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We have met the enemy and he is us

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-21-19

Three women are tied to each other in different ways in Germany during and after the second world war. Countess Marianne von Lingenfels owns a castle, though it is mostly used for a yearly party and she and her family live in a house down the hill. It is at one of those parties in 1938 that, in the early years of Nazism, she and her husband band together with a group of other men in a plot to kill Hitler. Their wives, other than Marianne, didn’t know. When the plot fails, all are executed. Marianne is allowed  to live because of her status and because she is a woman. Jump to 1945 and the war is over. Marianne is now living in the servants part of the crumbling old castle during the post-war destruction and chaos of so many soldiers trying to make their way home, along with many refugees. She had decided to do right and take in the families of the other men who had been a part of the plot and now there are also two other women with their children all trying to survive together. They are dealing with the aftermath of the war, and even the “shame” of being German, in different ways. This book is the story of how they struggle to survive, both physically and emotionally. It’s an excellent novel and a good story. But, it is much more than a story. It’s an investigation of evil, not only the obvious evil of the Nazi regime, but the evil that causes “good” people to look the other way, refuse to believe what they know is true, and turn their back on people in dire need. It explores how that could happen and also how the scars remain on your soul for the rest of your life. A further theme is the "evil" that is the most difficult to overcome, that doesn't see the struggles of those closest to you, the subtle ways that we hurt people, the tendency to look at people as black or white, the ways we try to control other people's lives assuming that we know what is right. The book continues into the 1950 and later skips to 1991. Each of the women handle the pain and the guilt differently and their children do so as well. And, they have all drifted apart. Marianne has become recognized as a hero who was willing to stand up to the evil a most did not. But, in the end, she also realizes that, though she has taken difficult stands on the big issues, she has not done so well in personal relationships. She knows that she has driven away the people she cared most about with her rigid and judgemental attitude. She says, near the end, while giving a speech after being a hero with a moral compass, “I have not always tried enough to know..., that this moral compass that Claire talks about may not have been as helpful in my own personal life as it was in the wider political conflict. Sometimes it is easier to see clearly from a distance, and what is up close,...what is up close is harder to make out. There is so much gray between the black and the white, and this is were most of us live, trying, but so often failing, to bend toward the light.” That is where most of us live. We may not send people to gas chambers, but we turn our backs on people in need every day. Sometimes it’s not convenient. Other times it is because we don’t have the courage to go against those around us, including our friends and family, especially our friends and family. Jesus said, Whatever you do for the least of these, you do far me.” Do we really believe that? The book is excellently written and the characters have depth. They are real enough that I tried to look up the institute that Marianne set up after the war. It doesn’t exist, but I wanted it to. The book is not a war story, but more in line with "The Lord of the Flies" except that you come away with an even stronger feeling that this is not some distant aberration of a corrupt civilization, but is always lurking in everyone's heart. 

The author’s mother left Germany for the US after the war. Her grandparents had been Nazis. She was ashamed of her heritage and tried to hide that she was half German. Her mother didn’t invite her own parents to her wedding and didn’t keep in contact with them. When the author interviewed her grandmother for this book, she noted that she didn’t want to be forgiven. Forgiveness was far beyond what she could imagine.  She could not forgive herself. She only wanted to be understood. Just to be understood. No one act had created the Third Reich. Instead it was little things that you could explain away and for some it was a necessary evil to create a greater good. Even when there were things that you questioned, for both supporters and the ones who didn't like what they were seeing, there wasn't enough certainty to speak up. Eventually it became dangerous to act and you worked to save yourself. And for those who did speak out, they, like Marianne, couldn’t see the struggles of others and understand their choices. Eventually, there was no one left to speak for you, What a warning to us today!  This is now on my best books list, and I highly recommend it for anyone. 

What is an extraordinary life?

