Book Review: The Reunion by Michael James Grant

Book Review: Michael James Grant Every Time I Think of You

Book Review by Bud Gundy

Any reunion story is ripe for lots of drama, but in The Reunion, Michael James Grant milks it for all it is worth.

Here’s the basic plot: Stone Grey, a writer living in San Francisco with his brother, returns to his small, coastal Maine town for his 20th high school reunion.  While there is the usual complement of jealousies, unresolved conflicts and lust both fulfilled and unrequited, this gathering takes a quick detour to murder and it isn’t long before Stone is neck deep in a mystery that stretches back to his childhood.

Ocean’s Harbor is a quaint spot, but seems filled with the sort of deranged and dangerous people who tend to stand out against such a picturesque backdrop.  In the midst of all the joshing and reminiscing, we get flashes of what is to come by what has happened in the past: unsolved murders, mysterious attacks and dark secrets along isolated roads.

Slowly, the story twists along a satisfying path that leads us to the present, where curiosity and questions lead to more murder.  Before we know what’s happening, Stone is strapped into a roller coaster of a story that tears along to a violent denouement. 

Small town secrets are fine plot devices, and Grant delivers them in abundance.  From fumbling high school gropes on the nighttime beach to resentful relatives and corrupt cops, we get an impressive array of turning points that lead the story into interesting places.  And while it all felt complete in the end, I didn’t see the answer coming – not an easy feat within the confines of a small town.

Grant is a fine writer with a style that often feels like a splash of water – descriptions and dialogue often strike unexpectedly and can be quite fun, but the sheer number of characters is somewhat overwhelming and now and again the story felt in need of a firmer grip.  Even still, I ripped through the book in two readings and enjoyed every moment.

Available online: click here.

Book Review: Every Time I Think of You by Jim Provenzano

Book Review: Every Time I Think of You by Jim Provenzano

Book Review by Bud Gundy

If you ever saw the movie Beautiful Thing, you might remember that feeling of delight in seeing a first love, coming-of-age tale told from the perspective of gay teens.  Now, in the age of Glee and many other stories, this genre like all others can start to feel weighted down by formulaic and standard tropes.

In his novel Every Time I Think of You, Jim Provenzano breaks some molds and gives us a satisfying read that takes us in new directions.  The story introduces Reid and Everett, two young men who hail from different parts of the same Pennsylvania town, in a chilly encounter in the snow.  While out in the elements of winter, the boys heat up a private grove of trees with the sort of first encounter that most gay men will recognize – and that also illustrates the old saw that straight people should never ask a gay couple the circumstances of their first meeting.

The encounter sets in motion all the elements of a first-rate love story – the clash of economic and cultural hierarchies; the tension of family dynamics; the dizzying swirl of falling in love.  While Reid is the only son of a middle class, suburban family, Everett boasts the pedigree of town founders – the sort of family that inaugurated posh local events like the Spring Fling, and whose surname graces whole areas of the city.  Reid might have enjoyed the benevolence of the local Country Club that allowed children from the other side of town to enjoy the snowy hills of the golf course during winter, but Everett hails from a family who shooed those same children from the premises when golf beckoned for the wealthier families in the warmer seasons.

All the same, Reid’s family is the one most readers will appreciate and identify with, and his parents display a charming, eccentric sensibility.  Everett’s family, meanwhile, is strewn across an emotional terrain scattered with distrust and conflict, all kept tightly bound by acceptable public manners.

Just as the story feels as if it is nearing the expected denouement, a sports accident shatters the effortless arc, and the characters reel off onto trajectories of remorse, rage and uncertainty.  The questions become far more complex, and the answers more remote.

There’s a technicolor feel to this book, a glossy sheen of hope that sometimes shines with a glare that obscures the more desperate world of gay kids at the time and place in which these events take place – the late 1970’s in America’s Midwest.  I grew up at the same time, not far from where these characters live, in a town that was culturally indistinguishable.  Reading the story, there were times when I wondered if such an array of people (almost all of the parents, a sister, a peer, a counselor and a wheelchair-bound friend) would display attitudes that felt more contemporary.  While this dissonance sometimes intruded, the story sailed along without pause for me, a pace set by writing appropriately honored with a Lambda Literary Award.

In the end, Provenzano carries the reader along by the collar, creating a love story that veers in unexpected directions and that offers a readable tale that rarely pauses for breath.

Available online: Click here

Book Review: Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler

Book Review: Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler

Book Review by Bud Gundy

There’s always value in reading about a way of life and culture that you know nothing about.  Growing up in Ohio, I knew the Amish only as a mysterious and secretive group that lived out in the hinterlands – “Amish Country” we called it in Cleveland.  As a child, it seemed a million miles away, both physically and philosophically.  As an adult, you can get there inside of 30 minutes from where I grew up, and I no longer find religious extremism mysterious.

