Thursday, January 29, 2015

"All the Light We Cannot See": Amazing. Simply Amazing.

"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." 

In the past year, I've read about 100 books.  I could argue, that Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" is the best one that I've read, and even more than that, maybe one of the best books I have ever read.  There's so much to love about this book - the short intriguing chapters (many are only a page and a half long), the poetic writing style that is both engaging and challenging, the characters who are now lodged in my brain forever, the perspective of WWII that Doerr presents with the two separate story lines which are not typical, but show another side of the war that I never contemplated - the side of choices that people had to make in wartime, or maybe it's Doerr's superb storytelling ability. Even when he switches back and forth in time sequence, and storyline from chapter to chapter, he keeps his reader with him.  When I fall into a book that I don't want to finish because I don't want to lose the characters, when I am both horrified and mesmerized by what I read on every page, when my heart races as the characters endure hardships and terrifying situations, and when I am somehow transported to another time and place - I know I am reading masterpiece.

After I finished the last page of "All the Light We Cannot See" I said, "Wow."  I was home alone and although I had about 1,000,000 other things to do, I needed to keep reading the last 100 pages of the book to find out what happened to Werner Phennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc. The story opens in Saint-Malo, a small (and dramatic) walled city in Brittany that has been occupied by German soldiers and as we find out in the subscript at the beginning of the novel, Saint-Malo "was almost totally destroyed by fire . . . Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree." Marie-Laure, who is in her attic, hears something dropping from planes and with her acute senses due to her blindness, discerns that these are leaflets because she can smell the fresh ink.  In the same town at the same time, Werner, a young German soldier who specializes in radios, is trapped in the basement rubble of a nearby hotel.  These two characters will intersect in magical ways throughout the novel.

Marie-Laure lives with her father who is the key keeper at a museum in Paris.  At age 6, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight and her father relentlessly helps her to cope with the adversities she faces as a young blind girl.  He constructs elaborate scale models of their neighborhood for her to study and encourages her to find her way and lead their walks, so she can learn independence.  He also constructs intricate puzzle boxes for her to solve.  When the war begins, their world,  like the worlds of so many others, changes drastically.  The museum owner entrusts one of the most sought after stones in the world, The Sea of Flames, with trusted employees from the museum; three fakes are distributed and one real stone.  None of the employees know which they are carrying, and Marie-Laure's father has one in his possession.  They flee Paris and end up with Etienne, Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle in Saint Malo.

The parallel storyline belongs to Werner Phennig, a snow haired orphan who has an uncanny knack for constructing and repairing radios.  Word of his amazing skills reaches a german officer who is in need of a repairman for his expensive radio.  When Werner fixes what no other person was able to fix, the german officer recommends that Werner should apply to a Nazi training school for young boys.  Werner, who fears succumbing to the fate that his dad suffered - being crushed while mining, accepts the offer and is transported into a "kill or be killed" world where logic disappears, friendships are trumped by violence, and being special or different are looked upon as weaknesses.  Dr. Hauptman who mentors Werner during his time at the school tells the students, "Life if chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of a species.  Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff."  The whiter the hair, the bluer the eyes, the faster you can run, the crueler you can be earn higher marks than compassion and artistry.  Werner soon learns that hardening his heart is his best defense.

As the book progresses and the war intensifies the lives of these two characters criss cross and meld together the past innocence of Werner's youth when he and his sister Jutta would listen to the radio and hear a professor's voice who talked about light, "The brain is locked in total darkness . . . And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?" and the evils that overshadow wartime for both soldiers and civilians.  Connected by radios and terror, violence and survival, Werner and Marie-Laure meet and in a way save each other.

The title, "All The Light We Cannot See" takes on so many meanings throughout this book - from the radio broadcasts, to Marie-Laure's blindness, to being trapped in an attic or in a basement buried in the rubble from the collapsed Hotel of Bees, but the real lightness in this book was the airy way in which Doerr led the reader through his intensely lyrical style.  Each short chapter reads like it's own vignette, but never feels choppy in the scope of the sweeping novel.  Doerr proves that he is a master of storytelling, and a craftsman of words.  I literally at times got a bit teary eyed with how beautiful the writing was in this book.

If it's been awhile since you've lost yourself in a fiction masterpiece, it's time to pick up "All The Light We Cannot See."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Children Act": Why have I never read Ian McEwan until now?

It's been awhile since I've read a book that led me to openly debate with my husband in the evenings. I'm embarrassed to admit as an avid book enthusiast that I've never read a book by Ian McEwan before this one which I am pretty sure was on every single "Best Books of 2014" list.  I saw the movie "Atonement," but seeing a movie and reading an author's style do not correlate.  At first I was a bit put off by the stuffy, pretentious quality of the writing (it read more like a movie script to me than a novel), but that quickly dissipated as I worked my way into the daily dilemmas that high court Judge Fiona Maye faced and in particular the case of Andrew, a 17 year old Jehovah's Witness suffering from leukemia whose family refused to give him a blood transfusion based on religious reasons.

