Todd’s Review of Breaking Barriers by Peter Altschul, MS

Breaking-Barriers-Altschul-MS-Peter-9781469731131I’m a big fan of memoirs, so when I was approached by Author Solutions to review a book by Peter Altschul detailing his life as a blind man with guide dogs, I happily accepted.  Although arranged slightly differently than a true memoir, Altschul’s book is still filled with anecdotes from his childhood and life growing up with a complete lack of vision.  Before reading, I knew little to nothing about the blind community, so I was also interested to learn more about how blind individuals cope with a seeing-oriented world.

Altschul beings with a few short stories from his childhood, growing up in Pleasantville, NY, as well as spending summers on Cape Cod.  The majority of the beginning of the work focuses on his time at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization dedicated to training guide dogs for blind and visually impaired individuals.  Although the organization began with German Shepards, they soon expanded to many other types of dogs, such as Weimaraners, Poodles, and various other breeds.  Altschul focuses on his pairing with Jules, a black lab, his fifth dog paired to him by Guiding Eyes.  Interspersed through tales of getting to know Jules better, Altschul tells the reader about his parings with his previous four dogs, and how the pairing process has changed over time.  After this initial phase of the work, Altschul then moves on to more stories of his adult life, detailing his work at various NGO’s and other organizations, and how he met and eventually wed his wife, Lisa.  He ends with an epilogue of his current life in Missouri with his step-children and Lisa.  The work is also interspersed with pictures of Altschul and his dogs, as well as pictures of his family.

Overall, I found this work to be very interesting, as Altschul was able to fit in details about how guide dogs work and how their relationship to their handler is formed.  I learned that it takes quite a while before the dog has complete trust in the handler, and sometimes these dogs quit working altogether, even in the middle of busy intersections and public places.  As one of the earlier adopters of the Guiding Eyes program, it was interesting to read Altschul’s take on how the organization had grown over the years, and how his relationships to his guide dogs were quite different from “pet dogs.”  I think it’s great that these organizations exist, and I believe that having a dog was able to give Altschul a far greater deal of mobility that he would not have been able to enjoy without one.  I was glad that he was able to find happiness through his relationship with his dogs, which then extended into a great and fulfilling personal life.  The one downside of this work is that it does seem slow at times, and the verbiage was slightly abrupt with lack of descriptors sometimes.  Nonetheless, I still found it an intriguing read.  If you are interested in the blind community or even in dogs in general, this is a great firsthand account of how these two forces come together for good.

3 out of 5 Stars

Breaking Barriers by Peter Altschul, MS
iUniverse (2012)
Paperback 240 pages
ISBN: 9781469731117

Special thanks to Author Solutions for my review copy

Jess’s Review of Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

brainonfireThere are moments in one’s life that are so significant, all subsequent life events are marked by “before” and “after” that event. For Susannah Cahalan it was the day she began to go mad. A spark had ignited somewhere within the complicated hard-wiring of her brain and day-by-day she began to lose herself. Brain on Fire is a unique memoir that chronicles Cahalan’s journey to oblivion and back as she details a rare medical condition in which one’s body literally attacks its brain, draining the individual of the essential characteristics which make up one’s personality.

One day, Susannah was a healthy 24-year-old journalist. As her illness began to commandeer her personality, she began to lose her sanity and ability to perform even the most mundane daily tasks.  After a series of seizures and a string of bizarre behavior, the race to salvage Susannah’s brain began with a team of doctors and a dedicated family who would do anything to save her.

One minute she is buying a coffee in a hospital waiting room, and the next thing she remembers is it’s one month later and she is restrained in a hospital bed with no recollection of how she got there. Cahalan writes:

I wish I could understand my behaviors and motivations during this time, but there was no rational consciousness operating, nothing I could access anymore, then or now. This was the beginning of my lost month of madness.

