Category Archives: Guest Review

Guest Review by Rudy Benavides– A Child Called It – Dave Pelzer

When I was in school, Rudy was my special buddy in Spanish class. I liked him despite the fact that he repeatedly made me look bad by being smarter than me. Clearly, things haven’t changed much. His review has citations! All you high school kids looking to crib info from the internet instead of reading the assigned books (yes, I do look at the analytics for this site) just hit the jackpot.

Rudy sent me this review with the disclaimer that he had taken forever to finish A Child Called It because it made him so mad. Our initial conversation is below:

Elana : That book looks like some heavy reading. Did it piss you off because of the lack of authority intervention and the idea of shitty evil parents, or did the writing of the book itself make you angry?

Rudy : The story/writing is from the perspective of a young boy, so the writing isn’t supposed to be deep; however, it is detailed and graphic. No, what pissed me off was that the mother was never brought to justice, and she never repented. I read that many years later at her son’s graduation from the airforce, she slapped him. Because the story takes place in the 1960’s and 70’s, I understand that police, social workers, and teachers weren’t trained to look for abuse and deal with it. The sentiment of the time was privacy of the family.

A Child Called “It” is the survival story of David Pelzer in where he chronicles his years as a victim of various forms of abuse at the hands of his sadistic, alcoholic mother. David endures neglect as well as physical, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse through a number of humiliating and degrading punishments for the amusement of his mother. Highly troubling is the fact that, throughout the story, David encounters several adults who could have rescued him from his plight, but for one reason or another, were unable or unwilling to intervene until much later when, after years of teacher and nurse reports, and several trips to the principal’s office, law enforcement was finally involved.

David’s ordeal takes place in the mid 1960’s through the early1970’s when things like traditional family roles were the norm and when institutions such as schools and its teachers typically had no business in the lives of students outside of the classroom. This helps explain why David’s abuse was allowed to go on for so long and why, even after David’s rescue, his mother was never held accountable for her actions.
The period before and during David’s abuse was marked by major social events such as the Women’s movement, the Civil Right’s movement, and several smaller yet significant events, which brought new awareness to victims and child abuse. According to Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, Barth and Plotnick, 1992:
In 1961, with documentation from 71 hospitals, a University of Colorado team headed by pediatrician C. Henry Kempe found 302 battered-child cases in a single year; 33 of the children died, and 85 suffered permanent brain damage. That same year, professional and media interest in child maltreatment was sparked by the publication of C. Henry Kempe and associates’ “The battered child syndrome” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (p. 126-7).
Kempe coined the term battered-child syndrome, which he and his colleagues defined as “a clinical condition in young children who have received severe physical abuse, generally from a parent or foster parent (Crosson-Tower, 2008). By the mid-1960s, in response to public concern that resulted from this article, 49 U.S. states passed child-abuse reporting laws (Pecora et al., 1992, p.126-7). Further, the first child abuse reporting statute was explored in 1962 at a conference held by the Department of Health, the Federal Department Education, and the Children’s Welfare Bureau (http://essortment.com, 2002).
Although child abuse victim advocacy was beginning to gain momentum among researchers and the medical community during this period, it is obvious that there was much work to be done. By the time David was in grade school, mandated reporting by all school staff should have been protocol, especially in severe and chronic cases as David’s. While teachers and nurses did document David’s injuries and pattern of stealing food, an attempt to understand why these things were happening to David was likely never followed through. Additionally, the social worker who visited David’s home should have never asked David if he was safe in front of his mother.

As Hilary Clinton wrote in 1973, “children’s rights” is a “slogan in need of a definition” (http://en.wikipedia.org, 2010).
Had the school staff been properly trained to look for signs of abuse, examine and understand David’s injuries, and notify the proper authorities sooner, David would not have had to endure for so long. Fortunately, battered child syndrome has become better known among today’s human services professionals and is even defined by the U.S. Department of Justice. If David’s story took place today, (I am sure it does all the time) I would like to think it would not go unreported. Education about child abuse is widespread among our society and people seem more vigilant and ready to take action than in the past. Intervention would occur and the children would likely be temporarily placed with family while the parent(s) get help. Reunification would be ideal, because children will always love their parents and want to be with them, but the safety of the children comes first.
Unfortunately, the book does not give the reader further insight into David’s mother’s actions or motives except for her alcoholism, which likely played a major role in her abuse of David; however, certain theories may explain why David’s mother was violent towards him. For instance, the Social Learning Theory assumes that the type of behavior most frequently reinforced by others is the one most often exhibited by the individual (Wallace, 2008, p. 10). In other words, David’s mother was probably violent toward David because that is how she was probably raised. However, this theory does not apply to everyone as one can make the decision not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. On the other hand, someone who was never abused as a child might become a violent person simply because he or she chooses to be.
Another possible explanation is the Frustration-Aggression Theory, which is based on the premise that human beings display aggression toward objects that impede their achievement of certain goals (Wallace, 2008, p. 11). In the book, it was stated that David’s mother intended to be a nurse before she met her spouse. Perhaps, David did not fit into his mother’s picture of an ideal family, so he consequently became a scapegoat. Then again, there is the issue of alcoholism, which can cause individuals to behave madly. It is probable that David’s mother suffered from a combination of issues, which no one around her, including herself, understood.
A Child Called It makes anyone familiar with the plight of victims and child welfare reflect on how much progress has been made in the past 35 years. However, we should not and cannot conform to our past accomplishments, because the world is continually changing, and our future, in my opinion, does not look bright. If we insist on bringing new life into this world the way we have been for the past 40 years, then we must take better care of our children. Otherwise, life will always just be a violent and vicious cycle.