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-15-19

First, the title. The name of the narrator and main character is Sam Hill, but he was born with ocular albinism, a form of albinism that only significantly affects the eyes. With a lack of pigment, the iris may appear blue to red, The pupils also look red instead of black. Sam was mocked by other children who called him the Devil Boy, because of his red eyes, and thus Sam Hill’s nickname became Sam Hell. Sam was born to a devout catholic mother, who saw Sam as a gift from God and always believed that he was special. And, she was his defender and protector throughout her life. Though there is a description of his birth and “condition” in the beginning, the book really starts at age 6 when he was denied entrance to the Catholic school because it was felt that he would be a disruptive influence. His mother fought to get him in, and won. As anyone who hasn’t completely blocked out all memories of their childhood can imagine, Sam was continually mocked and bullied. His only friend was a young black boy who had moved to California from Detroit and was the only black child in the school. As the narrator (Sam) reminds us, racism can be overt, but most often is subtle. As both of them were left out of activities (party invitations, valentine exchanges, etc.) it was natural that they should become friends along with Mickey, a girl who was also an outcast, and their friendship lasted into adulthood. Sam ironically, but maybe a bit predictably, grew up to be an opthamologist (and got some brown contact lenses to cover his red eyes), but he also is a type of person who just accepts life as it is (not necessarily bad) because he is fated to just take what comes (not good). That applies to basically every part of his life. How could it be better for someone like him? In a sense, he had become blind in that belief that he could not “do any better.” He never expected to be loved, and saw the friendships that he made as “exceptional,” as lucky, and not something that could be normal. The story jumps back and forth from his childhood to adulthood and is completely written from Sam’s perspective at the time. One phrase that appears throughout the book is “God’s will.” Sam’s mother saw everything in life as having a purpose and that everything was God’s will. Sam wanted to believe that, but struggled with any kind of concept that would believe that God would will all the things that happen in this world, thus the age-long struggle about how God can allow evil. And, that is a major theme of the book. He gets tired of hearing his mother say that phrase. Sam never gets a real answer to the problem, and in fact his solution throughout most of the book was just to try to ignore struggles, to not tell anyone, to try to cover them up, and eventually to run away. But in the end he seems to begin to recognize that maybe God’s will is not in what happens, but in what you see in it. His mother looked through the eyes of her faith, and maybe faith, even if it was not the same as her faith, was the only way to live life. Sam’s faith was not necessarily in God (though the book ends before that becomes clear, when he has only explored the idea somewhat) but in an attitude, a faith that one difficulties can be overcome and that difficulties can introduce you to the people who really count in your life, including the real friends that he had. Obviously bullying, discrimination, and hypocrisy were other themes. Self-acceptance is another, though that also overlaps with the theme of faith, if that faith did not develop into a faith in God. Sam eventually even begins to see the “wicked witch” school principal, the bully that tortured him, and others as people just like him, victims of abuse and circumstances without such a visible explanation as in his case.  The book’s title seems to be more sarcastic than real. His life was anything but extraordinary. It was only when he began to realize the extraordinariness of his life that it really became so. Once his father had said, “There comes a time in a man’s life when he quits looking forward, and begins to look back.” This seems to be a pessimistic statement, but as the book comes back to it later, it takes on a new meaning. It is often only much later when you look back on your life that you realize that the glorious life that you sometimes dreamed of was never in some distant imagined future, but was always there. It’s the memory of the birth of a child, those special events that have already given significance to our life. Those memories can remind one that life truly is extraordinary.

Whodunit with an Amish twist

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-14-19

The novel starts with a graphic description from the victim’s point of view as she was tortured, hung upside down with a chain around her ankle, and then her throat slit. Then it turns to the chief of police who must investigate this case. But, this victim won’t be the last one and they suspect that she is not the first. It fits the pattern of a killer whose killing spree in the same community stopped suddenly 18 years earlier. Kate is the chief in a small Ohio town that has a significant Amish population. Kate herself was from an Amish family, but left the faith and her family as soon as she was an adult. When asked to take the job of chief, she took it partly for the chance to return to her hometown. This is a typical detective novel with a twist. Kate herself had almost been a victim of the killer 18 years earlier, and there are secrets from the past that now risk being exposed. But, otherwise it is not that much different than others. There are times when you can guess what i happening next and there are times when you’re thrown off guard. There are times when you wonder how anyone in real life could really be so stupid as to do something, and times when you wonder how come no one can see the obvious. There is a gratuitous love scene that fortunately is not too graphic. There are some politicians who are caricatures. But, it is interesting and still keeps you wanting to keep reading.

A tale of grief public but hidden, now exposed

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-10-19

This book felt a little schizophrenic. It is of a man dealing with grief, something which Joe Biden has had a lot of experience with. Just weeks after his 1972 upset win of a Senate seat, while he was moving into his Washington office, the news came that his wife and 1-year-old daughter had been killed in a car wreck while Christmas shopping, and his two sons were hospitalized (they survived and it is the eldest that this book is titled for). It was devastating to him and he considered resigning his seat, but was convinced to go on. Shortly before being elected as Obama’s vice-president for the second term, his eldest son Beau was diagnosed with an extremely virile form of brain cancer of a type that has never been beaten. Beau fought hard and many experimental treatments were tried, but in less than 2 years, he passed away. 

