Olive

OliveOlive by Michelle E Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Meet Olive. She’s optimistic and well-intentioned . . . and a magnet for mishaps. When Olive’s day goes from bad to worse, she wonders if her family and friends can love her in spite of her flaws.

My Review

Olive is for everyone. As an adult reading it brought back so clearly what it felt like to be a kid, and like Olive, I would make mistakes and get in a little trouble. I could also so easily relate to the adults in Olive’s life who get frustrated by the messes she creates. Reading about Olive was a good reminder of the commonalities in human experience and the importance of responding to our own and other’s emotions with love and understanding.

And this book does all of that important stuff while being cute, witty, and so entertaining. The illustrations are colorful and full of the fun and innocence of childhood.

My 8 year old and 5 year old LOVED this book. They have asked to read it everyday since we got it. Not only was it fun to read the story together, but the “Stop and Think” pages at the end gave us great opportunity to communicate, learn, and connect. Since reading the book together when one of us experiences some “thumps or lumps or bumps” I have been able to say, “Remember what we read about Olive? How did she feel after such-and-such happened?” Or “How did Olive fix the mistake she made?” Or “How did her family feel?” It has given us a non-threatening, child-friendly, and loving vocabulary to talk about the mistakes and problems that come up in our family life.

Olive Ewe’s story is worth owning and reading over and over, but those Stop and Think pages really make it an incredible educational tool. This is an ideal book for character lessons at school and the lesson plan and questions are already there for you at the end of the book. Olive would also make a great prompt for writing personal narratives, and for studying emotions and problem-solving.

If you have kids, work with kids, know any kids, or if you were once a kid, do yourself a favor and read Olive.

Duck, Duck, Moose

Duck, Duck, MooseDuck, Duck, Moose by Joy Heyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Duck’s best friend Goose is gone for winter and Duck is lonely. The animals try to cheer Duck, but Duck, Duck, Pig is too messy, and Duck, Duck, Moose is too scary. Will Duck be alone until Goose gets back? Or can Duck find a way to happily play until Goose gets back?

My Review

Duck, Duck, Moose has all of the elements of the perfect picture book. The story is entertaining for adults and children alike. There aren’t too many words per page and they are fun words to say and hear. The charming illustrations work with the words to tell the full story. Each time we have read this, my kids can’t wait to turn the page to see what problem Duck will find himself in next. I love Duck’s facial expressions. They tell the story in and of themselves.

This book also has a feel good message about friendship and social skills without being annoying or preachy. I love the example duck shows of turning a disappointing situation around with a little problem-solving and a change in attitude. It’s really a plot and message that is relatable to real life. But most importantly, it’s just a positively enjoyable book!

Age Recommendation: I love reading this book over and over with my kids. This one works for the youngest of readers to the oldest.

Appropriateness: Only warm fuzzies and innocence in this one, along with a good dose of wit.

 

Classroom Use: This book would be great inspiration for creative writing exercises.  Students could come up with their own ideas of what traditional games with combinations of animals might look like. What would work well? What wouldn’t?Students could also write about what they thought Goose was doing while he was away. Would be a great study in point of view.

This book is perfect for studying standards related to “main ideas and details” particularly in looking at describing characters in the story.  Because the illustrations are an integral part of showing characters emotions they actually become “text evidence.” The visual text evidence may be more concrete for some learners and help cement the idea of how to find and use text evidence to support conclusions.  This would also apply to teaching standards related to “integration of knowledge and skills.”

Other Book Recommendations: If you like Duck, Duck, Moose or books like it then you should try The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak, any Elephant and Piggie or Pigeon books by Mo Willems, Cindy Moo by Lori Mortensen, and Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My Review

How did I go so many years as a book devourerer and not read this one until now? The forward by Anna Quidlen describes my thoughts and feelings about the book so well. It’s not one that you can easily sum up if asked “what is it about?” As Quidlen puts it, “It is a story about what it means to be human.”

The lives of the Nolans are full of hardship, poverty, hunger, uncertainty. Yet somehow the book is not depressing. I found myself feeling such gratitude for all I have and the things my children and I don’t have to face because we have money for food, clothes, and fun every month. But there was that small part of me that also admired the character of the family, of the children, that the developed because of their struggles. Francie and Neeley express that when thinking about their baby sister who will not have to collect junk to help the family get by. Lucky her they say, but she also won’t have the fun times they had either. And they feel sorry that she will miss out on that.