Ira Wagler is a fine and talented writer who brings the Amish family and community where he was raised to life in a very accessible way.  It’s engrossing to read about the rituals of life and courtship, school and work, from a perspective that seems American but oddly distinct.  It’s hardly a surprise – stripped of cultural touchstones, there’s a richness of experience to explore but also a chilling alienation.

Wagler’s older brothers chart his course early when they vanish into the night, an apparently not-uncommon occurrence in Amish families.  Boys, eager to dispense with family drama, slip away when everyone else has gone to bed to flee the grueling work schedule and lack of opportunity.  There’s just one course available – marriage, farm work and family.  Ok, there are more – you can repair buggies or do something else that helps other Amish families live their lives without the benefit of technology, but let’s face it – it’s an automatic limit that boys and girls must accept.

Let's not even mention the unbearable isolation this must create for LGBT Amish people.  Wagler doesn't, and it seems a blaring omission.

Wagler doesn’t accept these constraints, but neither does he outright reject this constrained way of life.  He does flee, crushing his parents, but returns only to flee again.  And again.  I think he left something like four times, which sets up some really interesting religious conflict.  Redemption is a powerful force in the Amish world, probably of necessity, and he takes advantage when he can (once he can’t – a really interesting story in itself.)

Wagler’s conflict eventually ensnares a young Amish girl who accepts his courtship and gladly agrees to marry him, only to make his final break with the Amish way of life more poignant, since the girl was committed to her family and community.  It would be easy to condemn him for the way he uses this girl to test his own faith, but he was still just young enough to let him escape with only our regret, not our disgust with this somewhat underhanded method.  Even at the time of writing this memoir, he doesn’t seem to be aware that this is a possibility, but lack of self-awareness is a common human failing of which we are all guilty.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Amish. 

Available online here

Book Reviews: Columbine by Dave Cullen & Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin

Book Review: Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin

Within days of the massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, I refused to hear or read any more about it.  Other than brief moments throughout the years, I’ve resisted every book, article and documentary, waiting for an appropriate period of calm and reflection before trying to get some perspective on this horrific event.

I recall the sickening clutch of fear I felt upon hearing the phrase Trench Coat Mafia for the first time.  That the national media instantly treated such obviously contrived, adolescent swaggering as a real threat to the community did not bode well.  More histrionic accusations soon burst forth: goths, Marilyn Manson, liberals, Satan, secularism, Hollywood, video games, and, inevitably, gays.  I became increasingly angry at this shrill finger pointing and ripped out a letter to the editor that was published in a popular online magazine.  I instantly regretted this move since all my letter did (in its very tiny way) was inflame emotions.  I should have been more calm, and simply pointed out that local boys killing local kids in a local institution like the local High School might indicate that the problem existed, oh, I don’t know - locally?

All these years later, I realize that I would have still been wrong, because the forces that led to the slaughter are certainly not unique to the Columbine community and are common everywhere in America, and the world.  The pathologies at work were singular only in that they fused at that place, at that time, and no more reflect local culture than the sudden outbreak of a rare disease.  The truth is that it could have happened anywhere.

Recently, I decided that since almost 14 years have passed, there must be a few resources that would be reflective, not sensational.  So I read Columbine by Dave Cullen and Comprehending Columbine by Ralph Larkin.  I found both of these books informative, but was amazed to read such widely divergent views about motive, and was shocked to learn that bullying may not have been any more pivotal than the coats that the killers wore.

Cullen's book demolishes myth after myth about the reason, planning and execution of the massacre, while Larkin explores motive in far greater detail.

It seemed to me that both books reveal an obvious truth: on their own, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold would not have killed anyone that day.  Two disturbed and unbalanced kids formed an explosive friendship, and the killing spree was sustained by a shockingly banal impulse to appear resolute for one another, at least in Klebold’s case.  It’s the same fatal clash of ego that Truman Capote explored with In Cold Blood

Cullen's portraits are riveting: In the final months of his life, Dylan Klebold filled his journal with the typically maudlin teenaged pining for love, along with his passion for a girl at Columbine, and drew pictures of hearts for page after page.  At the same time, Eric Harris was filling his journal with rants about his hatred for the world, how much he wanted to destroy and kill and rape and maim, and it was Harris who did most of the planning.  It is clear beyond any doubt that Harris was the ringleader, Klebold the follower, until the final minutes when Klebold seems to have egged Harris on.

