Tag Archives: The Prince of Tides

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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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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