The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and a Son

By Pat Conroy

Publisher: Originally published in hardcover in the U.S. by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. 9 (2013).

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                                   2013

 

I picked up this book at the library having never read the novels or seen the movies of Conroy’s books, The Great SantiniThe Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. As a word of caution, make sure you buckle up before you get on this roller coaster of a read because you are going to experience some big emotional heights and dips with this colorful, dysfunctional family, who had an alcoholic, marine fighter pilot for a father.    

 

In this raw and unflinchingly honest memoir Conroy describes his feelings after he had finished writing his bestselling novel, The Great Santini, which exposed his father’s abuse of his family and the author’s struggle to overcome that pain : “Though I thought I had written a good book, I had pulled the pin of a hand grenade, then thrown  my entire body over it, knowing it would kill me without harming anyone else…Still, I had warned no one about its content or subject matter. The days passed slowly, but inexorably, like a firing squad assembling at dawn. I could not bear to think that I wrote a five-hundred-page novel just because I needed to love my father. “

 

Conroy confesses that as a child he secretly wanted his father to die in a plane crash because of all the physical beatings and humiliating ways his father treated him. The movie, The Great Santini, apparently, gave such a sanitized version of their father, his brother, Jim, quipped during the premiere that Robert Duvall’s portrayal was a “bambi” version of their father. This same brother also said that his earliest memory was of his father holding Pat by the throat and banging his head against a wall.

 

Conroy writes about his ultimate revenge one night when he was 25 and heard his mother getting slapped again by his drunken father. He promptly goes downstairs, rams into his father, pushes him out of the house and kicks him all the way to his car. He then punches him in the face and puts him behind the wheel and shouts: “You ever touch my mother again and I’ll beat you with a tire iron until your heart stops and my arm gets tired. You get it, you worthless son of a bitch? That’s the last time, pal. The last time in this lifetime. Got it? Now, get your drunken, worthless ass out of my yard, and never darken the door of my house again.”

 

 

 

                 

 

He further writes: “When I returned to the house, my mother, three brothers, and sister did everything but throw me a ticker-tape parade. I walked through the front door and whispered to them, ‘Family life. Don’t you love it?’ They surrounded me and hugged me and held on to me as a gladfulness and keen elation filled me up. I knew the things David knew when he brought Goliath crashing to the ground.” Yet, what happened later that night was as astounding as it was revelatory.

 

Feeling guilty in bed about what he had done, Conroy decided to get up and go look for his father. He finds him not far from the house lying on his back on the grass, with the car still running beside him. Conroy writes: “I reached over and shook him. Turning over slowly, he tried to rise to his knees, and I helped him get to his feet. I put his left arm around my shoulder and we staggered toward the car together. I was going to tell him what I thought about him, but the words got confused in the passage, jumbled in the inexact translation as often happens in the strange world inhabited by fathers and sons.

 

"As I groped for the proper words, they formed by themselves—truth-telling words that could not be censored or slowed down, life-changing words for a bruised soul. In utter shock, I heard myself say out loud to the fighter pilot, 'I love you, Dad.'"

 

Though, as a Christian, I could point out the crude way the author and his family relate to each other and the author’s confused, worldly spirituality (i.e. talks about being a Catholic and praying, but yet seems to make light of lying and infidelity), but my take away was much more positive.

 

Conroy shows incredible love for his parents, despite their shortcomings, and his rugged perseverance to be reconciled with his father, who lived in a lifetime of denial of abusing him, is remarkable. Of course, it helps too that the book is exceptionally well-written, and at times so truthful it is both refreshing and hilarious.

 

“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”

                        Colossians 3:21

After Visiting Friends

 

by Michael Haney

 

Publisher: Scribner

                                   2013

 

The title of this excellent memoir by GQ Magazine’s Deputy Editor comes from a phrase repeated in a couple obituaries that reported his father’s death on April 12, 1970. He was six years old at the time. As a senior in high school, while doing research in a library, he finally does it—he seeks the obits on microfilm from that historic day. What he reads doesn’t make sense. Before going away to college he obtains his father’s death certificate from the county offices. More inconsistencies.

 

Hainey files these facts away for decades until he reaches the age of his father (35) when he has a functional breakdown. He describes it like this: “Every day, I had it in my head that this day could be the day. And yet rather than energizing me, mortality froze me. I wanted to live but felt powerless. I felt fate had already decided. I was already locked in a box. Somehow my father had tricked me into taking his place.

 

“My own Houdini. Volunteers from the audience? Someone to test the box in which I will seal myself and then escape? You, young man. Excellent. Step right up!

“Somehow, he deceived me—then vanished. And I—I remained, trapped in my father’s box” (page 73).

 

Written in what you’d expect from an editor in a terse, short-sentence style, Hainey’s narrative deftly weaves early childhood memories with middle-aged yearnings for the truth and the closure of a lingering and inescapable father wound. Far from being a “just-the-facts, ma’am” kind of reporter, Hainey expresses his feelings and fears freely as he doggedly pursues his quest for the truth, knowing that he may not like what he finds.

