Thursday, February 28, 2019

Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, by Harriet Brown. Da Capo Press, 2018

Harriet Brown admits she led a pretty good childhood; she was not physically abused (much), she had food and clothing, hers was not a broken home. But her mother was emotionally abusive, tearing Harriet down constantly. No one could praise Harriet without her mother cutting in, and telling them they didn’t know Harriet like she did, that Harriet was in fact a horrible child, self-centered and selfish. Harriet got out of the house as soon as she could, at 16, but it was hard to overcome the drive to stay close to her family. Our society says the family is important, and that you are screwed up if you aren’t close to them. Finally, she had enough, and severed ties with her mother, not just for her benefit but for that of her own daughters.

The author mixes her own story in with those of others, and with psychological research. This isn’t just her complaining; emotional abuse IS abuse, and it can scar a person for the rest of their life, causing them to not trust themselves. I have a couple of dear friends who have/had abusive mothers, and they have both had to cut off communications for the sake of their sanity.

She may have been five thousand miles away when her mother’s funeral took place, but it was for the best. The rest of the family wouldn’t have wanted her there, and it would have been hypocrisy for her to weep and wail. She had already wasted hours, days, weeks of her life trying to appease her mother, trying to get her approval. Now, approval and love would never come.

I think what I found even more chilling than her mother’s treatment of her was her father’s ignoring it. He said to the author that if he didn’t take her mother’s side, she would leave him. He picked his wife over his daughter. After her death, he said he did not want to hear from her for a long time. They are slowly rebuilding a relationship, with him learning to like her, to see her as she really is rather than through the lens of her mother’s hatred.

While there is some repetition in the book, it’s well written. I felt pain for what the author went through. I think this book is an important one for adult children of emotionally abusive parent’s to read.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Feast, by Graham Masterton. Pinnacle Books, 1988

Charlie McLean is a restaurant critic who is on the road constantly, eating his way around America for a company that makes up guidebooks. A non-custodial parent, he now has his son, Martin, with him for three weeks, in an attempt for them to get to know each other. An encounter at a (bad) roadside diner leads him on a quest to find Le Reposoir, a secret, private dining club. While he’s seeking this, a member of a cult religion is talking with Martin…and convincing him theirs is the One True Religion. Not only that, but Martin is their Savior. When Martin disappears, Charlie is surprised to find how extensive this cult is and how much power they have… and their Second Coming is NOW.

This is typical 80s gore fest, although it does have some interesting quirks that make it stand apart from the chain saw gang. The cult’s religious thesis is a new one. I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage to like Charlie; there is nothing wrong with him but he just rubbed me the wrong way, although he did the right things in the end. The author’s portrayal of women is annoying; they don’t seem real at all, just ornaments for Charlie to have sex with. But the book held my attention, although it seriously dragged in the middle. Three stars.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan/Owl Books, 2001

Way back in 1998, author Ehrenreich decided to go and try and live like the lower class did. Allowing herself a car and a $1000 in startup money, she went out to land a working class job- waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aide, Walmart associate- and survive on the wages. She discovered how wages didn’t cover rents, or much food, or any way to relax. Most people were working two or even three jobs just to survive. Most often, there was no affordable housing near any source of employment, and there was no affordable transportation. If a worker got ill or injured, they had no option other than to just keep on working. The working class can’t afford to miss work, even if the doctor visit was covered by insurance- and it usually wasn’t back then. Affordable child care simply didn’t exist.

Of course, she wasn’t stuck in this situation. She could tap out at any time and go back to her normal existence. She didn’t live with the knowledge that she would have to live this existence for the rest of her life, with no vacation, no retirement. So she didn’t develop the despair and depression that plagues so many working class people. But she noticed it and reported it. Many people have torn down the author for ‘slumming’, because she could leave, but I feel she wrote an important book because many people were unaware of the situation the working class faced. One person could scarcely cover the entire problem. I did find some things irritating- her fear that she wouldn’t be able to ‘pass’ as a working class person, that her education would out her. Guess what- not every working class person speaks poorly, and there are such things as libraries that allow even the poor to read. One thing that I feel is important about this book is that it showed to the upper classes (if they choose to read it- hah) that even one of their own, a hard working educated woman, couldn’t make it in the system. So much for calling the working class ‘lazy’!

These days, there is a lot more awareness of the problems of the working poor- but I’m not sure there is any more being done about it. Rents are higher, gasoline costs are higher, but wages are the same as they were 20 years ago. There are still huge numbers of people without health insurance. Perhaps it’s time for a reissue of this book, with an update? Five stars.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Prince Ombra, by Roderick MacLeish. Tom Doherty Associates, 1982

Eight year old Bentley Ellicot is bullied by boys in his town because he has a limp. He’s never had a friend until he meets Sally Drake in the physical therapist’s waiting room. She’s there because she can’t talk- or, at least, not so that anyone can understand. But Bentley has no problem understanding her gibberish.

