From the Reading List

American Rust

 

Review of American Rust

Last night I read a very grim book. Its title is American Rust, and the author is Philipp Meyer. The setting is a Buell, Pennsylvania, a small steel town that is slowly dying. What was once a prosperous community is falling by the wayside as as result of plant closings and a lack of jobs for people who used to enjoy a comfortable existence. Men who once made $20 and $30 an hour are reduced to working for Wendy’s earning $5.25.

The two seemingly main characters are Isaac English and Billy Poe, a small thoughtful young man and his brutish best friend. Resonance of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which seems a tad too contrived. The other central character is Grace Poe, who embodies all of the lost and broken dreams and promises of the small town and its polluted environment.

Grace is probably the most sympathetic character, but I’m not sure that she is supposed to be the main focus. The name choice, Grace, is of course no accident, but this woman has no true shot at redemption. Her son is just this side of being a sociopath; her deadbeat husband is a drunk; and all of her dreams of going to school and making something of herself are buried in a trailer in which she never wanted to live. Her only salvation may come from the town’s Sheriff, who is himself a lost man, a man who bears an undercurrent of violence that he hides with his good ole’ boy demeanor.

The book is divided into five books, with each of the main characters taking a chapter within each of the books. It’s a structure that works well with the unfolding of the plot.

The plot is full of sadness, loss, regret, righteous indignation, anger, and instances of violence that, even though they are not described in gory detail, still leave the reader and the characters involved with a sense of  loss. More than anything the overriding theme is that some things in life are beyond anyone’s control: where they end up, who they marry, whether or not they lose their job, what they are capable of, and most visibly, living in a town that is falling apart just as the country around them is also losing its way.

abandoned steel factoryThat’s why I chose the word grim. What few instances of happiness there are in the book are short-lived and motivated by all of the wrong reasons. The one character who you most hope will escape, Isaac, ends his adventure of riding the rails and heading for Berkeley, California and returns home, where absolutely nothing awaits him.

A few times the author is a bit heavy-handed with the imagery, for example, too much repetition of the word rust. When using a controlling metaphor in the title of the book, it is not necessary to continue to bring it up at every opportune moment in order to say to the reader, “See. This is another instance of rust, decay, dying away.”

Another thing that can be bothersome for the reader is the narrative stance. Told in third person, the narrative moves into interior monologues as the characters switch to their alternative selves. For example, when it’s Isaac’s turn, he refers to himself as “the boy,” not “me” or “myself.” Sheriff Harris continuously refers to his “Even Keel,” in capitalized letters. It’s a bit hard to explain, which probably means that it is a bit ineffective.

Still, the author’s has a good turn with words, and is very adept at creating a sense of place. I just left the book feeling too depressed because no one escapes, which I suppose if the whole point: No individual is immune from the cycle of life. In the end, even the strongest steel is reduced to rust and decay and is soon overtaken by the landscape that it once obliterated.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with a novel that looks at life from a darker point of view. Meyer’s vision reminds me of the dark side of Steinbeck, the way in which is puts characters in impossible situations and leaves them to fend for themselves. Steinbeck embodied the time of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowls. His characters often faced horrible circumstances. The big difference here, I suppose, is that some of Steinbeck’s characters triumphed. No one in American Rust triumphs; some of the characters do escape the small town, but there is no better life waiting for them down the road.

I don’t regret reading American Rust. I never regret reading a book. It’s just that sometimes, I am not prepared for the mindset into which the book places me. Sometimes that is a positive surprise, but sometimes, as with this book, it was a bleakness for which I was not prepared.

“Young cat, if you keep your eyes open enough, oh, the stuff you would learn! The most wonderful stuff!” ~ I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, by Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham

Green Eggs and Ham: My Favorite Dr. Seuss Book

 

“Think left and think right and think low and think high.”

“Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!” ~  Oh, The Thinks You Can Think, by Dr. Seuss

One of my regular readers recommended a site that she thought I might find interesting. It’s called Goodreads, and it is a social network for readers. With over 1.2 million members, the site provides a way for members to create their virtual bookshelves.

Dr Seuss Oh The Thinks You Can ThinkAt first glance, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to expend the time or energy on yet another social network. Within three minutes, I was hooked. I have spent the last two days on and off the site. My current pain level, which is hovering between 7 and 8 (out of 10), is making it pretty nigh impossible for me to sit for extended periods (another reason for the laxity in my postings).

Goodreads has proven to be a wonderful balm to my brain. Essentially, it works like this: The site contains the information on over 49 million books (yes, that’s million). By information, I mean everything: the publishing date, the ISBN, information n the publisher, author, genre, number of pages, etc.

