Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Review: As Above, So Below by Jeffrey M. Borowski

Published on: April 26, 2012
Page Count: 180
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: Paperback provided by the author
Available Formats: Paperback, Amazon Kindle edition

My Review:

As Above, So Below is a peaceful account of a husband and wife's new surroundings in a small Upstate New York town. As they navigate the new area around them and meet their new neighbors, it is all so different from the Arizona town from which they've relocated. Their desire to experience everything fully, getting all the enjoyment they can out of life is part of Jeff and Brennie's journey. Jeff recounts the world around them and how he sees himself and his wife as a small part of the whole.

As Jeff seeks to understand himself and his purpose in the world more fully, he is assisted in this endeavor by a ghost and former resident of the property named Michelle. Michelle lives in the barn and interacts with Jeff as a guide just at the moments he needs it most.

Borowski's stream of consciousness writing fits well with his wonderful descriptions and encounters with others at his home and around town. What doesn't mesh with this peacefulness, however, is Jeff's rants on various topics, most of which are unrelated to the progression of the plot, jarring the reader as the tone continues to abruptly change. The rants aren't what moves the story along; everything else in the book does.

It's the anticipation of what Jeff will discover or contemplate next that pushes the story along, though the progression would be more obvious without the side notes Jeff gives his readers, which are a distraction. At the heart of the book, though, is a nice story in a beautiful setting and the mystery of a friendly ghost lurking.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My DNC Experience

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to volunteer at the DNC in Charlotte, NC. It was a great experience. Since so many people have asked me about it, here is my take.
Since returning from my volunteer week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte a couple weeks ago, I’ve had several people ask me which famous people I saw and if I got to attend President Obama’s acceptance speech that Thursday night. The shifts I worked were doing very basic things. Instead of seeing inside the stadiums and buildings where the speeches, parties and other Convention activities happened, I answered questions and welcomed people to the DNC. Though not very glamorous, I liked the experience I had quite a lot.

On my first shift I answered phones with about 10 others at the DNC hotline about parking downtown, bus schedule changes, street closings and the lineup of Monday night’s outdoor concert to kick off the convention. We were a business owner, a Vietnam Veteran, an assistant principal, a waitress and a few retirees and me. When the phone wasn’t ringing we had a spirited discussion about religion, John Edwards and North Carolina politics, our families at home, our hometowns and trips we’ve taken or would like to take.

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings I was in the same place: the Dunhill Hotel, a beautiful, old hotel in downtown Charlotte on Tryon Street, one of downtown’s busiest thoroughfares. At 7 a.m. when I was walking from the light rail station to the Dunhill things were pretty quiet. I’d see police officers and security guards at their posts, a few employees of some of the downtown businesses that were still running who were headed into work, and a few Convention-goers who were venturing out of their hotels to find breakfast and coffee. Things didn’t liven up until mid-morning.

The Dunhill was an overflow hotel for delegates from Colorado and Louisiana, and home for the week for musicians playing at some of the delegate parties, media and a few celebrities and Convention notables (I understand Jessica Alba was staying there, and I spoke briefly with Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards). I met NC Senator Kay Hagan and helped NC Representative Brad Miller think about where he could get another pair of dress shoes (he’d only brought one pair and hadn’t counted on doing quite so much walking).

I found I was the most useful standing outside on the sidewalk with the doorman and answering questions there. This turned out to be the best thing, because I got to see and hear things I never would have otherwise.

I saw schoolchildren and college students on field trips to see the Convention first-hand, people of presumably all income levels, people selling DNC and Obama buttons, and trucks driving by painted with verbiage protesting various acts and political beliefs. I saw Charlotte natives who were grouchy about sharing their downtown with all the Convention attendees, and those who were so excited to be a part of the Convention that they couldn’t stop smiling. Across the street were a bunch of Secret Service members who inspected each car that had the credentials to come through the roadblock. They searched the cars in pairs, sometimes with a German Shepherd. 

When I finished my shift I walked down College Street, which was where all the activity really was. Protesters and advocates of nearly every group you could think of were there. People moved on the sidewalks quickly from one building to another to attend Convention events. Street vendors sold Obama T-shirts and more buttons. Secret Service agents searched vehicles and police officers directed traffic. The atmosphere was bustling and exciting.

