I listened to this book (something I've been doing a lot of these days) and find that listening adds another dimension to books. I feel this especiall...moreI listened to this book (something I've been doing a lot of these days) and find that listening adds another dimension to books. I feel this especially about "The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian" because it is read by the author, Sherman Alexie. I had never heard Alexie speak, and it seemed quite abrupt and loud at first, but I got used to his voice quickly and found myself enjoying his reading of Junior's narration. Alexie's is a voice that sounds as though it has been practiced at reading poetry. I found a lot of the lines poetic too, although I can't quote any not having the book. Alexie also knows when to speed up his reading, when to slow it down, when to be loud and when to be quiet. He's even practiced at sounding sorrowful and as though he is about to cry at a sad time.
I found this audiobook in the "family" section at the library, which is usually made up of young adult fiction. I read someone else's review of this book, and they said they had not realized it was geared toward young adults until a third of the way through. It don't know if it's marketed for young adults or not. I would imagine so just because of the age of the narrator (14), but it also seems to be being narrated by him from an older age, if only slightly (it is in past tense after all). But even so, I think the narration can appeal to young adults and older adults. Junior and his thoughts and feelings are definitely more complex than some of the narrators in YA novels I've read, but I think Alexie does a good job in being able to reach audiences of different ages. Some of the thought processes are sophisticated and abstract, but mostly Junior is just a kid on the rez telling it like it is. He's definitely different than most as he points out, not in a show-off way, but just knowing from a young age that he is "definitely a weird kid" because he feels he is weird and awkward, but also because, as he begins to see himself throughout the novel, he is able to slowly start thinking outside the typical limitations of the rez. He is able to see that if he gives up on himself, he will become just another rez dude he sees all the time, drinking and being unhappy. On the other hand, he is able to empathize with those dudes, including his father, his best friend Rowdy, Rowdy's dad, and his dad's best friend (forget the name), and he is able to admire the beauty in the rez and life there and the things he sees as universal to Native American culture: family, connecting with people and really knowing them instead of shutting down and burning bridges, celebrating, tolerance.
Junior is a great storyteller. This may be because the premise is that he's writing in a diary or just because he's good, but I really enjoyed his personable and candid narration. It felt like he was telling the story to me personally. He threw in lots of conversational words like "Ok," "you know?" "right?" "guess what?" and especially "Yep." I also loved his exaggerations. He was always saying stuff like "my grandmother was the most tolerant person in the world," "Penelope was the most beautiful girl I had seen in my whole life," "I was the most vulnerable kid in America." It just sounds like the way a lot of kids that age exaggerate things that adults may not take so seriously, whether they are bragging about themselves or trying to convey the seriousness of a situation.
Junior also deals a lot with race and racism in the book, again, just telling it like it is from his view. After becoming angry in geometry class because he discovered his text book had belonged to his mother and was over 30 years old and thinking over and over how poor life on the rez was, he threw the book in frustration. He had not meant to, but he hit the teacher square in the nose. Junior was suspended for a week, during which time the teacher came to visit him. The teacher expressed that he was upset that Junior had hit him in the face with the book, but moreso, he was worried about Junior. He was actually proud that Junior took a stand and did something to react to the shitty conditions of life on the rez, but was worried that if Junior did not get out of the rez somehow, he would get stuck there like the majority of the rez kids and become hopeless adults who would never leave and just stay in those conditions and lead crappy lives. I'm not trying to say that everyone living on reservations has crappy lives. What I'm saying is that Junior and others like his geometry teacher saw so many years on the rez and the poor quality of life of most who lived there compared to life outside the rez in "the white world" as Junior later refers to it, that both were worried that Junior could become stuck at the rez repeating those patterns, being subject to a life full of death that had been created by white people. Later in the book, Junior says something like, "Indians were sent by white people to reservations to die--we were supposed to disappear." And while Native Americans haven't totally disappeared, white people, through institutionalized racism, have made sure that Native Americans as a group continue to suffer on reservations, not having adequate access to even basic resources at times. Junior's teacher wants him to be able to transcend the rez so that he might know a better quality of life.