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Guest Review by Amy Suzanne Heneveld – Dans le Cage de la Jeunesse Perdue – Patrick Modiano

You know when you’ve come to accept your solitary life, when things like “days” and “underpants” don’t necessarily change at the same time? When cobwebs form sturdy shelves on which to set things like keys and toothbrushes? When you not only speak to your cat, but set a place at the table for him… ha ha, just kidding, you don’t set a place for the cat, you can’t even remember the last time you ate at a table. You eat slumped in the corner and you glare at the loveseat for reminding you of your loneliness through its two person seating capacity.  Well, shave your mustache pretty lady, we have company. Amy was originally going to do this review in French, but she took pity on me and translated it. Merci!

Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue reminds me of that painting you often see as a poster, of a neon lit café in which you can glimpse the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I just found out that it is called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Green Day has a song named that too, but in typical internet information fashion, I still don’t know who painted it.

The punk song connection is interesting though, since I think the book is a look backwards at the darker side of a youthful and revolutionary period in Parisian life, the late sixties and early seventies, though no date is ever mentioned. The title comes from a Guy Debord quote, and the descriptions of the city in the novel remind me of Situationist work on the city, how we walk in it, where we go, the places we stay, how those places change, how our paths in the city cross other people’s paths, for different reasons, or for no reason at all.

Modiano writes detective stories that aren’t detective stories. I like reading him because the feeling of a mystery is there, but the context isn’t clear. The reader feels suspicious and anxious and curious, but the point of view constantly changes and you are not really sure who is investigating what or why. But this is perhaps why I like it: you get to be the ultimate detective. This sad story of a lost young girl told around the streets which lead people to and from a café called the Condet in Paris’ Odéon neighborhood is told from four points of view, and though you understand the story at the end, having pieced together what you think is the main narrative from the bits Modiano gives you, you don’t fully understand why he’s told it. It’s like parts of a destroyed photograph pasted together, or a puzzle with key pieces missing; it keeps you wondering. While you read, you have to remember, but you forget, and the novel has an ephemeral quality, which aligns itself with dark, smoky bars and foggy Parisian streets.

This book is also about our inability to communicate with each other, be with each other, or help each other. How we often meet, get involved, yet totally miss each other. The characters are unable to experience and express their emotions, so their youth really is lost, lost in a kind of alcoholic or drug induced torpor, lost in who they are trying to be, unable to be themselves. Lost also in the past, in memory. Modiano often represents memory as the same grey matter of his stories, a place in which you wander around looking for something solid but meet only ghosts.

I’m not really youthful anymore, I’m less lost than I was, and maybe that’s why I liked wandering through this book. I am not sure how Modiano’s ambiance comes across in English, but one of his books at least has been translated. It’s been appropriately called Missing Person. Maybe I’ll go missing and translate this one, in the café of a lost generation.

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Group Review: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Elana Scherr:  Reread Wuthering Heights so I’m ready for moody discussion when you are.

Hannah Greely: Not finished yet, but soon.

Elana Scherr: I’ve been practicing my glowering and sneering.

Hannah Greely: I’m working on my slapping and pinching.

Justin Reade Sarno: Oh, Heathcliff.

Editor’s note:

Soooo, there have been some complaints about this review.  Apparently, some people think the brevity of the above discourse does not do justice to Ms. Bronte’s work. To these people I say fine, fine, I will besmirch Wuthering Heights with my opinion. You have only yourself to blame.

Wuthering Heights is monumentally disturbing. Disturbing in a way which towers above you and casts a shadow. I can’t figure out why Heathcliff is so often referred to as a hero. Even the term “anti-hero” doesn’t fully do justice to the cruelty of his character, and it’s not like he’s alone. Everyone in the story including the narrator is at best a coward and at worst…we shall not speak it. When a scene involving a small boy hanging puppies is comic relief, you know you’re in deep waters.

If you find yourself harboring resentment towards friends or collegues, or for that matter, if you favor one child noticeably over another, take warning. Hatred eats and and destroys hater and hatee alike.

I’m still a hater though. Just saying.

