December 2021 MBR The Biography Shelf

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Midwest Book Review

Jan 1, 2022, 3:57:23 PMJan 1
The Biography Shelf

Three Funerals for My Father
Jolie Phuong Hoang
Tidewater Press
9781990160042 $21.95

Three Funerals for My Father: Love, Loss, and Escape from Vietnam is an unusual memoir. It captures the experiences of a large family faced with not one, but three separate challenges to escape the Communist regime that took over in Vietnam in the 1970s. Jolie Hoang's father arranged three escapes for his family of ten children. One cost him his livelihood. One successfully brought six of the kids to safety in Canada. And one cost him his life. Three Funerals for My Father is presented in a dual narrative style by daughter Jolie Hoang, who juxtaposes her experiences with reflections from her father's ghost. This unusual approach allows for a more personal contrast between family experiences, opening with a captivating introduction that neatly sets the stage for the memoir that follows: "I died on June 15, 1985, when I was fifty-nine years old. My death was not natural. I died escaping Vietnam with my wife and my three younger children, hoping to reunite with my six older children who were living in Canada, halfway around the world. I died in the Pacific Ocean, trying to shorten the distance between us all."

More so than most stories of immigrant experiences (even the ones replete with danger and drama, such as this), Three Funerals for My Father features a passionate disparity between generations and lives that captures and contrasts parallel worlds and experiences. More so than most such stories, the saga captures the essence of life under Communist rule in Vietnam when a family is divided. Daughter Jolie Phuong Hoang's ability to give voice to her father's experiences, concerns, and conflicts brings this world to life and furthers the cause of understanding immigrant ideals, experiences, and the trials many endure when embarking on the long road to freedom. At no other time in history is this story and its underlying message so necessary as in modern times, as immigrants are maligned and questioned in American circles that traditionally welcomed them. These experiences come to life in a rare look at sacrifices made during the quest for freedom, providing an intimate examination of hardship and courage that should be on the shelves of any collection strong in immigrant stories about Vietnam refugees, in particular.

Pandora's Lockbox
Nico Griffith
9781737719946, $15.95

Memoirs about real estate experiences typically don't earn the descriptors "vivid" or "exciting" in their reviews; but Pandora's Lockbox: An Award-Winning Real Estate Agent's Memoir of Love, Sex, Murders and an Alligator is this and more. It documents a vivid heyday of buying and selling in the 80s and 90s, when real estate agent deals were not as regulated (or staid) as they are today. The lack of computers, automated systems, and instant tracking lent the industry (as with so many others) a flexibility and Wild West-type atmosphere. Depicting this world is one of the strengths of Pandora's Lockbox, which captures these deals and the heady atmosphere of emotionally charged client/agent relationships. You really have to read it to believe it. Pandora's Lockbox is anything but predictable: "She was making me an accessory to MURDER, and she hadn't even bought a house from me yet."

Nico Griffith cultivates a wry sense of humor about these encounters and the special milieu of buyer/seller relationships as well as the camaraderie between fellow agents. This is evident not just in her professional encounters, but in descriptions of the influences that led her to pursue a career in real estate. From soap opera lives to crazy open house experiences and crime scenes involving real estate agents, Pandora's Lockbox offers a wealth of unexpected events that keeps readers laughing and learning about an industry that is sometimes privy to some close-held (and potentially dangerous) secrets. While this book will certainly be added to many a memoir collection, it also deserves a central spot on any real estate professional or aspiring agent's reading list as a powerful romp through bygone years and real estate conundrums that are never outlined in the typical "how to be an agent" course.

Nico won a creative writing contest in the memoir category for one of the chapters from Pandora's that she submitted. It's easy to see why: its vivid stories will delight the general public as well as would-be and existing real estate pros as they traverses a lively world filled with surprises and heart-stopping moments. One thing is for certain: readers will never think of the real estate industry or agents in exactly the same way after absorbing the trials, tribulations, and some law-skirting home sellers that involve the agents in turbulence and trouble inside Pandora's Lockbox.

Texas Ranger Captain William L. Wright
Richard B. McCaslin
University of North Texas Press
1155 Union Circle #311336, Denton, TX 76203-5017
9781574418453, $34.95, HC, 416pp

Synopsis: William L. Wright (1868-1942) was born to be a Texas Ranger, and hard work made him a great one. In his new biography "Texas Ranger Captain William L. Wright", author and historian Professor Richard B. McCaslin argues that, considering his lineage, it is hard to imagine what else he might have done. Eight of Wright's relatives served as Rangers before the Civil War, five joined the Frontier Battalion from 1874 to 1901, and twenty-two were in the Ranger Force from 1901 to 1935. Wright tried working as a cowboy and farmer, but it did not suit him. Instead, he became a deputy sheriff and then a Ranger in 1899, battling a mob in the Laredo Smallpox Riot, policing both sides in the Reese-Townsend Feud, and winning a gunfight at Cotulla.

