Reviews

A Too Merciful Look into a Pastor of Power

Pope Francis: Pastor of Mercy
By Michael J. Ruszala
Wyatt North Publishing
173 pages

Bio books on religious figures are usually a no-no for me. Michael J. Ruszala’s Pope Francis: Pastor of Mercy might have continued to sit on the shelf, except for my personal admiration for the subject of the  text. That said, most lives of popes tend to drip with needless deference and pious platitudes. At the same time, as Ruszala, those who explore the realm of faith best, are the committed. Likewise, many writers produce those kinds of works without a level of analysis that makes a look into the lives of what are in essence international men of power worth the read.

Michael J. Ruszala’s Pope Francis: Pastor of Mercy shows  a great deference in the handling of his subject, yet provides enough insight into the Pontiff’s views on mercy, social issues, the place of the People of God in the church and the world, and the deep need for more mercy on our planet, that an exploration of the very readable biography is not a waste.

One weakness of the book is that the author, who is a “director of faith formation,”a lay minister, at St. Pius X Church in Getzville, New York, is a self-described “active member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists yet seems too wrapped up in the Church to make an objective analysis of the new pope possible. Even so, he writes like anyone who does not have direct and prolonged access to the Pope Francis. In effect, this is a great fan book. That said, if a reader has no idea about the background and views or the man in the white cassock who sits on St. Peter’s throne, Ruszala’s Pope Francis makes the perfect primer. The author makes reference to the pope’s activities and attitudes about service to humankind. He shows how the leader of a church known for homophobia, pedophilia and stolid patience in the face of international crisis, has challenged institutional hypocrisy and tried to make reparations for its sins. 

At one point in the book, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church describes himself as “a sinner.” In response to a “How would you introduce yourself?” query, the former Argentine cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio, states, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner. ” Ruszala culls that most of the best lines in the work, from the others’ interviews. Unfortunately, he leaves readers with a desire for more immediacy. That is not a crime, yet the distance leaves a reader with a sense of being too removed from the pope to gain a feel for the man. By the end of the biography, those who are not pious Catholics, or merely fans of the often smiling prelate, only come away with facts that might have been found in an encyclopedia.


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Future Film offers Father-Son Insights

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This commentary is not going to spoil the movie After Earth if you read it. Go see the film. You will find it one of the few this year worth the nearly ten dollar admission. My main interest is the story, which goes far beyond what is shown in trailers.
I learned long ago to take movie trailers with a grain of salt. Often those present day sideshow barker imitations exist, as did their predecessors, to put butts in the seats. They suck in viewers who want to see the latest, fantastic oddity, like the bearded lady, two-headed cow or Martian baby. Well, the hype for Jaden and Will Smith’s After Earthpulled me in, but like many movies the post-apocalyptic drama left a hunger for more. I need to understand more about that future. I want to better grasp what made Will Smith’s character, Gen. Cypher Raige, into such a complicated figure. I want to know more about his wife and daughter. I need to see why Jaden Smith’s Kitai Raige so deeply feels about his experiences. I suspect budget concerns did not leave much room to flesh out the story. That is why I left with a promise to read Peter David’s novelization or other books created to go with this series.
After Earththe movie is about fathers and sons, appropriate for the upcoming Father’s Day celebration. The film and the book are also replete with lessons about family, hurt, disappointments and healing. The best part is the story, which if you check Amazon or other book sites, appears as a just-released series of novels and short stories set to cash in on what is likely to be a wave of fandom.
Co-star Will Smith is credited with the development of the tale, which holds more depth than the 99-minute flick is equipped to display. Viewers will wonder whether the tale is autobiographic in some respects, although the tabloids have never signaled any serious father-son drama in the family. The fact that After Earth is set in the next millennium showcases the lack of male role models as problem played out in homes across the world. The rift is often most wide between successful dads and sons forced to live in their shadows. As mentioned, there is much on this part of the story in the movie, but many aspects of what keeps the younger and older males apart go unseen.
In fact, its biggest weakness is the way the screenplay, credited to Book of Eli screen author Gary Whitta and the film’s director M. Night Shyamalan, crunch most of the backstory into scattered paragraphs. Those who look at the film’s official website will be surprised how much happened in the 1,000 years that precede where the movie story begins. Nonetheless, there is much just enough revealed about the major characters, and they are the tale’s richness.
As many sons, Kitai Raige loves his father and wants to be like him. The only problem is the boy resents the old man because he feels abandoned. Gen. Cypher Raige, supreme commander of the United Ranger Corps, commands the military elite that protects humanity in 1000AE (3025AD), and is like a lot of fathers, too. He looks at his male heir with disappointment. The film unveils a lot of the causes of the chasm between them, and entertains viewers with their path to reconciliation and healing.
Peter David’s novelization combines three short stories previously published by Del Rey, a Random House subsidiary: After Earth Ghost Stories: Redemption, After Earth Ghost Stories: Savior and After Earth Ghost Stories: Atonement. There is also a prequel, A Perfect Beast: After Earth, by veteran science fiction authors Michael Jan Friedman and Robert Greenberger.
The cautionary aspects of the story about the natural environment, fear and family are important for our time. As mentioned, the essential messages in the story relate across lines of culture and generation. However, it is equally important that movie-goers see the father-son clash played out among African Americans. Black fathers are too often portrayed in American media as unfeeling toward their children, especially sons, yet race is not relevant in the film. The key issue is species in that future, which begins on a new planet called Nova Prime, where humans are daily protected by the Rangers from the threat of alien creatures. After our Earth is wiped out, “human” is the only culture that can matter.  That is why fathers, especially those who see themselves as successful should see the film and read the books, then take another look at their sons.

