Tag Archives: father and son

Do Unto Others

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Finding Jake: A Novel by Bryan Reardon (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 288 pages)

Bryan Reardon’s Finding Jake offers an unusual twist on a story that should never have to be told in the first place. Quick – school shooting. You didn’t even flinch, did you?

In Finding Jake, Simon is Jake’s father. At a young age he encourages Jake, an introvert, to befriend another boy, Doug, who is a loner, ostracized by his peers, angry, and – we unfortunately find out later, a sociopath.

Simon is a stay-at-home dad who grows distant from his attorney wife, Rachel, and mostly plays the role of “good dad,” as he is at once tolerant of and troubled by Jake’s relationship with Doug.

And then, it happens. Jake is implicated as an accomplice and, as the truth unfolds, Simon becomes obsessed with “finding” him. Is he dead or alive? Was he involved?

The story is mostly about perceptions and judgment. Simon is somewhat of an outcast in his home parent role, Jake is different from most kids, and Doug is bullied by his classmates. It turns out that people are eager to jump to conclusions about things in order to make themselves feel better. Simon himself is not immune to this as he draws conclusions based on his experiences; conclusions he must examine and re-examine throughout the novel.

And there is a hero in the story; a likely or unlikely one who speaks loudly via his silence.

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Finding Jake examines a tragedy from the point of view of innocent bystanders, the ones that must live on – not the perpetrator of evil; therein lies its uniqueness. The book is quite well-written in parts, but is somewhat inconsistent overall. Nevertheless, the reader is eager to get to the end, and author Reardon admirably and capably holds one’s attention from the first page to the final one.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“I devoured Finding Jake.” Alice LaPlante, author of Circle of Wives and Turn of Mind.

Finding Jake tells the harrowing tale of a deadly school shooting from a father’s perspective… The suspense is killing, but it’s nothing compared with this father’s anguish as he tries to find his son – the real boy, not the one he thought he knew.” New York Times Book Review

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the greater Chicago area, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Those Were the Days

The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 387 pages)

“To me now, that culminating day of the summer – of the year, really – seems like one long, twisty dream, everything that began with Proxy’s Cadillac nosing into the driveway and the thunderous disclosures that followed, and then the tremendous gathering at the (fishing) derby, as if the audience would come to see what Tom Harry would bring about next.”

Ivan Doig, author of the bestseller Work Song and 8 other prior novels plus 3 nonfiction works, has fashioned a family novel that at first glance appears to be a very slight story.   It’s the tale of Tom Harry, a single-parent bartender in an isolated town in northern Montana.   The story we read is told by his son Rusty, and it’s a look back in time – the summer of 1960 – when the now-adult son was twelve and his father was still alive.

As told, Rusty meets a young playmate named Zoe who will turn out to be the love of his life and his future wife.   The story that the reader presumes will play out – that Tom Harry dies and Rusty takes over his role as the town’s most skilled bartender – is  not the one that Doig delivers.   (It is also not the story of Rusty and Zoe’s adult romance.)   Instead, it’s about how Tom Harry masterfully handles the stresses in his life, most notably when a former female co-worker shows up in town to present him with a twenty-one year old daughter he never knew existed.   It’s the suddenly on-the-scene daughter Francine who eventually becomes the possible replacement for Tom behind the bar.

If the plotline seems minor, Doig makes up for it because he has a marvelous voice for describing life’s everyday happenings:

“Tomorrow came all too soon.   Pop must have believed fish got up before dawn.   Cats were just scooting home from their nightly prowls, eyes glittering at us in the Hudson’s headlights, as he drove out of town and into a gravel road that seemed to go on and on.   I was more asleep than awake when he stopped the car.”

This is a story about a young man who comes to idolize his “Pop”, and discovers that he’s just a man with a few very human flaws (lust, dishonesty, and others) – and yet also a human being admired as a leader who never departs from his key values in life.   He’s a man who can and will do anything necessary to provide for his son.   The novel ends with a conclusion that Rusty could not see was coming, one which should surprise almost all readers.   It’s about love and life’s tough lessons and once you’ve finished reading The Bartender’s Tale, you will no doubt feel like you’ve left the company of some very decent, struggling yet valiant people who will be missed.

Doig is a unique writer who takes what’s seemingly too small in life to matter, fills the entire stage with it, and makes us care deeply about outcomes.   It’s a very special gift.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

 “(An) enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story  about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes.”   Library Journal

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Forever Young

Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again by Jim Gullo (Da Capo Press, $23.00, 272 pages)

“May you grow up to be righteous/ May you grow to be true/ May you always know the truth/ And see the lights surrounding you…”   Bob Dylan (Forever Young)

In Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again, Jim Gullo has a big problem.   His seven-year-old son, Joe, suffers from two afflictions:  he loves baseball, and he is terminally honest.   At first, neither would seem to be a problem.   Many boys love baseball, and there are certainly worse worries for fathers than a son with a very well-developed conscience.   However, the publication of the Mitchell Report in 2007 changes everything for both of them.