In the lead up to this court case, the reader learns that Fiona, age 59, is a judge of impeccable reasoning skills.  She is highly respected in her field and the court cases that she faces - from conjoined twins who must be separated in order to save the life of one even if the devoutly Catholic parents don't want to go against God's will, and divorce settlements involving Jewish parents, often relate in some way to religion.  With each case she hears, she uses sound reason and logic to decide what is best for each child involved using The Children Act (1989) as her guide: "When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” - SECTION I (A).  

The backdrop of her reason and logic filled days in court is her emotional and personal distress at home as her husband, Jack, seeks her approval to have an affair with a much younger woman.  Fiona is both disgusted and horrified with Jack's request even if he chooses to blame her for his need to stray citing her emotional and physical distance as the main reasons he wants to have a heated love affair with someone else. Their icy relationship drips with tension and betrayal.  Both sides are hurting; in the case of love, logic and reason often don't count.

But the law will not wait for personal problems at home. Andrew's case must be decided almost immediately due to the severity of his cancer and the necessity for a blood transfusion.  In order to get a clearer understanding of his physical condition and his personal wishes, Fiona visits him in the hospital to understand why he and his family are refusing treatment. After this visit, Fiona comes to the conclusion that Andrew's welfare is not the paramount consideration of his family and his church and overrules their denial of the transfusion, forcing Andrew to receive a life saving treatment.

What happens from here both startled and confused me, but the delicacy of the situations presented in the book made me think long after I closed the cover in the evenings, and stayed with me after I finished the book.  I brought up the dilemmas to my husband over dinner and was surprised by his answers. So many questions are presented in this book: Whose fault is the loss of love? Who gets to ultimately make the decision about the welfare of a child? An adult? A relationship? What happens when we are unable to act in the best welfare of a child or ourselves? What role does religion play in our lives? What ultimately gives our lives meaning?

These are big questions and even if the critics agree that this book doesn't fit in the realm of most of McEwan's books, much exists in it's short length that can pose huge life questions without easy answers which make it an excellent selection for a book club (at least a book club that talks about the books they choose).  As a McEwan virgin, I was impressed with his ability to humanize, criticize and stay neutral all at once.  Even with the seeming pretentiousness of the language at first, this book is worth the read, worth the debate, and worth the title of one of the best books of 2014.

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Belzhar": An almost great YA book

The entire concept of Meg Wolitzer's latest foray into the world of YA literature intrigued me.  Five students are hand chosen for a mysterious and life changing course called "Special Topics in English" taught by the highly regarded Mrs. Quenell. These aren't any ordinary students and this is no ordinary school; they attend The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic high school in rural Vermont for emotionally fragile and highly intelligent students. On the first day of Special Topics in English the five specially selected students gather in class and Mrs. Quenell tells them that they will only study the life and works of Sylvia Plath, the queen of adolescent angst and blinding depression.  Each student is given an ancient journal, and what each student finds out in turn is that when they write in their journals they are  transported to a time where their lives were less stressful and free of the trauma that led them to The Wooden Barn.  The five students secretly meet and come up with the name "Belzhar" (get it Bell Jar?) to talk about where they go when they write in their journals.

It sounds cool, right? Well, it was . . . mostly really good.

I read Wolitzer's highly acclaimed "The Interestings" last year and felt lukewarm about it.  It was long, murky and each of the so called interesting characters turned out to be sad and depressed for different reasons.  This book held promise and because the students are at a school for mostly depressed students, there is no false hope that they aren't already damaged by the misery that life forces on you at times.  The narrative voice, Jam Gallahue, kept me interested from the very first chapter when she explains that her London exchange student boyfriend, Reeve's death, was the reason she ended up at The Wooden Barn.  She seemed fragile, but competent, and after suffering from the loss of true love with a truly original boy, who wouldn't be fragile?  The other students in the class: Sierra Stokes (a beautiful dancer), Marc Sonnenfeld (an overachiever who always wants to follow the rules and do the right thing), Griffin Foley (a moody farm boy who hides behind his hair and hoody), and Casey Cramer (a socialite who is wheelchair bound after a car accident)  have trauma in their lives, too and each disclose their stories as the novel unfolds.