Certainly social issues are presented in this book, but I loved that they were not the main theme. They were there simply because it presented the scene for how these characters dealt with it. There is no preaching in the book’s pages about how poverty should or shouldn’t be dealt with. There is no cheering for “republicanism” or “democratism” while condemning the other side. It’s just showing that horrible things that are somewhat out of our control don’t have to make life worthless or unhappy for any of us. I loved Johnny Nolan’s simple explanation of what makes America a free country. He marvels at all the fancy carriages in the rich part of Brooklyn and at how anyone can ride in one of them provided they have the money. Francie asks how that’s different from the old countries to which Johnny replies that in the old countries even if you had enough money not everyone could ride in a carriage. Francie wonders wouldn’t it be better if everyone could ride in the carriages for free? And Johnny says that’s socialism “and we don’t want any of that here.”

Whether we struggle with poverty and alcoholism, or with depression, or with greed we can see ourselves in the Nolans and their reactions to the things that happen to them. Best of all, we see how they take control of what they can and work really hard so that things stop happening to them, and they start making things happen. But the Nolans also know that their survival is not only a result of their hard work. They recognize God’s hand in their lives and miracles occur.

This was a story that left me proud of those who came before me and worked so hard to make it possible for me to have the opportunities I have now. And I hope I can create an even richer future for my children. As Katie Nolan observes, the key is not money; it’s education. My children are warm in the winter and well-fed. They have toys to play with and a safe yard to run amok in and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I also hope that like Francie they can look at others with compassion and understanding. I hope they can value and appreciate what they have rather than judge those who have more or less. I hope they can recognize the value of hard-work and loyalty especially among family. I hope they will see their positions in life as a result of their own hard work and the support of so many around them. And then I hope they will help to lift and build others up.

The best way I can teach that is by example. Hopefully my children will learn from my good example and also my screw ups just as the Rommelys and Nolans did. I am grateful of the reminder from these characters of how precious life is. How happiness is made up in the small things. How hard work, independence, and selflessness are their own reward. And how it’s also fun to feel rich sometimes by throwing a little money around, but really the richness comes because of the memories created and the character that is built.

Age Recommendation: Experienced readers with a broader life experience will get the most from this book. I recommend for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: The lives of these characters are tough; reading this book means facing alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, social injustice, and bullying to name a few.  But on the flip side you experience triumph, courage, and hope. There is also swearing in the book frequently. It’s not for the faint of heart but for me, it’s totally worth the journey.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book or are interested in it you may also enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (The Herdmans #1)The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

The Herdmans are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear, and hit little kids. So no one is prepared when this outlaw family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of the Herdmans has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation of the tale — the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating — has a lot of people up in arms. But it will make this year’s pageant the most unusual anyone has seen and, just possibly, the best one ever.

My Review

It was a tradition to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever almost every year when I was growing up. I have great memories of my older sister and my mom reading it to me. I remember my mom tearing up as she read the last chapter. But it had been probably close to 20 years since I had read the book (or had it read to me). Then pulling out boxes of Christmas decor this year I saw that bright red cover with Gladys Herdman as the Angel on it. All the good memories and feelings came flooding back and I just knew I had to read it to my 9 year old and almost 8 year old.

I wondered as we began if it would keep their interest. It is over 40 years old now. But age didn’t matter in this case. My girls were engaged from the start. They experienced all the shock and laughter that I remember experiencing as I read about the escapades of those naughty Herdmans. I was impressed by the genius of the writing that present characters, setting, and plot that could take place in the 70’s when it was written just as easily as it could take place today. The only aspect that dated the book at all was that the Herdmans read books at the library instead of looking online to learn about King Herod. 🙂

Teaching 3rd grade this year has given me the chance to interact with a lot of kids besides my own children, and it was amazing how “real” the characters and dialogue are. Every child character in the book reminded me of a student in my class (including the Herdmans).

I guess that’s why the tears flowed freely for me this year through that last chapter. The Herdmans weren’t just characters. They each had faces for me this year, faces of students that I see every day, students who just like the Herdmans suffer hunger and neglect but do the best they can with what they have and know. Reading of the change that occurred for the Herdmans gives me hope that real children in the world can have experiences that change them for the better if we all do our part to teach and reach out to them.

