Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going, by Christie Hodgen

This book was really hard for me to read, but it was great. It was hard because it's the story of a girl whose father shoots himself. It's not told chronologically, since some of it is about after their father died--but I certainly read it as a book primarily about the daughter and her father, before he dies. However, it does move back and forth between the family's life before (the girl, Frankie; her brother, Teddy; their mom, a waitress at Friendly's; and their dad, a Vietnam vet who's an amputee) and their lives after. Frankie is nine and Teddy is six at the end of the book, which is soon before their father dies; they seem older than that, but also not--their relationship with their dad wouldn't work the same if they were older.

The last part of the book takes place in 1979 then in 1980, when their dad kills himself. The last few chapters are about the Christmas break of 1979. Frankie says,
Like most kids, Teddy and I looked forward to Christmas for all the obvious reasons. ... We also looked forward to Christmas break because it was the only time of year that our father told war stories. Something about the season always put him in a talkative mood, and for a two-week span we'd hear all about his adventures in Vietnam. We never stopped to wonder why the holidays brought this out in him. We simply looked forward to the stories the way we looked forward to the giant ham and the chocolate cake that our mother prepared each Christmas. Every year these stories were better than the last, more outrageous, more spectacular. We spent long afternoons listening to our father. The three of us huddled together in our indoor fort, which we fashioned by draping bedsheets over the kitchen table.
Over the course of the dad telling his war stories over that last Christmas break, Frankie begins to realize that they aren't all true. This is moving and painful and real over and over--it comes to a head when their dad finally says that Leonard Holmes, his buddy during the war, who is his sidekick in many of the stories, was so inept that their father had to take his gun-shooting test for him so he could go to war...
"Everyone else was running for their lives, but this kid couldn't wait. He was such a bad shot, though, he couldn't qualify. Couldn't shoot a gun to save his life. ... So I took the test instead. Our superiors were off at a distance, and I shot his gun for him so he'd qualify. ... And he went with us. Off to war. ... He got killed a few months later. I got shot trying to save him." He was speaking plainly, without the usual traces of mischief and joy. This was the shortest, strangest, most disappointing story he had ever told us.
In earlier stories, their father has talked about how Leonard Holmes was a "nice kid," and their father "eventually trained Leonard to be a competent soldier" through the use of "mind power," which is when he starts "basic training" with his kids, and when Frankie asks "Whatever happened to Leonard?" their father tells them,
"Well it just so happens that Leonard Holmes is one of the richest men in the country these days. ... And do you know why? ... Because of me ... Because of mind power. Leonard Holmes was a scared little kid when he met me, and now he's a captain of industry."
I liked this book so much. Highly recommended. Maybe I didn't like it, but it pulled me in and I think it still hasn't let me go. Hodgen nails the kids' relationship with their father, the remove of the mother, the relationship between brother and sister...the sister and brother growing up and pulling away... Beautifully done. I'm looking forward to reading her other books.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mediation Retreat

This is not about books or anything that this blog is usually about. This is about a meditation retreat I went to this weekend. Maybe the hardest thing for me was that we weren't supposed to read or write the whole time. You were supposed to be in your head. I can't remember when the last time was that I didn't read or write for nearly 48 hours (5:00 Friday until 2:00 Sunday).

I've been meditating for nearly ten years, now, I realized. I had a regular practice for a while when I was in grad school in Syracuse all those years ago--a professor of mine and his wife held a regular Sunday morning meditation session, and he invited me, knowing all the medical stuff that was going on (search this blog for "brain tumor" and you'll see what I mean). It was fabulous, one of the best things to come out of my MFA, and I'm very happy, ten years later, to be in Portland and I have a Zen temple, Heart of Wisdom, that opened last summer, six blocks from my house. I tried to be part of a few other practices in the years between, but nothing felt right. Heart of Wisdom offers open meditation three nights a week, and I'm trying to go at least once a week. They are connected with Great Vow Monastery, so this past weekend I went to a "Beginner's Mind" meditation retreat at Great Vow. The monastary is about an hour away from Portland, nearly to the Oregon coast but not quite. To get there, I just took US 30 west nearly all the way there from my job in Hillsboro, then coming home I took US 30 too, east this time, all the way to the St. John's Bridge and home that way.

