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Book Reviews

Thursday
Jan182018

Book Review: The Pear Tree

The Pear Tree. K. M. Sandrick. Green Ivy Publishing, Illinois, August 29, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 315 pages. 

Reviewed by Christine Cassello.

The Pear Tree is a debut novel by K. M. Sandrick, who has written award-winning medical and science articles. This is historical fiction chronicling the destruction of the Czech town of Lidice, which was blamed for harboring assassins of a chief Nazi official. The novel is told from the perspectives of four characters: Chessie Sabel, who was separated from her son and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp; Klaudie Cizek, who was also sent to Ravensbruck; Milan Tichy, who joins the Czech Resistance and searches for his mother; and Ondrej Sabel, a young boy who later becomes Wolfgang Weber.

Ondrej becomes fascinated with Nazi soldiers arriving in Lidice and tries to emulate them. It becomes his ambition to be such a soldier, and when he is taken from his mother, adopted into a German family, and renamed Wolfgang Weber, he refuses to identify with his Czech roots. Even when the Nazis surrender and the war is over, Ondrej-Wolfgang has no desire to reunite with his mother.

I always felt I learned more history from reading historical novels than textbooks, and I certainly feel that way about this book. I discovered things that weren’t taught in history lessons, including how non-Jews as well as Jews suffered under the Germans. I never knew about the destruction of entire villages and towns, the men murdered and thrown into mass graves, the women sent to workhouses, or the women with Germanic features sent to whorehouses to be impregnated by Nazis in an effort to develop the “Master Race.” Children like Ondrej were put into German homes and indoctrinated in German thinking and lifestyles. Women and children who could not be indoctrinated and were unfit to work were killed in gas vans. 

Sandrick gives careful treatment to factual events and people. At the start, she lists historical characters and provides a sentence or two about the roles each plays in events she writes about. Her fictional characters give the reader a sense of what her real characters endured, how they felt, and the ways their lives changed as a result of the Nazi occupation. She occasionally uses Czech and German terms and language to add authenticity and provides a glossary at the story’s conclusion.

The book is sad, but Sandrick doesn’t leave us horrified or grief-stricken. Her story covers the end of the war and tells of new connections made by those who lost family members. Two characters join efforts to learn the outcome of a baby born to a woman at Ravensbruck who died in childbirth, creating the opportunity for a sequel, which I hope Ms. Sandrick will write.

 

Tuesday
Jan092018

Book Review: This Far Isn’t Far Enough

This Far Isn’t Far Enough. Lynn Sloan. Fomite, February 20, 2018, Trade Paperback, 209 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

This Far Isn’t Far Enough, by Lynn Sloan, is a collection of short stories about characters facing adversity. The characters, the lives they lead, and the circumstances surrounding their struggles vary from story to story, yet these characters are all linked by their strengths and weaknesses, courage and fears, and powerlessness and resiliency, which are all adeptly rendered by Sloan’s storytelling.

One of the ways Sloan accomplishes such a smorgasbord of related stories is with her attention to detail, which is one of her greatest strengths as an author. For instance, the menu in her opening story about a trendy pop-up diner–like establishment staged in the protagonist’s apartment is tantalizingly specific, as are the details she throws our way about the character’s menu choices and food preparation techniques. While it’s interesting to read well-crafted descriptions about food in any story, it is absolutely necessary and intriguing to read these descriptions in a story about a chef. In another story, a home video plays a central role in the protagonist’s backstory and is delivered in snippets that are woven through the story. The video’s descriptions, such as, “she’s knelt on the grass to steady the camera and waits,” mentally frames the scene in the video as video and not in the character’s reality. This conjures in the reader’s mind a grainy, low-resolution screen and a shaky camera. In the final story, the ticking of a clock resonates through the pages, and in the minds of both protagonists, but the ticking has different meaning for each character. Many of Sloan’s stories share this technique: a defining memory; a recurring sound, thought, or sight; or, a specific meaning derived from something ordinary. If you were to render an illustration for each story, it would not be difficult to find a common image that would be emblematic, as well as unifying, of all of these seemingly unconnected stories.

Sloan also shows a variety of central conflicts, breaking points, and coping styles in her stories. The stories are so different that it is near impossible to get bored, and no one story seems to be more important than any other one. Although some of the central conflicts might appear objectively more serious than others, they all have equal emotional weight. These stories have problems or conflicts that are impossible to solve, and nearly impossible to handle. This ability to convey the desperation of her characters is another of Sloan’s strengths in storytelling. No character behaves too drastically. He or she might be illogical and impulsive, but it never happens without the necessary build-up to reaching some kind of emotional climax. Sloan is also very good at subtlety: she often implies backstory without stating it, and her delivery of most exposition is very elegant, although there are times when outright stating a fact or feeling would be better than dancing around it through dialogue.

