Review: The Smoke Room

The Smoke RoomThe Smoke Room by Earl Emerson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Smoke Room
By Earl Emerson

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Being a survivor of a house fire, I have to admit, I was a tad anxious to read this. After all, the star of this suspense novel is a firefighter and fire is his life. Boy is it. Here’s the jolt-of-an-opening line:
“Experts estimated the pig fell just over 11,000 feet before it plunged through Iola Pederson’s roof.”
I know, I know, put it back on the shelf and RUN! Right? Not so fast. And this book is a major page turner and has the attractive sizzle of a new series. Unfortunately, I think author Emerson doesn’t pursue this storyline any further. Which is really too bad. But, that’s just how much you, as a page-flipper, will come to care for the haphazard knucklehead protagonist, Jason Gum.
“…Just call me Gum.”
A 24-year-old, brand new firefighter living in West Seattle, and dreaming of becoming the chief one day. Early on, after hit after hit after hit, you wonder if the guy is going to even make it out of bed and to the fire on time, let alone live through all the incredible road-blocks he puts in his own way. Over and over this guy slams into a wall. Only to bounce right on back and hit the ground slugging.
And there is a romance too and some pretty awesome roller blading which could have been drawn out some more. After blasting through this tale and finally reaching the nearly overwhelming end, you are beyond satisfied. You not only just read a really well-constructed thriller, but you met someone you would be beyond the moon grateful to rescue you from life.
Let alone a fire…

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Review: Hide

HideHide by Matthew Griffin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By Mathew Griffin

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Imagine my excitement when I found this book! After all, it was touted as a remarkable love story and the two main characters were Wendell and Frank, beyond charming names, right? And the fact this was a tale of ‘hidden’ love following the darkness of WWII, it certainly would be full of hope.
Hope, yes. Love, not so much.
Author Griffin created a very hidden and lonely, forbidden gay love story with very little actual love at all. Yes, the two men end up becoming extremely dedicated to one another, but the cost was so high. By severing any and all relations with friends, family—anyone that knew them, they created a self-imposed prison.
Wendell had a taxidermy shop in a declining town of Northern Carolina and Frank worked at a textile mill there. Both very macho jobs that required more hiding and posturing and pretending. True, this was during the fifties when it was illegal to have ‘relations’ with another man, but even behind locked doors and shuttered windows, there was little joy. Griffin’s excessively heavy-handed use of metaphors led to some minor skimming.
Overall, I enjoyed the story, their dedication to one another alone was admirable and there were some nuggets worth noting:
“Lightning ripped the clouds open and sewed the clouds shut. I leaned us against the sill, so he could feel the wind: how it passed through the boards of the house and between our bodies and kept on its way, how the storm moved right through us without disturbing a thing.”
In the end, after the body has gone, the face fallen and memories have all but faded, you’re left with one true thing: hope. Wendell and Frank had that in spades.

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Review: Still Living in Town

Still Living in TownStill Living in Town by Kevin Fitzpatrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still Living In Town
By Kevin FitzPatrick

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

A friend suggested I give this book of poems by a local author a read, and the first thing I wondered was, do I know this particular Tina? She’s a featured character throughout the collection and boy does that woman put in an incredible amount of work into, well, everything she does!
Author FitzPatrick makes no bones about his on-again, off-again love/hate of his weekend farm life with Tina. And I should mention, this is not (my definition) the normal type of rhyming, cleverly paced, poetry of yesteryear. This stuff is called free verse and in my opinion, is a type of flash-nonfiction. Tiny bites of story that may, or may not wrap up in the end.
Give this one a try:

“Five o’clock, Sunday morning,
Tina and I wake to rain and clatter outside.
Our dogs—a poodle, a rat terrier,
and a huge part-retriever mutt—tear out to a ladder
extending up the side of a full wagon of hay.
They leap up like ravenous sharks.
Whoever’s up there best not slip.

Enough. No barking. Down. It’s only Don.
It’s Don Roberts, seventy-eight years old with a bad knee.
who in the dim morning light and rain
appears to be fifty feet up as he crawls
and pulls a plastic tarp across the hay.
Katie! Betsy! Stella! Enough! You know Don.

He secures the tarp and climbs down,
telling us he drove over with a tarp and ladder
when he learned from Joni we ran out of time
to stack our last load of hay in the barn.

The dogs lick and nose Don’s hands. He comes in
for coffee, and then he’s off to deliver
vegetables in Minneapolis and then back
to the other side of Menomonie to see John the potter.

I reflect to Tina after he leaves,
I sure hope I’m that active and getting around
when I’m Don Roberts’ age.
I don’t know why you’re hoping that, Tina responds.
You’re not that way now.”

