From the stacks

Three Junes
by Julia Glass

I overlooked this book on the book club table at my local book stores for … maybe a year or more?! I would read the blurb on the back cover, carry it around for a while, and then think, “Oh–another book about three women? Sheesh! How many of those can you read?” And then I’d promptly set it down again. So what a surprise when I finally did succumb–only to find out that the “three Junes” were three months of June separated by years, and that two of the main narrators were men.

The story opens with the narrator Paul McLeod. A trip to Greece after the death of his wife prompts him to reminisce on their life together. As he tells his story, it is clear to the reader that we see things he does not–that the beautiful life he paints may have had some scratch outs and paint-overs. Paul’s son Fenno picks up the narration in the second June and we see Paul’s overpainting through the xray of his son’s story. The third June is told through the eyes of Fern, an neighbor of Fenno’s whose own life provides a counterpoint to Fenno’s. When Fern’s husband dies, Fenno is drawn in to her world–and through Fern’s tragedy finds clarity for his own.

A good read overall, I was most captivated with the McLeod family, and found myself distracted by Fern, who almost acted as a deus ex machina. I would rather that Glass had provided another family member’s perspective to round out the novel. Keeping it all in the family would have added to the novel’s cohesiveness.

Much too real

Columbine
by David Cullen

I actually finished this book at least six weeks ago; I read it in a 3-day rush over a weekend. Why the rush? Because it was so awful I couldn’t stop. Why the reluctance to blog?  Because it was so awful I couldn’t think of what to say. David Cullen was on the scene at Columbine High School around noon the day of the murders. Nearly ten years later he has allowed himself to close his notebook. But what he left us is a raw and compelling look into the lives of the killers and the victims.

Cullen had access to police files and the journals of Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold; he interviewed teachers, administrators, students, parents, and psychologists. What we’re left with is the knowledge that most of what we knew about the tragedy was not true–Harris and Klebold were not bullied, nor outscasts. In fact, they were the bullies–and popular and gifted. They also had a criminal record and a teacher had reported a disturbing short story that Klebold had written. That Cassie Bernel was not the girl who said “Yes”.  That Dave Sanders was left by the SWAT team and did not have to die. And also that Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold depressed.The list of inaccuracies goes on.

Columbine was the December choice for my book club, made up of fellow teachers. Nearly to the reader, we all had the same reaction; the only outlier was the one of us who couldn’t even finish the book because of the horror. After the Columbine tragedy we read articles, had in-service on how to recognize and reach out to those outcast students. Our school instituted a “no backpack” rule. We would be sure this would never happen again; we’d recognize the “signs” and be proactive. But all this  in reaction to an event about which we didn’t even really know the truth.
And the truth is that the tragedy probably couldn’t have been prevented, no matter what. And that it could, and probably will, happen again.

The Man Standing

Last Guard Out
by Jim Albright

On our trip to San Francisco last summer, one of the most “touristy” thing we did was tour Alcatraz. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise; the self-guided tour was well-organized, paced just right, and heavy on history. The only problem I had was turning left when the recording said “right” … and vice-versa! More than once I found myself turned around.

When we got off the ferry, the ranger previewed some of what we would see, and promised that at the end of the tour we’d have an opportunity to talk to the “last guard out”–the guard to escort the final few prisoners as they were relocated to prisons around the country. Alcatraz, closed in 1963, was an aging prison, expensive to run: all food, supplies, employees, visitors, and even waste took the 30 minute trip across the Bay to “the Rock”.

Jim Albright began his tenure at Alcatraz as a young 24-year-old husband and father. Seeking secure employment to support his family, Albright was hired by the Federal prison system, and the young family traveled from Colorado to San Francisco to begin their new life. Alcatraz was his first job as a guard, and he was understandably apprehensive–Alcatraz’s reputation was one of hardened criminals and even harsher conditions. But, for the most part, Albright seems to think the reputation was not always deserved.

While he maintained a stern demeanor and followed the prison rules strictly, Albright found the prison well-run and disciplined. The problems that occurred during Albright’s term–attempted escapes, prisoner self-injury, a hunger strike–were nothing that the staff couldn’t manage. Albright retold first hand one of the most famous Alcatraz escapes, the 1962 Frank Morris escape through a hand-made tunnel, up utility pipes, and out on to the roof. While the stuff of legends (and a Clint Eastwood movie), to Albright, such events were all in a days work.

