Monday, June 29, 2015

Where to sleep?

What did you worry about in 5th grade?  Homework and grades?  Friends?  What others thought about you?  Imagine being homeless at that age and worrying about where you would spend the night or what you would eat, or where you would take a shower or wash your clothes?  What if your friends started to complain that you smelled bad, or that your hair looked greasy?  How would you even do your homework when you have to spend the evening looking for a place to stay?

Before she died, eleven year-old Ari's mother wanted two things for her: that she get into the middle school for gifted students, and that she and her brother, Gage, stay together.  But when Gage's run-ins with their guardian, Janna, get worse, he moves out – and Ari chooses to stay with him.  The problem is that Gage doesn't actually have an apartment.  He's 19 but is having trouble getting a job because he doesn't have an address.  Instead, they end up 'couch surfing' at various friend's places, like Gage's girlfriend Chloe (and her roommates), or being snuck into a shelter where neither of them are the right age.  They even end up spending a night in a rented storage garage and in Chloe's car.  But it's hard to get homework done when you're moving back and forth every night, and Ari's grades are slipping and she's no longer at the top of her class.  Worst of all is that she's too afraid to say anything to her friends, and she worries that her clothes aren't clean and that she sometimes smells bad.  The dream of going to Carter seems to be slipping away from her.

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a very well-written and heartfelt book, but I'll be honest: it made me very uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable through the first half, that I didn't enjoy reading it.  It's written for middle-grade kids and shows a side of life most will (thankfully!) never see but does it in a good way – I don't think parents need worry about anything inappropriate or the way it ends.  But it really highlights some of the challenges of normal things like school under such hardships.  It's not preachy but it shows other homeless people in a very sympathetic light (without touching on causes of homelessness like mental illness and addiction).  By the end I really liked the book a lot, but it was still an uncomfortable read.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The world's biggest stage

One of my favorite lines from the movie "Back to the Future" is when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the president is in the future.  When Marty answers "Ronald Reagan!," Doc laughs and asks incredulously, "The actor?!?"  And it's funny because we seldom associate actors with being deep thinkers – at least not the kind of thinkers we'd want to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But Ronald Reagan was an actor in the beginning.  Actually, before that he was a radio sportscaster who then landed some roles in Hollywood, even becoming a rising star until World War II came along.  He tried to enlist but his eyesight was so poor that he wasn't allowed in a combat role, but his solid good looks were a natural fit for the government training and 'propaganda' films.  And when the plum movie roles dried up after the war, he found work in some less serious films such as "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he co-starred with a chimpanzee.  It's no wonder Doc Brown was dismissive.

In Reagan: The Life, H. W. Brands treats us to a fairly detailed (700+ pages) biography of the 40th President of the United States.  He covers his early years with an alcoholic father, his college foray into acting, and his desire for an ever-larger stage from which to perform.  When his Hollywood career stalled, he became the unlikely spokesman for corporate America on television's General Electric Theater where he honed his public speaking skills.  His political career began as union leader for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), following which he was elected California's governor.

But his presidency is the focus and bulk of this book, beginning around page 200 and consuming the next 500.  Brands covers it meticulously – almost to the level of minutiae – and frequently compares his impact with FDR's, Reagan's early hero.  I was a teenager during the early Reagan years, and saw him as restoring pride and confidence in America at a time when both were at historic lows.  Yet, I knew not everyone saw him as positively as I did: the editor of my high school newspaper went out of his way to criticize Reagan (I wonder how many high school newspapers were so overtly political?).  Later, I was out of the country (and out of touch with politics) during the final years when Iran-Contra and much of the negotiations with Gorbachev happened, so that was insightful to me.  And while Brands avoids 'falling in love with his subject,' as some biographers do, it's still a fairly friendly bio.  He frames Iran-Contra as Reagan's effort to bring hostages home and Nancy's reliance on astrologers as a possibly over-protective impulse after the assassination attempt, but in other places he is less than flattering and perhaps more objective.  That's probably how it should be, but if I had a complaint it's that the book sometimes feels passionless.

