#130 ~ The Front Porch Prophet

December 13, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Books, Culture | 9 Comments
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The Front Porch Prophet by Raymond L. Atkins

When you pick up a good novel written about the south by a Southern author, you can tell.  There is just something about that area and the writers it creates that is unique, remarkable and gorgeous.  Had William Faulkner, Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell not been from the south, their novels would not be remembered today.  Had a writer with equal skill but who grew up outside of the south written To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel would have been condescending and the characters a mere stereotype.  Atticus would have inevitably been a Yankee and Boo Radley would have been nothing more than a sideshow freak resulting from inbreeding. It took a southerner to shed light on the southern life in such an honest, warm and loving way.  Atkins does just that in his debut novel.

The Front Porch Prophet tells the story of A.J. Longstreet, a man who lost his mother at birth.  He was raised in Sequoya, Georgia by his father and grandmother and he became an honorable man with a loving wife and three children, all named after authors.  He loved his family and his home, but was unfulfilled in his job supervising at the local mill.  He was content to stay where he was until he reconciled with his life-long friend, Eugene Purdue.  Eugene, who grew up in an unhappy marriage and had a seemingly never ending wild streak, learned that he had terminal cancer.  He asked A.J. to come up to visit him up on his mountain to make amends and to ask him to do the unthinkable – put him out of his misery when the time came.  A.J. had no intentions of killing Eugene, but he agreed to visit him regularly.  The rekindled friendship brings up old memories, both good and bad.  As he aids, supports,  comforts and helps Eugene find the redemption he is seeking through his last days, A.J. is forced to reconsider his beliefs and look at what truly makes him feel whole and happy.

When bad things happen to Southerners, they don’t lose their sense of humor.   You are never truly defeated so long as you don’t stop laughing at yourself.  Atkins breathes life into this world.  He writes of A.J. and Eugene’s lives with an easy sarcastic wit that is authentically Southern.  A.J. and Eugene are not the only characters in Sequoya, either.  The signs displayed in the window of the town’s only restaurant that is owned by a born again Christian are hilarious and ingenious.  By far, my favorite feature of this novel were the snippets of the letters Eugene wrote and sent out to the people of Sequoya after his death.  They appear at the beginning of each chapter, but they reflect back up the previous chapter.  His letter to the town sheriff still has chuckling when I think about it.   As it is,  is I quickly lost count of the times I laughed out loud while reading this novel.

As much as I loved the books humor, what stays with me from The Front Porch Prophet is its message about the enduring power of friendship and forgiveness.  It made me happy to be human.  For all of our weaknesses, we have the ability to overcome them and make them right.  This is a novel I will be reading again many times.  It promises to hold something new each time I read it.  This may very well be my favorite novel of 2008.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Have you read this novel?  I’d love to hear what you think.

To buy this novel, click here.

#81 ~ Mrs. Lieutenant

June 24, 2008 at 8:00 am | Posted in Books, Historical Fiction, LIfe, Religion | 18 Comments
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Cover of Mrs. Lieutenant

Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel by Phyllis Zimbler Miller

A special thanks to Lisa from Books on the Brain for hooking me up with this book and the blog tour and to Phyllis Zimbler Miller for sending me a copy of this book.

Mrs. Lieutenant tells the story of four very different newlywed women who share only one thing in common – their husbands are in training to become officers in the United States Army at Ft. Knox during the Vietnam War. Robert and Sharon Gold are a Jewish couple from Chicago, Kim and Jim Benton are a Southern Baptist couple from North Carolina, Wendy and Nelson Johnson are a black couple from South Carolina, and Donna and Jerry Lautenberg are a bi-racial couple. Donna is Puerto Rican whereas Jerry is Caucasian. Chance brings them together, but after forming the entertainment committee for the graduation luncheon for the wives of new officers, they learn that what makes each of them different provides them all the strength they need to prepare for their husbands’ possible deployment to Vietnam and the years of marriage to come.

Sharon Gold is the main character of this novel. She grew up in a Jewish family in Chicago. Instead of attending a more liberal school, she chose to study at Michigan State University. It is there that her support for the anti-war demonstrations held on campus that led to her chance meeting with Robert, a member of MSU’s ROTC. Robert was unlike most of his fellow ROTC cadets: he was Jewish and he quoted poetry. Much to Sharon’s own surprise, she falls in love and marries a soldier committed to doing his patriotic duty by serving as an officer in the Army. Sharon struggles not only with her beliefs about her country’s war in Vietnam, but with the prejudice she and her husband have and will continue to face as Jews.

Kim Benton never left North Carolina until she and her husband crossed over the Virginia border on their way to Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Kim grew up in the foster care system after the tragic death of her impoverished parents. She loves her husband, who has big dreams for his future in the military, but leaving her sister behind is not something that comes easy for her. As the older of the siblings, she feels a great deal of responsibility toward her sister. To her, Kentucky is a world away from North Carolina and she clings to her husband for dear life. She dearly needs to be and feel loved, no matter what her jealous husband might put her through.

