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Timothy J. Bazzett "BookHappy" RSS Feed (Reed City, MI USA)

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Five Boys: A Novel
Five Boys: A Novel
by Mick Jackson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.99
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3.0 out of 5 stars Good writing, but disappointingly slow; not much happening, October 9, 2015
This review is from: Five Boys: A Novel (Paperback)
A disappointingly trudging novel of England in the days of the blitz. The story of one small boy, Bobby, who is evacuated from war-torn London to a small Devonshire village and how he adapts and fits in with a gang of five boys whose fathers have all gone off to the war. Small effectively written portraits of the old woman who takes Bobby in, an old man who builds ships in bottles, and the boys themselves. Unfortunately, the story moves so slowly, without much happening, that I just lost interest. Gave up after reading more than a hundred pages. There are just too many other books out there waiting, and better ones. Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but you need to pick up the pace. Not recommended. (two and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

by Connie Gault
Edition: Paperback
16 used & new from $3.94

5.0 out of 5 stars Dickensian characters, wonderful storytelling. EXCELLENT!, October 6, 2015
This review is from: Euphoria (Paperback)
EUPHORIA, by Connie Gault.

In real estate, the three most important things are commonly acknowledged to be "location, location and location." By the same token, the three most important things in quality fiction, at least to my mind, have always been "character, character and character."

Connie Gault demonstrated this beyond a doubt with the creation of ginger-haired orphan Gladdie McConnell, the heroine of her debut novel, EUPHORIA. We learn of Gladdie's hardscrabble life in stages, as Gault's narrative opens in 1891 with the birth of a baby girl at the mean Toronto boarding house where a teenage Gladdie is employed. The story then takes a leap forward to 1912, to Regina, Saskatchewan, just ravaged by a killer tornado. Gladdie is summoned to a hospital there by Orillia Cooper, a young woman seriously injured in the storm. (The Regina Cyclone of 1912 was a real event, the worst and most deadly storm ever to hit Canada, leaving 28 people dead and thousands homeless.)

Gladdie, along with Hilda Wutherspoon, an old friend from Toronto, takes Orillia into their boarding house while she recuperates, along with Susan, a small, mute girl apparently orphaned by the storm. From this point on Gladdie's story unfolds in artfully revealed layers, from her uncertain orphan origins forward. We are privy to her earliest memories of being cared for by a kind woman known only as Margaret, followed by a spell with the Tuppers, where she learns 'evil' things which she needs to do to survive. Escaping that, at nine she finds work at Mrs. Riley's rooming house in Toronto, where her 'education' continues apace, when, Mr. Riley, a ne'er-do-well but kindly tippler, explains to Gladdie that she mustn't do that 'touching' she learned at the Tuppers. Mr. Riley also writes down a piece of advice that Gladdie adopts and which serves her well: "Werk hard and be cherful."

I know I said that character is paramount to good fiction, and I stand by that; but Gault knows too how to spin a story, and Euphoria is a humdinger of a tale, with orphans and misfits and comical and grotesque characters galore. It's no wonder that Gault has been called a "Canadian Dickens." A look at the cast bears this out - the aforementioned nefarious Tuppers, an intimidating Mr. Best, the sly Wilbur Twigg, the dandy ladies' man Johnnie Dabb, the overweight, overbearing and itchy Mrs. Riley, the ill-fated unwed mother, "Jessie Dole," the furiously knitting Miss Avis, Perchance Parchman, the cellar-dwelling "Mushroom" Mainwaring and more. Yes, definitely Dickensian, no question. Orphans, bad people, good people, etc. Dickens, and now Gault.