Cahalan’s book is part memoir, part medical mystery, and part love story. Due to the fact that she literally does not have any first hand memory of her month spent in the hospital, Cahalan uses family, friends, doctors, nurses, and hospital footage as sources to help her understand the lost time. Parts of the story require her to explain complex scientific terms and procedures, which she does with great precision and clarity. Cahalan’s background as a journalist helps her to break through the medical jargon to give readers a detailed explanation of her illness.

My favorite part of the book was the way Cahalan not only talked about how her illness affected her on a personal level, but also how it affected her friends and family. By the end of the book, I wanted to look up her boyfriend Steven so I could give the guy a hug.  Not only was Brain on Fire an entertaining and educational read, but the race to save Cahalan’s personality and memory had me on the edge of my seat. Since I finished reading this book, I have really been challenged to think about the fragility of the human body and what it truly means to be “you.”

4 out of 5 Stars

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Free Press (2012)
Hardcover 288 pages
ISBN: 9781451621372

Todd’s Review of Prague: My Long Jourey Home by Charles Ota Heller

Although I’m not a huge fan of historical books, the byline of this one really got my attention.  “The true story of a man who, at the age of nine, shot a Nazi.”  Sound exciting?  I sure thought so, and proceeded to dive in to this personal tale of how Charles Heller survived the Holocaust in the early years of his life.

The book begins with a happy and carefree version of the events of Heller’s childhood.  Surrounded by parents, aunts, uncles, a grandfather, and great-grandfather, he had a warm and loving family that surrounded and protected him.  He details the great history of Czechoslovakia, and how it rose to prominence in the years leading up to the great World Wars.  However, as he soon points out, things began to change.  His family began to visit less, and their conversations became more tense and worrisome.  Heller’s great-grandfather, who owned the largest and most profitable clothing factory in the country, began to realize that what he had built would soon be put to the test.  Not only did his factory employ hundreds of locals, but the proceeds from his work were recycled back in to the community, providing money for arts, culture, and education in the region.  All of Heller’s family loved their country and were extremely nationalistic, as were most Czechs at the time, and it distressed all of them greatly when their sense of pride for their homeland was trampled by the invading German forces.  Heller then goes on to give a harrowing account of the war from his point of view, with near-misses with German forces and Czech-born German sympathizers alike.  Although the majority of his family is killed, he describes the herculean effort that his mother goes through to ensure that her son is safe and that they find food and shelter despite the tightening noose around them.  Chock full of stories like this, Heller’s work continues on to describe the rest of his wartime experience, as well as his life after the war ended.  Additionally, he goes on to tell us just how he got involved with that pistol and the Nazi at age nine…

Overall, I felt that Heller’s work was incredibly informative, at times reading more like a history book than actual memoir as he described the rich history of Czechoslovakia.  The decline of his family after the Nazi invasion was quite sad, especially considering all the good that his family did for their local town and the nation as a whole.  Heller is a great storyteller, but on that same note it also provided the only flaw I found in this work: its pace.  From the advertising, it seemed like an exciting tale of his experiences with WWII Germany’s occupation of his town.  Although we eventually got there, it took a while.  The first chapters that contained a ton of history on Czechoslovakia were what really dragged down the pace at first.  Don’t get me wrong, it was quite interesting, and perhaps it’s only because I’m not a huge history buff, but it made the pace slow a bit too much for me.  Fortunately though, once Heller began with the Nazi invasion, things really took off.  I felt for him as we see everything he knows taken from him: his family, friends, home, and pride.  He’s a lost boy who must learn to grow up way too fast.  His tales of his mother’s bravery and foresight to protect her son are incredible (even after she is taken to a slave camp she manages to get out and reunite with her son).  I could never imagine going through the horrors that he must have.  His anger at the Germans, as well as at his own countrymen for their lack of fight during the invasion was definitely understandable.  I think it was probably quite therapeutic for Heller to write this work and share his experiences with us.  I applaud him on a job well done and a wonderful memoir that many can enjoy for years to come.

4 out of 5 Stars

Prague: My Long Journey Home by Charles Ota Heller
Abbott Press (2011)
Paperback: 272 pages
ISBN: 9781458201218

Special thanks to Author Solutions for providing my review copy!

