book reviews

Repost: Pat Conroy’s last words– A Lowcountry Heart…

Here’s a book review from 2016. I am reposting it as/is. I really miss Pat Conroy, but I’m glad he’s missed out on the shitshow of COVID. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of his books, especially since they make me remember “home”.

2016 has been a horrible year to be famous.  So many great people have died, including Pat Conroy, who was (and still is) one of my favorite authors.  As much as I loved his novels, I probably enjoyed his non-fiction works much more.  In the wake of Conroy’s death last March, his latest book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, was published in late October.  I have been reading this last work and remembering Conroy.

A Lowcountry Heart is basically a collection of Conroy’s blog posts, speeches, interviews and even letters he wrote.  It also includes tributes from friends, as well as his wife, Cassandra King, and the eulogy delivered at his funeral, which was open to the public.  I was one of his blog subscribers, so I had read some of the ones that were included in his last book.  Still, it was good to have the posts all in one volume.  I also appreciated the other aspects of this book, the speeches and letters Conroy penned.  I was particularly impressed by a letter to the editor Conroy wrote to a newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia after he received word that two of his books, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, had been banned by a high school.  A high school student had written to him in great distress and he went to bat for her.

During his lifetime, it wasn’t uncommon for Pat Conroy to take up a cause.  I remember in the mid 1990s, when female college student Shannon Faulkner was forcing Conroy’s alma mater, The Citadel, to admit women.  She faced scorn and derision from many people.  Conroy very publicly and enthusiastically supported her.  Ultimately, Faulkner was unable to hack it at The Citadel, but she did help make history and change the long single sex traditions at both The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute.

While I can’t say that books of essays and writings usually thrill me, knowing that these are Conroy’s last remarks make this final book worthy reading.  A Lowcountry Heart will not be my favorite Conroy book.  I think that honor goes to My Losing Season or perhaps The Death of Santini.  But it will remain a treasured part of my library as I remember one of the few fiction authors who never failed to make me laugh and appreciate the beauty of language.  What A Lowcountry Heart offers is yet another intimate look at the man behind the lush, vivid, colorful language so prevalent in Conroy’s novels.  

Some of the blog posts included in this book are particularly entertaining.  I enjoyed reading about how he became acquainted with his personal trainer, Mina, a Japanese woman who spoke little English and did her best to help Conroy reclaim his body.  Sadly, pancreatic cancer took him anyway, but Mina no doubt helped make those last months healthier.

I was lucky enough to get to hear Conroy speak when I was a student at the University of South Carolina.  He was actually filling in for Kurt Vonnegut, another favorite author of mine, who had just had a house fire and wasn’t able to attend.  Vonnegut died not long after I heard Conroy speak in his place.  I remember I had a healthcare finance exam the next day, which I ended up getting a D on.  I probably would have gotten a D anyway, so it was worth going to see Pat Conroy.  I will always treasure that memory, even if I didn’t get to meet the man in person.  He was every bit as real as he seems in his words.

I think I’d give this last volume four out of five stars, mainly because it feels a bit unfinished.  I recognize A Lowcountry Heart as one last gift to Conroy’s admirers.  I am grateful to have it available as a last goodbye from one of the South’s best writers.

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book reviews, Military

Repost: A review of Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress

I originally posted this review on Epinions.com on June 16, 2005. It appears here as/is.

About two weeks ago, I was in the Fort Belvoir thrift shop with my husband and my mother-in-law, looking for assorted junk/treasures. My house is mostly appointed in dorm/Kmart decor and I’m trying to gussy it up a bit. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any home furnishing treasures on that day, but I did find a buttload of interesting books. One of the books that I found was Mary Edwards Wertsch’s 1991 book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Well, I happen to be a military brat twice over. I was born into Air Force bratdom almost 33 years ago and then I married into Army bratdom almost three years ago. I figured this book was aimed at an audience consisting of people like me, and at $2.00, it was a steal. I took it home.

The first thing I noticed when I first ran across Military Brats is that it’s a sizable book. Right off the bat, I got the idea that Mary Edwards Wertsch had a lot to say to people like me… and people like her. Wertsch is herself a military brat, as well as an investigative journalist. Military Brats was her first book; since it was written fifteen years ago, I couldn’t tell you if she’s written others.