Cullen’s book is a vital resource in distinguishing between Harris and Klebold.  He denies that they were bullied and whatever the truth, these were two vastly different teens.  Harris, he claims, was a psychopath (read my review of Dance with the Devil for my own experiences with an anti-social personality) and Klebold was a deeply depressed teenager who lacked a healthy personality capable of withstanding the gravitational force of a megalomaniac. 

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Larkin offers a similar dynamic, but claims that different forces fueled the massacre – namely that both teens were daily victims of bullying who had been seething with resentment for years.  And instead of a psychopathic personality, he claims Harris likely struggled with a major mental illness such as bipolar disorder, and his quiet anger morphed into a lethal rage that consumed his friend.

Columbine, like most High Schools, was a place where victimization was a part of life.  Cullen concedes as much while Larkin delves deeply into a violent and dangerous subculture in the hallways of the school.  I was struck by Larkin’s depiction of a student who graduated a year before the massacre, a star athlete and probable psychopath himself.  He terrorized other students, and after he was gone left a legacy of wanton cruelty that echoed in the behavior of students long after. 

Larkin says religious overtones provided a moral sheen to violent and abusive behavior, which was overlooked by an overwhelmed and distracted faculty that was desperate to keep the peace with the evangelical fever that animated the local culture.  School administrators, he claims, at best turned a blind eye, when not actually condoning and even participating in the abuse.  But all the same, I don’t believe there is anything unique about any of this.

In my personal experience in High School, I learned that coaches are especially guilty of this neglect.  I attended a Catholic boy's school, and coaches were the favored speakers to deliver noble lectures about character and manhood, while the student athletes closest to them and presumably most influenced by their example often exhibited extreme narcissism, little self-control and were prone to random violence toward their fellow classmates.  For a student like me, these realities undermined the authority of the coaches with absolute totality.  Bullied students take note of these things, of course, and are not immune to responding in kind.  I don’t think it’s insignificant that both Harris and Klebold displayed all these traits.

Because both killers were dead within one hour of shooting their way into the nation’s consciousness, there is no way to know any of this for sure. 

What we can know, and what Cullen reveals in startling detail, is the stark difference between these teens.  Harris, while sloppy about the details, planned the whole attack, which was meant to be a bombing.  Klebold signed on.  In Klebold’s case, it seems likely that he didn’t take it all too seriously at first.  I can easily imagine a teenager, for whom a year can seem like an eternity, agreeing to participate in his best friend’s crackpot scheme to blow up the school and shoot survivors.  I can see him playing along, confident that Judgment Day (as they called it) would never happen. Maybe he watched with disbelief as Eric charged ahead with the planning, but still imagined it was all a game.  Cullen notes that Klebold was deeply depressed, and suggests that he might have been seriously contemplating suicide, so he may have planned to be dead when the date finally rolled around.

You can imagine those final weeks when Judgment Day, lurking shapeless in the distant future for so long, suddenly emerged from the mist, looming over Klebold's life - a vast black wall with nothing beyond.  A year’s worth of tough talk is suddenly bearing down on him, and he lacked a mature personality that would be necessary to undermine the plot.  It does seem that he tried to send messages to others, like a chilling short story wrote for a class describing a man casually gunning down other people while he observes.

After the bombs failed to go off, the killers hastily decided to go on a shooting rampage.  During the massacre, they ignored hundreds of human targets and many students spoke of making eye contact with the killers as they passed the classrooms where dozens of people crouched in terror.  After the initial slaughter of the first twenty minutes or so (including a horrifying frenzy of murder in the library) where they killed 13 and wounded two dozen more, the killers made only half-hearted attempts at more destruction.  For about thirty minutes, they wandered the school aimlessly. Cullen claims that Harris simply became bored with killing, a startling explanation that he describes as typical for a psychopath and another clue to the true nature of the rampage.  As for Klebold, who knows?  Did he realize that, compared to what he had now done, backing out would have been the easiest thing in the world to do?  Did he spend his final 30 minutes consumed with regret?

If you are looking for a riveting account of that surreal day, complete with comprehensive reporting about the planning and aftermath, I highly recommend Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  He also does an excellent job of untangling myth after myth, including the famous martyr story of Cassie Bernall, and introduces you to the major players in a compelling way.  There’s also a buffoonish sheriff who may have made matters worse for everyone in the community.

If you want an academic exploration of bullying and the toxic hatred it can inspire, I can recommend Ralph Larkin’s Comprehending Columbine.  Be warned that they disagree completely about motive.

Columbine is available online here

Comprehending Columbine is available online here

Book Review: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge

Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge

Book Review by Bud Gundy

When I start reading about a topic, I often find myself obsessed for a while.  So right after I finished The Third Reich at War (review below) I decided to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to for years.  Hitler’s Last Secretary by Traudl Junge is an engrossing read, every bit as mesmerizing as the movie it inspired, “Downfall.”

