Victoria: Portrait of a Queen

Victoria: Portrait of a QueenVictoria: Portrait of a Queen by Catherine Reef

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

Catherine Reef brings history vividly to life in this sumptuously illustrated account of a confident, strong-minded, and influential woman.

Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord.

My Review

Very enjoyable to listen to. I enjoyed the quotes taken from the writings of the people actually involved in the events. It was a very brief look at Queen Victoria’s whole life and left me wanting more information about what came before and after her.

I felt this book didn’t do a very good job of helping me understand what about Victoria’s reign made her so influential or so loved. I felt the author’s explanation was simply that Victoria reigned for a long time and a lot of changes happened in technology, culture, and rights during her time. I felt the author didn’t portray Victoria as really having been a vehicle for those things. More that she just happened to be alive and the queen as all those changes happened around her, sometimes with no connection to her actions and sometimes actually in spite of her actions. I wonder if another author or a more in depth look at Queen Victoria would be able to show she was more involved in the changes of the times? I’d be interested in a perspective that might be able to show me why her people loved her so much, what good she actually did for them and for the world.

Advertisements

The Magnolia Story

The Magnolia StoryThe Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

The Magnolia Story is the first book from Chip and Joanna, offering Fixer Upper fans a detailed look at their life together. From the very first renovation project they ever tackled together, to the project that nearly cost them everything; from the childhood memories that shaped them, to the twists and turns that led them to the life they share on the farm today.

In The Magnolia Story fans will finally get to join the Gaines behind the scenes. And yet there is still one lingering question for fans of the show: Is Chip really that funny? “Oh yeah,” says Joanna. “He was, and still is, my first fixer upper.”

My Review

This isn’t a literary masterpiece. But it’s not meant to be one. It’s basically just reading an interview with Chip and Joanna Gaines, so if you like them or their show at all I think you will be entertained by their conversation. It was motivating and encouraging to hear their story, the work, risk, and sacrifice that was required to get them to where they are today. They really are pretty normal, everyday, average people, so I felt I could relate to their experience in many ways. I came away thinking that anyone could find the success and happiness they have found if we were also willing to put forth the work.

Most inspiring of all was the credit they gave to the miracles that also occurred in their journey. They tried to stay in communication with God and He communicated back. And the blessings were obvious. I don’t have a TV show, my own business, or a perfectly decorated house. But I too can see miracles and God’s hand in my life especially when I ask to know His will for me and then try to put that above my own plans. I know Chip and Joanna get that. And the Gaines would say the fame, fortune, and fabulous decor is not the point of all that they have worked and sacrificed for. It’s about their family and their faith and being a light in the world. Their imperfect but sincere journey strengthened my resolve to stay true to the people that matter most.

I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. At 15 years old she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

My Review

When I started listening to the audio book I think I was expecting a fairly short recap of a girls life leading up to how and why she got shot. I mean, she was just a teenager after all so how much of her life could there be to tell? I chose the book because it was readily available, and while I had heard about Malala I didn’t really know much about her, and she seems like the kind of person I should know about in order to be up on the current issues.

I was surprised when the book started right off with the day of the shooting. I realized this was not going to be the book I was expecting, but I was ok with that because I was only more intrigued by the “why” after hearing about the “how” of the shooting.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn about the history and culture of Pakistan and Islam. I’m not the most well-informed world citizen, but I ain’t totally ignorant either, so this was a great format for me to gain a broader perspective of the intricate and interconnected workings of our modern world. I was fascinated by the history of Malala’s family and how it connected to the broader national and religious history. The descriptions of the Swat Valley left me hoping I could someday visit Pakistan to see it for myself.

I watched “The Viceroy’s House” on Netflix after finishing the book; it is a movie about the time surrounding Pakistan’s birth. While it may not be the most accurate portrayal of history, it did teach me much more than I had known before about that time in history. It also furthered my interest in learning more about Pakistan and Afghanistan so I can better understand current events.

Malala’s teenage voice and perspective were fun and refreshing through a tale of hardship and danger. But she also has a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. It was joyful to hear that a girl who is willing to stand up to gangs and murderers for the right to go to school also was obsessed with Twilight and dreamed of being a vampire.

I respect Malala and her family not only for their work to provide educational opportunities for girls, even at the risk of their own lives, but also because they are good. They are devoted to their God and to each other. They show patience and understanding for differences in people. There is no self-righteousness nor self-deprecation when describing the wonders and problems in their country and religion. Malala’s voice keeps a neutrality even when describing the ways in which the Western world wronged or betrayed her country. There is acceptance of the good, the bad, and the ugly in all of us, but with a hope and striving for the best. More empathy in this world could make all the difference.