I also appreciated the reminder of the “Truth” of the Christmas Story. The Herdmans give a poignant picture; they make it easy to see that a true portrayal of the Holy Family would be of poor and weary travelers, likely disheveled and slightly anxious. Circumstances couldn’t have been less ideal for having a new baby. A Stable for heaven’s sake! And yet with the Christ child’s arrival the “imperfections” became meaningful and even perfect. The birth of our Savior made that stable sacred and all who visited treated it so. Just a reenactment of the Savior’s birth brought sanctity to the unruly Herdmans. And so it is with our lives. When Jesus Christ is allowed in he turns us from stables to temples. Even the hardest of hearts can be touched, even Imogene Herdman’s, and through hers – ours.

Such powerful messages to be packed into a short and sweet 80 pages. And they are powerful because they are not preached. Instead the author presents ideas, observations, and situations with plenty of detail and reality, but also with openness that allows us to visualize and make our own judgment.

Truly a classic. Merry Christmas! and “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

Age Recommendation: 8 and older would understand the content best. While the genre is children’s literature I highly recommend this one to adults too.

Appropriateness: There are a few swear words (from the Herdmans), some mention of underwear and the word sex appears. None of it is inappropriate for the purpose and audience.  It is in fact vital to the telling of this funny and engaging story.

Book Club Discussion: Besides the Christmas theme and the fresh look at the Christmas Story, this book also provides a platform to discuss troubled children and families, how we can help them, and how we should and shouldn’t judge others.

Other Book Recommendations: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, and Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff.

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When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student, into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My Review

This is one of those books that is so hard to review because there is just no way that you can do it justice. The author says it all absolutely perfectly, precisely, and poetically, so any words on my part are like fluorescent lights compared to the perfect gold of autumn sunshine. However, there is so much Truth and beauty to process and internalize from the pages of this book that I must attempt a review regardless of the inadequacy of my words. There were several passages though, that resounded with such power that I will quote them directly.

It seems almost an oxymoron to say that a memoir written by a dying cancer patient is one of the most powerful, positive, uplifting, and hopeful records of life that I have ever read, but it is the truth. Paul Kalanithi’s grasp of the meaning of life and death is so full, nuanced, and inspiring; he so eloquently describes his life journey as a son, reader, student, friend, philosopher, doctor, husband, and finally patient and father. All of it motivated by his desire to live a meaningful life and to discover what makes a life meaningful.

His interest in and search for meaning was sparked by literature. He felt like a bosom friend when I read, “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, has something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans that undergirded meaning…Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the riches material for moral reflection.”

But Paul Kalanithi didn’t just stop at reflection. He wrote, ““If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?” And so he lived. He challenged his mind and body, he formed relationships, he worked hard and played hard.

His reading also introduced him to an idea that stuck with him through many years and that ultimately led him to choose neurosurgery as his career path over literature and writing:

“The mind was simply the operation of the brain, an idea that struck me with force…Of course it must be true – what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms – the brain was an organ, subject to the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic…I began to see all disciplines as creating a vocabulary, a set of tools for understanding human life in a particular way. Great literary works provided their own set of tools, compelling the reader to use that vocabulary….I couldn’t quite let go of the question: Where did biology, morality, literature, and philosophy intersect? [Medical school] would mean setting aside literature. But it would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”

I was completely fascinated by his experiences and descriptions of medical school. He illuminates the ironies and conflicts in balancing science and sensitivity in the practice of medicine. One of my favorite descriptions related to working on cadavers: “You would think that the first time you cut up a dead person, you’d feel a bit funny about it. Strangely, though, everything feels normal. The bright lights, stainless steel tables, and bow-tied professors lend an air of propriety. Even so, that first cut, running from the nape of the neck down to the small of the back, is unforgettable.”

I would describe Paul Kalanithi as a hero, but that’s certainly not what he was going for. However, his integrity and sincerity are truly bold and valiant in today’s world of instant gratification and self-interest. His words give the best sense of his convictions:

“Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them…Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action.”

“I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.”

“The heroic spirit of responsibility amid blood and failure. This struck me as the true image of a doctor.”

“In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben? I still had a a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well.”

