Monday, September 3, 2018

THE CASE FOR BOOK REVIEWS


If payment for novels was based on the amount of hours they take to write, or the amount of effort authors puts into them, or the amount of skill required to immerse strangers into an imagined world, a single book would cost thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands even. Great books would make it into the hundreds of thousands and masterpieces considered among the best of all time would have price tags in the millions. But since price is mostly based on the amount of paper and ink required to print a book (I'll stay away from the topic of e-book pricing) with a little extra thrown in to turn a small profit, readers of every novel ever purchased get an incredible bargain. Therefore the very least readers can do to pay authors their due is take a minute to give the book they just enjoyed a star rating and jot down a few words letting others know why they recommend it. It's not as if people aren't in the habit of giving opinions these days. Yelp reviews for a restaurant they went to or a hotel they stayed at are commonplace undertakings. People routinely hop on facebook or Twitter to praise or vent about one thing or another, not because anyone asked, but because the internet has provided us with an infinite Comments box to express how we feel about everything under the sun. So please don't be shy when it comes to telling the world how you felt about the latest book you read. Word of mouth is lifeblood for authors. If enough good things are said about their last book, they just may muster up what it takes to write another. Regardless of where you choose to do it (my favorite places for exhibiting book reviews in addition to this blog are Amazon and goodreads and most recently - my Instagram page), most especially when you loved a book, broadcast it to everyone who happens to stumble upon your words of praise. It won't cost you a penny, but trust me, what you have to say is invaluable.





