For the record, the Mitchell Report is the infamous document chronicling widespread steroid abuse in professional baseball.   It is then that Jim is flooded with questions from his son that he feels he cannot adequately answer, such as:  “Aren’t drugs bad for you?” and, “If someone cheated shouldn’t they be punished?”, etc., etc.

Befuddled by baseball’s apparent unwillingness to either address the issue or respond, the players’ blatant refusal to discuss anything related to steroids, and his own inability to respond adequately to his son’s confusion, Jim goes on his own personal quest for answers.   Meanwhile, his son separates his precious baseball card collection into cheaters and non-cheaters.

The title of this book comes from his son’s incessant belief that his favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, should trade for Manny Ramirez, only to later learn that, he too, was a steroid user.

On their joint journey, father and son become friends with Dirk Hayhurst, a marginal left-handed pitching prospect, who eventually makes a couple of brief appearances in “the show” after years of watching the users pass him by.   This sets up the reality that cheating was so common and the financial stakes so high, some reluctant users simply felt that their choices were to use or face an early end to their career.

This reviewer, a Milwaukee Brewers season ticket holder, recently faced a similar situation, when two of his sons yanked their Ryan Braun posters off the wall and refused to go to baseball workouts following Braun’s positive test for performance enhancing drugs.   Though the suspension was later overturned, none of us will ever seem to know the real truth, and the emotional damage had already been done.

With that as the backdrop, I read the book expecting a more visceral, emotional reaction to the story, one which I did not experience.   Trading Manny is a good book, and the ending is satisfactory, but apparently I have become numb to the whole thing myself.   It was either that or have my heart ripped out, and I decided that not being able to live without baseball – like the players themselves – I would have to pretend that none of it ever happened.   Baseball can have its statistical lists, and I can have mine.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent, and the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and a singer named Bob Dylan. 

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Trading Manny: How a Father and a Son Learned to Love Baseball Again by Jim Gullo.

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Expecting to Fly

My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster; $25.99; 368 pages)

“Perhaps there was something buried in this memor that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried somewhere…”

The best memoirs take off and soar as they take us on a journey through the writer’s life.   This memoir by CNN Chief Mark Whitaker seemed to taxi on the runway from its beginning on page 1 until its conclusion 367 pages later.   This reader never felt the presence of Whitaker’s mind or personality in an account that was overly flat and dry:  “My mother taught and my father began writing his dissertation and I played with the other faculty  brats in the spacious yard outside while my brother grew into a toddler.”   The language, in fact, was so dry that I began to wish that this had been prepared as an “As told to…” or “With…” version with some energy to it.

It’s difficult to see what major statement about life was meant to be imparted by this work.   Whitaker’s professor father divorced Whitaker’s mother when Mark was young; thus, he seems to view himself as a unique member of a group that “…had grown up without our fathers around and with very little money in the house.”   That’s actually quite a large group in our society.   Moreover, Whitaker reminds us again and again that he wound up at Harvard.

There’s simply far too much here about Whitaker’s time at Harvard, and the lifelong connections he made there.   It seems that wherever Whitaker goes in the world, he meets people – primarily women – of whom he states, “She had also gone to Harvard.”   It becomes a very clubby account, and it’s hard to see why this would be of interest to the general reader.

“Angry men don’t make great husbands.”

In an attempt to create a story of interest, Whitaker casts aspersions on his father who is portrayed as either “a cruel bully or a selfish baby.”   Cleophaus Sylvester “Syl” Whitaker is also portrayed as a major alcoholic although it’s noted that he only missed teaching three classes in a long and distinguished academic career.   (He once entered a rehabilitation center for treatment.)   Syl held numerous impressive teaching and administrative posts at Swarthmore, Rutgers, UCLA (where he was a key assistant to Chancellor Charles E. Young), Princeton, CUNY and the University of Southern California (from which he retired, at age 60, as professor emeritus of political science and former USC College Dean of Social Sciences).   He was never found asleep in a gutter or under a bridge, so it is hard to see how this squares with Whitaker’s notion that his father’s life was an “arc of blazing early success fading into self-destruction and financial hardship.”

Perhaps there was something buried in this memoir that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried in a sentence such as this one, which I found to be a bit too clouded to understand:  “It was as if the longer I was separated from my father, the more I lost touch with the outgoing child who had modeled himself after him.”

Joseph Arellano

An advance review copy was received from the publisher.   My Long Trip Home will be released on October 18, 2011.

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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