I found most interesting the life of families on the island–most guard families lived in apartments on the island, and life was a cycle of coffee klatches, movie nights, card parties, and ice cream socials … these in the prisoners’ exercise yard! The children played in the shadow of the three story prison block, and prisoners sometimes told Albright when his wife had baked a cake or pie, having seen it cooling on the window ledge of their apartment.

Quaint and colloquial, Albright’s writing will win no awards, but the story he tells is priceless. When I had Mr. Albright autograph my book I asked him if he missed prison work. The 74-year-old replied that he would go back tomorrow if he could.


A Trip Through Time and Space

Miss Hargreaves
by Frank Baker

A phantasmagorical magic lantern show, Miss Hargreaves is a treat–a luscious Anglophilic truffle of a novel. Brittish-isms? Check. Cathedrals and church music? Check. Eccentric old ladies? Check. A Jeeves and Wooster novel-cum-fantasy? Check. One of NPR’s book critics, librarian Nancy Pearl, offered Miss Hargreaves up as one of her “under the radar” reads and it is not to be missed if any of the above piques your interest.

Norman Huntly, a twenty-something church musician, makes a harmless game of creating fantastic stories and characters “on the spur of the moment”. So to pass a quiet afternoon, for instance, Norman and his best chum Henry might carry on between themselves about a trip to Ireland or a man in the pub–all, mind you, totally the creation of their imaginations. And so once on a visit to a dreary cathedral, spurred on by a boring sexton, Norman and Henry regale the sexton with tales of their dear friend Miss Connie Hargreaves–she of the noisy cockatoo, traveling harp, and books of poetry. Later that evening (and probably fueled by quantities of stout and whiskey), Norman sends off an invitation  to their Miss Hargreaves, begging her to visit. All quite a lark.

Only imagine his surprise when he receives a reply from a Miss Hargreaves some days later–with her acceptance and her itinerary. Flummoxed, Norman assumes Henry has found a way to turn the joke around on him; but he is even more mystified when a book of poetry by Constance Hargreaves turns up in his father’s book shop.

This is truly a book that has no easy explanation, and if I supplied a spoiler alert you might think I was pulling your leg. Is Miss Hargreaves real? Perhaps her appearance is just a series of incredible coincidences? Is it possible she is a ghost? This is a book that defies categorization, really. If you like Jeeves and Wooster, if you accept Mary Poppins, if you want a novel whose plot is not tired, this is your late summer treat.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Home to Holly Springs
by Jan Karon

One of my secret guilty pleasures is the Mitford series by Jan Karon. Too quaint, bordering on maudlin, pat plot lines … but, oh, do I love Father Tim, Cynthia, Dooley, and all the animal and human characters that make up life in Mitford. Interestingly, I started the books before I returned to the Church–and even though I was not what I’d call a praying girl at the time, I wasn’t at all put off by Father Tim’s rather sentimental vision of God and life in the church. For goshsakes I even read the prayers Father offered up!

Jan Karon “ended” the Mitford series with Light From Heaven … and shortly after began her new Father Tim series. My guess is that Karon wanted to be free from the confines of Mitford, and Home to Holly Springs takes Father Tim Kavenaugh out of North Carolina and back to his birthplace in Mississippi. Readers of the Mitford series know that Tim had a problematic relationship with his father, and never quite healed from the loss of both his mother and housekeeper Peggy. I suspected (quite rightly) that Karon would use this book to unbury those family secrets.

And reveal she did. The novel was again filled with God-driven “coincidences” and quirky characters, woven together with Father Tim’s childhood memories. Many of those memories were ones faithful readers had heard bits and pieces of before, but were fleshed out to fill in his childhood–and, on the whole, those stories were Karon’s strongest. My biggest disappointment were the secondary characters, of which she probably had more than necessary. Many of them seemed added simply to advance the story–unlike those strong Mitford characters, they were easily skimmed over and forgotten, save two or three. (But that was also my criticism of her later Mitford books as well.)

I read Home in a day and wouldn’t have needed (or wanted) to spend any more time on it. It was satisfying only because it was like having coffee with a long-lost friend. It was also a weepy read–partly Karon’s sentimentality, partly the love between Tim and Cynthia, and partly because I was horribly home-sick for my children. Not nearly as endearing (or enduring, I fear) than those early Mitford books, I will probably still be up for the next book in the series In the Company of Others, if only to spend some more time with Father Tim. .

Just started: Last Guard Out by Jim Albright. Purchased at Alcatraz on my recent trip to San Francisco, it is the account of one of the last guards to serve at “The Rock”.