Wendy Johnson grew up in South Carolina as the only child of doctor and his wife in South Carolina. Although there was a great deal of prejudice encountered by black Americans living in the South, Wendy’s parents sheltered her from it, almost excessively. It was only after she met and married Nelson that the curtain was parted for her and she began to see the challenges that her husband faced his entire life. In addition to facing the world with her eyes wide open, Wendy also has to come to terms with her parents’ reservations about her husband and his chosen career. The trip from being a doctor’s daughter to living in a mobile home was shocking for her.

Donna Lautenberg grew up as an Army brat. Her father made a career as an enlisted man in the Army. She moved from place to place throughout her childhood following her father’s career. Although she lived in a loving family, she always felt less than her classmates and other army brats because of her nationality. When she caught the eye of her husband, she faced this fear head-on, concerned that her in-laws wanted and expected more (i.e. blond, blue-eyed, American) in a daughter-in-law. Coming to Ft. Knox as an officer’s wife is a culture shock for her. Although she spent all of her life in the army, the life of enlisted families, officers were an entire class altogether.

This novel is as much about prejudice as it is about learning to be an officer’s wife. The unlikely grouping of these women definitely bring this out. While the experiences of each of these women during that time in history felt very realistic to a reader who had not even been conceived yet, there was also a part of this that rubbed me the wrong way. Kim, as the white representative of the group who was also from the South, was singled out from among the group as the one person who actually held prejudice. While her upbringing led her to be distrustful of those who were different from her, Kim’s views of other broadened along with her experiences. Sharon, who was keenly perceptive of Kim’s original beliefs, seemed to miss Kim’s growth. For someone more educated, I found it discouraging that Sharon continued to put Kim in a box like that while being entirely oblivious to her own prejudices against Southerners. There were several statements she made about Kim that, if you substituted the word “black” for “Southerner,” could have been Sharon’s own. This really bothered me as I was finishing up the novel, but it also made me think. No one is perfect. Not every prejudice is as blatant or as perceptively ugly as racism and antisemitism. Education and experiencing discrimination first hand does not preclude someone from holding their own prejudices.

What I enjoyed the most about this novel was the experiences of these women as they learned how to be an Army officer’s wife during the early 1970s from watching others and by reading “Mrs. Lieutenant,” a book published to provide instruction on being a lady in the United States Army. The book, in a way, provided officer’s wives with their own form of boot camp. Instead of experienced soldiers screaming down their necks when they made mistakes, they get the cold shoulder or bemused glances from their elders. I found it interesting what was expected of a married woman not that long ago. Times have certainly changed.

My advise to you is to read this book in a club or with someone else. It is fast and the larger font size makes it easy to read. I would have loved to have read this book in a reading group. Just as with women of Mrs. Lieutenant, it would have been good to have people from all different walks of life discuss some of the topics that were brought up. Reading this book alone in a suite at the Palazzo in Las Vegas might sound glamorous (and it sure was luxurious!), but I was frustrated with having no one with whom to talk about these issues. Thankfully a couple of book blogging buddies pinch hit for me when I emailed about this book.

Where would we be without our friends?

You can download discussion guidelines directly from the book’s homepage.

To buy this novel, click here.

#80 ~ Matrimony

June 21, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Books, Family, LIfe, Reading | 11 Comments
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Cover of Matrimony

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

This novel tells the story of Julian Wainwright, an only son from a well-to-do family. At the beginning, we meet Julian as a young man beginning his college and writing career at Graymont College, a liberal arts college that both gets him away from his parents and, to a certain extent, disappoints them at the same time. In his creative writing class, Julian meets Carter. The two are singled out by Professor Chesterfield as the stars of the class and they soon become friends. Carter grew up without those things that Julian took for granted, and no matter how close they become, there is always this socio-economic barrier between them.

Friendship and a trusted relationship with Professor Chesterfield are not the only things that Julian finds at Graymont College. It is there, while doing laundry, that Julian meets and falls in love with Mia Mendelsohn. Although the two both come from families with money, there are many differences between their experiences. Mia’s parents are quite liberal whereas Julian’s are more conservative. Mia’s family holds education and philosophical pursuits in high esteem whereas Julian’s takes pride in its corporate success. These differences, just like those that exist between Julian and Carter, don’t really manifest themselves in a meaningful way until a medical tragedy strikes. It is then that they do their best to continue moving forward, sometimes at cross purposes. It is also during that time that Julian and Mia jump into marriage feet first, but it takes them years to discover what marriage is all about.

