Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Magazine Review: Argosy October 8, 1938

Argosy began its life as The Golden Argosy, a children’s weekly, in 1882.  By 1889 publisher Fred Munsey had discovered that the readers aged out too fast to keep the magazine viable, so he switched to fiction aimed at adult readers and shortened the title.  It’s considered one of the first pulp magazines, and published many famous authors.

Argosy October 8 1938

By 1938, the magazine had combined with several others, but continued to be weekly.  Rather than a specific genre, Argosy published adventure of all types.  Generally, it would have two or three  novel-length stories serialized, and then the rest of the magazine would be self-contained short stories.  Series of short stories were also common, bringing back a colorful character in different circumstances.

“Two Hours to Go” by Theodore Roscoe is the cover story (cover by Emmett Watson), with the first part of six.  A Trans-Andean flight is forced down to an abandoned airstrip by mechanical failure and stormy weather.  While the pilot goes off in search of the nearest place with a telephone, the passengers play a game.  “What would you do if you had only two hours to live?”  The man proposing the game has an ulterior motive–he knows a murderer is on board, and hopes to identify that person by what they say.

There’s a character who is obviously supposed to be autocratic and eccentric publisher William Randolph Hearst (three years before Citizen Kane!) and his mistress, a faded movie starlet who clawed her way up from poverty.  Also an algebra teacher who hate schedules and a lawyer who wants to reform the legal system.  This installment ends with a poor little rich girl saying she killed a man–but does that make her the murderer?  Several nice monologues, and I’m glad it’s not the story about the soccer players.

“Bluebeard’s Closet” by H. Bedford-Jones is a weird story about Gilles de Rais and an encounter he supposedly had with Jeanne d’Arc after her execution.  There’s a framing story about a museum of the occult called the Halfway House that a Joan of Arc scholar has been called to.   He and the narrator witness the events of the past…or do they?  And was that woman really Joan, or an imposter?  The world may never know.  I felt the frame story weakened the tale a bit.

“River Pig” by Robert E. Pinkerton sets itself in the woods of Wisconsin in horse and buggy days.  A lumberjack foreman who’s just argued himself out of a job saves a young woman from a runaway horse, and consequently gets hired by her father, a rival logging baron.  As it happens, the baron is overextended in wheat, and cutting corners–so he decides to smash the foreman’s previous boss (and best friend, even if they’re not on speaking terms right now.)   Can a lowly river pig get the logs to the mill on time, put the crooked baron in his place and still win the heart of the girl?  I don’t think it spoils the story to say, yes, he can.

“Death Had a Pencil” by Richard Sale reminded me a bit of Death Note.  There’s this ancient Persian scriber that was used to sign death warrants.  Supposedly, it’s been cursed so that anyone or anything that has its picture X-d out by the pencil dies within twenty-four hours.  But Captain McGrail of the NYPD smells a rat in the picture somewhere.  After all, curses don’t really work…right?  Nifty story with a logical twist.

“Beat to Quarters” by C.S. Forester is part four of six of the first Horatio Hornblower novel written.  (Published as The Happy Return in Britain.)  It’s sixth in the chronological sequence.  Captain Hornblower has been helping a South American revolutionary, El Supremo, against the Spanish, but has now learned that England and Spain are allies.  This means he must battle the very ship he just acquired for El Supremo.   This chapter is the first round of that battle, fought in the heart of a raging storm.  Both ships are heavily damaged, but the revolutionary ship is closer to a friendly port–can Hornblower’s crew repair the ship in time and find the enemy in a trackless sea?   Great stuff.

“For Divers Reasons” by William E. Barrett is a boxing story.  A fighter fresh from the West is finding the boxing game more…complicated in the East.   When his love interest asks if he’s going to take a dive in his upcoming fight, he can’t honestly answer “no” and that bothers him.  On the other hand, he hasn’t actually been told to lose….  Some brutal fight descriptions in this one.

“Weasel, Weasel” by Frank Richardson Pierce is narrated by No-Shirt McGee, an Alaskan prospector and series character.  A criminal is playing mind games with a deputy U.S. Marshal, and the law officer is rapidly heading for a heart attack.  Will his doctor’s prescription cure–or kill?  So-so story.

“It’s Hard to Die” by Walter Ripperger concludes with its third part rounding out the issue.  A man thinks his brother has committed suicide due to embezzling large sums of money, and is trying to get himself killed in a non-suicide manner to collect the insurance and pay off the debt.   He’s finally found a gangster willing to do the job, but that criminal would like to keep the insurance money for himself.  Meanwhile, a police detective has figured out that the brother was actually murdered, and was not an embezzler.   Evil is paid unto evil, thanks to a descendant of the Borgias.  This is one of those stories where a crook could have won, getting out with an amazing amount of money, but he can’t control his greed.

There are a couple of picture features, and an oddly amiable letter column.

Most of these stories will be hard to track down, but Beat to Quarters is a classic and you should be able to find it in any decent book store.  A fun read!

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right

Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Flag

This is an autobiography of Claire Conner, daughter of Stillwell J. Conner, one of the first members of the John Birch Society and one of its most fierce advocates.  In it, she shares the history of her family’s involvement with the notorious right-wing organization, and her personal journey from loyal but naive supporter of her parents’ cause through skepticism and eventually to rejection.

The John Birch Society, for those who may be unfamiliar, was founded in the 1950s by candy entrepreneur Robert Welch to fight the overwhelming menace of the  international Communist conspiracy.  It was named after a former missionary murdered by the Chinese Communists under murky circumstances, and stood against all forms of Communism and what its members believed to be Communist fronts.  The UN?  Communist plot.  Ending racial segregation?  Communist plot.  Being anti-Communist but not in the same way as the John Birch Society?   Communist plot.

This is a sad story in many ways.  According to Ms. Conner’s account, her parents’ fanaticism blinded them to the damage they were doing to their family relationships.  It also blinded them to the flaws in those they allied with, be it Holocaust deniers, violent criminals or just political opportunists.   She recalls several instances of people being stuffed down her father’s memory hole rather than have him admit he was ever wrong about them.

The Conners also seemed never to notice that the dire predictions of a Communist takeover in four, five years tops, never came true, never came close to coming true.   The JBS never admitted that previous predictions were wrong, just kept doomsaying to keep the troops in line and the money flowing.

A particularly telling story is that Ms. Conner’s parents, despite finding thousands of dollars each year to spend on the Society’s cause, told her that they could not spare one penny for her college education and she would have to pay for it on her own.  Then when she won a generous scholarship, forced her to turn it down as they had already picked a more expensive college for her to go to.  She reports that her father exploded with rage when asked why, if Claire had to pay for her own education, she couldn’t choose her own school.

Ms. Conner also discusses her involvement with the pro-life movement, originally stemming from her personal experience and her religious convictions, and how it was co-opted by political opportunists who didn’t actually care about the children, just about enraging their donor base into giving more money.

The book also discusses how parts of the JBS ethos are still alive and well in today’s Tea Party and other right-wing groups.  The John Birch Society itself may be a tiny shell of what it once was, but rabid hatred of big government , racism and a fear of the Left still linger.

There are many footnotes, and a complete index, but no illustrations.

I highly recommend this book to history buffs, those curious about right-wing politics, and those interested in biography.

 

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