A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Here’s how amazing this book is: I’m resurrecting The Book Broad after more than a year to tell the handful of people who have read my blog “READ THIS BOOK”!! I’m not going to sugar coat it – this is intense, heavy at times, difficult at times. But for those of you who, like me, read books in the hope of being transported to another place, meeting people you’d never meet in life, learning about life through people who have never lived but who have become entirely real and knowable to you – then READ THIS BOOK!!

So, about the book. Four guys who met in college living in New York, young with ambitions yet uncertain about themselves and their future. Their personalities and histories unfold in the mosta-little-life natural way through stories about them and how they feel, how they react to their circumstances. Suddenly, there’s a shift and you realize the story isn’t about the four of them, it’s about one of them. And then you realize, the story is about this one character’s “little life”, which is actually a huge life. But he can’t see it because of his personal tragedies. That’s all I’m going to say, so you’ll have to READ THIS BOOK!!

I have read a lot of books (I Am The Book Broad, after all) and I have never been so moved, felt so sad and so joyful and so heartbroken reading any book. I sobbed, literally reading through tears as I finished the book, then instantly wanted to start again at page one and read it again. Anyone can look up the plot summary online, but it won’t do justice at all to the experience of reading the book and living the lives of these characters with them. This book is not for the faint of heart, or anyone who wants something light and fluffy and quick. It’s down and dirty, up-to-your-elbows in suckiness and resilience and wonderfullness (I made up a couple of those words). So you bibliophiles, get out there and read A Little Life!

 

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

I’m almost halfway through this book and it’s an excellent read. Very well researched, this biography starts before Charlie’s birth. I’ve discovered that Charlie embellished and fabricated some of his history to create the mythology of Charles Manson. The fact is that he used his charisma, Dale Carnegie’s techniques, scientology, and the messages of street preachers in the Haight to develop his philosophy. He really has a fascinating history – and I’m only halfway through!

I’m Down by Mishna Wolff

I'm DownI’m Down is a memoir that tells the story of several years in Mishna Wolff’s childhood living in a black neighborhood in Seattle with her father who thinks he is black. Now, I don’t know if Mishna’s father thought he was actually a black person. He grew up in that neighborhood, but I don’t know if it was a black neighborhood when he grew up or if he just never left as the demographic changed. He certainly did embrace the culture – attending an all-black Baptist church, hanging a picture of black Jesus in the dining room, hosting dominoes games with his friends (all of them black), and dating only black women.

Mishna’s parents divorce shortly after the book begins and her father has custody of Mishna and her sister. While her sister, from an early age, is outgoing and popular with everyone, Mishna is shy and unsure of herself. She doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood kids, to her father’s chagrin, and when she begins attending a mostly-white school for gifted kids, she has a hard time fitting in with the well-to-do kids at her school. Mishna’s mother, by the way, is the one who had her tested and had her attend the school for gifted kids. Mishna’s father seems to resent it, later describing her classmates as “uppity brats” and describing Mishna as “snotty like her mother”.

Mishna wants her father’s approval, but it seems he’s always trying to make her into something she isn’t. After she begins attending the new school, her dad signs her up for the local track team so that she can be “well-rounded”. She interprets this to mean “We need to balance all that uppity white shit out, because you’re embarrassing me.” Hahaha…I found that interpretation to be pretty funny. And at this point in the book, I definitely believed her to be correct. Of course, the team is all black. Later on in the book, Mishna is at a slumber party with her school friends and they decided to try to summon the devil. The mother of the girl who hosted the party mentioned it to Mishna’s dad as if it weren’t a big deal (which it wasn’t), but Mishna’s father and stepmother were livid. Her father’s punishment? He signed her up to play basketball so that she would “learn about discipline”. Of course, the team is all black.

The stepmother, by the way, really doesn’t like Mishna. She makes her life difficult and Mishna’s dad doesn’t take her side or try to offer support in any way. Mishna takes the blame for things she hasn’t done just to keep the peace at home. It actually escalates into quite a stressful situation until Mishna ultimately picks up and moves out to live with her mother. By that point, I was so relieved that she left.