That's when Junior decided he wanted to go to a different school. A white school. A relatively wealthy school.
His parents asked if he was sure. Twice. They asked when he wanted to start.
Tomorrow, he said.
And so he did. And of course he ran into racist white people all the time. But after some time, he slowly got to know some, and they got to know him. A few of them were genuinely caring and compassionate with him. Someone encouraged him to try out for basketball. The coach pushed him to do his best, even when Junior thought he couldn't do something. Yes, he became a token, but he also became a success in his own terms. And of course, as a narrator, he is lovable because he is so modest. But I also feel this is realistic too. A lot of people don't necessarily believe in themselves and so when they start to excel at something, it's kind of a shock. They don't really know how it's happening because they did not plan for it, as opposed to a show-off who feels they can control everyone and everything and brags about themselves constantly. Junior is not this type. For Junior, success is surprising.
And even though Junior lived in the relative poverty of the rez and articulated the negative aspects of life and people's behaviors, he was so compassionate and able to understand why things were that way. He understood the racism of the world, and he saw the good and bad of each person he knew.
Junior is also honest and hilarious and doesn't bristle at insults, instead turning them around and giving them back to the person. There was a time when Junior was playing against his best friend Rowdy because Junior was now on the Rearden varsity basketball team, and Rowdy was on the Wellpinit team (the name of the school on the Spokane Reservation that Junior attended until he decided to go to Rearden). Rearden beat Wellpinit in that game. Later, Junior tells of an email conversation he had with Rowdy about it, saying something like, "Sorry we kicked your asses." Rowdy writes back (this is all from memory), "Don't worry, next year we'll beat you and make you cry like the faggot you are." Junior responds, "I may be a faggot, but I'm the faggot who kicked your ass." Being a queer-identified person, I did not find this offensive, but was laughing out loud with Junior. He takes the insult and spins it around, undermines it. Junior is not afraid of insults because he's been a target all his life, and even though he's modest and puts himself down, he's obviously confident in himself enough to turn them around.
I'll end by saying that listening to the story and voice of Sherman Alexie in this book was inspirational to me, aside from enjoying it immensely. I have been slowly working at writing my own memoir for the last few years and it's been slow going. My writing style has been so serious and extremely detailed and prolific, it was exciting when I began to write concise and even humorous sentences about my own life after listening to Alexie. I thought, "I can write like that!" So thank you to Sherman Alexie for this excellent work and for not being afraid to tackle racism, homophobia, poverty, social relationships, pain and suffering, as well as joy and laughter of a life that I otherwise may have never thought about, the life of a kid on the rez in Spokane. You have my gratitude. (less)
There's not too much I can say here that my friend Andrew Sydlik hasn't said in his review of Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx"; it's very thorough and I be...moreThere's not too much I can say here that my friend Andrew Sydlik hasn't said in his review of Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx"; it's very thorough and I believe a fair and balanced critique while also being informative. I would recommend reading Andrew's review prior to reading the book and/or my review.
I agree with Andrew that the book is principally a memoir that does not explore the subjects of 80s punk culture and Buddhism beyond their relation to Noah's life. While punk and Buddhism and their intersection are very important to Noah and his experiences, like Andrew says, he doesn't really explain what Buddhism is. Andrew already has some basic understanding of the elements of Buddhism whereas I do not, and i did find myself at times getting bored with the reading in the second half of the book and my unfamiliarity with Buddhism is one reason why.
However, one hook that saved me from putting the book down in the second half was Noah's decision to participate in the "A Year to Live" project, inspired by his father's (Stephen Levine) experience of having already completed the same project. As you might imagine, Noah prepared to live his life for a year as if he would die at the end of that year. At this point in his Buddhist and meditation practice, he was pretty self-disciplined and self-motivated, so though it wasn't easy to embark on this project, Noah seemed to take it very seriously and he did complete it with profound results. This part of the book definitely motivated me to check out Stephen Levine's book, "A Year to Live," which is about his own experience at the age of 58.
