The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

Dear Scott, Sincerely HL

Dear Scott,

I was looking at my calendar and realized I haven’t read anything written by you or about you since December of last year.  Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have if my reading group facilitator hadn’t chosen The Great Gatsby as the July selection.

So yes, I finally read The Great Gatsby, and I must say a better title would have been Gatsby’s Folly.  My critique is probably going to sound quite harsh when I say I didn’t find anything particularly great about the character of Jay Gatsby or the story in general.  Certainly nothing new or exciting.  While Gatsby is heralded as your most successful novel, it was more of the same themes you wrote about repeatedly in many of your other works.

For this reason, my opinion of your writing hasn’t changed.  If you’re interested to know what those opinions are, because we’ve never discussed them in our correspondence, you may read them.  (Under the Influence & F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories)  If your agent and editor were alive today, they should be fired for letting you get away with this.  Then again, kudos for convincing them and the public that they were reading new material.  Well played, I suppose, but really Scott, you had such potential and could have done better.

Some minor issues I have with the novel include your pet word problem (in this book it was violent), the ridiculous names you assign your characters, the clichéd racist comments and characters, and your overuse of –ly adverbs.  Perhaps the prohibition on –ly adverbs being taught to writers today would surprise you, and we might actually find ourselves on the same side in regards to the issue.

Another way Gatsby is no different from your other works is that right on cue you presented characters that attended Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, played football, were “old money” or “new money,” and pursued the “top girl.”  All things you wanted for yourself.  Quit writing so much of yourself into your novels and short stories.  It comes across like a pathetic, autobiographical cry for help.

To write novels that are supposedly commentaries on the 1920s yet accept no responsibility for the debauchery that took place is imprudent.  You weren’t an innocent bystander, Scott; rather you were a major contributor to the post-war era of exploring new freedoms and sexuality.  We both know if you could have obtained the wealth and power that would have made you equal in the minds of those considered “old money,” you would have jumped at the chance feet first.  If we’re to believe you meant your novels as warnings, then I must ask what kind of person doesn’t heed his own advice?  A fool, I’d say.

On the up side, you may be pleasantly pleased to know that your unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, is being made into a series for television.  Too little, too late, wouldn’t you say?  Still, your name is being kept alive on people’s lips, so at least the fame you always craved is there.

As for the collection of your unpublished short stories, I’d Die for You, I admit that my opinion toward you softened somewhat when I discovered the stories didn’t sell because per Scribner, “Rather than permit changes and sanitising by his contemporary editors, Fitzgerald preferred to let his work remain unpublished, even at a time when he was in great need of money and review attention.”  Finally, you’re standing up for your work and not just trying to turn a quick buck.

But let’s not end on a bitter note, shall we, Scott?  I keep reading your work in the hopes that one piece will redeem you in some fashion if for no other reason than to thumb your nose at Ernest who deserves it.  Besides, I don’t want to keep feeling sorry for you.  I’d like to find a way to extend you some forgiveness for ruining your own career.  With that being said, I’m probably going to buy I’d Die for You.  I fear you shan’t see a penny from the sale.

All my best to Zelda and Scotty.

Sincerely,

HL Gibson

Dunkirk – Movie Review

An unusual movie, quite brilliant, and one for which you should probably come prepared, Dunkirk drops the viewer into the middle of action already far underway.  If you don’t know you World War II history, you’re going to spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out what’s going on.  Or perhaps you’ll give up and go with it, but you’ll be cheating yourself on the importance of what is taking place on the screen.  I’ll provide a small clue and tell you it’s a movie about survival and how far an individual and a group will go to achieve it.

The storyline doesn’t follow one particular character through his experiences and struggles during the war and evacuation.  Rather it presents the events taking place from multiple POVs, both military and civilian, thus providing a wonderful angle from which to view the scenes.  With this technique, the viewer is also treated to a variety of reactions about what is occurring.  Again, if you’re not familiar with World War II history, you may be surprised to find this isn’t an action movie with battle scenes like you were possibly expecting.

Dunkirk is an intense fusion of visuals and sounds.  At first I thought the cinematography looked too new, but the clarity of the shots appealed to me long before the movie was over.  When combined with an amazing soundtrack crafted by Hans Zimmer, the experience draws one in mind and body.  I found myself tensing up in my seat to the musical equivalent of the sound of gunfire, the groaning metal of a sinking destroyer, and a dive-bombing plane.

The movie doesn’t downplay the heroism of the men serving in France, but shares the valor with the civilians who rushed to their rescue for the evacuation effort.  And instead of presenting Germany as the soul antagonist, Dunkirk relays the various forces of antagonism that worked against the soldiers and civilians alike.