Adam’s Review of Sober Identity by Lisa Neumann

This book review will definitely be the first of its kind here on Reflections of a Book Addict. As an avid reader of the website, you would know that we mostly read novels and watch movies. Recently, the opportunity arose for me to read a novel all about living soberly. For some odd reason, I thought it would be a great book for me to read because it seemed to be different than anything I have ever read and reviewed for this blog.  Sober Identity Tools for Reprogramming the Addictive Mind by Lisa Neumann is a self-help book that contains tools to help you get sober and live an active life as a sober individual. Neumann uses her own experiences as an alcoholic (and now a recovered alcoholic) to help you truly understand your life and what it can become with focus and determination.

This book is not a memoir or a story saying all alcoholics should follow these certain steps to guarantee sobriety. The book is written to help the reader with the different steps of recovery, as well as explaining how you should learn to live with your new sober self. She breaks the book down into six parts: the six tools you should use in looking at your new life. The six steps are: the observation, the process, the essentials, the competencies, the partnerships, and the basics. All of the six play an integral part in the recovery process: the observations entails that you observe your behavior and see what needs to be changed.  The process represents how you change the behavior, and the essentials instruct you on how to change your life in order to achieve happiness (and also a discussion on the science behind change). The competencies talked about the steps one must take in order to be a competent person, free from alcohol and truthful to themselves. The partnerships dives into the partnership with ourselves and our own self motivation, and lastly the basics ties everything together and gets into the basic steps one takes to get sober. All of these parts tell a separate story, but one must be aware of all the different six steps in order to get sober.

My favorite part of this book by far was the inner dialogue that Neumann had between two distinct voices in her head. In the introduction when Neumann was explaining how the book was written, she said that everybody has two voices in their head. Voice A is their lower self, the one who struggles and questions whether or not they could get and stay sober, and then there’s voice B, who represents the way they were meant to be in the eyes of the creator. I thought by adding these conversations Neumann added a personal level to the self-help book without turning it to an autobiography. I really enjoyed reading the progression of these dialogues because they go from pre-sobriety to complete sobriety over almost seven years. You got to see how her voices changed through the different stages. Voice A tried to drag her down and tell her she’s not strong enough and that she should go back to drinking, and on the other hand voice B was always her voice of reason even at the pre-sobriety stage. Voice B always said what she didn’t want to hear, yet needed to hear. For example, in the early stages of her sobriety when voice A was questioning whether or not it could or stay sober or why it even got sober in the first place, B was telling her that she should just focus on today. Not tomorrow, not a month from now, focus on your recovery today and then when tomorrow or next month comes focus on it then. Even though I am not a recovering alcoholic, I think this is a good mantra to have for life. Don’t focus on problems or bumps in the road that may occur tomorrow or a month from now, focus on today, then move to tomorrow, and next Friday only when it’s actually next Friday.  My favorite of the inner dialogues was definitely dialogue six (out of seven), in which she had been sober for 367 days. In this particular dialogue her voice A was telling her that since she had been sober for one year, she could go back to drinking (something her voice A had mentioned in an earlier dialogue), but her voice B was so strong and confident that it didn’t even want to drink. It really showed the progress of her recovery and how strong she really was when she wasn’t dependent on alcohol. It made me smile because it was one of the dialogues where she truly seemed happy, and happy people are always better than sad people!

In all, I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought it was an interesting tool to read as a non-addict because it made me understand the mindset of the addict without telling one’s personal story. I think this is a great tool which should be read by recovering and recovered addicts, as well as those who are going through the journey with them. It also made me question my voice A and voice B, not from the perspective of an addict, but from the perspective of my own self-doubt.  Voice A is telling me I can’t do something and my sometime too quiet Voice B telling me I can do anything I want to do.  Overall, it’s an awesome read that everyone should pick up when they have a chance.