I think too, after exploring Noah's websites, that his latest book, "Meditate and Destroy" (2007), may answer some of the questions about what Buddhism is and more information on how he and other punks experience their practice. I'm also inspired to read "Meditate and Destroy" and learn more about Buddhism, meditation, service, Noah's life, and his father Stephen's life and works.
One reason for my continued interest in Buddhism and meditation beyond this book is Noah's emphasis that it is a way in which to deal with life's struggles and suffering in a way that can't promise happiness or contentment at all times, but that can allow someone connection to life's adversity without escaping or running away. Escaping and running away was how Noah now framed his involvement with booze, drugs, violence, and promiscuity as a youth, starting before the age of ten. His goal in the face of the pain and suffering he experienced as a young person, he recounts, was to become as numb as possible. Punk culture gave Noah an avenue in which to express himself and his disagreement with the values touted by mainstream society in 1980s America. But the misery he experienced led him away from his punk values and to a point where all he was doing was living for his next crack high or speed ball (crack combined with heroine).
As Andrew remarks, Noah finally gets to a place where he can see that if his own behavior doesn't change, nothing in his life will change either. He does take his father's advice and begins to meditate. Each time he does so, he takes another step toward his own freedom from dangerous habits and addiction. At first, I had a problem with Noah's seemingly non-chalant descriptions of how he progressed from the depths of savage addiction to being able to regularly meditate. It seemed like he just woke up and became a Buddhist by some of the descriptions, but since I'm taking that as his experience, it doesn't bother me so much. However, I'm worried that other folks reading it may have had a much more difficult time getting from addiction to a healthier place, or may still be struggling; I feel they could benefit from a more in-depth description of dealing with the challenges of coming out of the depths of addiction.
As Andrew describes, Noah starts off with a scene where he is in a rubber room after a suicide attempt at 17 and in the depths of his drug addiction and self-hatred. Another sucker-punch comes directly after with an intense experience where Noah is hiding under the front porch at five years old with a knife he stole from the kitchen, fantasizing about cutting his stomach open while his mother and stepfather fight inside. It wasn't hard for me to dive into the book and read about these intense and heavy experiences. But the second half was harder for me to speed through, although more of what I took away from that than boredom or lack of understanding was an inspiration to learn more and an appreciation for Noah's dedication to stay on his path of meditation, practice and service to other folks dealing with addiction.(less)
It's been a while since i finished reading this, but I had intended to use a series of questions at the back of the book to do some writing, which I h...moreIt's been a while since i finished reading this, but I had intended to use a series of questions at the back of the book to do some writing, which I haven't gotten around to yet. But that's why I've kept it from the library so long and have overdue fines! Anyway, Ferentz Lafargue's book, "Songs in the Key of My Life" got an "I liked it" (3 stars) from me. The reasons I liked it were:
1) the concept. Lafargue chose a song or two songs as the title for each of his chapters. Then, he related a story of his life that is directly associated with that song, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to this book. I've had similar ideas when thinking of writing a memoir, so i wanted to see how he wrote his. I think he did a good job with it, usually writing a chapter that is a few pages long about his memories of a particular time in his life or a song associated with a specific event. I remember him describing his mother who would jump up and down and scream "that's my husband!" every time Billy Ocean would come on the TV (he wasn't really) (Chapter title: "Carribbean Queen"), or the time when Lafargue developed his first crush at school and made up an alternative version of "Mickey" by Toni Basil to match his crush's first name (Chapter title: "Mickey").
2) the attention Lafargue drew to performers I was not familiar with. This is more a result of me, a privileged white person who hasn't listened to many musical performers who aren't also white, reading a book about performers who are mostly people of color. I've also been actively learning about white privilege as of late, so I have been wanting to learn more about the experiences of people of color without being aggressive about it.