What I liked about this book is the concept.  I love that the writing really matters in Mrs. Quenell's class, and that each student is treated as highly competent vs. highly fragile.  When the students balk about writing regularly in the journals, Mrs. Quenell firmly tells them, "Everyone has something to say.  But not everyone can bear to say it.  Your job is to find a way." The idea of writing as therapy is not just appealing to me, but the reality that I lived for 15 years as I watched my students write their way free of past and present painful experiences and discover their worth and strength as individuals in their words.  Maybe it's just the past English teacher in me, but I wanted to know more about Mrs. Quenell.  Wolitzer doesn't spend enough time developing her, and at times she seemed like a throw away character vs. the inspirational teachers of past YA classics like Mr. Keating in Dead Poet's Society (oh, Robin Williams.  The sad irony of that film still pokes holes in my heart today).

I also loved the idea that each of these students had to travel to the past to understand their emotional pain (and break free of it) in the present.  How tempting would it be to stay in a world where we didn't have to deal with our most traumatic moments and ordeals? But, as Jam finds out in her Belzhar, no advancements or progress can be made in that world.  It is stress free and happy, but no future exists there.

Just like in "The Interestings," Wolitzer assembles an interesting cast of characters who each read like real people.  There is a Breakfast Club type quality about them as they sneak away to their weekly meetings and talk about their experiences in Belzhar and their fears about what happens when the journal is full.

Maybe the biggest let down for me was the truth of Jam's story at the end.  I don't know why, but it made me mad and sad all at once.  I think about all the hopeful young adults out there that get stuck in emotions and allow them to take over their lives to the point of obsession and mental breakdowns. Even with my background teaching and dealing with teenagers and teen angst every single day, Jam's story hurt to read.

There are big questions posed here like how do we deal with grief and how to we continue on after the inevitable tragedies of life occur? There is an even bigger question about reality and what we choose to view as the truth. Wolitzer doesn't dive into these questions, though, with enough conviction to lend them weight.  Maybe if there had been more about Sylvia Plath's life and work and more parallels to her?

I'm not sure what would have made this semi-good YA book really great. I did read it in one day, and Wolitzer kept my attention the whole time.  I know that young teenage girls would love it, and it might even get them interested enough to read more Sylvia Plath which would be a great thing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle" - A Real Hallmark Movie

I, Rebecca Thiegs, fully admit that over the 2014 Christmas season, I was addicted to the Hallmark channel.  I watched every wonderfully sappy, hopeful, uplifting story they presented from "The Christmas Ornament" to "The Christmas Secret" to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas" as I baked cookies, wrapped presents, and folded the never ending loads of laundry in my house.  Maybe because this was the first Christmas in my life (with the exception of the year I lived in London) that I wasn't surrounded by family and our normal traditions, I was drawn into the predictable and lovable plots.  I cried and cheered, and even got my husband and two young girls addicted to the family friendly movies on Hallmark.  When my daughter, Story, fussed and said, "I don't want to watch this. Can't we watch something else?" I told her to give the Hallmark movie of the day 10 minutes and she would drawn in enough to want to see what happened.  Sure enough, after 10 minutes she sat rapt with attention and wouldn't let us change the channel. Why is it that I've never known about this channel before? Because Stageoflife ran a Random Acts of Kindness contest for our December writing contest, I stumbled across the book "The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle" by Joanne Huist Smith.  Not only does the title sound like a Hallmark movie and the front cover look like an amazing invitation, but also the story reads just like a Hallmark movie.

After a sudden death of her husband, Joanne Huist Smith, is terrified of facing her first Christmas with her three kids, Megan, Ben and Nick, alone.  She refuses to decorate her house, Christmas shopping outings lead to disagreements in the store with fellow shoppers, and her Christmas spirit is no where to be found.  Her whole life revolves around a slow simmering pot of chaos - too tired to cook, too emotionally overwhelmed to deal with her oldest son's disappearances and late nights out, too indifferent to deal with her other son's retreat to his room, and not in the right mind frame to comfort her daughter who only wants to have a normal Christmas even if her dad isn't there to celebrate with them.  When a mysterious gift appears at their front door, a poinsettia with a note that reads "from your true friends" the family starts to question - who are these mysterious true friends? When gifts keep appearing each night, the family separated by their individual grief, bonds together in the glow of how much they really do have even after a tremendous loss.

Yes, I cried a bunch, but it was more than a cry book for me.  I was reminded by the simple random act of kindness from the "true friends" of the Huist family that Christmas joy, although in large supply in my family during the holiday season, is something that many struggle with for various reasons.  Reaching out to others during the holiday season, especially to strangers that might be in need, is something each and every one of us is capable of doing.  Huist sums this up by saying, "one of the greatest gifts we all possess is the ability to give. Wealth isn't a prerequisite; compassion and a kind heart are all you need. What better way to honor our loved ones, past and present, than to reach out and change a life for the better? And, the holidays are a perfect time to look outside of ourselves and be a true friend.  A legacy of generosity can create memories that reverberate beyond the moment and outshine the brightest of heirloom ornaments."