Members of the site can search by genre or by lists that are generated by site members. For example, I jumped on lists called “The Book Was Better Than The Movie,” “Books You Must Read Before You Die,” “Best Books Ever,” “Best Science Fiction,” and many, many more. Then I did some searching by genre: classics, biography, crime. As you read through the lists, you rate books that you have read, which automatically adds the books to your personal shelf. You can also highlight books that you want to put on your “to read” list, as well as books that you are in the midst of reading.

If for some reason Goodreads does not contain a book that you have read or in which you are interested, you can add a book. You need to know as much about the book as possible, as in, have it next to  you when you are adding it so that you can consult the publication information page.

I have to admit, though, a few books that I thought that I wouldn’t find were actually already listed.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ~ I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, by Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss I Can Read With My Eyes ShutOne thing that I did not do a lot of was to create reviews of the books that I added to my shelf. At first, I added a few short reviews here and there, but then I decided that I wanted to save the reviewing until after I had completed my first pass at compiling a semi-complete list. That way, I can spend some time on the reviews and add thoughtful comments.

The reviews are intended to help other members in evaluating whether or not they might want to read a book. Since I read book reviews all of the time, I think that this is a great idea. Of course, these reviews are not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, they should be on the short side, something quick and dirty, so to speak.

Another aspect of the site that I haven’t checked out yet is the whole idea of “friends.” I’m not sure how you make them, if you have to make them, if you appear hostile if you don’t actively search for them. Whatever. But apparently, the whole idea of creating a virtual bookshelf is so that your friends can see what you are reading, and check out what you have to say about it. I suppose I’ll get to that sooner or later, as well.

“It’s high time you were shown That you really don’t know All there is to be known.” ~ On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss On Beyond ZebraI have a feeling that I am going to like this site. It’s somewhat of a bibliophile’s dream site: pictures of books, lists and lists of books, opinions of books—everything but the book itself.

Just in my few short visits, I have already added 653 books. And that doesn’t really reflect all of the classics that I haven’t gone through, or biographies, or poetry, or . . .

I checked out all of the site information (posted at the bottom of the page. Goodreads offers advertising opportunities for authors who want to promote their book(s), allows giveaways, etc. There is also a site blog that is maintained by the individuals who work on the site. In addition, Goodreads posts job openings for their site for anyone who might be interested and qualified. And of course, there is a method for contacting the site with questions or comments.

“I’m sorry to say so but, sadly it’s true that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.” ~ Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

I just wanted to add one of my little bits of personal history here as it directly bears on why I think that Goodreads is such a great find:

Dr Seuss Oh The Places Youll GoWhen I left my job at the Museum (left is such a nice word: laid off because of severe budget cuts is more accurate), I decided to spend more time on my freelance writing and editing. A very good friend of mine at the time decided to expand his business empire (loose use of word) by opening a men’s clothing store. The idea was that I would work for him by managing the store, and he would provide an office in which I could work on my writing. The space he provided was very roomy, and it contained several built-in bookshelves.

I nested immediately, as I am prone to do in any space that I occupy. Part of that nesting included bringing in my writer’s reference books, and since I had so many shelves, I also brought in my poetry collection. In all, I had about 150 books in my office.

Now I need to stop here to insert a very important fact: the building in which the store was located was very old. The heater was this huge monstrosity that was mounted to the ceiling. I was always in fear that the heating unit would fall on me because it never looked very sturdy.

The usual routine was that I would open the store every day, and around 2 in the afternoon, after his restaurant’s lunch rush, the owner would come by to check on things. One afternoon, I was sitting in my office space, and the owner was on the sales floor. The two were only divided by a three-quarter wall that did not go to the ceiling. I heard my friend calling my name, but I was very engrossed in something, so I did not respond immediately. Then he called me again, and I detected a not of panic in his voice.

“The store is on fire,” he said. I just stood there frozen. Finally, he yelled at me that we had to get out. I quickly grabbed the pictures of my family from my desk, and one framed photograph that was very old. I took a second to look around, realizing that everything on those shelves was about to be obliterated.

My friend grabbed my arm and hustled me out the front door. We got outside, and someone called the fire department. At this point, I think that I must have been in shock because I grabbed the handle to the front door and opened it. All I saw was black smoke. One of the firefighters later told me that I could have caused a flashpoint and an explosion if I had let enough oxygen into the room.

