January 2020

Not Your Father’s Coast Guard: The untold story of U.S. Coast Guard Special Forces

by Matthew Mitchell

I was lent this old, but very interesting, book by one of the chiefs on board the USCGC Confidence, and it laid the foundation for my understanding of present-day Coast Guard culture and values.

It’s an old joke:  when Navy sailors return to the US, they write books; when Coasties return to the US, they refuel. But in the case of this book, a USCG officer chose to write about the “special ops” he took part in, and the Coast Guard’s history of such ops, especially in South America after the Vietnam era. Although the author gives too much detail of military arrangements, personnel, group nomenclature and classification – and uses way too many acronyms – here are also fascinating, frightening stories of the missions undertaken in the 1980s era War on Drugs (missions that extended far beyond the Bush era and continue today).

The author took part in a small, inter-agency task force in South America, a group of men who succeeded in slowing if not stopping the flow of cocaine (and likely other drugs) from the jungles to the cities of South America and the USA. They accomplished this mostly by blowing up runways and cocaine labs. Their missions were not only physically dangerous and politically controversial, but also emotionally harrowing. The men’s struggles and conflicts dramatize the different sides and purposes of the USCG.

 

The Little Paris Bookshop

 by Nina George

This charming and engaging love story was recommended to me by Anthony Marcelli before I even met his charming and engaging lovable self. In a text message, he mentioned that he was reading it; I looked it up and ordered it instantly, while still texting back and forth with Anthony.

Translated from the German, the novel is about a “literary apothecary” who has a bookstore on a barge on a river in Paris. He has a secret sad heartbreak and a room (in his apartment on land) that he hasn’t been into in years…a room that holds the mementoes of his lost love, a woman married to another man. The bookseller is sad and I was sorry for him for pretty much the whole book, especially when he goes into the room, which has been sealed up for years, and opens for the first time an old letter from his lover. Of course, the letter reveals something that would have changed the course of his whole life (and sadness) had he read it at the time he first got it – but he thought it would be too painful to read at the time, and he set it aside, and by the time he does read it, it’s too late and his lover is dead. Yet even with no hope of ever seeing her again, he still continues to live, and he has to do something with his life – but what, and why? (This was a question I sympathized with).

The book contains both the past narrative (including his lover’s old journals!), plus a present-time story in which the bookseller and a few odd friends take off in the boat, each man looking for a different kind of reading material/escape/love affair/woman. All along the way are references to the complex joys and benefits of reading (and writing).

I was sad reading this and then sad in a different way when it ended (because I couldn’t read the story anymore), but I was cheered by the various long appendices, which include recipes (of meals cooked in the story!) and a guide to literary prescriptions – that is, a guide to which books to read for various emotional ailments, each one particular and odd – and not uncommon. I could relate to a lot of the emotional diagnoses and was interested in getting some more of the books that are prescribed to treat them – but it’s not clear if all of the books are real (are they just fictional references?) and some of the books that do seem to be real have never been translated into English!

I would prescribe this book especially for my friends Margie Wachtel and Joan Ogden, who love reading, and for anyone who feels nostalgia for a lost love or for something that could have been, but never was (in other words, for everyone).

I especially enjoyed the “dictionary of emotions,” which the main character is working on throughout the story. Like the prescription-books, the dictionary is very specific and inspiring. Based on his dictionary entries, I came up with a few of my own:

“The feeling you have at the end of a difficult conversation when you are still caught up in it but know you will feel better soon”

or

“The way wine tastes if you are looking at the sun while drinking it.”

His are better, but you get the idea. Now get the book.

 

Deep Sea, Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you ninety percent of everything

by Rose George

This is one of those books that sounds as if it would be dull but was actually riveting (ha!). I never knew the shipping industry was so huge and moved so much stuff and involved so many people or was so dangerous.

This nonfiction book about shipping was recommended to me by my cousin Jeannette Simpson, who works in London for an American company that creates packaging used in world-wide shipping. The author, an English writer called Rose George, goes on a merchant vessel for an extended journey, to learn about the shipping industry and write about it. She was the only woman on her ship, as I was on my Chinese engineering vessel, and her situation was similar to my own in ways big and small. Not only was she the only woman and only person who was not an experienced sailor for hundreds or thousands of miles around, but, also like me, she had a “standing order” that anyone on the bridge should notify her of whale or dolphin sightings.