 

One of his hardest tasks he discovers is broaching the delicate subject of that fateful night with his mother. He describes it like this: “I want to ask her more. This is why I came here this weekend. But I am eight years old again, nervous to ask her questions. I’ve spent decades as a journalist—I get paid to ask people questions they don’t want to answer. But here I am, as intimidated as I’ve always been. Are all of us locked into a psychic age with our parents? Me, it’s somewhere between six and nine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet, despite his misgivings, dead ends and people refusing to tell him what they know, Hainey hangs in there and relentlessly tracks down his father’s co-workers, relatives, and anyone who might know something about that night. He even receives encouragement at a key moment from an unexpected source. He is at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Chicago and the African-American woman working behind the Plexiglas suddenly poses him direct questions about why he is there. After her tells her, she says: “What you need to do is tell that story. God wants you to tell that story.”  She then boldly asks, “Do you pray?” and when he says no she reaches her fingers through the hole in the plastic and holds his hand and prays: “Lord, watch over your servant as he goes on the quest you have foreordained. Give him strength. Protect him from doubt and fear. The path to truth can be dark at times. But let him know you are with him. Show him the way. Amen.”

 

Years pass, and then…a break.

Penetrating prose. Compelling story. Touching conclusion. Worth reading.

 

"Philip said, 'Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.' Jesus answered: 'Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father'”(John 14:8&9).

Impossible Odds

 

by Jessica Buchanan and Erik Landemalm with Anthony Flaco

 

Publisher: Atria Books/Simon and Schuster

                                 2013

 

An aptly titled memoir considering Jessica’s chances of escaping from the clutches of Somali pirates when she was abducted on October 25, 2011 with a Danish colleague Poul Thisted. Working for a NGO (Non Governmental Organization) that helped Somali people avoid war munitions, Buchanan was asked by her leaders to attend a meeting near a dangerous area near the coast (think of the movie Captain Phillips but on land).

 

Despite her Swedish husband Erik’s misgivings, the 32-year-old Jessica decides to go. Bad decision. Only minutes after her departure to return home Somali pirates take control of the car they are in, and hence starts a three-month ordeal with desperate, drug-crazed, khat-leaf-eating lunatics interested in only one thing—millions of U.S. dollars.

 

Written superbly with author Anthony Flacco, the story begins with Erik and Jessica debating the wisdom to go to such a hot spot, the kidnapping, flashbacks to how Jessica and Erik arrived at such a place, their eventual marriage, and the actual hostage experience itself. To make three months of tedious living a page turner shows considerable skill on the part of Flacco. My only problem was when he would use analogies that would come more from a man’s mind than a woman’s, which would remind me that he was writing the book and not Jessica. For example, when the pirates get excited about getting some meat to eat he writes: “Helab! Helab! (Meat! Meat!) the men cried with the joy of combat troops getting a visit from the Dallas Cheerleaders.” Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think that would be the way Jessica would think, but that is a small criticism. In my opinion, the story moves well and keeps your interest all the way through.

 

 

                                2014

When I heard that the book about the experiences of the three “hikers” who had been jailed in Iran as spies hit the bookstores, I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough. It wasn’t that I wanted to learn about all the terrible things they went through; I wanted to see how God had answered my prayers. Like many Christians around the globe, once I found out what happened to them, I began to pray diligently for their release and that God would give them the grace to endure their ordeal. I rejoiced that they were eventually freed and obviously made it through, but, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. Though the book is extremely well-written by three very intelligent, liberal, young people equally sharing their point of view on their Kafkaesque-type situation, I saw little soul-searching after God.

 

For the most part, they found strength through their friendship and the love they had for one another, which was admirable. Yet, as beautiful as that was, it wasn’t what I yearned to see. I wanted them to encounter the living God. I did, however, see some glimpses of grace from unexpected places, mostly from Sara’s narratives. At one point, when she is feeling depressed, a Muslim man says to her: “God is always with you” which encourages her greatly. Another time a woman, who is a fellow prisoner and a former belly dancer in The Netherlands, expresses love to her in a sisterly way by leaving her notes and whispering hopeful words that lift her spirits. What I found sad and mystifying was none of them seemed to go through a time of reflection on Jesus and Christianity, despite growing up in the United States. Why not? I found it strange that in such miserable circumstances they did not even consider this option, or at least cry out to Jesus to see if it would make a difference. After all, Sara considered Islam and Joshua thought about his Jewish roots a little bit.

 

 

 

The way the story is written, however, is somewhat unique. When Jessica’s experiences are described it is in the first person as if she was telling the story. But with Erik it is in the third person (perhaps because he may not have been as articulate in English as a second language). To me, though unusual, it did not hinder the flow. Erik’s words are quoted in the first person in the Afterward, however, where he shares his heart about the experience.

As a Christian, I was a little disappointed with most of the praise going to President Obama for okaying the mission and the Navy Seals themselves for the great job they did. Though both deserve recognition and honor, I think God should get the most glory for the marvelous outcome.

 

I was thankful that Jessica does give her Christian father credit for his godly response to her mother’s death when he honestly prays at the funeral: “I don’t understand you…but I trust you.” She leaned on that faith frequently during her trial and by its conclusion she found she also could pray the same thing from her heart to God. She even confesses that she passed from the second step of the grieving process about her mom’s death from anger to acceptance after the whole ordeal: “I’m afraid I needed something to shake me out of my anger over losing her so early. “

 

I also appreciated Erik’s admission at the end that he felt the prayers of so many were effective, even if he did not necessarily have a personal belief in God through Jesus Christ.

 

This traumatic story makes one pause: Maybe it would be wise to listen to your spouse if he, or she, has serious doubts about you doing something.