There is A LOT going on in this novel that I admittedly found to be a challenging read. Much of it takes place in Jamaica where perhaps you have visited on vacation, but this is certainly no "beach read". It is told from the vantage point of multiple characters, each of them telling their own story, each of the stories related to the build up to a failed attempt on the life of Bob Marley and the aftermath. It took quite a while for me to get through this book, and I confess to considering stopping once or twice. The use of Jamaican dialect for many of the characters was a small part of the challenge. A bigger part were the chapters (fortunately not too many of them) written in stream of consciousness never ending sentence format. Yet even as I struggled to keep my reading momentum going, there was something gripping about the narrative that had me hooked. The book eventually leaves Jamaica behind and moves to New York during the enchanting crack epidemic years. I found the latter portion easier reading, perhaps because I grew up in the Bronx and have familiarity with the setting. Before coming to the Bronx I lived on a Caribbean island, not Jamaica but St. Thomas. And of course I'm a huge Bob Marley fan because I can't understand how anyone could not be. So there are quite a few elements to this story that had me looking forward to reading it, and even though it was a tougher than anticipated read, I'm glad I stuck with it because Marlon James' talent is undeniable. Every one of the characters rings true during their moments as the focus of the story. The style in which it is written, feeling like a long series of somewhat connected scenes, almost like a short story collection rather than a novel, was an author choice that I know impressed some people (since it won a Booker Award) but probably put off a fair number of readers as well. This is not a book that you casually invest some time in. It's a major literary commitment with a generous pay off. Reading much of it while listening to Bob Marley's music is not a requirement, just my personal recommendation. #bookreview #bookstagram #blackauthors #bibliophile
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I love John Irving. I kept waiting for this novel to get better and less odd as it went along. Not that odd is bad, and Mr. Irving is the master of making readers fall in love with peculiar characters, even kids who seem overly obsessed with statues of legendary religious virgins such as Mary rather than normal kid interests. But as I read this novel (which has a wonderful title) I got the feeling that he simply felt like writing about writing, and aging, and dying, and religion/Catholicism, and homophobia, and sex. All things he has written profoundly about before, but in more intriguing and plot driven ways. He delves into miracles and ghosts/angels to a greater extent in Avenue of Mysteries than most of his earlier novels, though miracles are also nothing new to the prose of John Irving. The fact of the matter is, there are many familiar elements recognizable to readers of his earlier work in this book, and the author's easy to read and digest style is as John Irvingesque as ever, more or less. But at his best John Irving writes novels that I fall madly in love with, and that simply wasn't the case with this one. Something was missing, or perhaps too much of something usually restrained was present. He is still and always will be one of my literary heroes and favorite authors, but if you've never read a John Irving novel, I do not advise starting with this one. #bookreview #bookstagram #bibliophile
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Water for Elephants is the story of a man in his nineties living in a nursing home who thinks back on his days spent working as a veterinarian in a traveling circus. The setting jumps back and forth from Jacob being a young man on a train with a bunch of circus folk to being an old man dealing with the erosion of his body and mind. Most of the book is dedicated to his circus days and how he ends up with the woman who would become his wife. These sections are where most of the action takes place. In the present it doesn't get more dramatic than Jacob being cranky about nursing home life, him becoming disoriented sometimes, and family members forgetting to visit him on the one day when a circus happens to be nearby. Yet I found the writing to be more engaging in quiet scenes set in the present where nothing much took place than the portions dealing with circus life. Plenty of elements are in place for intriguing storytelling. We have a circus owner with a complex over not being the Ringling Brothers Circus who is willing to cut losses of human lives if that's what it takes to keep the show going on. There is the paranoid schizophrenic boss who switches from charming to psychotic on a dime. His beautiful headline act wife whom Jacob can not stop thinking about. Also aboard the train are performers, some more freakish than others, and animals, some more dangerous than others, that are in Jacob's care. The scenes taking place during Jacob's youth felt rushed to me. It was as if the author wanted to include as many eventful happenings during this period as could be crammed in, but she dwells on none of them for long because it's already time to move on to the next one. Everybody seemed to be a character sketch of a personality type rather than a fully fleshed out human being. The lone exception is Jacob, but only because the book focuses on him in his senior years along with his adventurous youthful days, giving us a little more time to learn what makes him tick. Water for Elephants is an easy read that covers some interesting territory, but it fell short of being the greatest show on earth. I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoy the movie more. #bookreview #bookstagram
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Extraordinary. This book won a Pulitzer Prize for good reason. The plot is deceptively simple, though the narrative is laid out in intricate and inventive fashion. A young German orphan boy is handy at mechanical fidgeting, including the self taught ability to fix just about any radio and pick up whatever transmissions are able to reach him. One such transmission that gets to Werner and his sister Jutta comes from France, sent by the great uncle of a blind girl that it is his destiny to one day meet. A great deal takes place between Werner hearing the broadcasts of Marie-Laure's great uncle and finally crossing paths with her. That great deal is World War II. Due to his talent, Werner lands in an academy that trains German boys to become German soldiers. Since the alternative is working in the mines, and since the school is a much more likely place for his abilities to be expanded and lead him to a better life than would unthinking manual labor, the school seems to be a superior path for Werner, allowing him to escape the standard trajectory for someone raised in an orphanage. Even though it means leaving his sister behind. But when your country is waging a war against the world that it is destined to lose, there is no straightforward path to success and happiness, only orders to put on a uniform, pick up a weapon, and fight for Hitler's warped vision. As for Marie-Laure, who is taught to handle herself in perpetual darkness as well as can be done by her doting father, she ends up in the home of her great uncle and his top secret radio transmitter in a small French town on the sea. Eventually she is separated from her father when he is taken prisoner, but left behind with her is an invaluable gift, a rare gem removed from the museum he worked in to keep it safe from treasure seeking Nazis. There is one in particular who is determined to find it, though not so much for its monetary worth as for its rumored magical properties. It is a gift that Marie-Laure is unaware is in her possession until finally figuring out clues sent by her father that lead to its discovery. The book's point of view jumps back and forth... (Read full #bookreview at GoodReads) #bookstagram
