Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop (A Fiction)

Letter to My Daughter

George Bishop (Adult Fiction)

Arguments. Mothers and daughters have them often, but this argument was different. This one ended with a mother’s slap and a daughter’s angry exodus into the night. As worry and regret floods her brain, Laura sits down in her quiet kitchen and begins writing a letter to her daughter, Elizabeth. A letter that she hopes will give Elizabeth some insight into her upbringing and past in order to help bridge the divide that has grown between the two of them. Simple and honest words on paper that might heal both of their souls and perhaps lead to understanding and forgiveness.
Anyone who automatically dismisses this book because the author is a man will be depriving themselves of a thoughtful, reflective, and meaningful read. I quickly became lost in this story and often found myself thinking it a memoir rather than a work of fiction as the emotional details are strikingly vivid and the writing is genuine and immersive. Although it’s a quick read, it instantly draws you in and will either make you wish that you had received a letter like this from your own parent or that you had taken the time to write a letter like this to your own child.  
Through Letter to My Daughter, George Bishop reminds those of us fortunate enough to be a parent, that our children really don’t realize that we had an actual life before their grand entrance into the world. That whenever they utter, “You don’t get it” and “You just don’t understand” that we truly do get it because we also dreamed big dreams and had our heart broken and were disappointed by those people that we thought we could trust. We also laughed and cried and had horrible (and sometimes humorous) lapses in judgement and so yes, we really do understand because at one time, we were just like them—young, overly confident, woefully unprepared, and ready to take on the world…whatever that meant. And while we beat our heads against the wall trying to impart our hard-earned wisdom into their beautifully thick skulls, we find ourselves saying, “You don’t get it” and “You just don’t understand” and then we realize that just like that, the circle is now complete.  

Throughout the book, I kept being drawn to the character of Sister Mary Margaret, a kind and compassionate nun who taught at Sacred Heart Academy where Laura was sent. Laura quoted several of her sayings in her letter and every one of them is a gem in its own right: Never be afraid of the truth; Begin at the beginning; Avoid sentimentality at all costs; and my personal favorite, Be good, and if you can’t be good, at least be sensible. With advice like this, maybe Sister Mary Margaret should consider writing a letter, too?

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory was when she was just three years old.  She was living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town with her parents and two siblings.  She was on a chair cooking hot dogs.  She was wearing a pretty pink dress bought for her by her grandmother.  And she was on fire.  She was burned so badly that she spent six weeks in the hospital and endured a series of painful skin grafts.  Yet quite unbelievably, things for Jeannette and her family would only go downhill from there.  Always one step ahead of the FBI, gestapo, or Mafia (cleverly disguised as bill collectors), Jeannette’s father Rex skeddadled his family across the desert from one little mining town to the next.  Dealing with bullying, squalor, hunger, a brilliant alcoholic father, and an apathetic artistic mother, this is Jeannette’s remarkable story, candidly and humorously told without fear or favor.  This is her early life presented as transparently as the glass castle that her father had always promised to build.

The Glass Castle is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you’d scoff at the bizarre storyline and ridiculous lengths the author puts her main characters through.  As I turned page after page, the one sentence I kept repeating to myself was, “How did this woman ever survive childhood?”  Walls was severely burned at three (and ironically developed an unhealthy fascination with fire after that) and by the time she turned four, she not only survived being thrown out of a moving car, but handedly acquired such “basic skills” as firing her father’s pistol, throwing a knife by the blade, and shooting her mother’s bow and arrow. On top of that, she conducted experiments with toxic and hazardous waste found at the dump, nearly drowned during her swimming “lessons” with her father, hunted for perverts in the dead of night with her brother, escaped several sexual deviants (many times due to her father’s lack of good judgement), and climbed under a fence to pet a cheetah at the zoo.  Growing up, Jeannette clearly had more luck than sense, but her ability to see the good in everything and her unfailing faith in her father often led to heartbreak and disappointment, but clearly made her the tough and grounded adult that she is today.

American game designer and sci-fi novelist Aaron Allston once noted that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that “tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.” Indeed, there are parts of Jeannette’s story where you momentarily suspend the idea that this ACTUALLY happened and allow yourself to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this family’s history (while secretly realizing that your own family and life REALLY aren’t so terribly bad). The only thing that will undeniably make you throw this book against the wall (repeatedly) are Jeannette’s insufferable parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls.  These are two people who clearly should not have been responsible for the lives of other human beings.  Although their intentions MAY have been unselfish and well-intended, you just can’t get past their self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-pitying behavior and how their actions caused unnecessary hardship to their situation and to the health and lives of their children.  Kudos to Walls for writing a book that immerses you so totally in her story that you often find yourself yelling at the characters and their misplaced ideologies and lofty platitudes of optimism.  Well done, Ms. Walls…although my wall is still cross.   

