Thursday, October 30, 2014

A House in the Sky

A House in the SkyA House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett

This is sure to be near the top of my list of the year's top nonfiction reads. Canadian Amanda Lindhout grew up in a dysfunctional family and escaped by poring through National Geographic magazines, dreaming about exciting adventures.

When she grew up, instead of going to college, she opted to work for several months as a waitress at high-end restaurants and save all of her money...and then spend everything she'd earned on several months of travel. Soon she began taking photographs in the hopes of funding more travel. In addition to more "secure" countries, she also ventured to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Sudan and worked in Bagdad for an Iranian broadcasting company. She became addicted to travel...and the more daring and dangerous, the better.

Then in 2008, she decided to go to Somalia, the most dangerous country in the world (at least, at the time), primarily because no one else was going there and she wanted her big break. She convinced her Australian ex-boyfriend Nigel to go with her. Crazy? Yes! Naive? Completely. But she didn't deserve to get kidnapped, gang raped, and tortured. In spite of it all, she was able to forgive her captors and after her release after 460 days, she founded a nonprofit foundation, the Global Enrichment Foundation, to provide university opportunities to women in Somalia. (See accomplishments at right) She's since returned to Somalia a couple of times.

She and Nigel converted to Islam in the hopes of it protecting them, although it didn't really. I was particularly touched by the poignant interactions Lindhout had...exchanging notes and handmade gifts with her co-captive Nigel on Christmas, a desperate and tender encounter she had with a woman in a burkha on the day she and Nigel tried to escape (unsuccessfully), and the rare times she got to speak to her mother.

Lindhout doesn't always come across well--especially in her traveling days before the kidnapping--but her bravery is phenomenal. She kept herself grounded by meditating on hope. The book is beautifully written, and I'm surmising that is cowriter Sara Corbett's doing. It's been optioned for a movie, and Rooney Mara will portray Lindhout.

The saddest thing about this book, in the end, is that after all they endured together, Amanda Lindhout and Nigel are no longer in contact. Nigel wrote his own book with his sister, and it was highly critical of Lindhout and her family. They've fallen out and lost their shared connection through the greatest crisis of their lives.

Highly gripping, educational, and inspirational. I strongly recommend it!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lean On Pete

Lean On PeteLean On Pete, by Willy Vlautin

I picked this up on a library visit, drawn to it because the author hails from Portland and part of the story is based here. At first, I balked at the writing style because it reminded me of Hemingway--passive voice, telling versus showing, etc. But then I settled into it, and I'm glad. I found this story to be heart breaking and memorable.

It's the story of a 15-year-old boy, Charley, who has bounced all over the Northwest with his single dad who is neglectful and inattentive. Charley's seen way more than a 15-year-old should see, and it only gets worse in this story.

Horses at Portland Meadows
The story opens when Charley and his dad arrive in Portland and he begins hanging out and working (sort of) at Portland Meadows, a once-busy and now shabby horse racing track. He's hired by a crusty, grumpy, dishonest, and mean old man named Dell, who takes advantage of him and constantly insults him. He treats his horses horribly, while Charley befriends them, especially one in particular: Lean On Pete.

Soon marked by tragedy, Charley ends up on the run, not knowing where his next meal will come from or where he will sleep that night. Lean On Pete is the only true friend he has. Although he sometimes has to resort to stealing and breaking and entering, he is a hard-working, ethical young man in spite of it. He heads east to find his aunt, the only relative he has, with very little information to go on.

Stories about children whose safety nets fail them always touch me. This story was profoundly sad, but redemptive at the end. Vlautin exposes the underbelly of horse racing and also of western towns, truck stops, and cities where those of us who lead privileged lives look the other way when we see kids like Charley.

Here's a great book trailer, with photos of some of the locations, and here's Vlautin talking about this book and what prompted him to write it...along with a song.

After Eli

After EliAfter Eli, by Rebecca Rupp

In this thoughtful middle grade/young adult novel, young Danny struggles to cope with the death of his older brother, Eli, in Iraq. He's not getting much help from his angry father and vacant mother, who grew much more distant after Eli died. Eli had filled the gap of his parents' attention, and now not only was Eli gone, but his parents were even more far away.

Over the summer he befriends two unusual young people: the decidedly "uncool" but extremely smart Walter, and the beautiful, exotic Isabelle, who has quirky and creative younger twin siblings.

I actually found Isabelle to be annoying and pretentious. One Goodreads reviewer described her well as an irrelevant Manic Pixie Dream Girl (defined as "a fantasy figure who 'exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.'” Walter and the twins offered more of an appeal for me.

My favorite parts of the book were Danny's memories of Eli, who was sarcastic and mischievous but loving, and Danny's friendship with Eli's high school friend and purple potato farmer and his girlfriend, who come to be like a family for him.

Rebecca Rupp approaches grief with a quiet, sensitive touch, and even though Danny chronicles the death of various people in his "Book of the Dead," the book was redemptive in the end.