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Brilliant satire or biting social commentary delivered with excessively over the top weirdness? After reading this book I learned that the author started out as a spoken word poet who launched his career by killing it at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. No surprise given the style of Beatty's prose. Nearly every sentence is a rambling, poetic, rapid fire joke with multiple punch lines delivered. The Sellout is definitely a novel that seems written to be listened to as much if not more than it was written to be read silently to yourself. The plot involves a black man who was home schooled by his social scientist father, with every lesson being about racial identity. After his father is murdered by cops, the son inherits the family farm along with acquiring settlement money. He resides in a California town that has literally been erased from the map. So in addition to providing his neighbors with incredible fruit, stellar weed, and crisis counseling in times of mental emergencies, the narrator is also on a mission to earn back recognition that his hometown is still there. A man named Hominy (who happens to be the last living cast member of the Little Rascals) insists on being the narrator's slave. Yes you read that right, and no I don't have an explanation for motive beyond this book is satirical with every line meant to be taken with a grain, or perhaps a boulder, of salt. The narrator attempts to bring racial segregation back to his town, starting with a city bus. Bizarre stuff indeed. Beatty hits readers with every cultural reference under the sun along the way as he examines obsession with race. I enjoyed this book, yet reached a point where I was mainly reading to accomplish the feat of finishing what had been started. I suppose I prefer my satire in shorter doses. I suppose that as much as I love expertly delivered, thought provoking spoken word poetry, I look forward to a different form of artistic experience when reading a novel. Regardless of whether or not I read another Paul Beatty book, I'd love to listen to him read his work or just talk about whatever comes to mind. #bookreview #bookstagram #booknerd #bookworm #bibliophile #reader #IGbooks
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Exceptional novel. Brit Bennett writes with a steady hand as she immerses us into the minds and lives of three people. Nadia and Aubrey are the best of friends. Luke is the man they both love, at different times as well as simultaneously. He is the man who would have made a mother out of Nadia had they chosen to parent, and the one who eventually makes a wife and mother of Aubrey. He is the first love of both of them, but choices of course need to be made and not everybody can get a happily ever after out of such a situation. Or maybe not anyone. Luke's mother is the first lady of the church that plays a prominent role in the lives of all characters in this book. To varying degrees, her son and the women who love him succeed and fail at obtaining her approval. Nadia and Aubrey are both abandoned and motherless. Aubrey's mother chooses an awful man over being in the lives of her daughters. Yet Aubrey proves to be the character who is the best at maintaining loyalty, possessing an innocence that remains untouched no matter how ill she is treated. Nadia's mother chooses the release of death, and in so doing fills her daughter with undeserved guilt and a restless soul, forever on the look-out for whatever clues and remembrances may have been left behind. Both girls are haunted to womanhood by maternal abandonment. Nadia at least still has a father willing to be there for her, but the hurt caused by her mother's unexplained suicide pushes her away from those who love her. And so she is not a particularly dutiful daughter. And after both her child and relationship with Luke are aborted, relationships with the men who follow are destined to fail. But it is Nadia's betrayal of Aubrey that is at the heart of this novel. The mothers in Bennett's novel do the best they can, are hurt and betrayed by callous men and by each other, and some of them manage to persevere while others do not. I was very much absorbed by this book, in part because it examines central themes that I dive into in my novel Matters of Convenience, in much larger part because it is a wonderfully written book by an author who is off to an
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Interesting book that made for a quick read. It is filled with Mat Johson's trademark humor regardless of the seriousness of topic at hand. The plot revolves around a recently fired African American Literature professor. Why was he fired? Because his primary focus was on examining a novel by Edgar Allan Poe, the only full length novel written by the brilliant but definitely not African American author. The name of the book is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I had never heard of Poe's lone novel before reading Johnson's Pym. The narrator studies and teaches this book to his detriment because he believes it holds the key to understanding White-Black race relations. After being fired, the professor and his also unemployed best friend (who has his own obsession with a painter of landscapes, specifically, with finding the precise physical vantage point that each of his paintings are based on) end up on a quest that takes them along with the narrator's cousin and ex-girlfriend and her current husband among others to Antarctica. It is on this frozen terrain that they discover a lost race of creatures representing Whiteness. This means its opposite, a tropical island representing Blackness that Poe also wrote about in his novel, is possibly out there as well. When the world as we know it seemingly comes to an end, the narrator and his motley crew perhaps being the lone survivors of Armageddon only to have become slaves of the primitive creatures in Antarctica, the search is on for whatever paradises (whether man-made or otherwise) may still exist. That's about as well as I can describe Pym's quirky plot. Best to read this enjoyable book for yourself.
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Audrey has everything going for her. She has a great job, good friends and impeccable taste. She’s been unlucky in love, but that’s okay because she’s focused on her career and a possible promotion. Her best friend, Marshall, provides the male shoulder she needs to lean on occasionally, so she has male company, it’s just platonic. It’s undeniable that Marshall is in love with Audrey. They tried dating years ago, but where he felt flames, she barely felt a flicker. Marshall has comfortably settled into the friend zone while he watches Audrey date other men, believing that one day she’ll realize that he’s the only constant in her life and should be the man in her life. James has played the fields for years. As his friends move into steady relationships, marriage and kids, he’s content to date several women. A BMW (black man working) in New York certainly has his pick of women and he takes full advantage of it. When James meets Audrey, he’s immediately taken with her and theirs is almost a story book romance, but almost doesn’t count. Pickering could have taken the easy route and given readers their happily ever after and wrapped the story up with a nice bow, but nope. He explores what happens if there’s no happily ever after and it’s a bumpy but enjoyable ride. Pickering’s characters are interesting and he uses them well. I found myself rooting for James and Audrey, of course, but I also wanted Marshall, Sarah and others to find their happy endings. A true sign of a good book and characters is that they stay with you after you’ve finished the book and these characters did. #bookreview excerpt for #MattersOfConvenience by Read in Colour. #bookstagram
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Pickering’s talent is astonishing and ignores every precedent. – Alvah’s Books Pickering’s love for his characters makes us empathize with all of their plights. – Five Borough Books Pickering’s writing style will cause readers to empathize with the characters’ actions, no matter how wrong. – RAWSISTAZ Reviewers The plot kept smashing my soul into pieces. – Books and Wine Pickering’s writing is beautiful and poignant, causing the reader to become one with the characters, feeling their pain, their anger, and their hurt. – A Book Vacation "Patches of Grey” is a deeply complex tale with authentic characters whose personalities are strong and well developed. Mr. Pickering writes with a voice strong enough to one day propel him into the category with the likes of other great Novelists such as: Richard Wright [Native Son, Black Boy], Ralph Ellison [Invisible Man], and John A. Williams [The Man Who Cried I AM]. - Dianne Rosena Jones Roy L. Pickering, Jr. deftly weaves a coming of age tale. – Reads for Pleasure Patches of Grey is a story that will appeal to all audiences and make for great discussion between parents and their young adults, students and book clubs. – Precision Reviews Pickering’s talent is fluid and crisp. There’s a certain clarity to the prose that’s considered and well judged – just enough to paint the picture and more than enough to drive along the narrative. – Unheard Words ...a must read! This recently honored B.R.A.G.Medallion book is one you will be glad you picked! - IndieBrag #bookreview #bookstagram #PatchesOfGrey #RoyPickering #authorsofinstagram ##BookAndBarbecue
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Oh by the way, while I haven't technically started writing it yet I have finally mapped out the plot of novel #3 in my head. I'll need to sit with it a while longer before putting pen to paper, but fast forward to post publication and I'm pretty sure it will win a Pulitzer, Nobel Prize for Literature, be named The Great American Novel, and earn me both knighthood and sainthood. Don't ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they're crazy enough.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