 

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The biggest encouragement I received in   reading this book, in reference to my prayers, came at the end when Sara wraps up her thoughts about the experience. She writes: “The most empowering and challenging part of free life has been choosing what parts of prison I want to integrate and what parts are best left behind. Solitary confinement opened up existential questions that were too uncomfortable to sit with, so in that situation I sought answers. Worship and the notion of a personified God helped me tremendously in prison. I needed a higher power I could speak to, a relationship through which I could orient myself to the world I’d lost.” These statements, at least, give me hope that Sara is open to the possibility of a loving personal God. The way she describes it, though, makes it almost sound like she made up the idea as a method of surviving as opposed to actually connecting with her Creator.

 

I am thankful that she got a “sliver of light” but I will be praying that she, as well as Shane and Joshua, will get the same “flash of light” that Saul experienced on the road to Damascus.

 

"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

 Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

 

by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal & Sarah Shourd

 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

Billion Dollar Painter: The Triumph and Tragedy of Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light

 

by G. Eric Kuskey with Bettina Gilois

 

Publisher: Weinstein Books

                                   2014

 

I picked up this book because I knew very little about Thomas Kinkade, the man, though, like everyone else, I had seen his work everywhere from calendars to coffee mugs. I had read he claimed to be a Christian and had heard the rumors that he had committed suicide, which shocked me. Written by G. Eric Kuskey, a man who claimed to be his friend and business associate for 16 years, I thought the book might bring some insight into this apparent paradox.

 

The author explains how he got on board the Kinkade team as the licensing agent when the business was starting to take off, and helped stamp “the painter of light” images on everything he and Kinkade could imagine. The income from his work eventually grossed over a billion.

 

Kuskey describes Kinkade’s life well: growing up in poverty in a fatherless home and sometimes going hungry, his sincere faith, his diligent work ethic, his fun-loving spirit, and his alcoholism—the latter leading him into numerous embarrassing incidents and, in my opinion, was the real culprit that killed him. Kinkade’s millions provided him with unlimited funds and the author tells us of his generosity, his multiple mansions, his collection of cars and “toys”, and his inability to confront his own problems, or those of his company. At one point the company had to file bankruptcy due to the failure of multiple Thomas Kinkade galleries around the country and the ensuing lawsuits.

 

 

 

As a friend and confidante of Kinkade, Kuskey listened to the celebrity’s thoughts about art and his struggles to be accepted by the art community, which disdained him—probably for his fame and fortune and the saturation of his products around the globe. Kinkade, however, preferred to be the common man’s artist like Norman Rockwell, as opposed to being an “artiste” for the elite few.

 

The sad part of the story is how his close friends, who claimed to be Christians (the author, a Catholic, and the others, evangelical) did not confront Kinkade earlier about his alcoholism and outlandish behavior and insist that he get help. Instead, according to the author, they went on gambling and drinking sprees with him, encouraging him by their silence and participation. I guess it’s hard to jinx the goose that lays the golden eggs, especially when you receive them.

 

It was painful to read as well how Kinkade did respond when his wife finally gave him an ultimatum, to either shape up or lose her and his daughters, and had him committed to a treatment center. Unfortunately, he remained in denial, held resentment against her, went back to drinking, and even got involved in immoral relationships–a tragic end for a truly gifted and beloved artist.

 

Yet, his story makes me pause…am I compromising in some areas myself that I need to face? And, are there people in my life that I need to confront that are getting close to a precipice that could cost them their lives?

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would  a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17).

 

Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea

 

by Jang Jin Sung

Translated by Shirley Lee

 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 

 

O                               2014

Surprised by an “Extraordinary Summons” just after midnight in 1999, the author, who was 28 at the time, is taken to meet the leader of his country, General  Kim Jong-il. The reason: he wrote a poem honoring the general. Now, he will enter an elite world that few North Koreans will ever know as a propagandist poet for the government.

 

Yet, encountering the “Dear Leader” in person is disconcerting to him for several reasons. First, the Supreme Leader says to him: “You, boy! Are you the one who wrote the poem about the gun barrel?” and then follows that quickly with: “Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right? Don’t even think about lying to me. I’ll have you killed.” Second, the general takes more interest in the puppy he’s brought with him than the high-ranking officials in the room. Thirdly, he weeps as a woman in western dress sings a Russian folk song for their entertainment.

 

Jin-sung writes about his impression of the “Dear Leader” after seeing him cry in the presence of everyone at the meeting: “A distressing thought grips me, and it is hard to shake off: those tears were not the tears of a compassionate divinity but, rather, of a desperate man”(Prologue xxii).

 

During the next year, Jin-sung is given the prestigious task of writing an epic poem commemorating the “immortal life” of the former Supreme Leader, Kim Il-sung.  Before plunging into the project, however, he is granted permission to go on a trip. He chooses to go home. What he sees there exposes the reality of the horrors going on in his country. He describes it this way: “I did not understand what I was seeing, but as soon as I realized these empty sacks were human bodies, I grew nauseous and retched. I trembled with angry regret for having looked too closely. I had heard rumors that when the Public Distribution System collapsed, corpses could be seen in the streets in some provinces. But I had never thought to see it happen in my own hometown. The place I’d cherished in my memory had been like a beautiful landscape painting; now that was sullied forever, and torn into shreds. At the betrayal of my memories, I felt rage tempered by confusion rising up from deep within me” (page 49).