Matrimony is about the meaning of friendship and marriage. It is about learning how to live and how to be forgiving. It is also about leading a writer’s life. Julian discovered his dream to write at an early age and never lets it go. In many ways, he is more faithful and understanding of his craft than he is of his wife and his best friend. He doesn’t truly grow as a writer, a man, or a human being, though, until he learns and accepts that he can’t control his writing anymore than he can any other relationship in his life.

I enjoyed the time I spent with the characters who inhabit Matrimony. They are flawed, but they are vulnerable. They suffer for their mistakes, even if they try desperately to act as if they didn’t make any in the first place. I also enjoyed the sub-plot of Julian as a writer. His experiences in writing workshops reminds me of times when my own work was being discussed. Workshops can be brutal, but they can be magical, too. In Matrimony, Joshua Henkin sheds a light on the hard work, commitment and energy required to be a friend, a lover, and a writer. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to thoughtfully explore any of those things.

To buy this novel, click here.

#18 ~ Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

April 18, 2007 at 3:34 am | Posted in Books, Culture, My Life with Books, Reading | 4 Comments
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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an amazing book about the lives of women in 16th century China. I selected the book for this very reason. I have two Chinese/American nieces and I wanted to learn more about the culture that has been permanently joined with my family. I am so very glad that I did. I enjoyed every moment reading this book. I hated to put it down.This is the story of Lily, a young girl born to a lower middle-class family. In her society, male children were prized above all other treasures in life. In fact, a mother’s worth is dependent upon them. A female child was seen as a dead branch. All of the time, energy, and resources used to raise a daughter are “wasted,” because her husband’s family will reap the rewards. Although Lily’s family was prosperous enough that the women did not have to work (that their feet could be bound, which very much limited their physical abilities), her outlook in life was not exciting. When Lily’s mother contacted a local soothsayer about the best time to bind Lily’s feet, he noticed a special quality to Lily and made a match between the family and a matchmaker from a much larger and more prosperous area. Assuming that Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” that the matchmaker believed were possible, Lily could be married to wealthy family. This relationship would serve to prosper Lily’s family as well. Although everyone hoped for a good match, Lily was also punished for the additional financial burden that went along with her upward mobility. Lily also seemed so special that the matchmaker proposed a “old same” match for Lily. If she could find an “old same” for Lily, this would add to her value as a wife. Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly. The most basic and important are the girls’ birth month, day, and year. It is through this relationship that Lily first meets and then grows to love Snow Flower.

At the heart of this book is the quest for love and survival in a world where both are elusive. Lily’s mother was a cold-hearted woman who cared only for her two sons. Lily attempts to be obedient and pleasing to this woman in every way she can. Although tender moments seem to be shared during Lily’s foot binding, her mother sees her only as a liability. She does not rejoice in her daughter’s potential or even in the extra prosperity it will bring her own household. Instead, she punishes her daughter for the extra money that the family must spend on her behalf. Survival is even harder for a woman to attain. Although foot binding is essential to be matched in marriage, the process can prove deadly. Assuming that a young woman survives to marry, her husband, his family, and especially his mother own her outright. Little was done or said on a woman’s behalf to stop abuse. If a young woman survived her foot binding, she had to live the remainder of her life physically impaired. If an emergency took place, this handicap imposed by society through the hands of the girls’ family made it almost impossible to escape on foot.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an intriguing book. Although a beautiful love story between two friends, this book gave me cause to think about the society in which I live. The concept behind foot binding and being inadequate in all ways because I am a woman has never entered my mind. Sure, there are situations were it may be more advantageous to be a man, but never once have I been made to feel like a “dead branch” by anyone. I have received a good education and have the opportunity to make my own way in this world. I can’t imagine being physically handicapped by my family in order to meet society’s demands for beauty and acceptability. That magic sway in their hips as they walked those so aroused men meant that they couldn’t leave; they didn’t have the stamina to implement change, and they had no choice but live a life of obedience and subservience.

Lily’s only true source of comfort is her relationship with Snow Flower. Although she found her married life and mother-in-law a much more pleasant experience than most women she knew, she prized Snow Flower above it all. When the girls first meet in the company of their matchmaker, they vow to be true to each other to the death. In her culture, the relationship between two old sames was meant to be stronger and more intimate than a marital relationship. In fact, when sleeping under one household, the husband was to sleep elsewhere to allow the women to sleep together. If a woman was not lucky enough to be matched with an old same, women could not hope to experience this type of intimate friendship with another woman until she became a widow.

I would highly recommend this book. Very few bring tears to my eyes at any point. As I read the last sections, I had to wipe my eyes to see what I was reading. I am very thankful that I didn’t live in that day and age and that my nieces won’t be subjected to such humiliation. Still, women have the ability to survive some of the deepest hardships in human life and can emerge on the other side with the most beautiful and meaningful friendships.

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