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.

 

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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.

Safe House

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Safe House

Safe House by Shannon Symonds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

As a victim’s advocate, Grace James is used to rushing into trouble to save her victims from abuse or assault. And with a handsome officer like Joe Hart at her side, Grace is sure there’s nothing she can’t do. But an ominous storm brewing on the Oregon horizon is about to change everything—and bring with it dangers and revelations Grace and Joe never expected.

Excerpt from the book

Grace drove up the winding road, high among large new homes. They sat along the edge of the lush Oregon forest on the Pacific Coast Range Mountains. She didn’t have to look too hard for the address. An ambulance and two lit up police cars, lights silently rotating, marked the last home at the top of the steep road. Light spilled from every window and the open front door. Ancient pines and a dark old growth forest swayed in the wind behind the house. On the front porch a woman was arguing with a medic, holding a bloody rag to her face…

…Making her way to the house, she walked between patrol cars and crossed the lawn. The ambulance driver had a clipboard and was trying to explain to Emily, the victim, that she needed to sign a waiver stating she was refusing services. Ignoring the ambulance driver and looking at Officer Hart, Emily was speaking and gesturing rapidly, demanding they leave her alone.

The officer she was spitting mad at was young and good-looking. Grace didn’t know how anyone could yell at Hart. His name was absolutely appropriate. Seeing Grace, he half-smiled, showing dimples, looking grateful for the interruption.

Flashing her own half-grin, her color rose. Looking down, she hoped he hadn’t noticed.

PROMO-she cradled her lost dream deep in her heart
My Review

I connected with this book. It reeled me in and kept me there with an intense and fast-moving plot. The emotional intensity was a unique aspect of this book for me. I had never read a book addressing domestic violence and abuse, and I found myself incapable of putting it down because I just couldn’t leave these characters in the unjust and demoralizing circumstances.

In addition to the captivating and entertaining plot, Safe House was an educational experience. Part of what was both enthralling and alarming as I read was knowing that the author has personal experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and abuse, so I could count on there being truth to the events and to the actions and reactions of the characters. I came away with better understanding of what victims are faced with and the complexity of their difficulties. I gained greater sympathy for their suffering, and more respect for their strength. The picture presented of victims and abusers led me to wonder who of my family and friends could silently be experiencing such heartache. I appreciated the subtle revelations of the abusers’ pasts that explain a lot of why they act in violence and abuse. It doesn’t justify or minimize the atrociousness of their actions, but it is enlightening to see what influenced them.

I also felt gratitude for those like the character Grace and like the author who sacrifice their time and comfort to help these victims. I was motivated to want to help too, even if it’s just by helping others gain the same understanding that Safe House brought me.

PROMO-they called her a victim but she was a survivor

While the subject matter is serious, difficult, and true to life, I also connected with the uplifting nature of the book. It’s not just about abuse and pain. It’s a story of healing, particularly healing with the help of family, friends, and professionals. Most importantly and most effectively, our Savior and Redeemer is part of the healing process. I thank my Heavenly Father that I don’t experience domestic violence or abuse, but I certainly have my own difficulties at times, and I use the same resources for help and healing. I felt like the author gave me an intimate look at a truly sacred process, one that is part of her reality as an advocate, so I felt I got a close look into her mind and heart as well. What I saw was so good, kind, and courageous. It was a privilege to work with her and get to know her better, particularly as she took the time to answer some interview questions. Check out my interview with her here.

I was also drawn in by the book’s setting. We recently moved to the Seattle area, so a book set in the Pacific Northwest was intriguing. Then we actually got to visit the area where the book takes place while was right in the middle of reading. Shannon Symond’s descriptions of the Seaside, Oregon area painted pictures of majestic and peaceful beauty. When I saw it all with my own eyes my thought was that she nailed the descriptions. See my trip report here to read more details about visiting the setting of Safe House.

I was emotionally and personally invested in the book, but I do have to say that intellectually the ending was not completely satisfying. Throughout the book you see some of the residents in a small coastal town become connected through good, bad, and ugly. They face an ultimate test at the end when mother nature adds her ferocity to their struggles; as a result, they become more closely connected. However, after it was all over I felt like I didn’t get enough insight into how the storm really affected or changed them or their relationships. I would have liked to be given a glimpse of them all a month or two down the road to really see what lasting effect the events and their connections had. The end climax didn’t have much meaning for me other than just excitement without more of an epilogue.

