Tag Archives: childhood

Yes, Virginia…

There Is a Real Santa Claus

Real Santa

Real Santa: A Novel by William Hazelgrove (Koehler Books, $16.95, 244 pages)

“While the merry bells keep ringin’
May your every wish come true…
Happy holidays to you.” – Irving Berlin

William Hazelgrove again delivers the goods with Real Santa, which is, on a very superficial level, the story of a Dad and a daughter; or, at a deeper level, the story of a mid-life crisis; or, at what is presumed to be the author’s intent, a story in which the great tradition of Santa is the vehicle to enter into a much larger conversation about the current state of the human condition and – as is Hargrove’s specialty, a further glimpse into human dysfunction.

Real Santa Hazelgrove

In Real Santa, George Kronenfeldt, a self-proclaimed Santa freak, harbors the pain of his childhood and attempts to reconcile his perceived child-rearing errors from his first marriage. His wife took off with an old high school flame, and George, who is portrayed as a difficult person (which seems to be an inherited trait from his father), has a distant and troubled relationship with his two oldest children.

As the story begins, George is let go from his job as Christmas approaches and simultaneously vows to preserve one additional year of his daughter’s childhood by prolonging her belief in Santa Claus. He blows his savings to create an elaborate ruse that escalates beyond even his intentions. And, while George makes his play as the true Santa, the real Santa – of course – actually makes an appearance.

This is all either completely psychotic or rather charming, depending on one’s perspective. But, the larger themes of second chances, love, forgiveness, positive values, parenthood, childhood, and hope transform this story into one that resonates. While it may end up on the Hallmark Channel someday, it is not a cheesy made-for-TV Christmas story. It is, rather, a “real” novel about everyday people who are doing their best to overcome their weaknesses, survive, and occasionally do the right thing amid circumstances that do not always cooperate.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator in Illinois, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Real Santa blurb

You can read the first chapter of Real Santa here:

http://williamhazelgrove.com/read-the-first-chapter-of-real-santa

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I Am A Child

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, $25.99, 181 pages)

Ocean at the End of the Lane (nook book)

At first glance, the lovely cream colored deckle edge pages and the crisply printed type face are a stark contrast to the cover artwork of this rather slim novel. The story that unfolds is a bit arresting, setting up a moody dark and deep tale. As a first-time reader of Neil Gaiman (Gaiman’s horror/fantasy book Coraline was made into a stop-motion film) this reviewer was a bit hesitant to begin what appeared to be a memoir by the narrator, a man who has gone back to his hometown for a funeral.

Gaiman plays on the magic thinking that some kids explore, or rather allow to bubble to the surface in idle moments or during spells of anger at being denied their desires. The narrator, clearly an introvert, lays out his painful childhood for the reader. A murdered man found in his father’s stolen car is traumatic for him. He visits a house at the end of the road where his childhood home used to be. The occupants are women, well, just one woman whose age and identity are a bit confusing. Is she the mother of his playmate, Lettie Hempstock, or her grandmother? What happened to Lettie?

As did other reviewers, I read the book in one sitting. Once a reader suspends his or her hold on adult reality and dives back into the spacey and somewhat murky thoughts of childhood, it’s easy to fall under Gaiman’s spell. He convincingly captures the ethereal and floating insights that we know as children and then lose to the world as we become grown-ups.

Well recommended for readers who enjoy being on edge.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye (Random House, $27.00, 432 pages)

“Elemental power – a simple grandeur of conception – that sticks in the soul and finds it way to the corner of one’s smile.”

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye is the story of the history behind the world’s most beloved and enduring hero.   Initially created as a villain in 1933, Superman was later revised as a hero by Jerry Siegel and drawn to resemble movie star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. by Joe Shuster (Clark Kent was molded after Harold Lloyd).

I have always liked Superman.   I still remember when my mom took me, an eight-year-old, to the big city to see Superman: The Motion Picture starring Christopher Reeve.   It was a big outing, not only the city…  but a movie!!!

I read everything I could about the movie beforehand, kept every article, studied every picture, and learned the bios of the stars and crew.   Heck, I knew what the movie was about before I even entered the theater.   But you know what?   For those two magical hours I truly believed a man could fly.   And Christopher Reeve will always be “my” Superman.

Since then, Superman has always held a magical hold over me.   I have a huge Superman collection, which I love and my wife abhors.   Lately the collection had to suffer due to kids, rent, food, etc., but at least it’s easy to buy me presents.   My son, who at the age of three and despite a constant brainwashing from his old man, decided to follow Batman (probably just for spite), has an ongoing battle with me about who is the “greatest superhero.”

I’d like to think I’m winning, but really, is there such a thing as winning an argument with a five-year-old?

I got this book from the local library.   When I took my kids there a few weeks ago my son spotted it on the “New Books” shelf, grabbed and proudly presented it to me.   You know I had to check it out.

This is Superman – the granddaddy of all superheroes, the one who started it all, the icon who is held to a higher standard in fiction and has set the standards for many of us in the nonfiction world.   It’s no wonder that the franchise is almost 80 years strong and growing stronger.

The research in the book is excellent and the book itself is fascinating.   Mr. Tye goes through the early development stages of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, through the character’s successes and their mismanagement of their careers, the shysters, the businessmen, and the fanboys who grew up to reclaim their hero and his “parents.”   The tale continues through the years, telling of important story arcs and individuals who shaped the mythology: writers, artists, actors, and publishers.

