Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book with a View February 2009

My Name is Michael
Author: P. J. Thomas
ISBN: 978-1-4327-3306-3
Publisher: OutskirtsPress.com (2009)
Genre and Target Market: fiction; China; human rights
Pages: 56
Reviewed by Sarah Moore for WITS (01/2009)

Sometimes I find it difficult to review a book when its message is so powerful and its potential to have a lasting impact on everyone who reads its pages is of great consequence. Will I do justice to what is being conveyed? How can I effectively capture the feelings I had when reading the book and the way its characters still enter my thoughts? These concerns sat with me as I reflected on the new release My Name is Michael by P.J. Thomas. This short book of fifty-six pages tells the fictional story of a child beggar in China, but the personal research done by the author in learning about this forgotten segment of Chinese society is horrifically real. I am confident that you will, as I did, become gripped by this book and read it in one sitting. Then, you will want to pass the novel onto your friends so that you can have others with which to share a discussion about this unforgettable story.

Michael is a young boy in modern China who earned his beloved school name from an American teacher who tells the kids about the beauty and liberty in the United States. Tragically, in short time, Michael would be kidnapped and come to know a life which held no semblance of comfort or freedom. He is taken to the home of Mama Chang, who plays host to enslaved child beggars. Michael is quickly taken to The Butcher for procedures that, as graphically described, are revolting and provide physical results that make him a more sympathetic character to passersby. Despite these unimaginable circumstances, Michael never loses his ability to love, befriend, or place the needs of others above his own. My Name is Michael is an amazing testimony to the innocence and truth in children that endures in the face of the harshest abuse and dimmest future.

P.J. Thomas reminds us in the prologue that his book is a work of fiction, but he also acknowledges the reality in which his story is based. I must admit that I had no idea about the sinister practice of stealing children, disfiguring them, and then placing them on the streets to earn spare change. Luckily, though, the story of Michael and other boys like him has found a powerful voice. Thomas spent two years in China learning about its people and, when he took notice of the many children with deformed bodies, he managed to find a few people who were not terrified to share what they knew. The resulting book is a beautifully crafted piece of art. Each chapter heading, such as “A Cry for Help” and “Return to the Butcher” prepares us for another moment in which we will catch our breaths or become enraged. The use of stark words and phrases throughout the text creates a powerful image of emptiness. There is no room for flowery language in the world that Michael knows.

In addition to the power of his words, Thomas lays out the book in a way that captures and maintains a reader’s attention. Starting with the front cover sketch of a young boy who has lost both legs holding a bruised, abandoned baby, Thomas includes the occasional artwork to make his already stark images even more clear. By seeing the visual interpretation of The Butcher or Mama Chang’s face, the reader must face the concept of these unspeakably horrible people actually being human. Each chapter is also formatted to be short and feel almost abrupt. We are let into snapshots of Michael’s life and the reader gets whisked away after a few quick pages, effectively recreating the uncertainty and lack of peace in Michael’s life. Whether or not that was the author’s intention, this style choice definitely heightened the reading experience for me.

My Name is Michael is an important new novel that should be read by government officials, social activists and individuals who have concerns for children in any part of the world. As the character in the book known only as “The American” tells Michael when recording his life to that point, “When people read your story they will become outraged and speak out.” This is not a book that will make you feel good or that simply should be another check mark on your desired reading list. However, it is an expertly-written piece of fiction that is rooted in truths that will be, and should be, difficult to forget. My hope is that My Name is Michael becomes one important way in which information about the atrocity of child beggars is shared and action can be taken.


The Misadventures of Sister Mary Olga Fortitude
Author: Davis Aujourd’hui
ISBN: 978-1-4327-3047-5
Publisher: OutskirtsPress.com (2009)
Genre: fiction, humor, social commentary
Pages: 155
Reviewer: Sarah Moore for WITS (01/2009)

When I reflect on the fictional nuns who have found their way into our collective consciousness through television and movies over the last fifty years, there seems to be the common thread of a dichotomous personality. These pious women are portrayed as kind-hearted servants of God and their communities, but also mischievous humans who are quite capable of less-than-holy behavior. Maria from The Sound of Music cared about those VonTrapp children, but she was known to be late to afternoon prayers. Sally Field was charming as The Flying Nun, but her unorthodox methods often had the Reverend Mother up in arms. And, of course, Whoopi Goldberg used her habit to hide from the mob during her turn as a nun in Sister Act. Davis Aujourd’hui adds another Sister to the roll call of memorable nuns in his new book The Misadventures of Sister Mary Olga Fortitude. With her alcohol-filled crucifix and Marlboro smoke signals sent straight to heaven as prayers, this sister will undoubtedly captivate your attention and have you turning the pages.