4 out of 5 Stars

Sober Identity by Lisa Neumann
Balboa Press (2011)
Paperback: 156 pages
ISBN: 9781452539188

Special thanks to Jessie from Author Solutions for sending over my review copy!

Todd’s Review of This Möbius Strip of Ifs by Mathias B. Freese

The idea of a möbius strip is an interesting one.  It’s a surface that has only one side and only one boundary component.  It’s curious because it is so interconnected.  If one were to trace the length of the outer surface with a pen, one would eventually end up at the beginning again without ever having to lift the pen from the surface.  This has a great allegorical value, as you could view life in the same way: one continuous path that twists into itself and ultimately brings you back to where you started from.  In his work This Möbius Strip of Ifs, Mathias B. Freese follows this theme by compiling a group of short stories that he penned over the years, and reflect his musings on various parts of his life.

Freese’s stories take us through the many facets of his life, from his time as a high school English teacher to his work as a professional therapist to his struggles in publishing essays.  Some works are retrospective, looking back on his life (At 76) while others focus on those close to him (The Unheard ScreamAbout Caryn).  Freese often waxes philosophical, and has a great mind for analogy and juxtaposition.  His writings are intellectual and have some wonderful truths interwoven among the text.  It’s hard to pin down an overarching theme that bundles these essays together, but if I had to pick one it would be analysis of self and others.  Freese has a critical eye which spares no expense when cutting to the core of what he feels, whether it be about himself, his marriage, or the goings on around him.

Perhaps I should have seen this coming, then, when I read the essay entitled Personal Posturings: Yahoos as Bloggers.  In its initial volley, Freese compares bloggers to Yahoos, creatures created by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels that exemplify humans in their most basic and boorish form.  He takes specific aim at bloggers who set goals, specifically goals about reading a certain number of books in a specific time.  He labels this “the challenge.”  The crux of his argument against bloggers is their inevitable lack of intelligence and appreciation for literature, where in reading and reviewing for a blog one could not fully appreciate the mastery which is contained within most classic novels.  Additionally, we (as bloggers) cannot stand to review books and give them negative reviews; we would rather not review a book than write a negative review.  Additionally (and finally) he describes blogs as an ego-centric outlet for a blogger to express an innate desire for the world to ogle them and post about every aspect of his or her life.  Of course, Freese does write that he writes this all in hyperbole, but how much of this is exaggerated?  Notwithstanding that this blog does encompass most of these things that Freese professes to hate, I tried to understand his point of view.  Yes, I have seen blogs where reviewers are afraid to write negative reviews.  Yes, I have seen blogs where there seem to be more posts about the blog’s author than about the subject matter the blog was supposedly created for.  However, the one argument that really grinds my gears (Family Guy reference) is the generalization that most bloggers do not appropriately appreciate literature.  Before writing for this blog, I was unaware at the breadth and depth of blogs that are devoted to literature in all its forms.  The staggering amount of discussion (educated discussion, no less!) that is present in these blogs that brings a new and revitalized look into the works of literary giants of centuries of old (Austen, Brönte, Hemingway, Wells, Dickens, etc) is astounding.  These very blogs are what is driving a new generation to explore these works and read them anew.  Yes, we may not ponder and mull the significance of every passing page with a fine toothed comb, but I argue that the spirited discussions that arise from these readings are just as important as the words printed in these novels.  Therefore, after I began writing for this blog and discovering this underground (so to speak) network of literary criticism, discussion, and general celebration of the printed word, I was thrilled to meet so many other people who share the same thoughts and feelings as I have.  That is the point of blogs, to connect those who would otherwise never be connected, whether it be by distance, time, or any other metric.  Blogs have the power to do all this and more.

So, after getting that off of my chest, I’d like to end on a positive note.  One of the essays that I enjoyed the most was Introductory Remarks on Retirement from a Therapist.  It has a great tone of retrospection, where Freese urges the reader to make the most of his or her life.  I’ll end with my favorite quote from this essay:

Perhaps the best inheritance you can give to close ones is the way in which you lived, as opposed to how well you saved and planned.