The next thing I noticed was the introduction, written by one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. Some of you may know that Conroy is himself a military brat. Those of you who have read his fiction also know that Conroy’s military upbringing affected him profoundly. Born the son of a Marine fighter pilot, Pat Conroy’s childhood was fraught with moves to new towns, and that meant that he had to constantly learn to fit in with an ever changing peer group. Conroy was also a victim of child abuse. He never lets his readers forget it, not that I fault him for that. In fact, one of the reasons why I love Pat Conroy’s writing so much is because it really speaks to me. I can identify very much with his stories. The Great Santini, a novel about growing up as a military brat, was perhaps Conroy’s breakthrough novel. Mary Edwards Wertsch includes snippets from The Great Santini throughout her book, Military Brats, for it was the film version of The Great Santini that gave her the idea for this book.

Next, I started to read this massive book. It consists of twelve long chapters, each taking on an aspect of growing up a military brat. At the beginning of the book, Mary Edwards Wertsch writes

Warrior society is characterized by a rigid authoritarian structure, frequently mirrored inside its families; extreme mobility; a great deal of father absence; isolation and alienation from the civilian community; an exceedingly strict class system; a very high incidence of alcoholism. which also suggests possibly high rates of family violence; a deeply felt sense of mission; and, not least, an atmosphere of constant preparation for war, with the accompanying implication for every family that on a moment’s notice the father can be sent to war, perhaps never to be seen again. p. xiii

And then in Military Brats, Wertsch goes on to address each of the points she lists about the experience of being a military brat. For this book, Wertsch interviewed eighty military brats, five of whom were siblings of other interviewees, and all of whom were well into adulthood. She also interviewed social workers, teachers, military parents, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, historians other scholars (p. xii). After reading this book, I could tell that Wertsch had indeed done her homework and tried to get many different perspectives on the military brat phenomenon.

Edwards also explains why she uses the term “military brat”,

…a word about the term military brat. Of the eighty military brats interviewed for this book, only five objected to the term– two because they disliked a characterization they felt was imposed on them by the military, one because she did not like the implications of “brat,” and two because they had always been told to say “Navy junior” instead. The rest all said they identified with military brat and used it themselves; to them it is a term of affectionate humor as well as identification. p. xv

I really appreciated Wertsch’s preface. She did a good job of explaining the premise behind writing Military Brats. The fact that she is herself a military brat certainly gave her credibility and a wealth of personal stories to share about her own experiences as a military brat. I also thought the passages from The Great Santini were a nice touch, although they made me want to re-read the novel for the hundredth time. Wertsch also took pains in individually addressing the experiences of both the sons and daughters of military men; and yes, she does explain why she focused on the children of men in the military. Again, this book was written in 1990 and published in 1991, and the brats that Wertsch interviewed were all well into adulthood. The fact that Wertsch addressed only the issue of being the child of a military man made sense because most people who choose to serve in the military are men; that was especially true when Wertsch was growing up, even if it’s less true nowadays. If Wertsch had addressed the plight of children growing up with moms in the military, this book would have no doubt been even larger and more comprehensive than it is now. It’s already a formidable book.

Anyone who is familiar with military life knows there’s a class system in place that is different from the ones most civilians know; that is, the enlisted man’s world versus the officer’s world. Wertsch addresses the differences between someone growing up the child of an officer and an enlisted man. She also addresses how military families view the different branches. Again, Military Brats is a very well-written, comprehensive book that will no doubt offer food for thought for anyone who grew up a military brat.

That said, let me offer a few other insights. Wertsch has certainly tackled an interesting and important topic. It’s also a very complex subject and although I got the sense that Wertsch tried very hard to speak to all military brats, I’m afraid that she doesn’t in some cases. At times, this book is a bit stereotypical as Wertsch describes fathers who are overly strict, abusive, alcoholic, apathetic, and demanding. Let me state for the record that I am married to an Army officer who has yet to show me any of the aforementioned negative qualities.

Moreover, Wertsch seems to focus only on the bad things about being a military brat, only occasionally offering insights as to why being a military brat might be an advantage for someone. And, it seemed to me, that the few times Wertsch offered positives about being a military brat, it was almost always purely by accident. As I read this book, it made me feel sad for my unborn children, although they will likely have an atypical military brat upbringing similar to mine. I agree that being a military brat has its negatives, but it also has its positives. I don’t think that Wertsch really addressed many of the good parts about being a military brat; however, she did address most of the bad aspects. Unfortunately, that makes Military Brats seem very negative and it may make some readers think that all military brats are damaged specifically by their experiences growing up surrounded by the military. Certainly, the military brat lifestyle is not always easy, but I don’t believe that it’s always damaging. I can certainly think of worse environments outside the military in which a person might spend their formative years.