So while reading this book, i became easily interested in listening to the artists Lafargue was writing about: Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Beenie Man, Fugees, NWA, Run DMC, etc. It's not that I hadn't heard of at least some of these artists, but more that I had never really listened to them before. Sure I know a few songs by Stevie Wonder or a few lines of a song by Jay-Z, but really, I had never taken them seriously as performers or actively listened to what they were singing about. Part of this is because they are black and I am white...I wasn't overtly taught to avoid listening to black performers growing up, but i wasn't encouraged to listen to them either. I found solace and representation in white-dominated genres like "classic rock," punk, and 3rd wave ska. It took this long to get here (I'm almost 31), but part of the reason I started listening to music by black performers recently is because of my study of white privilege and a new interest in African-American culture and trying as sensitively as possible to make connections with black people. Another reason is because of Lafargue's book. He made the descriptions of the music, lyrics, and his experiences with them interesting, funny, embarrassing, painful, and inspirational enough for me to seek out the artists he wrote about. Part of the reason for that was just to hear what he described, not having heard most of the songs he mentions before reading the book. Part of the reason was probably to try and get a better sense of the emotions Lafargue describes in relation to the songs, try to put on his shows and walk around in the songs from his point of view. I haven't been able to do that, though, because I've forgotten the specific songs he references and don't know if i have copied the albums with those songs on them, but i've been actively listening to and enjoying the albums I have copied.
also, I listen to some songs now that I remember from my childhood, particularly several from Dr. Dre's "The Chronic," and see the differences between what memories I have associated with those songs and what memories Lafargue has and how they contrast. I also see the contrasts between my memories and what I understand the lyrics to mean now. Dr. Dre's descriptions of life experiences didn't come through to me at age 12--I just thought Dre was cool cause my best friend listened to him. In reality, as a white, middle-class kid growing up in white suburbia near Pittsburgh, PA, I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about.
3) Lafargue's descriptions of life in Haiti, then being Haitian in the US. Lafargue describes a number of Haitian or Carribbean artists (including Billy Ocean and Beenie Man) and different styles of Haitian music. He also relates memories of growing up Haitian in NYC as a kid (I think his family moved to NYC when he was 5). As a teen, Lafargue was into metal and rock, mostly white bands and performers and WWF wrestling. The black and white Americans he went to school with made fun of him because he was Haitian and because he liked metal. Later, he got more into hip hop, r&b, and rap and mostly black performers, but still held a place in his heart for metal and rock. Particularly intriguing to read was about the phenomenon of Run DMC's performance of "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith. At that point, I think he was in his teens and described the cross-racial discussions that went on all over the place when the song was released. Black kids started talking about and listening to Aerosmith and possibly some other rock, white kids got into Run DMC and maybe some other hip hop.
Reasons I didn't give "Songs in the Key of My Life" 4 or 5 stars: 1) It was kinda boring. Lafargue is an articulate writer and gives a good effort to descriptions of how music sounds, which is one of the most difficult things to describe in my experience. And I think he does well weaving the lyrics and sounds into the emotional descriptions of his experiences. But sometimes, it isn't enough to carry me to the end of a chapter without looking at the time or gazing out the window because I'm not engaged with the book. I think folks could learn a lot about growing up black in america in the 80s and 90s from "Songs in the Key of My Life," especially coming from another country, and in particular, a lot about one person and his experiences in music and life. But it's not a book I thought about all day and couldn't wait to get back to. I did, however, think about the music Lafargue inspired me to listen to all day.
2) Lafargue seems a little self-centered. Of course, perhaps that is indicative of a memoir, but i don't think it has to be. Also, i may be projecting this out of my own bias. Would I have complained about a white memoir author who was self-centered or would i not even have noticed because I'm used to white people being that way? I'm not sure, but i do know that I felt a little resentful when Lafargue would describe himself in an aggrandizing way, which he does a few times throughout the book, but especially at the end. There is a series of comprehension and further thinking type questions at the back which directly reference the memoir and Lafargue himself as if it's a text book in a class. i think Lafargue even mentions using the book in one of his classes as a professor. I just thought that was a bit much, but i also found the questions helpful in application to my life in the context of music and its importance to me, so i got over my resentment.