We cannot have it all, however un-American, during life, after life.  What is obtainable is the intangible, if worked at- the imprint, the impression you make on others, perhaps what we mean as the soul.  In a corporate state this has no value.  So, choose.

3 out of 5 stars

This Möbius Strip of Ifs by Mathias B. Freese
Wheatmark (2012)
eBook: 184 pages
ISBN: 1604947233

Special thanks to Mr. Freese for sending me my review copy

#45 A Review of Hold Me Tight & Tango Me Home by Maria Finn

The art of dancing is something that can become all-consuming to a person.  Look to professional dancers who take class upon class, perfecting their technique and learning new styles.  For non-professionals, dance can also be a source of exercise, stress release, or just a way to let loose and have fun.  As someone who took tap dance lessons for 13 years I can relate to how infectious dance can become for a person.  I remember as a child taking my first tap lessons, and becoming obsessed with old black-and-white musicals with my aunt and grandma just so that I could watch the elaborate tap numbers.  Dancing is one of my fondest memories from childhood and conversely it helped me get through some harder periods of life.  Knowing I could lose myself in class with my friends each week and just tap out  my feelings on the floor was helpful with the stresses of a teen life.  When I heard about Maria Finn’s Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, I knew I had to read it and learn how dance had not only affected her, but changed her life.

In her memoir, Finn, a journalist and regular contributor to New York Magazine, finds herself free-floating and lost upon finding out that her husband (and salsa lesson partner) has cheated on her.  To try to cope with this and find some sense of reality again, she signs up for tango lessons in New York City.  As she slowly rebuilds her life, she learns the sweeping and seductive moves of the Argentine Tango as well as the history behind this passion filled dance.  Finn rejuvenates her life by creating a new circle of friends that she meets while taking lessons.  She realizes that she has been built back up to a new level of happiness and inner peace, and culminates her lessons with a trip to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of the Tango.  What she finds is that she’s been reborn herself.

Finn’s journey of self-discovery through the use of tango is absolutely inspiring.  Her memoir proves that dance can and does have major impacts on a persons self-esteem and self-worth.  Upon finishing this novel I looked at Todd and said, “I really need to start taking tango lessons.”  Finn’s memoir is written with a personality that is 100% infectious.  The way she chooses to look at her life makes the reader want to step back and re-evaluate the things that are important in his/her own life.  The ending is truly a culmination of the dance of tango, as well as Finn’s rebirth.

An added surprise in the memoir was learning about the extensive history and technique of the tango.  It’s obvious that Finn did her research and enjoyed doing it.  The portions of the work that deal with the background of the dance were clear, concise, and well researched.

The book is a great poetic ode to dance and to the tango.  I’d be highly interested in reading a follow-up to see where Finn is now in life and with her tango! (I’m also really curious to find out where all her tango friends are and what they’re all doing!)

4 out of 5 Stars

Hold Me Tight & Tango Me Home by Maria Finn
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2010)
eBook: 240 pages
ISBN: 9781565129726

#39 A Review of A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi

In recent years I’ve become a voracious reader of the memoir genre.  I love learning about the interesting lives of other people!  In some instances I want to be them and in others I’m glad I’m not them!  When I saw that Barnes and Noble was having a travel themed eBook sale I quickly grabbed some of the memoirs.  A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi happened to be one of these selections!

In this autobiographical tale of food and romance, Marlena De Blasi first takes us to Venice, Italy in the late 1980’s.  She is a food journalist and chef, and is on her first trip to Venice.  In the Piazza San Marco, a man, whom she affectionately calls “the stranger”, spots her from across the Piazza and instantly falls in love with her from afar.  When he sees her again, this time a year later, he decides that it is fate and that they must be together.  Marlena, fresh from a divorce, politely declines the man’s affections, thinking herself too damaged and hurt to be of any use in a relationship.  However, as luck would have it, only a few short months later she finds herself packing up her life in America to move to Venice and marry this “stranger”.  Although the culture shock is enormous, Marlena finds herself embracing the new and exciting smells, sounds, and life that this exciting city has to offer.  She cooks traditional American dishes for her new Italian friends to try, while they teach her to dance in the candlelight.  Complete with numerous recipes of her own creation, Marlena tells her tale of life and love in one of the most romantic cities in the world.