Sister Mary Olga speaks to the readers directly, with each of the chapters reading like the script from a classic radio broadcast. I doubt that many of the nun’s stories would have passed FCC scrutiny, however! She draws us in with opening remarks which immediately command our attention, like “T.L.I.A.M.G, my dears!” (the acronym standing for The Lord is a Mighty God) or “Now!” Then, she proceeds to share important lessons in Advanced Holiness using some of the residents of Bucksnort, Wisconsin, home of the Have a Heart convent, as the fodder for her tales. Readers of Sister Mary Olga Fortitude’s wise and unique perspective will quickly learn that no one is without a fascinating story to his or her name. Although you may never have discovered a body in the process of cremation as you tried to bake a cake or bore offspring who made inappropriate digestive noises while playing Baby Jesus in the annual Christmas pageant, I know that you will be able to relate to the flaws discussed by Sister Mary, albeit exaggerated, that are common to the human condition. Mr. Aujourd’hui’s inspired storytelling and fun use of words make each of these revelations all the more memorable.

Even while creating a hilarious cast of characters and series of events in which they are players, Aujourd’hui presents his readers with a serious commentary on the importance of tolerance and refraining from judgment. Through Sister Mary Olga Fortitude, he introduces us to people who are often considered outcasts in traditionally accepted society, from transgendered nuns and prostitutes to gay cowboys and morbidly obese women. While sharing their stories and secrets, Sister reminds us not to be critical of the unusual personalities we meet as the book unfolds. And, as reinforcement, she repeatedly confesses to her own shortcomings in terms of lust, gossip, and alcohol. The Misadventures of Sister Mary Olga Fortitude is a laugh-out-loud interpretation of the Golden Rule.

To further the point of the dangers to be found in judgment and narrow-mindedness, Aujourd’hui creates a group of women who are known as the Bunheads United Now organization (BUN). These ladies are known for their tight pulled-back hairstyle, which Sister Mary Olga points out is a hindrance to unimpeded brain functions. They are critical of anyone who does not fit the acceptable mold of behavior and they create superficial, seemingly perfect demeanors to hide their most personal doubts and insecurities. The leader of the BUN brigade, appropriately named Priscilla Bunhead, ends up on the receiving end of some vengeful scissors. Readers who have felt judged for their lifestyle or decisions will likely take some satisfaction out of this particularly amusing moment in the book.

The Misadventures of Sister Mary Olga Fortitude is a new release by Davis Aujourd’hui that presents a sharp and irreverent look at humanity. Offered through the lens of an unforgettable nun who knows everybody’s business but refrains from placing judgments (well, most of the time!), this novel is wonderful in its personality development and colorful language. And, as is promised on the book jacket, I am thrilled that more “misadventures” await those who quickly will become loyal readers. I have no doubt that Sister Mary Olga Fortitude has many more secrets to share and life lessons to teach, and I plan to be sitting in the front row.


Tuey’s Course
Author: James Ross
ISBN: 978-1-4363-8994-5
Publisher: Xlibris 2008
Genre: fiction, human drama, race relations
Pages: 286
Reviewer: Sarah Moore for WITS (01/2009)

I always enjoy the opportunity to review more than one work by the same author. I am able to see the evolution of his writing as well as develop a better sense of what he is trying to accomplish through the sharing of his stories and characters. Tuey’s Course is the third book by author James Ross, with his previous publications, Lifetime Loser and Finish Line on the bookshelves last year and earlier this year, respectively. The Prairie Winds Golf Course serves as the consistent backdrop for all three novels, but each book takes its readers on a completely unique journey. In his first book, Ross unveiled a captivating story of crime and shady business dealings. Next, he shared the coming-of-age of two teenage boys who learn important life lessons from their ailing mentor. Now, in Tuey’s Course, Ross challenges us in his brutally honest portrayal of race, class and political power structures. Those who have enjoyed Ross’ attention to creating rich detail and fascinating characters in his previous works, as well as readers who are discovering Ross for the first time with Tuey’s Course, will not be disappointed in this new release that makes you think and may even make you angry.