Age Recommendation: 16 and older. Malala is a teenager herself and is relatable as such, but the issues in the book and her experiences require some scope of world understanding.

Appropriateness: Some readers may be disturbed by the violent and unjust events in the book, but I didn’t find any of the description offensive.

I gained a lot of perspective of my place in the world and felt a bit humbled by it. This would be a perfect book club choice.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in I Am Malala then you might also enjoy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and Without You there is No Us by Suki Kim.

 

Without You There is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields – except for the 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic where letters are read by censors, every conversation is listened to, and a communist regime controls behavior, belief, and fairly successfully even thoughts. To the students, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Suki is unnerved by their obedience to the regime and the ease with which they lie. Still, she cannot help but love them – their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”

My Review

Fascinating is the best the word I can think of to describe this book. I didn’t know much about North Korea before reading/listening, other than the basics such as it’s a communist country with a preoccupation with nuclear weapons, it and South Korea were separated at some point after some war in the past, Japan had invaded Korea at one point, and North Korea was very much closed to the rest of the world. I wouldn’t say that this book is a great textbook for learning the history or political movements of North Korea, but for someone with decent logic and reasoning skills, and a pretty good grasp of world history this was a very engaging way to get a glimpse into the role North Korea has played and currently plays on the international stage.

The book is categorized as a memoir which I would say is accurate, but it felt like a memoir ensconced in truth and important perspective. As a South Korean who immigrated to the United States the author has a very unique context from which to view the events and ideas she experienced in North Korea. Because the book is written from her experience and with her own reflection on that experience it does fit the memoir mold. However, as a reader I trusted her reflections because of her own past and culture. She could see things in a way that others without her kind of love for Korea would not. Which was kind of the point of her efforts. I appreciated not only her interpretation of reactions, ideas, and events based on her personal ties to the country and people, but also her sharing the insight and identity she gained and lost through her experience.

If the book were just Suki Kim’s musings about Korea, war, communism, religion, loyalty, truth, and education then it would be interesting but it may not be as important as it felt to me. Kim is a journalist, one who had followed stories in North Korea before her time as a teacher there. Her perspective from that role gives the book an element of reporting that left me feeling I did understand historical events and international relations better.

I loved how the combination of memoir and journalism gave me interesting facts but also affected me emotionally. There were times as I listened that I was caught up purely intellectually in the picture of North Korea that the author was painting for me. It’s a country so removed from me with so many secrets that it was just mesmerizing to hear what being there, living there would be like. But then I would slowly transport myself and start imagining what it would really feel like to be there. The author would share a scene where the restrictions, regulation, and control were no longer just interesting facts, but the realities of people’s lives, and I would feel such sorrow and hurt for the Korean people and any others living always as prisoners.

My emotions yo-yoed right along with the author’s as she described her love/hate relationship with her job, with her students and coworkers, and with the culture she was proud of, but had also rejected in some senses. In an effort to educate myself more about North Korea I read some newspaper articles after finishing the book. I hated how the articles painted all North Koreans as our enemies. Kim’s writing, on the other hand, reveals the humanity of the people, the ways in which we are all the same, while also clearly broadcasting the naivety and even the threat that the North Korean people’s beliefs and choices hold for anyone they deem their enemy (or that their leaders deem their enemy). However, I didn’t come away feeling endangered or afraid. I felt pity. How can I hate a people who have lived for generations under the brainwashing effect of propaganda and lies? I worry FOR them, just as Suki Kim does, but not ABOUT them; they are not my enemy.

Ironically, Kim is clearly not a Christian or a believer, but I found her approach of love, patience, and correction so Christ-like. She compares the belief and faith in God that her Christian coworkers have to the faith and belief that the North Koreans have in their “great leader” and their communist party. From her experience, I can’t deny the grains of truth in her comparison. But I also empathized with the emotion that one coworker expressed or almost expressed when Kim confronted her about the hypocrisy she saw in the coworker’s religious beliefs. It seemed to me that the coworker at that moment was blessed with a Christ-like love for Kim, despite the confrontation Kim had just initiated.
The coworker emoted mostly with her face, a desire to share some eternal truth that she knew, but that she wasn’t sure Kim was ready for yet. Interestingly, since Kim is the one narrating the experience, I think she must have seen her coworker’s emotion too, otherwise she could not have described it in a way that would allow me as the reader to pick up on it.