At the end of this novel, I had very mixed emotions.  I’ll start with some of the areas of the work that could use some improvement, then work towards its strengths.  Initially, I thought the book was very hectic – I kept reading and felt like I was being thrown all over the place.  The concept/true story element is what kept me reading, but the flow of the book was rough.  The best way to describe what I mean is it felt like I was reading something that had been translated oddly.  It’s extremely difficult to try to explain what I mean here, it wasn’t poor word choices or the story proper, more the way it was structured and pieced together.

Additionally, the relationship between Marlena and “the stranger” seemed really odd at times.  He wanted a marriage, yet it was completely one-sided (when he quits his job at the bank, he just does it, even though they discussed waiting till they got their affairs in order).  She up and leaves her life and her children in America, moves to Venice for this man, and yet she feels restricted in the things that she can do and say to him.  One example is her cooking.  Obviously, cooking and food are HUGE parts of her life, having been a chef and restaurateur.  She becomes ashamed of this at certain points, and she writes of having to hide her trips to the market.  It’s almost as if she has an alternative life outside of her marriage, creating an entirely different life out there with the merchants and market people.

What was great?  Her descriptions of Venice and food are astounding.  Having been to Italy before (see my recaps here, here, here, here, here, and here) I know that it generates strong feelings in a person.  The landscape and buildings are stunning to see.  To read her words and thoughts so eloquently put was very rewarding.  I found myself at a loss for words on many of the things during my trip to Italy/Spain, so it was rewarding to find someone who could write about the beauty of it all so well.  In all, this beautiful imagery that de Blasi is able to conjure up in her book was enough to keep me from becoming too upset over the odd flow of the book.  It’s still definitely a worthwhile read for the recipes alone!  I can’t wait to try some of them out, they look quite delicious!  So, if you’re in the mood for a book that will take you on a mini-tour of all the sights and sounds that Venice has to offer, as well as a personal back story, give A Thousand Days in Venice a try.

3 out of 5 Stars

This is my eleventh completed review for the Around The Stack In How Many Ways Challenge

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (2002)
eBook: 288 pages
ISBN: 9781565125896

#35 A Review of Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi

My senior year in college I was introduced to a graphic novel memoir by Art Spiegelman entitled Maus.  Spiegelman re-told his father’s Holocaust experience in a way that a) indebted me to graphic novels forever and b) made me search out other memoirs told in this unusual format.  That search produced another graphic novel entitled Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  Satrapi told of her experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  I was enamored by her stories and the way her drawings helped illustrate the feelings she had about herself and those around her.  Since reading Persepolis I’ve been introduced to some of her illustrated novellas, Embroideries being one of them.

When one first thinks of the conservative Islamic regime one does not associate it with any type of sexual openness.  Therefore, Satrapi’s Embroideries becomes that much more eye-opening when one discovers that it covers just that: the sex lives of a few Iranian women.  Told from the point of view of an informal get together that includes Satrapi’s grandmother, mother, aunt, and a few neighbors and friends, Embroideries touches on major problems and observations that are common to all of these women.  Ranging from how to seduce a man to how to escape an arranged marriage, Satrapi’s relatives and friends share their stories and insights from a unique and deeply personal point of view.

