Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

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Uber Diva by Charles St. Anthony

Uber DivaUber Diva: Hot Tips for Drivers and Passengers of Uber and Lyft

by Charles St. Anthony

Kindle Edition, 62 pg.
2018

Read: February 2, 2018


This is a combination of memoir of a Lyft/Uber driver, and a guide to starting/surviving/thriving as one in a tough market. A memoir/guide written by a humorist, it should be stressed, so there’s plenty of humor infused throughout. That right there sounds like a winning book — and Uber Diva almost was one.

Sadly, it came across as a pretty good first draft or a series of short blog posts. Every chapter — almost every paragraph — could’ve used just a little more. A little more detail, a little more context. A few chapters read like a thorough outline rather than actual prose — just a series of bullet points along a theme. A little more expansion, a little more time spent with each idea and this would’ve been a whole lot of fun. As it is, Uber Diva is frequently worth a chuckle or wry smile to oneself, but it’s never enough to satisfy

I’m not crazy about St. Anthony’s organization, either — I’m not sure it ever made that much sense. Particularly, the jump from his opening to the rest just didn’t work for me, it was a jarring tonal shift. The first chapter would’ve fit better as a closing or penultimate chapter, if you ask me.

There’s a lot to like here, but it feels undercooked. It’s enjoyable enough — especially, I bet, for Lyft/Uber drivers — but it could’ve been so much better. A little more revision, a little expansion and I bet I’d be talking about a good read, rather than one that’s just good enough.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

—–

3 Stars

My Favorite 2017 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount. These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Luck Favors the PreparedLuck Favors the Prepared

by Nathaniel Barber

My original post
Nathaniel Barber has a real gift at taking embarrassing (mortifying?), frustrating, and/or inexplicable episodes from his life and turning them into amusing tales. Some of the best descriptive passages I read this year — no matter the genre. I won’t promise you’ll like every story in this collection of short autobiographical pieces, but you’ll like most of ’em — and you will find something in the rest to appreciate. Fun, heartwarming, and disturbing — sometimes all at once.

4 Stars

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at OddsHow to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

by Alan Jacobs
My original post

As Carl Trueman asked Jacobs, how do you give this book to someone with that title? It’s a shame you can’t give it as a gift without implicitly insulting someone, because this needs to be given to everyone you know — especially everyone who spends any time online. Entertaining, convicting, convincing, challenging. This is as close to a must read as I came across last year (maybe in the last two).

4 Stars

Reacher Said NothingReacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

by Andy Martin

You know how many times I’ve tried to write about this book? I read it back in January and am still enthused about it. Part literary criticism, part author biography, part fan letter — Martin follows Lee Child through the writing of Make Me, and delivers one of the most enjoyable reads from last year — easy. It’s like the one of your favorite DVDs with a fantastic set of commentaries and special features, but somehow better (for one thing, it’s not like Martin’s drowning out the best scenes with his blather). It reminds me of talking about Child/Reacher with a good friend (which I do pretty frequently) — but Martin’s more erudite than either of us. Just so much fun.

5 Stars

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaHenry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

by Katrina Shawver
My original post

Unlike the Jacobs book, I do know how to give this to people — and I have. The writing could be sharper — but the story? It’ll reshape the way you think about the Holocaust — not by lessening the horror, but by broadening your view. This story of survival is one that will stay with you.

4 Stars

Jamarr’s Promise by Kristin I. Morris & Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D

Jamarr's PromiseJamarr’s Promise: A True Story of Corruption, Courage, and Child Welfare

by Kristin I. Morris, Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D.

ePUB, 160 pg.
Wisdom House Books, 2017

Read: August 31, 2017


Here’s a book that should apply to a wide variety of people — others who believe that Child Protection Services (using that as a generic term for all sorts of states’ services); those who are convinced that the system will work if we trust it and have the right people in it; those who are convinced that New Jersey’s state government is impossibly corrupt; those who like True Crime; and many others. Sadly, what all these different potential readers get is a poor book.