The fact that I am a military brat who had an “atypical” military upbringing brings up another point. I was born late in my father’s Air Force career, the youngest of four daughters. After almost 22 years of service, my dad retired a Lieutenant Colonel when I was almost six years old. He had traveled many times throughout his career and went to Vietnam a couple of times. I never knew this aspect of being a military brat, although my three older sisters did. My father, like so many other military men, is an alcoholic and he does suffer from some post traumatic stress disorder. At times, he was abusive to me. I can relate to military brats who have dealt with being a child of an alcoholic. But when I was eight years old, my parents moved to where they live now– the Tidewater area of Virginia, an area that is steeped in military culture and surrounded by military installations. I stayed in the same school system from third grade until I graduated high school. Because I was born late in my dad’s career, I missed out on some of the trademark experiences of being a military brat– moving around frequently and living without my father. My father was ALWAYS home when I was growing up because he owned his own business and worked out of his house. But he is most definitely a military man and I am most definitely his brat.

Perhaps when I was a child, there weren’t so many thirty-nine year olds becoming fathers, but nowadays it’s becoming a lot more common. Consider the fact that I am now married to an Army Lieutenant Colonel. He has children from his first marriage. They have to deal with his absence, but it’s not because he’s in the military. Instead, it’s because my husband divorced his children’s mother and she chose to move them to Arizona, a state with only one Army post located many miles from their home. Wertsch didn’t really address the plight of the brats who grew up without their fathers not because of the military, but because of divorce; but again, I guess that would have made Military Brats entirely too long.

My husband is about to turn forty-one and we are trying to start our own family against all odds. If I manage to get pregnant, our child or children will probably grow up much the same way I did– military brats, but without the trademark military experience of moving around constantly or living without their father. My husband expects to retire in a few short years. I suspect that with as much divorce as we have in the United States, a lot of children will experience being military brats in so-called “second families”, separated from their siblings. Even if they don’t end up growing up in “second families”, they may simply grow up like I did, the product of a pregnancy that occurred later in their parents’ lives. I think it would be interesting to see a book written about military brats like me and my husband’s children, kids who have always been steeped in military culture, but for one reason or another, never had the globe trotting, country crossing experience of the stereotypical military brat.

Alas, Wertsch didn’t speak to military brats like me. And, while this book offers some truisms about what life was like for older military brats, it doesn’t offer insight into what military life is like now. Of course, this book is fifteen years old, but even in 1990, things were starting to change from the way they were back when Wertsch’s father and my father were in the military. I do think it would be great to see an updated version of this book, because it is an interesting subject that affects a lot of people.

Despite my minor criticisms, I would certainly recommend this book to any military brat. I found this book fascinating and I could relate to a lot of it. Even though I think that Mary Edwards Wertsch neglected to discuss a few types of military brats, she does manage to write about most of us. This book is well-written, well-researched, and written by someone who knows her subject personally. Unfortunately, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress may be hard to find because it was written so long ago.

ETA: I wrote this review in 2005 and we had expected Bill to retire in 2010.  Thanks to making the O6 list, he got four extra years and finished in 2014.  

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book reviews

Sometimes daddy issues can lead to rock stardom…

Bill is away this week, so I’ve busied myself by watching movies, reading, and, as of yesterday, listening to my very first audiobook courtesy of Audible. Two of the works have really stuck with me, because they involve rock stars with “daddy issues”. The stars in question? Elton John and James Taylor– both claim they had fathers who were absent in some way. Both are major rock stars dating from the 1970s.

On Sunday night, I finally watched Rocketman, a movie musical loosely based on Elton John’s life. Yesterday, I listened to James Taylor’s brand new audiobook, Break Shot, which is his version of the story of the first 21 years of his life. “Break shot” refers to the first shot in a game of billiards, the one that breaks the balls and scatters them in different directions.

I was already somewhat familiar with both stories because I had read lengthy books about both James Taylor and Elton John. In Elton’s case, I read his recent book, Me, which was his autobiography about his life. In James’s case, it was an extremely long winded book by the late Timothy White called James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away, published in 2003. I remember not enjoying White’s book very much because it was so long and exhaustive, and included a lot about Taylor’s genealogy, which wasn’t something I was interested in at the time. However, years later, I’m kind of glad I read it, because it gave me insight into one of my favorite performers that has stuck with me all these years.

One thing that struck me about both of these men’s stories is that they have a lot in common. Both are extraordinarily talented musicians whose talent became obvious during childhood. Both are recovering addicts; James to alcohol and heroin, and Elton to alcohol, cocaine, sex, and food. Both are now living sober lives. Both have suffered from depression, perhaps even to the point of being suicidal. And both had very difficult relationships with their fathers. While I would never say that one has to have a difficult childhood with an absentee father to become a famous musician, it was an aspect of both of their stories that really stuck out to me. Actually, it seems like they both had difficult relationships with both parents, although in both of their stories, it was their fathers who were painted more as “bad” and unsupportive. James Taylor goes as far as to say that fathers can be “replaced”, but mothers have to be “there”. I can’t say I agree with his comment on that, but maybe it’s a relic from the generation he grew up in.