What a fantastic book to read while I was underway on a Coast Guard vessel – even as the Confidence was tossed around by the biggest storms, even as the Coasties undertook dangerous interdictions of drug deals off the coast of South America, I felt supremely safe compared to the people I was reading about who were on merchant vessels. Pirates threaten the lives of merchant seamen constantly and almost everywhere, especially in certain passages in the Middle East. According to Rose’s (extensive) research, apparently at any moment in any recent decade, including the moment in which you are reading this, there are well over a hundred freighter crew members (usually including captains) who have been kidnapped, and who are being held as hostages, by pirates. They are held as the pirates wait for insurance companies to come through and pay the ransoms (which, apparently, are considered part of the cost of doing business now!). The shipping industry has to include paying pirates in its operating expenses.

I was sorry when this book ended, and I intend to write to the author and send her a copy of Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet. I also might write to Maersk and see if they will hire me to teach English to their crew(s), as Rose says that there is a desperate need for better English speakers on the merchant ships. I think I’m one of very few people on earth whose résumé includes teaching English as a Second Language on ships.

 

On the Edge of Survival

by Spike Walker

I devoured this harrowing, true story in just a few days, and I could hardly catch my breath. Years ago, while reading of Shackleton’s adventures, I felt cold the whole time. While reading this book, I often felt that it was hard to breathe – the story is breathtaking! It tells the true story of a terrible storm and shipwreck in Alaska in, I think, 2004, and an incredible rescue by the (what else?) US Coast Guard.

A huge freighter, over 700 feet, was in trouble somewhere in the Bering Sea during a storm, and the Alex Haley (a USCG Cutter) went to rescue it, but the stupid captain of the freighter (the Selendang Ayu, from Malaysia) kept putting off the rescuers, claiming that his crew was fixing the engines, as meanwhile the terrible blizzard and gargantuan waves got worse and his ship drifted closer and then onto to the rocky cliffs of whatever remote Arctic Godforsaken island they were much too close to.

There were two H-60 helicopters on the scene initially, both based on land very far away in Dutch Harbor, and they were big and powerful and fueled enough to have rescued the 27 men freighter crew, but the captain kept putting them off, too. The helos could not land on the deck of the ship, but they could lower a “basket” that could lift one man at a time into the helicopter. After many dangerous hours, in which the helos circled around, wasting time and daylight and fuel, the captain finally allowed some of his crew to be rescued. One chopper did lower a basket, but the men on the freighter did not get into the basket – they just looked at it, as the waves crashed around them and the deck of the ship tossed up and down and sank lower into the water. The helicopter finally sent a rescue diver DOWN in the basket, to help the crew get in and thus get saved, but it was terrifically dangerous and difficult. That helo did save about 9 men, but it got back to Dutch Harbor badly crippled and unable to fly any more sorties.

Meanwhile the storm got worse. The other chopper made a harrowing rescue of some men, and got them back to Dutch, too, at times flying blind through the blizzard. The pilot and crew of the one functional helo, exhausted, turned around and went back out to the ship, but on their attempt to rescue the remaining crew, the helo got sucked down by a massive wave — it crashed by the side of the freighter. That left 10 men struggling in the Arctic water, with two more (the captain and the brave CG rescue swimmer) still on the deck of the broken, sinking freighter, being drenched over and over and over by massive waves. So frightening I kept holding my breath!

This made me understand why military people talk about being inspired by their peers. Even if I were in the Coast Guard and had their training and skills, I would not have been as brave as those helicopter pilots and techs, let alone the USCG rescue swimmer who volunteered to be lowered onto the deck of the freighter, and who saved many lives, putting his own safety last. Every man involved was acting out of bravery and noble impulses – their story made me admire the CG even more than I already did.

Now I want to write a book about the CG. This book is a good thriller, but the writing is not beautiful or wonderful…I want to emulate its thrill-factor but also write a story in good prose (as good as I can make it). But would anyone care? I think most people who read military and outdoor-adventure or survival-at-sea books care more about plot than prose. But The Perfect Storm is extremely well written, so…I’m sure there’s a place for a beautiful adventure story. I can try!

