Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sarah's Key

As I mention in previous weeks, I truly enjoy war time stories, for they are a true testimony to the strength of the human heart. This weeks book, Sarah's Key, written by Tatiana de Rosnay, is an elegiac, imaginative, and extraordinary novel, inspired by actual events during World War II and the Holocaust. Written with eloquence and empathy, de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

July 1942 marked a dark period in the history of France where thousands of Jewish families were rounded up and forcibly kept in the Velodrome d'Hiver. They were then sent off to transit camps in France such as Drancy, before being packed off to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. What is so unnerving about this whole incident is that the rounding up and mobilization of Jews for deportation was done by the French authorities. Haunting and suspenseful, life-affirming and beautiful, crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, this book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

Based upon this seldom mentioned, little known piece of French history, author Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a well-written novel that intertwines the past in 1942, and the present. Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Parisian girl born to Jewish parents, is captured in the round-up of June 16, 1942, and imprisoned with almost 10,000 others in an indoor cycling arena, the Vélodrome d'Hiver, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz. When the police arrive, she has just time to hide her younger brother in a concealed closet in their apartment, locking him in and promising to return when it was safe.

Sixty years later, we are introduced to writer Julia Jarmond, a transplanted American married to an arrogant and unfaithful Frenchman. Julia is assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' roundups, and is struck by the fact that the round-up and subsequent disposal was carried out by ordinary French policemen, enabled by a citizenry that for the most part looked the other way. As she digs deeper, she uncovers dark secrets surrounding her husband's family which are connected to the deportations of Jews from France, but defiantly resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10 year old Sarah and four year old Michel. As the truth emerges, the author deftly handles the question of guilt caused by suppressed secrets and how the truth can sometimes not only bring about pain and disrupt the regularity of life, yet also have the ability to heal and move forwards into the future.

"...the end of summer that lingered on, the fading heat, the dust, the stealthy minutes that oozed by with the laziness of molasses." The pages of Sarah's Key were filled with succulent descriptions and profound imagery, making it effortless to form detailed pictures in my mind of the characters and places. The method employed by the author, which alternates between the past and the present is an effective tool, for it ties both periods together and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. At the half-way point, however, de Rosnay is forced to give up Sarah's direct narrative, telling her story solely through what Julia is able to discover about her. This left me a little disappointed, for I was so intrigued and captivated by Sarah's story, and I longed to know more about her life after the Vél' d'Hiv.

Sarah's story may be merely a variant on the Holocaust narrative often told before, but its child's-eye viewpoint gives it a moving authenticity. Especially touching are the glimpses of individual concern and kindness among the general indifference of the French people; the novel honors those unsung heroes who put aside their fear to help in individual ways.

Told with remarkably unsparing, unsentimental prose, through a lens so personal and intimate, this novel is shocking, profoundly moving and morally challenging story. It beautifully conveys Julia's conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah's trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Book of Awesome

What’s there to be happy about? Simple, snow days, high-fiving babies, finding money in your pocket and so much more. After walking past The Book of Awesome, by Neil Pasricha, several weeks in a row, I decided that it was time to dive in and indulge myself. This book is funny, sweet, and filled with just enough nostalgia-laced goodness to bring out your own inner Pollyanna.

Daily life in the twenty-first century can be overwhelming. Between work, school, kids, payments and, not to mention trying to have a social life, things can become very stressful and bland. Throw into the mix issues of global warming and a strangled economy, and it becomes almost too much to bear. No wonder we seek solace in the tiny triumphs of life: in our own small successes and in the personal interactions, the soothing sights, the tempting tastes, and the sensational smells we find in the world around us. In this adaptation of his blog '1000 Awesome Things', Pasricha celebrates the simple pleasures of everyday living, resulting in an encyclopedia of joy. Focusing on both tangible pleasures and simple experiences, Pasricha provides a contemporary take on everyday inspiration. Some moments are silly, some poignant, some nostalgic-but everything is familiar. Pasricha emerges a committed but inviting optimist, combating life's unending stream of bad news by identifying opportunities to "share a universal high five with humanity."

The Book of Awesome is the kind of book that you can scan through quickly. You can catch the headlines and say "Yes!" to particular ones. Or you can take a single lovely, rainy weekend to devour this volume from cover to cover. Keep it on your bedside or coffee table for a quick pick-me-up. Read passages aloud to a living room full of friends, and your group will come up with even more possibilities. You don't have to agree with all of the entries. Just keep turning pages, and it won't be too long before you find several more Awesome Things that you can relate to. Little things, it turns out, are extremely important to happiness, and The Book of Awesome will remind you of a thousand little things that will make you happier.

As I mentioned, some things in The Book of Awesome didn't really apply to me. Because of where and when I was born, there were many things that were somewhat unfamiliar to me and my experiences. Although I could appreciate them, they did not resonate anything, so it was extra awesome when something came along that I completely understood. Some of my favorite awesome things are: the moment at a concert after the lights go out and before the band comes onstage, bakery air, peeling an orange in one shot (or even better, a grapefruit), using all the different shampoos and soaps in someone else's shower, the smell of rain on a hot sidewalk, and the sound it makes from inside a tent, the moment at a restaurant after you see your food coming out of the kitchen but before it lands on your table, laughing so hard you make no sound at all, bowling celebrations (AKA celebratory dancing), sleeping with one leg in the covers and one leg out, remembering what movie that guy is from, the smell of books, snow falling on Christmas eve, building an amazon couch cushion fort, and last but not least, squeezing through a door as it's shutting without touching it. I have experienced each and everyone of these things, and I'm glad to say that they have all brought a little bit more happiness into my life.

