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review 2018-06-13 11:01
Miles to Go
Miles to Go - Richard Paul Evans

This book continues the story from The Walk.  


Alan Christoffersen is on a journey, a soul searching walk across the US.  He started in Seattle after he lost everything.  His wife died, his partner stole his business, and his cars and home were repossessed.  He was thinking about giving up and ending it all but something stopped him.  Instead, he grabbed a map and figured out the farthest he could walk on land and set his sites on Key West Florida.  At the end of The Walk he was attacked by a gang and serious injured.  He ended up staying with a woman who he had helped on his walk.  He fixed her tire and she gave him her card.  He forgot all about it but when he was taken to the hospital that number was the only contact info on him.  She came to help and offered him a place to stay while he healed.  While he was there he realized he wasn't there for her to help him.  She needed help herself.  


After Alan was healed enough to return to his walk he saw young woman being attacked by a group of men.  He helped her and she began to walk with him.  After she finally talked about her situation his heart really went out to her.  She was an abused child put in the foster system.  She was nearly 18 and since she knew she was going to be on her own soon anyway, she ran away and was living on the streets.  She was a great girl and didn't deserve her situation.  Alan really wanted to help her.  




This is a great soul-searching story for both the character and the reader.  I found several little gems to add to my quote book.  I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series and continuing the journey along with Alan.  



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quote 2018-06-13 10:44
For there are moments in all our lives, great and small, that we must trudge alone our forlorn roads into infinite wilderness, to endure our midnight hours of pain and sorrow--- the Gethsemane moments, when we are on our knees or backs, crying out to a universe that seems to have abandoned us. These are the greatest of moments, where we show our souls. They are our "finest hours." That these moments are given to us is neither accidental not cruel. Without great mountains we cannot reach great heights. And we were born to reach great heights.
Miles to Go - Richard Paul Evans

Page 317 (the last page)

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review 2018-06-06 08:18
There There by Tommy Orange - Urban Indians and lost connections
There There - Tommy Orange

If this is what Tommy Orange writes for his debut, we have a major talent writing right now. My copy of There There arrived today. It's nearly 3 AM, and I just finished. No food, no sleep; I couldn't put this book down.

"This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there."

That title gathers more meaning with every character, chapter and section. By the end the weight of not knowing exactly who you are or where you come from is a heavy weight even for a reader. All the characters have different experiences and difficulties, but they are all in search of connection to their own community, and none seem sure they belong to that community or if that community will allow them to belong to it. What is the character with an advanced degree in Native American Studies to do when he can't find a job? What about someone born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who wears his face as a constant reminder? What about native peoples who have to learn all of their heritage and how to practice it from YouTube or Google searches? Beyond poverty, unemployment, far too much alcoholism, there is death, devastation and a lot of shame in these characters. While they don't rise above in Hollywood ways, getting through the day - learning and growing and putting one foot in front of the other - while continuing to strive for that connection is pretty triumphant. 

The characters are fully realized. We know why they do what they do, and we get a sense of how they feel about their current and past selves. It takes a minute but we understand their connections to each other better than they do by the end of the novel. We also get a sense of how these people came to be so broken from the proud nations that the Americas have systematically wiped out. What is most clear is that the bloodbath that came to America with the first settlers has left a never-ending trail of trauma. And in case we might miss it from just the stories, there's one of the best essays -- seemingly well-researched and certainly well-written that pulls no punches right in the beginning of the novel. While the characters don't escape unscathed, neither will a reader. In writing this so openly and leaving the sharp edges intact, Mr. Orange has held a mirror up to the Americas - whether the reader is indigenous or not.