 

 

 

While walking around his town with a friend he is also appalled by all the banners everywhere threatening execution for a wide variety of reasons including gossiping, spreading foreign culture, wasting electricity, and disobeying traffic rules. He even witnesses a horrible public execution. The crime—stealing a sack of rice. He later writes realistic poems about what the people are suffering, but fears their discovery and imprisonment, or worse.

 

When he goes back to his comfortable work environment questions erupt inside his head that he cannot answer. “Why were we a poor nation? If our Supreme Leader was great, why were his people starving to death? Reforms had led the Chinese to prosperity, so why was our party not considering any change in policies?” He reads South Korean papers that he is allowed to read because of his position and learns that writers there can criticize their government freely. He also learns that South Korea, as opposed to what he had been told, is not suffering economically, but actually is technologically advanced.

 

The moment of decision comes when Jin-sung lends a top-secret book to a friend who leaves it by accident on a train. They both know they are in serious trouble since government officials will no doubt trace the number on the book back to Jin-sung. The book included an unflattering biography of Kim Jong-il and his family, which mentioned Jong-il's alleged mistresses and bloody purges--a treasonous offense.

 

The book is a fascinating read as Jin-sung and his friend make their escape into China with North Korean agents on their tail and then Chinese police taking up the chase. It was inspiring to see ordinary Chinese citizens opening their doors and risking imprisonment to help them, although the people at the state churches did not want to get involved. It seemed odd, at least for me living in America, to read about the author’s amazement at the freedom in China, but I guess that depends on where you you are coming from. If you’re curious about knowing more about North Korea from a top-level insider, you’ll have trouble putting it down.

 

"A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops" (Proverbs 28:3).

Witnessing to Dracula (2010)

by Billy Ng

 

Publisher: Self

 

Library of Congress Catalog No.: 2010901097 

 

 

 

 

 

As soon as I read the first sentence of this book,  I knew this was not your average missionary narrative: "I was always a law abiding person until God called me into ministry."

 

The author then drops you into Romania as he is trying to break into a school where he has legally rented a gymnasium for his first Christmas outreach. His worship team has arrived prepared to sing the Christmas carols in Romanian that they have been practicing for months, an abundance of goodies are ready to hand out, thousands of invitations and posters have been distributed, and...it is impossible to find anyone to open the door. As a desperate minister not wanting to miss an opportunity to reach people, what do you do? Ng does not hesitate: "Give me that hacksaw!"

 

In the next chapter, Dr. Ng, a former Operations professor at an American university, flashes back to a garage sale in New York where he is selling everything he owns to move to Romania. How God spoke to him and called him to this particular nation is unclear. He is just convinced that he must go regardless of the cost and sacrifice. The rest of the book then chronicles his sometimes hilarious adventures and trials adapting to this foreign land, which eventually lead us back to his unusual predicament at the school. 

 

Some of his experiences include: breaking his shower pipe and flooding his apartment; being frisked by eight, rotund, Gypsy women on a bus as they search for valuables; running from policemen who want his money, having his new car and music equipment stolen, getting death threats from unhappy fathers, chasing a Mercedes Benz with a coffin sticking out of the trunk, visiting Dracula's castle, and sharing a "strange brew" and a lard barbeque with Romanian friends next to some railroad tracks.

 

Ng is a master at dialogue, creative metaphors, and deadpan, honest observations that leave you rolling with laughter yet challenging your faith. The following are some examples of his writing style:

 

"The gypies, upon seeing the security guards, fled like a school of graffiti coated manatees in every direction" (p.53).

 

"The lugubrious director of the Great Hall peered at me down the length of his nose. He examined me the way a hungry lion would examine a freshly killed baby antelope that had dropped from the sky" (p.87). 

 

Although Ng has an entertaining way of telling his story, the author's sincere love for God and the people he feels called to serve shines through in every chapter. When you see the needs of the country of Romania through Billy Ng's eyes and all that he went through, you understand why God sent him there and marvel at Billy's perseverance.

 

May we, as Christians, all have that same heart of obedience: "Here am I, Lord. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8)

A Hilarious and Informative Primer             on Cross-cultural Ministry

Memoir Reviews

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Glass Castle (2005)

by Jeannette Walls

 

Publisher: Scribner

 

***The film adaption is due out in 2017 starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson

 

 

 

 

The title of this haunting yet beautifully written memoir is the name of the dream house that the author's father, Rex Walls, intended to build for his family. It is also a perfect metaphor for the home he actually gave them. Whereas a castle is normally a strong fortified structure to protect its inhabitants from enemy attacks, a glass castle would do the exact opposite--render its tenants completely vulnerable to their assailants. 

 

Such was the case for the Walls family who suffered merciless assaults in the form of poverty conditions, constant hunger, ridicule, and worse because of Rex's alcoholism and neglect. It also did not help that the mom, Rose Mary, was more consumed with being an artist than paying the bills and providing for her four children. 

 

A scenario like this could easily lead a child to self-pity, bitterness, and despair but that was not the case with Jeannette Walls, the middle daughter, who wrote this amazing and moving story. Instead, Walls' literary voice sounds more like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, under a lot worse set of circumstances. She is an innocent observer as she takes things as they come and her parents as they are. She is intuitive, smart and, as she grows older, does what she can to survive. In the following passage she and her brother Brian get creative to alleviate their hunger: "We'd heard of a dish called Poke salad, and since a big patch of pokeweed grew behind our house, Brian and I thought we'd give it a try. If it was any good, we'd have a whole new supply of food. We first tried eating the pokeweed raw, but it was awfully bitter, so we boiled it--singing 'Poke Salad Annie' in anticipation--but it still tasted sour and stringy, and our tongues itched for days afterward."