On the other hand, it also felt like a defense of his term as vice-president, to the point that it even began to feel like a pre-campaign promotion, preparing America for a run for president. At times, it even felt like a defense of his decision to keep working and traveling at a full schedule. I kept wondering which book this was supposed to be. I kept wanting to tell him to spend more time with his son and family. At the same time, it seems that, to Biden, this was also a part of his dealing with grief. He saw his work (he was given much more responsibility than most vice-presidents) as crucial to the future peace of the world, and he felt that keeping busy would keep from being overwhelmed by the grief he felt. Still, considering the title of the book, I would rather have had less about the details of concurrent events and more about Beau and how he and the family dealt with the tragedy--more that others going through grief can identify with.

As for dealing with grief, there is, despite my observations above, a lot that could help others who are dealing with tragedy. But, even in this, there was a certain schizophrenic tone. Joe Biden is to be commended for being very open with his feelings in this book, confessing to the depths of despair and loneliness at times. Yet, in the real life that he was describing in this book, he tried very hard to hide those people. He hid it from most people. He didn’t want to be seen crying, and not just in public. He tried to avoid talking about it. There is a lot that sounds like a macho, stiff upper lip way of dealing with pain, a lot of what seemed to be trying to ignore it. Part of that certainly is generational. Much was because he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. And, we know the magnifying glass that politicians live under, so he didn’t want this to be a distraction for his job. He wanted the press and public to focus on the issues and what he was doing rather than on family. Certainly, he was trying to protect Beau and his family as well, preserving at least a little bit of privacy. So, it’s hard to be judgmental. Everyone handles grief in different ways, and few of us live such a public life, so it’s hard to say what we would do in the same situation. But, that very contrast makes makes his openness in this book even more significant. In this book, we also see his heart. We hear a description, even confession of feelings that had been hidden, of a heart that is broken and yet with hope of healing. Scattered through all the description of events and activities, we see a real man, not a political caricature.

I should emphasize that I don’t mean this to be a criticism of him or this book. It’s just a description of how I felt in reading it. And, I came away with a much greater respect for Biden as a man. There are a lot of better books on dealing with grief, but this is a great personal account of a real man facing the greatest nightmare a parent will ever have.

Why would anyone call a feather macaroni? I

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-08-19

Why would Yankee Doodle call a feather macaroni? It was not a joke. There actually was a reason that made a lot of sense in the 18th century. That’s just one thing you’ll learn from this book. The title is pretty clear as to what this book is about and it’s a good brief summary of English history from the Celts and Angles, the Romans, the Vikings, the 1066 Norman invasion, through modern times. But, it’s not your history of kings, battles, and dates. It takes you through some of the details and cultural changes with a sense of humor. There’s a lot in this brief book. A lot of history, but also a lot of fun. 

The reality of death can help us learn to live

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-06-19

It seems a little strange to read a book written by a person who knows he is dying and that he may not even get to finish his book. And yet, the book is more about life than about death and it is his certain and soon death that teaches him how to live, and through his writing, can teach us also. We all know that we will die, but it is always so far in the future to us, that we live more for the day and with the assumption that we will have plenty of time, instead of living as today may be our last. Paul Kalanithi grew up in a family of medical professionals and didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, always absent, always coming home late and leaving early. He studied English and Biology in university and then went to Cambridge for a masters in History and Philosophy of Science. He loved great literature and wanted to be a writer. But, something else kept pulling him. He was searching for the meaning of life, having left his Christian faith in university. After graduation he struggled, grappling with the idea of a life that had meaning. He began to feel “the call” to medicine, a decision he referred to a preferring “moral action” over the “moral speculation” of a writer. He entered medical school and chose the most demanding medical specialty of neurosurgery with its demand for perfection, as he described it. Others could choose the easier specialties or the most lucrative. 

He wanted to do what most doctors avoid because it was hard and because through it he could dramatically change the lives of others. He always said that it was not a profession, but a calling. He decried the descent of the medical profession into a desire for a certain lifestyle and the removal of the clause of putting patients above self from the Hippocratic Oath. He put patients first and spent time talking with patients and family. He was considered the most promising in his field in residency and began receiving job offers from the best hospitals even will still training. While still in his residency, he began to feel pain in his back, but he didn’t take the advice that he would have given to anyone else, see a doctor. He assumed that it was due to his grueling schedule. Residency is terrible for any doctor with many nights sleeping in short breaks at the hospital, but neurosurgery was the worst. When he did, the news was bleak. He weakened rapidly even over a few weeks, then had some respite and recovery with a new type of therapy and was able to complete his residency. He knew that the recovery would likely be temporary, but felt that it would make him a better surgeon. He had understood his patients theoretically before, but now he knew what it was really like, the feelings, the pain, the helplessness, and the grueling therapy that made residency seem good in comparison. He begins to realize that he considered himself a good doctor, focused on his patients, but now realized that, even before completing his residency and beginning to fully practice medicine, he had already started to insulate himself from them. 