There are many major characters in this novel, all in various stages of heading to the Oakland Powwow. While some have visited a Reservation, they are mostly urban or suburban and none seem fully connected to their native culture. This isn't a reservation story or a historical account. These indigenous people live in the here and now, in the cities (mostly Oakland) and do all of the things everyone else in the city does, including riding the subway and not dressing up (except maybe on the day of the Powwow.) At first they don't seem to be related, but as the chapters and parts of the book move along, their connections become clear and that broke my heart even more. Missed connections, searching out parents or grandchildren you've never known, searching for yourself - all of these are explored and there are no pat answers. In fact, the book ends on one of the most wistful non-answers in recent memory. I love a book that refuses to put a pretty bow on top, and had Mr. Orange packaged the ending that way, everything that came before would have been cheapened.

What you get here is a journey, good stories, interesting characters, but no perfect answers. How could there be perfect answers to such a long history of carnage and stolen identity?

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review 2018-06-04 13:51
Census by Jesse Ball - Love Song to a Sibling Wrapped in a Road Trip
Census - Jesse Ball

“It is so easy for humans to be cruel, and they leap to it. They love to do it. It is an exercise of all their laughable powers.”


Jesse Ball's writing has always fascinated me. I first knew him as a poet and I don't have a ton of faith in poets becoming novelists. (I've missed some good novels, but I've missed more bad ones.) So imagine my delight when his first novel, Samedi the Deafness gave me literal thrills. I foisted it upon so many people that year...and I don't think anyone has read their copy yet. Idiots. Since then he's been very productive - a new work nearly every year, experimental but readable, and always interesting. His experiments don't interfere - instead they seem to be a way of getting exactly to the core of the story. Where other experimental writers carve curlicue apple peels for our delight, Ball cores an apple to show us the seed.


So here we are at his latest Census, which came about in different way than many novels. Jesse Ball had a big brother named Abram who lived with Downs Syndrome. Ball always imagined being with Abram, as a child even imagined how to navigate dating and finding a woman who would understand/accept that Abram was a part of their lives. Sadly, Abram died years ago, and Ball wanted to write a book about his brother and their relationship without ... writing a book about his brother.


So Ball worked from a child with Down Syndrome and fit a book around that character. What we end up with is Census: the story of a widower with a son who has Down Syndrome. The book starts as the father gets a fatal prognosis from his doctor. He decides the way to carry out his days is to see the country with his son, so he signs up to be a census taker, and the two of them set out on a road trip across a nameless country to gather the data from people in towns named for letters of the alphabet while spending this last time together.


They start in the beginning (A) and travel alphabetically. Soon we realize this census is different from any census we know. Rather than an external record, each participant gets tattooed on a rib to prove they've taken part, and rather than just facts, he's looking for what's special or unique about the people he counts, so the census takes time with each person as he listens to their stories. This allows time for each town and the citizens in it to respond and react to this interesting census duo, and it allows the loving father to reminisce on his life, his family and his son - sharing stories of his previous work, his life, his own family and very poignantly his wife, a famous performance artist/clown. In these memories we find all the light that the bones of the book need for balance.


Some of the towns are welcoming, allowing them easily into their homes and workplaces. Because the son wants to go to every single house, the father creates a sort of game where he's allowed to pick. One day he picks a house they've visited previously, but a deal's a deal, so up they go, and the couple doesn't say a word about them having done every single thing just a day or so earlier. One man allows the son to hang out in his workshop while the father covers the rest of the town. Along the line they meet another family with a Downs girl,and the mother recognizes in the father all the love and respect she feels for her daughter.


“...I have come to see that he who looks too hard for any particular thing, though he may find it, will certainly miss the most wondrous and strange things he passes, though they stare him in the face.”


Not all the towns are so welcoming. As they get further into the alphabet, the towns are more sparsely populated and the people much more wary. While the terrain gets more difficult, so does the inner "journey" because as they approach the end of the country (Z), the father, nearing the end of his life, has to confront the best way to say goodbye to his beloved son. He worries about his son's future (though he did provide, early on, for the care of his son.) He also has questions about the purpose of the census itself.