There will certainly be some on the far right who feel it's not praising enough, and some on the far left who feel it's not critical enough, but I found it to be an informative and entertaining read.  I've read a couple of books by his speechwriters – one was good but too patronizing and another too presumptuous.  I've read great books about Reagan's handling of the air traffic controller's strike and his near-assassination, and even one about a great speech he gave.  But Brand's bio does a good job of approaching scholarly while remaining readable.  I wish it had covered his pre-presidential life in more depth, but I guess that's worthy of a separate book or two.  For those primarily interested in his presidency, however, this one should please most readers.  (I received a free book from the publisher.)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Taylor's mission call

* I just have to explain his initial reaction: he was kind of hoping to go somewhere in the U.S.  He really is very excited.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Did you ever try to run away from home as a kid?  For some reason I'm reminded of a Peanuts comic strip, and Linus tying his belongings up in his blanket and hanging it on the end of a stick.  Personally, I guess I never had a good enough reason.  My parents may not have been perfect but I always knew I was loved, which I guess is why I never made it past the corner the one time I can remember trying.  And if I remember correctly, Linus didn't make it very far either.  But maybe not everyone had it as good as he and I did.

Sixteen-year old Mary Iris Malone, otherwise known as Mim, is so unique that she's an anomaly.  After her parent's divorce she's in Mississippi with her dad when she discovers her mom is all alone back in Cleveland battling some disease, so she swipes her new step-mother's coffee can full of money and hops a Greyhound for Ohio.  Of course, she doesn't tell anyone – she just impulsively sets off for her objective.  But there are interesting people on the bus, like the old lady who smells like cookies and clutches a wooden box; Carl the bus driver whose "Carl-ness" is unquestionable; the extra-friendly "Poncho Man"; and the devastatingly handsome 17C.  And the trip turns out to have some interesting twists, as well as some unexpected friendships.

Okay, I know – that's about the blandest book summary in the history of the world, and doesn't begin to sum up the surprisingly interesting and compelling Mosquitoland by David Arnold.  Once I got started I had a hard time putting it down.  (The problem was that it's 350 pages and I don't have as much time to read as I used to, but I still stayed up late with it a couple of nights.)  As you might have guessed, this is one of those books where all the characters are damaged in some way, starting with Mim who is bitter over her parent's divorce, her father's remarriage (to the waitress at Denny's!), and having to move 1,000 miles away from her life.  The characters are all endearingly quirky with a bitingly sarcastic wit, which seems to be de rigueur these days for YA.  Then you throw them out on the open road with all its dangers, toss in some even quirkier characters (like a gay ninja, just for kicks), and we just can't help but hope for their success while we mourn as all the damages they've piled up in their short but dramatic lives are gradually revealed.  Sigh... yes, it's somewhat formulaic but it appeals to the teenager in us, whether or not we're still in those teen years.

Honestly, I wanted to hate this book (after I started it, that is – no one in their right mind picks up a book that looks interesting and wants to hate it).  I wanted to hate it because of the profanity, which is mostly the f-word (and is probably used somewhere north of a hundred times in those 350 pages).  I know, some kids talk that way and some readers won't object, but when the book is advertised for "12 and up" I'd like to think I could take that at face-value.  As a dad I can't recommend this to my 12 year old, and am wondering if I will recommend it to my 16 year old.  (Other than the language, there aren't any 'situations' I found objectionable.)  And yet I have to admit, I liked the characters – at least the one's you're supposed to like – and loved the ending (which was a bit predictable, but not completely).  It's well-written (the author is great at foreshadowing!) and pulls you in with a grip that doesn't let go, even clinging to you after finishing the last page, wishing you could spend a little more time with these people.  I just wish for a cleaner "children's" book.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)