 

Later, Walls discovers a rich source of food in the school lavatory garbage cans. She hides in a toilet cubicle with her feet up and waits for her school mates to throw away parts of their lunches, which were perfectly edible, and then returns there to feast on her spoils.

 

In terms of Christianity, the only mention of Jesus comes from the lips of a drunken Rex Walls when he disrupts a Catholic service with his comments. The author also writes that her mother considered herself a Catholic but would encourage them to steal clothes at a thrift store. At the end of the book, however, Rex confesses that he is open to the idea of God because of the work of the physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum.

 

A common theme throughout the book is the author's unwavering love for her dad, despite his defects, and his love for her. Close to his death they have this conversation together:

 

     "Now, no snot-slinging or boohooing about 'poor ol' Rex," Dad said. I don't  want any of that, either now or when I am gone."

 

I nodded.  

 

     "But you always loved your old man, didn't you?"

 

     "I did, Dad," I said. "And you loved me."

 

     "Now, that's the God's honest truth." Dad chuckled. "We had some times, didn't       we?"

 

     "We did."

 

     "Never did build that Glass Castle."

 

     "No. But we had fun planning it."

 

Although this book will infuriate you at times, especially if you are a parent, to see the author courageously break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, forge a successful career for herself, and maintain her love for her parents is a beautiful thing to behold.

 

"Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me" (Psalm 27:10).

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catch Me If You Can (1st printing 1980 and reprinted after the movie was released in 2003)

 

Publisher: Broadway Books

Warning: If you start reading this fascinating book by Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding, be prepared to bring it with you everywhere you go until you finish it. If you missed the 2002 movie, Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, this is the true story on which the film was based—about a precocious and mature-looking, sixteen-year-old boy who ran away from home after his parents’ divorce and subsequently learned to survive by writing fraudulent checks, impersonating respected professionals like pilots, doctors, and lawyers, and staying just one step ahead of the FBI.

 

Although, as a Christian, you obviously can’t condone such nefarious activities, you can marvel at the young Abagnale’s creativity, ingenuity, and chameleon-like ability to become anyone he imagines himself to be. The fact that he was able to elude the FBI and other international agencies for five years and rack up a total of two and a half million dollars before he turned 21 is a testament to his keen (though twisted) intelligence. Some of his escapades leave you scratching your head wondering how he could have ever pulled them off--like the time he returns to a bank he just scammed pretending to be a FBI agent so he can get his check back, or getting a summer job as a college sociology professor and being praised by faculty and students alike after the stint when he didn’t even have a high school diploma. What makes you, as the reader, sympathetic to Frank is realizing that running away from home was his emotional response as a youth to the trauma of his parents' divorce and his criminal history was his way to survive.

 

Yet, we read in the book that life on the lam for Frank was not always so glamorous, even if he could drive expensive sports cars and bed gullible  women (thankfully he only mentions his liaisons and does not go into any detail). He confesses that he eventually got tired of running and hiding his secrets from everyone and tried to lay low in Montpelier, France, for a time, thinking that airline personnel probably wouldn’t go that far inland, but he was wrong. Spotted by an airline stewardess from Air France that once dated him, Abagnale finally got arrested by the French police, was tried, and sent to prison.

 

A key section in the book, but glossed over in the film, is Abagnale’s six months in the French prison where he is kept in an isolated cell stark naked, with no light, no toilet but a bucket, and cruel guards that liked to drop by for  sadistic games. You also do not see in the movie (or much in the book for that matter) the four years he spent in federal prison in the United States for his crimes.

 

The story does have a happy ending, however, when Frank is released and turns his life around by using his unique skill set for good by teaching FBI agents about check fraud and developing his own business to help banks protect their assets against people like him. Again, though not in the book, you can learn from past TV interviews that Abagnale eventually paid back all the money he stole from the earnings he earned legally through his lucrative company, got happily married (became a one-woman man) and had three sons.

 

“…you may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23)

 

“Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).

 

 

 

Saving My Assassin

Saving My Assassin (2016)

by Virginia Prodan

Publisher: A Tyndale Momentum Title

This excellent memoir, written in simple prose, begins in 1984 with the most terrifying moment in author Virginia Prodan's life--when a six-foot-ten man comes into her legal offices, presumably for help, and then announces matter-of-factly, "I'm here to kill you." 

Without explaining what happens next, Prodan flashes back to her childhood in communist Romania, which in some ways resembles that of the fictitious character "Anne" of Anne of Green Gable's fame. First, she has red hair like Anne and has Anne's precocious intellect that gets her into trouble more than once. Second, her "mother" treats her like a slave. In fact, her parents don't even take her on vacation with them. She is left alone at the house to "work."

Growing up she sees the horrors of communism first hand--a neighbor's parents are taken away by government agents. Fear permeates conversations because informants are everywhere. People are here one day and gone the next. Virginia decides young that she wants to be a lawyer to stand for the truth. She also eventually suspects that something is odd about her family situation because all the other siblings have darker features.

 

Later, when she goes to live with her Aunt Cassandra in the big city of Bucharest to prepare for her entrance law exams, she is astonished that this relative, that she has never met, looks exactly like her.  Aunt Cassandra also treats her like her own. She lavishes her with gifts and unconditional love, and even fasts and prays for her so she will succeed and go to law school. When people refer to her aunt as her mother, Aunt Cassandra does not deny it. Yet, this is never acknowledged.

