Idioms ain’t really idiotic

Out of the Blue: A Book of Color Idioms and Silly Pictures

**** [GOOD]

By Vanita Oelshlager (text) and Robin Hegan (illustrations)
VanitaBooks
ISBN:9780983290421

At times I read books for fun. Other times, I read texts that pile up on my to-be-read shelf to acquire Out of the Blueor deepen my knowledge on a subject. I read Out of the Blue for both. The work gave me a quick refresher on the notion and variety of idioms in the language. Also, the author and illustrator demonstrate a clever way to promote a greater grasp of American English.

Vanita Oelschlager , who bills herself as wife, parent, grandma and ex-teacher, easily demonstrates in the work that she never sheds the mantle of any of those roles. Her text is well structured, organized and clear, written with the kind of passionate tone to educate witnessed in the best exchanges between a loving adult and child. There is also a cleverness in the way that she pumps information into the process of play. Each page is a demonstration of the idea of idiom in a drawing by Robin Hegan that is geared to grab a child’s attention, if not evoke outright laughter. Also, if the adult who shares the book needs a prompt, the entries each have a two-sentence script upside down in the bottom right hand of the page.

The publisher summed it:

Out of the Blue shows children the magic of idioms – words that separately have one meaning, but together take on something entirely different. Children are curious about words, especially phrases that make them laugh (“Tickled Pink”), sound silly (“Shrinking Violet”) or trigger images that tickle a child’s sense of the absurd (“A Red Letter Day”). Out of the Blue uses outlandish illustrations of what the words describe literally.

The reader will not be fooled, the book is page after colorful page of largely American idioms. Except for the final pages, the text is but a series of phrases and blithely concealed prompts. And yes, the pictures are often silly, yet irresistible, because they are so cute. I found myself flipping back and forth in the 66-page manuscript to see various images again and again.

I wrote that the book says the images are silly. I found them whimsical, lightly fanciful in the most amazing ways. The artist tends to use solid colors, no shades or tones, which makes the drawings gain a certain vibrancy. For example, the expression “white elephant” is portrayed in one of the stark brilliance – a slight boy in a navy blue t-shirt and pants with a brown cape and black mask stands faced with an elephant under a white sheet carrying an pumpkin-striped, jack-o-lantern, Halloween container.

If that effort to describe what happens left you blank. Check out the artist’s description of how the artwork is done. Yet some matters remain a mystery.

I believe the prompt states, “Something unusual or even special, but useless to you is a white elephant.” I say that because the e-book pages make it hard to be sure. I do not understand why the author chose that touch. The tiny upside-down sentences work better in a printed copy, but in a fixed medium such as a digital book, they are a loss. The other thing I wanted to see was a brief description of how the phrases were derived. The author did that with “green with envy” at the end of the manuscript, but I wanted something similar for each phrase. Those are the only down-sides (no pun intended) to this book.

I recommend Out of the Blue to any parent, grandparent, teacher, preacher, or avid reader, who wants to entertain a child while doing an exploration of the complicated nature of American English. The publisher offers some thoughts on how to use the book on the VanitaBooks. Even more, we need texts like this to develop reading and language skills which studies show continue to lag in this country. Every kid needs to know that idioms ain’t idiotic.

Mom-lovers Unite!

 

Tips onReads to Feed Mom'sBook Hunger

Mom. Love her or not, most people have one. Call her mother, mum, ma’dear, nana, or by her first name, she is someone you have to speak with, and someone who is bound to talk with you. That is why so many folks with moms find themselves on the lookout for ways to keep up the flow with her in conversations. If your mother reads, wants to read, threatens to read, or is a full-blown bibliovore, here are five current and upcoming titles to check out. I plucked these works by indie authors from the Veereads to-be-reviewed pile as worthy for offerings to the book-hungry mom.

Addicted to Love by Kathleen Murray

is a powerful thriller about a young woman’s growth in a dysfunctional family during the turbulent Seventies. The main character, Sally Smithfield, lives in Northfield, a suburban neighborhood on the posh North Shore of Chicago. The streets that surround her are pretty safe, but the threat to the quality of her life comes from the secrets she holds and her many losses. Murray takes the reader from Northfield to St. Louis to Scottsdale, Arizona in Sally’s journey through the devastating residual after-effects of childhood abuse in a suspenseful showcase of a struggle to find self. Addicted to Love, is sure to delight mom’s who enjoy tales about a quest for redemption.