I think Kim believed her Christian coworker’s good intentions even if she didn’t completely agree with them. I read a blog post from the author where she talks about the backlash she has received since publishing the book from readers who don’t agree with her actions either. But I feel gratitude for Suki Kim and her good intentions. I think, despite her unbelief, her work and writing will open hearts and minds so that God can work with us all as our world gets smaller through technology and more dangerous if small-mindedness is encouraged. I hope, as the author does, that North Koreans will gain freedom and that the world will be ready to receive and help them when they do. I hope that the good that is ingrained in their culture will be appreciated and magnified, not suppressed or wiped out by our often egotistical and overbearing western culture. This is where history can be our best teacher if we will learn from our mistakes of the past to guide our future.

My husband is a geographer so maps are always an interesting source of information in our lives. He found this data image for me that shows light for areas where navigation data is used and shared. This image shows South and North Korea and China. The darkness of North Korea sums up the country fairly well. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say.

IMG-1700

P.S. Listening to this book was a good choice for me. I loved hearing the reader pronounce the Korean names and words that I would have had no idea on had I been reading.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. To appreciate the implications of and information in this book requires some understanding of history, culture, and politics that I think generally comes only with adulthood.

Appropriateness: Harsh realities of communism, tyranny, poverty, and prejudice are a constant presence in this book, but I didn’t find any of it to be sensational or gory. It can certainly be depressing at times, but mostly I was fascinated. The author does use the term “lover” to describe an old flame, but there is no description of romantic relationships.

I read this because it was selected for book club and I am looking forward to the discussion that will be possible.  This is a perfect book club read.

Other book recommendations: If Without You There is No Us is of interest to you then I think you would also enjoy So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr,  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

My Review

This is a really difficult book to review for me. It is an important book for our time. It contains hard truths, but truths nonetheless. It was an uncomfortable and terribly sad read, sometimes even traumatic. I learned things about our justice system that are extremely disheartening. I was presented with narratives of mankind at our very worst and our very best. This book pushed me to consider perspectives I never would have considered on my own. I will be thinking about it for a long time, and I can say that I am glad I read it.

However, I didn’t really like it. Part of my dislike is related to the content, not because I disapprove or disagree. The book presents the realities of injustice, discrimination, bias, corruption, the workings of our country’s justice system, and life and death in prison. It’s harsh and disturbing, and while the realities of life are not always pretty, it was hard for me to take more than just a little of the story at a time. Sometimes I could read only a few pages before I just felt sick about what was being described and had to put it down. However, I did keep coming back and eventually finished it. I had to respect such an important topic, and I needed to know that I had read the whole thing so I wouldn’t misunderstand the author’s purpose. I recognize that it’s ok for me to be disturbed and uncomfortable. In fact, that’s a good thing in some instances because it can evoke change. But I still can’t say that I enjoyed the feeling or experience.

The format of the book also played a part in my dislike. It’s really just a collection of cases that the author has worked on throughout his career, but there is one particular death row case that Stevenson stretches through the entire book while to try to tie it all together, to keep a flow going, and also to provide suspense. This main case is interrupted by tellings of other cases and experiences. I found that format confusing and sometimes abrupt. It was harder for me to keep track of a timeline and order of each case when they were all mixed around main story which was only important to me because the author also describes history, changes, and developments in our justice system that either affected one of his cases or that one of his cases catalyzed. It would have been easier for me to keep track of the causes and effects with a more linear time format. It was hard for me to keep the names and details of each case straight.

I was also turned off by some of the writing. I got tired of the detailed descriptions of every courthouse and prison that the author visited. They didn’t really add to the impact of the case he was describing. The details of the crimes or innocence of his clients packed enough punch all on their own. Repeated description of how different buildings were positioned within a town or how the rooms were laid didn’t help me understand any of his points better.

The author had a tendency to “beat a dead horse” with some of his points as well. I felt bogged down reading so many statistics or examples that supported a conclusion Stevenson was drawing for me. After just a few of his given examples I was on board with him; I believed that is was right in what he was wanting to convince readers of. But then I would get several more examples to really pound it in. At one point I made note that the author had gone on for another 1 1/2 pages pounding the same point after I was already sufficiently convinced.