With a great cast of actors including Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy, Dunkirk is not for the casual movie goer.  However, if you’re a World War II history buff or a history buff in general, you’ll leave the theatre feeling like you walked every grueling step with the soldiers, and you’ll be glad you did.

The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding

The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding is one of those novels that brilliantly breaks the rules of writing.  You know, all those pesky rules about writing such as use only one POV, don’t head hop, don’t bookend your novel with a prologue or epilogue, and don’t use flashbacks.  The fact that the novel was published as recently as 2007 restores my faith in the industry.  With that being said, The Solitude of Thomas Cave is one of the best examples of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  It’s right up there with Poison by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer and Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.

The novel opens with the narrative of Thomas Goodlard, a sailing companion of Thomas Cave on the whaling ship, the Heartsease.  Young Goodlard relays the details of how Thomas Cave came to spend an entire year by himself on an Arctic island.  A rash bet between shipmates is sure to be the end of Cave, yet there is something more to his desire to stay alone in the frozen hell.

At this point, the novel slips into the POV of third person omniscient, describing Cave’s experiences.  Harding writes with clarity sharper than the frigid Arctic air, and she sucks the reader in with chilling description regarding the conditions in which Cave must survive.

Part of Cave’s solitude involves reflection on his relationship with the beautiful daughter of a shoemaker.  It’s a ghost story, really, and one that haunts Cave’s self-imposed exile to the point that he cannot separate dreams from reality.  He does, however, manage to keep his personal history out of the log he keeps for the Captain of the Heartsease, and we are treated to passages from said diary.  By having her protagonist hide some of the truth of his isolation, Harding supplies her readers with interesting details of Cave’s life that his fellow characters never know, and the reader is drawn deeper into his nightmare.

The history surrounding whaling practices is harsh, often brutal, to read.  It’s not a profession with which I am in agreement; Harding doesn’t back down from the gory truth.  It also isn’t long before one realizes Cave is eating whatever is necessary to survive.  As rough as conditions on a whaling ship might be, by the end of the novel they seem like the lap of luxury compared to Cave’s meager existence.

Harding surprises by not ending the book with what I assumed would be the natural conclusion.  At first I feared she would ramble on, simply trying to fulfill a word count.  But it is in this final section that she reveals a subtle yet powerful message.  She also reverts back to Thomas Goodlard’s POV and finishes the book with the truth that solitude isn’t just something we experience:  it is something we can carry inside because of our experiences.

A Little More Persuasion

So, having recently read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, naturally I had to watch the movies to see which one did the best job of capturing all that the novel is.  I’ll give the readers following my blog a few moments to finish laughing.  But seriously, if I had to choose one as my favorite, it would be the 1995 adaptation starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

With that being said, I must also admit that reading the book first will be extremely helpful because there is a large cast of characters and detailed storylines to keep track of.  Without the benefit of a reading, the movie might seem patchy, as if much is left unexplained.

I believe the reason no movie will ever completely depict Persuasion, or any book for that matter, but in particular Persuasion, is because much of the prose describes what the characters are thinking and feeling.  We have an in-depth view of Anne’s heart that can only be conveyed on screen by her expressions.  The same is true of Captain Wentworth.  However, when the characters do speak, there are no wasted words.

The thrill of romantic tension Jane Austen infused in her novel comes out well in the 1995 Persuasion.  Again I found myself wanting the movie to hurry up and relieve Anne’s and Wentworth’s agony, but just as quickly wishing to prolong the scenes so I could relish them over and over.  At the conclusion of the novel, I felt as if I was leaving dear friends behind, and the movie engendered the same emotions as well as put faces on said friends.

And then there is the kiss in the 1995 Persuasion when Anne and Wentworth finally overcome their insecurities and presumptions regarding each other.  Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root do it the best as we’re given the view from just over Wentworth’s shoulder as he’s leaning down to make contact with Anne’s lips, and she closes her eyes right before they touch.  Let the squealing and sighing commence because it is, in my humble opinion, the best onscreen kiss ever.

As for Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, they do a wonderful job portraying Wentworth and Anne.  He is classically handsome with high cheekbones and a regal bearing.  Never is Hinds’s Wentworth the pretty, spoiled rich boy next door.  Amanda Root’s Anne embodies Jane Austen’s own sentiment of being “almost too good for me.”  She is perfect as the plain but pretty woman past her bloom who later revives the blush upon her cheeks the closer she comes to her one true love.