This is a collection of exceptional stories by a talented writer who understands that emotions are sometimes indefinable and conflicting, that facing adversity can require more than just courage, and that human feeling is complex and intricate. If you are in the mood for a layered exploration of both human weakness and strength, this is a good book for you. 

 

Sunday
Jan072018

Book Review: Two Towers

Two Towers. T.D. Arkenberg. Outskirts Press, December 11, 2017, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 323 pages.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

Final Descent may have been T.D. Arkenberg’s debut novel but Two Towers is a deeply connected return to this crushing accuracy and devotion as an airline employee. This is his first memoir and it is a love letter.

Arkenberg has inherited a work ethic from another generation. Throughout the narrative, which details the trials of the late 90’s into early 2000’s, even into the Crisis Center in Chicago O’Hare airport on September 11th, 2001, his dedication to United Airlines and his fellow employees is clear. He recalls how the airline grounded flights just before the devastating moment they discovered two of the hijacked planes were their own and the profound grief that caused: “Our airplanes were used as missiles. Our passengers and employees were murdered.” The depth of identity with his position reflects the very deep devotion to his company and the connection to his sense of self.

The story is also a love letter to his parents’ fortitude and endurance. How they shaped him cultivated respect and crafted an iron clad work ethic without ever knowing their son’s deepest sense of self and secret. Tender vignettes reveal his devotion to the aging couple, culminating in his father’s return to Montgomery Ward as they begin to liquidate locations.  Arkenberg demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the inner world of his family. He offers to take his father back to the closing location musing that “perhaps Dad’s fond memories of Ward outweighed the hurt.”

As a devoted son, he goes beyond the physical expectations of helping with snow shoveling and heavy lifting but also cares for their mental and emotional well-being. Arkenberg’s own capacity as caretaker is a gentle mirror of his steadfast mother as she remains a faithful caretaker during her husband’s life and lengthy fight with cancer.

Endurance is a running theme throughout Two Towers. As his career shifts, seemingly every few months, and he climbs ever higher on the precarious ladder of airline management during a most unsteady time, and as his father lapses into weakness and his mother finds less time to be herself as they pass slowly–or suddenly–into the grave, Arkenberg has committed to himself to come out of the closet and to live a full life without secrets. Again and again, he must reveal himself while learning to navigate the world not as the perfect son or model employee but as Todd Arkenberg, a gay man who loves his partner, Jim. Though he may be considered middle aged, his youthful fear and innocence in to the foray of that new existence heighten the tale.

Hundreds of stories about the events of 9/11 have surfaced but few invite us into the Crisis Center for United Airlines in Chicago as the events unfold. Countless memoirs may have shared the stories of caring sons but few offer the humanity of their own internal struggles beyond that role. More and more stories of ‘coming out’ are reaching the light, inspiring those who feel trapped, and Arkenberg’s tale joins in the voices of attaining strength through vulnerability.  

Two Towers is not as fanciful or imaginative as his two Faulkner-Wisdom nominated novels, Jell-O and Jackie–O and None Shall Sleep, yet Arkenberg fans will still see the depth and introspection present in his earlier work. The earnest telling of his coming-of-middle-age and his slowly strengthening sense of self among the rubble of his childhood and first career in the airlines is a moving exploration of what pieces we use to put ourselves together. It is a tumultuous expression of how outrageous events can rock us out of the shell of our status quo. Arkenberg asks a number of introspective questions throughout the book and while not all of them get an answer, it makes for a thoughtful and emotional read. 

 

Wednesday
Dec202017

Book Review: Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History

Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History. Thomas J. Thorson. Windy City Publishers, November 17, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 108 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

This book is aimed at proving the old adage that, “little hinges swing big doors.” If it weren’t for sloppy lab work, unseasonably cold San Francisco winters, or oversized brass buttons big enough to stop a sword blade, we wouldn’t have penicillin, popsicles, or the Hallelujah Chorus. Fans of life’s little ironies will enjoy themselves.