I don't want to give anything else away here, so let me just say I loved this book. Connie Gault is a master storyteller, and she knows character. And this is very high quality fiction. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop
The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers' Workshop
by Frank Conroy
Edition: Hardcover
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3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven collection, but with several very readable pieces. Grumbach is great, as always., October 2, 2015
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This book was published in 1999, and I see that there are a hundred LibraryThing members that have the book, but not a single review has been posted. Well here's one. To tell the truth it's a pretty uneven collection. Of the 23 pieces contained here, I found only a half dozen or so to be truly engaging. I bought the book mainly because I saw it had an essay by Doris Grumbach, who is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. (She is now 97, mostly deaf and partly blind, and continues to write. See why I like her?) And yup, her essay is probably my favorite of the whole bunch. A known curmudgeony sort, Doris stayed in character here, noting: "What good writing does not require is public appearances, lavish cocktail book parties, awards, interviews, lectures, readings, signings, and all the peripheral goings-on and hype ... It might help the level of their prose if they would stop "appearing" and performing and become the private persons their craft requires them to be." Well said, Doris.

Geoffrey Wolff very eloquently describes his own mixed feelings about the proliferation of MFA programs, despite the fact that he heads one himself. (I loved Wolff's memoir about his father, THE DUKE OF DECEPTION.)

T. Coraghessan Boyle holds forth most charmingly about his misspent, drug-addled youth and how writing saved him, giving much credit to various teachers, especially Vance Bourjaily, his mentor at the IWW.

Elizabeth McCracken confesses that most of her fiction comes from family archives, stories and papers. (Her THE GIANT'S HOUSE is a favorite of mine.)

There is a quote in James Alan McPherson's piece, "Workshopping Lucius Mummius," that I especially liked. I can't remember who said it, Marilynne Robinson or someone writing for Chronicles of Culture, but it seemed still very relevant, considering the current GOP circus, starring Donald Trump. Here it is -

"Every day, American life becomes ... more and more like scenes from Petronius' SATYRICON, where sex substitutes for love, profits for productivity. Petronius lived in the time of the Emperor Nero, when the Romans no longer voted for their consuls, but were content to worship whatever buffoon had been selected to be the god-man who ruled the world's only remaining super-power ..."

After Grumbach, the piece I think I felt was most effective was the title piece by Chris Offutt, who probably gives as good a description of the writing and editing process and the compulsion to write as I've yet read. I loved his first memoir, THE SAME RIVER TWICE. Now I know I've got to read the other one - and he has a new one, about his father, coming out early next year. That one too, yeah.

This collection was, to my mind, just okay. Well, okay; maybe even a little more than okay, okay? But it fails to unseat what I call the best IWW book I've read so far, which is A COMMUNITY OF WRITERS, edited by Robert Dana. The essays in that book were all good. To this one? Three and a half stars. Okay?

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude
The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude
by Howard Axelrod
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.92
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good writer in search of a subject, October 1, 2015

First of all, subtitle notwithstanding, this book has nothing to do with prison time. Nothing whatsoever. Quite the contrary. Howard Axelrod is the product of a privileged upbringing, an attorney's son - "a kid from Brookline" - who attended Roxbury Latin and then Harvard. Toward the end of his Harvard years he was seriously injured in a pickup basketball game which left him blind in one eye.
He graduated from Harvard and was awarded a Rockefeller grant which financed a year abroad, in Italy, where he engaged in a torrid affair with a German girl who was, sadly, engaged to another.

Axelrod's memoir milks the partial blindness angle, emphasizing how his injury is a life-changing one, that his new monocular vision forces a number of difficult adjustments. His hearing becomes more acute; his depth perception is damaged. But, perhaps more than anything else, his self-image seems to be permanently skewed. After a few trips around the country, apparently searching for answers to vague cosmic questions and engaging guiltily in casual affairs, Axelrod withdraws to a remote ramshackle house in the woods of northern Vermont - in the Northeast Kingdom. And this is where he spends his "two years in solitude," as he calls it, a time of navel-gazing, self-pity, and maybe even a bit of suicidal, clinical depression. The experience is heavily romanticized. In reality, it is not really solitude, as he admits going to a movie, into town for groceries and an occasional pizza, interacting with the eccentric British woman who owns and runs the café with her daughter, as well as the guy who plows his road.

