‘Tis by Frank McCourt

     After Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read, I wasn’t sure what to expect from ’Tis. Frank McCourt was born in New York City, but moved back to Ireland with histis family as a small child. The fact that young Frank, at the age of 19, was able to escape extreme poverty in Ireland and move back to New York City is an accomplishment by itself. Within several days of arriving, he receives the first of many warnings about the evils of drink and is urged to become acquainted with the New York Public Library – by a bartender. After a period of time working as a janitor at the Biltmore Hotel, the Korean War begins, and within weeks McCourt receives his Army draft notice. After basic training in New Jersey, McCourt is sent to a dog training unit in Germany and avoids combat. Within several weeks, he is selected for Company Clerk training. After his military obligation ends, McCourt returns to New York City and labor in the warehouses on the New York City waterfront.

     McCourt’s descriptions of Army life are hilarious, but throughout the first half of the book there are several somber themes that surface again and again. McCourt is extremely naïve about women, wants to break free of the stifling variety of Catholicism that he grew up with in Ireland, and early on after arriving in New York realizes that education is his only way out of a life of manual labor. McCourt also learns very quickly that in the United States, extreme racial divisions have replaced the class divisions of Ireland.

     This reviewer thought it remarkable that from the time of his arrival in New York City onward, McCourt repeatedly encounters individuals (sometimes rank strangers) who recommend works of literature and encourage his initial ambivalence about pursuing education. I guess you could call them literary angels.

     McCourt eventually overcomes his ambivalence about education and starts a college degree at New York University – without a high school diploma. After graduation, McCourt lands his first teaching position at a Vocational High School on Staten Island. Over the next decade or so there’s an interesting contrast in the book between Frank, pursuing a career in education, and younger brother Malachy McCourt, who has purchased a bar, is still deeply immersed in Irish culture, and has a drinking problem. McCourt earns a Masters degree from Brooklyn College and better jobs follow, but throughout the book he effectively describes the pull of Irish immigrant culture – where he doesn’t really fit anymore – versus his ambition to live a “normal” middle-class American life.

    McCourt has a great eye for detail, society, and the randomness of life, and describes a journey out of poverty that is hard for most readers to imagine.

My rating: 

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Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

*****SPOILER ALERT:  If you have not yet read The Hunger Games this review contains spoilers of that book.*****

  This is the second book in a  planned trilogy by Suzanne Collins centered on The Hunger Games.  The Games have ended and Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 as heroes, being the first tributes to ever defy the Capitol and figure out a way for more than one participant to survive the Games.  As they travel around the country to promote their victory, it becomes evident that they have sparked dissent amongst the downtrodden citizens of the 12 Districts of Panem.  Through their defiance, they have inspired others to stand up against the repression and cruelty of  the Capitol.  As the unrest spreads, Katniss and Peeta become unwitting symbols of the rebellion and the Capitol must scramble to come up with an even more twisted way to keep the districts under their control and quell the uprisings that threaten to erupt.

This being the “middle child” in the trilogy you might not expect much.  But though this installment starts out a bit slowly, it gathers steam and becomes almost as gripping as the first installment even though we know much more about what to expect this time around.  The love triangle centered around Katniss, Peeta and Gale is a bit disappointing since Gale is such a peripheral character this time, but most likely it will all play out in the third and final book which will follow our characters into the mysterious District 13 and the inferno of rebellion that is “Catching Fire” in this segment.

Can’t wait for the third book and also the movie which is due out in 2011.  Word is that Suzanne Collins is writing the screenplay and if you read The Hunger Games it no doubt crossed your mind what a fantastic movie it would make. 

My Rating: 

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places The Dragon loves horror and things that bump the night, but the greatest horror is often revealed in our souls. Gillian Flynn pries into those Dark Places with finesse in this black mystery surrounding a family’s destruction.

When she was seven-years-old, Libby Day survived “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” by fleeing the carnage in her house to hide in the January snow. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and Libby, as the sole witness, testified that her brother, Ben, was the killer.

Twenty-five years later, Libby is approached by members of the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with solving notorious crimes. Members of the Kill Club believe Ben is innocent, but Libby isn’t interested in her brother’s exoneration until she finds herself out of money. For a fee, she offers to be the Club’s liaison and talk with persons of interest who might have been motivated to kill her family.

Gillian Flynn has a direct line to a woman’s black heart and she exhibits great skill as she plunges you into Libby’s tale. There is little that is likable about Libby Day, but somewhere though the pages, she starts to change. Flynn makes the transition so gradual, no word or sentence triggers the moment, but Libby becomes less despicable as she progresses from the destruction of her past toward the truth she once shunned.

Flynn strips away the veneer of polite society to show the people who live beneath everyone’s notice. Here are the farmers and families who were sucked beneath the undertow of predatory bank lending during the 1980’s farm crisis. Flynn shows us that sensationalist headlines often obscure ordinary events surrounding people whose lives simply skid out of control. This is middle America where a good beginning doesn’t equate a happy ending, and a bad beginning can sometimes bloom into a new life.

Dark Places is a riveting tale told with Flynn’s talent for the macabre and caustic wit and is the perfect read for a cold October night.

My rating: