Monday, December 14, 2015

I Am the Messenger

protect the diamonds+survive the clubs+dig deep through the spades+feel the hearts

When I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak a few years ago, it immediately found a comfy spot in my favorites list. So I when I picked up I Am the Messenger by Zusak, I was anxious to dive in, yet I was leery. Could the story and prose possibly compare? I had my doubts. The book lie dormant for many months. And the time I wasted!

I think most of us have a soft spot for the underdog, drifter guy who, of course, is funny, clever and sweet. Well, at least we women do. This novel's protagonist, Ed Kennedy, is a laid-back cab driver who somehow botches a bank robbery. The event sets Ed off on a series of strange and mysterious missions within his community.

Ed's life pulses with routine and a small sphere of card-playing friends: Marv, Ritchie, Audrey (whom he loves), and The Doorman his dog(whom he also loves). The novel captures Ed's reluctance to carry out these "missions." But he does. He must. It's as if his life depends on it. Maybe it does! The missions aren't clearly defined; each assignment is a puzzle for Ed to solve. (He is clever, even if not terribly ambitious.) One of the biggest puzzles is to determine who is setting the missions in motion. And it's kind of a shocker. I didn't guess. And I really thought I had.

The plot is engaging–a page turner for sure. But like all good books, the character transformation is what makes this story a charmer. One of the most profound elements of the story is how Ed deals with the death of his father. His mother is nothing short of a bitch ("Believe it or not, it takes a lot of love to hate you like this."), which makes his loneliness more intense. But it's through Ed's new experiences he begins to make sense of himself and these feelings of loss and loneliness.

If only he could get the the girl...

I adore the punchiness of Ed's narrative. How couldn't Ed get the girl! Well, it's complicated. Audrey's got issues. At one point, after being rejected by her, he says,

"You can kill a man with those words. No gun. No bullet. Just words and a girl."

Just words. Powerful stuff. Lots of great words in this book. So read it already.

One quick note before signing off on this glowing review: I can find few similarities between this book and The Book Thief, except for perhaps the poignancy. So whether you liked The Book Thief or not, I'd give I Am the Messenger a read. It's a great tale, especially if you're into poignancy.

Monday, September 28, 2015

"Books are a uniquely portable magic." -Stephen King

My inspiration to write comes from love of storytelling propagated from a lifetime in books. So when my story, Phoenix Sun was selected to be published in the 2014 Author's First Short Story Contest, I didn't realize how much of my reward would come from reading all of the winning stories in the published anthology.

Portable Magic is composed of seventeen broadly original pieces which dip into everything from mythology, dystopia, and tragic-comedy. While each writer certainly has his or her own distinct style, I feel the editors deserve high praise with the palpable synergy that exists between each tale. There's a particular cadence to the entire anthology with its mix of surreal and real, long and shorter stories. Perhaps it's the verbal felicity of each of the writers–the enjoyable prose. No matter where I happened to finish reading, I was always anxious to get back to the book–either to finish whatever short story I was reading or to start one anew.

Textures within Portable Magic abound! Many of the stories provide extraordinary sensory details. While there wasn't a read I didn't like, I was really struck by I Fell Off My Name by Micah Juliot. The story tells of a disenchanted hostel worker in Barcelona. As we learned of the the protagonist Kamal's daily rituals, we also sensed, equally the banality and profundity of his life...his name–and his ability to choose his destiny. I also became completely enraptured by The New Fenian. B. Lynch Black artfully combined folklore into a modern day scene to create a story of enriched characters and a page-turning plot. The World was an Island was penned by Abigail Andersen, a high school creative writing student who defied conventional storytelling and brought us a brilliant narrative of pain, love, and redemption about a girl who was stuck on an island with her "lifegiver."

I hope Portable Magic is the beginning of a trend to revive contemporary short stories in an art form as something more enriching than a high school or college assignment. (The style certainly works well with our busy lifestyles.) I, for one, was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed each and every one the stories...even though yes, I did write one of them!

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Way back in 1993, when I finished grad school and set off to make a mark in the banking world, I was filled with oodles of energy, enthusiasm, and unbridled ambition. The job market wasn’t all that steamy, but I believe my optimism helped me land a management trainee job at a large, regional bank. I was on my way. 

Way to what?

Twenty-some years later, now in the midst of a career as a CFO for a small, community bank, that question still niggles at me. Have I "made" it? Would my twenty-three-year-old self think I made it? Maybe. Maybe not. Financially stable. Check. Respectable position. Check. But there's also a palpable waning of energy from years of maintaining a hard-driving pace. With that in mind, what do I believe success looks like?