This reluctant weekend country boy makes it pretty darn clear he has a love/hate of farm life and sees it as being a smidgen less than a preferred way to idle away his time. Save for the fact that it does seem to orbit around the mysterious and obviously very industrious, Tina.
Though this is a writing form I have had little experience with, it’s attraction for artfully expressing a chunk of story in quick, concise snapshots is clear and interesting and very compelling. Even though there wasn’t a single poetic rhyme to be had, FitzPatrick did manage some smooth pentameters of alternating iambic as well as anapestic feet. Yes, I spoke with Mister Google and all things pentameter were explained.
I think this, perhaps, sums up the joy for our author as he leaves the farm and returns to living in town…
“She got up to the mailbox finally, turned her vehicle toward the highway and stars and disappeared.”
• Available through the MORE system
• Try poetry!
• Do you have anapestic feet?

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Review: WONDER

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By R.J. Palacio

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Funny. Not the book, but the age limit of the readers suggested; 8-12 years. I’m a tad older and got totally hooked. In fact, I have had my family read it and you should too! Well, only if you like a book that starts out with a kid getting piles of love from his family, then leaves the safe home-school nest to embark on journey in public schools. Namely, the 5th grade. There he meets the harsh reality of humans at their worst. Then the story gets…
Meet Auggie (August) Pullman. When our story opens he is ten years old and has had over 27 surgeries, mostly on his face. Born with a rare disease, he has had to endure stares from everyone meeting him for the first time. Some run from him screaming.
The disease he has is called mandibulofacial dysostosis or Treacher Collins Syndrome. One in 50,000 American births, which equals approximately 80 babies are born every year with it. The disease affects the development of bones and other facial tissues. Hallmarks of the syndrome are underdeveloped cheek bones, a small jaw and chin, a cleft pallet and eyes that slant downward, as well as an unusual ear formation.
Auggie was raised in the privileged, educated, upper-middle class neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. The book opens with him starting a new school that happens to be within walking distance from his swanky townhouse. Since he had been home-schooled, his world had been small and safe. Now, in this new and foreign place, his once contained life is blasted open in good as well as bad ways. The kids he encounters in classes and the lunchroom and even the restroom, are the backbone to what shapes the real guts of ‘Wonder.’
One clever and useful tool author Palacio uses is to have not only Auggie, but his sister and several of his close friends, narrate the story, all in first person, from their point of view. This paints a broader picture of the complex and oftentimes emotionally-charged relationships they have with one another as their lives intertwine with Auggie’s. The story takes a major jolt when Auggie’s class of fifth graders go away for an overnight school trip which goes horribly off the rails.
This story arc (not telling) culminates with Auggie moving from being shunned, avoided and sadly rejected, to stepping into something pretty darn wonder-full.
Today, more than EVER we need to be reminded that after all is said and done and undone and redone within the political web, we simply have to find a way to be kind again. Though this novel hit a slump in the middle with an unstintingly obsessive focus on Auggie’s struggles in school, one thing shined steady and true. The power of kindness. No matter what face you have been given—there is a heart inside that needs what you need: LOVE.

• Try kindness
• One size fits all
• You matter

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Review: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand AloneBraving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Braving The Wilderness
The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
By Brene Brown

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

To be honest, the title threw me, the second one more effectively describes what this book is really about. Author Brown is no stranger to self-help books and happens to be good friends with the queen of self-help, Oprah, and a regular guest on her show. The book’s main thrust is of our need to belong, how it was lost and ways to find it again. Given the increasing numbers of Americans suffering from loneliness, this topic is extremely important for all of us to look at more closely.
Brown is a qualitative grounded theory researcher. It’s a pretty vague job description and allows her to mush together many different forms of research and gear it to her own goal. In this particular book, her focus was on “…trying to understand what we call the main concern of study participants. When it comes to belonging…What are people trying to achieve? What are they worried about? They want to be a part of something—to experience real connection with others—but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power.”
One of the main issues so many she interviewed expressed was that of being ‘spiritually disconnected,’ a diminishing sense of shared humanity. What seems to bind us together now is shared fear and disdain, not common humanity, shared trust, respect or love. Emerging from their responses, four elements of what Brown describes as ‘true belonging.’

1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
2. Speak Truth to BS. Be Civil.
3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Early on I was a little concerned as to exactly what was intended by spirituality. In no way is this meant as anything remotely related to any particular religion. Brown is careful to define it as recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion, a cornerstone of some, but not all religions.
Once it became clear that this was a universal all-encompassing concept that we all, as humans, crave—to belong—it was simply a matter of defining how we became so separated from one another.
“In the case of the United States, our three greatest fault lines—cracks that have grown and deepened due to willful neglect and a collective lack of courage—are race, gender, and class.”
The ‘cracks’ that have driven a wedge into the basic reason we are experiencing such a major shift away from belonging is something we are all very familiar with. From Black Lives Matter to all the bathroom issues to the One-Percenters, we are overwhelmed with messages and constant reminders of our vast differences.
The majority of the book focuses on an expansion of the four elements mentioned earlier and is well worth exploring. However, it could have been edited into a much shorter read as several of the antidotes loll into lecture-mode and had me skimming. The bottom line is something we all know to be true and the main reason there is a collective, soul-deep desire to belong.
“We are wired for connection. But the key is that, in any given moment of it, it has to be real.”
As in person, not online. Imagine that.

• Hang-up and hang-out
• Re-join offline living
• Show up, in person

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