I did enjoy this book and I would recommend it if you’re looking for a quick read with some clever humor and observations. It did, however, leave me with a lot of questions: Why did her father think he was black? Mishna describes her mother as being afraid of her father, but the reason for that isn’t explained. There were others, but those two came back to me again and again as I read the book. I understand that the book is written entirely from Mishna’s point of view and the point isn’t to analyze her or her family; however, those nagging questions ultimately left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Up next, not sure. I’ve read a couple of books since this one, so the one I review remains undetermined. Will it be fact or fiction? Comedy or zombies? Stay tuned…

 

 

Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War by Bruce Henderson

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Hero Found

Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War by Bruce Henderson is the story of Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam conflict. He was shot down during a (secret) mission over Laos, captured, tortured, and imprisoned in a POW camp. He and his fellow prisoners escaped after several months, although Dieter was the only one to survive and be rescued.

Now, I’m not a war buff or an airplane buff or a history buff. But I’d seen the movie Rescue Dawn, which is the adaptation of Dieter’s story (a fabulous movie directed by one of my favorite Germans – Werner Herzog). Because of the movie, I decided I had to read the book. Not only is Dieter’s story amazing, Henderson’s telling is completely engaging. Reading this book was like watching a documentary. It was a fascinating story embedded in history and facts surrounding the circumstances. The prisoner of war portion of Dieter’s story doesn’t even begin until more than halfway through the book (chapter 9 of 14). Leading up to this event, Henderson weaves together Dieter’s history, the history of the type of plane he flew, and the events leading up to the Vietnam conflict.

Some background about Dieter. He grew up in Germany during and after WWII. Living in extreme poverty in post-war Germany, Dieter found ways to help his family survive. He and his brothers would go into bombed-out buildings, tear off wallpaper, and his mother would literally boil it for a meal. Apparently, there were some nutrients in the glue. When the Moroccans, who occupied this part of post-war Germany, would slaughter sheep for their meals, Dieter would sneak over to their lodgings to take the scraps and disgusting parts most people wouldn’t eat and Mom would cook it up for dinner. Dieter was also the first one in his town to have a bicycle. Always resourceful, he built it himself by scavenging from the dump. Dieter was apprenticed to a blacksmith, Mr. Perrot, at the age of 14. Mr. Perrot regularly beat Dieter and the other boys under his tutelage who worked six days a week building giant clocks and faceplates for German cathedrals. Later in life, Dieter actually thanked Perrot “for his disciplined training, and for helping Dieter become more capable, self-reliant, and yes, ‘tough enough to survive.’ “.

Dieter’s dream of flying began during the war when a single-engine fighter flew so close to his house that he could see the pilot in the cockpit and Dieter watched it roar past, “aiming for the train station down the hill, its loud guns spitting out yellow flashes”. From that moment on, his dream to be a pilot never wavered. That wasn’t going to happen for him in Germany, so he decided he would go to America. He was fortunate to have an American relative visit who agreed to sponsor his immigration to America. He had to pay his own way to get to America, so the ever-resourceful Dieter pilfered scrap metal to earn money for his fare to New York.

TRIVIA MOMENT: Hermann Hesse, from the same part of Germany as Dieter, apprenticed as a blacksmith under Mr. Perrot’s “brutally abusive father and used the experience as material for his book Beneath the Wheel.”

Upon arriving in the U.S., Dieter initially joined the Air Force, but didn’t get anywhere near an airplane. Once he was discharged, he moved to San Francisco and eventually earned his citizenship and an associate’s degree. Then he joined the Navy and a cadet flying program at Alameda where his road to being a pilot began.

Henderson’s descriptions of Dieter’s escapades and accomplishments lead to an understanding of how Dieter was singularly prepared to survive torture from his captors and ultimately escape. During POW/survival training, for example, Dieter was able to escape his “captors” several times and was the only one who actually gained weight. Not only was food a reward, but Dieter would escape and forage through the garbage cans for additional scraps of food. (Even during college, he was known to pick food from dumpsters.)