RANDOM




I can't think of a specific topic I wish to write a blog post about. 2018 has been a trying year that I believe has temporarily sapped my creativity. But still, no matter how tough the going gets I will always remember to stop and smell the roses...or whatever flowers happen to be around. Things are looking up again after some scary revelations and I'm certain that creative juices will flow again soon enough. Until then, here's a little of this and a bit of that for your contemplation and enjoyment.






#FilmStruck4 hashtag caused me to ponder which movies I found to be most impactful out of many great contenders.


You know who continues to be a colossal embarrassment.


I love this picture of two true heroes.




Fantastic piece of advice!




A simple truth.




I tweeted something at Rosie Perez AND SHE TWEETED BACK AT ME


Legitimate reason for major excitement as a #Jets fan? Franchise Quarterback FINALLY in the building?









We lost the Queen of Soul







I second this!


Once upon a time I hoped these guys would deliver my #Knicks to the Promised Land.


Faces change but hope and optimism never die.


One more basketball tweet.


I watched a little golf recently for the only reason I ever bother to watch a little golf. Can Tiger relocate his roar of triumph?






She really does become the character she's playing. What an amazing talent!


Can't stand it


I did a quick check and MATTERS OF CONVENIENCE is not one of the books. But still nice to be reminded that we once had a president who reads books.


You don't need to be a world leader to read or recommend books, but borrowing some oft repeated descriptions can be helpful.






Here are my two latest reviews.


Avenue of MysteriesAvenue of Mysteries by John Irving
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I love John Irving. I kept waiting for this novel to get better and less odd as it went along. Not that odd is bad, and Mr. Irving is the master of making readers fall in love with peculiar characters, even kids who seem overly obsessed with statues of legendary religious virgins such as Mary rather than normal kid interests. But as I read this novel (which has a wonderful title) I got the feeling that he simply felt like writing about writing, and aging, and dying, and religion/Catholicism, and homophobia, and sex. All things he has written profoundly about before, but in more intriguing and plot driven ways. He delves into miracles and ghosts/angels to a greater extent in Avenue of Mysteries than most of his earlier novels, though miracles are also nothing new to the prose of John Irving. The fact of the matter is, there are many familiar elements recognizable to readers of his earlier work in this book, and the author's easy to read and digest style is as John Irvingesque as ever, more or less. But at his best John Irving writes novels that I fall madly in love with, and that simply wasn't the case with this one. Something was missing, or perhaps too much of something usually restrained was present. He is still and always will be one of my literary heroes and favorite authors, but if you've never read a John Irving novel, I do not advise starting with this one.

View all my reviews

A Brief History of Seven KillingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is A LOT going on in this novel that I admittedly found to be a challenging read. Much of it takes place in Jamaica where perhaps you have visited on vacation, but this is certainly no "beach read". It is told from the vantage point of multiple characters, each of them telling their own story, each of the stories related to the build up to a failed attempt on the life of Bob Marley and the aftermath. It took quite a while for me to get through this book, and I confess to considering stopping once or twice. The use of Jamaican dialect for many of the characters was a small part of the challenge. A bigger part were the chapters (fortunately not too many of them) written in stream of consciousness never ending sentence format. Yet even as I struggled to keep my reading momentum going, there was something gripping about the narrative that had me hooked. The book eventually leaves Jamaica behind and moves to New York during the enchanting crack epidemic years. I found the latter portion easier reading, perhaps because I grew up in the Bronx and have familiarity with the setting. Before coming to the Bronx I lived on a Caribbean island, not Jamaica but St. Thomas. And of course I'm a huge Bob Marley fan because I can't understand how anyone could not be. So there are quite a few elements to this story that had me looking forward to reading it, and even though it was a tougher than anticipated read, I'm glad I stuck with it because Marlon James' talent is undeniable. Every one of the characters rings true during their moments as the focus of the story. The style in which it is written, feeling like a long series of somewhat connected scenes, almost like a short story collection rather than a novel, was an author choice that I know impressed some people (since it won a Booker Award) but probably put off a fair number of readers as well. This is not a book that you casually invest some time in. It's a major literary commitment with a generous pay off. Reading much of it while listening to Bob Marley's music is not a requirement, just my personal recommendation.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 23, 2018