It was impossible to not feel the author’s passion for his work and I greatly respect him for what he does. We all have our own life experiences or our own “broken-ness” as the author calls it, that affect our choices, behaviors, and even views. I am grateful for a look into Stevenson’s experience and views that opened my mind and heart. However, I also found myself pondering the one-sided-ness of the experience that he presents. It would be an interesting exercise to be able to read from a criminal prosector’s perspective, or a law enforcement perspective on trying to bring full justice to victims after having read a criminal defense attorney’s perspective on trying to bring “just mercy” to broken criminals.

I have no experience in law (unless competing in “Mock Trial” in junior high counts), but I would think this book should be required reading for any law student. Would I say it should be required reading for anyone? I don’t think so. But if it sparks your curiosity at all, or if you are one who likes to be stretched in your thinking, to be informed on all sides of multi-faceted issues, then sure give this one a try. You probably won’t regret it. But then again you might. You definitely will never be the same.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older.  The detailed descriptions of prison conditions, crimes, abuse, prejudice, and injustice are not for the faint of heart or unprepared mind.

Appropriateness: There is description of murder, rape, adultery, capital punishment, stealing, drug use, racial discrimination, corruption in law enforcement and the justice system. However, it is not gratuitous.  There is a overarching moral purpose for presenting such distasteful circumstances.

This would be a great choice for book club.  So much discussion material, but make sure all members of the group are willing and able to handle the subject matter.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Just Mercy then you might also like Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesSadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one with the idea of using it for my high level reading groups in my third grade class, so I wasn’t just looking for good story and writing as I read. I was looking for content that could spark discussion and provide opportunities for really diving into comprehension on all levels of thinking. This telling of Sadako gives all of that and more.

The story is heartbreaking, particularly because it’s all true, but it’s told with sensitivity and perspective perfect for young minds. In the second paragraph of the prologue the author tells you that this story is about a girl who dies from radiation poisoning so right from the get-go you know this isn’t a “happily ever after story.” And it is so sad. The author highlights the tragedy of the whole situation, of a life taken long before it should be, but it’s done with a simplicity that keeps it from being traumatizing even for kids. And in the end there is a feeling of lightness, just like a paper crane hung on a string. It’s the example of Sadako’s child-like faith and hope despite terrible pain and injustice that leaves you motivated to see good and possibility in the world even with all the problems and uncertainties.

The book is short – 9 chapters and an epilogue. I finished it in less than an hour, but it still has plenty of depth. There is so much to ponder regarding war, death, responsibility, choice and consequences, faith, Japanese culture, family, and helping others. It opens the door to looking at our country’s actions in Hiroshima in WWII from many different perspectives.

This book will be perfect for my reading groups. I even created some worksheets with questions they can write responses to as they read to test their comprehension and to also prompt them to think more deeply. You can download them here: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

Feel free to use them in your classroom, book club, or anywhere else.

Age Recommendation: This book is easy to read, but the content is thought-provoking and a little heavy  so I would recommend it for 3rd grade and higher. It’s a great introduction to Sadako for adults. It makes me want to find out more.

Appropriateness: Despite the heavy subject matter there is nothing that would be inappropriate for children. This one leaves you better for having read it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Sadako you should also read So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Teaching Resources: Here are the worksheets I created for my high level reading groups to answer questions about the book: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

 

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.

 

 

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.

View all my reviews

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.

Full of Running

Revel

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold On!’ “

-Rudyard Kipling (as quoted in the Prologue of The Perfect Mile)

I have been reading The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb which is about 3 runners in 1952 who set out to be the first to run a mile in under 4 minutes.  FANTASTIC book!  You can find my review of the book from a “literary” standpoint here, but I also wanted to share some of the inspiration I have received through this book.

“The essential thing in life is not so much conquering as fighting well.” 

-Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games (as quoted in chapter 2 of The Perfect Mile)

The drive and hard work of the athletes and coaches in this book to achieve a seemingly unachievable goal is unbelievable and motivating. Their personal histories and the historical events of the time really drive home how dedicated and disciplined these people were. Full-time med student and training as an olympian with no financial backing so you can keep your amateur athlete status sounds beyond impossible. But they did it.

“To be great, one does not have to be mad, but definitely it helps.”

-Percy Cerutty (as quoted in chapter 3)

Some of my favorite parts of the book are the headings at the beginning of each chapter. I am a runner and they capture so well my feelings about that part of my life, but they apply to more than just running.  The quotes are insights into the joys and sacrifices that come from complete dedication to a goal or idea.

“Whatever you can do,

Or think you can, begin it.

Boldness has power, and genius,

And magic in it.

