. A man wrapped in blankets propped up against a snowbank beside a campfire, smoking the last of tobacco after saying goodbye and courageously telling the hikers to go on without him, and left behind to die alone in the mountains. Five women who made it over the pass on snowshoes, coming into an Indian camp looking like skeletons on broken frostbitten feet and half-clothed, being taken into warming huts and given acorns to break the starvation. A father returning two months after leaving his children in the camp, on a relief mission funded by the rudimentary California-Mexican government, and finding his 8 year old daughter sitting on the edge of the roof of the cabin he built for them, her feet scraping the receding snowbanks. In the time he was absent, he had survived war, flood, fire, starvation, cold, and thirst. Unlike the others, his entire family would survive the ordeal and live to tell. Another image of a group of nine hikers, long starved, mostly young children, holding on for dear life in the midst of a snowstorm in the mountains, 30 feet down in a hollow made by a campfire which grew and ultimately sunk down into the snow by the heat, and made a space large enough for all of them to climb down into, to stay warm until days later when they were found. One who had died there had their liver and heart taken for boiling for sustenance of the remainder. Solitary men and women at Sutter’s Fort, finally arrived, gazing back to the foothills every day, wishing and wondering whether their loved ones were still alive on the other side.

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Review: Vintage Munro

Vintage MunroVintage Munro by Alice Munro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Vintage series of books is great. Whomever made the selections of writings of contemporary authors did a fine job. The short stories in this book show why Munro won the Nobel Prize. Her power of description is second to none. Her characters may as well be in the room with you. There’s a lot of small town Canada in here. The central characters are often revisiting the past through the present, when someone or thing catches their eye. I love the way Munro walks us seamlessly through time, often to explore the interplay of relationships between several generations of any given family. What time has done to them. What time has given them. The characters often have a delicate understanding of their own lives, it seems. Confronted with the opinions and memories of their relatives, trying to hold on to the dialectic without shutting down or falling apart. Like no other, Munro is able to draw the reader into the art of investigating her characters’ lives, and feel the pain of separate truths.

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Review: Running with Scissors

Running with ScissorsRunning with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes the saddest things make for great laughs. Augusten’s memoir is like that. He could have painted his childhood in brooding, sentimental brushstrokes. The abandonment. Mental illness. The manipulation. But he edited out his ego and left us with absurdity. The peculiar absurdity which comes with tragic circumstance like fast food come with fries. Neither is really good for your health. I got sick with him. And broke out in laughs.

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