When Virginia gets out of school and becomes an independent lawyer, she discovers that the ultimate truth is a person--Jesus Christ. She also takes cases no one else will accept--those involving persecuted Christians and churches--thus, inciting the wrath of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. She is roughly interrogated, threatened to conform or die, stalked, and even pushed into traffic by an obscure pedestrian. Yet, she continues to defend the oppressed and needy, and God reveals Himself to her in small and miraculous ways throughout the ordeal. 

This book is a powerful testimony of what God can do with one person who is willing to stand for the truth in the face of a cruel regime.  If I had the resources I would send you all a copy for free. Fascinating and compelling.  A book that grabs you by the shirt and won't let go.

 

"For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him" (2 Chronicles 16:9).

Amazing things can happen when one person is willing to stand up for the truth

Lone Survivor  (2007)

by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Without a doubt, this is the best war memoir that I have ever read and I’ve read many of them. The only thing I found a bit long was the Navy Seal training in the beginning but that could be compared to the first part of a roller coaster ride that goes slowly up a steep track before breaking loose in hair-raising descents and turns. In this story once the four Navy Seals are in position on top of that hill in Afghanistan and they are suddenly hunted by hundreds of Taliban soldiers with RPGs and other assault weapons, hold on tight because what follows is one scary ride.  I was so impressed by this book I even read it again to my teenage sons around the dinner table (omitting the foul language of course) and they loved it too.

 

What I appreciate about the book narrative is the fine balance between the actual events happening on the ground and also at the Luttrell home in Texas where people are spontaneously dropping by to pray, bring food, and provide moral support to his family on a regular basis—something you do not see in the movie version. Another beautiful part of the book is when some Afghanistan village elders decide to offer Luttrell what they call in their culture “lokhay,” which means not only providing care and shelter for him but also an unbreakable commitment to defend him to the death” (page 285 hardcover edition). Despite what religion they claimed to believe in, these tribal men were of noble character and, at least in this instance, used by God to save Luttrell’s life.

 

Although what happened to the Seals with Luttrell and the ones in the helicopter who came later to try and rescue them was tragic the authors even find a way to add touches of humor that make the story more readable and realistic. Luttrell writes about the vessel the tribesmen gave him to drink from: “They left me with no food, but they did come up with a water container, an aged Pepsi bottle actually, the most evil-smelling piece of glass on this planet” (page 299). In fact, Luttrell was so repulsed by the rancid odors of the bottle he tried to discreetly throw it away but one of his protectors found it again, much to his dismay. Later, however, he's glad he has it because he can use it as a weapon against an onslaught of black ants that suddenly appear and attack him.

 

On the natural plane, there was absolutely no way Luttrell should have made it out of this predicament alive. Yet, with his refusal to give up, the prayers of his family and countrymen, the help of some courageous tribesmen, and what I see as the supernatural intervention of God, he does. 

"He rescues me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me" (Psalm 45:18).

If you only saw the movie you missed a lot of the story...

Without a doubt, this is the best war memoir I have ever read and I've read many...

Growing Up Amish (2011)

by Ira Wagler

 

Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers

This is a moving memoir by a man who struggled for years to leave the confines of a religious system that bases spirituality on the refusal to embrace modern machinery and technology, odd traditions taught by men, and a commitment to a community that considers itself the only true church. Sound familiar? Wagler describes well his angst as a young man yearning to spread his wings and experience the world around him. Yet, it seems strange there is never any honest dialogue about why they do certain things. You would think a natural question from a young man might be: “Hey Dad, why don’t we use a tractor to plow the field? It would take a third of the time.” Or, “Dad, what’s up with not wearing pants with zippers?” It is not hard to see why young men, or women for that matter, would buck the system when they are not given reasonable answers, or even biblical support, for their group’s unconventional behavior.

  

At the same time, however, Wagler shows how charming and delightful Amish ways can be. For example, he describes how the Amish court and eventually marry, and although it may hail back to a bygone area, it is refreshing to see how they go about it in such a pure and chaste manner. He also shares his joy at receiving his first “buggy” and horse, and a moving story about his brother having an accident, which disabled him, and how many Amish people gave money generously to help pay the medical costs.

      

As a reader, however, you sometimes wish you could just shake him and tell him to “Just do it already,” but this insight is easier seen by an outsider than lived, especially coming from such a heavy religious indoctrination, and what the cutting off of everything you’ve known and been taught will cost. Wagler honestly describes his large family home life and infers that much of his, and his brothers’ eventual defection could have come from his father’s neglect—a man who became well-known in Amish circles for his newspaper. Apparently, he placed more priorities on his writing than communicating with his sons.

 

It is ironic that the person who became famous for writing about Amish traditions would bear a son who would write a book putting those same traditions into question. Yet, these are the very things that many young Amish may grapple with, and, I dare say, youth from other strong religious backgrounds as well, and understandably so. It is a natural process to doubt and question at a certain age what our parents taught us and to work through them to see if we will eventually embrace those same things for ourselves.  

    

Wagler also exposes in his book the myth that the Amish are one big, unified  family. Apparently, the Amish are like every other religious group and not every Amish community shares the same beliefs.

 

This is the kind of memoir I appreciate--an inside view of a life I've only seen from the outside with a Christian, spiritual dimension.

