Tag Archives: families

Information Wars

A Geography of Secrets: A Novel by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 288 pages)

“Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.”

A lush, other-worldly feel permeates this philosophical novel based in Washington, D.C.   Author Frederick Reuss presents two tales that portray the human toll paid by the families of those who work in the shadows where espionage is practiced.   The first-person narrator of the initial tale is the adult son of a recently deceased former CIA operative.   The reader is not advised of the son’s name although everyone else in the chapters devoted to him are clearly named and fully developed as characters.  

The son is an old-school style cartographer who experiences life through the methodology of his work.   He engages physically with the area he is mapping in order to infuse the end product with authenticity.   The son and his mother are easily recognizable as collateral damage created by his father’s activities in the Foreign Service.   The mother was jettisoned from her marriage and replaced by other women while the son is left with the sense of never really knowing who his father was.

The second tale is told in the third-person.   The primary character is a technical wizard/spy named Noel Leonard who works for a top-secret government agency.   Noel gathers information about the activities of the enemy de jour using satellite technology and super sensitive spy cameras.   This information is used to plot bombing attacks.   His only passion in life is golf and he excels at it, primarily because he is an expert at judging the trajectory of objects.   Noel’s wife and daughter are kept in the dark about just what he does at the office which creates difficulties for all of them.

Each of the characters is seeking to throw light on the secrets that have made a huge impact on their lives.   Their searches take them to Switzerland, the son for his father’s funeral and Noel for an information-sharing conference.   Noel longs to blurt out the truth of his profession in order to clear the air and connect with his family.   The irony was not lost on this reviewer that it is in Switzerland, a neutral country, that they find key elements of their quest.

Both of the men convey a sense of invisibleness, a holding back, rather than surging forward.   Neither of them seeks out people or participates in group activities.   They are observers – watchers – rather than front line participants in life.   Their searches for connectedness to family and place are often derailed by purposeful withdrawal.   The sense of their invisibleness is heightened by the way they recede to the edges of the action in life.   The son and Noel are infused with a strong sense of distrust, or maybe anxiety about sharing their innermost selves with others.   The two men repeatedly approach and dance away from the secondary characters.

Author Reuss allows his tales to meander rather than dragging the reader along on a chase.   He is extremely skillful at describing the essence of Washington D.C. which is full of historic meaning, vast institutions and seats of power.   It is there that people become ants swallowed up by the workings of government.

These are unique and well drawn tales.   Thought provoking.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dead to the World

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

It’s not just the folks with the famous names who live outrageous lives.   Their relatives, in this case the children and grandchildren, also feel the effects of super wealth and status.   Wendy Burden falls into this category.   She is the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.   There was still plenty of money and status associated with the family when she was born.   Unfortunately, her father William A. M. Burden III, a direct descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, could  not take the pressure of life and committed suicide when Wendy was six years of age.

This sad event precipitated the handing off of Wendy and her younger brother Will to Grandpa and Grandma Burden for intermittent visits while mom escaped life and responsibilities overseas in the company of a variety of men.   This memoir is an over-the-top expose with all the dirty little stuff prominently featured.   The self-indulgence, disregard for others and general insular behavior exhibited by the Grandparents Burden is easy fodder for Wendy’s 21-gun salute to the grosser aspects of wealth.   Oh, did I happen to mention that the guns are loaded with bizarre details?

Who among us cares to know that Wendy collected dead birds and observed their decomposition a la the scientific method used at the body farm at the University of Tennessee?   If you’d rather eavesdrop on cocktails and dinner with the grandparents, you would learn that grandma was a champion at farting whenever she felt the urge.   According to Wendy, this urge was never ignored regardless of the folks in her vicinity.   The walls in their home may have been covered with museum quality paintings and sculpture; however, grandma and grandpa were usually too sloshed to notice.

The crisp details and well-crafted accounts of life with the super-rich begin to seem a bit suspicious once the reader gets past the shock and wit.   Yes, Wendy Burden is an excellent story teller.   Just how much is fact and how much is convenient recall – or perhaps fiction disguised as the truth – is anyone’s guess.   This reviewer finished the book with a sense of gratitude for a seemingly ordinary life.  

Recommended for snoopy readers who follow OMG! on the internet.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer..

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Perfection

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Revival by Julie Metz (Voice, $14.99)

“There is no real perfection, there’ll be no perfect day.”   Pete Ham

“A good place to spend life.   That’s what I would need to find for myself.”   Julie Metz

I honestly thought that I would likely hate this book, based on a couple of synopses that I looked at before deciding to take a leap of faith and purchase it anyway.   This is the nonfiction tale of graphic designer-wife-mother Julie Metz, who is 43 with a five-year-old daughter when her writer-husband suddenly drops dead.   Metz goes through an extended period of mourning and loss before finding out that her husband, while alive, had several affairs with women both close to her and unknown.   The actions appear to be unforgivable and Metz begins to isolate herself with her anger.   She becomes highly dysfunctional and comes close to shutting down.