Anyway. It was so hard. I realized, once I was into it, that of course it was hard--the most I'd ever meditated was for three 25 minute sessions at once, with a short break between each. This was four 25 minute sessions at a time, with a short break between each--then four more, a few hours later! Then four more, a few hours later! Plus no talking or reading or writing. Just being in your head. It was so hard and scary. And awesome. I really want to do a ten-day retreat, but I don't feel ready for that yet--I want to do another of these, the "Beginner's Mind" retreat, before I do something longer. First I want to be better at this.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Dispatcher, by Ryan David Jahn

I need to start keeping track of where I'm getting book recommendations from. Most of the YA recommendations come from the child_lit list (I've talked about the child_lit list a little bit elsewhere--here's subscribing info again)--but this one clearly wasn't from child_lit, being a novel written for adults, and I don't know where I got the recommendation. It must have been on some Top of 2011 list. So I put it on hold at the library, and by the time I picked it up, I had no idea why I'd put it on hold.

It's not the kind of book I usually read, at all. Described on the back as "a gripping, white-knuckle thriller," it's definitely a creepy book. But it's also so good, a book I just wanted to read and read until I finished it! Well-written, well-paced, totally engaging. It's the story of a man whose daughter is kidnapped at the age of seven, out of her bedroom while her parents are out at dinner and she's upstairs asleep with her fourteen-year-old brother watching TV downstairs. For years, there are no clues as to where she went, and eventually the marriage dissolves, at least in part because the mom needs closure--there is a funeral with an empty coffin--and the dad needs to not give up hope.*

Dad happens to be a police dispatcher in the small town they live in, and he's on duty when his now fourteen-year-old daughter calls 911 because she's escaped out of the basement to a pay phone on Main Street. The guy who took her catches up with her and takes her away before the police can get to her, but suddenly Ian (the dad) has talked to her, he knows she's alive and in their town.

So the case is reopened, and the dad understandable is very involved in getting his daughter back. I'd say the book is mostly from his point of view (third person, but focused in) but a significant part of it is from the daughter's POV, and Jahn does that well too.

Definitely worth reading. Creepy, and good.

*Nerd grammar note: In this case, I don't think of that as a split infinitive, but rather the infinitive form of the verb that is "not giving up hope." I don't care if you can't put the "not" into the verb itself--sometimes it belongs there!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I am going back to YA Book Club for Adults--okay, "Adult Young Adult Book Club of Portland," which sounds very unwieldy to me. But yeah. I don't know if you can just go here to join the Facebook group or what. But anyway, I was going with Shelley for a while, then fell off & haven't gone since last summer. But I want to start going again! I like it. So this month they're reading Divergent, by Veronica Roth, and Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver. Lauren Oliver wrote Delirium, which I talked about here, and I'm still reading Before I Fall and liking it a lot more than expected. But I read Divergent first, because it's due back at the library first, and I liked it a lot except then I was annoyed to realize that it's the first in a series--and it's the only one that's been written so far! I don't like waiting.

But it was fun. Dystopic, set in what used to be Chicago, the story of a society in which, at sixteen, everyone chooses to belong to one of five factions of the city, "each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent)" (quoting from the inside cover copy). Just about everyone stays with the section they grew up in, both because it's the culture they've been raised in, and because the sections are separate enough that if you leave, you won't have contact with your family or childhood friends anymore. In fact, a big motto is "Faction Before Family."

This is the story of Beatrice going through initiation into the Dauntless faction, when she grew up in Abnegation. I think Roth does a nice job of showing us the ways in which Beatrice and the other transfer initiates see the world differently because of how they grew up. We are reminded that they transferred because they didn't belong where they grew up. At one point Beatrice--Tris, once she transfers--says, as the narrator of her own story:
I feel more like myself. That is all I need: to remember who I am. And I am someone who does not let inconsequential things like boys and near-death experiences stop her.
It is, of course, a coming of age story. It's a nice one. I'm excited to read more books set in this world, even if I'm annoyed that I have to wait.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chulito, by Charles Rice-González

I recently read Chulito, because it was on that same list that We the Animals was on. I bought it at Powell's, because the public library doesn't have it. I thought maybe I'd add it to my classroom library, but the first line is "Chulito awoke with a hard-on as usual," and I've already had myself drawn to my principal's attention too much. I love my job. So I figured I wouldn't put it in my classroom library, but would give it to a few students maybe, starting with Teddy, who's read everything Alex Sanchez has written--I recently gave him Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and he didn't love it nearly as much as I did, but I figure I'll keep sending books his way. So I gave it to Teddy, and he spent some time that same class period looking at it, then gave it back to me, saying "It seemed like all the other books." I don't know which books those are, because it didn't seem like all the other books to me. I don't know. I thought it was a sweet story about Chulito coming out to himself, realizing how he feels towards a childhood friend who is out and gay and it's an issue in the neighborhood. That neighborhood being Hunts Point, in the Bronx.