We are mostly in the father's head as he narrates their travels, it's through his eyes that we know the son. We hear how people meet or refuse to meet his son, we see hostility and kindness. Best of all, we get to see the boy's unbridled joy and excitement with things people who perceive life differently might not find so endlessly fascinating. I've known people who live with big differences, and the most heartbreaking part for me is always the way the world treats these human beings. Jesse Ball's touch is never maudlin or strident, and he doesn't preach. Instead he shows us how prejudice actually robs that person of a whole range of experiences. The lesson is never stated, but it's clear that the people who laugh at, recoil from or can't even recognize his son are so much poorer for their lack of imagination, decency, kindness and subtlety. As the book goes along, it's hard not to question the idea of "normal" and pack mentality, the strictures many of us enforce as "grown-ups." But he rarely comes close to stating these things. They would be easy to miss.


“I have always despised people who join societies. In general, I feel that groups of any kind are for the weak. The need for consensus is the most disgusting and pathetic aspect of our human world. Is there none who can simply wander alone beneath a sort of cloth tent painted with dreams?”



While the world it's set in is very ordered, gray and different from ours, Census isn't a dystopian story. It's a profound lesson on love, grief, belonging, conformity, decency and humanity.





What NOT to do with a signed first edition:

put a giant cheap gold sticker saying "signed first edition" on a hardcover book that has its own sleeve. But even if it was written on a rock, this would be a great book.



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review 2018-05-11 04:05
Rumaan Alam's That Kind of Mother
That Kind of Mother - Rumaan Alam

~ All You Need Is Love, help, education, communication, money, humility & hair tips ~


When I like something, I often can't tell you why. Most of my favorite books are still waiting for the reviews I can't get right in my head; so here's what I noticed about this book:


I expected it to be more hard-hitting in the areas of cross-cultural or cross-racial adoption, but it is subtle throughout. Even when making hard-hitting points, the touch is light. I also expected more stupid white people, to be honest, but all of the characters come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, blind spots and positive traits. Nobody is a hero, everyone is a real person. The characterizations are mostly believable and treated with dignity.


Rumaan Alam wisely steers around lots of potential pitfalls by setting this novel between 1985 and 1999, when the world really was a different place in many ways. At times the irony is so heavy it left drops on my table, but it's never sarcastic or mean-spirited. The characters are all learning and growing, and nobody gets off easily when dealing with race, family, class, gender, background or other issues... Almost more than race and class, what I read here was a uniquely American book. I can't remember being as optimistic as the people in this book, but it's impossible to regain ignorance in a post-everything world. These characters still have the Twin Towers (and even eat at Windows on the World,) haven't seen a full-on war in decades, and truly believe things are getting better. So beyond the obvious issues of race and class that get most of the ink in reviews, there is also a careful and poignant exploration of what it means to be American now that we know what these characters have yet to experience.

I couldn't help wondering what would happen in just a few years, when it all started to crumble for this family - I'd love to have followed them all through so many more points in history, and while it wasn't a cliff-hanger, I'd like to see the next decades covered by the adopted son if I got to make wishes into books.


Finally, Alam does another good job of writing from a woman's perspective including the way sometimes nobody "gets" a friendship from the outside, even other people who are close to one of the friends, even when it seems like the friendship can't possibly be "real." He must've done a lot of research since he covers everything from birth and breastfeeding to clothing styles from the era. After seeing some women respond angrily about a man writing "women's thoughts," my reaction was "well, I'm not a mom, never gave birth, never breastfed - would *I* be allowed to write this book?" This "who gets to write what" thing bothers me in many ways and is personal in many ways to me. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but  Rumaan Alam is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man with whom he's raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn.


When it comes down to it, families are more than blood or the way others perceive us. Love will not heal everything, but it also doesn't harm anything. Parenting is hard for everyone from time to time. It's probably very wise - whether you've adopted a baby or born your own - to allow others to offer wisdom and insight (on more than the basics.) Knowing what you don't know might save your family. And it will certainly save your kid's hair! 


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