All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot SeeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was published in 2014 and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This was one of those books I had seen on bookshelves the year it came out and a few subsequent years where the title caught my interest but I never picked it up. Since it had caught my interest, once a colleague recommended it to me stating it was “the best book he had read last year,” I picked it. I finished it yesterday.

This book is beautifully written. Hands down, it is one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time. The use of language alone is enough to recommend it, but the story is also compelling. Two young lives impacted by the eruption of war. A young girl, blind and led by her father as they flee their familiar home in Paris. A young boy, orphaned in a mining town and left to fend for his younger sister until his curiosity and aptitude with radio leads him into the German forces as the war progresses. Their lives are connected by invisible waves dancing in the air as their lives careen into the unknown. Despite the interesting characters, I found I was kept at arms length from really getting to know them. I think it was the formatting of the book that led to this. The book is over 500 pages long, but broken into chapters averaging three pages in length. The changes in perspective and the story spanning a decade made it seem more like watching a play than getting into the heads of the characters and experiencing their story alongside them. We are bystanders. Perhaps this is best considering the situations they are in, but I almost felt like I wanted more of a connection with them. The main characters at least.

Doerr definitely did his research. History, locations, technology, and even biological studies of specimens, everything is brought together to bring a rich experience. I think one thing that captured my attention was the descriptions of the radio. We all likely use radios every day, or phones, without knowing a single thing about how they actually work. We take it for granted and because of this I think Doerr is able to bring a magic to it within this novel. Of course, this was before television and the rapid growth of technology that we all have known nearly our entire lives.

Though this is a work of fiction, I think it does a great job of showing how the war changed the lives of the citizens of Europe. Outside of losing loved ones and friends, and living in uncertainty not knowing if they would eat each day, the story is a glimpse inside what it would have been like for both sides during the occupation of France and beyond. It also briefly shows how those changes influenced their lives after the war.

The story feeds off of, and in turn contributes to, the nostalgic time before the technology we know so well. Even though the conflicts of the second world war were horrendous and attribute to some of the worst things in the history of humanity, there is still a sense of simplicity during the first half of the recent century. This could easily be the distance of time between now and then. Daily hardships are also hardly mentioned in history lessons and it is impossible to know how life really was before our own experience.

Yes, the war is a topic many people don’t find interesting because of the terrible things that happen, but this book focuses on our two young characters. I can’t name either a protagonist or antagonist because this is not a story with plain right or wrong (despite us knowing much about the war itself and having our own sense of good and bad). This is a story about life, the wonders it contains, the difficulty of existence, and the choices we make. It is about survival and how to live after the danger passes. It demonstrates the fickleness of life and how unfortunate things happen to good people, and how good people can combat the ill-intentions of others.

I spoke with the colleague who recommended this book to me last week and told him I was about halfway through. He carefully told me that he thought the ending was “appropriate,” and now that I have finished the book I must agree with him. The ending is appropriate. I will leave you to take that as you will.

Happy Reading.

Talking to Strangers

Talking to StrangersTalking to Strangers (subtitled What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know) was published late last year. Of all the books by Malcolm Gladwell, of which I believe I’ve read all but one as of today, this is decidedly my favorite. I have recently become fervently interested in communication and this book encompasses that very concept in relation to how humans interact with each other.

I must admit that this book does cover some, what I consider, heavier subjects. Humanity has not treated itself very well throughout history. He does bounce around between subjects, but he masterfully ties them all together as is his modus operandi.

The book is centered around the arrest of Sandra Bland. Gladwell incorporates fascinating  information about policing, intelligence agencies, alcohol, and other topics such as rape. He covers psychologies and the tendency to default-to-truth. I believe he ties these all together tighter than the subjects of his other books, which are equally interesting. The bottom line tends to be that we as a species, even incorporating differences between societies and even after thousands of years of development, are not even close to being able to communicate without a plethora of barriers. These are often preconceptions or implicit biases that may guide us to believe one thing and miss the mark (often completely).