An Other American Life

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Breathing, In Dust
By Tim Z. Hernandez
Texas Tech University Press
178 pages
ISBN: 978-089672-742-7
E-book: 978-0-89672-6

Hernandez writes that it is the true things that happen along the nation’s southern border that are hard to believe. Readers who find that hard to believe need to listen to the testament played out in his novel, Breathing, In Dust. Many readers will find the coming-of-age story to be an eyeopener. The

frailties and fears of the human condition, are rampant in Catela, the fictional San Joaquin Valley farm town that is the backdrop for the adventure. Those qualities are mirrored in the angst of
Tlaloc, the novel’s main character, as he struggles to advance his humanity in an American locale where the legendary “dream” is abandoned.

The title itself, Breathing, In Dust, hints at the fraudulence of the American Dream as it forecasts the story in that most of the characters have breath, yet their lives never rise above the dust. Hernandez drags readers who are likely unfamiliar with the paradox of life in California’s San Joaquin Valley into places and introduces them to personalities as stark and startling as the scenes in Larry 1966, small town, North Texas novel, The Last Picture Show. The reward for readers who finish the book will be revelations about poverty, immigration and race in the early 21st Century that hit as hard as Michael Harrington’s nonfiction expose on Appalachian poverty The Other America struck readers in the early Sixties.

Tlaloc’s life unfolds in a 400mile stretch of hard times along the center of California, just below the capital, Sacramento. At the core, the story is a saga of troubled fathers that yield troubled sons. The people are hard, but the novel makes it clear that the problem at root is the demands of the land.

In reality, nearly 4 million people live in the largely agricultural region known as, “The Food Basket of the World.” Life is hard there for Mexican Americans, but no easier for the Black, Asian, and poor white inhabitants, who rank among the poorest people in the state and throughout the country. It is a place where people find existence, not hope. Interestingly , the Undocumented and immigration problems are a back beat in the story. The focus is on the in-country migrants who make an annual circuit to survive, yet both the plight of both groups are part of the truths and contradictions bred by capitalism.

The harvest demands of oranges, peaches, garlic, tangerines, tomatoes, kiwis, and some of the region’s other crops require hands to whom most employers extend more tasks than cash. Hernandez, who is also a poet, has a spare but colorful writing style that comes through clearly in the fictional town’s description:

To say Catela is to say Chihuahua and Ararat and Grecia and Madina all in a single breath. To live it is a whole other tangle of vines. Forged at the bottom of a once lake, ripe with tule foliage and cattails, no eagle perched atop nopal leaf, no shining constellations or symbols of destiny manifest, nothing but darkened flesh and muscle and spade and oxen black as pitch, and a few seeds spilled from the rucksack brimming with disease and curse and karma long past due.