Aho. Along comes the estimable, prolific Arianna Huffington and her book Thrive.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Huffington and her adorable accent at a conference a few years ago. She campaigned on the importance of sleep, which I already happen to be an expert on since my nightly routine consists of 7-8 hours of serious slumber, as confirmed by my Fitbit. Even though I don't suffer from sleep deprivation issues, I was impassioned by her cause. You would've been too. Arianna is so darn smart and funny and doesn't act like she’s one of the most influential women in America. She's relatable. Perhaps that’s her secret.

Her book is written in her same, distinct voice, sans the European accent. Casual, conversational–peppered with anecdotes as if you’re having a latte at some cozy NY coffee shop. Yet, the insights and quotes drip on the pages with profundity.

Anyway, Thrive is a book about the true meaning of success. Ms. Huffington is obviously fluent in the traditional notions of success: money and power. My twenty-something self would have been easily impressed with Huffington's achievements in those arenas. But then comes the emptiness. “Thrive” explores and debunks how working hard to achieve financial wealth and social stature doesn’t equate to happiness. We need more. Ms. Huffington introduces the “Third Metric”—a formula which lead to true fulfillment.

The third metric explores four tenets: well-being, wisdom, wonder and compassion. She delves into each of these areas usually starting from a wide angle lens, then zooming into granular details to provide specific actions to improve your life. Some of the advice seems obvious, but Arianna more than proves her point by backing up her insights with real data. That's her genius. We become compelled to really consider departing from our devices. And sleeping better. And meditating. And absorbing the beauty of a goldfinch.

There’s much to take from this self-help book. It’s one of those books you read with a highlighter and a post-it, so you can refer back to those sections which speak to you. There's also a handy appendix to provide resources for some of the recommended actions that aren't so easily achieved–like meditating. (I don't know about you, but I pray Jesus forgives my ADHD during prayer time. I definitely need guidance when it comes to meditation.)

I planned on loaning this book out to a few of my friends and relatives—especially my daughter before she left for college. But selfishly, I couldn’t quite give the book up. I've held on to it, carrying it around and referring back to it. I'll often open it up to some random page and find a useful quote. For example, there's a section called "Go-Getters are Good; Go Givers are Better." I think this means I should give this book out as gifts. Perhaps the best compliment you can give an author is your desire to offer it to others. I’m sure Arianna would appreciate my glowing review.

I bought Thrive in search of rejuvenation. Not only did I find it, but I found something better: enlightenment.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


"True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring." Alexandre Dumas

It appears this blog is now devoted to history! Certainly my spare time has found me immersed in a bit of time travel–leaving me no less richer for it. Disclaimer: my bookshelf has also punched in a few contemporaries to keep me grounded in the current century: Thrive, A Spool of Blue Thread, Flash and Dazzle and that great new release everyone's been waiting for: Portable Magic. These tomes will find a space on the blog soon, but today I salute my recent historical reads.

Historial Fiction #1:

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira takes place during the Civil War era, offering a portrayal of a talented, smart midwife who is fiercely determined to become a doctor–an unthinkable path for a female at the time. A hero who can rise above social mores for a specific, burning cause is always a compelling theme. And while a book about a woman trying to make her mark in the midst of the Civil War may sound interesting, but not like a page-turner, it really is.

The Civil War was boggling on so many levels. This story recounts the medical progress and challenges during the bloodiest of battles. From battles to childbirthing, sensory details seep throughout the book. Oliveira draws us into scenes, creating gripping details with such perspicuity, it's impossible not to contemplate on the stench of war–literally and figuratively.

My Name is Mary Sutter selected as the All Iowa Read for our book club. And while I have often been disappointed with these picks, this year I was quite delighted. Gender discrimination within the  context of the Civil War is not something anyone considers much. Equality for women was seen as selfish cause, compared to the plight of abolition. Apparently, those causes couldn't be sought in conjunction with each other. This book explores the issues with a wonderful and emotional story whose main character of Mary Sutter who not only defined courage, but embraced sacrifice for a cause that went beyond the Civil War.

Historial Fiction #2:

Speaking of feminism and abolition...

Quite a few years ago I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It became an instant favorite. Now she has written The Invention of Wings–a historical fiction based on the real abolitionist and feminist named Sarah Grimke who lived during the turn of the 19th Century.

Kidd became inspired to write about Sarah Grimke after learning the anti-slavery proponent originated from a wealthy slave-owning family in Charleston. I believe this is either irony, justice or redemption. No matter, it's a great story–fiction or not.

In the book, Sarah is given a slave at the age of eleven. She rejects the notion, but can not easily extricate herself from the awful institution of slavery. She begins by embarking on a friendship with her "given" slave, Handful.

