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Tag Archives: Firefly

“Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

I can’t remember who first recommended “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish to me. But to that mystery person–thanks!

Right up my alley–a memoir, in this case about growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression.

Kalish begins by recording the big mystery of her childhood–her father was banished from the family when she was five. She never hears from him again. She never learns why he went away.

Yet what I recall of her story isn’t a sense of sadness, or of dismay at the conspicuousness of having a divorce in the family. What I recall is that despite their lack of money and the absence of a father, Mildred considered her childhood to be full of interest and energy.

She details food, animals, school, swear words, bathroom behavior, and other aspects of life that were most interesting to children. She conveys the sense that I hear in my own parents’ recollections of that time, a sense of one’s own efforts being important to the family’s economy, and further, a sense that there was no shame in being poor at a time when just about everyone was poor.

I wouldn’t say that Kalish romanticizes that time, but she conveys how much she values that she grew up on a farm where day after day something interesting happened and where she learned to work hard. That background served her well when she set out on her own.

Kalish notes that it could be hard to be a child in a home such as her grandparents’, where fun took a far back seat to work. She doesn’t often seem to feel sorry for herself, but I was deeply struck by this passage that concludes the chapter on town school, “At home I couldn’t do anything right; at school I seemed to do everything right. So, school is where I wanted to be.”

I’ve recommended this book to many friends as a quick read that connected with me because Kalish’s young life in Iowa was so similar to that of my parents’ childhood in Nebraska. I think it would make for a good book group selection because plenty of serious themes arise even in stories of a happy childhood–fairness, whether we are loved, and how we find our place in the world.

“The Good Daughter”

The reading world is now my oyster–I’ve finished up my reading for this year’s Notable Books List! And a great list it was.

But now I can read whatever I want–and I chose “The Good Daughter” simply by searching on “memoir” as a keyword in our catalog, and sorting by date for a recent one.

This is Jasmin Darznik’s story of her mother’s life, and a whole part of that life that was unknown to Jasmin until she came upon a photograph in her mother’s belongings, clearly a wedding picture of her mother (then very young) and a man who was not Jasmin’s father.

Jasmin knew that she had come to America from Iran when she was three, with her mother and German father. She grew up an American girl.

Although her mother at first refused to respond to Jasmin’s questions, eventually she sent Jasmin a series of cassette tapes telling about her childhood and young womanhood.

This period of time in Iran, the 1950’s and 1960’s, saw great change and transition. Some families remained very conservative in their expectations of women, insisting on veils and staying mostly at home, while other women wore Western dress and held career jobs. What Darznik does very well is use her mother’s story to describe that period of uneasy “progress.”

But in the end, it is her mother’s story, and I enjoyed it immensely despite her sometimes bleak circumstances. Darznik tells the story well, filling in information where necessary, letting her mother often speak for herself. I came to both love and hate the characters she drew.

I came away with a better sense of the social history of Iran, and with much admiration for her mother, who endured so much, and who continued persevering in America.

I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends–the rewarding story, the interesting setting, and the issues of families generally and families reacting to social upheaval in particular, will gratify many different readers. This would be an excellent choice for a book group, too.

A Notable Novel–“Matterhorn”

Last week I finished “Matterhorn: a Novel of the Vietnam War” by Karl Marlantes. It was my final fiction title from this year’s Notable Books List.

I wasn’t looking forward to “Matterhorn.” This was party due to its length at just under 600 pages, and partly due to the setting of Marines’ combat during the Vietnam War.

I’d checked it out and taken it home once before, and found myself without the time to dig in. This time I gave it my best shot, and eventually I found myself connecting with it.

Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam with no experience of commanding others, and with plenty of fear for what lies ahead. At first he seems mostly confusion and diffidence, unwilling to ask questions because he’s afraid to look stupid, and unsure of his likely courage under fire. Eventually, though, he becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, and begins to see where his own talents can make a difference for the men with whom he eventually bonds.

I was struck over and over by the physical discomfort of the war–jungle rot, hunger and thirst, damp feet, leeches, and that short list doesn’t even touch the injuries and death that follow combat engagements.

The parallel story to that of the Marines in action is the politics behind the action–officers far behind the lines making decisions, politics that enter in to placement of troops, and the ability of the field officers to make their case. Another aspect to the politics is the politics of race, with overt hostilities between some white and black Marines.