He soon began to weaken again and started to write this book. He takes you through what he describes as the reverse stages of grief from denial to depression, to hope, to fantasy, to acceptance, and all without a hint of self-pity. He and his wife have a child while knowing that he will not see her grow up. The book is a journey, but one that happens over a short period of time. The book is not a story, though. It is a process of understanding. You read this thinking that you will learn more about what it is like to know you are going to die soon, but it is more about how to live. Some people want to go on a splurge and do all the things that they wanted to do before they die, to fulfill their bucket list. But he says that it is more important to live in the light of death, a life that comes from a desire to learn what the real meaning of life is. With the miracle of a child, and as he considers what the meaning of science is, he eventually returns to his faith. Science can help us make sense of what we can see, but can’t explain what we are. He writes, “The fact of death is unsettling; yet there is no other way to live.” We don’t like to think of death, but it is only with the reality of death that we can truly learn to live a life with meaning. The main part of the book comes to an abrupt end, and the rest is an epilogue written by his wife describing his final days. He dies in peace at the age of 37 and what he left the world is well-worth reading.

Good, but too many acronyms

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-05-19

On August 6, 2011 an Army Chinook helicopter was shot down in the Tangi valley of Afghanistan killing all 38 people on board, the greatest single loss of American lives in the Afghan War. This book details the events leading up to the disaster as well as the background of the type of conflict, aircraft, and several of those killed. If anything, the book is too detailed and too dry. It uses so many military acronyms that it is often hard to follow and remember what the acronyms mean. It seems that the book is more focused on those with military experience. Having said that, the author has certainly shown that he did his research well. For anyone wanting to know more about the event, they can probably find anything they want here. 

He gives a lot of detail about the Chinook helicopter; it’s history, it’s strengths, and what it is mostly used for. You will learn a lot about how helicopters, how they operate, and where their weaknesses are. Like most books dealing with an event that happened within a short time frame, he took the time to tell the stories of some of the main people to make the disaster more personal. 

For me, it was a good book, but not great. For someone with a military background, it would certainly be more impressive, but for me it was easy to get bogged down, and sometimes lost, in the acronyms and detail. Still, it was good to better understand what happened in that incident, making it also easier to understand the overall challenges of the war making it a good addition to one’s reading list.

Family, Friendship, Guilt, and Redemption

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-02-19

This is the second book I have read by this author, though it was his first book and like the other that I read, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was made into a movie in 2007, but I didn’t know that until I finished reading it. The book begins in the early 1970’s when Afghanistan was still a monarchy. Amir was a young boy, son of a well-to-do Pashtun father. His mother had died giving birth to him and his relationship to his strong and powerful father was strained. Amir preferred reading books and didn’t feel that he fully pleased his father. He felt guilt knowing that his mother had died bringing him into the world. Ali is his father’s servant, and Ali’s son Hassan is both Amir’s servant and friend, but they also belonged to a minority group, the Hazara who were looked down on by most Pashtuns. Amir’s father treats his servant and son very well, and Amir is even jealous of Hassan when his father gives him a birthday gift each year. Hassan is completely loyal to Amir, but Amir never recognizes him as a friend. The book takes you through the overthrow of the king followed by the Russian invasion in 1979. As things deteriorate, Amir and his father escape to Pakistan and eventually to California. Toward the end of the century, when the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan, Amir receives a call from an old friend of his father who is dying and wants to talk to him with the message, “There is a way to be good again.” The book is a delicate picture with many themes including father-son relationships, the meaning of friendship, the guilt of betrayal, and ultimately the search for some kind of redemption. It shows the gradual fall of a country into anarchy seen from the eyes of a young boy. It also deals with the vague feelings of guilt of one who has escaped such a place and made a good life in America when so many friends, including Hassan, and family members have been left behind, and some of those who have lost their lives. And, there is the memory of one particular act of cowardice that happened before they escaped. Amir should be disliked by the reader, but you can’t completely do so and find that you instead pity him to some extent. As an adult, you can feel that his father loves him, but you can also identify with the child who always feels that they are not good enough. You wonder how he can treat such a loyal friend as Hassan so poorly, and yet understand the racial tensions and the fact that Hassan is also a servant. And the title comes from the kite-flying competitions that were so popular in Afghanistan before the Taliban (and again after the Taliban). Every boy loved flying kites, but the competition was with kite strings that were coated with crushed glass and the object was to use your kite to cut the strings of all of the competitors and be the last kite left in the sky. But, when a string was cut, whoever got to the drifting and falling kite first (the kite runner) could keep the kite, and the last kite to be cut (the 2nd place finisher) was the most valuable of all. There is so much to this book as a good story, a treatise on the destructive effect of guilt, a picture of an only son who desperately wants to please and be understood by his father, and finally the hope of recovery and redemption. I couldn’t give it a higher recommendation.