Wright's need for a better salary led him to leave the Rangers and become a sheriff. He stayed in that office longer than any of his predecessors in Wilson County, keeping the peace during the so-called Bandit Wars, investigating numerous violent crimes, and surviving being stabbed on the gallows by the man he was hanging. When demands for Ranger reform peaked, he was appointed as a captain and served for most of the next twenty years, retiring in 1939 after commanding dozens of Rangers.

Wright emerged unscathed from the Canales investigation, enforced Prohibition in South Texas, and policed oil towns in West Texas, as well as tackling many other legal problems. When he retired, he was the only Ranger in service who had worked under seven governors. More important, historians have included him among the "Big Four" captains of the Ranger Force. Wright thus joins such leaders as Francis A. "Frank" Hamer, Thomas R. "Tom" Hickman, and Manuel T. Gonzaullas, all of whom accompanied him in being inducted into the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame at Waco.

Critique: An exceptional work of meticulous research combined with a genuine flair for writing a non-fiction biography that reads like the most compelling of western novels, "Texas Ranger Captain William L. Wright" is an extraordinary and unreservedly recommended addition to community, college, and university library American Biography collections. Of special and particular interest to both academia and the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the history of the Texas Rangers, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "Texas Ranger Captain William L. Wright" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $27.96).

Editorial Note: Richard B. McCaslin is Professor of Texas History at the University of North Texas. He is also the author of "Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, October 1862"; {Lee in the Shadow of Washington"; "Fighting Stock: John S. "Rip" Ford in Texas"; and "Sutherland Springs, Texas" (UNT Press).

The Ghosts of Italy
Angela Paolantonio
4900 LaCross Road, North Charleston, SC 29406
9781537410913, $18.95, PB, 300pp

Synopsis: "The Ghosts of Italy" is Angela Paolantonio's personal memoir of how she first discovers and then returns to live in the remote mountain village in Southern Italy where her grandparents were born.

She set out late one November, just after having celebrated Thanksgiving alone on a rooftop in Rome, the spirit of her ancestors guiding her in. "I really didn't know I was searching for anything till I got here," she says. "Then I realized what I was missing and what it meant."

Angela Paolantonio's archetypal journey to the village of the ghosts of her ancestors is a unique yet universal woman's story. She ventures across the threshold of a lost world, reclaims it, and falls deeply in love along the way - with the town and its residents, the landscape, and the Handsome Man from Macchiursi. She follows the clues to rediscover her spirit and the spirit of her grandmother, and namesake, whose memory had been lost to her, locked inside her father's heart.

"The Ghosts of Italy" opens with Angela's daydream of one day owning a stone house on an Italian hillside, sheep grazing below her balcony. 'Now I have them in view.' Then wistfully, 'But it's not just any view. It's the balcony view of my grandmother's youth.'

With good timing, Angela ends up buying the very house where her grandmother was born, made of fieldstone set by hand by her great-grandfather, with the beautiful view, kept in the family for generations. But will she trade a career in Los Angeles to live the Roseto Mystery?

Critique: An inherently fascinating, deeply personal, and deftly written story, "The Ghosts of Italy" is a truly memorable read from first page to last. While especially and unreservedly recommended for community library Contemporary Biography/Memoir collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "The Ghosts of Italy" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $9.95).

Editorial Note: Also highly recommended is "Still Life With Saints: Italian Adventures of Magical Spirit" (979-8571716765, $19.95 PB, $9.95 Kindle, 256pp) by Angela Paolantonio" which continues her life story as she trades Mulholland Drive for via Fontana to live in the house where her Italian spirit was born, on a magical lane among the women of the village who take her under their wing and into their lives. Call it magic, serendipity, or maybe a dispatch from a past life Angela is compelled to listen and act on her inner voice. In this sequel to "The Ghosts of Italy: she's no longer out of her league. Italian folklore rules her days. "Still Life With Saints" is the song of her nights.

Living in Color : A Love Story, In Sickness and in Health
Mike Murphy
Ocean M Press
9780998209463, $14.95, PB, 244pp

Synopsis: Mike Murphy's dream came true when he found the love of his life. Nine months later, there was a lump in her breast that would change the course of their love story forever. "Living in Color : A Love Story, In Sickness and in Health" is a moving, emotionally candid, and honest memoir in which Mike tells the story of his wife Margot's nine-year battle with cancer and the courageous attitude with which she lived each day of her life. He also offers a window into the often-overlooked role of the caregiver, sharing his own struggles with unflinching honesty, humor and insight.

Critique: One of those incredible life stories that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and laid upon the table, "Living in Color : A Love Story, In Sickness and in Health" by Mike Murphy is an especially and unreservedly recommended addition to community library Contemporary American Biography & Memoir collections. Especially appropriate for anyone having to deal with a terminal illness in themselves and/or their families, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "Living in Color : A Love Story, In Sickness and in Health" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $2.99).


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