February 2020

Steal Like an Artist

by Austin Kleon

One of the two other women on the Confidence, an Ensign who had been an English major before the Coast Guard assigned her to a career as an engineer, stopped by my English 102 class one evening, and she thought my student, Doc, could use this book. She lent it to him, and after he’d finished, I borrowed it, and wow! I love it! I copied some of it into my journal and thought of several people I want to send it to (Miho, Anthony, John Zussman, and more). This will be a book I share with many people.

Kleon’s idea that nothing is original, and everything is copied, reminds me of the Marxist literary criticism lectures I used to hear from Terry Eagleton, although there are significant differences in the delivery (the “means of production,” ha!). This little paperback book is slick, in a trying-not-to-look-slick kind of way. The font is all like a schizophrenic’s handwriting, and the words are huge with outsized stick-figure drawings and big geometric designs on very small pages because, really, there are not a lot of words here. Yet the publishers are still selling it for $12.95, but I don’t begrudge it to them.

Lines I love from this book include:

“Always be reading”

And, about reading,

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book it leads you to.”

Also I love that Kleon encourages readers to find writers/artists who inspire them and study all they can about them. Synchronistically, a night or two before I found this book, I had a dream in which I was with Garrison Keillor, Sy Safransky, and Kate Millett, all writers and thinkers who have shaped my writing and thinking, since college. In my dream, Kate Millett was looking at a watercolor I had done (which was also reminiscent of a photo my college housemate, Beth Johnson took of me and my post-college boyfriend, Scott Campbell, lying down in a bunch of big pipes…). Kate Millet was saying it was good, and it just needed a light wash over the whole thing.

I was thrilled, in that dream, to be with those people, and then right afterwards I was reading in this book about how we should study and honor our artistic mentors. Kleon says we should put up pictures of our beloved artists, and study everything we can about them and by them, and then find out who inspired THEM and ditto study those people, as far back as we can – this, he says, is our “creative genealogy.”

Kleon quotes my one-time dissertation director Brian Kitely saying that he wanted his writing workshops to be like real workshops, full of air and light and hands-on use of tools, or some such. Brian’s workshops were very good, but I would not describe them as light, airy, or hands-on. There was a problem with one of the men in the room doing 90% of the talking and one of the few women (not this one) NEVER SPEAKING. I have thought about that situation often, and it definitely impaired my ability to learn in that class. But Kitely was a thoughtful, generous, and very perceptive teacher, and it’s delightful to see his name in this book about art.

Another good paragraph by Kleon:

“Franz Kafka wrote, ‘ It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you.’ And Kafka was born a century before the Internet!”

I’m not sure about that last line – what part of the world will “offer itself” to me? But I do know that to begin a piece of writing, it’s necessary for me to go alone into a room and be quiet.

Also I really like Kleon’s suggestion for keeping a “logbook”– simpler than a journal (like the one I keep, full of many many WORDS), his “log” is just a memento of each day…funny tiny drawings, a quote or two, a few words, maybe a picture from a package or magazine. I like it. Reminds me of Scott Campbell’s wonderful “The Year in Pictures” journals.

Guardian of Guadalcanal

by Gary Williams, 2014

As Babe Ruth is (I guess) to baseball, as Alexander Hamilton is (now) to the Constitution, as Jesus is (ostensibly) to the bible, is Doug Munro to the Coast Guard. At trivia night on the mess deck of the Confidence, I was surprised not only that a Coastie got the Medal of Honor (what’s that?, I thought) but that so many of the crew knew about it in detail. The hot trivia game stopped for discussion about whether and why he was the only person to receive such a medal while in the Coast Guard service.

The chief who lent me On the Edge of Survival also encouraged me to read this collector’s edition of the book about Doug Munro, which he (the chief) got when he was on the newly recommissioned USCG ship the Munro. So I had a personal connection to the subject of the book, although I’ve never met him or anyone who has met him.

While I read it with interest, I don’t think it will stick with me long. Unlike the adventure story of the last book (Edge of Survival), this is more a war story, about an especially bad battle in WWII in which Munro lost his life after helping to save the lives of some 500 Marines. I’m moved by his bravery and especially his “devotion to duty” (one of the Coast Guard core values). Munro was shot on a small boat, while taking the Marines off a beach where they were being massacred by the Japanese. Purportedly, his last words, when he came round briefly from the effect of being shot in the neck, were “Did they [the Marines] get off?”