The past few years have shown me that communication is essential. Within the workplace, it can expedite solutions to complex problems when done effectively, and when done poorly can create complex problems from a simple task. Communication is essential to understanding each other. Unfortunately, we see primarily divisive information online today. Huge gaps in political ideology and social subjects. I don’t believe we have more problems than we have had in the past. I just believe we are more aware of every little thing that is happening because we can access it and share it at any second of any day with the tiny computers in our pockets.

Even though we do have access to the sum of humanities knowledge, we often only see a partial narrative. Anyone who is unable to see beyond that partial narrative, or chooses not to, is simply (by definition) ignorant. I learned more about recent headline news from this book than I did at the time the events were happening. This is partially because I did not go looking for additional information on the cases in question. However, I was aware of them prior to reading this book. Primarily the cases of Brock Turner and Sandra Bland. I have a better understanding of these events and am glad of this despite the unsettling nature of how they happened.

Gladwell does well, as he almost always does, in distancing himself from the narrative and preventing any personal bias to enter his prose. He admits one such bias in this book but without that admission we would not have known the passion he has for that particular event.

He also did something quite interesting with this book. I listened to the audiobook version which he reads himself. He structured this audiobook to be similar in a few aspects to a podcast. He uses recordings of interviews when possible to let us hear the person’s voice instead of Gladwell quoting them. He also has re-enactments done of court hearings and interrogations. This, within a book about communication, improved the experience. I recommend the audiobook version if you have access to one. I borrowed it from my library though I did have a long wait before it was my turn.

I hope you add this book to your list or pick it up soon to read or listen to. It encourages us to think about the way we interact with strangers and even friends. It dares us to do better while also letting us know that it is not our fault, or anyone’s, if we fail to understand each other whether upon first meeting or decades later. I hope to do better and communicate more effectively. Perhaps doing so will eliminate some of the bad we see in the world. Perhaps it will make only my own life a bit easier and hopefully brighter.

As for you, reader, I want to thank you for reading my words and taking in my intent to communicate my belief that this book is informative and enthralling. At least, it was for me, and I hope it will be for you.

Happy Reading.

The View from the Cheap Seats

neil-gaiman-the-view-from-the-cheap-seatsThe View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman is a book of selected nonfiction that is, simply, a delight. I picked this book up when it was first published. I’d come across one of Neil’s tweets that listed all the independent bookstores in America that would have signed copies of the book upon release. I scoured the list and found there was one bookshop in my state, the state of Missouri, that would have them, and to my outstanding luck it was just down the road from where I worked. The bookstore, Main Street Books located in St. Charles, would receive 10 copies. The day it came out, I took my lunch hour a bit earlier than usual, and went down to see if I could grab a copy. My luck held out and I nabbed one of the few. I was uncertain how many other fans may have been privy to the information of first edition signed copies of Neil’s new book. I wasn’t sure if many people in the area were Neil Gaiman fans. After purchasing my copy I remember wondering these things and, if my memory serves correctly, I spread the word so people knew. I brought the book home with me after work and subsequently read the first handful of pages, about 50, and for some reason did not pick it up again.

Until two weeks ago when I was about to catch a flight home from a vacation in the Dominican Republic. I had a paperback book I’d been reading on the vacation and on the first flight back, but the second flight would be dark and my eyes wanted a rest from the dry, circulated air of the airplane, so I downloaded the audiobook of The View from the Cheap Seats from my library back home through a convenient app. The audio-book version is read by Neil himself. This was my first audio-book experience and I’m glad to say it may have been the perfect introduction for me to this format. I listened to the book for the entirety of the flight home. I began listening to it on my commute and sometimes while at my desk working. I recently finished it, while doing yard work, which is why I am writing this recommendation. Or rather, I am recommending this book to you now not simply because I finished it, but because I think it is a great book and it is filled with fun and is extremely informative.

This book is filled with material that spans decades and talks about a great many things. It talks about writing, writers, music, books, people, the importance of art, and the importance of genres and different types of storytelling including comic books and film. This book is filled with Neil’s experiences and his experience. There is a lot to be learned. A section of this book contains a plethora of introductions. Introductions that were written by Neil for other books. Introductions that will inevitably provide you with a decent amount of books to add to your list to read, as I have added to mine.