Many of the intersections in downtown Charlotte needed a police officer to help direct the traffic patterns, changed up to handle extra flow during the Convention. Groups of police officers from all over the Southeast helped the Charlotte Police Department, patrolling the downtown with their coworkers on foot or by car, motorcycle or horse. A group of officers from Clayton County, Georgia, were at the two intersections closest to my volunteer post, and they entertained drivers and pedestrians with dance moves performed while safely directing cars and people through the intersections. Crowds would gather as an officer would direct traffic while doing the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video or Saturday Night Fever. Some would give high-fives to drivers whose windows were rolled down as they went by. Some posed for pictures with pedestrians. All of them had a great time, and so did the onlookers.

While I watched the speeches from my sister’s living room in Charlotte, the experience I had at the Democratic Convention was memorable. I was able to see people who were both notable and ordinary, with lots of money and with little money, from all parts of the country that were there to do all kinds of jobs from voting on President Obama’s nomination to playing a guitar for those who cast those votes. I saw Charlotte residents who hosted happily, whether than meant city workers who walked around downtown with a broom and dustpan sweeping up trash, the officers who kept the event safe, and the restaurant workers who kept all the Convention-goers fed and full of coffee. It meant seeing the people in expensive, well-made suits and seeing the people who were in need of clean, well-fitting clothes, as well as likely a job and a home.

My favorite part of the Democratic National Convention had nothing to do with politics at all. Experiencing the people, not as much as the politics, was what made this week the most fun for me.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Take on Georgia Bottoms

Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress is what I’d call a kitchen sink novel (SPOILER ALERT). Childress threw everything in to make a story, and some of those things I liked and some I didn’t. (Side note: I listened to this as an audiobook from my car, and the Southern accent of the narrator was fun to listen to and not fake.) There were a lot of plot lines going on in the book, and while usually that keeps me turning the pages, this time I felt like each of the separate stories, if developed further, could be their own books.

For example, we had our main character and the namesake of the book’s title spending her time with married men bored with their wives at home. Each man spent one night a week with her discreetly at her home and helped finance her lifestyle. The only other thing she did for income was sell quilts handmade by African American women in a nearby community and pass them off as her own handiwork. The rest of her time was spent caring for her mother and brother, each with issues of their own, attending all of the small Alabama town’s social events, and regularly attending church. When Georgia was found out for both spending time with some of the town’s most influential married men and selling the quilts as though they were her own, she didn’t face the consequences I would have liked.  

Near the beginning of the book, Georgia is preparing for an annual ladies’ luncheon she hosts at her home each September. All the women in town look forward to attending it each year. However, she’s all prepared for it that morning and no one shows up. It turns out that it’s because the date is September 11, 2001, and no one can move from their television sets and the coverage of the terrorist attacks to feel like celebrating at a leisurely luncheon. The book jumps on ahead from there, and I would have liked to have seen 9/11 strike more of a chord with Georgia. Was she inspired to do something different with her life to help others rather than exploit them? Did she use her group of lunching ladies to form a group that would raise money to help the victims’ families?

There are racial issues present in this little town. Georgia’s best friend Crystal was the mayor at the beginning of the story, and she runs for reelection against a well-respected African American doctor, Madeline. This episode was a small part in the book, but could have encompassed an entire book itself if drawn out more.

Finally, Georgia is facing what many Americans do every day by being responsible for taking care of other adult family members. Georgia’s mother is suffering from dementia and needs constant supervision and reassurance. Georgia’s brother is a religious fanatic who gets arrested for protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama state courthouse in Montgomery. She’s got her hands full with them both. Again, something that could have made for a relatable story if fleshed out more.

I enjoyed this book for the most part. The characters were honest, funny and believable (though Childress wrote Georgia to sound much older than her 34 years. She seemed to me more like a woman in her 50s would sound rather than someone my age), and all the story lines, though all thrown together, did keep me interested in hearing more.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Christopher Isherwood

Shortly after returning to the States from Berlin, I read The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, which had been highly recommended to me. At the end of August I began teaching Advanced Composition once a week to high school juniors and seniors in a homeschooling co-op. For our first class meeting we talked about the act of writing and the many right ways to begin an essay or story. To illustrate my point I cut photos out of my 2009 calendar called "The Writer's Desk" by Jill Krementz (I suppose she compiled the author photos and their quotes?). I cut out several pictures from the calendar and placed one at each students' desk before their arrival. After they arrived and we'd gotten the syllabus discussion out of the way, we talked about them in the context of writing being a mostly solitary act. I didn't realize until class started that one of the photos was of Isherwood. In it he's sitting at his desk and the caption reads "Santa Monica, CA, March 31, 1972." I love when writers follow me around like this.