“So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a great balancing act.” ~ Oh The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss Cat in the HatThey were able to stop the fire without much destruction to the building, which made the other tenants pretty happy. Once we were let back inside, the fire investigator was standing under the heating unit shaking his head. It was pretty obvious what had started the fire: the coil that attached the heater to the electrical source was old and bent, and as a result, it had sparked, and since the store was full of lots of burnable material, that is, clothes, it didn’t take long for the spark to turn into a fire.

After the firefighters had declared it safe to go back into the building, I walked through the piles of wet clothes on the showroom floor towards the door to my office. I had remembered to close it when I walked out. I admit that I was completely paralyzed by the image of what might lay beyond that closed door. Amazingly, none of my books or pictures had burned, but everything was severely smoke damaged.

In the end, many of my books were able to be saved because I used my homeowner’s policy to cover my personal damage. The insurance company sent someone out to my house to evaluate the status of my belongings. Fortunately, there was a process that the cleaning company used whereby they wiped every single page of a book with some kind of wipe that removed the smoke smell and soot from the pages.

The other good thing was that I had kept an inventory of all of the books that I had taken to the office, so I was able to reconcile my inventory with what made it out of the burned store.

“Oh the things you can find if you don’t stay behind.” ~ On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss

Dr Seuss One Fish Two FishI mention all of this for two reasons: First, I have never updated my book inventory. I have plans to do so once we finally finish the remodeling of the house, and I have the built-in bookcases that Corey promised me.

Second, and this is very significant, I can now use Goodreads to create an online inventory of all of my books. I cannot recall every book that I own from memory, but by scanning the site’s inventory, I will be able to create a very good online inventory.

How will it be accurate, you ask? Well, I may have mentioned that I’m a bibliophile, and I am also a hoarder of a few things, one of them being books. I buy every book that I read, and I never give away books unless I absolutely hated them. So just about every book on my virtual bookshelf will be a book that I have in my possession, even though in possession at the moment means in storage containers.

“If you never did, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.” ~ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, by Dr. Seuss

So, if you love books as much as I do, be sure to check out Goodreads. You can click on the link in the paragraph above. And if you decide to join, don’t forget to friend me (friend as a verb? appalling), or whatever it is you do to let someone know that you visited.

Seriously though, it’s a great way to spend some time immersed in book titles long forgotten.

See you around the bookshelves.

You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s a great balancing act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

~ From Oh, The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss

More later. Peace.

I sit and watch the years go by . . .

Picture Collage

Eamonn and Kelsie, Norview H.S. Senior Prom 2009 

“It is the evening of the day” ~ “As Tears Go By,” by The Rolling Stones

Eamonn 1995
Eamonn Four Years Old

Tonight, my eldest son is going to his senior prom. He is taking his girlfriend of six months, Kelsie. May I just pause here for a moment and tell you how old this makes me feel?

In my eyes, Eamonn is still a young boy in grade school, sweet-looking and acting, except for when he is acting mischievous. He and his brother Brett are best of friends, and everyone gets along; in particular, Eamonn and I get along wonderfully. He still believes in me and hasn’t reached the point at which I become stupid and out of touch.

Would that I could bottle that period of time, and dab a bit of its essence on my wrists whenever he is acting like a complete and total jackass, in other words, like a teenager on the precipice of manhood.

 “I sit and watch the children play”

Eamonn 1st & Brett Kindergarten
First Day of School (Eamonn 1st grade & Brett Kindergarten)

But that is not possible. Time passes. Your children grow into teenagers, then into young adults, then into adults. You hope with every fiber of your being that at some point, the lessons that you have tried to teach them and the codes by which you live will kick in and that they will become honorable people, caring people, people who realize that life is more than what is within their small circles of being.

All that you can do is hope, that and try to take comfort in knowing that you have offered the best of your wisdom. But if we are to be completely honest as parents, we must also acknowledge that we have shown them many of the disappointments that life has to offer: a failed marriage, a short temper, an absorption in work. You have shown them these things even though you never intended to do so.

And the world has shown them more than you ever wanted them to know: wars, intolerance, bigotry, racism, sexism, warped views of the roles that men and women can actually play.  If you have been careful, you have tried to balance those images with how you would hope they move into adulthood: more tolerant of others, less disparaging of people who are not exactly what you want them to be, more aware of how much they need to participate in their families, more willing to treat their significant others equally and with respect.

At some point, you realize when they are growing up that you have absolutely no control over certain external forces: the things they see and hear at school, what they choose to do when they are away from you, how they treat their friends, boyfriends, girlfriends. And most especially, how responsible they are in their choices about alcohol, drugs, and sex.