Dieter would do whatever it took to become a pilot. In his inaugural flight at primary flight training, for example, the instructor told Dieter that if he became airsick and vomited in the cockpit, he would receive a “down” on his record. Students were only allowed three downs then they would “wash out” of flight training. Of course, the instructor took the plane through spins and loops, causing Dieter to become dizzy and disoriented. Knowing he was about to vomit and not wanting to receive a “down”, Dieter took off his boot, threw up into it, and put it back on. At the end of the flight, the instructor checked the cockpit and could smell the vomit, but couldn’t find any evidence of it. Yuck, but he didn’t get a “down”.

TRIVIA MOMENT: Hal Griffith, Dieter’s commander on the aircraft carrier Ranger, had Ted Williams (the famous baseball player) as one of his instructors in flight training.

After his capture, Dieter was determined to survive in the same way he was determined to become a pilot. He was undeterred. The Pathet Lao would administer the most creative and horrible forms of jungle torture. In one incident, after he is hung upside down from a tree and beaten to unconsciousness, Dieter awakens to find his face smeared with honey and he’s then lowered into an enormous nest of black ants. In another, his ankles are tied together and his wrists are tied together then he’s tethered to a water buffalo. His captors whip the buffalo to get it running and as Dieter tries to hop along and not fall down, they trip him so that he’s dragged over the dirt and rocks. Once he’s delivered to the North Vietnamese, he’s given food and comfortable sleeping arrangements and then given the opportunity to sign a statement opposing America’s action in Vietnam. Rather than sign, Dieter endures more brutal torture and is then delivered to the POW camp where the conditions are absolutely disgusting. At first the prisoners receive rice every day, but as the North Vietnamese guarding the camp get low on food, the prisoners are basically starved. They literally eat rats that crawl under the huts and putrid maggoty meat discarded by the guards. And not only do they suffer malnutrition, the prisoners contract all kinds of awful jungle diseases. They suffer from multiple forms of malaria, parasites, and who knows what else. When Dieter is finally rescued, he weighs around 95 pounds. It’s amazing he even had the strength to escape.

There is a happy ending to this portion of the story and then kind of a sad ending to Dieter’s story, which you can Google, but I’d rather that you read about it in Hero Found. And see Rescue Dawn too!

My next review will be about I’m Down by Mishna Wolff. This is a memoir about girl who grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Seattle. This gal, however, is white and her parents are white. But her father grew up in this neighborhood and believes he is black. I’m expecting some chuckles from this one.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Let The Right One In book coverWow. Let the Right One In is quite a book. I was surprised and challenged and found the book to be a fascinating read.

Having seen the movie, I was surprised to see how thick the book was when I received it in the mail. It didn’t take long for me to realize why. The timeframe for the book is only three weeks, but the author follows quite a few characters in the Swedish town of Blackeberg, which makes for a complex story. The primary groups of characters include Oskar and his single mom, the school bullies who torture Oskar; Tommy, a glue-huffing teens who lives in Oskar’s building; a group of underemployed alcoholic barflies (their bar being a Chinese restaurant); and Eli the vampire and her male companion (a pedophile of the really creepy, sad, apologetic variety). These are just the primary characters. There are also a number of peripheral characters to each of these groups.

The author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, gets five stars for character development. I mean, there are a lot of characters in this book and Lindqvist does an amazingly thorough job of giving the reader a glimpse into the lives and personalities of all of them. Even the peripheral characters have dimension and are important to the story. I feel like I actually spent time in this town with these people. I admit that if there are too many characters in a book, I get a little lost and have to look back to refresh my memory of who’s who. I had no problem keeping it all straight because each of the characters in this book has a uniqueness that makes them unforgettable.