In case it's not obvious, I had a difficult time relating to Axelrod - one, because of his privileged upbringing and educational opportunities; and two, because he seemed to me to be simply wallowing in self-pity, mooning around his woodsy retreat, rambling in the woods, writing poems, naively dreaming: "And, perhaps, I could eventually turn them into a book, could use the money I earned to keep living here, to make the way of living into my way of life."

Money earned from writing POETRY? Huh? Sounds definitely delusional. A couple of Axelrod's friends liken him to Thoreau ("living deliberately beneath the pines") and Bob Dylan ("how does it feel/to be on your own/with no direction home"). I don't think so. Although I do like Dylan, I was never able to really get excited over WALDEN. And this book, although the author does write well, had a similar affect on me. I thought instead of SEINFELD, which was, as Jerry himself said, a show "about nothing."

But there are some very good things here too, passages that dug a little deeper, that hit home. For example, I was very moved by Axelrod's description of his mother, who, upon the death of her father, remembered an earlier time -

"A few years earlier, after my grandfather's funeral, Mom had told me something Poppa had said to her when his own father had died. He'd been knotting his tie in his bedroom before the funeral ... He was soft-spoken, my Poppa, a man with a natural kindness that generally sheltered him and everyone he loved. But there was something different, something bereft in his eyes. When Mom sat down next to him on the bed, he said, 'Now I know what forever means.' ... And I suppose it was the first time I knew, really knew, that my mother would die. Her father had passed on that 'forever' to her, and someday she would pass on that 'forever' to me."

My own mother has been gone now for over two years, but these words struck a nerve. 'Forever' can indeed be a very sad word.

In another passage Axelrod remember how his mother told how, as a child, she'd fallen off some cement steps and hit her head, then how she'd show him "the small bump just below her hairline, and she'd take my hand and run my fingers over it so I could feel it. It always astounded me ... feeling time right there under my fingertips, the way something that had happened decades ago was still a part of Mom's face, still a part of who she was."

A small detail, but one that so many, many people will relate to, because they too have felt such scars, every one of which has its own story.

THE POINT OF VANISHING is meant to be a book about blindness and seeing - or not seeing. As such I think it only partially succeeds. The pain, the suffering, they don't really seem to resonate here, given Axelrod's advantages. The angst though, that does come through. I'm not sure it's sufficient, however, to carry a whole book. In the end, I think Axelrod is a very good writer. He just needs a subject more worthy of his talent. I hope he finds one. I will recommend this book, but with the reservations already noted.

The Son
The Son
by Philipp Meyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.06
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4.0 out of 5 stars A western saga in the finest tradition. Bravo!, September 27, 2015
This review is from: The Son (Paperback)
THE SON, by Philipp Meyer.

Philipp Meyer's second novel, a multi-generational saga of the taming of Texas, has enjoyed unparalleled success and an outpouring of critical praise, so there's probably very little I can add that will make much difference. I enjoyed the book very much.

A book like THE SON does not evolve from a vacuum, however. So I thought I would list a few of its esteemed predecessors, all of which occurred to me as I was reading this book and made me wonder if Philipp Meyer had read any or all of them. Here they are, in no particular order:

LITTLE BIG MAN, by Thomas Berger;
GIANT, by Edna Ferber (indeed, Ferber becomes a minor off-stage character in Jeannie's story);
LONESOME DOVE, by Larry McMurtry;
THE SEARCHERS, by Alan Lemay;
THE OLD GRINGO, by Carlos Fuentes; and maybe even
THE CARPETBAGGERS, by Harold Robbins (for the Nevada Smith character).