Reading this book made me rethink how I give to others this Christmas season and look well beyond my family to the school's crossing guard, many of our servers who received huge tips, and goody bags delivered to people who spend so much time thinking about others that they often forget about taking care of themselves.  It felt awesome to give to strangers who need a little extra love during the holiday season.

I recently started a book club and this was our first book selection.  Each of the dynamic and wonderful women of the group who read it agreed that they loved it and cried while reading it. Each of them needed the message and the uplifting story for different reasons.  One of the women spent the Christmas holiday in Costa Rica and reading "The 13th Gift" while there allowed her to connect deeply with the spirit of giving and gave her a small piece of home.  Another woman who found out over the summer that her sister has terminal brain cancer, read it and took the messages of love and giving and the importance of traditions even in the face of loss to heart.  Another woman was reminded of how much the kindness of strangers can impact our lives like one did for her after her mother died.  A woman from her church enlarged beautiful pictures of her mother for the funeral service and now these keepsakes serve as a reminder to her and her daughter to pass on the giving to others in their time of need.

I needed to be redirected during this holiday season - where so much time and energy and money get spent on material gifts that my daughters play with for a select amount of time and then get bored and move on to something else.  Huist reminds us that the true spirit of giving comes from the heart and from a place of love not obligation, from kindness not from money.  If that doesn't sound like a Hallmark movie, I don't know what does.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"The Power of Habit": A Fitting book for New Year's Resolutions

Do you make New Year's Resolutions every year and give up after a week or a month? Maybe you need to take a closer look at the habits that surround your resolution - study your cue, the routine and the reward. Then, dig even deeper into what makes you crave a certain habit.  New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg's book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" explores the truth behind habits - the habit loop, our cravings, how we can change habits and how habits can lead us to success or failure as individuals and even societies.  He could end up helping you transform your life (or stick to your New Year's Resolution) by understanding why you do what you do.

Duhigg says this in his introduction:
"In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined fifty years ago.  We now know why habits emerge, how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications.  We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives.  Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick.  It isn't always simple.
But it is possible. And now we understand how."

I found parts of this book fascinating, parts a stretch of comparisons that didn't necessarily fit together, and then others more about mob psychology and societal change than habits themselves.  Regardless of the slow parts or the parts that made me scratch my head a bit (in one section he compared a gambling habit where a woman gambled away her life savings to a sleepwalking habit of a man who accidentally killed his wife), the rest of the book was compelling enough for me to read sections aloud to my husband who is tasked with transforming his growing company.  I kept asking him, "Have you ever thought about that for your company?" He listened intently.

As I read about Hopkins transforming the dental hygiene of Americans by creating a foaming craving and tingling sensation in Pepsodent toothpaste, I was intrigued.  This was a necessary habit to stop the epidemic of bad teeth.  As the government put it when they started drafting men for WWI "so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said that poor dental hygiene was a national security risk." Look at us now - consumed by foaming and tingling sensations brought about by whitening toothpastes.  The choices in the toothpaste aisle are dizzying thanks to the habits Claude Hopkins helped to create in the early 1900s. What would our teeth look like today if Hopkins had not helped us create that habit?

Another part of the book that was fascinating to me was Paul O'Neill and his ingenious reformation of ALCOA.  Unlike the previous CEO, O'Neill stepped into power and made one thing his goal - safety.  By changing the way people thought about safety, he improved every aspect of the company.  He improved their profits, and higher quality products.  Researchers have found that tapping into the right keystone habit can transform other habits.  For example, "studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence." Just like they have found that people who habitually make their beds are more productive and better with sticking to a budget.  "It's not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold." Eye opening stuff.

When he uncovered the secret behind the success of Febreeze, the buying habits of Target shoppers and Target's marketing analysts (totally Big Brother stuff), Michael Phelps and his routine of success, and Tony Dungy's winning coaching strategies that all focus on the habits of players, I again was fascinated by how humans can be broken down to a series of routines and reactions.  Just like when I read the part about recovery from surgery or success according to Starbucks stems from creating a habit - a habit of how to help someone in stressful retail situations (LATTE is ingenious) or a habit of writing down an intention.

I somewhere read that a study showed that students who attended Harvard business school and wrote down their goals were more successful than students who didn't which makes perfect sense according to Duhigg's research.  I also like to think that my husband and I are more successful in reaching our goals because we meticulously write them down and try to come up with one intention for the year.  Last year my intention had to do with a successful cross country move for me and my family, and things worked out really well.  This year my focus is on creating more of a balance in my life.  Am I working on my habits the right way? I'm not so sure about that, but I am way more aware of the psychology behind successful and not so successful habits thanks to reading this book.

Duhigg's book will stick with me for some time to come (and many more New Year's Resolutions to come as well).