STARTING OVER FROM SCRATCH



At some point in your life, probably at multiple points, you will find yourself needing to start over from scratch. It may in your control because the moment was reached by a decision you made to change things. I will lose 50 pounds. I will embark on a new career. I will end this marriage. Or it may be on account of circumstances beyond your control that needed to be adapted to and dealt with. I can't believe they downsized me. I was not prepared to wrestle with this illness. I never expected that s/he would leave me.

Regardless of how you reached the moment, what ultimately matters is how you move forward from it. The starting line of a marathon can be an intimidating place to be, but once you've hit your stride it ceases to matter much how much longer you still have to go. You're on your way and appreciating the journey that you know will get you to the desired destination. You will be healthy/employed/mentally and physically sound/ in love/ happy again. You're well on your way and no matter how slow time may seem to pass at times, somehow it still manages to go by in the blink of an eye. What looked impossible yesterday seems achievable today and tomorrow is proudly looked back upon as an accomplishment.

Of no importance to anyone else in the world but myself, in recent days I have become enamored with the idea of starting over from scratch musically. The reason for this is that to my great surprise, vinyl, which somehow had managed not to go away completely [unlike printed books which I intuitively KNEW would and could not be vanquished by e-readers, I figured record albums didn't stand a chance against audio files], was making an improbable comeback. Suddenly it seemed that everywhere I turned I was once again seeing turntables and records. Not too many 45's yet but plenty of 33-1/3's.





When I spotted a turntable in a second hand shop a few weeks back I could not resist buying it. I was ready to make my musical comeback and return to the world of record albums and the large, artistic covers they come packaged in. Never mind that these days if I want to hear a song, just about any song, I just need to call out "Alexa, play ____" and music magically appears. Chalk it up to the nostalgia that accompanies aging beyond a certain date in your life's calendar, or perhaps some other less understandable but equally pressing reason is the culprit.

Unfortunately the used turntable I bought did little more than turn. When it came to generating music, it was a total dud. But as fate would have it, Father's Day was right around the corner and my awesome wife gifted me with a new one. I was back in business!

In between turntables I took a trip to Barnes & Noble (still around, no longer the bully on the book block but a treasured provider, still selling print books along with record albums as their latest product addition) and re-started my record collection. All of the records purchased the first time around are gone baby gone. Either I threw my original acquisitions away as records gave way to CD's gave way to audio files, or else they're stored in one of the many boxes in my attic that I don't feel like combing through. Now that once again after all these years I find myself with a functioning turntable, I need to start over from scratch in building a record collection. And unlike the first time around I intend to put a great deal of thought into each purchase, to acquire nothing but classics that I'll never tire of.  Music I already know will stand the test of time.


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What would be my very first phase 2 album purchase? I gave it considerable thought without falling into the trap of overthinking. And it didn't take me long to decide on the masterpiece which would relaunch my album collecting career.


It has been on repeat play since Father's Day but is getting lonely. Time to give Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I some company. I don't know yet what album # 2 of my collection will be, though my head is spinning with ideas. Soon enough the record will be spinning on my turntable, at which point I'll no longer be starting over from scratch. I'll be on the road, taking the journey towards a destination that doesn't much matter what shape it takes. The first step and then the one after that and then the next and the next and the next is what matters. I plan to enjoy every single step and note of the trip.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

HAND ME DOWN LIFE - a short story






Hand Me Down Life

By Roy L. Pickering Jr.


