Book Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

dontletsgotothedogstonightAlexandra Fuller’s first memoir covers her chilFive Starsdhood in Africa, including stints at boarding schools far from her parents, ending with her marriage to an American who brought her out of Africa and into another land.

Her parents were grounded in Africa, her mother by birth and her father by experience. Yet after the death of their second child, a boy, they chose England, perhaps to escape the threat of the Coming-Back Baby because they hadn’t buried their son far enough away from their Rhodesian home or perhaps to avoid the rising threat of violence in the increasingly independence-minded region. In the few years the family lived in England, Alexandra was born.

But success in England eluded them. In view of insurmountable debts, Fuller’s father returned to Rhodesia, and her mother brought the two girls, Vanessa the first born and Alexandra, back by ship to Cape Town and then by train to Rhodesia.

Fuller tells the naked story of her family’s successes and failures in England, several spots in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) including on the border with Mozambique, Malawi, and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), without judgment, as an objective participant, if that isn’t an oxymoron. There is no apology in the book. There is just the story, told with candor and compassion, with humor and hope. Fuller uses the language of her mother, not hiding her mother’s colonialist views of the Africans. But she also tells of the loss of two more children which bring her mother at least to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Since her parents’ life choices differ so widely from what most people would consider average, it is difficult to be certain how far from the Fuller-normal either parent ever drifted. In the end, her mother survived.

Fuller describes the Africa of her childhood down through the layers of dirt and muck under her feet with love. Learning how to recognize possible improvised explosive devices and how to handle a gun are normal elementary school requirements. When the girls go to sleep, they worry about terrorists hiding under their beds. Yet there is no judgment as she writes. This is Africa, she writes. And it is home.  We should all have such warm feelings of home.

Book Review: Farewell to Manzanar

Four starsfarewelltomanzanarJeanne Wakatsuki Houston revisits the three years she and her family spent in Manzanar, one of ten internment camps run by the US War Department for relocated persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Her father had been taken away earlier, arrested for presumably supplying fuel to Japanese submarines from his fishing boat off the coast of Southern California two weeks after the bombing of ships at Pearl Harbor. She survives. Her parents and older siblings, less so. The Japanese-American way of life did not. Houston supposes the traditions would have died anyway, but internment accelerated it.

Houston tells of how camp life for a child was part adventure, unlike the burden it posed to the adults. She also tells of how camp life began the disintegration of Japanese family life as extended families were separated from one another, and even when they could remain together, there was insufficient space for family events, such as eating a meal together, to happen. Yet in spite of this, families did what they could to make the overcrowded and insufficiently insulated homes as much like homes as possible. Setting rocks among raked sand in gardens outside the entrance to bring a bit of beauty, a bit of familiarity in the midst of a hostile environment.

Houston told her story in 1973, more than forty years ago. But the lessons of the story are important today as well. Fear of those who look different, whose traditions are different, whose language is different, can lead to intolerable policy decisions, as was the case during World War II. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we do not repeat them.

Book Review: The Liars’ Club

theliarsclubMary Karr’s The Liars’ Club set a new standard for memoirs when it came out in 1995. In it, Karr tells the story of her well-educated, artistic, alcoholic mother and the uneducated, hard-drinking, doing-the-best-he-can dad her mother married as they struggled with life in east Texas and Colorado.

It isn’t a story of a financial struggle; Karr’s father had a steady job and her mother at one point inherits so much money that buying fur coats for both daughter and herself and then living it up for lunch at a fancy restaurant in a big hotel seems almost commonplace.

It is the story of the complex relationships we humans get entangled in as we look to someone else to make our dreams possible instead of taking responsibility ourselves or adjusting expectations into the realistic range.

The Liars’ Club sets a high bar for wannabe memoir writers. There is a meltdown moment for conflict and drama when her mother’s Nervousness (always capitalized to acknowledge it as a euphemism for a severe mental breakdown) destroys much of their possessions and removes her from the lives of her daughters for many months. But most of the tale is of a slightly unorthodox upbringing of a feisty child and her more traditional older sister. Karr’s father includes the younger in the rituals of his drinking and fishing buddies who make up the liars’ club, exposing her to language and behavior some would consider inappropriate even were she many years older. That Karr addresses everything in her life openly, not hiding behind secrets imposed from outside, provides the charm of the story.