The History Major by Michael Philip Cash

is a book I am very anxious to read, because I love horror and science fiction. Also, Cash is one of the best writers in those genres. Readers will figure out for themselves as they see what happens to protagonist Amanda Greene, a college freshman who has a “through the looking glass” ride into terror. After a bad fight with her boyfriend, and a night of heavy partying, her eyes open to find she has a roommate she does not recognize, classes she never choose to take, and she is being chased by a shadowy figure. This is just the book for a mom who loves stories where fantasy and reality collide.

Toto’s Tale and True Chronicle of Oz by Sylvia Patience

offers mom the rest of the story about a literary and film classic. If mom has not read the original book by  L. Frank Baum, she has likely thrilled to the 1939 movie, about an orphan from Kansas raised on a farm by her aunt who discovers that happiness is home, and home is where you find those who love you. Patience tells the story from the viewpoint of a character that used to be “carry on,” Dorothy’s little dog Toto. Readers will follow Toto as he sets out on his own and meets Dorothy when she arrives in Kansas on an orphan train. The story unfolds amid the sights, sounds and sensibilities of the original tale, except this time readers find out about the dog’s frustration at being the only one who can’t talk, and that like Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow, Toto wants something from the all-powerful wizard. If mom is really into grandchildren, this is a great story for her to share. If she is a fan of Oz, or loves dogs, this book will entertain her.

Meantime Girl by Sindhu S.

is love story. That statement barely captures the essence of the feminist fable with deep psychological undertones. If mom loves strong women characters in a “coming of age” drama, this book will hit the spot. Meantime Girl  journalist Anjali’s effort to define her sexuality  beyond the expectations  or pressures of her family, friends and society. More than the usual “married man/victim”  narrative, Sindu S.’s protagonist is a New Age woman who clings to sexual freedom and rejects any ties to the man she loves out of fear they might lead to his control. She gets into a relationship with a married friend, Siddharth or Sid, with a clear conscience and assurance that he won’t marry her. Mom should expect  wit and humor with an undercurrent of pathos from what appears to be a love story for our times.

This blog usually only mentions books in reviews, but this is a special occasion. Moms who love books, and the people who love moms are always in need of new information. I hope the Mother’s Day is wonderful experience. I wish all moms to feel special and valued, especially the book-lovers. I hope these few tips add to the health of the day. Buy them, or use them as a spark during talks with Mom.

 

 

A Word You’ve Heard

I Saw An Invisible Lion TodayThat title caught my attention first. Then a read of the Millbrook Press description of the 36-page book for ages 7 to 11, and I knew that it must be mentioned during National Poetry Month. As you can see from the image, the text rates high on cute. At the same time, the content is clear, entertaining and informative as it lays out the poetic form quatrains to kids.

A poet I know always says, “Never stop askin’ for poems,” and this work is ideal to Coverspark an interest in wordplay in even the youngest. Aside from the multicultural and lighthearted drawings the cadence of each tale and playful topics seem so simple and open, a child might believe that he or she can do quatrains. In fact, despite the avowed audience, the ease with which author Brian P. Cleary approaches the poetical technique might enchant anyone (even a grownup) who listens.

The Ohio-born humorist and poet is no novice. As I learned, Cleary is author of a broad range of works on language,  math, food, phonics and poetry for the young. I did not know the name when I picked the title, but the thrill of the book’s explorations with wordplay made me a fan. Most readers will want to see more, too. Especially if they check out his website.

I Saw An Invisible Lion is reader friendly, as befits a text for the very young. Many parents will find themselves reading the book several times, yet I can see how a children might soon pick it up themselves. The author starts with explanation – “quatrains are four-line verses that usually rhyme.” Just that simple, and that is what I liked. Then he adds the notion of rhyme schemes or end rhyme patterns – “the most common types: AAAA, AABB, ABCB, and and ABAB.” That is about all that is needed to make a move on quatrains. The rest of the work is examples.

Now most poets and readers well-learned in the intricacies of form poetry are probably saying, “Oh, give me a break,” right now. However, the key to a true appreciation of the work is to look at it from the perspective of an average reader. Clue: most people in the U.S. neither read nor understand poetry. If a person is not certain about the form, they will be when finished.