-Goethe (as quoted in chapter 9)

When I finished reading about the race in which the 4 minute barrier was broken for the first time, I had to get on YouTube and see if I could find video footage of the actual race.  Sure enough, I could watch the whole thing. The video has commentary from the runner (I won’t tell you who it is so as to not spoil the outcome) and he says he “felt so full of running” through the first 3 laps. I immediately loved and related to that phrase – “full of running.”

Running (and life) can be hard work. Some days it can feel like pulling your feet through thick sludge. But then there are those days when the timing, weather, diet, and rest align perfectly and breathe new life and energy into your legs and soul. I love that feeling of beginning a run and just feeling strong, fast, connected, and alive – full of running.

When that feeling transfers to life in general, it makes for a pretty great day.

Relay 224

John Landy was one of the runners trying to break the 4 minute mile barrier.  He is quoted in the book as saying, “In any running event, you are absolutely alone. Nobody can help you. But short races are run without thought. In very long races you must go a great distance simply to be present in the laps that really count. But almost every part of the mile is important – you can never let down, never stop thinking, and you can be beaten at almost any point. I suppose you could say it is like life. I had wanted to master it.”

I love running because of the ways it teaches me about life and myself, and how much stronger I have become because of it – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. So Landy’s comparison of the mile to life resounds with me. Though, I have never felt alone in a running event as he describes.  In a race or even just in training runs I have always felt the support and faith of my family.  They cheer me on and make sure that they make it a priority for me to get out on those runs so I can keep my soul healthy. I love the feeling of camaraderie in a race between runners as well. And most of all, I feel my Heavenly Father and my Savior as I connect with the earth and my inner self in a unique and powerful way as I run. It is these same influences that reassure me that I am never alone in life either.

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

-Rudyard Kipling (as quoted in chapter 4)

Eat and Run

This is a great follow-up read to Born to Run . Scott Jurek is one of the superathletes featured in the epic race detailed in Born to Run and Scott has now written his own take on what it means to push the limits of mind and body and to be a healthier and happier person because of it. This is what I thought of his book.

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon GreatnessEat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads (edited a little by me): “In Eat and Run, Scott Jurek opens up about his life and career—as an elite athlete and a vegan—and inspires runners at every level. From his Midwestern childhood hunting, fishing, and cooking for his meat-and-potatoes family, to his early beginnings in running (he hated it), to his slow transition to ultrarunning and veganism, to his world-spanning, record-breaking races, Scott’s story shows the power of an iron will and blows apart all the stereotypes of what athletes should eat to fuel optimal performance. Chock-full of incredible, on-the-brink stories of endurance and competition, fascinating science, and accessible practical advice—including his own favorite plant-based recipes—Eat and Run will motivate everyone to “go the distance,” whether that means getting out for that first run, expanding your food horizons, or simply exploring the limits of your own potential.”

My Review

I found Scott Jurek’s journey interesting and inspiring at parts. The running tips and recipes thrown in were good, but this isn’t a book about learning how to run. It is a memoir and so it’s really about Scott’s personal journey to finding meaning in life through running. I could relate to a lot of what he said, the feelings he expressed about running and how he related that to anytime we have something hard to do in life, anytime we have to push ourselves beyond the limits we think we have.

It only gets 3 stars though because some of it gets a little repetitive and while he tries to make his journey a universal one (and succeeds in that part of the time) running over 100 miles and having the time and lack of other commitments to be able to train for that is not universal. Also while I gain a great deal through running and love it for the personal, physical, emotional, and spiritual gains it provides, I found Jurek’s devotion to it as the one true source of all meaning and happiness (combined with eating well) to be unbalanced.

He spends a few chapters toward the end of the book describing a time when his life fell apart and after taking some time to wallow and think he is able to get back into running which helps him overcome the sinkhole he found himself in. I’m not quite sure his description of the difficult time or the recovery after ever quite shows that he recognizes it was is unbalanced devotion to eating and running that likely got him in deep doo-doo in the first place, and while I do believe the running and the passion he has for it did help and will continue to help him in other such difficult times, if he doesn’t find a little more balance he’s likely to find himself in a hole just as big or bigger than the last one.

But if you enjoy fitness and eating well you would enjoy this read. It has some interesting information and useful tips. And it is motivating, makes you want to do a little better and taking care of your body, mind, and spirit.

View all my reviews

Age Recommendation: This book probably holds the most interest for 18 and older, but teens with experience running or with other sports training might relate to some of it as well.

Appropriateness: I don’t remember particular swear words, but there likely was some profanity in the book. Some description of drinking as well, but definitely not a promotion for drinking. I didn’t find anything offensive.