I feared this was going to be the second coming of Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies, an unpleasant memoir with a lot of whining and anger.   In Happens Every Day Gillies is unable to come to terms with her husband’s suddenly leaving her for someone else (a female former friend), even though her own mother is quoted as stating that Gillies has an overly controlling personality.   Apparently her husband simply escaped.

But Happens Every Day was basically a tale of depression and loss, while Metz – true to the sub-title – learns to revive her life after her shock and period of denial.   When her lawyer brother helps to locate her husband’s e-mail communications with his mistresses, she’s able to analyze what happened and when things happened, and even speaks with some of his women flings.   Eventually, she puts things in context (“Perhaps we all want our secrets to be found out at last…”) and learns to grant her husband Henry a type of forgiveness.

“I see that, having been through a year of loss and change, I will change still more in this next time of my life.”

The telling flows pretty easily.   Metz tends to have a lot of deep thoughts, but she also has an excellent memory and applies it to good use here.   She tells the story of a marriage – in non-chronological order – even if it was a bit unusual.   As Metz made money, Henry worked for years and years on a book about what constitutes great food; it remained incomplete at his death.   Henry had, however, chosen the title for what was to be his literary masterpiece – Perfection.

Metz can also be funny, as in relating the scene where she and her daughter decide to sprinkle some of Henry’s fine ashes (that still contain a few traces of bone and metal) in the backyard.   They do so but mix Henry’s ashes with those of a deceased male cat.   That kind of put Henry in his place!

Metz’ almost photographic memory is jarring when she writes about her sexual relationships, both before and after her marriage.   She seems to feel the need to describe every encounter she’s ever had with a male, and it becomes numbing and weary.   (Metz is clearly highly attractive but she seems to have had a life-long need to be desired by men.)   There are so many sex scenes that one can only wonder what her young daughter Emily will think of all this one day.   Perhaps she will just decide that her mom had a good time in life.

“It was helpful to remember that life could offer flavors other than sour and bitter.”

At the end of this memoir’s 342 pages, Metz has moved herself and her daughter to Brooklyn, she’s found a nice man to live with (one who is kind to her daughter), and is re-energized and hopeful.   She and her mate become domestic partners and she comes to see that this new life may well be a contented one – a “perfect fit.”

This reader had his doubts – serious doubts – about this work but Metz pulls this one out before the screen goes black.   Recommended.

As noted previously, this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Other Wes Moore

other wes moore

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (Spiegel & Grau)

“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.   The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

This uniquely titled nonfiction book was written by Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army paratrooper and White House Fellow.   He is the successful Wes Moore.   His namesake from the same town on the east coast is serving a life sentence in the Jessup State Correctional Institution.   The crime was murder and there is no possibility of parole.

The author’s recent appearance on the Oprah Show gave this reviewer the opportunity to observe him in the spotlight.   He came off as poised, charming and amazingly confident.   I wondered if this was an act, perhaps a well-polished persona that wins friends and influences people?   There are plenty of hucksters who achieve fame.   The book would provide the answer.

Within the first couple of chapters it was obvious that Wes Moore is beautifully literate, yet without pretentiousness.   What you see is definitely what you get.   His unfaltering curiosity about the other Wes Moore has resulted in a book that explores the outcomes for both these men and how they arrived at adulthood.

The story revolves around two young men with all-too-familiar life circumstances that include being an African American male raised by a single parent living in a poor, or declining, urban neighborhood.   The narrative is set forth in three major phases concerning their coming of age.   The fellows and their life experiences are differentiated as the author uses the first person for himself and the third person for the other Wes Moore.

The story is filled with painful realities – it’s easy to fall into the gang life; defensiveness and alienation are part of each day; and escaping the neighborhood (Baltimore or the Bronx) requires courage, determination and sacrifice.   The author began his life with two parents raising him; however, due to a tragic medical condition his father died of a rare but treatable virus.   The other Wes Moore only met his father once, accidentally in passing.

Each man encountered challenges as well as opportunities.   The opportunities were provided by family and friends.   Always there is balance in the presentation of each man’s life including photographs that illustrate the text.   They both tried and failed more than once when attempting to change the course of their lives.   The difference in the outcome can be characterized by the expectations placed upon the author and his willingness to keep trying regardless of how hard the challenge might be.   He was also immensely fortunate to have family who were willing to make financial sacrifices to obtain some of the opportunities.

Wes Moore, the author, has included a comprehensive resource guide at the back of this book.   The nationwide listing features organizations focused on assisting youth.   Because this list is a point-in-time snapshot of resources, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to see that a continually updated version is available on the internet.

A reader who is interested in learning more about success and how it can be achieved would be well served to read The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk.   Both books explore the impact of environment on personal success and the role hard work plays in achieving it.

The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates will alert a reader to the possibilities for a better future for our youth, especially children who face undeniably tough circumstances.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The Other Wes Moore was released by Spiegel & Grau on April 27, 2010.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky with illustrations by Sara Muller.

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