Bentley is unusual in ways besides his limp. He was born knowing he’s lived many times before. He’s always been a hero every time- Arthur, Hercules, Gilgamesh, and others- and each time he’s defeated the face of evil: Prince Ombra. Ombra brings evil into the hearts of humans, affects the weather, and brings misery in general. Bentley has learned magic spells from horseshoe crabs and the wind. Now, with another round with Prince Ombra coming up, he has Sally as well as Dr. Kreistein, their Jungian therapist and mythology scholar. But while he’s got the power of the ages to draw on, he’s still only an eight year old boy….

Pretty good fantasy. I liked the world building. I liked the kids and Dr. Kreistein, although I wasn’t over fond of Bentley’s father- he succumbs to Ombra’s influence annoyingly fast. One thing I found odd is that there is no explanation of the evil that infests our world when Ombra is dormant, but maybe it’s a thing where we have balance, rather than Eden, until he shows up. Four stars.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Forgiveness Road, by Mandy Mikulencak. John Scognamiglio Books, 2019

On a Mississippi July morning sometime in the 1970s, 16 year old Cissy Pickering empties a gun into her father’s back. She does not explain, saying only that she had to do it to protect her younger sisters. Her mother, Caroline, turns against her, but her grandmother Janelle takes Cissy’s side. Cissy is arrested, and eventually states that her father had been raping her since she was little. They had a deal: she would do whatever he wanted, provided he never touch her little sisters. And he was starting to break that deal. She is, she says, ready to take the punishment for the crime she has committed, and expects to spend the rest of her life in jail.

Her grandmother’s lawyer, however, plans to plead insanity. Cissy has had some mental quirks for a number of years: she makes endless lists and counts everything. She’s developed a form of OCD that allows her to believe she has some control over her life. This lands her in a mental hospital rather than in jail, where she reads whatever is available and plays chess with God, talking out loud to Her. But then her grandmother decides Cissy shouldn’t be punished at all for ridding the world of her son-in-law, and springs her for a road trip.

There are problems, of course. Janelle knows not to use credit cards or checks, so they are limited to what cash she had on hand. And Janelle is ill. This may cut short their bid for freedom.

There is a lot of things going on in this book; the cold relationship between Janelle and Caroline, the relationship between Janelle and her childhood best friend who is now her housekeeper- and refuses to call Janelle anything but ‘Ma’am’, the relationship of Caroline and Cissy that keeps Caroline from believing Cissy at first, the odd short of friendship between Cissy and a fellow patient at the asylum, the relationship that develops between Cissy and a waitress at the motel/restaurant they stop at for a while, and the relationship between said waitress and her boyfriend. But despite all that I liked about the book, I felt there was something odd about how fast Cissy got over things. She’s been abused all her life, she kills her father, her mother turns against her, and other crushing things happen to her later in the book. Yet she is okay… Her OCD protects her from what her father does to her, but it’s no protection against the rest, at least not that I can tell. Still, a very engaging book. Four and a half stars.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir, by Jean Guerrero. One World, 2018

Jean Guerrero had a hard childhood. Her mother, a Puerto Rican physician working in San Diego, kicked her father out when Guerrero was 6- for understandable reasons. Her mother’s parents, who at times were the children’s caregivers, had some very odd ideas about child rearing. Her father, Marco Antonio Guerrero, was not around much, and when he was, he wasn’t much of a parent. Having mental illness but unwilling to acknowledge that, he self-medicated with, well, pretty much every drug that exists and huge amounts of alcohol.

The author majored in journalism and became a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, based in Mexico City. She used this situation to dig into her father’s culture and past. Turned out his family had a number of shamans in it, ending up in a sort of Castaneda territory. His parents and siblings, though, started a meat packing business that was making decent money with Marc Antonio running it. His half-sister edged him out, though, and that is when his problems really started, a downward spiral that included a tin foil hat along with the self-medicating. A voracious reader, he was a genius about repairing and creating things but couldn’t keep a job.

There is more than one crux in the story; the physical border between the US and Mexico, the border between mysticism and mental illness. The story wanders around in time and place, and I found this confusing in places. There is some repetition. There were sections that were so fascinating that I couldn’t put the book down, and other places I really wanted to skim or give up. Four stars out of five.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our own Back Yards, by Sara Stein. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993

‘Noah’s Garden’ was one of the early books advocating using native plants and gardening for the wildlife. Stein relates, in wandering fashion, the long process she and her husband undertook of returning a large site to something sustainable and critter friendly- both macro and micro. She shows the problem with having a lawn instead of a meadow, and with planting exotic (non-native plants) to the exclusion of natives. Not having a landscape that provides food and shelter to native insects, birds, and mammals means that pest species numbers just explode with nothing to keep them in check. And that point is where people end up reaching for the spray gun.