Traudl Junge is the secretary in question, and the forward gives us a good overview of the scope of her life and how she came to see Hitler for what he really was, looking back on her gullibility with amazement.

But her own memoirs offer very little in the way of that insight, and I recommend you watch the documentary interview conducted shortly before she died for that sort of perspective.  These memoirs were written in 1947, while the memories were still fresh in her mind, and she hadn’t yet grasped the true nature of the story she relays with such a dispassionate (dare I say Germanic?) voice.

She begins her story with her life in Munich as a girl, before her parents ended their unhappy marriage.  While she didn’t hate her father, he was an absent parent – working in Turkey for several years before the divorce.  She has evident admiration for her mother, a single woman struggling to raise her children and to give them a decent upbringing with the help of her own parents.  Even still, both parents are shadowy enigmas, making it easy, I suppose, to identify her later devotion to Hitler as the love for a misbegotten father figure.

Junge tells breezily clueless stories from her school years, remarking on the disappearance of Jewish friends with a voice struggling with nothing greater than confusion.  She never joined the Nazi party, partly because of her mother’s warnings to remain aloof from the savage political forces at work in Germany, and partly because her outlook was decidedly apolitical.  One is tempted to feel scorn for a girl so willfully ignorant of the terror for anyone identified as an outsider in Germany.  In the documentary, she stated that she found it hard to forgive herself for this, and I have to say that I agree.

She followed her older sister to Berlin to start a career as a dancer, but by this time the war was in full swing, and Germany was not clamoring for new dancers.  She secured a secretarial job before a family friend tipped her off to an open position at the Reich Chancellery.  After working there a short while, she found herself among a group of just nine women who are asked to submit to a battery of tests to join the small circle of women who work exclusively as secretaries to Hitler.

 Junge is frank about Hitler’s kindness and consideration, his doting affection for his secretaries and others who served him in crucial but low-level positions.  But he is a demanding boss, too, expecting his personal workers to be available at any time, and to conform to his vampire-like schedule of staying up all night and sleeping until early afternoon.

At first, she is excited by the thrill of living at the center of power, with all the famous names sweeping in and out – Speer, Borman, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Mussolini and other notorious people.  Details of this life are rich and fascinating – the tedium of listening to Hitler’s famously dull nightly lectures, the glamour provided by Evan Braun, the distinction of living and working in Hitler’s various enclaves.  We see the regular entourage at dinner, at work, at play.  It is a fascinating glimpse into this world, especially since so much of it seems routine and, at times, utterly banal.

As the war progresses, Junge writes of the hope and inspiration that Hitler gave those in his immediate circle.  She does not write of the sense of doom that many in Germany felt, starting in 1941, when they realized that Hitler had expanded the war too quickly, and that that country was rushing headlong to defeat.  She lived in a gilded bubble, something she did not realize until many years later.

Junge marries one of Hitler’s valets, but she is emotionally vacant about this episode.  Her husband is transferred to the Western front where he is eventually killed.

The final year is easily the most engrossing.  Hitler survives the assassination attempt at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters but never really recovers.  His health deteriorates, a physical manifestation of his intellectual realization that everything is falling apart.  Naturally, he blames everyone else for his own failures.  Finally, his inner circle moves into the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery to wait for the arrival of the Russian army and for Hitler’s demise.

He announces that he’s decided to kill himself, and along with a handful of other stalwart supporters, Junge refuses leave the bunker when a final chance presented itself.  She says she surprised herself with this decision, but it allowed her to see Hitler’s final days with a very unique insider’s perspective.  This is a riveting read.

Amazingly, Junge only felt a single instance of anger toward Hitler before his suicide.  It wasn’t until he was dead that a more permanent sense of fury settled into her feelings about him.  Only then did she wonder why he had prolonged the war, and thus the suffering.

As usual, people mistook vanity for courage, hubris for resolve, pettiness for ideological consistency, and Junge was only one of the millions who did so in Germany at that time (let’s not get into the scary recent parallels in our own country).  I believe she was being honest when she says that she foolishly believed Nazi propaganda about the war being a defensive move for Germany.  I’m happy that she eventually realized that this was no excuse.

I’ve heard criticism of the various incarnations of her story for granting Hitler the ability to show kindness and solicitude, but as much as a I sympathize with those critics I have to disagree.  I think it’s a mistake to make cartoon characters of human monsters.  Pretending that hateful people are hateful in every respect only makes it more difficult to identify true evil.  A dull and ridiculous little man can inspire needless war and genocide.  Shouldn’t we know that and be on guard?

Available online here