I know there are many other such books. Philipp Meyer's THE SON stands pretty tall amongst these though, and I suspect it will hang around for a long time. I'm giving it four and a half stars only because I thought the conclusion meandered somewhat, trying to figure out just how and where to finish up. But wow, what great characters he has created, ones that will endure for a long time. Bravo, Mr. Meyer. Very highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

A Lucky American Childhood (Singular Lives)
A Lucky American Childhood (Singular Lives)
by Paul Engle
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.00
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4.0 out of 5 stars Pasted-together pieces; somewhat disappointing, September 24, 2015

I probably would never have even known of this book had I not recently read another - A COMMUNITY OF WRITERS: PAUL ENGLE AND THE IOWA WRITERS' WORKSHOP, edited by Robert Dana, a book which I enjoyed tremendously. I wish I could say the same about this one, but I can't. It was, regrettably, something of a disappointment. Because, while it does give you a pretty good sense of Engle's humble beginnings, it has the feel of a pasted-together collection of disparate pieces never intended for publication in the form of a definitive autobiography. In fact five of these short pieces were previously published, and not in literary journals, but in popular magazines - Better Homes and Gardens, American Heritage, and Holiday.

Nevertheless there is a common thread throughout the book, a nostalgic look back at times long gone. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of a horse trader and trainer, Engle remembers a time before electricity, before central heating, before automobiles. Before a lot of stuff we take for granted now. His father was a man with a violent temper and hard hands, yet Engle insists he loved his father every bit as much as his long-suffering and hard-working mother. There are stories here of favorite uncles, holiday memories, serendipitous educational opportunites, and first jobs. His days as a 'soda jerk' and drug store employee are fondly remembered, as well as his paperboy routes and adventures, in a time when top stories included the battles of the First World War -


Reminiscing about the perfume and tobacco counters and the magazine racks in the drugstore, he recalls his first introduction not only to a good cigar, but to the work of Pound, Sandburg, Eliot and Joyce, among others, due to a sympathetic boss who stocked Poetry magazine for his young poet-clerk.

At home he tells of hard times when there was often only popcorn for supper, but also recalls Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with a large extended family.

The pieces pulled together here seem to have been written over an extended period of time, perhaps just to make a few bucks, and it is easy to see how they would appeal to mass reading audiences. But it wasn't what I expected from an award-winning poet and the genius behind the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which was first of its kind and established a pattern for hundreds, if not thousands of writers workshops at colleges and universities all over the country in years that followed. The collection works only as a pastiche of stories about "the good ol' days." As a look into the life and genius of an iconic academic organizer and writer, well, nope. It falls kinda flat in that area. I think there is an explanation.

Paul Engle died in 1991. This book was published in 1996. I doubt very much that Engle ever meant these pieces to be published as a 'memoir.' He might even have been embarrassed by it. It remains an interesting artifact of a bygone era, written in very plain language. Recommended, but with reservations. If you want to know more about the genius and tireless promoter behind the early days of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I would recommend the Dana book wholeheartedly. Loved that book.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

A Beauty
A Beauty
by Connie Gault
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars As novels go, A BEAUTY. My highest recommendation, September 20, 2015
This review is from: A Beauty (Hardcover)
A BEAUTY, by Connie Gault.

Connie Gault is not a writer I knew, but then I live in the U.S. where Canadian authors are often unknown, which is a terrible shame, because it's been my experience that the Canadian writers I do read are invariably wonderful writers. In any case, I saw Gault's new novel had been long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, which is a strong recommendation. Another is that the book has been endorsed by one of Canada's finest contemporary writers, Elizabeth Hay. Two damn good reasons to read this book, so I did, and I am soooo glad I did. Because this is simply one helluva fine novel.

Gault has created an unforgettable character in Elena Huhtala, a motherless Finnish immigrant who, with her taciturn father, finds herself surrounded by Swedish families in the tiny hamlet of Trevna, set deep in the Saskatchewan prairie in the depths of the Great Depression and the drought-stricken days of the Dust Bowl. (And yes, those dust storms did reach deep into Canada too.)

When Elena's father, a former university professor in Helsinki who had fled Finland after their Civil War, one day simply walks away from his failed farm leaving her a note that implies he intends to kill himself, the beautiful eighteen year-old, destitute and starving, meets a handsome stranger at a village dance. And when Bill Longmore, dipping and twirling her on the dance floor, whispers in Elena's ear, "Can I take you home tonight?" she doesn't hesitate; she leaves with him in his long, gold Lincoln convertible roadster. And when he asks where she wants to go, she replies: "Anywhere."