I would definitely recommend "Songs in the Key of My Life" (named after the Stevie wonder song "Songs in the Key of Life") to folks who are interested in learning more about music, black performers and culture in the US and Haiti, and Stevie Wonder. Lafargue sings his praises throughout the book and really delves deep into the meaning and emotion and sound of Wonder's songs. Enjoy!(less)
Intriguing and heart-breaking account of Hamilton's childhood in 1950s Ireland being pulled in many different directions. His father is Irish and a st...moreIntriguing and heart-breaking account of Hamilton's childhood in 1950s Ireland being pulled in many different directions. His father is Irish and a stickler about his children learning Irish Gaelic in defiance of the increasingly encroaching English mainstream society in Ireland, including the language. Hamilton, however, is forced to learn English in school and he and his siblings are made fun of because they speak Gaelic by their Irish schoolmates. They are also antagonized for being half-German. In a time directly following World War II, the children and their mother are called "Nazis." This is much to Hamilton's astonishment as he doesn't even yet understand the context of what they are talking about being still a child. The book is also much a memoir of Hamilton's family as much as a personal account and goes in depth, especially in my recollection, into his mother's experiences in Germany as a German who was not Jewish nor a Nazi or Nazi-sympathizer, caught in between those two groups just trying to survive and not knowing what to do. I believe I read this over a year ago, so it is difficult to recall details, but I think it is significant that the story has remained with me. i remember enjoying the writing, the story, and much of the cross-cultural descriptions and blending of German, Gaelic, and English words. One thing I remember clearly is Hamilton's description of a dog that spent most of his days on the beach near Hamilton's house, barking at the waves constantly. The dog also occasionally went into the water a bit, looking as though he was biting at the waves. they called him "wasser bieter" (not sure if this is correct), which means "water biter" in German. An excellent story that I highly recommend to anyone.(less)
This book is unbelievable, but I believe it if you know what I'm saying. It's an incredible account of a boy's experience inside several "corre...moreOH MY GOD
This book is unbelievable, but I believe it if you know what I'm saying. It's an incredible account of a boy's experience inside several "correctional facilities" that were designed for boys under 18 who were charged with criminal offenses or simply had nowhere else to go, specifically in California.
This boy, if he's still around, is now a relatively old man, having been born 8 years before my parents, which will make him 67 this October (he mentions his birthday several times in the book) and serving the first of four consecutive life sentences. His account, according to the intro and preface, was probably written over a number of years while he was in prison. The narrative begins when he was 9 years old.
I was totally engrossed reading this and finished it over a few days (not very long, maybe 150 pgs.)--I just bought it from Big Idea bookstore in Pittsburgh last week (it's published by AK Press). I don't have it on me at the moment, but Dwight described himself as a pretty typical kid growing up in California in the 1940s and 50s. His parents were caring and loving and had a successful business. It seems Dwight (who is white, by the way) considered himself a pretty typical kid in a typical American family.
As a result of a freak situation, he ended up in a place called "Juvenile hall" or some such term: his aunt, who was supposed to be caring for Dwight and his siblings while his parents were away, was drunk and unresponsive when neighbors came over to check on things. The neighbors called the cops, concerned for the kids, and they were all sent to different state youth institutions temporarily. Knowing who he is now and the crimes he's committed throughout his life (he only details his experiences from 9-17 in this book, but mentions that he killed people as an adult), you might think Dwight came from an abusive family or that he ran away and lived on the streets, etc. But Dwight blames his criminal behavior as solely having begun and been reinforced by California state "correctional" institutions.