Good book, but the metaphor goes too far

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-01-19

The book is certainly creative. In this book, the underground railroad is literal--tunnels underground with steam trains that run as required to pick up passengers. The stations are hidden, of course, accessed through hidden passages under a kitchen table, through the cellar, etc.. Cora’s grandmother had been taken from Africa and Cora and her mother had been born in slavery in Georgia. Cora’s father died when she was an infant and her mother escaped when Cora was 10 or 11, leaving her as an orphan to fend for herself. Cora lived under 3 masters on the same plantation and when the youngest son, known for his cruelty, inherited the estate, she decides to escape with another slave. She spends some time in several different states, and that is another creative twist in the book. Georgia is a strict, traditional slave state. South Carolina was more open and protected freed slaves and freeborn negroes (I use the term not disrespectfully, but because it was the historical term used in this book), though without fully accepting them into society. North Carolina feared that, with slaves outnumbering whites, the risk of rebellion was too great, so they had enacted a policy of importing indentured servants from white nations and rounding up all negroes to be killed. Tennessee was known more for its indifference to slavery. Indiana was not a slave state but still feared the influence of too many negroes. The story is creatively written and engrossing. There were themes that repeated throughout, particularly to emphasize that slavery was more than just ownership of a person and taking away his freedom. In the American version, it was treating a whole race as less than fully human, and that this can be true even without slavery itself. But, despite the great reviews, I had a hard time getting into the story. It was thought-provoking, but the story didn’t grab me. In one sense, the use of a real train as a metaphor (reverse-metaphor) made the dangers of the journey from one place to another under a cloak of secrecy seem to be less important. There were dangers in the various places that she stopped, and there were other places in the story that were riveting, but then getting on a train to move to the next station just seemed to trivialize what really happened. It is a good read and will make you think. It will help you understand more of the life of a slave. But, I just wish it had dispensed with the metaphors and told the whole story.

More than it seems

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-26-19

Feeding the Dragon was a play by Sharon Washington, an actress on stage, TV, and many major movies (You’ve certainly seen her). The play had only one actor, Sharon herself, and this is a recording that she has made dramatizing the play for a listening audience. And, it is good. It sounds almost like some kind of modern day fairy tale or a Disney movie--the little girl who lived in the library--but this one was true. In the late 60’s, early 70’s, her father was the caretaker of a branch of the New York City Public Library, and the job included an apartment on the 5th floor of the library. The library was old, with a coal furnace in the basement that had to be kept going continuously during winter months because it was so difficult to restart if the fire ever went out. Sharon’s description of that is reminiscent of the scary furnace in the basement of the movie “Home Alone,” but this one must have been far larger. That’s the dragon that must be fed, a difficult and full-time job, but as the story goes on, we find that there are other dragons that must be fed as well. But, Sharon was a little girl, and for her the library after hours afforded so much to see and do, and so much to read. When the library was closed, Sharon had free rein to “borrow” any book to read and her grandmother often asked her to read the library’s newspapers to her while she did housework. But, as she tells her story, you begin to see that the story is not only about her storybook childhood home. She skillfully lets you read between the lines of a childhood story to see the struggles her family faced, her father with such a difficult job, her father’s family down south, that she seldom saw. The story takes us through a trip to visit her grandmother with her father, a few weeks when she lived with her aunt and uncle and watching her uncle, a gifted painter, slowly change a sky from bright to threatening with small dots of paint. Sharon went on to study at a private high school, under scholarship, and as we know, though not from this play, became successful in acting. This is not in print, and only available as an audiobook (and a very short one, less than an hour and a half), but it is definitely worth taking the time to listen to it.