Along the way the author reaches the conclusion that Superman is not just an American hero, but a hero to children around the world and an icon to look up to.   Especially poignant to me was the time after the death of Superman where, in the comics, heroes rose and ordinary people wore the famous emblem trying to live up to the ideal of Superman himself.

The book is a well-researched document about a beloved character and the people who made him so.   The narrative is full of wonderful anecdotes about the comics (including why many characters have a double-L in their names), the famous copyright trials, the movies and TV shows (including Smallville), and is chock-full of interviews with a cast of characters who deeply care about this mythological titan.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5 (a rating equivalent to Highly Recommended on this site).

This review was written by Man of la Book, and originally appeared on the Blogcritics Books site.   You can read more reviews by Man of la Book at his bookish blog:  http://manoflabook.com/ .

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Crazy

Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $7.99, 352 pages)

Don’t you ever feel like we’re chasing something?   Something bigger.   I don’t know, it’s like something that only you and I can see.   Like we’re running, running, running?   Yeah, I said.   We’re running alright.   Running with scissors.

I was intrigued when my book club chose this memoir, Running With Scissors, as our first nonfiction choice.   Rumored to be both dark and humorous, it did not fit our typical book club culture.   However, our discussion was lively and laden with comments from “disturbing” to “hated it.”  

Those that grew up in the 1960s recognized some of the “character traits” mentioned in the book, while a younger group was left on the edge of their comfort zone.   Yet the discussion was one of the best we’ve had.   We found ourselves discovering the humor as we recalled particular details described within the book.   As a memoir it was, to me, a refreshingly different view of the typical, mostly not-so-interesting portraits of everyday life.

Burroughs describes his eccentric and unconventional upbringing with incredible detail and honesty, yet with a large serving of humor that made it  hard to put down.   He describes his childhood, mostly under the guardianship of Dr. Finch – his mother’s Santa Claus look-a-like psychiatrist, following his mother’s series of mental breakdowns.   This was a home with high energy in which arguments were encouraged to dispense anger and to develop emotional growth.   Within Burroughs’s unpredictable daily life, regular off the wall adventures occurred and conventional standards like rules, discipline and structure were unheard of.

The problem was not having anybody to tell you what to do, I understood, is that there was nobody to tell you what not to do.

Burroughs’s story includes atypical details of his life such as his relationship with a patient of Dr. Finch’s, a man three times Burroughs’s age, and the witnessing of his mother’s psychotic breakdowns.   Many of the details are descriptive, vulgar and somewhat horrifying, yet the story is written in delightful prose with dark humor and such blatant honesty you’ll find yourself continuing to read…  If only to find out what else Augusten could possibly be exposed to, and feeling the need to find out what happens to these real-life characters.   (An update is contained in the Epilogue.)

While I truly enjoyed the tremendous writing skill and recommend Burroughs for sharing his eccentric story, I have to admit that the themes and facts were disturbing enough to impact my enjoyment of the book.   However, good books are created to challenge us with new perspectives.   They can challenge us with new, unique perspectives and force us to think outside of the box and outside of our comfort zones.   This memoir most certainly does that and, therefore, this book is recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Running With Scissors is hilarious, freak-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing…  It makes a good run at blowing every other (memoir) out of the water.”   Carolyn See, The Washington Post

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs.

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The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets: A Novel by Dianne Dixon (Anchor; $14.99; 272 pages)

Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there…   Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)

The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“A lovely and compelling debut.”   Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.

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Sacrifice

Mothers & Other Liars: A Novel by Amy Bourret (St. Martin’s Griffin; $13.99; 320 pages)

The street is empty, but she can feel it out there, the past, the truth, hurtling toward them, a boulder crashing down her mountainside, snapping trees, devastating everything in its path.

Ruby Leander is an orphan and a runaway nineteen-year-old traveling to find her life’s purpose when her journey takes a drastic turn…  she comes upon a baby thrown away at a rest stop.   Remembering the feeling of loss and abandonment in her own childhood, Ruby raises this baby girl as her own.   Ruby creates a life for her daughter with a family of close friends and for nine years raises her daughter Lark in the only home she has ever known.

During this time, Ruby falls in love and now pregnant, is prepared to create a family with her boyfriend and police officer, Chaz, who knows nothing about Lark’s story or the true details of her own past.   Then, by chance, Ruby learns the truth behind the story of Lark’s abandonment and is faced with the biggest decision of her life.   She is challenged to determine what the right path is and which sacrifices are worth making to preserve the life of the child she has raised.

With that memory searing in her scalp and baby fingers gripping her hand, only one thought was possible:  save this child, protect her.

Although the story line becomes somewhat predictable, Bourret interwines circumstances of love and loss among her characters that makes the outcome a joy to read.   You may find yourself reevaluating your own code of ethics and redefining the true definition of family as you consider what you would be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of your own children.

Written in detailed poetic prose, Bourret describes the bond that exists between mother and child and the internal struggles one faces when trying to protect her child and provide her with the best possible life.   This novel is a beautiful read and is Well Recommended.

This review was written by Kelly Monson.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “An unpredictable, gripping story of love and sacrifice.”   Jacqueline Sheehan, New York Times bestselling author of Lost and Found and Now & Then.

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