The story alternates between the voice of the animated Handful and the more demure Sarah. The most palpable comparison of the characters is how each are tortured, albeit in different ways. Handful survives the awful physical and emotional consequences of slavery–which include beatings, deaths of friends, vanishment of loved ones, torture, condescension and more. Sarah suffers from the guilt of her involvement and powerlessness to change anything. But these juxtapositions aren't always wrapped up so tidily. While Sarah's moral compass becomes clear at an early age after she becomes sickened by the beating of a slave, her convictions are tested when she finds Handful using her bathtub. Her own indignant reaction catches herself off guard. Does she truly believe in equality? She does. And in that moment, she understands her environment and values don't reflect her beliefs. That's when a shift in her life begins–her path to becoming one of history's greatest essayist and speakers on abolition.

But there's more to the story–the fiction side of things anyway. Much is happening to the group of slaves Sarah has grown up with while she has moved North. Eventually, Handful is faced with a dangerous dilemma. And Sarah has drifted away from the family. Without the ability to chart their own destinations, for the slaves there comes heartache, as is expected in the Antebellum South. But because of Sarah and Handful's determination, there is hope as well.

I like Sue Monk Kidd's writing style. Her mastery of language, dialogue and syntax makes the story a joy to read. She creates just enough details to immerse us in the world, without bogging. I believe her talent lies in making characters come to life with their actions and punchy talk. An interview with Ms. Kidd indicated Sarah was a challenge because she wanted to keep her voice as authentic as possible, based on her research. While I'm no expert on Sarah Grimke, nor customs of the 1800s, I'd say she nailed it. Her cause and internal struggles felt authentic, making me very reflective of the themes. Okay. I'm often reflective of injustice anyway.

Sarah Grimke struggled with finding her purpose. Sue Monk Kidd brought her to life again in this book–bringing to light Sarah's challenges of the her voice being heard on issues that matter. Somehow, that theme is still very relevant today. I think Sarah Grimke would be very proud of this depiction.

Historical Book #3:

Since I'm writing a blog, and not a book, I'm going to only mention briefly how delightful Erik Larson is. I just finished Dead Wake which details the events leading up to the the sinking of the Lusitania. Mr. Larson can bring ANY major historical event to life in a way that will make you an insufferable know-it-all and requiring you to have a dinner party so you can discuss everything you learned. I will only say one thing that should compel you to read this book: while the Germans certainly caused the destruction, other parties weren't faultless in preventing the tragedy. And I'm not speaking of the ship's captain, although he certainly was made a scapegoat. That's all I have to say about that.

That's probably enough book reviewing for one post. Better get reading...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Stirring History

"It just goes to show you really can't judge a book by its cover."

One of my book club friends made this astute observation during our discussion of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. I have to admit when I heard our book club pick was a non-fiction based on the assassination on President James Garfield, I was not terribly enthused. Maybe it was the book cover. Dark, somber hues. The presidential portrait. Courier font. My trepidation was quickly erased once I began to read.

Ms. Millard enlivens the facts surrounding the death of our 20th president by weaving themes of politics, medicine and technology. The book reads not only as a compelling historical narrative, but also as a social commentary of a time period which could and probably has slipped through the cracks of our collective memories.

I won't deny I knew almost nothing about Garfield before started reading this book. But now I know the man was a bit amazing. I'd put him up there with Lincoln. His modest upbringing, stemming from tragedy at an early age, gave rise to a brilliant man with a fervent work ethic and studious habits. Success came early. Who doesn't love that American story? Garfield was so respected for his mind and charisma, he practically fell into politics and wasn't even looking to become the leader of our country. And while his political career might've been somewhat accidental, he was ingenious in dealing with his political opponents of any ideology–of which there were a few.

The book details the assassination attempt, which did not kill Garfield immediately. We get a sense of the real tragedy of the event: Garfield's medical treatment and his suffering. Many interesting dynamics were taking place during this time. Alexander Graham Bell was busy inventing and had a machine which he was certain would help identify the bullet's presence in the President. Anti-sepsis theories were only accepted by a handful of doctors. So plenty of patients were dying from infections. This would eventually take Garfield, but not without him fighting.

Throughout the book, Garfield's character is depicted as jovial, compassionate, sharp-minded, and ambitious. (The book is careful to point out Garfield's imperfections as well–he was human.) We are privy to enjoy many of his profound quotes throughout the read, giving us even more insight into his state of mind. One of my favorites, which may explain his popularity: "The chief duty of the government is to keep the peace and stand out of the sunshine of the people." A few politicians might do good to read this book.