Although I was moved by it, I found several problems with this book. First there is the fact that the author focuses on the loss of one American as a tragedy, whereas when he describes times that the US won battles, the Japanese deaths are described succinctly as, say, “5000 losses.” I don’t read a lot of war history, so I have no basis for comparison, but I’m pretty sure that there was horrifying bloodshed on death on BOTH sides of the war. Williams is never exultant about the war, nor glib about anything, but it’s clear where his sympathies lie and do not lie.

The other significant problem, which made it hard for me to enjoy this and at times made me consider giving up, is the heavy reliance on facts (dense with acronyms and many capitalized words, some of which should not have been capitalized) with no context, emotion or anything I knew or could relate to. For an example, I opened the book at random, and here is the first sentence I saw:

“True to his word, on February 24, 2017, the filled conference center in the Douglas A. Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building was formally named the Commander Ray Evans Conference Center.”

See what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but to my ear it doesn’t compare favorably with, say, Evelyn Waugh’s lines in Brideshead Revisited about the middle-aged Charles Ryder’s return to a building that was significant to him in the war. Waugh’s prose makes me cry and re-read the lines over and over, and Williams’s makes me yawn and count the pages left till the end of the book.

Still I am glad I got through Guardian because it adds to my understanding of Coast Guard culture. I am thinking of trying to write a book about the USCG, perhaps particularly about the role of women Coasties, and so I appreciate the background and history about the institution.

April 2020

 

Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

I started reading this book when I got my first Kindle, around 2012. At that time I was traveling often on long overseas flights, most often from the US to England but also sometimes to Australia, and I wanted to try out an e-book to see if I liked it. For that experiment I bought the e-book version of Infinite Jest, Wallace’s most famous book & famously a “cult classic.” I had wanted to read it ever since finding in Margie and Morey’s guest room Wallace’s wonderful essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Infinite Jest in paperback is 1079 pages, and they’re BIG pages, too. I decided to read my e-book only on planes, and in that way I slowly got through the first 400 or so pages, but then I slowed down. After starting it in about 2012, I read it in bursts for 8 years, in which time I found out that actually, I prefer carrying books onto a plane instead of using a Kindle, so I never finished the book in that time.

In winter 2019-20 I took my Kindle onto the Coast Guard ship, and there I continued reading the book at about the 50% point. I finally finished it in spring 2020, while sheltering in place in Northern California. It’s the longest and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Still, it was startlingly difficult to read. The prose is dense, with arduously long sentences and burdensome neologisms. One of the things I like about the book is that Wallace uses words I don’t know, and then I look them up and learn them. But one of things I don’t like about the book is that Wallace uses words I don’t know, and then I try to look them up I find that he has made the words up, and they’re not in any dictionary.

Infinite Jest is very funny. Even though I had to re-read many of the sentences in order to see the humor (or, really, just to understand what was going on), it did make me laugh out loud often. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read in my life is the one in which one of the characters is going to an AA meeting. He hates and despises all things related to the program, and he spews invective in the most mean-spirited and virulent speech he can think of, telling everyone in the meeting how much he detests them all and everything they stand for. Meanwhile the long-time AA members keep bellowing encouragement at him: “Keep coming back!” “We’ll love you till you can love yourself!”

I didn’t love how violent Infinite Jest is. There were scenes of human and animal abuse that upset me so much I put the book down for a long time. Several times I almost quit the book for good: even though it’s fiction, it was just too disturbing and too horrifying. Sometimes, after a long period of not reading that book, I’d go back and re-read a few hundred pages but I just skipped some of the terrible scenes, because …what’s the point? They just gave me nightmares.

I wish Wallace had not included those violent scenes, or had made them less explicit, because the book would be better without them – they add nothing. And without those scenes of abuse, the whole book would be magnificent. It’s not that the other scenes are all lovely and light — far from it! But I would call some of the scenes, especially the ones from the point of a view of an addict who hurts and kills cats and dogs, “pornographic” in that they have no redeeming social value. I wonder what other people thought of those parts, if they find anything redemptive there.