“The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

I went back to teaching this year after 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. There have been feelings of doubt, guilt, euphoria, and everything in between. I have had to make decisions and judgment calls regarding how to prioritize my time, how to balance my family and my students, how to keep and strengthen relationships with my children while also being effective as a teacher – both situations in which I can impact lives for good or ill. It was cathartic to read and relate to Kalanithi’s struggle to find the same balance in his life between medical school, family, research, and then ultimately illness and death. He wrote, “Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.” Both Motherhood and Teaching are my callings; this book has inspired me and strengthened my resolve that I can bring meaning to my life and to others through doing what it takes to fulfill my callings, no matter the sacrifice and inconvenience to myself.

Most powerful was the feeling of kinship Kalanithi inspires not just between him and his readers, but between the human race as a whole: “…it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer and eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them.”

All of this wisdom and Truth Paul Kalanithi shares as his body and mind are attacked and destroyed by cancer. It brings such an urgency to his message, while at the same time his words are full of peace and dignity even in the face of death. He is honest and open about his struggles in each stage of his life, including at the end, but that just makes his message and decisions to put others above himself more inspiring. The epilogue written by his wife solidifies the beauty of the love that they shared as a family and that they now share with the world.

Please read this book. No matter your life circumstance or experience there is something in these words for you.

Age Recommendation: This book deals with the theme of death beautifully, respectfully, and with reverence; however, some of the facts may be too emotional for younger readers. For that reason, I would recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some swearing in the book, but not a distracting or disturbing amount. Some vague, mild, reference to sex, but nothing graphic or disturbing. There is some medical procedures and description, but it’s all scientific so even when described in some detail the intent is not to be disgusting.  There are emotional themes which ought to push us out of our comfort zones a little, but the intent is pure and good.  If any of these aspects would deter you from reading the book, please don’t let them. This is a “must-read.”

Book Club Discussion: There are so many topics and questions that could be discussed in relation to When Breath Becomes Air including the importance of literature, doctor and patient responsibilities, terminal illness, dealing with death, sacrifice for goals, and finding balance.

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in When Breath Becomes Air then I think you would also likeThe Alchemist by Paul Coelho, The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

 

 

Taking Chance

I am breaking form for a moment and reviewing a movie rather than a book. But this movie moves me as much as any of my favorite books, so it deserves to be included in my reviews.

The movie is Taking Chance   and I give it 5 stars.

5 Star Rating

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Summary

Based on true events – Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl escorts the body of a 19-year-old Private First Class Chance Phelps, a marine who was killed in Iraq. The film follows his journey from the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, to Private Phelps home in Wyoming and gives an intimate look at the process and people involved in putting a fallen soldier to rest. The real power of the film is in the emotions it evokes with its honest and unabashed  portrayal of real people who sacrifice for others and who receive the respect, honor, and reverence that they truly deserve.

Time: 1 hour 17 min.

Rating: PG

Starring: Kevin Bacon

My Review

This is not at all what you would call an “action-packed” film, but it packs a punch nonetheless.  To tell the events of the movie would sound a lot like a travelogue, but the details and absolute order of each checkpoint in the journey reveals the true dignity and hallowed calling of the men and women of our armed forces. Each person that you meet in the film who is involved in the sacred duty of returning the body of Chance Phelps to his family, lights such a fire of hope and optimism for our nation and citizens because they all give respectful and reverent tribute in their own unique and perfect ways.

I can’t think of any other movie I have seen that is presented with such honesty and truth.  Taking Chance is devoid of any Hollywood dazzle or ploys. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal is perfect and the supporting actors feel so real. This is not a parade of magazine cover faces, but rather a look into true and everyday America.

Through the process of Chance Phelps’s body being brought to rest  we get a glimpse of the intricacies involved in giving our military men and women, both the living and the dead, the honor, respect, and reverence they deserve. The pieces that are shown come together into a powerful whole in which you feel such gratitude and pride for those who give so much for our freedom and way of life.  Even more powerful though, is the vision these events give of how we could be as a nation and as the human race if we were to treat every person and responsibility with the same honor that is evident throughout the movie.

After watching, I feel smaller and bigger. I feel humbled and proud. I feel my priorities rearranging themselves and such gratitude for my life and for those that sacrifice in small ways and who sacrifice everything so that I can live the way I do. And I feel, like the people in the film, the desire to give back in some way, big or small, to those strangers who sacrifice, fight, and die for me. Posting a review isn’t much compared to a soldier’s sacrifice, but maybe by drawing attention to this film in my small way others can also be affected and changed by it’s message.