The novel, divided into four parts, which as the awareness of the reader grows through the main character, removes most questions as to the effect of the environment on what chapter after chapter seems to become a comedy of errors. Tlaloc’s drama unfolds in what sometimes appears to be a series of twenty short stories, rather than a chronological narrative.

He is like a lot of young people throughout the nation. From child to teen, an observer in a life in which he should be a player. Readers learn about him in a variety of ways. One of the most artful is in the chapter, “Antifaz,” which means “mask.” The author skillfully reveals a number of things about characters in subtle touches such as punctuation. One of the most interesting passages is where the reader is shown a letter from Tlaloc’s absentee father who because of work and the stresses that their lifestyle places on the family lives in Brownsville, Texas. The author uses the chapter to show what happens when circumstances leave a man unable to find his footing in life. The reader sees words stricken from the text, as the putative writer fumbles to find the right expression to reach across the years to the son he left behind.

“Hijo mio (my son),” is scratched out. “I wish,” is dropped. “Dear Tlaloc,” does not make the cut, either. The reader can see the father’s struggle with his failure to master the right tone to make his case in either Spanish or English. “Many times I,” are the last set of striked-out words. The man finally choses to bluntly begin, “Tlaloc.”

It is clear that Tlaloc’s father gives up on the family because of the “antifaz,” the look on his wife and child’s faces the last time he saw them. He left when the boy was three, after an argument with Tlaloc’s mother. At the same time, the reader wonders whether he had a recourse.

Hernandez shows the reader a simplicity and sincerity in the unnamed letter writer that engenders sympathy for a man who does not know how to gain control over life. For example, in the letter the father describes a ride from Tijuana at break neck speed when Tlaloc was an infant. The passage reveals how the last ties with his wife unravel, which turns into his final moment with the family:

Your such an asshole, she called me. This was her favorite word for me back then. You’re in the back seat of course quiet like always. I look at you and you got this nasty antifaz pulled on your eyes. (He strikes out, “The car bangs over the potholes and”) I am cussing at the road and your mama yells at me something about the way I’m driving. It must be one hundred degrees and the air conditioner didn’t work. We were sweating like perros. Your damn tongue was hung out your head and I said something to her about this and she thinks I am calling you a dog and then she spits right at me. And then you complain that your stomach hurts and makes this horrible noise from your throat and then, you hold your stomach and do this silent crying thing you always did. No tears or nothing like that just a lot of shaking and then you shut your eyes. When your mama sees you she gets more pissed off and grabs my hat and throws it out the window. It hits the car behind us and now this asshole is flipping me off and trying to pull me over.

The tragic errors escalate until the mother climbs into the back seat with the child. The father continues the narrative about the long ride, but ironically never says that they reached home. What is clear is that he no longer has one.

The end comes without a word in the midst of a crazy dash back to Catela. The man sees the eyes of the mother in the rearview mirror. He writes,“the same loco antifaz you got except hers don’t go away.” A few sentences before the father sums, “she’s giving me this look like she wished I was (‘invisible’ strike out) dead.”

The letter offers Tlaloc an invitation to Brownsville, a photograph of Tlaloc in which he is a the three-year-old with his father and uncle on his grandmother’s porch and a $20 bill. The father writes, “Just so you can never say that I gave you nothing, even though I know that isn’t true.”

The letter writer’s fabled unsteadiness is what the reader sees in Tlaloc throughout the novel. His struggle against the Fates is understated, yet in nearly every chapter the circumstances of life swirl into chaos. Things happen to him more than he makes happen, and Tlaloc is suspended in chaotic state not much different that the one described by his father. In response, the character shows a great deal of covert emotion. For example, the teenager joins his uncle Alejandro, and Animal, the uncle’s buddy, in the slaughter of a pig. Throughout the episode, the boy does what he is told.

The scene opens in 1983, and Tlaloc’s age is not mentioned, yet the boy seems like a grade-schooler with a butterfly, as he pokes a finger through a wire mesh cage to touch the pig. Readers can see the child’s instinct to make a pet of what the uncle has made clear is about to be a victim. Animal,the uncle’s buddy, cautions the boy about the nature of the beast.

“That son of a bitch will eat anything put in front of him,” he tells the boy. “Even its own children.”