The 2007 adaption of Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones is not bad, but it’s not great.  I would never dissuade you from watching to make up your own mind.  My biggest complaints are that some characters’ lines end up in the mouths of other characters and too many scenes are consolidated which lessens the impact of what takes place.  There is also a titch too much creative licensing going on and four times the director employs the technique of having Anne (Sally Hawkins) look directly at the camera as if making eye contact with the viewer thus conveying the depth of her feelings at the moment.  Once would have been sufficient to make us feel Anne’s pain.

Wentworth in this version is handsome but not dashing, and Anne’s hair looks as if it needs a good washing.  As for the kiss at the end, Anne has been running to catch up to Wentworth, and she pants too long and too hard.  Then the scene drags on forever, I have to assume because of the director’s instructions or perhaps to give Sally Hawkins time to catch her breath, and the moment is spoiled.  It is actually more embarrassing than romantic.

One saving grace is Anthony Head as Sir Walter, Anne’s father.  It’s almost frightening how well Head portrays the depth of shallowness and vanity to which Sir Walter has sunk, caring little or nothing for those around him who he deems worthless including his own dear daughter, Anne.  Kudos to Head for making me hate this character because I have to admit, sometimes I love a character I can hate.

There are a couple TV mini-series based on Persuasion from the ‘60s and 70’s and a modern adaptation all of which I’m sure I’ll miss.  Until a glowing review for one of them comes from a friend or follower, I’ll stay with the novel and the 1995 movie.

No Persuasion Necessary

No one will ever have to persuade me to read Jane Austen as I will always do it willingly.  The fact that my classic literature book group chose Persuasion as our July novel pretty much sent me over the moon.  Now here’s the big reveal for this blog post:  I’ve never read Persuasion.  My only experience with this particular novel is the 1995 Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root movie by the same name.

Still, having viewed the movie and possessing a basic understanding of the premise of the story, I found the romantic tension Jane Austen managed to write into her slim volume to be unexpectedly amazing and toe-curlingly satisfying.  Without smut or foul language, Persuasion is every bit as intense as the feelings one endures when watching the love of his or her life walk into a room and believing he or she completely out of his or her reach.  Because, after all, this is exactly what our heroine, Anne Elliot, believes of the dashing Captain Wentworth.

Another point I found quite remarkable is that for a small novel it had quite a cast of characters all with diverse and interesting lives intricately woven into the tale.  Jane Austen does this exceedingly well, and I never lost track of a single character.  I’m not sure if Charlotte Bronte’s comment of “very incomplete and rather insensible” is toward all of Austen’s works or Persuasion in particular, but I have to disagree with her.

Of course there are always the villains at whom we boo and hiss and wish upon them more of a comeuppance than they receive, but the character of Anne Elliot with all her selflessness and caring far outshines any of the unpleasant people in the book.  And, if we’re willing to admit, we should all be a little more like Anne and not wish these people ill.

While I’m usually the first to give up on a character for being a simpering doormat, Anne Elliot never comes across this way.  Her heart, although broken, is made roomier to care for the people in her life whether or not they love her in return.  She isn’t an unbelievable do-gooder, but rather an example of the quality of character to strive for.

The romantic in me believes Anne and Captain Wentworth live happily ever after despite any threat of war that would take him away from her or the notion that they had to wait for him to be rich enough to be worthy of a baronet’s daughter.  Regardless of the mindset of the society in which they were born, raised, and lived, I believe the fundamental strength of who they are at heart is the true source of their happiness and love for each other.

In Our Hands

I’m always saving my pennies to purchase books, so I rarely spend money on seeing movies.  Well, that and the fact that I like to support my local library by checking them out.  With that being said, I still didn’t have to dig in to my Mason jar of book funds thanks to the generosity of my Aunt Deniece.  She bought tickets for me and my son to see In Our Hands.

In Our Hands is the docudrama commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War.  The movie features historical footage, personal interviews, and professional reenactments celebrating Israel’s 55th Paratroopers involvement in the battle for Jerusalem.

The barely twenty year-old nation of Israel staved off extinction at the hands of surrounding Arab nations determined to wipe Israel off the map.  Israel’s defense forces risked everything, taking on better equipped, larger military forces, for the sake of their homeland.  The unexpected Israeli victory returned the Jews to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the old Temple.  Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day every year in honor of the sacrifice made in June, 1967.

The title of the docudrama comes from Lt. General Mordechai “Motta” Gur’s famous statement broadcasting that the “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”  The movie does a wonderful job recreating this scene sure to give anyone goosebumps.  Equally miraculous is the scene of Israeli soldiers praying the Shema at the Western Wall.

I highly recommend viewing this amazing, must-see movie.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to own this one.