With that, I say with absolute certainty that every American should see Taking Chance.

 

 

 

Ella Enchanted

Ella EnchantedElla Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At Ella’s birth, an imprudent young fairy bestows on her the “gift” of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. But instead of making her docile, the fairy’s curse makes Ella a bit of a rebel. When her beloved mother dies, Ella must keep herself safe from her selfish and greedy father, her mean-spirited stepsisters, and the things the curse could make her do. Ella sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery which includes fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way. Yes, there is a pumpkin coach, a glass slipper, and a happily ever after, but this is the most remarkable, delightful, and profound version of Cinderella you’ll ever read.

My Review

I had a lot of time in a car last week so I brought one of my all time favorite books to keep me entertained. I hadn’t read Ella Enchanted for probably 10 years and it was definitely time for a reread.

I loved it once again. I was wrapped up in the characters and the story just as much as the first time I read it. It’s an easy read without complicated language so my 5, 7, and 9 year old daughters loved listening to me read it aloud, but it’s written intelligently and beautifully so that I was engaged just as much as the kids.

I love the way the elements of the Cinderella story are presented in a way that they fit together better and make a more fulfilling story than the original fairytale. Even though it’s a retelling it’s fresh and feels completely new. The romance between Ella and the prince is developed well, is believable, and brings such warm fuzzies.

This wasn’t my first reading of this book and it definitely won’t be the last.
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Age Recommendation: This is an award-winning children’s book and will be enjoyed by all ages. As I said, even my 5 year old enjoyed it as a read aloud, though I think my 9 year old certainly understood the themes better. So I would say this book is best for 9 and older.

Appropriateness: This one is squeaky clean. Nothing crass or crude, though some younger readers may feel emotional over the death of Ella’s mother and the injustices that she is subjected to.

Other Book Recommendations: If you liked Ella Enchanted you should also read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, Goose Girl and The Princess Academy both by Shannon Hale, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt.

 

The Perfect Mile

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve ItThe Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

There was a time when running the mile in four minutes was believed to be beyond the limits of human foot speed, and in all of sport it was the elusive holy grail. In 1952, after suffering defeat at the Helsinki Olympics, three world-class runners each set out to break this barrier.

Roger Bannister was a young English medical student who epitomized the ideal of the amateur — still driven not just by winning but by the nobility of the pursuit. John Landy an Australian who trained relentlessly in an almost spiritual attempt to shape his body to this singular task. Then there was Wes Santee, the swaggering American, a Kansas farm boy and natural athlete.

Spanning three continents and defying the odds, their collective quest captivated the world and competed with headlines from the Korean War, the atomic race, and such legendary figures as Edmund Hillary, Willie Mays, Native Dancer, and Ben Hogan. Neal Bascomb delivers a breathtaking story of unlikely heroes and leaves us with a lasting portrait of the twilight years of the golden age of sport.

My Review

I am a runner and I love it. (Though that hasn’t always been the case. You can read more about my conversion to running here.) So I was naturally interested in this book since it’s all about runners. But there is also historical significance in learning more about this event along with what was going on in the world at the time it took place. I was fascinated by the view of amateur and professional athletics in the 1950’s, and how much athletics have changed since then.

This book also introduced me to true heroes and role models of our day, and the writing is superb. The author paints pictures with words of people and events so that they come alive and are so relatable. I was just as nervous and engaged reading about the races in this book as I was while reading the Hunger Games.

And when it comes down to it, this book is less about running and more about working hard with what life has given us to make something of ourselves and to contribute to the world in which we live. The 3 main running figures in the book sum it up best:

John Landy: “Running gave me discipline and self-expression…It has all the disappointments, frustrations, lack of success, and unexpected success, which all reproduce themselves in the bigger play of life. It teaches you the ability to present under pressure. It teaches you the importance of being enthusiastic, dedicated, focused. All of these are trite statements, but if you actually have to go through these things as a young man, it’s very, very important.”

Wes Santee: “Hard work pays off. You have to be just as disciplined to run a business as you do to train for an athletic event. You have to eat right, still have to get up early and work more than others.”

Roger Bannister: “Sport is about not being wrapped up in cotton wool. Sport is about adapting to the unexpected and being able to modify plans at the last minute. Sport, like all life, is about taking your chances.”