Persepolis was my first literary introduction to Iranian culture.  In Persepolis we see a culture where women were treated in a vastly different manner than men.  We’re not introduced to a liberal culture where women go to bars on Friday nights and pick up men in the vein of Sex and the City.  Knowing all this, the synopsis for  Embroideries intrigued me greatly in the basis that it afforded me an opportunity to see the female Iranian culture behind closed doors.  I was not expecting to read such liberal discussions of their sex lives.  I was absolutely fascinated with their gossipy personalities and how comfortable they felt at poking fun at the men in their lives.  I have to say that it actually made me happy in part to know that women the world over (no matter how repressive of a country they live in) still found time to be normal women.  I sometimes feel guilty about being an American woman.  I have the freedom to be what I want to be, say what I want to say, and love who I want to love.  After reading this graphic novel it gives me hope for those that don’t enjoy the public freedoms that I do.  Knowing that they can be who they want to be behind closed doors with like-minded women increases my hope for a world where women are respected as equally as men are.  In all, Satrapi’s work is a refreshing and intriguing read that will leave you thinking about your own views on the female side of Iranian culture.  I highly recommend it!

5 out of 5 Stars

Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
Knopf Doubleday Publishing (2005)
Hardcover: 144 pages
ISBN:  9780375423055

#8 A Review of The Night Sky by Maria Sutton

The Night Sky: A Journey from Dachau to Denver and BackAnyone who has ever been curious about his or her roots and delved into family genealogy knows they’re bound to find a few surprises.  My own husband’s genealogy search has produced information on countless relatives from the past with some of the most fascinating stories.  Maria Sutton, author of The Night Sky, had other reasons for beginning her genealogy research.  Her mother Julia’s family was torn apart by the horrors and atrocities that occurred both during and after World War II.  As a product of displaced persons camps in her early life before coming to America, Maria is content with her new life in Colorado, far from the postwar entanglements that she and her family suffered.  However, all of this past is brought back into sharp focus as she overhears her mother mentioning a man from her past in a conversation to her friend.  Maria discovers that this man is in fact her biological father, and the man who has raised her for the majority of her life is her stepfather.  Although her mother strongly advises against it, Maria embarks on a journey to meet him and discover the history of how she and her mother came to America.

Upon finishing this novel I was amazed at how much of the Holocaust and WWII is still a mystery to me.  What really appealed to me about The Night Sky was that it gave an account of the war from Eastern Europe’s viewpoint.  When I took a Holocaust history course in college it mostly focused on the war in England, Germany, and France, and didn’t discuss much of Stalin’s invasions through Poland, Ukraine, etc.  Learning new facts (to me) about the war was both heartbreaking and eye-opening.  The one that stands out the most for me was the Katyn Massacre.  Sutton writes:

Stalin had committed one of his most heinous crimes in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, Russia.  During Russia’s invasion of Poland, 180,000 Polish soldiers were captured.  Of those, 15,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were segregated by the Red Army into different detention centers and transported to the same area used by the Bolsheviks in 1919 for murdering Tsar Nicholas’s officers.  The 15,000 captured officers and intellectuals were loaded into truckers and told they were going home.  But the truckers stopped in Katyn Forest and, one by one, each officer was executed with a bullet to the head and buried in a mass grave.

The novel is packed with facts like these that really do an excellent job on getting Eastern Europe’s story out there.  Often there is a great amount of focus on Hitler’s terrible quest to create a master race, and the atrocities and history of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, and many other Eastern Bloc countries is buried in the past.  Sutton brings this past to light by telling the story shared by millions as they were touched by the horrors of WWII.

The other portion of the novel, Sutton’s search for her family, is a heart wrenching story filled with lies, betrayal, and fortunately an eventual happy ending.  Sutton’s main goal in the novel is to search for her biological father, Jozef.  My heart broke each time her searches hit a dead-end.  Finding Jozef became as important to me as it did for Sutton.  Her writing skills are fantastic and really pulled me into this search, making me giddy with anticipation every time she found a lead.  Sutton is one tenacious women, using all possible resources (including hiring an ex-KGB officer) to find her family.  Her gripping forty-plus year search is the backbone of this novel, making it one of the most memorable memoirs I’ve ever read.  Harrowing, brutal, and painfully honest, The Night Sky is one novel you MUST add to your to-read pile this year.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my fourth completed review for the Around The Stack In How Many Ways Challenge

The Night Sky by Maria Sutton
Johnson Books (2011)
Hardcover 240 pages
ISBN: 9781555664466
Special thanks to Maria for sending over a review copy!