The sisters, the author Mary and Lecia (pronounced Leesa), end up fending for themselves from time to time, proving that children understand more than adults around them assume and make adult decisions when the adults around them behave like children.

I loved Karr’s story. If you enjoy family stories, especially stories involving secrets adults have chosen to hide from their children, you’ll love it, too.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 354 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics; 20th Deluxe ed. edition (November 10, 2015)
Publishing Date: 2015

Book Review: The Glass Castle

Five StarstheglasscastleIn The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells of her unorthodox upbringing by her artist mother and inventor father, during which she and her siblings—older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen—survived frequent moves across the country, inconsistent access to school, and long periods of poverty so severe the children had nothing to eat and survived by foraging. Her parents believed children needed to learn to fend for themselves instead of being watched over and protected. In spite of the resulting challenges, the children were identified as gifted in most schools.

Throughout her childhood, Jeannette believed in her father, even when she knew he was lying to her and was willing to take the little money the family had for food in order to buy liquor. She recognized his brilliance at the same time as overlooking his destructive behavior, at least until she and her older sister Lori were able to devise a plan to escape and live on their own. Yet even after all four children had escaped their parents’ influence, Jeannette kept in contact with her parents, accepting that their lives were consistent with their principals even though Jeannette, Lori, and Brian at least, rejected their parents’ free-thinking foundation.

The Glass Castle is a tale of the resilience of children under extreme circumstances, an optimistic story of life moving forward. It is story of love, love by parents of their children and by children of their parents. It is a story of survival against bullying, the effects of poverty and hunger. It could have been a depressing story, but Jeannette’s warmth and humor come through, turning it into a story of redemption and optimism.

Genre: Biographies and Memoirs
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2005

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Five StarsonwritingIn On Writing, King introduces himself through his early life experiences, suggests what tools I should keep in my toolbox, and then shares what works for him when he writes. His unpretentious writing style made me feel as though King were sitting in my living room, sharing a cup of coffee along with his stories. I felt privileged to have him share so much of his wisdom as well as his humor.

I admit I haven’t read Stephen King’s novels. Horror is not my preferred genre. But I haven’t escaped seeing his movies, so I didn’t feel ignorant of his work. After reading On Writing, I want to read all his books.

Of the books on writing I have read, this is the best, not because here are hidden secrets in it, but because of his stories of where his stories came from. And the story is central.

Book Review: As Is: Confessions of a True Fatty

confessionsofafattyFour starsThe author sells herself short in that she assumes all her readers face the same challenges with weight that she describes. In fact, her message is appropriate for anyone who hasn’t yet discovered his or her authentic self. Wagner’s challenge is her addiction to food which she uses to compensate when she feels unappreciated. But she doesn’t stop battling. She also doesn’t blame others. In this, her book is a pattern for what others who use substances or activities to screen out discomfort can do to take responsibility for their lives.

In addition, she tells the story of a Palestinian Christian family, led by her immigrant father, a story of successful businesses, a story most Americans haven’t heard, but should. It presents another facet of the complicated image of Arabs, one at odds with the predominant, one-dimensional narrative so many Americans are satisfied to accept.

Book Review: Shooting Saddam

shootingsaddam
Five StarsDennis Lynch tells the story of his three trips between 2005 and 2006 to Baghdad to oversee the videography and recording of the trial of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants. A well-written account, he relates his impressions of the trip, the environment, and the events with a sense of humor alongside a genuine respect for the gravity of what he was doing and for the people he met. Putting aside the few minor errors in his report, I was impressed with his research and desire to understand the larger story that his unique and up-close view fits within. I recommend the book highly.

The cover and title are my favorite of the year.

The minor error I found most curious is Lynch’s reference to Al-Zarqawi changing his name from Ahmad to Abu after Muhammad the Prophet’s successor. “Abu” means “father of” and is not a name by itself. It is used, along with the name of the oldest son, to denote the man is a parent of a son. “Um” is the feminine form. Names formed with “Abu” for the father or “Um” for the mother plus the first name of the oldest son is known as a kunya. Al Zarkawi was known as Abu Musab, which translates as “father of Musab.” According to my research, Al Zarkawi had two wives and several children, including at least three sons, making it entirely normal for him to use his kunya, Abu Musab.

Dennis will be one of three debut memoir writers on a panel at the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild on Monday, March 28, 2016, at 6:30 p.m.