Even though things have obviously changed since the 50s on all fronts including law enforcement, Dwight maintains that they have not changed for the better for youth who become incarcerated today. His story may not be every prisoner's story, but it probably happens more than any of us who have not been incarcerated would think or want to believe. And I think that those who don't have experience with law enforcement are one intended audience. This book is extremely graphic and disturbing in its descriptions of the kinds of abuse perpetrated behind closed doors in the prison system (also funded by state and federal tax dollars), there's no doubt. But that's what this book needs to be. Most probably will find it more disturbing based on the age of those who Dwight is describing, especially in how they are abused by the adults who are supposed to be helping them to recover from their so-called devious ways to returned to society as rehabilitated.
There are so many things I could say about this book, but I don't have much time. What Dwight has written has profoundly affected me and disturbed me about what can happen in the prison industrial complex in this country. I haven't believed in the prison system as helping anyone for quite some time, but this book has given me a lot of incite into specifically what happened to an individual. Dwight's style is very bare-bones, matter-of-fact, and intimate in its detail, and it's probably the closest I'll get to an experience in prison without actually being there. His is not a political tirade against the state as much as its an emotional account of his experiences with adults and peers inside a cannibalizing system. It gives me an appreciation not only of the massive and blind power law enforcement has over the citizenry, especially children, but also of my own relative freedom and what potential I have to act in my own personal interests as well as those who are marginalized.
I could never recommend this book enough to anyone who thinks they could read it without being so disturbed as to close it before they finish. You have to be prepared to deal with the graphic descriptions and realization that somebody actually experienced this. I have never been physically abused, and never been emotionally or psychologically abused to this extreme, so this book was shocking to me. May it be as shocking to those who decide to read it. May it inspire many to act against the atrocities described within.
Note: I think the book was published in 2005, so there's a chance Dwight is still around. He chose to publish his contact information in the back of the book and encouraged readers to write him with questions and comments.(less)
Steve Almond is candid enough in this book to reveal what I think is true for a lot of adults these days, and maybe throughout history, at least since...moreSteve Almond is candid enough in this book to reveal what I think is true for a lot of adults these days, and maybe throughout history, at least since consumerist capitalism rose to such an exorbitant and disasterous level: we tend to make emotional connections to products where they are lacking with the people who surround us as children. For Steve, candy became a place of escape and self-love in a family who was adept at self-loathing. It also has continued to comfort him into adulthood, especially in terms of failed romances, a few of which he describes in the book. He also remembers in detail which candies he sought as a comfort after those break ups.
We join Steve as he begins a series of travels around the US to track down candies from his youth and even further back (Steve was in his late 30s at the time of publication, 2005). He ends up meeting a lot of people who are just obsessed with candy as he is, some of whom still produce these now obscure candies.
Throughout the book, Steve is very thorough in his descriptions of his own vice, through taste and smell, as well as visual sensations (packaging is very important to Steve). These descriptions are often extremely detailed and exaggerated to bring humor, although after a while, the descriptions start to become a bit hackneyed.
Also, it seemed like Steve did a good job mixing details of his excursions and personal history in the first half of the book. In the second half, his visits are written serially and it becomes hard to remember who was the president of what company. A lot of times, too, he seems to characterize most of the men (all the presidents are men) toward the end of the book as these rogue characters or cowboys, driving around in SUVs to save the world of independent candy-making...I don't know...I'm just sick of reading white men superheroes in the world. And yes, they were almost all white. I can tell because of Steve's rather ignorant use of "Indian," "Hispanic," and "black," to describe side people in airports, on the telephone, or packing the boxes of candy, and the lack of the word "white" to describe anyone else, mostly people in positions of relative power and privilege. However, Steve does a good job noticing when someone is Jewish, perhaps because he is Jewish himself.
Steve also does a good job describing the precarious position of being a consumer, loving the product personally and having the knowledge of candy's lack of usefulness in as far as everyday life for most people in the world. He analyzes capitalism and mass production and candy's place in that. He also does well in profiling "the big three": Mars, Hershey, and Nestle and how they, especially Hershey, created an American taste for chocolate to keep consumers coming back to the candy racks for generations.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and it made me think about candy politics (who knew?) and it made me want to eat candy all the time.(less)