Neil talks about a great many people in this book. Well, he had talked about them a long time ago originally and the pieces of writing were chosen to be included in this volume. If I had read this book back when it was first published, I would have known about Gene Wolfe long before I first discovered him. I have not read any of Gene Wolfe but his books are now on my list, and I am looking forward to reading them. I hate to say I first discovered Gene Wolfe when news of his passing was released a handful of weeks ago. Reading about who he was and what he wrote made me fond of this man I never knew and, now, will never know. I read an article that Neil retweeted claiming it was a good article about Gene. I wish I would have known about him earlier. He lived only a few hours drive from where I live now and I’ve already daydreamed my way into a world where I read his books long ago and fell in love with them and actually made a trip to meet him. Something I’ve never done. I’d be hesitant about doing so even in the dream, but he would be nice as so many have said he was.

One of the things I think I’ve learned from this book is to go out and make more connections with people. Neil tells stories of how he first met many authors who would become lifelong friends, and I am inspired to get out and make some friends of my own. I lack friends who write and I want to have more discussions about writing and I want to have even more discussions about life from the ever-observant type of person who is often a writer. Neil’s story of meeting Diana Wynne Jones seems to be mere happenstance, but what an incredible chance it was and even more incredible how quickly they became friends. I first discovered Diana Wynne Jones after finding out the Hayao Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle was based on her book of the same name. I quickly read the book and loved it and added many more of Diana’s books to my list of books to eventually read. Even so, Neil gave me another book of hers to add to my list. One I’d never heard about until he talked about it in this volume.

He talks about many people he has met throughout his life and he talks about books that inspired him and he really talks about the books that influenced him as a boy. He talks about his journey becoming a writer of fiction that began in journalism. He talks about how he wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett by mailing each other floppy discs and calling each other over the phone. Much of what he talks about is nostalgic. Things he discusses have changed since he first wrote about them. The world is much different now that it had been back then. He talks about changes occurring in the comic industry well before comic-book movies became a worldwide phenomenon. The book is not outdated by any means. It is filled with life and love and stories.

There is much to learn from this selected nonfiction. There is much fun to be had. It is inspiring whether you read it in print or listen as Neil’s melodious voice reads it to you. It doesn’t matter if you yourself are a writer or not. I dare say it is interesting even if you aren’t even interested in books. This volume is filled with experiences. Yes, many of which mention books and are related to story-telling, but he talks about music and people and things he believes in. These writings are themselves stories, and collected in a way to become something even more.

Happy Reading.

Day of Empire

Day of EmpireDay of Empire by Amy Chua was a book I picked up simply to learn more about how societies and empires were formed, how they maintained their power, and what led to their destruction. This was all research for a potential story where an empire would be prominent and I felt the need to learn more so as to have realistic elements in the fictional society I want to create. I learned a lot from this book and it made me think about many things as well. The book covers a large history, starting from the Persian empire and ending with the current United States (as of 2007 at least, when the book was published). Many of the chapters do not go in-depth into each of the empires discussed or the book would be a million pages, but it does provide a lot of information about how the empires were formed and how they came to end in fairly general terms.

However, what I thought most interesting was Chua’s thesis that these empires grew and thrived on tolerance. Relative tolerance in some fashion. A trend I noticed was religious tolerance being what caused some of these empires to become as large as they did. When other parts of the world were persecuting people due to religion, those people would flee to an area where they could practice their beliefs without fear. Many of the empires were also formed from violence and military strength. Some from economic and trade power. Chua claims that tolerance is what helped create each of the world powers, and intolerance led to their decline. I am non-religious so I do not know much about the histories of religions, but I thought it insane how much of history has been dictated by religious disparities. So much hate and war. So much persecution and destruction. It has been an issue through seemingly all of human history and unfortunately it continues even today. I could go further on this topic with my own opinions, but let’s get back to the book.

I knew a little about Rome and almost nothing about the Mongol empire. I never knew how the Ottoman empire was founded or even how the English empire grew out of the Dutch empire. Needless to say, this book has a ton of great information and it made me want to delve deeper into some of the empires it discusses. History can be fascinating and it has been a long time since I’ve read a history book (especially one that was not assigned reading). It was refreshing since I read many fictional books of mainly the science fiction or fantasy variety. I like to learn and history is the best area to learn from. I think I’ll start incorporating more history books in my reading line-up from now on.