The statement becomes subtly prophetic. As the brief chapter unfolds, Tlaloc is swallowed by the mens’ bloodlust, and jumps into a swirl of violence when uncle cannot find his machete for the slaughter. He is forced to try to slay the pig with an ice pick. Chaos ensues. Most of the time, Tlaloc is knocked about or stands frozen in fear in the shadows of a darkened garage. In the end, he watches Animal smash the creature’s skull with an old tire rim.

The boy screams, “No!” After, his uncle hands him a mop and says, “Get cleaning.”

Tlaloc moves throughout the book in a similar fashion. Even in the final chapter, his character emits the sense of the outsider/observer to whom things happen. There is a sense in the novel that all human endeavors matter little in the end. Tlaloc returns to town for his friend, Jesus’s bachelor party, which revs into a carnal free-for-all in room nine at the Blossom Motel. He leaves in resignation.

“You expect someone, Jesus maybe, to open the door and call you back in, but it never happens,” he says. He describes the scene as “a zoo in full riot.” The young man elaborates, “A swell of sound and stench and thundering comes from behind the walls.”

The final lines draw memories of the descriptions of his father:

As you walk to your car you wonder if you’ll ever see Jesus again. You wonder why you could careless either way. You look back at the room and decide to leave all these questions there in the parking lot of the Blossom. And then you get in your car and drive away. Wondering how long before , or if, anyone will notice you’ve been missing.

Breathing, In Dust is a little gruesome. Even the passivity of the main character is a little like an assault on the senses. Readers might find themselves with impulse to scream at the boy, yet never able to disengage from as the story unfolds. The characters, language and scenes are like a bad traffic accident – one wants to turn away, but cannot help continue to peek at the damage. Those same things are almost too different for those who reside in “polite society” accept without feeling uneasy, but those features in their totality make book a beauty.

A Siren’s Call to be Inspired

Together We Jump

Ken McAlpine

iUniverse Books
361 pages
ISBN: 978-1-47595-119-6
Ken McAlpine’s new novel is a roller coaster ride through the mind and soul of the main character Pogue Whithouse, who as many people over age 60 takes a physical, emotional and psychological foray with the ghosts of relationships past. As the subtitle, A Journey of Love, Hope and Second Chances betrays, the story drags readers to many memories and even more locales throughout the United States. Pogue grapples in a bid for peace, or at least fulfillment, in the balance of his life. He says:
I want to see my country, but I’m afraid to take my eyes off the road. My fellow Americans stomp on their accelerators as if pursued by the devil himself. From the corner of my eye, I catch snatches of Steinbeck’s central valley—hypnotic irrigated fields,grassland and dun-colored hills, their dusty look mirroring the pasty gumminess in my mouth.
Pogue seeks redemption, mainly about the death of his older brother Sean. The quest forces him to face the lies and secrets behind his relationships with most of the people he knew.
“Life is a tug of war between how we would like things to be and how they are,” Pogue says.
The eerily realistic plot and dialogue only attests to the skills of a writer whose earlier works were largely nonfiction. McAlpine is a three-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, and author of Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization and Off Season: Discovering America on Winter’s Shore, a 2004 Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers selection. Together We Jump and Fog, a novel also published through iUniverse last year, signal his talent for truth in fiction.
Now, another bit of truth – at one point I wanted to give up the read. I thought the deeply personal nature of the experience and the book’s length were a fault, but McAlpine’s use of language and plot made every page turn. The narrative is poetic at turns, and the descriptions and reflections spur thoughts like the kind of conversations that begin in evenings and end at dawn.

Sea turtles’ life struggles are his metaphor:
In my favorite dream, I swim easily in green waters just below the surface so that the sky ripples overhead, the white clouds like bedsheets in the wind. I am underwater, but the river still sings on the surface, softer dreamier, more distant, yet infinitely more comforting. I sense something timeless, beyond mankind’s stumblings, passed to me in a whisper I cannot grasp, but it soothes me nonetheless. I am gripped by something that swings on the very hinges of the earth, something so large it erases any urge to conquer, to compete, to dominate, to prove, to possess, to hate, to question.
The book mentions them at several junctures. Most die soon after they are born, yet those who survive beat the odds in a hostile world because of endurance. The words and images are so real and human that readers will pause at many points to ask whether the book is a memoir. I did, more than a dozen times, but discovered, Together We Jump as a call to inspiration.