All of these factors make this a book that everyone, runner or non-runner, athlete or completely lacking in coordination, should read.

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Age Recommendation: All ages will be interested in this story, particularly those with experience truly sacrificing and working hard toward a goal. The writing is probably best for 16 and older though younger readers with a high reading level would do just fine.

Appropriateness: Clean as a whistle on this one.  Clean language, no violence, no immorality.

This would provide great book club discussion material.  Comparing the  different approaches to running from each of the main runners as well as from their coaches would be interesting.  The different approaches to running could also be discussed in how they relate to the characters view of life.  This book provides great material for discussion on themes such as

1) the merits of athletics

2) the pros and cons to amateur vs. professional athletics

3) what does it take (physically and mentally) to push past barriers? Which is more important – physical or mental?

4) How do circumstances affect our performance in sport and in life? How do we keep our confidence and determination when circumstances all seem to be against us?

5) Why do sporting events and athletes bring out such pride in a country or school?

For more discussion material and for some of my favorite quotes and inspirations from the book see my previous post titled Full of Running.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of this book you might also enjoy Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.

Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

finished this book for the umpteenth time over 4 months ago, and I loved it just as much as every other time that I’ve read it. So you’d think a review would have been easy, but this is a complicated book to talk about without giving too much away. I tried getting my thoughts in order right after finishing it but with moving into a new house about the same time, taking care of 4 kids, and training for a marathon I just ran out of time and brain power for awhile. Now the marathon is over and there seems to be a brief calm in the storm of house and yard projects so I think I might have enough focus for a review. I’m sure the package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos I just finished off will help me focus too.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A young and inexperienced lady’s maid is quickly and surprisingly swept of her feet by the wealthy and charming widower, Maxim de Winter. They are married quickly and return to his estate where the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place in a way of life she knows nothing about, and where the memory of Max’s first wife seems to overshadow every room, conversation, and event.  Rebecca’s power from beyond the grave haunts the new, timid bride until all hope for the marriage seems lost. But when the past resurfaces assumptions are questioned and hard choices have to be made.

My Review

This time reading Rebecca I noticed much more how little action there really is in the plot and yet I still consider this one of the greatest and suspense books of all time. So I have to ask myself, what is it that rivets me? What really makes it so great?

Well to start the writing is a work of art. Such intelligent and insightful description without being pompous or overdone. On the first page we read, “Nature had come into her own again and little by little in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.” Describing an overgrown driveway like this gives not only a visual, but also a feeling. Giving nature a persona, making it a character, continues throughout the book. The descriptions truly give nature power and influence in not just the setting but in the events as well. Nature also plays the role of clairvoyant; it provides omens of the events to come, good or bad.

The method of plot development is also very unique. As I said, not that much actually happens in the book. There are a few events that occur, but the true conflict in the story is rooted in something that happened in the characters’ pasts. To reveal that past and to develop how it affects the present there is so much storytelling that happens within the head of the first-person narrator. Her own misconceptions provide the plot base for pretty much the whole first half of the book and then a major revelation and her having to realign her misconceptions is essentially the plot for the second half. That could sound pretty boring – a story happening inside a character’s mind much of the time – but Du Maurier masterfully builds tension through description that makes the pages come alive and characterizations that resurrect ghosts.

Some of the most intriguing characterization comes from the contrast in the narrator and Rebecca. Just their names give insight – the first name of our plain, quiet, unassuming narrator is never given. After she and Max are married she is Mrs. de Winter and we are given no other title with which to identify her. She is the narrator and main character, but the title of the book is “Rebecca.” Rebecca is the name we all know and love, or dread depending on the perspective. Just this little detail in the use of character names reveals so much about the characters themselves as well as the book’s themes.

Ah, and the themes in this book! This is where it becomes difficult to not give too much away. My previous post discussed one theme – choices and consequences and how misconceptions affect both. Mrs. De Winter spends so much time living out “what if’s” in her mind, playing out elaborate scenarios which have such detail that we as readers and the narrator take them to be reality.