I wanted more time to celebrate with these characters I had come to care about. I felt I had come to know them as victims and also in the thick of the turning point. I wanted to be able to see them down the path of change a bit further.

PROMO-sometimes he answers our prayers with a storm

I especially felt there was a lot missing from Grace’s, the advocate, story. I was curious about her past that was really only hinted at. I expected when I started the book to read more about her than I did. But as I got further into the book I realized that it made sense that Grace’s story took more of a backseat to the other characters. While Grace is such an influential character, her job is to play a supporting role. I think her full story is probably the most interesting of all, but the book isn’t really about her except for her role as an advocate, just as a real domestic violence situation would not be about the advocate, no matter how heroic they are. It’s really about the victim(s) and making them safe. That oh-so-important-but-behind-the-scenes role of an advocate is clear through the character focuses in the book.

I was so happy to find out in my interview with Shannon Symonds that she has plans for another book with these characters!

There were a few small bumps in character development. There were a few times I was distracted from the story as I pondered whether a character’s actions or thoughts made sense based on my feel for them, but it was the excitement, uplifting experience, and learning opportunities of Safe House that shined forth to make it a good read.

Age Recommendation: With the adult subject matter I recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: Domestic violence and sexual abuse are the main conflicts in the book so there is depiction of these horrid crimes. However, it’s all described tastefully without too much gore or graphic detail. But it is enough to evoke an emotional response. The message of overcoming such terrors makes the book a positive and happy one.

Book Club Suggestions: Safe House would provide great discussion material for a book club. Discussion topics could include
1. If you were put in a position where you were suddenly on your own to support yourself and family how would you do it? Would you be prepared right now?
2. What stigmas have you heard attributed to victims of domestic violence? Has your opinion changed at all after reading the book?
3. How would you deal with a job as stressful and emotional as Grace’s? What would you do to keep your work from taking over?
4. What support do you turn to in your times of need?
5. What do you think the future holds for these characters?
6. Do you feel any sympathy for the abusers? Why or Why not?

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in Safe House then you might also like Charly by Jack Weyland, Jennie by Susan Evans McCloud, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner.

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.

 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

My Review

This was really a 2.5 star book for me. If I had read it more regularly and not taken 3 months to finish, it may have earned a solid 3. It’s a good story. A sweet story. Humorous too. I appreciated the theme. I had difficulty relating to characters, however.

The whole point of the book is to show imperfect people, people with major differences, but they are still valuable in their own way and can even complete each other. A very nontraditional family is created throughout the book, one with struggles and mistakes, but also one with love. I appreciate that the love is created and shown through sacrifice, selflessness and acceptance.

But, many of the characters, particularly Ove, came off so dysfunctional that it was hard for me to believe that the relationships formed could really be as healthy as portrayed. While accepting others even with their flaws is certainly good and Christian, if I were to meet someone with the rudeness and anger management issues that Ove has I would be wary of getting too close. Part of the book’s message is of course giving Ove’s background to show why he is the way he is. While that helps me to understand his behavior it doesn’t make much of his treatment of others acceptable.

There certainly would be much to discuss in a book club about relationships, trials and how they affect us, how we can and should respond to difficult situations and people, the benefits of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and being careful with judgment – just to name a few topics for conversation.

The writing is enjoyable, easy to read but clever and interesting. The book as a whole was not interesting enough to draw me in to the point where I just couldn’t put it down. That likely stems a lot from not fully agreeing with Ove’s actions, no matter how his past seems to justify them. Characters play a big part in my enjoyment of a book, and since I was wary of the main character the entire time it was hard to be enthralled.

Age recommendation: Because of content and thematic elements I recommend this book to adults, at least 18 and older. Those with more life experience will likely appreciate it more.

Appropriateness: There is tragic content – accidents, death, fights, attempted suicide, anger. There are also adult topics like homosexuality, and there is a lot of swearing. None of it was so crude or graphic that I felt the need to stop reading but it certainly detracted from my enjoyment. As mentioned in my review, this really would provide a lot of material for book club discussion.

Other Book recommendations: If you liked this book or are interested in books with a similar theme you might 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, The Time Key by Melanie Bateman, Rebecca by Daphnie Du Maurier, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Fault in our Stars by John Green, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

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.

View all my reviews

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.