It’s a very interesting book for the most part, although it bogs down near the end and I started skimming for a while. There are sources that go into more detail about meadows, pest species, and gardening for wildlife available now, but it’s a nice starting point. Four stars.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Daughter of Moloka’I, by Alan Brennert. St. Martin’s Press, 2019

We first meet Ruth in an orphanage on Oahu, the half Japanese, half Hawaiian daughter of occupants of the Moloka’I leper colony. Over the course of 54 years, from 1926 to 1970, we follow her life as she is adopted by a Japanese family who move to California to farm. Of course, come Pearl Harbor, they are put in an internment camp and later have to start over in the aftermath. Ruth is contented with her life; she loves her parents and is starting a family of her own. Then, out of nowhere, a letter arrives from Rachel – her birth mother. Will Ruth want to meet the woman who gave her up when she was one year old? Can she love both her birth mother who she doesn’t remember and her adoptive mother, the only other she’s known? Can she even understand the woman who gave her up- and who lived a significant amount of her life in the leper colony?

The characters are mostly well drawn and three dimensional. The author brings places to life, too- the islands, central California, the internment camps. I think this description of the inhumanity of putting people in internment camps like animals comes at a time when the US is doing the same thing all over again, and I hope it will make some difference in the minds of readers. Five stars.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

American Duchess: A Novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt, by Karen Harper. William Morrow, 2019

Consuelo Vanderbilt was brought up strict by her socialite mother, Alva. Taught all the things a society lady was supposed to know, and confined to a corset with a steel rod in the back to make sure her posture was perfect, she was expected to marry well and provide heirs to continue the line. When the Duke of Marlborough showed some interest, a deal- strictly a business deal- was made: Consuelo would get to be an English duchess, and the Duke would get the money he needed to save his palace and live life the way he wanted to. Problem was, Consuelo was already in love with another man. Under threats from her mother, Consuelo gave in and married the Duke. She was now a provider of huge sums of money and of heirs.

Consuelo wasn’t one to just sit around and spend money, though. She was quite the philanthropist, and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. She did her part during WW I, running a sort of hospital. And she finally left her husband so she could live her own life.

It’s an interesting book and I enjoyed reading it. But it has some flaws. First is that Consuelo is flawless; she is never in the moral wrong. Of course, it’s written in the first person, so that’s kind of to be expected. The second is that I feel like the book was possibly written for the Young Adult crowd, even though it is being advertised for adult readers. Finally, there is a bit of a flat affect. None of the characters- not even Consuelo- really come to life. And one (Alva) makes a total 180 degree turn about in character, which seemed odd. Four out of five stars.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Wolff. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1923

“Mrs. Dalloway” is a classic, considered by some to be the finest modern novel. That sort of recommendation is enough to make me approach carefully; I’m not educated enough to fully appreciate the great works and I find reading them a chore. But I’m happy to say that, although I found the first bit tedious, it didn’t take me long to get sucked into the story.

It’s not that the plot is engaging; there is almost no plot. The book is merely a record of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, and that of a few of her friends, and some people that she passes by. We are given access to their thoughts as they go about their day. Clarissa buys flowers, mends a dress, and gives a party. She hosts a visitor, just back from India. She thinks about a girl from her school days, with whom she had been in love. Septimus Smith, suffering from PTSD from WW I and the loss of a fellow soldier with whom he’d been in love, quietly sinks into a fatal madness. The stream of consciousness leads us seamlessly through the minds of these people; there are no chapters to provide breaking points. Wolff’s prose is simply beautiful; she describes the everyday moments that are usually forgotten or ignored as things of beauty. But the book is not just pretty prose; there is surprising depth to some of the characters. Clarissa and Septimus, in particular, although not directly connected, seem to be two sides of the questions of life and death. Five stars.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Magdalena’s Ghost: The Haunting of the House in Gallows Lane, by Peppi Hilton. 2015

Young couple Lucy and Anton are headed out for a weekend of camping in their van when Anton decides to take a new road to the campground. They find themselves in a run-down village, and he is taken with an old, abandoned house. Lucy finds the house horribly creepy and unwelcoming, but Anton develops an immediate obsession with it. Suddenly he’s got their lives mapped out as B&B owners in the middle of nowhere. Despite Lucy’s objections, Anton pushes it and they are owners of the decrepit building in no time. He’s a carpenter, and so able to do the repairs and restorations himself- no one else is coming and going into the house. Lucy hates the house despite its beauty, and finds creepy things happening. When Anton leaves for two weeks to work on a customer’s house, things really break loose. The grand piano plays, doors open and close, and there are, quite literally, skeletons in the closet. The past is coming alive, with a vengeance. The story plays out in both the present and the 1950s.

While the haunting was interesting and pretty well done- some of it was very creepy!, I wasn’t crazy about aspects of the story. Anton came across as not caring a bit about what Lucy thought, and just did as he pleased. Lucy was a very weak character, going along with the flow, being unwilling to cross Anton. There was also a good deal of repetition. I’d say four stars.