Eventually, Marlantes led me to care about Mellas and his troops, and to find his situation compelling. Mellas clearly improves as an officer, does better in accepting responsibility, works the system effectively and finds himself no longer isolated from those around him.

The title is a code name referring to a mountain that becomes a base of operation.

Merlantes served in the Marines in Vietnam, and he took years to write this novel. I’ll recommend his book to people interested in the social history of war, especially Vietnam. I know that not everyone is willing to devote the time and difficult attention that this novel requires, but I will recommend it to those who recognize good fiction–sound pacing, strong character development, and literary construction of another place and time.

“Matterhorn” teams well with another Notable fiction, “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, which while also set in Vietnam during the war, takes a much different approach. Reading those two within the last month leads me to add the modern classic “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien to my reading list. Each year’s Notables List brings some of these lucky combinations of titles related by setting or theme, adding value to my reading of the List.

Another Notable–“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

I’d heard quite a bit about “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and so was pleased to see it in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books list.

Rebecca Skloot tell the story of Mrs. Lacks, who became immortal when shortly before her death in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a tumor on her cervix. Researchers were able to get the cells from that tissue to reproduce phenomenally. The cells, known as HeLa Cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) became a kind of medical commodity, since researchers needed human cells on which to perform all kinds of research. The family didn’t know, and were never compensated for them.

Skloot’s book is as much about the Lacks family as about the cells. At the time the cells were taken, doctors wouldn’t have thought twice about taking cells without permission, and especially wouldn’t have given consideration to taking cells from an African American. Lacks entered the hospital through a separate door, drank from a separate fountain, and probably got less care, than white people did.

The Lacks family didn’t know about the cells until much later. They received a lot of misinformation, that coupled with their own lack of scientific understanding to interpret what they were told. Much of Skloot’s story centers on their attempts to understand what happened. In particular, Lacks’s daughter Deborah takes center stage, in middle age when Skloots began the book.

This book meshes well with another Notable nonfiction, “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the Great Migration. Henrietta Lacks ended up in Baltimore because the men of the family found work there, moving north from Clover, Virginia.

Skloot successfully weaves together the scientific information with the story of this family. She creates a strong narrative thread.

I’m recommending this to many readers, those who enjoy a good story, nonfiction readers who especially appreciate a good story that actually happened, and to students of our American culture.

A Non-Library Notable, “The Lotus Eaters”

I have a feeling that Lincoln City Libraries will soon own The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, one of the fiction entries on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. For now, a person might try Interlibrary Loan to obtain a copy.

In short, “The Lotus Eaters” is the story of Helen Adams, who becomes a war photographer in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She becomes addicted to the rush of taking pictures in dangerous situations. She falls in love with two men, a grizzled photographer who takes her under his wing, and a Vietnamese man who is his photographic assistant and guardian angel.

It’s told in chapters with various locations and years; the location and sometimes the year given at the start of each. The story opens with Helen in Saigon as the country is falling in April of 1975. She encounters a little girl who seems to have become lost from her family. The story gets picked up in various places and times, filling in the story of Helen, her career, her loves, and the war.

This isn’t an easy read. As with any book about war, there are difficult scenes. Sometimes Soli’s way of moving from place to place and year to year is disconcerting, but I had a sense that that’s what she intended.

My complaint about this story is that Soli tends to tell instead of show. The most egregious example of this is her description of a lovely Christmas dinner that is interrupted when Helen’s lover arrives just from a battlefield, dirty and bloody, to say that one of their colleagues died that day. He says, “Jack was killed tonight. We were ambushed in a jeep patrol in Gia Dinh.” Soli then writes, “The holiday mood destroyed, the host clapped a hand on his back then poured him a drink.” Did she need to tell us that the holiday mood was destroyed? I realize that a lot of context must be provided to explain cultural and historical details, but too often I sensed her writing an informational sentence instead of creating a way within the story to convey the information.

This book just won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, so I have to believe that others found the writing excellent. I did enjoy the characters as Soli developed them. What I came to love about the story was how the country itself became almost a character. I felt myself far away.

I’ll recommend this general literary fiction readers and certainly to book groups–its historical context, ambitious female character, and interesting relationships will provide plenty of discussion fodder.