Rocketman wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I hadn’t read much about it before I sat down to watch it. I guess I thought it would be more like Bohemian Rhapsody, as in, more of a biographical tale about Elton’s life. It was kind of biographical, but it really appeared to be more of a set up for an eventual Broadway show. I enjoyed it, for the most part, although parts of the movie made me groan a bit.

I wouldn’t go to Rocketman to learn about Elton John’s life, although I did think parts of the film were very entertaining. Taron Egerton is very talented and he captured Elton’s essence in his performance on screen. Elton’s book was revelatory enough. He wrote about growing up in working class Pinner. His father was strict and cold to him. Later, when his parents divorced, Elton’s dad apparently left his life. Although they shared a love of music, according to Elton, his dad wasn’t particularly supportive of his son’s talent. Elton’s mother was apparently exploitative and short tempered, even though they mostly stayed in contact until she died. I have already reviewed Elton’s book, so you can read my thoughts on it here. Today, I’m going to focus on Break Shot.

James Taylor’s story is a bit different, in that unlike Elton John, he grew up in an upper class family. James’s father was Dr. Isaac Taylor– otherwise known as Ike– and there was plenty of money. His mother’s name was Gertrude– Trudy– and she was from Massachusetts. Ike moved the family to Chapel Hill, North Carolina when James was about four or five years old. James grew up in North Carolina, because his father was the dean of the medical school at Chapel Hill. Trudy didn’t like living in the South, and James sort of implied that she resented Ike for forcing her to live there, particularly since Ike was often gone. He spent two years in Antarctica with Navy Seabees when James was a young man, and by the time Ike came home, he had become a stranger to his family. Ike also came home with a terrible drinking problem.

Evidently, addiction is a scourge in the Taylor family. James says that drinking and drugs helped him take a break from himself. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on addiction, especially since alcoholism is a scourge in my own family. He made a comment that really surprised me– that addicts see their drug of choice as a “key” of sorts. Eventually the “key” changes and the substance becomes harmful. Ike’s alcoholism was bad enough that he experienced delirium tremens, which meant that his body had become physically hooked on alcohol to the point at which he needed it to be normal. Nevertheless, Ike Taylor was reportedly a very “functional” alcoholic, much like my father was.

James is one of five very musical siblings, although he also has three half-siblings from his father’s second marriage. He doesn’t speak about his other siblings, probably because he’s old enough to be their father and likely has little contact with them. As someone who grew up in a family with no divorce and no “steps” of “halfs”, it’s hard for me to fathom not having any relationship with my siblings. On the other hand, now that I’m a “stepmother” to adult children my husband hasn’t seen since 2004, I guess I understand it more now than I would have twenty years ago.

Trudy Taylor was very “left leaning” in her politics, which is another reason why North Carolina was probably a difficult place for her to live in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, James says that she was a very involved mother, and she busied herself with raising the children and making a beautiful home on Morgan Creek for them. At the beginning of his audiobook, James mentions his siblings and says he won’t talk much about the ones who are still living: Livingston, Kate, and Hugh.

James’s brother, Alex, died on James’s 45th birthday in 1993. Since Alex is no longer living, James feels free to talk about him. According to James, Alex and their mother, Trudy, fought a lot. Alex had embraced being southern, even adopting a southern accent. James says Alex had a southern accent until he died. Alex was, like James, an addict. He was particularly hooked on alcohol, much as their father was. The night before he died, he’d polished off almost an entire of vodka by himself, which his brother, Livingston, said wasn’t a particularly large amount of booze for him. However, although Alex was never as famous as James or even Livingston was, he was regarded as every bit as talented.

Wow… what a blend… We have lots of musical people in my family, too.
The Taylor siblings perform together… some serious genetic talent here.

Meanwhile, Trudy did all she did to keep the children connected to the North. She’d take them to New York every couple of months and they’d spend summers at Martha’s Vineyard, where James met dear friends who would play major roles in his life. That’s where he met Carly Simon, his first wife and mother of his two oldest children, Ben and Sally, although she only gets a passing mention in Break Shot. James has more to say about his current wife, Kim, whom is apparently the great love of his life who got him back on the path he was destined to be on… back in Boston.