Thomas Thorson’s book is a compilation of stories that shows how life and history turns on little moments that seem insignificant at the time but have far-reaching impact. Some of the stories are well known, while others—like the fact that Teflon is the only substance a gecko can’t stick to—are simply the kind of fun facts that can help you win a bar bet or seem smarter than you are. Sometimes that’s all you want from a book like this.

If you’re a trivia buff, or enjoy history told in nugget-sized pieces, you’ll enjoy Serendipity. Some of the stories, like how a wrong turn by a chauffeur led to World War 1, are historically important. Others, like the list of famous people who changed their flights and cheated death on 9-11, are simply intriguing.

The book suffers a bit from a disorganized layout, but the information is interesting and makes for a quick, fun read. You can probably earn your investment back with one good wager at the bar.

 

Wednesday
Dec202017

Book Review: Bear Medicine

Bear Medicine. G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. Dancing Seeds Press, October 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 318 pages.

Reviewed by Deb Lecos.

In Bear Medicine, Elizabeth Kretchmer has written two vibrant and poetic side-by-side stories of women from different time periods who have lost contact with their inner wisdom and the power to pursue lives not controlled by marriage vows. Both Anne, a traveler from the 1800s, lost in the wild after a group of Nez Perez (Nimi’piuu) American Indians separate her from an abusive husband, and Brooke, a vacationing marathon runner mauled by a grizzly bear, are forced to face their weaknesses in Yellowstone National Park.

Anne, a city girl from Chicago, is woefully without the skills to survive beyond a few hours in the wilderness. Thankfully, a young Native American woman calling herself Maggie is nearby, having lost her daughter and husband in the Nez Perez tribe’s mass exodus north. It is left up to Maggie to school “stupid Anne” in how to forage for food and shelter, break down animal carcasses, swim, build a teepee, and ride a horse. The pair face the hardship of survival in the vast, uncultivated land together, friendship blooming as they distance themselves from prejudice, and learn to claim lives of their own. 

Over two hundred years later, Brooke must overcome injuries sustained in a bear attack, the wounds grievous enough to require convalescence away from a college-age son, daughter, and a controlling husband who has remained behind in Portland, Oregon. Brooke is sketched similar to Anne, child-like in the ways of caring for oneself; life before Brook’s injuries never having pushed her into the healing endurance that has now become an unforeseen necessity.

Bringing the two timelines together, Kretchmer introduces us to Leila, whose ancestors connect back to Maggie, the American Indian girl who took in the helpless traveler in the middle of the wilderness. Leila is the owner and caretaker of a property willed to her, land devoted to giving women sanctuary and the ability to discover their truth. In 1877, Anne and Maggie, along with Clara, a lonely homesteader, and Evalene, a medicinal healer, had realized women needed time and space to recover wounds of the body, mind, and spirit. It is at this same historical site those women built that Brooke is introduced to true companionship with another woman, as Anne and Maggie had many years prior.

There are several additional creative and well-written characters in Bear Medicine. In 1877, Sam, a freed slave, compassionately deeds a parcel of land to Maggie to create a safe home for herself and future women. Present-day Palmer is the park ranger struggling with bi-polar disorder who rescues Brooke after the bear attack, and Delaney, the distant daughter of Brooke, reminds her mother we are each free to choose our life circumstances. Yellowstone National Park comes alive as a backdrop and source of inspiration, while the great Grizzly Bear is a symbolic totem throughout the novel. This protective and powerful animal is a spirit guide (wyakin) for both Brooke and Anne, two women in need of a bear’s strength to break away from the confinement of their trappings and construct existences that are sustainable, worthwhile, and fulfilling.

The author offers a reader the opportunity for self-reflection, using the fictional experiences of women with a hundred and forty years between them to find similarities in the struggles, hopes, and lives of all women. Throughout history, women have had to endure the infliction of harm by men who use the institution of marriage and rules of governance to force subservience to a male-dominated viewpoint. Perhaps, with the rise of #MeToo created by Tarana Burke as an inspiration for black women to empower themselves after rape and recently adopted by women who have survived harassment, abuse, and sexual assault, the portal has finally opened that will demolish patriarchal hierarchy.

Bear Medicine shares what happens when people are unthinking, unkind, and use power as a means to control the lives of others and the healing that can arrive when we support one another. Kretchmer writes “from where the sun now rises we will fight forever.” It is a rallying cry for those believing in humane co-existence with all life on this planet. I welcome this teaching. May it inspire everyone across this beautiful rock floating in the middle of the awesome breadth of the universe to do better—both as living beings, and as caretakers of the Earth.