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Guest Review by Anna-Claire Simpson: Timbuktu – Paul Auster

At a certain point, Anna will cease to be a guest, and instead be one of those friends who you don’t even sticky roller the couch for. I recommend this book be read in tandem with Travels with Charley by Steinbeck.

The story of a man and his dog. No…wait, the story of a dog and his man. Mr. Bones is the companion of one of America’s great wanderers: the homeless and dying Willy G. Christmas. They are on a pilgrimage to Baltimore, where Willy hopes to reunite with his English teacher and secure a post-Willy life for Mr. Bones. The book is narrated entirely by Mr.Bones, and for any dog lover out there, this device speaks to the great conviction we have that dogs are not only sentient, but that a wisdom of man lurks behind those sympathetic doggy eyes.

It’s also a great love story! What more perfect love exists in this world than the love between man (as a species) and dog?

It’s also a great modern existential novel! Willy is a transient. A brilliant transient, but a transient nonetheless. What connection does he have to the world that records his existence? What meaning is there in his brilliance if no person is witness to it? The answer? Mr. Bones!!!! With dog as his witness, Willy is somebody – he loves and is loved in return.

Gee, a tear just made it’s way out of my eyeball.

I think I read this book when it came out, so this is all the reviewing I can squeeze out of myself on this one. Details are fuzzy (ha ha, dog…fuzzy), but the feelings I felt in my heart after reading Timbuktu are still there. Please consider this as part of your summer reading list….perhaps with a Wild Rover on ice. I don’t think that really is a drink, but Elana, you should probably devise a recipe for it.

Since I do as I’m told:

Wild Rover Recipe

1/2 glass of beer with “dog” in the name

freshly cut grass (handful)

wild turkey (2 fingers)

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Double Review by me and Anna-Claire Simpson: The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosiński

Only two books have ever traumatized me to the point where I really wish I could unread them. One is It by Stephen King. The puppy in the freezer scene haunts me about once a month. The other is the The Painted Bird. The world is a fairly hideous place. I recognize that, but Kosinski’s world removes even the slightest atom of decency from the story, leaving the reader gasping for air in a brutal, vile death chamber. Really, this book is abusive.

Here’s what Anna thinks.

Another book I read a lifetime ago, but the images that pop out in my head from this nightmare of a novel cannot be scrubbed away by time or even the strongest mental detergents.
Like Sade’s “Justine,” or Voltaire’s “Candide,” but featuring a poor little gypsy/Jew boy lost and at the mercy of one backwoods Eastern European village after another during WWII. Oh my god, what horrors await this child as he is passed around: orphaned, expelled, sold, exploited. He is witness to some of the most disgusting sex stuff I’ve ever come across, and I’m a 30 year old woman living in the sexually desensitized 21st century!
As Kosiński’s anti-Semitic Europe psychologically rapes this fictional boy, I’m reminded of a line from Hannah and Her Sisters, when Max von Sydow’s character Frederick says about a TV program he saw on Auschwitz: ‘The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”‘
I think Kosiński makes a valuable comparison between the cruelty of the uneducated, possibly inbred country bumpkins in his novel and the “civilized” and highly structured cruelty of the Holocaust’s masterminds. Not that there is no hope for humanity, but our (the grand “our”) capacity for hope greatly exceeds the frequency with which we acknowledge not only our history of ambivalence, but the how we perpetuate all manner of physical and psychological violence on humans we consider on the fringe of society.
Oy vey. Read this one with a REAL STRONG drink. An Irish Car Bomb???

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Guest Review by Anna-Claire Simpson: My Uncle Oswald – Roald Dahl

A guest, a guest! Quick, clean up! Put that pile of dishes under the couch, put last year’s newspapers under the dog, get the dog off the table, it’s our very first guest book review.

Anna is fully qualified to guest blog, because she read a book. Here’s her review:

We (most of us) have read Roald Dahl in some form or other at some point in our life. While his children/young people books are classic and regularly raped by Hollywood, his adult novels are not so well known. My Uncle Oswald was a coy little book that fell into my lap while I was vacationing in Nice ten million years ago. I was 17, my friend and travel companion had fallen with a case of chicken pox, and I was planted at her bedside for a week trying to comfort while I needed some comfort of my own. I stopped in the only English book store in town, and picked myself up a copy of this gem of a book.

To this day, the minute I hear a friend is leaving for the Continent, I try to push a copy of this delightful read into their hands.

In a nutshell, the book is about sex, eugenics (sort of), and Europe’s best authors and artists. A young man inherits a secret aphrodisiac from his uncle, and exploits the situation to his financial benefit by enlisting the help of a pretty young woman and a brilliant scientist (I always imagined Doc from Back to the Future). The three seduce and collect the semen of a variety of Europe’s pre-war best and brightest, from Picasso to Einstein. They then sell the semen, advertising the “donor’s” pedigree.

It’s a fun romp with hilarious situation comedy and commentary on the private sex lives of the book’s famous subjects. Please enjoy it this summer with a salty margarita.

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