Upon his death, an entire nation mourned woefully–maybe more woefully than the death of Abe Lincoln which had just taken place less than twenty years prior with a nation very divided. Garfield always set out to do good–the right thing, but his career was cut short. And while we wonder what he might've accomplished if he would lived longer, maybe his unfortunate death had an important
consequence : it brought together a grieving nation (Northerners and Southerners) as wounds from the Civil War were just beginning to heal.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Get Shorty

"I try to leave out the parts readers skip." -Leonard Elmore

Get Shorty ain't no page skipping book.

Sometimes I feel I'm losing a race. So many authors. So many books. Too little time. When Leonard Elmore died a few years ago, I made a promise I would get something read by him. I'm sorry it has taken me so long.

I finished Get Shorty a couple of weeks ago. Admittedly, my choice of this particular Elmore was influenced by the fact a movie adaptation existed. I'm a sucker for those. Of course, I didn't watch the flick before I read the book, but I did allow John Travolta influence how I imagined the main character of Chili Palmer. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Get Shorty is a story about a shylock. Actually, it's about a good shylock and a bad shylock. No, that's not right either. It's about a good shylock, a bad shylock and a really bad shylock. Oh! And an actor who wants to play a shylock. The plot twists are certainly engaging enough with the setting mainly in Hollywood. And despite Elmore's genius criss-crosses in the story, that's not what I loved most about this book.

Colorful characters and punchy dialogue. That's what loved. With gritty themes of greed, power, and violence, I found myself smiling through much of the text. Elmore was brilliant at depicting human foibles in the most comical of ways. Like when one loan shark is teaching another loan shark how to write a movie script. (How hard could it be?) They are both motivated to elbow their way into the movie business, but for different reasons. And both are very calculating men. You keep wondering if the scene is going to end with gunshots or a handshake. It doesn't end in either of those ways. But it wraps up with a funny piece of dialogue.

     ..."you come to the last page you write 'Fade out' and that's the end, you're done."
     Chili said, "That's all there is to it?"
     "That's all."
     Chili said, "Then what do I need you for?"

Chili Palmer makes the book sing. He's kind of like Bugs Bunny–not terribly congenial, but awfully magnetic. And you can't wait to see how he's gonna get himself out of any particular situation–and there are layers of situations in this book. It's not just about collecting money. It's about finding one's place in the world of actors–the people who have convinced themselves of their own importance. No wonder I found myself siding for the mob guy. He was the most sincere character in the book.

Endings are one of the best parts of a crime mystery. And it's not because I want the book to be over! It's because of the tightly wrapped-up resolution. No social issues hanging over me. Just a satisfied feeling from being engaged in a puzzle presented in the form of a great piece of writing. Thanks Mr. Elmore for that.

Note: I watched the movie a few days after reading the book. I liked it almost as well. It's always a rush to see how the characters are cast. I had casted a Tom Cruise-type person as the actor. Imagine my amusement when I saw that the actor was played by Danny DeVito. And while he wasn't the main character, DeVito perfectly depicted how self-aggrandizing any one person can be. Conversely, Travolta's character, Chili, reflected how a mobster who was at least genuine can actually be a hero.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Warmth of Other Suns

“I was leaving the South 
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

February is Black History Month. Appropriately, I just finished one of the most profound non-fiction books I've ever read: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author tracks three black Americans whose lives spanned during the Great Migration from the South–a time defined between early 1900s and the Civil Rights movement. We get to know energetic Ida from Mississippi, who makes her way with her husband to Chicago in the 30s, struggling to find fair wages and housing in the inner city. Then there's clever George who leaves the groves of Florida for New York to avoid unthinkable repercussions when he stands up for his own rights and the rights of others. And finally, we observe the life of Robert–a military doctor from Louisiana who eventually finds his way to the glamorous land of California, where it would seem tolerance would be pervasive.

Before I embarked upon this book, I thought I had an idea of what I was getting into. Despite America's founding principles of equal rights, our country has had a sketchy history. But I had not really understood the depth of that sketchiness.

Ms. Wilkerson doesn't just depict narratives of injustice.  Statistics and other historical events are peppered throughout the book presenting themes of utter cruelty and immense courage. If you don't find yourself with a tear in your eye, a lump in your throat, or pit in your stomach,  you should question your humanity.

Be prepared to think about content for a while. How do you make sense of certain occurrences? Like when a group of white adults tortured a young, black boy to death, in front of his own father, for the mere act of sending a Christmas card to a white girl? Or, even events not quite as gruesome, but still ridiculous–like Jesse Owens, the infamous gold medal winner, being forced to use the freight elevator for his very own reception. It was always noted how Hitler wouldn't shake Owens hand. Well, neither would our president at the time.