After covering several empires and several thousand years of humanity, Chua spends the final few chapters in the 1900’s and ends with present day (as of 2007) America where she predicts what other nations may come to rival the hyper-power that is the United States. This book in already 12 years old and many of the things stated are somewhat dated, but one thing I can’t help but think about is Chua’s claim that powerful nations begin to fail when they become intolerant. Today’s political climate has become quite intolerant. I know there have always been issues in this area, and that many different peoples have been persecuted throughout the history of the United States. From the Irish to the Japanese to African Americans to Muslims just to name a few. I fear this trend will only continue.

As individuals it is easy to be nice to others and get along without violence or even arguments. It is harder to manage or govern large groups of people in towns or cities or countries. But aren’t populations made from individuals? My personal history has been quite different than anyone else’s I’m sure. I was taught what hatred is but I was not taught to hate. I honestly believe people can live in peace even if they disagree on many issues or big topics. I hope that one day we, humanity, can find a way to stop killing each other and simply live and grow together. To build a world where the lowest standard of living means access to clean water and no empty stomachs. But again I digress from the book.

There is much to learn from history and I learned many things from this book. About governments and governing practices that work and don’t work. About many different areas of the world and different times. Looking at the history of the world from a distance, or over a great span of time, makes it seem a little more simple, but it also gives a world-view of humanity where you can see trends that persist even today. If you’re up for learning some history, I’m sure this book will have something you did not previously know.

Happy Reading.

Top 100 Banned Books

Today I had an interesting conversation with a student about banned books. She is writing a paper on the subject, specifically about Fahrenheit 451 and censorship, and it reminded me of a list I viewed about a year ago. I can’t find the exact one, but I did find several which got me thinking about the subject and the reasons why books get banned or challenged. Some are funny and some may seem justifiable. I don’t want to get into the history or ethics of banning the ideas of others, but since I am human and we almost immediately do the thing we were just told not to do (because nobody can tell me what to do!), I find I want to read a challenged book simply because it has been challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) has some great lists when it comes to banned or challenged books. The Banned or Challenged Classics list includes descriptions as to why the book was challenged. I think you may be surprised as to how recently some of these books have been challenged, but then again (with the current political climate), you might not be.

Below is a the list of the top 100 banned books between 2000-2009 (with thanks to www.ala.org). I hate to say I’ve only ready seven and a half (I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale). Of those that I have read, I’ve recommended five previously (see the Book Recommendations tab above). I marked all that I’ve read in Indigo (such a fun color) and underlined the ones I’ve recommended.

How many of these have you read? Are you surprised to see any on this list? Will you add any to your list of books to read?

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
11. Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
12. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
13. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
14. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
15. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
16. Forever, by Judy Blume
17. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
19. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
20. King and King, by Linda de Haan
21. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
22. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
23. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
24. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
25. Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan
26. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
27. My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier
28. Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
29. The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
30. We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
31. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
32. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
33. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
34. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
35. Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
36. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
37. It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris
38. Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles
39. Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
40. Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank
41. Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
42. The Fighting Ground, by Avi
43. Blubber, by Judy Blume
44. Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
45. Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly
46. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
47. The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby: The First Graphic Novel by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the creators of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey
48. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez
49. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
50. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
51. Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan
52. The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
53. You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco
54. The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole
55. Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green
56. When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester
57. Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
58. Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
59. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
60. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
61. Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle
62. The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard
63. The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney
64. Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park
65. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
66. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
67. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
68. Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
69. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
70. Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
71. Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
73. What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras
74. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
75. Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry
76. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
77. Crazy: A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert
78. The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein
79. The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss
80. A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
81. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
82. Deal With It!, by Esther Drill
83. Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds
84. So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins
85. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
86. Cut, by Patricia McCormick
87. Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
88. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
89. Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
90. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
91. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
92. The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
93. Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
94. Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
95. Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix
96. Grendel, by John Gardner
97. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
98. I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte
99. Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
100. America: A Novel, by E.R. Frank

 

Happy Reading.