Thus begins an aimless and desperate - for her - road trip across the dusty plains of Saskatchewan, through dying villages - Addison, Charlesville, Virginia Valley, and eventually to the big city of Regina. In each of these places, you meet other characters, similarly hopeless, stuck, existing. And like Elena and Bill, these other characters come vividly to life - Merv and Pansy Badger, the Gustafsons, Scott and Leonard Dobie, Albert Earle, and, especially, the McLaughlin family in tiny Gilroy. There we learn that our story's narrator is Ruthie McLaughlin, the eldest of seven children. In Gilroy, Elena discards Bill Longmore and leaves town with Ruthie's charming father, Davy. Yup, the one with all those kids.

I've only scratched the surface of the twists and turns this story takes. Filled with colorful and utterly human characters, the story jumps forward from the thirties to the early sixties. Ruthie's role in the story becomes more important, but the ethereally beautiful Elena remains crucial to the story, a curious mix of charisma, sensuality and survivor. Ruthie's father, we learn, was only one in "a succession of men." Each of them have obviously contributed to her prosperity, as she emerges, nearly thirty years later, as a coolly beautiful and wealthy woman who has learned something of her own origins following a trip back to Finland.

I don't want to give anything else away about this complex and skilfully crafted story. But I can see why it's grabbed the attention of the Scotiabank Giller Prize committee. I loved this book and hated to see it end. As novels go, it is A BEAUTY, and Connie Gault is a wonderful writer. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Station Eleven
Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.09
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not for me, but Harry Potter and Hunger Games fans will prob like it, September 10, 2015
This review is from: Station Eleven (Paperback)
STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Full disclosure: I didn't really want to read this book. I was cajoled into it because it is this year's pick for the Great Michigan Read. And, as I suspected when I'd taken a look at it last year, it's not really my kind of book.

The premise is not really a new one. The world's population is decimated by a flu pandemic, leaving behind just scattered groups of survivors, some good, some bad. The principal good group here is represented by a band of actors and musicians called the Traveling Symphony, who put on Shakespearean plays and give concerts as they travel around the perimeters of lower Michigan, along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron. (Probably why the Humanities Council chose this as the Great Michigan Read, but a pretty weak reason.) The bad group is a religious cult led by a charismatic man called The Prophet.

There is a mysterious connection between these groups, which keeps the story moving forward. Unfortunately, I guessed the connection about 60 pages in, then kept reading, reluctantly, for another 240 pages or so to see if I was right. I was. (Sigh.)

The very name Traveling Symphony brought to mind the Grimm Brothers' Bremen Town Musicians and Disney's Silly Symphony, stuff I enjoyed as a kid, but wouldn't much now. And I didn't terribly enjoy STATION ELEVEN. Reading it became something of a slog, a chore. There were too many characters and the connections and actions were often tenuous and/or predictable. The novel reminded me of many other things I have read and seen. Most recently, a YA novel by Sigrid Nunez called Salvation City, which, while well written, was not for me. I thought too of another YA novel I read in high school which I remember enjoying tremendously, but that was over fifty years ago, when I was much younger: Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. And there are a few films I remember too: PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO, PANIC IN THE STREETS, and THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL. There were more - THE OMEGA MAN, I AM LEGEND, and others. But enough, ya know?

Mandel inserted her own details and twists into her post-apocalypse story: elements of Star Trek, Calvin & Hobbs, The Hunger Games, TV shows and mentions of zombies and vampires. All very au courant pop culture crap that this 'old' reader found not very interesting.

I like, first of all, 'character' in a novel. The characters here are pretty much cardboard, not very deep or memorable. The writing is good enough, workmanlike, the plot lumbers along to not much of a finish.