I read I Saw An Invisible Lion Today from the viewpoint of a parent, grandparent, or any older person who wants to teach an elementary age child that words can be more than just a hard labor. More than that, I read the work again from the approach of of  average reader who knows little more about poetry than the kind they prefer. I came away a great fan of Cleary, because the book teaches and makes you laugh. Anyone who can read this book and come away with nary a giggle or snicker, either does not understand English, or is dead. Academics aside the sounds of the lines alone sometimes draw smiles.

The organization of the book seems pretty obvious. Cleary places the rhyme scheme for the mostly four-line examples at the start of each tale to make sure. As I wrote, the bulk of the book is the quatrain patterns in  poetic quips of various lengths. The topics are silly in unusually clever ways. The tales he spins can help children to see reality as it might be, and poetry as a way to escape what is. For example, the title poem:

I saw an invisible lion today
and fourteen invisible leopards.
And thirty invisible sheep being led
by thirty invisible shepherds.

I saw an invisible baby giraffe
who ate from invisible trees.
I watched as he shook an invisible nest
filled with invisible bees.

I saw an invisible penguin who skated
upon an invisible rink
along with a group of invisible skunks
who made an invisible stink.

British illustrator Richard Watson adds to the sense of mirth in the work. Most of the art matches to the sometimes extraordinary scenes the poet described (invisible skunks). I cannot critique the illustrations, only say that they made me look intently to see how his vision complemented the writer. Most times they were as tight and serendipitous as a good jazz riff. Watson showed his greatest skill with the drawings for “At the Muzzaloo Store.”

At the Muzzaloo Store there are crates of persnoobles
fresh-baked flobitzen and tazbees with jubles.
They’re stocking the shelves with the best alaprises,
ungden and traffadoo (three different sizes!)

Watson’s store scene delivers just enough ick! factor to make an average 7-year-old squeal with delight. The syncopation of off-beat words and art, made me wonder what he might have done with Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The critters in the crates and elsewhere look bizarre, but not a nightmarish sight.

Parents will love to show kids pages like that. Their children will have fun trying to spot the “tazbees” and “alprises.” In the end, children and adults will learn enough about the form that they will be inspired to make up poems. I Saw An Invisible Lion Today, is a great way to get readers of all ages to “never stop asking for poems.”

 

 

The Music of Lives

Mingus_Lullaby“I play or write me the way I feel through jazz, or whatever,” the late bassist and pianist Charles Mingus wrote in a 1955 open letter to trumpeter Miles Davis. “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions. If someone has been escaping reality, I don’t expect him to dig my music, and I would begin to worry about my writing if such a person began to really like it. My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.”

My thoughts continually went to that passage as I read, A Mingus Lullaby, Toronto poet  Dane Swan‘s latest collection. The perceptive works are vibrant with anger, good and evil, and the cadences of progressive jazz. They are not what an average reader might expect of “poetry.” That is why those who love poetry, people, passion, personalities, and protest will find the March 1 release from Guernica Editions to be a treat worthy of the $20 price.

As the Mingus quote states, Swan gives reader a collection crammed with raw emotional power. It is as if the poems get nose to nose with readers and scream “Look!”  The poet wants readers to see the greatness that the last jazz icon and civil rights leader harbored.

Admittedly, that kind of forced dialogue can intimidate those who look for poems to “escape reality.” Swan channels the spirit of the jazz legend who died in 1979 at age 56, as a means to reveal himself. The best part is the author, like Mingus, does not shrink from truth.

The experience begins in “Epitaph 10,” where the writer wrestles identity:

 My man Charles, your autobiography jumps from first person to third.

 Got me wondering who I am.

Is this Dane or Mingus?
Is this Dane as Dane, playing Mingus?
Or is this Dane, as Dane in the role of Dane inspired by Mingus?

The writer riffs Mingus’ insistence that he was possessed by a three-part identity:

One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two.
The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked.
Then there’s an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he’ll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what’s been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can’t – he goes back inside himself.