This book would be considered part of the horror genre, but the horror isn’t just in the fact that a main character is a vampire. There was horror in Blackeberg before the vampire came to town. Yes, there are murderous acts committed by and in service to the vampire, but the people portrayed in the story were murdering each other’s’ spirits, or their own spirits were half dead, way before Eli brought actual death. Oskar’s bullies are sadistic and cruel, Tommy is sad and hopeless, the drunks are barely surviving in life. Even Oskar’s father, who on first appearance seems to be a fun guy, turns out to be a hopeless alcoholic.

There are two transformations caused by the vampire. One of them is so fascinating as Lindqvist describes the physical changes the character goes through and the mental realization that she’s becoming a vampire. The other is so disturbing that if it were on TV, I would want to turn away (I may have been squinting and reading through one eye during descriptions of this one).

Oskar goes through his own (non-vampire) transformation as a result of meeting Eli. Even Eli seems to become a happier “person” through the relationship formed with Oskar. Eli and Oskar seem to be on the road to becoming their new and improved selves while the rest of the characters sink further into the pit of their sad lives.

I wanted to include some examples of the character development, but there are just so many amazing and subtle descriptions that I found myself with the dilemma of too many excerpts or very long excerpts. And at some point I can’t identify, all of that development suddenly comes together in the action and tension and excitement of the story. The way I would describe the experience of reading Let the Right One In is that it’s like riding one of those roller coasters that features one frightening climb to the top followed by a huge drop then some twists and turns back to the start. As the car climbs you sit back, look around the park, watch the ground slowly move away, not quite anticipating the excitement yet. Then you reach the top and the adrenaline flows and it’s a fast, topsy turvy ride to the end.

There is some ambiguity regarding Eli and her/his shape-shifting and flying ability. There are references to it, but this is the only thing that seems to be deliberately under-described by Lindqvist. I feel ambivalent about it. I was bothered a little, but then I would think about it and decide it may be better to keep the mystery about Eli’s “capabilities”. Not sure.

What I am sure about is that you should absolutely read this book if you enjoy character study, if you’re not afraid to be occasionally repulsed by what you read, and if you like to think while you read. I found myself thinking about these characters a lot and about the relationships between characters. I’m going to add Lindqvist’s other books to my “want to read” list.

My next review will be about Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War by Bruce Henderson. Several years ago, I saw the amazing movie Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler and have wanted to read this book ever since. If you haven’t seen the movie, see it! Check back in to find out what I think of the book.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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Oh, man! I loved this book!! I was actually skeptical about whether I would like it or not. While I’ve found it fascinating that people do long distance hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m not a backpacker or a camper, so I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be to me. What made me want to read the book in the first place was that this woman not only took this journey, but did it alone. However, as I checked out the book at the library and was told the due date in three weeks, I thought for sure that I’d be extending that due date because I may not be able to “get into” the book. Boy was I wrong. In fact, I intended to make notes as I read, but I became so engrossed, I made just a few as I could not put the book down! Read on to find out why.

Throughout the book, Strayed provides glimpses and snapshots of her life leading up to her hiking the PCT. As she recounts her childhood, she doesn’t describe her unconventional upbringing verbatim or even as a clear timeline. The facts and memories she chooses to relay are so rich with detail that they are completely revealing. I didn’t need to know everything. This style continues throughout the book. The moments Strayed describes during her mother’s short illness are raw and honest and crystal clear. She doesn’t “tell” her story; she relives specific moments and takes the reader with her into those moments. Some of those moments are interesting, some are desperate, some are sorrowful, and some are hilarious.

For example, it’s Strayed’s second day on the trail “when suddenly I had the urge to do what I called in my mind use the bathroom, though out here using the bathroom meant maintaining an unsupported squat so I could shit in a hole of my own making. It was for this reason I’d brought the stainless-steel trowel that was looped through my backpack’s waistband in its own black nylon sheath with U-Dig-It printed on the front. I didn’t dig it, but it was the backpacker way, so there was nothing else to do.” She finds a place behind a bush and when she tries to dig the hole, “it was like attempting to penetrate a granite kitchen counter sprinkled with sand and pebbles.” She explains chipping away uselessly until she had to “simply squat down and go. I was so weak with relief when I was done that I almost toppled over into the pile of my own hot dung. Afterwards, I limped around gathering rocks and built a small crap cairn, burying the evidence before hiking on.” Hahahahaha!!! Call me immature, but I think poop stories are hilarious. But more than that, Cheryl doesn’t ever have to describe using the bathroom on the trail again for the reader to understand what a pain in the ass (so to speak) it is to relieve oneself on the PCT.

