Four books in four weeks to kick off the year. But one of those was a children’s book I knocked out in an afternoon, so I’m feeling like I didn’t take advantage of January the way I should have. Also, I’m skipping one book, just because I’m still thinking about how to write about it. It’s the first time I’ve read a book written by someone I know, and while I liked it, for some weird reason I’m having a hard time putting my thoughts on it into words. Maybe next month.
The Round House – Louise Erdich
Interesting that I read this as I was listening to Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium album a ton, as both are about the lives of teenaged boys in the late 1980s.
Here, the focus is on Joe, a 13-year-old Native American living on a reservation in North Dakota in 1983. His father is a tribal judge, his mother works in the reservation administrative offices, thus while his home is modest, he lives in relative luxury compared to many of his friends on the reservation. They spend the summer of 1988 doing what kids all over the United States did: riding bikes, swimming, sneaking around to poke their noses into other people’s business, and living in the esoteric world of a shared pop cultural love. In their case, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But when his mother is raped and nearly killed by her attacker, his life changes dramatically as he and his friends work to find the man responsible for the crime.
In the process, Joe and his father bump up against the absurdities of Tribal vs. State. vs. Federal law, and the general lack of interest in rape cases when a white man is the rapist and an Indian woman the victim. They grapple with the need for revenge and justice vs. their belief in the rule of law and the desire to live a moral life.
It’s a powerful, often depressing book. It’s hard to believe that things were as backwards and depressed on the reservations as recently as 1988. For all I know, life has not changed that much since then. Which is even more depressing. Also, though, it’s as much about how we treat women. To a father of three girls, it hurt to read parts of this.
Still, a fantastic book.
The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate
I read this on the recommendation of my brother in books, Dave V. He said he and his nine-year-old bookworm both read it. Seemed like a perfect exercise for my nine-year-old bookworm and me. M. muddled through it over the second half of her Christmas break. I think she was too distracted by the new toys and liberal access to Netflix to get through it as quickly as she normally does. But she liked it.
And then I knocked it out in a couple hours one day.
It’s a charming, sad, and beautiful tale of Ivan, a gorilla who lives in a mini-zoo in a sad, old mall in Ohio. With some help from the daughter of the mall janitor and his love of drawing, Ivan helps get his zoo-mates, and himself, transferred to a proper zoo where they can roam freely and be with others of their kind.
Oh the Glory of It All – Sean Wilsey
This has been on my To Read list for at least five years. Every few months I’d check and see if it was available at my library, with the answer always being no. When I was in a book buying mood, there were always others higher on the list. But I finally grabbed it. And I’m glad I did.
It is the memoir of Wilsey, the son of a rich and socially connected couple in San Francisco. Their brutal divorce in the late 70s/early 80s made news not only in the Bay Area, but also in national celebrity and gossip magazines. Following the divorce, Sean’s father, Al, married the woman who had been Sean’s mother’s best friend for years. Awkward. The new step-mother, who had always treated Sean with love and respect, turned on him and began treating him like garbage, especially in comparison to the two sons from her first marriage.
When Sean begins acting out, he’s shipped off to boarding schools on the east coast, where he fucks up spectacularly. He’s sent to “get tough in nature” schools, which he escapes. Eventually he lands at an alternative school in Italy where he finally finds his bearings, settles down, and changes his behavior for the better.
The final third of the book is about Sean and his father reconnecting in the late years of Al’s life, and the aftermath of Al’s death.
This book is alternately horrifying, especially for someone who will have teenagers soon, hilarious, strange, and warm. Wilsey is never really a bad kid. His parents just never know how to deal with him. Knowing he turned out halfway decent makes the craziness of his youth worth wading through.
As with any memoir, others, especially his step-mother, have challenged some of his assertions. Even if the truth he tells isn’t the whole truth, it’s still a portrait of a profoundly messed up family.