Mingus claimed to be a conflicted and tortured spirit whose capped emotions built and built, and jazz allowed the release. In A Mingus Lullaby Swan’s wordplay allows him to speak to readers as he slides through different voices, which the poet describes in “Epitaph 6” – emotionless observer, passionate lover, manic loose cannon. At the same time, readers will find the author is not shy when the personalities mix. For example, in  “Objectors,” readers hear hints of the emotionless observer and passionate lover:

They look like adolescent weaklings.
So fragile, you imagine
the bullied bullied them;
their strength – immeasurable.

Could confuse them for children.
More man than us,
have been couriers of imperialism, death,
decided to defend life.

One admits
he ended numerous existences.
Innocent civilians
haunt dreams.

They look like children
but are men
trying to skip double-dutch
with children.

The same comes through in a veiled commentary on the riots at Toronto’s G20 Summit, which the poem, “26.06.2010,” sums as “A protest of 30,000 destroyed by 200 with violent intent.” The poem observes:

Violence isn’t anarchy;
it’s organized failure.
None of this will lead to change.

The manic loose cannon is evident in a number of the poems. In “Resuscitation,” the pathos takes readers into the soul of a Black Canada (oddly resonant with the United States) and wields cultural self-analysis like a bat:

I balance my heart on the edge of razor blades
trying not to pierce my aorta.

(my heart bleeds)

I’m a black nigga, immigrant nigga, legal problems nigga. I’m everything I fight; fucking stereotype. Looking for a hot-forty-year-old, president of a publishing company. Whisk me to your manor with Raptors TV; shelves stacked: Greek philosophy, Tales of Anansi, old soul records, my favorite spoken word CD by Garmamie.

(my heart bleeds)

Sick of niggas using the word nigga lightly. Of niggas who think stupidity is pretty. Got C’s in school. Other kids hid comic books between text books, I hid my copy of “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Failed math studying architecture – towers from before ancient times in the Horn of Africa. Got an A minus in music ’cause that teacher didn’t like me.

(my heart bleeds)

My anger management coach, slowly, surely convinces me.
Couldn’t do what I do. Suggests a minor augmentation towards
conformity – we are in a white society. I agree. No more Afro.

(my heart bleeds)

At the end, in “Epitaph 14,” Swan’s Lullaby bids Mingus a subtle “sleep well”:

Dizzy called you a great administrator.
I never knew a secretary could look so ugly,
or sound so sweet in quadraphonic sound.

 

An Irish Treat For All The Ages

Since early morn – and I mean before dawn – “Happy St. Patty’s Day ” greetings have come at me from nearly everyone. OK. I surrender to the mood. I can no longer resist, so I dug into the top of the pile of books to be discussed on veeareads and found this audio gem, Children’s Stories by Oscar Wilde, Volume 2. The work is narrated by actor Stephen Fry.

Now critics are going to jump on this entry and say, “With all of the great writers cropping up today, why are you hyping the works of someone who died in November 1900?” True. There is a great deal to be said about contemporary writers, and I will. Continue to follow this site. At the same time, audiobooks are in an explosion, and when a really clever collection by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie, born to William Wilde and WHO on Oct. 16, 1854, is extant, there is no harm. These two volumes of children’s stories, of which only one is represented here, are a need to know. Veereads keeps you in the know.

WildeOscar Wilde published “The Happy Prince and Other Tales” (1888), and “The House of Pomegranates” (1892), collections of children’s stories, around the same period as his classic,  The Picture of Dorian Gray (Click the link to download a free copy ), his one and only novel. In the 125 years since, the tale  has been adapted to print, stage and film. Despite its frequent appearances, the work remains lightening rod for outrage and criticism. When first published in 1890 in an American magazine, the horror story’s hints of homo-eroticsm outraged Victorians. Wilde’s alleged sexual orientation has continued to remain a subject of debates. At the same time, his creations are hailed as examples of brilliance. Wilde’s plays “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895), are often required reads in this country. Fact is, as listeners to this 20-minute, audio excerpt will discover,  Wilde’s short stories are a delight for all ages.

Fry is a British actor, writer, director, and voice-over artist who many Americans have appreciated on the U.S. television series like “Bones,” and director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film, “Game of Shadows,” and several of the Harry Potter series video games. He is the smiling fellow in the image above. In the United Kingdom, the prolific actor and writer is most widely remembered for his title roles in He the Black-Adder II (1986) and Jeeves and Wooster (1990) television series.

 

 

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.


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.