            “Why would he do such a thing?”
            Austin expected no response to the question.  Evelyn put a hand on his shoulder.  There was little else his wife could do and absolutely nothing she could say that would bring clarity.  The confusion felt by Austin, like the pain, had been selfishly handed down to him by his brother Allen.  Neither gift could be refused.
            Downstairs, the humble home of his parents was teeming with mourners.  Rather than mingling amongst them at the wake, Austin had brought Evelyn to the bedroom shared by he and Allen in childhood.  The room appeared much as it did way back when.  Their parents were the nostalgic type and had found no better purpose for the space than to keep it as a sort of museum. 
            Numerous sports trophies earned by the brothers in high school gleamed from the shelf their father had built to showcase them.  The dates on Allen’s trophies were all three years earlier than the dates on Austin’s.  For every race that Austin finished first in or championship game his team had come out on the winning end of, he was breaking no new ground, but merely duplicating the accomplishments of his big brother.
            Turning to face his wife, Austin found himself hurtling through a time warp.  Evelyn was standing in nearly the exact same place as when he laid eyes on her for the first time.  It had been love at initial sighting, in spite of the words of introduction spoken by his brother.
            “Austin, this is my girlfriend Eve.  Eve, meet my little brother.”
            “Hi,” she said, capturing his heart and imagination with a single syllable.  But Austin put his desire on hold, for he was given little choice.  This was his brother’s girl, and as it would turn out, she remained so for nearly two years.  After their break-up, nine months passed until Austin crossed paths with her again.  Now that she was finally available, he vowed not to let her get away.  Charming her was the easy part.  They already knew their personalities to be a good match.  Mustering the courage to ask Allen if he had a problem with his little brother dating his ex-girlfriend was considerably more difficult.  But once the words were out, Allen simply tousled his air and congratulated him for landing such a great girl.
            Austin picked up a photograph taken back when he was six years old, Allen half a foot taller at the age of nine.  The height disparity would be bridged in the following years, though Allen did manage to maintain a half inch advantage.  In the picture, Allen was staring straight ahead at the camera with a look of extreme confidence, as if knowing that he would come out looking great, both in the photo and in life.  Austin was captured in profile, gazing admiringly at his big brother, his mentor, his hero.
            Allen wore a red cap, a plaid shirt, and a pair of dungarees.  The outfit was quite familiar to Austin, for these items were among several pieces of clothing that came into his own possession later on.  This was a pattern that would repeat itself throughout their lives.  Allen would acquire something, eventually outgrow it, and then it would be Austin’s turn to walk the same mile in inherited shoes.
            Evelyn was looking at a photograph that was hanging on the wall.  It had been taken when the brothers were grown men.  Even as adults, Austin a family man and Allen a carefree bachelor, the two of them still saw each other nearly every day.  In the picture that had grabbed Evelyn’s attention, the brothers posed side by side in the uniforms of their chosen trade, two handsome young men who fought fires and saved lives. 
Noticing his wife’s gaze, Austin could not help but wonder if she was comparing the two great loves of her life; the very first one who ushered her into womanhood and called her Eve; the latter who gave her his name, fathered her children, and chose to call her Evelyn. 
“It’s amazing how strongly Lucas resembles him,” she said, speaking of their second born son, reminding Austin of how awful a chore it had been to tell his kids that their uncle had died.  There was a brief moment of hauntingly still silence, then Lance erupted with a wail of anguish, echoed a second later by his little brother.  Austin instantly knew that Lucas was crying more in reaction to Lance’s pain than to the sad news about Uncle Allen.  Lucas was too young to fully comprehend the nature of death yet.  He was the lucky one.
“Mandy seems very nice.  What did she tell you?”
Mandy was Allen’s girlfriend.  Neither of them had met her prior to the day of the funeral.  It was Mandy who found Allen’s body hideously splayed on the floor of her walk-in closet, the white carpeting already turned mostly crimson.
“Nothing that explains anything,” Austin answered.  “She said he didn’t seem any different lately.  He didn’t appear to be unhappy.  He was a little withdrawn, a little quiet, but he’d been that way for as long as she’d known him.  I don’t think her shock has fully worn off yet.”
“Has yours?”
“I’ve spoken barely a dozen words to Allen in the last six months.  Things changed between us after the fire at Briarwood Towers.  I don’t think he ever got over it.  Hell, how are you supposed to get over something like that?”
Allen had gotten within eight feet of the three children trapped in the blaze, within a few seconds of rescuing them from the merciless blaze, when a beam suddenly gave way and a large portion of the ceiling came crashing down upon them before his disbelieving eyes.  Shortly afterwards, he announced his resignation from the fire department.  Austin’s last extensive conversation with him had taken place when he dropped by to talk his brother out of the hasty decision.
“Why don’t you just take a long vacation, take some time to get your head together.  You’re great at your job, Allen.  The rest of us all look up to you.  You’re a real live hero, man, and there’s far too few of those.  You did everything you could to save those kids.  There just wasn’t enough time to get to them.  You more than anyone knows the nature of the work we do.  Sometimes the fire gets too big of a head start.  Sometimes the fire wins.”
“Don’t lecture me with my own words, little brother.  I know what I’m doing.  I know why I need to do it.  I’m no hero.  I’ve done nothing to warrant being anybody’s role model.”  Allen then lifted the bottle of vodka he was holding up to his mouth, taking a long swig.  
“I thought you didn’t drink anymore.  Didn’t you learn your lesson after drinking yourself out of college?”
“Never you mind what I learned,” Allen spewed.  “That’s your damn problem.  Always minding what I do, imitating what I’ve experienced instead of looking for your own way to live.”
“I’d almost forgotten how stupid alcohol makes you.  First comes the self-pity, then the lashing out at people who love you and have your best interests at heart.”
“Let’s not change the subject.  We were talking about you.  About how you’ve spent your whole life snacking off of my leftovers.  You had good grades in school.  You could have gone to college, become whatever it is you wanted to be.  But instead you followed me into the fire department, just as you’ve always followed behind me.  You’ve never made your own choices.  You’ve never even bothered to search for your own way.  You just hitched onto the tail end of mine.”
“If that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel,” Austin said, hearing the quaver of hurt in his voice, unable to control it.  “How come you never told me you felt this way about me before?  You might have spoken your mind about it a lot sooner.” 