I would recommend this book to any serious reader, though, and in fact I gave a copy to my brother. I also recommended or gave it to my sister, who read most of it but not the footnotes. I’m proud of myself for having finished it, and I hope read another of Wallace’s massive books in the next decade or so, too.

 

May 2020

Insane City,

by Dave Barry

In about 2015, when I lived in Florida, my friend Amanda lent me this hardback, saying she wanted me to read it so we could talk about it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it till spring 2020, when I found it a light, attractive book that I enjoyed reading, but about which I have few lasting impressions.

I think Amanda wanted to talk Barry’s depiction of Florida and Floridians (there are snakes involved, and primates, and illegal drugs and guns, and a way-over-the-top wedding, and lots of drinking). Although the novel made me laugh out loud only twice, it is amusing, the kind of thing that can take your mind off an international pandemic and diabolical presidential behavior. This book is like one of those joke “news items” about “a Florida man” – the humor is based on the idea that this far-fetched, but harmless, crime/good fun/growing-up story is typical of the state and its people. I know of course that it’s not, but what a great beach book.

 

All You Can Ever Know

by Nicole Chung

I picked up this book in the lovely library in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where I went in to see about borrowing books for my students. I went in to borrow books and ask about loan periods, and if they could be extended for Coasties who were in other parts of the world serving the nation when their books came due, and the librarian told me that there were free books that did not have to be returned. She showed me racks and racks of brand-new books provided by some federal military library (I can’t now recall which one). I could take as many as I liked! In the very short amount of time I had before I had to be back on board, I perused hundreds of titles and took back to the ship as many as I could carry. One of them was All You Can Ever Know, which I picked up because I liked the title and it seemed to have something to do with genealogy and adoption. My sister is a genealogist and my friend Amanda is adopted, so I was pretty interested, and then there’s this interesting first line: “The story my mother told me about them was always the same.”

The “story” is the idea that Nicole’s Korean, birth-parents couldn’t manage to keep her and give her a good life, so they gave her up for adoption when she was born. That’s all she thought she could ever know, and it was difficult for her to know so little about her roots as she grew up in an area with no other Asian people – she looked different from her family and everyone around her, and she was teased and bullied at school sometimes, for being different.

The book is unusual, in that it’s largely a chronicle of her emotions. At the beginning, she is conflicted about looking for her birth parents, but not wanting to hurt her “real” parents, the ones who adopted her and gave her a family, who have, she thinks, some qualms about her search. She does find her birth parents, both still alive, as well as two sisters (one whole-blood sister and one half-sister), but of course, things in that family are not the way Chung had always thought that they were: the “story” her parents told her was a convenient platitude, and the reality much more distressing. But the value of knowing the truth, and becoming close to one of her sisters, makes up for any confusion or pain she has felt.

Now, I’m mailing this book to Amanda.

 

June 2020

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart,

by Carrot Quinn

I got a wonderful assignment writing for National Geographic Travel about the top 10 LGBTQ travel books, and as I was looking for books to consider reviewing, my friend Kathleen Mavros (a teacher and reading specialist) sent me a list that contained this one. Recognizing Quinn’s (cool) name from reading manuscripts for The Sun, I happily perused her website and then bought her book.

Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart is the great and true story of Quinn’s great and true hike of the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada. She undertook it out of desperation to “feel something” when she was in her twenties, spending all of her time on the Internet. After reading some blogs about hiking, she rather suddenly decides to walk the PCT, even though she’s never done serious hiking before. Many things about her trip surprised me, especially how she formed attachments to the people she’d hike with, whom she called her “trail family.”

Just as reading Shackleton’s story made me cold, and reading On the Edge of Survival made me hold my breath, reading Thru-Hiking made me hungry all the time, as if I, like Quinn, needed to take in 3000 calories a day just to keep from starving. Quinn often failed to meet that quota, whereas I gained a few pounds.

But besides eating more, I also walked more as a result of reading this book. During the early part of quarantine, I’d been walking a few miles every day, but while reading this book I became more willing to take much longer walks, as much as five miles. No, my strolls along the creek in Cotati are nothing like the 30+ mile days she was putting in, but I’m still glad for what I did. I’m looking forward to Quinn’s future books, including a re-release of one about riding freight trains.