The theme that makes this book unique and, so I’ve been told, even controversial in some book clubs, is determining the morality of the character’s actions. Do their motivations matter? Should the choices of others be taken into consideration? Is justice served at the end? Not only do we analyze the character’s choices and the resulting consequences, but we get to ask ourselves how we feel about them. We know what is wrong and right according to law and our conscience. Do the events of this book go against that knowledge? Is your heart reacting differently than you think it should? I have spoken with some who were uncomfortable confronting these kind of “greys” in the moral spectrum, but they are what take this book beyond being just a beautifully written and suspenseful romance and into the realm of a Classic.

Age Recommendation: High School age and older. Definitely for mature readers. I wouldn’t say the writing is difficult to read, but it is more “old-fashioned” and intelligent than your average work of fiction. The themes and events of the book also need a discerning mind.

Appropriateness: I would recommend it for any book club or high school and college English class, but as I said, there are some who have found it more controversial. But that just gives even more material for great discussion! No offensive or off-color language that I remember. No detailed sexual content, just married couple kissing and some reference that indicates a married couple were intimate.

Book Recommendations: If you like Rebecca I recommend Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphme Du Maurier. You may also like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Eruption by Adrienne Quintana.

If you have already read the book….

Here some of the ingenious aspects and insights that I loved reading Rebecca this time:

  1. On page 36 The narrator talks about wanting to bottle memory and I could so relate! There are just those perfect moments that you wish you could somehow keep forever just the way they are. How would it be to uncork the memory at some later date and have it to relive all over again? But isn’t that the irony?  Those moments are so perfect because we are completely IN them.  We are present, not worried about the past or future, just there. I can relate to the narrator’s melancholy that comes afterward as well, when you realize you can’t bottle the memory and it will fade. The joy and sadness combined make the moment that much more powerful.
  2. On page 44 the narrator describes how traveling changes you.  You leave something behind whenever you a leave a place while at the same time part of that place comes with you and makes you a different person than you were before.  I love that about traveling.  And I love that reading books can have the same effect.
  3. In Chapter 15 Mrs. De Winter goes to visit Maxim’s grandmother.  She compares the elderly to children. They can both be a hassle and tiring, but we try to be polite anyway. She points out though, that we can remember being children and so can better understand them; maybe that gives us more patience.  We have not been old yet and so may not be able to relate as well. But as Mrs. De Winter thinks about how the grandmother may have been as a young lady, it gives her more sympathy.  My grandmother is declining with alzheimer’s and I could completely relate to the thoughts and feelings expressed.
  4. It’s fascinating how reading the book for the first time you can get caught up in the idea that Maxim must still be in love with Rebecca. The way Mrs. De Winter perceives all the events, descriptions, and interactions sure makes it seem that way.  And Rebecca played her deception well. But when you read it again know the truth there are so many hints and clues to the true nature of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship.
  5. I have always been amazed at the clear picture of Rebecca that is painted for us and for Mrs. De Winter. She is dead from the start of the book and yet we learn more about her than we do of the narrator.  Of course because she is dead, all we know about Rebecca comes from people’s descriptions of her beauty and talents, and from the things she left behind. Her handwriting, her clothes, her coat, her smell, her habits as described by the staff, and her style still left at Manderley give Rebecca presence and influence even beyond the grave.  However, none of these things reveal her character and so we can be misled just like Mrs. De Winter.

View all my reviews

Rebecca – just a little taste

Rhododendron – you’ll never look at them the same after reading this book.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  These words are like an old friend. They set the stage for the beautiful mystery that is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

We moved to a new house a few weeks ago so reading has been a luxury I’ve given up the last month or so in order to do packing and unpacking. But tonight I wanted to escape into a story for awhile.  Maybe because my focus has been on our house recently I was drawn to a story in which a house plays such a significant role. You could say that the Manderley estate is one of the characters in Rebecca.  It’s the first thing we are introduced to; it’s the first chapter and the first line.

I was only able to read a chapter and a half tonight, but the beauty of the prose and the genius description in just those few pages completely pulled me in. “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.” Talk about perfection in verb and adjective usage. Du Maurier was an artist; she knew how to paint a picture with words.

This book makes it into my top 5 favorites. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count, and I can’t wait to get lost in its pages again. I’m looking forward to having a forum this time in which I can share the greatness of Rebecca with others, so I will keep my actual book review for after I finish, but this book is just SO GOOD right from the start that I had to share some love now. If you haven’t read Rebecca pick it up and let’s journey through it’s intricate characterization and haunting beauty together.