And later in the book, Strayed recounts that after her mother’s death, she had to put down her mother’s horse, which had been special not only to her mother but to Strayed. She couldn’t afford to have the horse euthanized by a vet, so she’s forced to do it with the help of her husband and her brother. The description of this event is so vivid and heart wrenching that I actually had to close the book and walk away for a bit. And it’s not the obvious kind of heart wrenching that you think about when putting down a pet. I won’t spoil it. You have to read it to understand.

I was really struck by the camaraderie among hikers on the PCT. There seems to be an instant kinship as hikers encounter one another. They are completely willing to help one another, but without expectations or judgments. They may share a camp and food for a night then take off at different times the next day without necessarily meeting up again. It’s such a unique dynamic that results from a common goal and common struggles on the trail. I loved reading about the other hikers she met on the trail.

I would imagine hiking the PCT for three months can be quite monotonous, and Strayed makes reference to this several times. However, she focuses on her experiences with wildlife and her various encounters with people on and off the trail. These stories communicate the richness and uniqueness of her journey. She sleeps next to a pond only to wake up covered in little frogs. She encounters a reporter for Hobo Times who insists on calling her a hobo in spite of her protests that she’s a hiker. A couple she’d met earlier leaves a peach for her as they hike ahead. “As difficult and maddening as the trail could be,” she writes, “there was hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”

As Cheryl comes to the end of her 3-month journey on the trail, she describes how strange it will be to leave the trail and return to regular life. “I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.” As the unread pages dwindled, I started to feel sad that her journey was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been there with her and I wanted her to keep walking all the way to Canada! And I swear, I felt like I was ready to strap on a backpack, freeze dry some food, and hit the trail!

There it is…the first post by The Book Broad. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it inspires you to read this amazing book.

Next up, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Horror movie addicts like me will recognize this title from the Swedish movie of the same name and/or the American movie version called Let Me In. It’s a vampire story, but I guarantee it isn’t a typical vampire story. 

 

About The Book Broad

The Book BroadHi, my name is Christina and I’m The Book Broad. Why am I The Book Broad? Well, first of all, it’s very difficult to come up with the name of a blog that hasn’t already been taken. And there’s a lot of pressure to name your blog something you want associated with you. But really, I’m The Book Broad because I’ve always loved reading. I love language. I love words. And I also love to get caught up in a story. As a single parent, I didn’t have time to read anything (besides children’s books) for YEARS! Now my daughter is in college, the free time has returned, and I’m enjoying a renewed relationship with books. With that extra free time, I also want to write down and share my musings about the stories I read.

There is no theme to this blog. I read fiction, non-fiction, biographies, true crime…whatever sparks an interest. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie, but I also read Papillon for a book report in middle school. I couldn’t get enough of Existentialism and Theater of the Absurd in my teen years, but at the same time, I would devour Stephen King books. Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my favorite books, but I also relished The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule’s book about Ted Bundy (I may have to read both of those again!).

I buy books online, seek them out in used bookstores and those little bookstores attached to libraries, check out books from the library, purchase and read electronic books on my smart phone. However, I’m not a mass consumer. In other words, I don’t read just to read. I choose my books carefully and enjoy them to the fullest. If a book doesn’t have me hooked within the first several chapters, I abandon it. I have to feel a connection.

So there’s the back story of The Book Broad. My inaugural book and corresponding blog post will be Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I thought this would be appropriate as I start my own (blogging) adventure. I hope you’ll return and check out my first book post coming soon…