In case you haven't guessed yet, I was not crazy about STATION ELEVEN. But I finished it. Mission accomplished, I guess. I'll recommend it to much younger readers - the ones who liked Harry Potter and The Hunger Game books. Me? I'm just glad to be done with it.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop
A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop
by Robert Dana
Edition: Paperback
Price: $24.00
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Booklovers, READ THIS BOOK! A pure joy. My highest recommendation, September 8, 2015

If you are a booklover, a book nerd, someone who loves to read, lemme see, what else? Oh what the hell. If you love books then you will definitely LOVE this one, because it's an inside look at how books and writers get made. And yes, I get it that because this book is particularly about the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Paul Engle, the poet-guy who really got it going deep in the darkest days of the Great Depression, and then KEPT it going for another thirty or forty years, that you're gonna get a kind of hagiographical slant. And indeed, you're not going to find any naysayers here about Engle. He was, after all, the guy who provided the grease - the funds - that kept it all going for as long as he lived. A master diplomat sort who, at the cost of his own career as a poet, continued to convince wealthy people and corporations to provide financing for the Workshop that was often independent of university funding. So if he comes off as somewhat saint-like, I for one am okay with it. The Iowa Writers' Workshop was the original Model T that gave birth to hundreds and hundreds of creative writing programs all over the U.S., and has even spread to other countries. And it all began with Paul Engle's own particular and far-reaching vision.

Nearly three dozen writers - former IWW students and instructors, and in some cases both - have contributed essays to this stellar collection. There is not a clinker in the bunch, and many of the contributors are authors I have long read and admired. Vance Bourjaily, whose Brill Among the Ruins I discovered while I was in grad school. Philip F. O'Connor, whose beautiful novel, STEALING HOME is a favorite. And Richard Stern and Donald Justice, lifelong friends from even before the IWW years. I've read the Collected Poems of Justice, and Stern's Other Men's Daughters (Triquarterly Books) is a novel I've read more than once. Curtis Harnack, whose Iowa farm memoir, We Have All Gone Away (Bur Oak Book), has attained classic status, is in here, as are Robert Bly of Iron John: A Book About Men fame,long-time writing guru, R.V. Cassill, and Oakley Hall, author of Warlock (New York Review Books Classics) and an oft-overlooked but terrific novel of San Diego, Corpus of Joe Bailey.

What surprised me the most though were some pieces by people I did not know. Ray B. West, a long-time instructor along with Engle, wrote a beautiful piece about the nearly two-week period he hosted the flamboyant poet Dylan Thomas, painting a moving picture of a sad and lonely, tortured alcoholic genius. And there is Kay Cassill's series of vignettes and memories of Engle, telling how deeply and permanently he affected her life and career. Gail Godwin's memories of the kindnesses of her instructor, Kurt Vonnegut, are equally moving. And Vonnegut's own eulogy of Engle is uncharacteristically straightforward, telling how he was "dead broke with a lot of kids and completely out of print and scared to death. So he threw me a life preserver, which is to say a teaching job ... No writer in all of history did as much to help other writers as Paul Engle."

Perhaps the one jarring note in the collection is the piece by Michael S. Harper, who tells us that (in 1961) "Iowa was an immersion in another kind of segregation, not only in housing but with regard to the company and behavior of writers, in and out of class. I spent most of my downtime with black athletes." But he also later adds, "My mentors were not my teachers mostly because I was incorrigible, would not listen, and blundered in my own way. Iowa gave me that opportunity." And what opportunity - Harper went on to teach at Brown, Harvard, Yale and other prestigious universities. I know this from the highly informative appendix, Notes on Contributors, which provided reams of tantalizing information of the publishing and professional careers of all concerned.