Tuey’s Course focuses on WeWildapheet Ulisees O’Tweety (known as Tuey) and his struggles to make an honest living while fighting the corrupt elected officials in his town who seem determined to thwart his efforts at every turn. Tuey diligently attends every council meeting and sometimes uses unusual methods to convey his frustration with the city’s establishment. In sharing the details of Tuey’s life and his standing on the socioeconomic ladder, Ross makes a bigger statement about the impact that race and money has on the voice a person enjoys in our society. And, he shows that the desperation eventually reached by the poor and the overlooked can lead to tragic results. Ross continues his practice of interweaving multiple plot lines by including a referee who throws football games in return for a payout, a gay priest who flies to Vegas for the weekend with his lover at the expense of a crooked banker, and a developer who is willing to commit crimes in order to get the land that he desires. All of these characters, as well as the golf course regulars we have come to know in Ross’ previous books, come into contact with Tuey to create a novel that manages to be both layered and cohesive in its storylines.

As was the case in Finish Line, Ross employs racial stereotypes when writing the dialect and creating the background stories of his characters. Tuey speaks with the vernacular of an African-American in a way that may have been more common during the period in which Ross’ distant relative, Mark Twain, was sharing his candid views on American society. The ethnic neighborhoods described by Ross are blatant in their names, as the Asian residents live in Little Chang Hai and the Arabs live in an area called the Sand Dunes. The popular rapper has a ridiculous name, the Asian investor is short and shifty, and the always-drunk pilot and a couple of his cohorts at the golf course have no hesitation in using derogatory slurs. Every ethnic label is exposed and exaggerated in Tuey’s Course. Upon my initial reading, I will admit that the language made me uncomfortable. I was concerned that, by taking this writing style to extremes, Ross was simply perpetuating unfair racial views that still exist in our country. Upon further reflection and after reading the conclusion of the book; however, I realize that Ross’ intention was to evoke emotion from his reading audience. Tuey’s Course is not a light read meant for casual summertime reading at the beach. You will be forced to examine your own reaction to the character portrayals and think about where our society places different groups of people.

James Ross succeeds in creating yet another thoughtful and detailed book in Tuey’s Course. He provides an important and unique voice to the works of fiction that are making statements as to who we are as people. I believe that readers likely will have varying reactions to the characters in Tuey’s Course, which will make for great conversation. And, it appears that Ross is not done with his writing endeavors. A serial killer who makes random appearances through news reports in both Finish Line and Tuey’s Course is still a mystery. Is this a teaser from Ross, or just a secondary plot to throw us off-track? Time will tell. For now, I recommend that you grab a copy of Tuey’s Course and prepare to react!


Saffron Dreams
Shaila Abdullah
Modern History Press (2009)
ISBN 9781932690736
Reviewed by Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson for Reader Views (01/09)

Arissa Illahi, a Pakistani woman living in New York, has it all - a loving husband, the freedom to pursue the work she enjoys, good friends, understanding family and a child on the way. Then one fateful morning her life shatters – the World Trade Center in NYC collapses in a terrorist attack, and takes with it Faizan, Arissa’s husband. Arissa’s world will never be the same. Not only has she lost her soulmate, her beloved husband and the father of the unborn child, but she suddenly finds herself in a world where she is perceived as an enemy just for being a Muslim.

There are books that are beautiful simply because they are so positive and pleasant. And there are those that manage to be beautiful in spite of the pain and the suffering and the heartbreak contained within. Shaila Abdullah’s Saffron Dreams is both. Her writing is mesmerizing. On one hand it feels like a classically cut diamond – precise, sparkling, blindingly beautiful, but also incredibly sharp. On the other hand her writing reminds me of a dish I’ve often had traveling in India – a thali. Yes, I am very well aware of the fact that the author is Pakistani and not Indian, but many of the foods she mentioned in the book reminded me a lot of India, and that is probably why I thought of thali. Thali is usually a round metal tray with many compartments, each containing a different item, such as rice, dhal, different vegetables and curries, chutney, yoghurt and something sweet to finish. Each of those items complements or contrasts the others to perfection, and together they are some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. This is the way I feel about Saffron Dreams. It was comforting, it was funny, it was spicy; and then heartbreaking, full of despair, filled with hope, amazingly fresh and vibrant and satisfying. Following Arissa’s story makes the reader realize how little most of us know and understand the world of Muslims, and how incredibly wrong so many of our perceptions are.

If you are looking for a tender love story, you’ll find it here. If you are curious about how people live, love and laugh in another culture, you are in for a treat. If you want to read about overcoming challenges, your wish will be granted. If it is simply beauty that you are searching for, you’ll find it in abundance in Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah. This is a book I would highly recommend to anybody who loves beautifully written and intelligent contemporary prose, especially to the readers who are curious and open minded, and to those who enjoy stories with strong female characters.