Jammarr Cruz was a nine-year-old whose Division of Youth and Family Services case worker was unable to keep his mother and her boyfriend from exercising their legal right to take the boy home. She fought it as hard as she could, but ultimately she was thwarted by those over her — the boy went home and died a few months later. Kristin Morris, the caseworker, despite a total lack of evidence of her culpability, lost her job because of it. The book details her efforts to clear her name, get her job back, and make changes to prevent this from happening again. Meanwhile her family suffers, her finances suffer, as does her health (mental and otherwise).

Now, I’m supposed to be talking about the book, not about the events in it. Which is a shame, because I’d much rather talk about that.

The book is told in the present tense — which is a choice that I do not understand. I rarely understand that as a choice in fiction, but in a book that is detailing past events in an actual person’s life? It just makes no sense.

The biggest problem with this book is the length — 160 pages is not enough space to do it justice. 260 may have worked, 350 would’ve been better — I’m guessing on page length, but I know that 160 just didn’t do it. Too much of the book has to be told in summary form, where things had to be compressed and details had to be discarded. Sometimes, it made it hard to follow the sequence, sometimes it made it hard to sympathize with her because months would be brushed aside in a line or two. If they’d taken the time to fully explain how things happened, the reader would have a better sense of the chronology after Jamarr’s death, would better be able to understand what she went through, and how this all had a horrible impact on her family.

Oddly, even given space limitation, there’d be a conversation that would recap the narrative we’d just read (or vice versa). Something else that didn’t make sense to me.

Given the lack of details, the who so much is summed up and the reader is left to fill in many of the blanks themselves, this frequently comes across as a series of Facebook statuses from that friend who is always going on about how difficult their life is — not the reasoned defense of actions made my a competent and caring professional — which is what i think the book was intended to be, and I do think that’s what she is. Also, much of what she says seems more open to criticism and doubt since we’re just given a brief glimpse from a pretty biased source.

This book could’ve been so much better. The tragedy it describes, the injustices it describes deserve something more than this. Morris herself should’ve had a better representation to the world at large than this. But all we’re given is this synopsis of a book, not the book itself (or at least what should be the synopsis of the book).

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this novel in exchange for this post, my participation in a book tour and my honest opinion. I think it’s clear that my opinion wasn’t swayed by that.

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2 Stars

Book Spotlight: Jamarr’s Promise by Kristin I. Morris & Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D


Check back later for my thoughts about this book.

 

Book Details:

Book Title: Jamarr’s Promise: A True Story of Corruption, Courage, and Child Welfare
​Category: Personal Memoir; 160 pages
​Genre: Family & Relationships / Abuse / Child Abuse / True Crime / Murder
Publisher: Wisdom House Books
Release date: May 1, 2017

Synopsis

A True Story of Corruption,
Courage, and Child Welfare

Jamarr’s Promise is the shocking personal memoir of social worker Kristin I. Morris’ fight to protect a nine-year-old child, Jamarr Cruz, that ended in his tragic murder and New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)’s denial of its responsibility in the case.

As a caseworker for DYFS, Kristin helped many children and families; it was her life’s passion. Nine-year-old Jamarr was living with his grandparents after his mother’s boyfriend, Vincent Williams, beat him repeatedly. Jamarr told Kristin it was not safe for him to return home. Kristin urgently tried to keep Jamarr safe with his grandparents, but was told by superiors that Latino children are kept in the home at all costs. This time, the cost was Jamarr Cruz’s life. In 2009 after Jamaar’s return to Omayra Cruz and Vincent Williams, Vincent beat Jamarr to death. Not only did Kristin’s superiors at the DYFS block her efforts to help Jamarr, but when he was killed, they blamed Kristin for his death.

Jamarr’s Promise is a call to end corrupt loyalties in New Jersey’s DYFS. It is a call to protect children from Jamarr’s fate and promote child welfare. It is a call for justice for Kristin Morris, who did the right thing and was punished unjustly for it.

The Authors

Kristin I. Morris is an activist who volunteers her time with organizations for women, children and families, including Toys for Tots, She’s Got a Name, and Urban Promise. She has been with her husband Benny since she was nineteen and they have four very active children. She always wanted to help people, by working with the church teaching CCD, pro-life club, soup kitchen, and through charity work.