“Why?  To make you stop following me like a puppy dog?  Sure, I could have swatted you on the nose and sent you scurrying away.  But I didn’t want to embarrass you and make you feel like shit.  I kept waiting for you to outgrow it, to finally step out of my shadow and become your own person.  I figured that had to happen eventually.  But it didn’t.  You’ve been content being the poor man’s version of me.”
“Fuck you, Allen.  I came here to give you my support.  I came because you’re my brother.  I love you, and I don’t want you to screw up your life.  The bottle has always made you an asshole.  Don’t put yourself through that hell again.  Don’t put your family through it again.  What happened in that building was a terrible thing.  That fire claimed three innocent lives.  Don’t let it destroy yours as well.  Putting that bottle to your mouth is no different that putting a gun barrel to you head.  It’s only a little slower.”
“Before you start acting holier than thou, make sure you have your facts straight,” Allen said.  “I didn’t start drinking again because of those kids dying.  If you must know, I started back drinking more than a month ago.”
“What?”
“I was drinking the night before the fire.  And I drank earlier that morning too.  I wasn’t completely sober when I was trying to get to those kids.  I was doing my job as well as I could do it under the circumstances, and maybe they would have died on me no matter what.  But there’s no way for me to know for sure.  What I do know is that I won’t ever be able to put on my uniform again without the question coming to mind.  So I won’t be putting it on any more.  I want that chapter of my life behind me for good.  You can have my share of the superhero business.”
“I think you’re being a fool,” Austin said, for he was too stunned to say much of anything else.
“You going to judge me, little brother?  Well if you are, at least have the courtesy to judge yourself first.  Figure out why you’ve spent your life copycatting me.  Figure out just what you’re so insecure about.  Why is it that you can’t take a road unless it already has my footprints on it?  Hell, you even married one of my castoffs.”
The punch that Austin threw with perfect form landed flush on his brother’s jaw, knocking him to the floor.  Allen looked up in a daze as the liquor bottle by his side emptied its contents and Austin walked out of the apartment.
Austin never revealed in full to Evelyn the specifics of the argument.  It was the closest thing to a secret that he had kept from her since the days of not revealing his desire while she was dating his brother.  One week later Allen apologized for his behavior, laying the blame on drunkenness and bad timing.  True to his word, he did not return to work.  From that point on he made his presence increasingly scarce, as if hoping that absence would make the heart grow amnesia.  Austin was convinced that he continued to drink, but had no idea what if anything could be done about it.
Six months passed quietly by.  Then one day Austin received a phone call from his father.  His obviously distraught mother could be heard in the background.  A woman named Mandy had just contacted them.  She said that Allen had been living with her.  She said that earlier that day she had gone out for half an hour to do some shopping.  In the time that she was gone, Allen stepped into a closet with a loaded pistol and shot himself in the head.
A few days later, Austin found himself staring at a photograph in his old bedroom.  It depicted two boys whose lives were ahead of them, siblings often likened to peas in a pod, the younger idolizing the elder.  For as far back as he could remember, Austin had wanted to be just like his big brother.  He emulated Allen’s actions, mimicked his choices.  Allen served as a dependable roadmap, showing a shy child how to be a brave boy, an easily intimidated youth how to become a courageous man.  Yet that map had led to this strange and awful place, so far away from the aura of optimism exuded from Allen’s eyes in the childhood snapshot.
Physically, there was no mistaking Austin and Allen for anything but brothers.  They shared the penetrating eyes of their father, the full lips of their mother, and possessed identical sets of dimples.  But when Austin compared the photo of he and Allen as boys to the one of them as men, he saw that their resemblance to one another was stronger in youth.  This he attributed to a small change in Allen’s features that had not yet occurred at the time of the earlier picture.  The small scar just off to the side of his left eye had been earned when he was fifteen years old.  On that long past but most memorable night, Austin made the regrettable mistake of succumbing to curiosity and examining their father’s prized collection of baseball memorabilia.  He had been told time and time again that the items were for display purposes only, but examining the mythical objects of sports lore up close seemed harmless enough, a victimless act of rebellion. 
Less than fifteen minutes after their father arrived home that evening, he summoned his sons to the study.  In his hand was the top half of a uniform autographed by the great Lou Brock.  The jelly stain unknowingly left behind on the collar stood out blatantly to the boys as they stepped timidly forward.
“Which one of you did this?”
“I-I-I…” 
Austin took a moment to catch his breath.  He had been a witness to his father’s hairpin trigger temper often enough to have a fair idea what was in store for him.  The stutter that he was still years away from overcoming was always at its worst in the unforgiving presence of his father.
“It was me, Dad.”
For a second Austin thought that he had managed to speak without opening his mouth or willing the words to be uttered.  But in the next second he grasped that it was actually Allen who had confessed, even though he was guiltless.      
“Boy, how many times have I told you that these are not toys?”
“Many times.”
The backhanded slap that followed rivaled the swiftness of a cobra’s strike.  It knocked Allen to the floor, and because of the ring on their father’s finger, it inadvertently drew blood.
“Then you should know better, shouldn’t you?”
“Yes sir,” Allen answered.
His lesson taught, their father walked out of the room, dropping a handkerchief on the floor as parting gift.  Austin retrieved it and handed it to his brother, who dabbed at the fresh wound that would mark him for life.
“Thanks,” Austin said.
“Don’t sweat it.  That’s what big brothers are for.”
As grateful as he was for Allen’s playing the part of sacrificial lamb, Austin did not fully understand why his brother had volunteered for undeserved punishment.  Now these many years later, he could not fathom the pain his brother must have been in over the past several months, perhaps much longer.  Nor could he make sense of Allen’s decision to take his own life rather than waiting for better days to come.  Then again, his brother had never been particularly patient.
Tears began to fall onto the picture frame in Austin’s hand.  His father and brother always said that tears were a sign of weakness.  But what did either of them know?  One had no idea how to be a father.  The other quit on things when they got too tough.  These had been Austin’s shining examples of manhood. 
Austin let his tears flow, because crying at least gave him temporary respite from trying to figure out what had gone so tragically wrong.  He had grown uncertain of all things, except for the leaden realization that there would be no more footsteps for him to follow throughout life.  Only open road.