Make the Right Choice

Every moment of every day, we have to make a choice.  Each of us will choose what we will allow into our lives.  This decision affects what we do and what we say.  There are many influences vying for our attention.  Some of them are good, and some of them are bad.  Yet in the end, the responsibility for how we act and what we say falls to each individual.  Such were my thoughts as I read Angie Thomas’s book, The Hate U Give.

One of the points about the book that was extremely disturbing was the reference to Black Jesus.  Besides the obvious fact that Jesus was a Jew, I found this to be heartbreaking.  Too many times in history deities were created in mans’ image because that made them easier to control.  This also allowed the person creating his/her ideal deity off the hook from following what God/Jesus actually said and did.  Jesus’s message never had anything to do with skin color.  He also didn’t blend doctrines from made-man religions, such as the characters in the book do, to come up with Chrislam.  Even more chilling was when Ms. Thomas blasphemously compared spray-painted signs reading “black-owned business” to the blood of the Lamb as a means by which the stores wouldn’t be burned during a riot.

Also disconcerting were the broad, sweeping generalizations Ms. Thomas made regarding white people.  Through her story, we learn this is the very thing she scorns when it comes from white people.  Yet the duplicity was overwhelming.  Throughout the book, the protagonist, Starr, made gross assumptions about white people and police officers as if she could not only read their minds, but knew for a fact what they thought and believed.  In her mind, that made it true.  The sad fact was that Starr’s behavior and opinions were learned.  The cycle of hatred was instilled in her life because of prejudiced statements she heard her father, Maverick, repeat.

Ms. Thomas would also have the reader believe that doing wrong is noble as long as it is for the right reason.  The character Khalil lost his mother to drugs; he saw it destroy her life.  This, however, was not enough to keep Khalil from selling drugs to other people in his own community.  He had a job but walked away from it to sell drugs.  Per Khalil, the money was for food and utilities.  It was also for Jordan sneakers and gold chains.  This reminded me that we are our brother’s keeper all the time.  Not just after the fact.  If the whole community could pull together to collect money for Khalil’s funeral, why couldn’t they pull together to buy food and pay for utilities?

The profanity in the book was appalling.  Maybe that’s the way some people talk, but for a teenager, I found it to be inexcusable.  It’s used so casually, and it doesn’t add anything to the story.  Neither does the promiscuity portrayed, especially among the teenagers.  I suspect Ms. Thomas would like for you to believe that everyone is doing it, so that makes it okay, but I disagree on both points.

The book promoted lawlessness and compared police officers who want to make a difference to slave owners.  It endorsed disrespect for any authority figure of a different race and condoned violence and chaos as an acceptable response to disappointment and as outlet for anger.  It failed to address the problems within the community which are taking more lives than police officers, it denounced anyone who told the truth, and it threw morals and ethics to the wind.  In short, the lessons to be learned are that different laws should apply to different people based on race and whatever feels good for you to do is what you should do regardless of the harm it may cause.

Diversity is good.  I prefer to think of it as our individual uniqueness because what makes us unique goes far beyond skin color.  When these differences are used to point the finger and lay blame, then they are being used for the wrong reasons.  Instead of breathing life, this book spews death.  It perpetuates hatred over love.  It causes division instead of generating unity.  It aims all this negativity at teenagers who are, despite their own beliefs, still children.  I suspect this is done because teens are already a volatile mix of thoughts and emotions.  They rarely take the time to research what they hear and see to determine whether or not it’s true.  And without guidance, they may believe this one-sided story is true.

There are many more errors in The Hate U Give.  I took six pages of notes, initially intending to refute all of them.  Instead, I decided to break the cycle and speak peace.

A Southern Exposure by Alice Adams

Cynthia and Harry Baird relocate to Pinehill during the prewar Depression years.  They flee Connecticut to escape his low paying job, her mounting debt and dangerous flirtations.  They hope to make a new life in the South where they will become rich and fall in love again.  The Bairds are viewed as a cross between rich movie stars and naive Yankees, but they are welcomed into the many social circles of the town they have decided to call home.

Told from multiple points of view and punctuated with authentic dialog, A Southern Exposure allows the reader an inner view into the intimate societies that develop among the cast of characters.  You’ll be on the inside track of all the gossip concerning their secret fantasies, illicit affairs, social standards, fears, betrayals, depression, alcoholism, and racial issues.

Alice Adams doesn’t back down from any of the subjects that most people want to skirt today.  Rather, she tackles them head on in all their unpleasantness and delivers a brilliant work of fiction blended with history and viewed through the lens of what it truly means to be Southern.

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