Kristin earned her bachelor’s in Psychology from Rowan University. After school, she began to work as a social worker for the State of New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency, formerly Division of Youth and Family Services. As part of the child welfare system, she found herself watching over New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens: abused children. She was extremely excited and naïve, wanting to save the world. Working in the city of Camden among the people that needed the most help was extremely eye opening, but revealed the corruption of the inner systems of the Division. Jamarr’s Promise is the true story of Kristin’s battle with the State over the murder of a child she tried desperately to save.

Kristin’s dream is to open and run a foster care organization as a safety net for abused children, and to eliminate the politics and hidden agendas of larger organizations.

Joseph J. Zielinski, Ph.D. is a New Jersey licensed psychologist board certified in both Clinical Psychology and Clinical Neuropsychology. He completed his undergraduate in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He has been in private practice for forty years as a psychologist, often working concurrently for public schools in special education, in a headache clinic, and in a management consulting firm. He has published in professional journals. He most enjoys working as a practitioner and seeing patients of all backgrounds and experiences.

For seventeen years, Dr. Zielinski has spearheaded the Committee for Prescriptive Authority, a group of pioneering psychologists, to pass legislation allowing trained psychologists to prescribe psychotropic
medications. This is an effort to help the dire shortage of psychiatrists in New Jersey and around the country. Their efforts to help the people of New Jersey are near to fruition.

Dr. Zielinski has been married for forty years, has two grown children and two grandchildren. He is an avid landscaper and is particularly fond of evergreens. He is a fitness enthusiast and a former marathoner.

He enjoys classic rock and live concerts at local venues and attending professional sporting events with his daughter. He enjoys writing screenplays and has pitched a few to Hollywood professionals.

Luck Favors the Prepared by Nathaniel Barber

Luck Favors the PreparedLuck Favors the Prepared

by Nathaniel Barber

Kindle Edition, 204 pg.
Take the Stairs Publishing, 2017

Read: July 22 – 24, 2017


If the title is true, Nathaniel Barber was/would have been one of the worst Boy Scouts in the world. You don’t have to read many of these non-fiction short stories to decide that luck and Barber are, at best, passing acquaintances. Which is probably good — they make for better reading that way (Barber, might disagree about the “good” there — it is his life).

These stories don’t detail his life, they give you glimpses into experiences that have stuck with him for one reason or another, and largely they resonated with me. For example, his first (disastrous) experience with being a landlord. His goals for it were pretty much what I’d envisioned the time or three I thought about trying it. How it turned out for him, is pretty much what I feared would happen to me. A lot of what happened to him as a band geek made me think of what it was like when I was one (thankfully, it was a little tamer for me). I’ve never had a coworker like Dale Kendrick, but I can name one or two individuals that easily could’ve been.

Not all of his stories are those the reader will be able to identify with — but there’s something in his telling of them that will allow you to see yourself in that situation, and feel the humanity.

There is one important difference between his life experiences and mine — or most readers’ — his are funny. Or at least the way he’s able to present them is (probably more the latter than the former). Not always in a laugh-out-loud way, sometimes it’ll just be a wry smile, or shake of the head. But Barber’s been able to mine the humor in most of these situations — frequently at his expense.

Each story has a different feel to it, so even though they’re all about the same central character, they’re individual stories. They don’t all flow chronologically — he jumps back and forth though his life, you won’t walk away with a “life story” or anything, you’ll just get a good understanding of various points in his life. It’s like sitting around a table with an old friend, “Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ”

Barber’s writing chops are evident throughout this, whether he’s going for economy of words:

Against the advice of my lawyer and stern warnings from my therapist, I accepted Elsbeth’s invitation to lunch.

or if he’s going for a visual that will stick with you:

Mr. Millson was a short, puggish man. He was skinny except for a cantaloupe gut he not only ignored but allowed to lend heft to his wagging swagger. He was short and compensated for this with a simmering, constant temper, always fired up and red-faced. Even when he was just trying to schmooze an extra scoop of Jell-O from the lunch lady. His lips were not lips, but the absence of lips. Sweaty flaps, really. Fleshy bits of face he pursed to a thin, kissy embouchure under a bulbous, alcoholic nose.

you get exactly the idea he was going for — this isn’t some sort of arty-ambiguity here, it’s a precise brushstroke. He wants you to feel what he felt, he wants you to see what he saw — and he wants you to at least grin about it. Sometimes he’s not that subtle; infrequently, he could be more skillful about it — but he’s hitting his targets, he’s evoking memories about embarrassments of our youth, empathy over similar struggles of young adulthood, or a slight feeling of dread knowing that’s exactly how you’d react in that situation. Thankfully, he generally wants that to be followed with a chuckle.

