Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

13.  A book with a one word title

A friend highly recommended Wave and loaned it to me. I warily eyed it on my desk for weeks.  I knew what it was about, and I wasn't sure if I could handle it. The author's personal account of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that struck Indonesia and Sri Lanka the day after Christmas in 2004.  The author and her family were vacationing at the beach when the tidal wave struck. It killed the author's husband, young children, and parents along with close to 250,000 other people.

This is a memoir of unspeakable grief. I found myself bursting into tears again and again. How could a mother live after her whole family is senselessly killed?  How do you even begin to make sense of life after such horrifying loss?

I believe this could be a bible for someone who has gone through loss and is experiencing grief. I can really relate to the idea that grief is such a personal experience and no two people grieve the same way.  Certainly Sonali's grief is deep and profound and in her memoir we see how unique it is compared to others. Initially she strives to disconnect from her memory and it is only when she allows it in that she begins to function.

I kept expecting her to meet a wonderful man and fall in love again and begin to build her life, but the book simply ended with 7 years passage of time and the brief realization that every day heals her a bit but she will never fully be healed. I was really taken with the notion that she never tells anyone her story.  That when she meets strangers on planes who ask her about family she tells them she has none. To tell strangers the truth of her grief is too great a burden to put on anyone. She recoils at the thought of sharing that part of her.  When I think about that magnitude of loss, I wonder too, if I wouldn't make the same choice.

This is a three hanky book, a fast read, but you'll need to stop and dry your eyes many times.  I highly recommend it, but only if you can wade into grief that is terribly deep and wide.  I can't be certain yet but I think somehow this book has changed me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

100 Demons by Lynda Barry

12. Graphic Novel

The Graphic Novel. The pop sugar list had a graphic novel on it. I was dreading this part of the reading year. I don't generally read or like graphic novels.  Oh wait, there was a brilliant one I read last year by Roz Chast called Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  about her parents aging and eventual residence in a nursing home. It was a heartbreaking, witty, memoir that resonated with a lot of what weighs heavily on my mind--end of life care and compassion.

So yesterday, I was thinking where oh where could I find a lovely book like that. I was dreading going to the teen boy section at the library, figuring that was where all the graphic novels were located. They are all about vampires and zombies and Thor, and I think there is a famous one about the Holocaust.  So in my wildly prejudicial mind I was convinced that they were all for teenagers except that one by Roz Chast mentioned above.  I was in a snit.  Ugh!  Then it dawned on me that not only were there lots of other graphic novels for middle aged women, but I might actually own a few.

Guess what!?  I do own some.  Books by the ever beautiful cartoonist and humorist and memoirist Lynda Barry and Alison (MacArthur Genius Grant Winner) Bechdel. They've been on my shelf for a few years, untouched.  I pulled 100 Demons off the shelf and read it last night.

I had read Lynda Barry's comic strips in the Chicago Reader back when I was in college. She is a peer of Matt Groening of Simpson's fame who also came to fame in the LA Reader for his comic Love is Hell.

Ms Barry calls One Hundred Demons her autobifictionalography. Some is true; some is made up. I think this is probably true of all good writing.

The author recalls in drawing form how she came across a book from the zen masters called 100 Demons and in it the masters instruct you to draw the demon when it  comes out of your head and thereby conquer it.  She proceeds to sketch and tell the stories of her demons, mostly from her self-described awkward childhood: head lice, bad boyfriends, smells, dancing, regrets, her first job, cicadas, and much more.  The writing and stories and pictures are really powerful. I cannot pick a favorite, but it would be fun to do some writing about my own 100 demons.  She invited readers to pick up pen and ink and do the same. Me an artist?!  I just have never considered it.  But it is a compelling idea.

So I can check off Graphic Novel and I am so much the richer person for it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Elephant Company by Vicki Croke

11.  A Book with Non-Human Characters 

I was led to this because I need to get back to my book club, so that I can request a book for us to read together and discuss.  I do love this bookclub and have not been reading and attending.  I'd better get going. So the next book club selection was this book about elephants.  ELEPHANTS!  I am not a huge animal fiend.  Then again, every time I pick up a book about a human who loves animals, I am usually quite taken by it.  Interesting people like animals.  Interesting people dedicate their lives to loving and understanding animals.  Maybe this would not be so bad.  I've also been on a World War II reading kick over the past few months.

Elephant company truly did not disappoint me. James "Elephant Bill" Williams fought in WWI and discovered a love for camels which he rode in the war.  In choosing post war employment he decided his love was for animals and chose to move to Burma and work with elephants at the Bombay Burma Teak Company.  He spent the next 20 plus years learning about elephants, working with them in the jungle, raising a family in the jungle and when war broke out again, using the elephants to lead people to safety from the Japanese and building bridges for the Allies.

