Teacher Man by Frank McCourt – A Book Review

I avoided this book like the plague for as long as I could until my brother-in-law bought it for me last Christmas.  Many people told me I would love it because it was basically my life (without the illicit behavior, of course), which is why I tried to keep away.  However, my loyalty to my wife’s brother dictated I make use of his gift, and so read it I did.

I’ve been teaching high school English for about six years now.  Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.  I hoped McCourt’s memoir detailing his experiences as an English teacher for thirty years would serve inspirational and motivate me to press on.  It didn’t.

I think it’s because of this that the book rather succeeds.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  He talks about how teaching can completely wear you away to a shadow of your former self, but he also talks about those triumphs that occasionally take place in the classroom.  Best of all, he doesn’t give a fairy tale version of what teaching is like.  He doesn’t pretend he was super-teacher with no personal problems of his own.  In fact, he is quite candid in talking about affairs and other inappropriate behavior, both in and out of the classroom.

I know memoirs can be juiced up a bit, but I think this is about as true to life as a memoir can get for a retired teacher looking back over a thirty year career.  I think everyone should read this book to, if nothing else, get some idea of what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk. 

But, prepare yourself-McCourt candy coats nothing.

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Cell by Stephen King – A Book Review

Oh, Stephen, you make this so hard on me.  I’m a big fan, a HUGE fan, but we have to face facts-you’re not the fiction writer you once were.  Cell is just another recent Stephen King book.  I compare it to kettle corn-taste great, really look forward to it and enjoy it immensely, but there isn’t a whole lot substance. 

I’ll give you this: Cell started with a COMPLETELY original premise.  This was it!  This was a King book!  Whoo-hoo!  Sadly, however, it quickly dissipated into what I would call “zombie” standard fare.  Even your characters, once rich and deep as an undiscovered chasm in the ocean depths, now simply skim the surface of who they are and what they stand for.  In fact, that’s how I’d further describe your latest novel-skimming the surface.

Steve, I feel like such a jerk saying this to you.  I mean, you are THE most successful American author of our time!  Who am I to criticize you?  I’m nobody; I know that.  But, I’m just being honest.  I know you appreciate honestly, so I’m trying to hold up my end of the bargain.

Here’s my advice, Stephen:  You’ve finished the Dark Tower Series-some of your best work, might I add-how about you hold off on fiction for a time?  I read you’re memoir On Writing, it was excellent!  You’ve had such a full life, a near death experience, you’ve got loads the public would love to hear!  To get to the point, I’m suggesting you move into primarily non-fiction.  I think your accessible style and life stories would really invigorate both you and your readers.  I’m concerned if you keep writing lackluster fiction like Cell and The Colorado Kid, you’re going to tarnish your impeccable reputation.  Non-fiction is the key. 

So, Stephen, I hope these words from a thirty-year-old high school English teacher and struggling author haven’t left too acrid of a taste in your mouth.  Your worst work continues to outshine my best, so please bear in mind I’m holding you against your own standards, not the average writer’s.  Thanks for listening.

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

This book proved a superb read.  In all seriousness, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I do so because, beyond his instinctive narrative style that both captivates and delights, Wolff substantiates the hard and fast rule in life that no matter how difficult of a childhood, one can always improve upon oneself. 

Wolff is currently a professor at Stanford (unless things have changed without my knowledge), earned his B.A. at Oxford and received his M.S. at Stanford as well.  This is incredible considering the childhood he laid out in This Boy’s Life.  Wolff was not a good little boy, to say the least.  He was guilty of lying, stealing, cursing, fighting, forgery, and being rather unattached to anything or anyone but his mother.  He spent several years with an abusive stepfather who, while never out-and-out beating him, put him through psychological trauma just as severe.  It’s amazing this man has become one of America’s greatest writers, but I suppose all great talent was forged in blazing fires.

Wolff does not mince words and, while not a simple read, his memoir it moves very quickly.  He did a masterful job of pacing the narrative so as to make things suspenseful without any truly dramatic plot twists.  After all, this is his real life.  Real life is something that happens, not something that follows a plot line.  Wolff takes his real life and weaves it into a fascinating tale that I couldn’t put down.

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster – A Book Review

I have to tell you, I am more than impressed with Paul Auster.  The only other work I’ve read of his is the collection The New York Trilogy, and I took him as essentially an experimental writer who deals more with theme than storyline.

Mr. Vertigo proved me wrong and then some.  The plotline is preposterous, and every time I tell someone about the book they look at me like I’m nuts.  That being said, Mr. Vertigo is about a young orphan from St. Louis who is recruited by the enigmatic Master Yehudi.  Master Yehudi promises that he will teach the boy, named Walter Rawley, to walk on air.  And, lo and behold, he does.

Crazy, I know.

But, Auster writes it in such a delightful, realistic fashion that never once do you doubt what you read.  And his dialogue is pure joy.  I love the speech patterns his characters employ.

Of course, there is much more to the novel than Walt simply learning to walk on air, but I won’t ruin it for you.  Let me just tell you that as fanciful as this book sounds, there are some grim realities in it, some perhaps too potent for just the casual reader. 

Remarkably, as the story begins in the late 1920s, Walt’s tale mirrors that of his native homeland, the USA.  His ups and downs match America’s in such a way that a real study of theme could be employed just as with The New York Trilogy.

You will greatly enjoy this novel, and I daresay you’ll be stunned at how connected to the characters you will become.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written a brief yet powerful tale concerning a young man awaiting deployment to Vietnam.  During his wait at Fort Bragg, a thief emerges, stealing from his fellow troops.  The tale goes on to offer reactions to the thefts, then, in true original Wolff style, switches perspective half way through to give insight into the motivations of the thief himself.  Finally, the book finishes with its original perspective, offering a tight and satisfying conclusion. 

Wolff is an expert at cutting to the heart of his characters, sometimes with very little narrative at all, but his stories always resonate with the reader far after the book has been finished.  The Barracks Thief is no exception, and I believe it is a superb commentary on how most of us feel alone even when surrounded by throngs of people.

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver – A Book Review

Where I’m Calling From is a collected edition of Raymond Carver’s short stories.  Carver died from lung cancer in 1988, but before doing so he was said to have been one of the writers responsible for bringing back the glory of the short story.

Where I’m Calling From is certainly the work of an expert.  The stories are nothing particularly outlandish or special in terms of subject matter, but they most definitely cut to the heart of what it means to be human and to have relationships with other humans.  Carver seemed especially intent upon giving us stories about married couples who are divorced, in the process of getting divorced, or are on their way to getting a divorce. 

That’s not to say all of the stories found within this collection deal with such topics.  Some of them deal with losing a child, some deal with reflecting on parents, and some deal with simple experiences one has in life.  However, all of them are told in a concise and captivating manner where the reader can’t help but finish the story in one sitting. 

I recommend reading Where I’m Calling From if you are interested in studying non-traditional short stories, especially if you’re a writer.  I think his work may be a little too abrupt and unconventional for just the casual reader, though I feel everyone would benefit from reading this man who mastered his art.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of Raymond Carver is that as he neared his death, his stories actually got more positive.  That says something.