Taking the Sea: Perilous Waters, Sunken Ships, and the True Story of the Legendary Wrecker Captains
Dennis M. Powers
ISBN 9780814413531
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (12/08)

Taking the Sea is the fourth in Dennis M. Powers’ celebrated maritime narratives. Research on his book Sentinel of the Seas triggered Powers’ curiosity about the ships used during the building of the St. George Reef Lighthouse, and about the colorful Captain Thomas P. H. Whitelaw and other master wreckers. The book describes an era when shipping was the dominant form of transportation throughout the world. Powers writes about the courage, achievement, risks and the challenges these men faced.

Powers delved into the records of maritime museums, libraries, newspapers, and magazine articles to bring together the facts for the stories for this project. He supplemented this information with interviews and genealogical records.

The account begins in 1863 when, as a sixteen-year-old seaman, Tom Whitelaw, arrived in San Francisco. The book covers his career of over sixty years. Powers documents detailed descriptions of Whitelaw’s most memorable salvaging projects, including: The Rosecrans, the Respigerdo, the Umatilla, the Dumbarton, and the Blaimore.

Tom’s grandson Ken shared intimate insights into the family life of his grandparents and of his personal career with Whitelaw & Company.

Articles in the Literary Digest, American Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and Sunset Magazine all have featured various aspects of Whitelaw’s story. His divers made 17,000 dives while Whitelaw’s salvage operations saved over 289 ships.

In addition to Thomas P. H. Whitelaw, Powers includes stories of other colorful divers and wreckers, like Dynamite Johnny, Martin Lund, T. A. Scott, William E. Chapman, and Israel J. Merritt. He tells of wrecking and salvaging phenomenon’s from the Bering Sea and the coast of Alaska, up and down the western coastline of Canada and United Sates and on the East Coast from Canada to the waters of the Florida Keys, and the islands of the Bahamas. I especially enjoyed the story of a ghost ship, the City of Columbus.

Detailed background on Maritime Law and its evolution include specific judgments, appeals, and settlements between, Ship Owners, Insurance Companies, and the Wreckers.

An amazing collection of photographs dramatically reinforce Powers’ narrative. The scope of his selected bibliography gives evidence of the background reading and specific research that has gone into the preparation of this book and which so deftly qualify Powers to compile this chronicle.

Powers’ writing is imaginative, informative, and motivational. He is a gifted story teller. His descriptions are strong and powerful. He paints word pictures of wave explosions, ferocious storm conditions, and the devastating loss of lives. I could almost feel the tension of the octopus gripping my leg, squeezing my arm, and throttling my throat in an underwater wrestling match.

Taking the Sea by Dennis M. Powers will be enjoyed by anyone understanding the call of the deep, lured by maritime adventure, and tales of an almost forgotten era in history when Spanish galleons, steam schooners, and tall-masted sailing ships gave fortitude to commerce and industry.

How to Make Colleges Want You Insider Secrets for tipping the Admission odds in your Favor
Author: Mike Moyer
ISBN: 978-14022-1367-0
Pages: 152 $12.95 Soft Cover
Published by Sourcebooks, Inc. (2008) Non-Fiction

Whether you are a freshman or a senior in high school, this book is an eye-opener for you! Mike Moyer tells you the way to dramatically increase your chances of getting into the college of your choice. In How to Make Colleges Want You, he provides fresh approaches to getting your college application out of the maybe or no stacks, to the yes we want you stack. The book also contains references to Mike’s Web site: http://www.collegepeas.com/ where additional information and additions to the chapters are contained.

Mike tells you what he did to get accepted to the college of his choice by describing his unusual activity of raising homing pigeons while in high school. He took a homing pigeon to his first interview with the admissions counselor and sent a message to himself from the counselor! This NTA (non-teenage activity) got him recognized as special.

Getting into a competitive college requires a lot more than grades or regular school activities; it is a question of planning. Moyer makes suggestions to accomplish the goal of getting into a prestigious college with his inside secrets. A few are, attending a community college for a year or two to obtain better grades, transfer in to fill one of the vacancies left by someone who has moved on, and start in mid-year instead of competing with the freshman entry class.

Consider there are 43,000 high schools and an equal number of valedictorians who apply to highly competitive colleges. Their applications are your competition for admission to these colleges and even with good grades, you still are not in their strata. The techniques in this book are designed to raise your chances for admission by 10 to 20 per cent. When you apply Mike’s ideas during your high school years, the odds are even better.

Mike Moyer is unique, as he not only provides this fairly inexpensive blue print for success, he lectures at high schools giving students a great heads-up on obtaining admission to choice schools. He has a highly informative lecture on CD which is available at his Web site: http://www.collegepeas.com/. As a bonus, Mike offers a 25% discount to readers of this column who want to learn more. Enter the code “CLARK” for the discount.

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