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

    

A Long Way Home

A Long Way Home (2013)

by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose

Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons

This is the international, best-selling memoir on which the Oscar-nominated movie, Lion (2016), is based. It is about a five-year-old, Indian boy, Saroo, from a single-parent home, who gets separated from his family; lost in Calcutta; adopted by an Australian couple; and who eventually finds his way back to India 25 years later--with the help of his childhood memories and Google Earth. As a reader, you cannot but marvel how such a little boy was able to survive for weeks in one of the poorest and most populous cities of the world.

 

The book, however, differs from the movie in a few ways. In the book, a lot of attention is given to Brierley's recollections of India with his family, which I assume was greatly shortened in the film for dramatic purposes. Another thing that was in the film, but not in the book, was the emotional challenges the family had with Brierley’s adopted Indian brother. Although the brother is mentioned, the author does not get into his brother’s problems, or his time of estrangement from the family. In terms of romance, he wrote that he had lived with two women at different times. There are no sex scenes, however.

 

In terms of spiritual content, he wrote: “It is difficult to put into words but I feel that perhaps in the West there is something we have lost in our impersonal suburbs and emphasis on individualism. I am not a religious person, and that likely won’t change in a major way, but I am keen to learn more about the customs and beliefs of my Indian family, and to see if they offer some guidance for me.” He also recounts his birth mom’s vision of seeing him a day before his arrival in India and the fact his biological siblings were also praying for him. The only nod to any form of Christianity is when he acknowledges that the orphanage that took him in was connected to Mother Theresa’s ministry. Otherwise, all positive, spiritual references are from the Hindu and Muslim religions.

 

I thought the structure of the movie was better than the book in that it made the climax of the film when Saroo finds his mother. In the book, he describes his meeting with all his family but then adds a longer section where he is re-taking the same train trip he must have taken as a small boy to Calcutta.

 

Brierley writes that he hopes his book can be an encouragement to others trying to locate their families, or simply to people with challenging circumstances. He wrote: “Perhaps people in different situations could also be inspired by my experience of grasping opportunities, no matter how daunting, and never give up” (page 207). That is a message that anyone can take home.

"As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time. Israel said to Joseph, "Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive" (Genesis 46:29b-30).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014)

by Bryan Stevenson

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (New York)

I did not really want to read this book.  As a death penalty advocate, in certain cases, I did not want to change my mind. Yet, I also wanted to be open to, at least, hearing opposing views. Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, whether you are pro-capital punishment or not, will rock your world.  But it is not so much an exposé of why the government should not kill people as it is an exposé of our corrupt criminal justice system which sometimes condemns people, not from evidence, but from pride and racial prejudice.

    

Before I read this book, I used to be really judgmental of Italy because of their justice system for putting Amanda Knox and her boyfriend in prison for years with little evidence and no motive for the murder of her British housemate (I read five books on the case). Little did I know that the same thing happens here in the United States.

Stevenson begins this articulate memoir by explaining how he became involved with defending death row inmates as a young lawyer, and his creation of the non-profit organization, Equal Justice Initiatives. The narrative thread of the book is the six year battle he waged to exonerate Walter McMillian from Alabama’s death row. In examining the case, Stevenson came to the conclusion that there was no way his client could have committed the crime.

The fact that McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama made the case very ironic for Stevenson. He said this in an interview with NPR when his book first came out: “One of the really bizarre parts of this whole case for me was this whole episode took place in Monroeville, Alabama where Harper Lee grew up and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. If you go to Monroeville, you'll see a community that's completely enchanted by that story….They have all of this To Kill a Mockingbird memorabilia. The leading citizens enact a play about the book. You can't go anywhere without encountering some aspect of that story made real in that community.

And yet, when we were trying to get the community to do something about an innocent African-American man wrongly convicted, there was this indifference—and, in some quarters, hostility.”

Probably the most striking characteristic of the book is the author’s deep compassion for people in the worst of circumstances with no one to help them. In one scene at a prison where he had driven many miles to see an inmate, a prison guard tells him he must submit to a strip search if he wants to see the prisoner. Stevenson explains calmly that that is not obligatory since he is the man’s attorney, but the man insists. I must confess, at this point as a reader, I was thinking: No, no, don’t let him do that to you. Stevenson, however, is not thinking of his own pride or himself at this moment, but of the person behind the walls in desperate need of his help. He humbly submits to the man’s command. Later, the author sees a radical and beautiful transformation of the guard’s attitude after the man escorts the prisoner to court and hears Stevenson’s defense on his behalf.  

You may not change your views regarding capital punishment after reading this book, but you will look at our criminal justice system differently and may wish there were more people like Bryan Stevenson in every state speaking against inequality. You might even pray to be more like him.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" Proverbs 31:8 &9).

You Carried Me: a daughter's memoir (2017)

by Melissa Ohden

Publisher: Plough Publishing

This is the long-awaited memoir of the popular pro-life speaker, Melissa Ohden, who is a saline solution abortion survivor. The book is a sleek (less than 200 pages), beautifully presented hardcover book and Ohden tells her story in a straightforward and emotionally honest style without superfluous details. For example, Ohden writes about when she was 14 and first learned the truth about her birth from her adopted mom: “…I had to go back to the beginning and reconstruct it in all its painful truth. That included facing the only conclusion I could draw from the fact of my survival—that the people who had conceived me had also tried to destroy me” (p.24).