“Smiling faces I can see”

I know that Eamonn has tremendous respect for his stepfather. He loves and admires Corey, which I hope will translate into a desire to emulate the kind of man that Corey is.

makemie woods spotlight
Summer Camp: Eamonn top row, Brett Below

Nevertheless, Eamonn has still not forgiven me for divorcing his dad. He has said it more than once, and always, he says that divorce is the most selfish thing that a parent can do. Even though Eamonn still blames me for the divorce, he always follows those hurtful comments with a statement that he is glad that Corey came into our lives.

I have tried to explain to Eamonn that one of the main reasons that I asked his father for a temporary separation was so that we could get some distance between us in order to reassess what was important. In my eyes, that was our family. I did not want our children to be raised in an atmosphere that was continuously clouded with arguments and accusations.

So I asked his father for a separation. At the time, I never wanted it to be permanent, nor did I want our relationship to end in divorce. I never dreamed that his father would fall in love with someone within two months of leaving us. I never anticipated that he would be so angry at me that he would never consider coming back home. But that is how things played out between us.

In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. I was no longer walking around on egg shells. The children were no longer subjected to a hostile atmosphere.

“My riches can’t buy everything; I want to hear the children sing”

Brotherly_Love
Brett & Eamonn Ready for Combat (unfortunately)

Certainly, it was very hard being the single parent of three children and working full time. Things did not always go smoothly. But I promised myself that I would not be one of those women who brought a series of men in and out of the house, leaving the children feeling confused and alienated. The end result was that I didn’t date anyone; truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested in dating anyone.  I went out on Friday nights with some friends, but I was always home before 9. I was very content spending one night a week out with my friends.

I was trying desperately to be a good role model, and I know in my heart that I did the right thing when it came to getting involved or dating. Then I met Corey. Neither of us were looking for a relationship, which is why we were able to talk so openly to one another. There were absolutely no expectations, especially on my part because of the age difference.

But a funny thing happened along the way: we fell in love. I introduced Corey to my children gradually. By the time Corey and I got married, there was already an incredibly strong bond between the five of us.

“It is the evening of the day . . . I sit and watch the children play” 

I Am Just Too Pleased With MyselfCorey had a lot of learning to do about parenting, but he adapted and learned, and managed to open my eyes along the way. We all adapted and grew to be a fairly close family. I know that I complain at times about Eamonn, but the reality is that he’s a teenager, and I’m his mother, and the two things don’t always mesh very well. But we love each other. There is never any doubt of that.

 Thankfully, my sons have had a remarkable role model in their stepfather, and a good idea of what it means to have a positive, loving relationship. Corey and I have a big argument about four times a year. When we argue, we try to keep it private, and we do not call each other names, especially in front of the boys, which is so different from how it used to be with my former spouse.

With any luck, the boys, especially Eamonn, will remember these things once he has a family of his own or even when he gets into a serious relationship. He will remember what it means to be an equal partner in a relationship. He will remember how sometimes, one person in the relationship has to do more of the care-taking. But I hope that the thing that he remembers most once he is grown is how important it is to say I love you often, even when you are angry or upset, and to mean it; and also, to love the members in your family openly, with hugs and kisses and a genuine pat on the back for a job well done.

“Doin’ things I used to do . . . They think are new.  I sit and watch as tears go by.” 

In the meantime, I’ll sit here tonight and remember how handsome he looked as he got into the car with his girlfriend. I will wish fervently that he remembers his promise to me to act responsibly, and that he and all of his friends make it home safely.

Eamonn in Papa's hat close up
Eamonn at 1 Wearing His Papa's Hat

No matter how old your children get, you never stop worrying about them, even when they are making you feel as old as dirt.

He probably does not realize it yet, but tonight marks the ending of one chapter in his life and beginning of a new one. He will be graduating in a few short weeks, and he will have to make some life choices. I will be here to help him if he will let me, but I realize that in the end, they must be his choices, even if they are not the ones I would have him make.

Nothing says that I have to let go of all of the pictures in my memory of Eamonn as he has grown through the years, from the moment that I first saw him, to his school pictures in grade school, to his first serious girlfriend, and now, in this closing chapter on high school.

I have always felt so fortunate to have had Eamonn as he came along a few years after we lost Caitlin, and with his arrival, I was finally able to open my heart again, not just to him, but to everyone who mattered to me. Eamonn taught me how to take chances again, and nothing that happens, nothing in the world will ever diminish the importance of Eamonn being my saving grace.

Just as his sister before him and his brother after him, I will have to let Eamonn go at some point, but that does not mean that I will ever love him less than with all of my being.

More later. Peace.