 

Tail in Two Cities

By David Gilmore

David Gilmore is a good friend and a good writer, and I enjoyed his past two books very much, so when he asked me to blurb his new book (for publication mid-July 2020) I felt honored. But to write an effective back-cover blurb, I thought I’d have to lie. A book about gay men’s sex in New York City and San Francisco in the 80s and 90s did not seem like my cup of (English) tea. How wrong I was! I love this book.

Yes, it’s about sex: graphic, often unappealing (to me) sex, sex that’s explicit and not one bit sexy (to me). But the perspective and the emotional context were fascinating, and lots of the sex-stuff was overtly educational, so I learned a lot and laughed a lot. Reading this nonfiction memoir was like reading the private journal of, say, a top athlete or a musician: the personal reflections on his preferred activity were revealing, personal, and funny – that is to say, very appealing. I could sympathize with young David utterly, as he kept looking for love in all the wrong places. Here’s an example:

Our connection was enigmatic and our relationship was open. Very open. We would bump into each other at orgies and then I would wander around the dungeon having my feelings about seeing him. There is nothing worse than romantic sadness at an orgy.

David and I lived in New York and in San Francisco at similar times in the 1980s and 1990s, though we never met until we were both living south of the SF Bay Area in the late 90s (when David was producing the wonderful PRI show “OutRight Radio.”) I had only a few gay male friends at those times, but I did have first-hand experience with one experience David writes about, and I loved his pointed, dry descriptions of the stupid human-potential workshop called “est” and its est-hole leader, Werner Erhard. Here’s an excerpt, about a conversation he had with a new friend in San Francisco:

“Dave, have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you lived into it more powerfully? If you were a conversation for possibility?” Tom would ask me over a cup of tea at Café Flore in the Castro.

“What is a conversation for possibility?” I had to ask.

“It’s when you stand in your commitment…”

I checked my shoes to see if I had stood in something.

“You know, you’re being-ness, not your doingness.

Here’s a version of the blurb I wrote:

Everything I ever wanted to know about gay sex in the time of AIDS but was too polite to ask. Covering about a decade in New York and San Francisco, Gilmore’s memoir offers a factual, fascinating, funny account of lots of sex acts with lots of partners, and a soft-focus panorama of his own heart. “Who . . . goes to an orgy looking for a boyfriend?” Shocking tenderness plus explicit emotions equal a rare innocence, and really great read.

Here’s a shorter version of my blurb:

Down-to-earth, often instructive descriptions of gay sex, combined with shocking, titillating, tell-all revelations about his heart.

The Tale of Despereaux

by Kate DiCamillo

Early in the shelter-in-place period (which started in California before anywhere else in the country), I was making a lot of soup: carrot-and-cashew soup (an old favorite from Diet For A Small Planet), leek-and-potato soup, minestrone soup, split pea soup, butternut squash soup, and more, especially in the first month of staying at home (it was cool and damp in Northern California then). Anthony was surprised at all the soup-making, and when I told him I love soup, it reminded him of this book (and the line, “The queen loved soup.”)

We got hold of a copy of The Tale of Despereaux, which Anthony had been given by his friend Mary to read to the children he took care of, and he began reading it to me. What a fantastic treat! The book is long (it took us about seven or so nights of reading for quite a long time each night), and very well written. Unlike many children’s books, it’s utterly unpredictable and also quite dark. It made me cry, and laugh, and think.

Anthony not only read the book aloud but virtually acted it, doing convincing and amusing different voices and personae for each of the characters. Enthralled and entertained each evening, I didn’t want it to end. Fortunately, even after the end of the narrative there are “questions for discussion,” and so we are still enjoying the book.

Despereaux is an exceptionally small mouse with big ears. He lives in a castle inhabited by a princess with whom he falls tragically but sincerely in love, and by treacherous and sadistic rats, and by treacherous but sincere humans. It’s a story about unhappy childhoods (or mouse-hoods), abuse and betrayal, the idiocy of many rules of law, nonconformity, and the importance and power of love and soup. I recommend it to everyone who likes to read, to be read to, or to have comfort in harrowing times.