As I read, and thought about the timeframe of the Great Migration, which overlapped with WWII, I wondered how a country could be so indignant about Hitler when genocide was occurring in our very own United States. Lynching was not even a federal crime. It's really quite chilling and shameful.

The cruelty and the hate are difficult to understand. Wilkerson is articulate in revealing how economics fed into these  issues–how fear of losing workers and sharecroppers in the South initiated despicable acts and how the flood of new workers in the North gave rise to unfair wages and housing arrangements. Certainly, I was shaking my head much of the time while reading.

What I found most fascinating though, were the stories of courage. It wasn't easy to leave the South. It wasn't easy to become educated. It wasn't easy to earn money. It wasn't easy to walk across a street. There was a story in the book of a Southerner who had struggled to make her way out of her oppressive state and finally landed in Washington D.C. She felt so happy and proud to have made it to her nation's capital. I thought to myself, "Really? You're proud? You're not angry with your country?"

But anger is never the answer. And that's why our country has continued to socially evolve and become accepting and intolerant of intolerance. There are great stories of unsung heros in The Warmth of Other Suns. These are what inspire. This is what makes the book and the history truly unforgettable.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Lieu of the Super Bowl...

A story leaves me staring straight ahead–speechless. Bewildered, yet enlightened. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is one of those books which could ruin me for awhile. In other words, no other fiction read will have near as much impact to my psyche. Fountain has written a profound narrative certainly with political implications that could easily have turned into a moral fable. But here's the thing. He's written the story so masterfully, I'm  delighted not to have waded through any overt message of righteousness. The genius of Mr. Fountain is how he penned the paradox of doing good, performing cruelties for perceived good, and the all moral complexities that roll along during war–on and off the battlefield.

Billy Lynn, along with his squad called BRAVO, is on temporary leave, touring the US after performing heroics after an insurgent attack in Iraq. With the event caught on video by journalists, the squad finds themselves experiencing celebrity-like limelight. The story mostly takes place at a Dallas Cowboy's football game as BRAVO finds themselves being schmoozed by the owner and courted by a producer who wants to make their movie.

Our protagonist, Billy, is a nineteen-year-old who has been wizened by war, but is tortured by his sense of purpose. He's done great things for his country in the war. And every patriot on the street likes to tell him so, except for his self-absorbed handicapped father. But Billy is haunted by what he hasn't done and what he doesn't know. Like saving his friends. Or caring for his family. Or creating a life for himself after the war. One of Billy's finer moments of clarity comes when he narrows down what he doesn't want to become as he is barraged by questions from reporters at one of the Cowboy events.

...they manage to be incredibly annoying, a middle-aged bunch of mostly big-assed white guys dressed in boring-as-hell business casual, such a sad-fuck sampling of civilian bio-matter that for a moment Billy is actually glad for the war, hell yes, so much better to be out there shooting guns and blowing shit up than shuffling around like scenery on a bad sitcom. God knows the war sucks, but he sees no great appeal in these tepid peacetime lives... 

Mortality is an obvious result of war. Billy's own mortality presses him to consider what he could miss–love being the obvious issue before him. On the surface, a binge romance with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader draws out a comedic element of the story, with the predictable ooh-boy-ha-ha reactions of Billy's mates once they are on to the situation. But Billy experiences something deeper than an infatuation, reflecting the young man's search for something profound and eternal in his life not spoiled by violence and war. (I won't say much more about the romance to avoid any spoiler alerts.)

Fatherly themes prevail throughout the novel. One particular image in which Billy gives away his autographed football to a wayward kid struck me as a great symbol. What else conveys generosity of spirit than a kid receiving something so exquisite. Billy wasn't just being kind though. He was dutiful. In selecting a kid, he avoided the fancy Nike or Under Armour boy. Billy chose the kid who needed to be chosen–to be given a boost.

All throughout the book, we find paternalist themes and images that stir. In addition to good role models and not-so-good role models, the role of country as protector, mentor and savior even plays into this theme. While the story can't determine a conclusive ending as to how a country can fill these parts of our lives, it certainly explores the question.

I went to see American Sniper the same week I finished this novel. Certainly, I couldn't help but feel sad and troubled about war–nothing abnormal. But the one thing great books and movies do is help us relate and provide perspectives we might not otherwise ever have. And while I have always respected and felt grateful for our military, I know I have been changed. The next time I notice someone in the service, the pit in my stomach will reach a little deeper as I silently extend my newfound empathy.