Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Book Thief

From time to time I read a book, or in this case, listen to a book, that just doesn’t resonate, though the general population loves it.  So was the case with the award winning book The Book Thief by Markus Zukas.  The book is set during the time of Nazi Germany and features the main character, Liesel Meminger, a ten-year old girl being transported from her home to live with her foster-parents, Hans and Rosa Huberman.  The story focuses on Liesel’s relationship with the Hubermans and the various neighbors in the small town of Molching, just outside of Munich.  The story begins on the eve of World War II and through the end of the period of time where the Nazi leadership changed the landscape of Europe with hate and killing occurring at every corner of the country and beyond.  Young Liesel has just left her home having been present for her brother’s funeral but what she learns in her new home is a lesson that may haunt her for the remainder of her life.  You see, this story is narrated by “Death” who is in the right place during the occupation of Hitler and his men attempting to remove all people of Jewish descent.  Liesel moves through the city spending time with her various friends and towns people, always the feeling of death around every corner, which seemingly he is.  The Hubermans befriend one Jewish person, Max, and hide him illegally in their basement.  It is this relationship that Liesel learns to give and grow as a young woman.  There are others as well, such as the Mayor’s wife and young Rudy Steiner, who do not support the Nazis.  There is a great deal of detail in the various relationships among the characters and the atrocious times, even the bomb that kills most of the town, yet Liesel seemingly avoids dying.  Maybe it was the fascination with death and the symbolic reading of “the Grave Digger’s Handbook” – (can you be hit over the head any harder?)  that alluded my own interest or inability of finding deep connections, no idea.   In the end, we learn that Liesel has died after living a long and happy life with a husband, kids, and grandkids (ah – vindication!). Then we learn Max actually survived the concentration camp, and he and Liesel reunited at the end of World War II. The novel ends with Death giving Liesel back her book, The Book Thief, as he's taking her soul away from her body.  And so the book thief, Liesel, who grabs books when she can, comes full circle, with life then comes death.  I never felt any real affinity for the story and the subtext underneath being presented by the author.  Not all books are made for everyone….

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Goodnight Moon

Imagine being a child again?  What a wonderful time in life to cultivate your imagination and allow your innocence to be a major part of who you are.  So it happens in the well-known children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown.  I remember this book and reading it often to my two boys when they were just 2-years old.  Why did I read it so often? Besides being a great read, (I’ll be honest here) it was a very quick read.  After working full days, a short read like this one was perfect!  But more than that, it opened one’s heart and soul to being young again. The text is written in a rhyming format.  A bedroom full of wonderful objects that a young bunny sees as he says goodnight to all of those objects, seemingly one at a time.  This helps the youngster listening to the story start to put closure to the day, one object at a time, such as the red balloon, the bunny's dollhouse, and the kittens.  The pictures on each page give great detail into the room and as the pages turn, the room gets darker and darker hopefully allowing the young listener to this story have their eyes grow tired and more tired until we say “goodnight moon”… and off to sleep goes our youngster, or do they?  The one problem with this story is you may need to read it three or four times before getting that first baby snore (at least that’s the way it was for me!).  Every child should hear this story at least once, and potentially a lot more based on the amount of activities the child was involved in that particular day.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Malcolm X on Afro-American History

Reading speeches from various leaders in American History provides a really helpful context to the times and the social strife that a particular group of people feel in the community.  I think there is none better than Malcolm X, though I am also partial to my hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  In this RA favorite read, I learned a great deal of the issues that Malcolm X felt the African American community was facing in his speeches from Harlem called Malcolm X on Afro-American History.  From the pulpit of a rented hall in Harlem before his tragic death, Malcom X presents the struggles of a community in a society that has very little respect and much hatred by many in the white community.  He provides a historical perspective on the African heritage and how the issues that occurred in the Congo are directly tied to the current (1950-60s) of the African American community.  Here is one powerful paragraph from his speech:

As long as the Black man in America thinks of himself as a minority, as an underdog, he can't shout but so loud; or if he does shout, he shouts loudly only to the degree that the power structure encourages him to. He never gets irresponsible. He never goes beyond what the power structure thinks is the right voice to shout in. But when you begin to connect yourself on the world stage with the whole of dark mankind, and you see that you're the majority and this majority is waking up and rising up and becoming strong, then when you deal with this man, you don't deal with him like he's your boss or he's better than you or stronger than you. You put him right where he belongs. When you realize that he's a minority, that his time is running out, you approach him like that, you approach him like one who used to be strong but is now getting weak, who used to be in a position to retaliate against you but now is not in that position anymore.

Malcolm X is not afraid to present his beliefs through the lens of the experience of the black man, and how African Americans cannot feel sorry for their plight instead must work to change it. Malcom X provides an overview for a new power struggle facing society. He believes that the world is getting smaller and that global issues will surface in all places around the world (A man ahead of his time!).  His section on the “trap of racism” has excellent depth and knowledge of the world as he experienced it.  Knowing one’s ancestry is critical for good reason, not having it be repeated again. While not everyone will agree with the way he writes, he spends a good deal of time explaining his historical connections and uses good references for his beliefs.  This is an important read for anyone interested in American history.  We all need to understand so that history is not repeated again.  A short read that will make you think and realize that we can’t allow senseless acts of death like Malcolm X to be forgotten. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Digital Fortress

You know I really like mystery thrillers and no better author for a good one than Dan Brown.  Brown’s book, Digital Fortress, kept me at the edge of my seat throughout.  It seems like he thinks through every possible movement of his characters and the psychology of each person’s motives.  In Digital Fortress, the story revolves around what happens when the National Security Agency’s (NSA) ability to provide surveillance on the decoding of the internet is stopped (who thought the NSA could even decode every bit of the encrypted internet?).  This is a story of good guys and bad guys and when good people are driven to extremes because of their commitment to the government and their blind love for someone.  Brown always adds a love story and a bright agent/professor, and in this case it is a Georgetown University of Modern Languages professor, David Becker, and his fiancĂ© Susan Fletcher, the NSA's Head Cryptographer.  Fletcher is called into assist on a special project when it is learned that former NSA employee Ensei Tankado has dealt the NSA a decryption code that all citizens of the world will get access to so they can unravel ALL top secret government records.  But wait, Commander Trevor Strathmore, NSA Deputy Director of Operations, is there to fight the decoder.  Many of the NSA staff randomly find out about Tankado’s plot and have various involvements into the response, but some to their death.  David Becker is brought in as a civilian unaware of the danger that he faces by some hoods trying also to find the code to own Tankado’s “Digital Fortress” program.  This book has all of the makings of mystery and saving the world’s secret weapons from evil.  I really enjoyed the story except like many mysteries I read I actually knew who the “bad guy” was from pretty early on, though Brown tries to hide the identity from his readers.  Still, I’d say a generally great read!  Very hard to put this one down! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Time for an “oldie, but goodie” with just a tad bit of controversy.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is what I would call a period piece which gained fame from his first novel, Tom Sawyer.  The tale is told from the first person, Huck Finn.  Finn, a friend of Tom Sawyer (who actually appears in this tale), has come into a good deal of money and that’s where the mad journey begins.  Huck is re-united with his abusive father who decides to take the son back (for the money for sure), but Huck escapes by faking his own death!  During the journey heading on the Mississippi River, Huck finds Jim, a slave of Miss Watson, whom Huck knows.  The two decide to travel together and bond, even though Jim’s price for return would net Huck a larger nest egg.  Huck’s disappearance is believed by those back home to be at the hands of the escapee slave Jim.  Huck grows fond of Jim and during their travels together meet an interesting cast of characters, including a preacher, a Duke, and a King.  In each case, the stories of these characters capture the local “flair” of the time and exposes the depths of racism and prejudice against African descendent slaves.  Huck and Jim’s bond grows to the point where Huck hides his identity when Jim is finally recaptured.  Huck plays the role of his friend Tom Sawyer in attempt to keep Jim safe from his captors.  Tom saves the day when he arrives and the trickery is concluded, but Tom announces that Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, has died and that Jim was to be freed upon her death!  To make things even better, Huck learns that his father is dead, he was the dead man that Jim had found during their travels earlier in the story.  Lots more to this one where language and character development are the stories strong suits.  The transformation of a white southern boy to defend a slave was ahead of its time.  This is a really good read for young readers beginning the process of learning about differences.   The language is a bit rough and not a big fan of the southern twang.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Down These Mean Streets

This book falls into the category of “memoir”/“cultural beginnings in the US.”  A very popular type of read among the RAs, very much influenced by their own family heritage or that of others they learn about during their time at NYU/in NYC.  This book, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, tells the story of growing up in the barrio in Spanish Harlem during the 1940s/50s at the same time as the “Ozzie and Harriet” portrayal of American society.  Piri tells very different sides of life, one where racism, prejudice, drugs, and sex rue the day.  Piri faces multiple levels of discrimination as the oldest in his family being of more “African complexion” than his siblings, which leads to numerous challenges he faced as a young boy trying to make his way through a world that should you not look a certain way, you would not be accepted.  Piri turned to the peer influence that involved drugs, stealing, and unfortunate decisions at every turn.  Being the oldest, his father never paid him any attention and always felt less than what he should be.  Piri joined gangs which in turn began a spree of robberies and eventually to a shoot-out at a bar, where he shot a police officer who hung on for dear life.  Piri was sentenced to prison.  Being in jail seemed almost like one of those present day television docu-dramas telling the real story of the levels of “control” found among the prisoners. Amazing how things haven’t changed.  Piri lost his first love while in jail and turned to Islam through the influence of a prison chaplain.  Once he began to realize this was not the life he wanted to live, he conformed to the “successful” path to recovery.  After a long term in jail he was released and we are left with Piri returning to the “learned way of life in his circle.”  He was faced with returning to the same road or changing.  While it appears Piri makes the decision to change his ways, the reader realizes that one never knows and Piri could easily be back in prison once again.  Piri’s story is powerful, especially for the time in which it occurred.  Sociologist would benefit from learning another side of the 1940s “everything is wonderful” storyline.  For me, while compelling, not my favorite type of book to read.