Monday, August 18, 2008

Into the Wild Review

Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is a fine companion to the 2007 Sean Penn movie. After seeing the film, I wanted to know what made Chris McCandless tick and what made him so angry. As a mother, I can't even imagine my son going off and not telling us where he was for two years. And then when he's found, he'd dead. What a horrible thing to have happened to Walt and Billie McCandless, Chris's parents. Through Krakauker's fine details of the landscape of Chris's travels, his interviews with those that knew Chris and his descriptions of other bold and tragic adventurers, we gain a clear context of what made Chris escape his late 20th century life in favor of being alone in the Alaskan wild.

Not only does Krakauer tell us why men must risk all to climb mountains and venture into the wilderness, he shows his vulnerability through his own personal narrative. When he was 23, he was determined to climb Skikine Ice Cap in Alaska -- alone. He made it, but it humbled him. From these experiences, he's the perfect author to understand Chris and give readers an idea of who Chris McCandless was. From this book, I know he was stubborn, arrogant, loyal, super smart, entrepreneurial and highly ethical. The people he briefly met on the road fondly remember him and feel that Chris positively touched their lives. He marched to his own beat. I made up my mind that Chris was born in the wrong century and just couldn't fit into postmodern America. My sentiments were echoed in the book by Andy Horowitz, one of Chris's close high school friends.

While reading I felt two connections to Chris: he graduated from high school 4 years before I did from Woodson HS (I went to Robinson Secondary, about 6 miles away) and we both grew up in Annandale, VA, about 5 miles from each other. I, too, found NOVA a stifling place and couldn't wait to flee from it the first chance I got. Like Chris, I never went back after graduating from Virginia Tech. We were also both competitive runners and I understand what makes someone good at long distance running: sheer will and raw determination. Chris had these in great quantities.

Yes, he didn't go to Alaska prepared, but he did survive for 111 days using his wits and living off of the land. Although it cost him his family and his life, McCandless lived his dreams and I believe he found redemption at the very end of his life. This books amply provides more of the answers and background information for fans of the film version.

View all my reviews.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Short Fall From Grace


My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review was mentioned in Fran Moreland Johns's posting of "Old Words, New Words" in The Red Room

Stewart Florsheim is bold and brave in his poetry collection, "The Short Fall From Grace." His memoir poetry flings itself into the topics of family turmoil (witnessed between his mother and father), coming of age sex, and a near escape from a pedophile -- Florsheim flaunts his vulnerabilities and I applaud him for this. So many poets and writers only want to reveal bits and pieces of their inner lives and experiences, which leaves their work sounding false.

Growing up in New York City, Florsheim is the son of German/Jewish refugees. His father was a butcher and his mother frequently lashed out at her husband, condemning his simple tastes and quiet nature, calling him "stupid" to his face. Besides Florsheim's ventures into his past, he also masters the ekphrastic poem, joining such notables as John Keats, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Willams who also wrote poems based on art. In his interpretations of classic and early 20th century art, his subjects come alive, so we feel these characters jump out of their oil paints. My favorite poems were these art poems, including "The Jewish Bride" (based on the same name as Rembrandt's painting, 1667) and "The Best Bread in Montparnasse" (after the painting Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, by Manet, 1863). He choses paintings that involve relationships between men and women, which build upon the narrative's conflict and complexity.

He references events and themes in several poems. For instance, when he was 5 he tells us that he decided to stop eating and he mother would parade his naked body around in front of her neighbors to show them how much he resembled a concentration camp victim. To make sure he fattened up, she would mix egg yolks into his chocolate milk. This incident is mentioned in five of his poems: "Thirst," "Rappel," "Survival," "December, 1999," and "Retribution."

There's also humor woven in with the hurt of a little boy lost, which make these poems accessible to readers. Florsheim is a master of the narrative form, especially in his art poems. I'll close with a few lines from the poem "Unseen," which speak about a truth of human nature:

We are compelled by what we can't see
so that we might be surprised
by the things we already know --

The one thought we prey upon,
not unlike the way a bat stalks a grasshopper,
swoops down, then misses.

View all my reviews.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tomato Girl Review

Tomato Girl Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Jayne Pupek's "Tomato Girl" was a book I couldn't put down. Well-paced, funny, and authentic with vulnerable and memorable characters, Pupek throws the proverbial rocks at her protagonist, 11-year-old Ellie Sanders throughout the book -- Ellie's troubles never seem to relent, except when she lets them go at the end. Beginning in a circular fashion with her mentally ill mother("a lily caught in a hurricane was how Daddy described Mama. If we calmed the winds around her, she would be fine") having a breakdown at the outdoor food market in town, Ellie recounts the events that led to her father leaving the family with "The Tomato Girl" a 17-year-old, fragile epileptic incest survivor. Then Pupek rushes furiously to the end where Ellie is taken into foster care and is told to let go of her troubles by Clara, a clairvoyant who saves Ellie's spiritual soul.

The heart of the book takes place during Holy Week. Ellie's pregnant mother, Julia, falls down the cellar steps trying to retrieve an onion (Ellie believes this is her fault because she wanted to rush to her dad's store and pick out a new Easter chick instead of getting her mother that onion). Rupert Sanders manages the general store in town and has gotten close to Tess, the tomato girl, who sells him her produce. After Julia falls, Rupert has Tess come home with him (to help out his wife), which leads to tragedy for everyone involved. Ellie is now caught in the hurricane of her father's creation, as she struggles to help her mother, compete for her father's love with Tess, and witness her mother attack Tess and her father, both verbally and physically. She manages to hold on because of her two constants: Jellybean her baby chick and Mary Roberts, her know-it-all best friend, but these two don't remain by her side as the narrative unfolds.

I loved how Pupek named all of her chapters: "Market Day," "Bad Letters," "Spoon,"The Gun," which allowed some clever foreshadowing. Pupek is also a poet and her taut verbal skills shine throughout the novel, especially when she uses analogies ("She (Julia) buys cabbages as twisted as a man's fist. Red radishes the size of a doll's heart.")without ever going overboard. Her images are grounded in the real world so I always could picture myself in the scene with smells, tastes and texture.

"Tomato Girl" is sad, yet hopeful and is the book that should have been "The Secret Life of Bees". It's one of the best books I've read all year and I'm rooting for it to be a big hit.I'm writing a much longer review on "Tomato Girl" for The Pedestal Magazine's August issue, please stay tuned.

View all my reviews.