In one of Jeannette’s most humiliating moments (and that’s saying something), her mother candidly told her, “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy. You should learn to enjoy the comedic episodes a little more.” The life of the Walls family indeed had its share of comedy and tragedy.  Theirs was a family torn apart by alcohol and self-indulgence, but also held together by loyalty and love. Novelist Georgette Heyer wrote, “But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.” After finishing this book, I couldn’t imagine how on earth Jeannette Walls not only survived her childhood, but managed to emerge as a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult.  Attribute it to grit, willpower, or sheer obstinance, but I think Jeannette realized that sometimes Mother does know best and that the only way to navigate the broken promises, failed illusions, and mounting disappointments of life is to simply just laugh.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. by Bette Greene (J)

Philip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe

Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe.

Bette Greene (Juvenile Fiction)

 There are a few things that Elizabeth “Beth” Lorraine Lambert cannot stand: being cheated, allergies, being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl, and giving that low-down dumb bum of a polecat Philip Hall the satisfaction of beating her at anything.  Truth be told, Beth is smart—really, really smart—but when it comes to Philip Hall, she can be kind of a dumb bum, too.  But Philip is the cutest boy at J. T. Williams School and with that dimpled smile…does it really hurt if Beth lets him win at a few things every now and then?

Haven’t most of us, at one time or another, happily played the part of “chump” when it comes to being noticed or liked by someone that we felt was a bit out of our league?  Whether that someone was too good looking, too popular, too smart, too athletic, or just too…well…too.  For one reason or another, we sacrifice self-respect for the opportunity to just be around that person.  Well, our young Beth Lambert is no different, but the good news is, she knows it and better still, she realizes that the long-term rewards that come with being yourself greatly outweigh the temporary benefits of being around someone who’s not even seeing the real you, but rather a lesser, compromised version of you.

I’m always drawn to books that feature plucky female protagonists: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Dovey Coe (Dovey Coe), Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) are just a few of my favorites.  Girls and young ladies who have a mind of their own and will not yield to societal norms or expectations.  They prove to be intelligent, loyal, resilient, principled, and brave.  Beth Lambert is one such girl who not only stands up to turkey thieves and an unscrupulous store owner, but also to her own insecurities that tell her that she has to be inferior in order to gain and keep a friendship.  Lucky for us, she realizes the error of her ways and evolves into the kind of young lady that she was meant to be.

Bette Greene shows us the power of believing in ourselves and the gift that comes when someone we respect and admire has faith in us.  Beth received such support from her doctor and the few words of encouragement that he offered her allowed Beth to see the possibilities that awaited her and to explore the opportunities that she thought were well out of her reach.  I enjoyed Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe. and cheered as our Beth evolved from being a pleaser to an assertive and confident girl that anyone would fall in love with.  Even a low-down dumb bum of a polecat like Philip Hall.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome    

Edith Wharton (Adult Fiction)

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.  Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.  But Mrs. Hale had said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less alone with his misery.

Ethan Frome’s daily existence is just as cold, bleak, and barren as the winters in his Starkfield, MA hometown.  His farm is in neglect, his mill is in decline, and whatever money he has left goes to the care and treatment of his ever sickly, spiteful, and sour wife, Zeena.  The only bright spot is Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin who comes to the farm to act as housekeeper and caregiver.  Though highly moral and virtuous, Ethan can’t deny the forbidden feelings he has for Mattie and can’t help imagining an alternate life where the two of them might be together and happy.

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and it’s no surprise why after reading Ethan Frome.  Only an author as skilled as Wharton can make bleakness so beautiful and tragedy so fascinating.  Here’s how she describes Mrs. Ned Hale, the daughter of the village lawyer: “It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put just enough distance between herself and her neighbors to enable her to judge them with detachment.”  What a delicious way of saying that Mrs. Ned Hale was nothing but an uppity and moralistic snob…although to her credit, she is quite fond of our Mr. Frome and sympathetic to his unfortunate circumstances.

In anyone else’s hands, Ethan Frome would be a very dark, depressing, and dispirited story, which it undoubtedly is.  However, Wharton presents readers with a thoughtful and illustrative commentary on morality, responsibility, and the burdens that come with decency, loyalty, and honor.  I was quite surprised to find that Ethan Frome was made into a movie in 1993 (starring Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, and Joan Allen).  My first and only reaction to this discovery was, “Why?”  Once you’ve read Wharton’s 1911 novella, you know that translating her words to film is not going to have the same impact and would only spell doom (and Roger Ebert agreed).  One reviewer of the book likened Ethan Frome to Romeo and Juliet, but if Wharton were to hear this comparison, I would imagine her reply being something like, “Oh, if Ethan and Mattie should only be so lucky.”  Frome’s story is pathetic, cruel, sad, and hopeless and we love him all the more for it.

I put off reading Ethan Frome for a while as I had always imagined it to be a daunting and challenging read, but it was actually quite engaging and immersive, and I never felt overwhelmed by its imagery or subject matter.  It’s truly deserving of the term “classic” and although I didn’t form a connection with this particular work (which is why I rated it a four versus five), it has given me the confidence to seek out other works by Wharton, which I will do without fear of consequence.  If only Ethan Frome was capable of doing the same.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.simonandschuster.ca

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket