Saturday, November 28, 2015

Oliver Twist

It’s always nice to be asked to read a book with someone and be able to chat about your impressions, likes/dislikes, and what you got out of the book.  So it was on this Thanksgiving weekend of traveling back and forth by train to Albany by reading the classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  When I was approached by the RA (Michael) about reading it, I was surprised I hadn’t read it previously, but it has never been one of the RA Favorites, so I agreed. 
Oliver is born an orphan, after his mother dies in child-birth delivering him in the doctor’s office.  All we seemingly know of is mother is that she is a poor woman, with no identifiable information pertaining to who she is, or where she comes from, of course later as the story progresses we learn of the deceitfulness of one of the nurses who steals information about the mother and her note and gift for the unborn baby.  The doctor names him Oliver Twist and he is sent to an orphanage, where he is treated cruelly, much like all of the other children who reside there.  He is sent to one apprenticeship after another, and finally escapes to London, where he is introduced to a group of children who use pickpocketing as their means for making money. The band of boys invite him into their “home” and Oliver begins a series of unfortunate choices that captures him into a life of thievery, even arrest, which he gets out of when he meets the kind Mr. Bronlow, who believes in the smile and sweetness of Oliver.  But once again, Oliver is captured by the man who run the band of boys, Fagin (The Jewish criminal).  A plot is set against him by Fagin and a mysterious man who appears with Fagin so that Oliver never finds out about his past.  Oliver is used as bait to help Fagin and his accomplices to rob a house, but that is thwarted, and Oliver is shot and left to die, but somehow returns to the scene of the crime, where the mistresses (Mrs. Maylie and her niece Rose) of the house have a deep connection to him and restore him to health.  Of course there are many connections underlying all of the various characters that Oliver interacts with in his short life, Bronlow, Rose, Mrs. Maylie, his former bosses during his apprentices, the orphanage owner, Fagin, and Monks that lead Oliver to learn of his past, whom his mother was, and the biggest lesson that Oliver has family members still alive. 

Dickens provides a good deal of social commentary on the life of an orphan, the treachery involved in crime and prostitution, and abuse of the poor in the urban center.  This is a book about how corruption of resources/education and good vs. evil exist in our society.  Dickens is a pre-cursor to many of today’s authors on how each character in the story will have a role in the ending.  It is a period piece that shows us what life was like in this time.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to the conversation that will ensue during my debriefing later today! A story that you can’t put down, always looking for the next turn and connection in how Oliver will survive!  A classic very much worth reading! 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Monster Calls

When you read a great book, you think about it endlessly.  And when you read a book that hits at your core, you probably never forget it.  I find many kid’s books are simple, yet profound.  This one hit me the hardest, especially considering my sister’s struggle with cancer.  The book, A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness (and inspired by Siobhan Dowd), is the story of a young boy named Conor O’Malley who develops reoccurring nightmares which lead to his nighttime meetings with a monster.  The monster is there to share three tales with him, and then have him share his story after hearing the tales.  The backdrop to the nightmares is that Conor is in a single parent family, living with his Mum (yes, a British setting for this tale), who developed cancer just the summer before.  (This I’m sure is chronicling in some way the original author’s own life, in which Ms. Dowd succumbed to cancer before the book was completed). 
Conor’s Dad left the family and relocated to America with his new wife and child.  The depth of the story hits on many levels.  Conor is frozen by his mother’s battle against cancer as each treatment is failing, with one last attempt made by her doctors; to inject her with the “elements” of the yew tree, a healing tree.  The three stories shared with Conor all have a twist, where the Monster seemingly helped the person who harmed others… but looking through another lens, was it really that way?  The monster explains the complications within human beings, “it doesn’t matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day….. your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.”  Monsters can be so profound…  In the end, Conor is forced to tell his story to the Monster, or else, as the Monster notes, he won’t let him alone.  Letting go of the things you love can be freeing… for who?  I cry when I think about this story… thanks Kristin for suggesting it.  A read that will moisten your eyes.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tao Te Ching

Yes, my final RA Favorite Book for this year is Tao Te Ching, the ancient words of Lao Tzu translated by Stephen Mitchell.  It is a classic on how we should live, providing balance and perspective on gaining a generous spirit.  Throughout the 81 different brief ways of living, one is asked to reflect and adopt the various wise passages to become a better person. The reader is asked to work to be better in every aspect of our lives.  I think the very best way to explain the book is to share some of the more memorable passages I found.  You be the judge.  I think if we all reflected on some of these, the world, and all those who inhabit it, would be better.  Thanks for sharing this book as a favorite… and here it goes:

                If you understand others you are smart,
                If you understand yourself you are illuminated.

                If you overcome others you are powerful.
                If you overcome yourself you have strength.

                If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
                If you can act with vigor, you have a will.

                If you don’t lose your objectives you can be long-lasting.
                If you die without loss, you are eternal.

And about the Tao itself….           The Tao is so vast that when you use it, something is always left.
                                                           How deep it is! It seems to be the ancestor of the myriad things.

                                It blunts sharpness, untangles knots, soften the glare, unifies the
                                Mundane.  It is so full!  It seems to have remainder.  It is the child

                                Of I don’t know who.  And prior to the primeval Lord-on-high.

And finally:                                           True words are not fancy.  Fancy words are not true.
                                                                The good do not debate.  Debaters are not good.

                                                                The one who really knows is not broadly learned,
                                                                The extensively learned do not really know.

                                                                The sage does not hoard, she gives people her surplus.

                                                                Giving her surplus to others she is enriched.
                                                                The way of Heaven is to help and not harm.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Between Stations

Between Stations by Kim Cheng Boey is a series of essays that are rooted in Kim’s life as he emigrates out of his birthplace, Singapore and his current home, Sydney, Australia.  Boey travels through India, China, Egypt, and Morocco.  He shares many of his experiences as he visits mixes of people, the market places, and brings history and religion of what he notes from his upbringing. 
He is a young man when he leaves Calcutta in 1994 as he drifts from low paying job to another, first as an assistant superintendent in a jail and later as a probation officer.  Throughout, he is haunted by his relationship with his father, who too was a drifter, disappearing from the family and becoming a gambler.  The restlessness within his father is noted as having affected how Boey also approaches life, finding it easier to move along than stay in one place.  Boey draws upon some of the great poets of our time in expressing his journey.  This one captures Boey’s journey quite well:  “walking is a way of disconnecting from the terrestrial to find the real home, the path towards self-renunciation with something transcendental.”  Boey walks to connect with his father, but can’t seem to ever find him (in a metaphorical manner). 
Boey also has a hard time understanding his relationship with his grandmother.  He notes her role in the family when his father, and then mother left, and how she was the glue.  But as she ages, her mind and ability to discern her own connection with Boey, she too seems to drift away from him.  Boey is brilliant in emphasizing the people, foods, smells, and fabrics of culture, that remind us of our past as he travels on his journey.    He clearly is inspired by poetry, theatre, and all forms of art (photography, music, and other writings) and draws upon DuFu after visiting his historic cottage.  “In meaning, everything lives in music… it preserves the place of experiences (remember where you were when you heard the Beatles, “Yesterday”…..). 
The book is written in a “free form” style and not linear.  Throughout the essays, Boey goes deep into the hard-times as a child, and then captures moments of his own children (a young son and daughter) who he hopes to change the outcome of relationships he had in his own family.   Death plays a central role in the book, “death has a way of underlining command and solidarity. The death of a long-term resident knits the whole street together,” referring to the death of a neighbor.  Yet for Boey, he never seems to receive this coming together after the deaths of his own father or grandmother, there is no relief and understanding for him.  Yes, life is a journey, and for Boey, his journey is hard to understand, but one he continues to attempt to make meaning.  The book raises lots of emotions for the reader.  Not easy thinking through the pains and wounds inflicted by the ones we love.  Boey tries to escape yet is constantly pulled back to his roots, always hoping that the answer to the pain will heal.  Unfortunately, it rarely does.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Way of Shadows

Book 1 of The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, is an action packed thriller!  This was a long read, but, among the futuristic / sci-fi types, I have to rate this one pretty high.  There are many stories within the story, reminding me of Game of Thrones, but the main one focuses on Azoth, an eleven year-old orphan, who has the chance to save himself from the dregs of the streets (led by Rat, an older boy who beats Azoth up for money) to work towards becoming an apprentice for Durzo.  Durzo is a wetback, a cold-blooded killer, who does not believe in love or feelings for others, there is only death.  Durzo has one request, prove yourself by killing Rat.  While he does so (cutting his ear off as proof), he finds his closest friend “Doll-Girl” left for dead, with a permanent scar on her face.  Meanwhile the other story centers on the young noble Logan Gyre (also eleven years old), who has his mother turn on him when he ascends to the lordship, at this early stage in his life.  More and more battles for the throne occur throughout the book for Logan and the entire society.  Back to Azoth, who is being trained by Durzo for a number of years under a new identity, Kylar Stern, where he has a battle with Logan Gyre, but in the end they become great friends! Durzo gets Kylar to receive “talents” (magical powers) to assist him against enemies.  During his work with Durzo, Kylar runs into Doll Face, who has a new identity as Elene.  (Lots of mistaken and hidden identity in this one, more than you can guess.)  He learns that Elene has the secret powers (kakari hidden in her room), though she was unaware, and he must knock her unconscious to save her and himself.  Logan’s woes continue as he is forced by the King to marry Jenine to secure his path to the crown, but he will lose the girl he loves. During the wedding ceremony, all breaks lose as Durzo and Roth, the most menacing of the evil-doers, forces Durzo to kill (by poisoning the food) those attending the wedding, including Logan and Jenine.  Most perish, but Logan gets away, only to see his new wife, whom he actually started to fall in love with die in his arms by the sword of Roth. Kylar finds out about all that is happening and attempts to thwart Roth’s attempt to take over the kingdom. When he arrives he is faced with fighting his mentor, Durzo, in a fight to the death!  Kylar wins, but is requested to take care of Durzo’s daughter as a last wish, which is shocking since Durzo has always maintained that feelings are not important!  Kylar finds Elene (Doll Girl) explains to her why he did what he did, and his affections towards her (he also saves Durzo’s daughter).    And then the last battle occurs …. Roth corners Kylar, calling him Azoth.  Wait… how does he know?  Well, Roth is really Rat!  Kylar notices when he sees one ear is missing!  Rat never died.  The final battle reveals …. Well, I won’t give the final ending away.  Remember there are two more books in this trilogy to follow…  You had to pay close attention to the story line involving the King and the fight for the kingdom, otherwise I enjoyed the Kylar and changing identities story.  This is worth picking up!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

For any educator, I would highly recommend picking up Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. This book was one of the Student Affairs book club readings last year.  It really resonated with me, first, for being married to an introvert, and second having just come back from my trip to Europe.  America seems to be the land of the extroverts, people who don’t stop performing, talking, and engaging without paying attention to the needs and ways in which others live their lives. 
Cain shares her own story as an introvert and how she began making meaning of herself in relation to others.  She also highlights many of the introverted people who have impacted our society, people from Rosa Parks and her decision not to move from the seat on the bus, to Dale Carnegie who was one of the most successful salesmen in the early 1900s (who started his own public speaking course to other introverts), to Eleanor Roosevelt (who helped her husband FDR as President of the USA from behind the scenes), to Warren Buffet (the investment guru) and Steve Wozniak (the creator of the first Apple computer).  All of these people gained their energy internally and needed time to re-energize before getting in large groups again. 

Cain shares information from child psychologists who work with children to better understand what their needs are in relation to being in groups with others and whether it is nature or nurture that makes them the way they are.  Cain explores best ways for introverts to prepare for public speaking, a little at a time!  Other topics include:  How did one Wall Street investor not lose their investments during the crash of 2008 (using the introversion they had within themselves); how to respond to ‘wins’ as a “reward-orientated” person; Asian-Americans and how their upbringing has made them more introverted than most other American born people; how to become more extroverted than you really are (aka Professor Brian Little of Harvard, who was one of the most popular faculty); and the wife who didn’t like her husband’s desire for a dinner party a week. 
Cain provides excellent data to create more success for introverts, but in many ways this book is best read for the extroverts, who seemingly don’t understand the “why/how/what” of introversion.  Additionally, her information shared on how to assist young children who don’t understand how they get their energies and why they seemingly can’t get in the conversation is exceedingly helpful for high school teachers, parents, and athletic team coaches who all have some level of responsibility for children in a group setting.  I love to be pushed to think outside of my own style, and this book really does that for me.  All managers and leaders would greatly benefit from this book.  I highly encourage it.  We will need the extroversion compendium in the near future!  Pick this one up!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes

A fun, easy, and enjoyable read…. The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes (yes, the daily cartoon favorite) by Bill Watterson.  The book is a compilation of the daily and Sunday comics captured in newspapers.  Calvin, the six year old mischievous boy and his toy tiger, Hobbes, who for Calvin is alive in his imagination as his best friend.  All other characters in the story don’t see Hobbes being alive, just a stuffed animal toy.  The comics actually appeared in the paper from late 1985 through late 1995.  This compilation of stories center around the following: Calvin in the winter (Santa preparation, toys he wants, and playing in the snow); Calvin not wanting to go to school (and doing whatever he could to get out of attending); Calvin terrorizing the last baby-sitter who will watch him (Rosalyn); Calvin and his relationship with his Mom, Dad, and classmates; Calvin never doing his homework and getting in trouble for it; Calvin as Stupendous Man; and finally, Calvin creating the G.R.O.S.S club with Hobbes.  The stories are fun and show the troubles of being a 6 year old boy with lots of energy and not wanting to conform to what his parents say he should be doing as all he wants to do … is have fun!  Mostly having fun at the expense of others.  Not much to be taken seriously here and every once in a while Calvin shows a sensitive side, which is heartwarming to see in the very few times it is shown.  I love the strips that show him getting caught off guard on something and having to give in to his parents demands… reminds me of two other young boys (my own) when they were six, yes a most difficult year.  Fun read!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Purification of the Heart: Signs Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart

I learned a great deal about the Muslim community and what the religious leaders expect from the faithful in Purification of the Heart: Signs Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart by Hamza Yusuf.  
The book describes how each of the various spiritual diseases which can occur in society stem from our own weaknesses as humans.  With each weakness, Yusuf draws upon the Quran, which is said to be verbally revealed by God to Muhammad.  In this reading, the author shares a disease, followed by ways in which the disease afflicts and suggestions on how to remove the evil.  He does note that it is not unusual that the youth have problems with some of these challenges, but as an adult, especially over 40, one must live life with full purity.  Unlike Christian belief that people can just repent and be loved by God, one must live life with a keen sense of the expectation of God to attain eternal life. 

The list of diseases include: Miserliness; Wantonness; Hatred; Iniquity; Love of the World (having things – too many); Envy; Blameworthy Modesty; Fantasizing; Fear of Poverty; Ostentation; Relying on Other than God; Displeasure with the Divine Decree; Seeking Reparation; False Hope; Negative Thoughts; Vanity; Fraud;  Anger; Heedlessness; Rancor; Boasting and Arrogance; Displeasure with Blame; Antipathy toward death; Obliviousness to Blessings; and Derision.  The last three chapters share comprehensive treatment plans and actions to purify the Heart, giving great suggestions moving forward as a Muslim.  And finally, the book ends with the roots of the diseases.  There are a number of appendixes with historical citations and sources for further reading.  The work is steeped in history and is a cornerstone in the thinking and actions for practicing Muslims.  It provided much insight for me and I would encourage all to read to better understand Muslim beliefs.  Thanks for suggesting it.  Very helpful!


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Let the Great World Spin

Enjoyed reading Colum McCann’s book Let the Great World Spin the past two days.  Once I began it, it was hard to put down.  The story begins with the real life feat of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s crossing of the Word Trade Center Towers, 110 stories up, performed in 1974.  All of the people in lower Manhattan stayed glued to his tremendous acrobatic dance in the sky as police and other local agencies attempted to get him down.  But the feat itself was not the main focus of the novel, but served as an underlying metaphor for how our world spins daily, around events, which has many of us connected, without even knowing it.  As a reader, we are introduced to 4 other stories of interesting people, their histories, and how they all watched Philippe’s spectacular crossing, or were later involved in the aftermath (his court case).  It isn’t until more than half-way through the book that the connections begin to come together. 
The characters are rich, deep and true, connected in a way that illustrates just how small this world is and how we never know whom we need the most or who needs us the most.  The characters include:  the Irish born brothers, one a religious monk who uprooted to NY and the other visiting him and arriving to USA for the first time; the judge (and his wife), who administers Petit’s sentencing, whom grieve over the loss of their son in the Vietnam War; a married artistic couple who struggle for years with alcohol/drug addiction; two generations of prostitutes (mother / daughter) and the illegitimate children; and a Guatemalan woman who works at a rehabilitation center for the elderly.  Somehow all of these people become connected, some take actions (non-intentional) that impact the lives of others and some don’t take action and miss out on the potential for impact on other’s lives. 
McCann has written a brilliant piece, moving and riveting.  The story is exceedingly well-written and makes me realize as I walk down a NY street just how close I am to so many, noting the importance of every little decision I make or don’t make, could have consequences that I’ll never know.  The ending takes place 22 years later as one of the prostitute’s daughters, now in her early 30s reconnects with one of the main characters at the end of their life as she reflects on how the world continues to spin, even at the end of one person’s life.  Life is a tight rope, crossing the wire without falling is the triumph in one’s life.  Buckling a bit with the tremors of the bouncing line is the struggle, and yes, we are often alone doing so, but we should note the person on our left and right, maybe they are walking by us for a reason and can potentially help making meaning of the spinning world….

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Plot Against America

A pretty ingenious story-line in The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.  Roth uses his own childhood as the backdrop for this story which becomes non-fiction.  Roth, a Jewish boy, growing up across the river from NYC in New Jersey lives with his parents and brother at the time when Hitler takes power in Germany. 
The entire story follows the actual real-life storyline until the election of 1940, where President Roosevelt eyes re-election, and here is where the story becomes “non-fiction,” when FDR loses to Charles Lindbergh (the aviation hero of the 1940s), a known ally to the German thinking and a believer of American isolationism from protecting the world.  Lindbergh’s first act as President is to sign a treaty that prohibits the US to get involved in the war in Europe. 

Philip’s dad, a devout Jewish leader in the neighborhood begins to feel the sudden change by leaders who look to hold Jewish citizens down by restricting their rights and opportunities.  The Roth family are split.  Philip’s aunt and brother are sympathetic to the “no-war” approach of Lindbergh, while the rest of the family is fearful and Philip’s cousin, Alvin, known to believe that Lindbergh’s legacy will mean the end to the Jewish population goes to Canada to fight against the Nazi’s in Europe.  After a year or so in the Canadian army, Alvin falls on a grenade and losses one of his legs.  Philip’s aunt, Evelyn, marries one of the Jewish leaders, who sympathizes with Lindbergh’s politics in hopes that it saves the American Jews.  Society continues to turn on the American Jews, scattering communities and leaders in their community by moving them apart to far-reaching parts of the US and removing employment opportunities that looked like a lock before the elections.  
The world continues to fall further apart and President Lindbergh disappears after flying his plane across the US.  We later learn that Lindbergh’s history with the Nazi’s appears to reach back to when his young son was kidnapped and later found dead outside his home in New Jersey (that is a true part of the story, that his son was kidnapped from their home and later found murdered, but no Nazi connection).  In the story, Philip’s aunt Evelyn believes that Lindbergh’s kidnapped son lived and was taken by the Nazi’s and raised in the party, hence why Lindbergh had to cooperate with Hitler.  The story shares a scary view of American life where the Nazi party could have direct influence on the way our society reacted during the war.  Roth’s youth and the images that it creates in the reader is ‘spot on’ and gives a true picture of the fear that one imagines feeling at that age.  Well written and captivating story.  Wish the ending had a bit more on what happened after the Germans took Lindbergh etc., we are left envisioning America in agreement with the Nazis.  Maybe a sequel?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Speaker for the Dead

Not all sci-fi’s are considered equal, especially sequels.  In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (a follow-up to one of my favorites, Ender’s Game) we learn what happens to Ender, many years later.  At the end of the last book, Ender is transporting “precious cargo” which turns out to be the Hive Queen, which he looks to bring to a new planet, Lusitania, which  has many anthropologists and biologists (of that time) which are studying a species called the ‘piggies’ on the land.  The leading scientists are fighting diseases with the two “superstars” dying before they can create a vaccine for themselves, but their daughter, Novinha, lives and as she agrees takes over the work of her parents.  She faces challenges of her peers in keeping the secret of the virus which the piggies want for their own purposes.  To keep them at bay, Novinha calls for “a speaker of the dead” (who happens to be Ender, or Andrew Wiggin – you need to read the book to understand the distinction, gets complicated) for help.  There are a series of characters between the worlds Ender lived in, pre-Lusitania (where he and his sister live) and the world that Novinha is attempting to save.  Ender arrives through time travel (eclipsing twenty-two year’s time) to assist Novinha.  The Hive Queen comes to life to challenge the group and Ender, now known as Andrew Wiggins (going back to his original self), to see who will live in the next generation. 
There is more to this one, but I lost a great deal of interest with the “back and forth” of the past/present and future, Ender/Wiggins and or Andrew, plus Novinha and her parent’s death, her love affair and mothering of her friend’s children (who died by the virus) and of course the whole meaning of what a speaker for the dead really is for this book.  Sci fi fans may love this one, I was bored and confused and had to re-read sections of the story, always a sign that you are losing interest.  So I may not be the best judge of character for responding to this one… but in the end, hoping there is not yet another return for Ender post Lusitania.