James went to high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he was forced to go to church three times a week. He chose the Episcopalian service, since it was closest to his dorm. It was there that he was first exposed to hymns, since he grew up agnostic. Really, he describes it as agnosticism, but it sounds more like his family was atheist, which was no doubt even weirder for the Taylors in Chapel Hill. Ike was a man of science and had little use for God. The hymns resonated with James and influenced his songwriting, which was a great thing for us. But being in boarding school was depressing for James and he was soon legitimately mentally ill with major depression. He wound up going back to Chapel Hill for his junior year, but he hated being there, too. So in 1965, he started high school at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility where the likes of Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles and two of James’s siblings also sought inpatient treatment and finished their high school years. He said that was then he finally stopped feeling so much like he had to live up to expectations of others. Everyone else in his family had wound up being doctors or lawyers, but James and his siblings obviously took after their very creative mother, who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Depression continued to be a problem for James. At one point in the audiobook, James writes about times when Ike was “there” for him. He called home once, out of money and prospects and feeling desperate, and Ike could hear it in his son’s voice that he was feeling desperate. So he drove all the way from North Carolina to Massachusetts to get James and bring him home. That was where the song, “Jump Up Behind Me” came from, on James’s wonderful Hourglass album, which also has a beautiful eulogy to his brother, Alex, “Enough to Be On Your Way”.

Some time later, James was in marriage counseling and the therapist noticed that he seemed to have a lot of “daddy issues”. The therapist recommended that James have his father join one of their sessions. Much to my surprise, James says his dad cooperated, and during their session, Ike apparently talked a lot about how much he disliked his ex wife, Trudy. The therapist asked Ike why, if he hadn’t liked Trudy much, he’d had five children with her. Ike’s response, which James said was supposed to be kind of a sarcastic “fuck you” to the therapist, was something along the lines of “My mother died after giving birth to me, so I figured that was the best way to get rid of my wife.”

I won’t go into the whole story about Ike Taylor’s upbringing because I really think it’s better to listen to the audiobook for that. Suffice to say, I can kind of see where the issues stemmed from in Ike, and how they passed down to the Taylor children. In any case, as I listened to the audiobook, I was a bit shocked by a couple of revelations, at least at first. James clearly had a very complicated relationship with his parents, but especially his father. However, unlike Elton John, James does seem to have a basic level of respect and empathy for the man. It sounds, though, like that empathy was a long time coming, especially since James spent so many years dulling his pain with alcohol and opiates. He says that he’s a different person now, with his wife, Kim, and their twin sons, Rufus and Henry, although it sounded to me like he still aches over his relationship with his dad. He muses that here his father was this high level doctor, much renowned and admired by so many people. And yet, several of his children graduated high school while locked up in a mental hospital.

Having read Carly Simon’s book, Boys in the Trees, in which she wrote of the hurtful way he treated her during their marriage, I can see that there was a time when James was legitimately an asshole. However… I think he came by being an asshole honestly, because as much as he has to say about his father, he also says that he felt pressured and tried very hard to be a “good son” to his mother, especially when she was in a bad mood. It was as if he felt required to be the balance between Trudy and Alex. And he says that he now realizes that children should not be expected to take care of their parents, nor are they responsible for their parents’ problems. He’s definitely right about that.

While I was surprised by some of Taylor’s blunt comments, I also think they kind of made him seem more like a regular person, with foibles like everyone else’s. Throughout my life, I have been comforted by both Elton John and James Taylor as they sang their original, exquisitely crafted songs. I was similarly comforted by Pat Conroy, another famous artist whose work has always spoken to me on many levels… and another person who had some serious “daddy issues” that he parlayed into art. Taylor said that he feels like he’s written the same six or seven songs over and over again throughout his life, meaning that the same themes keep coming up. I can relate, although my work will never reach as many people as his has…

I think Pat Conroy basically wrote the same story repeatedly, too. I still relate on many levels, as do so many other people. So many of us have parental issues that follow us throughout life. It’s just that some people are lucky enough to turn those issues into something that soothes the souls of the masses. Being able to articulate and translate that pain into music, art, dance, drama, or the written and spoken word is a tremendous gift… although, as is the case for so many brilliant artists, that gift comes with a price. It seems that depression, anxiety, and addiction are the scourges that most often plague creative people. Those who are lucky enough find ways to work through the pain. The unlucky ones tend to die young.

Maybe the most surprising comment James had was that for much of his life, he was known as Ike Taylor’s son, James. Eventually, there came a time when Ike Taylor was known as James Taylor’s father. I’m sure that was quite the mindblowing experience for James Taylor, particularly the first time he realized it while sober. I definitely recommend listening to Break Shot, especially if you’re a James Taylor fan. And I liked Rocketman alright, too, although I learned a lot more from Elton John’s autobiography.

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