Todd’s Review of Civil Rights Journey by Joseph Howell

Civil Rights JourneyI’ll admit, I’m not entirely knowledgeable when it comes to the history of the civil rights movement in America.  Perhaps it’s because I was born too late, or perhaps it’s because I had no real connection to it in my upbringing as a white, northern individual in the close of the 20th century.  In light of this, when offered a chance to review Joseph Howell’s Civil Rights Journey, I was extremely excited to get started; I wanted to increase my knowledge of this time period to really understand the tumultuous changes that our country experienced in such a short time.  It left such an indelible mark on our history that I felt that it could not be ignored, least of all when I had such an opportunity to read a firsthand account!

Howell begins his work by telling the abbreviated version of the early years of his life, growing up in Nashville, Alabama, at the close of the Jim Crow laws of the time.  He was fortunate to grow up in a family that would be considered quite liberal for the time period.  Although they had a black maid, his family was extremely respectful of her and treated her almost as a member of the family.  One memorable passage was when his mother told one of his friends (after hearing him use the N word), “Young man, you will never use that word in our home or in our yard again. Ever”.  Despite this light of progressiveness, Howell still experienced de facto segregation in his childhood.  Two experiences served to make him more sensitive to the suffering that was going on around him with racial inequality: an experience traveling to the impoverished neighborhoods around his own to collect money for charity, and a childhood bout of Polio that attacked the muscles of his stomach and arm.  Through these (especially the Polio account), Howell was able to distance himself from the cocoon that he was enveloped in while growing up.

The second portion of the work is a diary of Howell’s accounts as he traveled with his wife Embry to Baker County, Georgia to work with local civil rights leaders and the SNCC (student nonviolent coordinating committee) to increase black voter registration, promote greater local leadership, and advance the Head Start Program, a national integrated education program by the Office of Economic Opportunity.  All of these goals were initially met with distrust and sometimes outright hatred by the local civil rights workers in the county.  Some of them distrusted all whites, and wanted to make changes without any outside intervention, while others were wary and accepted help, while still others were eager to discuss and move forward with the partnership.  Overall, Howell, Embry, and the others encountered struggles, triumphs, and numerous moments of soul-searching.  While I won’t reveal the ultimate outcomes of their experience, it was an amazing journey reading all the events that Howell and Embry worked through during their time in Baker County.

Although as I admitted earlier that my civil rights knowledge was lacking, I now more than ever consider this point in our nation’s history to be pivotal to making us the people we are today.  Elegantly written and poignant, Howell’s story takes us through the struggles he faced internally and externally when encountering harsh resistance upon first entering Georgia.  He highlights the fact that too easily the country could have erupted into full-scale racial war, as has occurred many times across the globe throughout history.  Reminding us of how closely we came to this scenario, his stories show the “ground level” work that was being performed all over the country to integrate the seemingly separate and unequal races.  I consider knowledge of this part of our past critical to understand the issues of today that parallel it, such as equal rights under the law for gay individuals.  Howell writes that his son stated that he was lucky to grow up in a time when the social issues were right in your face.  Currently, it is all too common for individuals to be mislead through slander and polarizing of political views.  It is important, now more than ever, to be able to understand and sympathize with those that are being mistreated.  Howell did a wonderful job not only in teaching us this lesson, but showing us that we can be something greater than just ourselves.  We cannot rely on others to lead us and make decisions for us.  Now is not the time to be apathetic.  We all must learn to be more like Joseph and Embry Howell, and take matters in to our own hands, deciding to dive right into the fray and come out more enlightened, if a little scarred by the process.  Kudos to them both for being brave enough to do so and thoughtful enough to tell their story to future generations in the hopes that they too follow in their lead!

5 out of 5 Stars

Civil Rights Journey by Joseph Howell
AuthorHouse (2011)
Paperback 200 pages
ISBN: 9781456762087