Creative, distinctive, amusing — this collection will leave you wanting to see more from Nathaniel Barber, while being very glad you have this.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion and participation in this book tour. I appreciated the book, but my opinions expressed are my own.

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4 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Nathaniel Barber

Like many things in this Book Tour stop, getting this Q&A together almost didn’t happen — but Barber stepped up and got some good A’s together for the Q’s a I threw at him. All while prepping for a book release party. Couldn’t have been easy, but it’s much appreciated.

There was a good deal of jumping around in time in your arrangement here, why did you choose not to start with young Nathaniel and move forward? Was there a strategy (that you care to share) behind the arrangement?

I’m aware that jumping around the timeline could seem like a gimmick. I understood that was a risk but it was a risk I felt was worth taking.

Chronology is a tool. It is very useful. It sets the pace and sometimes, when there’s a lot of messiness and moving parts, chronology can be the only thing that holds a narrative together.

Arranging these stories in chronological order demanded segues between the chapters. They just didn’t read right without them. Maybe it was somehow possible, but I was having a bear of a time trying to make them flow. These segues were lengthy and distracting. You can imagine, for example, the acrobatics required to naturally transition between hosting an exchange student from Paris, to an obsession about pants.

“Time passed. The days grew into weeks and my thoughts turned to pants…” and so on. No thank you.

I admire brevity. While these stories could use a bit more economy of language, the subject matter is very tight. The scope of the story is singular and isolated. These stories stand on their own. I like that about a short story. It demands so much from the reader: they must put the pieces together themselves. A short story reader is a smart reader. With barely enough information, they’re able to carry the weight. It’s participatory. A shared experience.

Similarly — what led to you choosing the events to write about?
Really, the stories chose me. I know that sounds glib. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear authors say things like, “The stories chose me.” But it’s true. As I mentioned, I struggled with these stories to an obscene length. They simply would not let me alone. Many of them were not easy to tell. I would have preferred something witty and artful, but instead I got stuck with these plain-jane stories. They’ve grown on me since though. I’ve developed a great appreciation for banality, thanks to these stories.
What was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
The biggest surprise for me was that there would be an end to working on these stories. Writing and editing a story is a suffocating experience. Sometimes it seems they will never be finished. Their arc, the characters and the concepts that are juggled around a story are sometimes so nebulous and scattershot it seems like a game of whack-a-mole. But I kept working on them, and eventually, story by story, I wrote that last sentence. It’s quite a thing, when you know you wrote the last sentence, even if it still needs to go through a number of edits—it’s a thrilling process, to fine-tune that last sentence.
A lot of what makes a writer are the books that he’s read — what books in particular do you think made you the writer you are/the book the book it is?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Pat Conroy’s The Death of Santini and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.
You’re leading quite the interesting life — is there another book in you? (or are you waiting to see how this goes?)
Yes, I contain multitudes (to quote Whitman). Luck Favors The Prepared is a way of asking for permission to write more. I have so much more in me, I can’t wait to get it out there. There’s two books of rhyme and meter poetry on the way. One is a book of childish poems for adults, and the other is a book of grown-up poems for children. What could go wrong? Also, soon I’ll have another collection of nonfiction short stories (and some fiction short stories) as well as as novel which I’ve begun but I hate. I hope I fall in love with this novel soon because so far, the outlook is grim. It doesn’t seem very funny, it deals with a lot of awful, horrible characters. There is violence, there are some terribly graphic scenes I don’t know how to write yet. And worst of all, I have no idea what will redeem the story. So, the jury’s out on that one.