Perhaps one of the most moving and fascinating pieces here is the one by Engle's widow, the writer Hualing Nieh Engle, who lists the high points of Engle's life and career, starting with his hardscrabble childhood, the son of a horse trainer in Cedar Rapids. She tells us, "Paul was a good storyteller." Then she shares a number of those stories. What a life he led. Paul Engle died in 1991 at the age of 83. He was between flights at O'Hare airport, still working, still in motion to raise funds to support and promote budding writers. Another book I know I want to read soon is Engle's memoir, A Lucky American Childhood (Singular Lives). This book? It was a pure joy to read. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

Ellen Rowe: Letters Home
Ellen Rowe: Letters Home
by Rhonda Stephens
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars A young woman who "had a ball" - will be of interest mainly to her family and friends., September 5, 2015
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ELLEN ROWE: LETTERS HOME, by Rhonda Keith Stephens, Editor.

The book is just what its title implies, a lengthy collection of chatty letters home to the folks that covers about a dozen years, from 1953 to 1966. These letters to Ellen's parents begin with her first year of college at Ohio Wesleyan. After two years there she transferred to Florida State U, ostensibly so she could get into a better program for Spanish Language, her major. However, in reading her letters, I suspect there was an ulterior motive - to get farther away from her home in Akron, and being at a party school, with more warm weather for swimming and water skiing. (In fact, she became part of a stunt water-skiing team in those years, with some photos here to prove it.) Because these letters reveal, far more than anything else, a girl who LOVED to party - a shallow, spoiled young woman who took shameless advantage of an overindulgent father. (Her mother, it seems, might not have indulged her so freely, had it been up to her. There is one note included here from her mother, saying: "Remember that LIFE is not all fun and play ... So please settle down and get your feet on the ground.") Ellen's letters are full of stories of all the boys she's seeing and the parties they have, as well as constant pleas for more money, more clothes, more everything. And these things remain constant, from the very first letters, when she is eighteen, and throughout her twenties as well, even after experiencing a crippling accident while traveling in Europe. Because her peripatetic college years took her as far as the University of Madrid (and, later, to the exclusive Middlebury College in Vermont). The only time she seems even briefly to consider her life, is when she falls in love with a handsome Spaniard, Fernando, and they quarrel intermittently, sometimes bitterly (all of which she tells in her letters home). She assesses their situation thusly -

"It all boils down to this: I've been a child all my life and he was looking for a woman. That was our whole problem ... All along I thought he wanted to change me into a different person, but it wasn't that at all. He just wanted me to grow up, something I had to do for myself."

Not long after this long-overdue epiphany, Ellen and Fernando are involved in an auto accident which leaves her permanently disabled, weakened hands, wearing a leg brace, walking with a cane and/or using a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Fernando, uninjured, disappears permanently soon after this accident. There is a nearly two-year gap in the correspondence, which begins again in the summer of '63, from Middlebury College. Following that there is another trip to Europe and a couple summer trips with her Spanish class students (from Akron) to Mexico. Because after her accident it appears that Rowe did finally finish her studies and settle down to teaching high school Spanish in Akron for thirty-plus years. Editor Rhonda Keith Stephens was one of her students in the mid-sixties and stayed in touch with Ellen off and on until her death in 2005. Several years before she died, Ellen gave all these letters to Stephens. Hence this book.

Apparently Rowe was a popular teacher at East HS in Akron, sponsoring a Spanish Club, raising money and organizing trips to Mexico. She was also an avid booster of the high school athletic teams and loved to watch figure skating on TV.

I couldn't help but wonder whether Rowe would have ever settled down to a productive life, had it not been for her crippling accident. Perhaps this is more of a woman's book, with all its chatter about clothes and fashion, the latest new cars (which she is always hinting about to her pushover daddy), fads and innovations - color TVs, jewelry, etc. But I wonder if even many women would like this young woman, as presented in these letters. Because I did not. Shallow, flighty party girl. There is one particular phrase that runs through almost all of these letters from beginning to end, and might even make a fitting epitaph for this woman: "Had a ball."

LETTERS HOME will be interesting mostly to Ellen's friends, family or former students. But they do convey a certain flavor of the fifties and early sixties, so may have some sociological value. A few things made me chuckle here and there, but mostly I was kind of repelled. I was glad and relieved to finally get to the end. Whew! Enough already!

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

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