Just because...


Book Review

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was vaguely aware that a movie adaptation has been made of this novel when picking it up to read. I have yet to see the movie, but in general when I see that a book has been made into a movie, I figure the book must be pretty good. This way of thinking can prove to be false of course. At most it's probably a solid indicator that the book sold well. We know that plenty of lousy movies have been adapted from far superior books, and perhaps less frequently but it does happen, a pretty good movie sometimes can be the result of adaptation from a so-so book. In the case of Water for Elephants since I haven't seen the movie, I can't speak as to which version I enjoyed best. I can only speak to the novel which I thought was mediocre. It's the story of a man in his nineties living in a nursing home who thinks back on his days spent working as a veterinarian in a traveling circus. The setting jumps back and forth from Jacob being a young man on a train with a bunch of circus folk to being an old man dealing with the erosion of his body and mind. Most of the book is dedicated to his circus days and how he ends up with the woman who would become his wife and mother of his children. These sections are where most of the action takes place. In the present it doesn't get more dramatic than Jacob being cranky about nursing home life, him becoming disoriented sometimes, and family members forgetting to visit him on the one day when a circus happens to be nearby. Yet I found the writing to be more engaging in quiet scenes set in the present where nothing much took place than the portions dealing with circus life. Plenty of elements are in place for intriguing storytelling. We have a circus owner with a complex over not being the Ringling Brothers Circus who is willing to cut losses of human lives if that's what it takes to keep the show going on. There is the paranoid schizophrenic boss who switches from charming to psychotic on a dime. His beautiful headline act wife whom Jacob can not stop thinking about. Also aboard the train are performers, some more freakish than others, and animals, some more dangerous than others, that are in Jacob's care. The scenes taking place during Jacob's youth felt rushed to me. It was as if the author wanted to include as many eventful happenings during this period as could be crammed in, but she dwells on none of them for long because it's already time to move on to the next one. Everybody seemed to be a character sketch of a personality type rather than a fully fleshed out human being. The lone exception is Jacob, but only because the book focuses on him in his senior years along with his adventurous youthful days, giving us a little more time to learn what makes him tick. Water for Elephants is an easy read that covers some interesting territory, but it fell well short of being the greatest show on earth. I wouldn't be surprised if I enjoy the movie more than the book if I ever get around to watching it. I've rounded up from 2-1/2 to 3 stars because I like the title of this book and that's as good a reason as any.

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