Ohden later describes her difficulty shaking this ugly fact: “I began to spend large amounts of time alone, brooding in my bedroom. My obsessive and distorted thoughts about my birth overwhelmed me. Looking back now, with the benefit of the professional experience I would gain much later, I can see that I was experiencing a post-traumatic stress reaction, plus a kind of survivor’s guilt about living when so many others had died through abortion. Back then, all I knew was what I felt: I am not OK; something is wrong with me; I am not loved” (p. 31).

 When the author was 16 she writes in her book that she presented a “picture-perfect façade” to the world: “To my teachers, friends, coworkers at the flower shop, and siblings I seemed happy, healthy, hardworking, and well liked.” In reality, however, she began living a double life that included anorexia and bulimia. By 21, Ohden was consuming vast amounts of alcohol and even keeping bottles of vodka in her bedroom closet and under the backseat of her car in case of emergencies.  “Bulimia, alcohol, sex—these became my unholy trinity of coping mechanisms” (p.34).

At college the author discovered that talking about the truth surrounding her birth was taboo: “In the midst of conversations about every kind of abuse, abandonment, and human heartache, I learned quickly that my story was one that could not be heard, and therefore must not be told. Abortion-on-demand was the holy grail of the feminist ideology my classmates adhered to; anything that challenged its essential rightness must be suppressed” (p.43).

Ironically, the first time Ohden became aware that Planned Parenthood did abortions was when a protester challenged her not to have the procedure done. The man assumed she was going into the clinic for an abortion since that was the day they were scheduled. Angrily she tells him that was not the reason she was going there. When he informs her that they also do abortions, she is shocked. Before rolling up her car window, she mutters: “But I know about abortion. I’m an abortion survivor. My birth mother aborted me and I lived.” What the man says next affects her deeply: ”You should be here, not there!”

In this book, Ohden takes the reader on a profound and courageous journey--not just the one to find her birth parents, her leading role in the pro-life movement, and her unfolding personal life but also her road back to God and a personal faith. At one point she discovers an important truth: “My true identity didn’t come from my birth parents, but from my Creator. I was a child of God and that meant I was never—not even for a second—unwanted.”

Articulate, moving, and challenging. A must-read for Christians and anyone who is willing to look at the issue of abortion through the eyes of a survivor.

Articulate, moving, and challenging. A must-read for Christians and anyone willing to see the issue of abortion through the eyes of a survivor.

 An Invisible Thread (2011) 

by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski

Publisher: Howard Books -an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

I can honestly say that I have never read a memoir like this before. It is about a 35-year-old, single, white, advertising executive for USA Today who comes out of her upscale apartment building in downtown New York City one day and meets an 11-year-old African American boy begging for money who changes her life forever. Initially, the woman, Laura Schroff, ignores the boy’s pleas and walks away as most people do--seeing him as only part of the urban landscape and nothing more-- but something causes her to turn around and look at him. She writes: “I’m not sure why I did this—I came back.” Schroff then learns his name is Maurice. He says he is hungry. She offers him lunch at MacDonald’s. This act in itself may not be that unusual—to offer a beggar one meal. What happens next, however, is so extraordinary and rare that it begs our attention. Schroff meets with Maurice for the next 150 Mondays.

In short, Schroff adopts this poor, destitute boy into her heart and commits herself to be his friend for… life. What started as Monday meetings evolves into visits to her apartment to bake cookies, learn life skills like how to set the table, how to eat with silverware, and even how to blow his nose. Schroff also takes him to baseball games and includes him in family gatherings. Although some friends warn her about the possible dangers of being associated with Maurice, she shrugs off their concerns. In her words “an invisible thread” had bound them together. Here was a boy she could love and help who was born into horrible circumstances that he did not choose.

The story is a beautiful picture of how one person reaching out to a needy boy with unconditional love can help break a generational curse and change the destiny of that child’s life forever. To explain, perhaps, why she had so much empathy for Maurice, Schroff also interweaves into the book her own story of living with an alcoholic father and how devastating that can be growing up.

Regarding her faith or beliefs, Schroff mentions her Catholic upbringing and gives some passing references to God but in response to a question by an interviewer at the end of the book about whether she believes in “providence, fate, and destiny” she does not overtly say she is a Christian, or believes in God. She responds generically: “I consider myself an extremely spiritual person, and I have no doubt fate and destiny played a role in our lives.” The title of the book comes from a Chinese proverb, which says: “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, and circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle. But it will never break.”

Schroff does, however, include some profound stories that strongly suggest God’s intervention. One involves Maurice being tempted to do illegal things to help support his growing family. He goes down south with “friends” and happens to go to a Pentecostal meeting. The preacher comes up to him and says: “I don’t know who you are but I feel if you don’t leave tonight, there will be dire consequences. Your place is at home.” Later that night he is caught in a gun battle. He is tossed a gun to join in but he remembers what the preacher said and goes back to his family in New York.

Another spiritual scene is when Schroff’s mother is dying at the hospital and she has a sudden clarity of mind. She peaceably assures her family they will be okay when she is gone and encourages each one, including her husband. She dies shortly afterwards.  Maurice’s mom also has a life-changing experience at the end of her life.

At a time when groups chant “Black Lives Matter” Laura Schroff’s story gives us a concrete and profound example of what unconditional love looks like when it goes beyond racial barriers.

“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Tank Man's Son (2015)

by Mark Bouman with D.R. Jacobsen

Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers

Review Coming Soon