Croke writes of Elephant Bill with affection.  He is a man you want to meet after just a few pages. You'll want to ask him to talk about his beloved elephants because to understand elephants is to understand him. I have a new sense of  appreciation for the intelligence of elephants and for conservation efforts of them as a species.  One of William's early contributions to elephant welfare was humane training and treatment of animals.  At the end of the war, as he realized his time in the jungle was ending.  He wanted nothing more than to release the elephants from their lives of servitude and see them go wild.

Croke also writes of elephants with amazement and love. The star elephant of Bill's company is a prize bull raised in captivity named Bandoola.  Bill loved Bandoola and understood him more than anyone. One of the saddest moments in the story was the moment when Bill discovered Bandoola had been killed.

The book is in three parts.  First we meet Billy Williams and understand how he got started in the jungles of Burma and how he loved elephants and the people of Burma.  You learn some about British Colonial rule in Burma and begin to get a sense of the times and the treatment of animals.  Williams was well respected and his ideas about the humane treatment of animals were given a fair shot.

The second part covers how he meets his wife and begins his family which is not easy for a man who lives in the jungle, but he does and his family life is quite romantic and his love affair with Susan Rowlands feels like the stuff of movies.

The last part is about how he led his elephants during WWII in fighting the Japanese in Burma.  Ms Croke paints the picture in words that makes readers feel like the exciting ending to a great epic movie.  The clouds part, the music swells and there are the elephants standing tall and proud and leading people to freedom.  I am guessing that the hard part in making a movie about elephants in the War in this modern world would be finding enough elephants.

This book might not appeal to everyone, but I feel pleased that the book group chose it so that I might discover it. I am looking forward to talking about it next month.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Take This Bread by Sara Miles

10.  A book by an author I've never read before

I am fascinated by life transition. I love to read books about people who change and why they change, or escape and how they escape. Of course all truly good writing is ultimately about change. How we see what we had always missed or learn to love what we always hated. I can't remember how Take this Bread got on my library list, but it came up and I couldn't wait to hear the story of this atheist's conversion to Christianity. The story was somehow rooted in communion which is a Christian tradition I have always loved.

Simply, Sara wandered into a church one Sunday and took communion.  It made her cry, and she could not understand why. She went back for more and began to try to understand Jesus, the communion, and why the simple act of eating bread and drinking wine would arouse such a desire in her. She turned her love of communion into the understanding that it was Jesus attempt to tell his disciples to feed his people.  Thats all. Feed my People. She started a food pantry in her church to give to the poorest of her city and that food pantry turned into a dozen more.  Feeding people as Jesus would do became her calling.

I feel like a gained a greater understanding of how Christianity can be profound and how it why it errs and makes me feel uncomfortable. I understand how the sharing of food is the most basic of all acts and rituals and it is the primary commandment that we all should follow.  Feed the people.

I also understand how many rituals, rites and acts of Christianity can be equivalent to feeding our bodies and our souls. Her memoir made a lot of sense and was quite profound to me. I think many people would enjoy it, simply to understand how Christianity can be a bold and profound calling.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

9.  A Book Longer than 500 Pages

The story of a young blind French girl living with a great Uncle in a seaside town during WWII.  She is missing her father who has been imprisoned and sent to a labor camp.  She is helping the resistance by smuggling coded messages  out of a bakery and into the tower at her uncle's house where he sends the messages out into the night with his old WWI transmitter.

A young German boy is recruited into the Nazi war machine and given a chance to escape hard labor in the coal mines because he is brilliant and understands radios and transmitters.

A German Colonel searches for a rare diamond possessed by the French which will protect him from death.

These three stories are told over the course of the war culminating in a chance meeting as the allied army begins bombing the town of Saint-Malo.  Will they live or die? Will they find the transmitter? The rare diamond?  Will the imprisoned father ever see his daughter?  Will the German boy ever see his sister again?  Is it love?

All the Light We Cannot See is the beautiful story of young people trying to understand their role in the mad world of war, grapple with the atrocities that they are asked to commit and the danger they must face every day.  Sad story, well written, face paced and so compelling.   I would call it absorbing and delicious.  I soaked in it for days.  Line after line took my breath away.  I would ask, how can someone write such beautiful prose about such horror?

I have one outstanding question that I am not so sure of, so  I want a book group to invite me to their discussion of the book so I can ask about something that puzzled me.

The on-line queue at the library was almost 100 people long--so I requested the LARGE PRINT version--that queue was only about 17 people long.  (Turns out I really almost need large print. No kidding.)  When I saw that my large print book had 769 pages, I decided to cheat a bit and use it for my 500 page book.  Turns out the the regular--non large print version is 531 pages. So no need to cheat.

So yes, let this be your epic novel this year. It is a wonderful story.