Since finishing The Book of Awesome, I have noticed myself reveling in the small things, and allowing the childlike splendor of them to wash a smile onto my face. Now when I notice myself multi-tasking while brushing my teeth, or hanging my hand out the car window, I really do relish in the small opportunity to enjoy the moment, knowing that is simply awesome.

My tip for this book is to visit Pasricha's website, The book includes only a couple hundred awesome things, but you will playfully discover hundreds more, as well as see readers comments and their shared experiences and memories. And second, I dare you to read this book without compiling your own list of awesome things to add. Maybe take the time to acknowledge something when it makes you smile, or get together with some friends and make a game out of it, but either way, keep the awesome train running, for it will bring little bursts of joy to your day

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Wisdom of Forgivness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys

After reading Eat Pray Love, I was interested in knowing more about meditation and the Buddhist religion. I began talking with my Dad about these two subjects, knowing that he had read a lot of material on both, and asked him for some suggestions on basic reading material to get me started. Shortly after, I received a package for my birthday from him with a few different titles, bringing me to this weeks book, The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journey, By Victor Chan. This is a surprisingly easy and wholly engaging read, a rich story rather than dense teachings weighted down by abstruse Buddhist terminology. Through the eyes of Chan, friend and confidant of His Holiness, we are invited to become intimately acquainted with the Dalai Lama. We follow the leader of the Tibetan people as he travels extensively, and we join Chan as the proverbial fly on the wall, gaining privileged access into the public and private world of one of the most well known men of our time.

Chan begins by setting up the contrasts between his controlled, unemotional Chinese upbringing in Hong Kong and the "childlike, carefree spontaneity of Tibetans." In a beautiful turn of phrase that he illuminates throughout the book, Chan says the Dalai Lama "wears his soul on his face." And he shares, as he has rarely done, his own spiritual experiences. Chan met the Dalai Lama more than 30 years ago on a serendipitous trip to India, where the holy man was in exile, becoming a frequent visitor and confidante, as well as the first person from China to enter Dalai Lama's inner circle since the Chinese government seized Tibet in 1959. The Wisdom of Forgiveness is the recounting of their long and evolving friendship, as Chan chronicles nearly three decades traveling the world with the Dalai Lama. From war-torn Ireland to Eastern Europe, through India's holy sites and the Dalai Lama's grave illness, Chan had unprecedented access to the holy man's daily routine and private quarters, as well as his visits with bombing victims and dignitaries like Czech president Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Chan has a gift for observation and description, making this book both an intimate look at his own personal journey, and a thorough portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The book shows admirably, the Dalai Lama's sometimes unpredictable sense of humor, his ability to put people at ease, the unpretentious manner in which he wears his learning and his practice, his serenity, and his devotion. For decades he has been the spiritual and temporal leader of the exiled Tibetan people, as well as the most recognizable symbol of Buddhism in the world. An enigmatic figure, he is a Nobel Peace Laureate with a playful streak and an irresistible laugh. But that's not why he has gained superstar status in the West, or why his public appearances around the globe sell out in minutes. Why is he so revered? Because people are thirsty for his message of compassion and non-violence, a powerful message that crosses barriers of race, religion, and creed. People embrace the Dalai Lama's universal, secular values—qualities like forgiveness and acceptance, or what he calls "the warm heart." As his longtime friend, Chan, describes it: "He and his countrymen practice a very simple religion—they practice being kind to each other."

The Wisdom of Forgiveness is a good starting point to learn about Buddhism, and be introduced to the Dali Lama in a new, and more personal way. Although I'm not fully convinced I received all the information I was hoping to obtain, there were a few key points that I think are very valuable to maintaining happiness in everyday life, including:

"...he exists only because others exist: a person is a person through other persons. When we say you have ubuuntu, we mean you are gentle, you are compassionate, you are hospitable, you want to share, and you care about the welfare of others. This is because my humanity is caught up in your humanity. So when I dehumanize others, whether I like it or not, I dehumanize myself. For we can only be human, we can only be free together. To forgive is actually the best form of self-interest."

"Despite his lack of control over what the Chinese could do to him physically, Tenzin finally understood that the Chinese could not damage his mental health unilaterally. The only way his psychological well-being could suffer was through his own attitude, his own reaction to his dire straits. He knew that if he could develop a neutral-or better yet, a positive-feeling toward his captors, he would be able to sleep at night, and no matter how badly the Chinese tortured him, his mind would always be a safe haven for him to retreat to."

"Compassion is something like a sense of caring, a sense of concern for others difficulties and pain. Not only family and friends, but all other people. Enemies also. Now, if we really analyze our feelings, one thing becomes clear. If we think only of ourselves, forget about other people, then our minds occupy very small area. Inside that small area, even tiny problem appears very big. But the moment you develop a sense of concern for others, you realize that, just like ourselves, they also want happiness; they also want satisfaction. When you have this sense of concern, your mind automatically widens. At this point, your own problems, even big problems, will not be so significant. the result? Big increase in peace of mind. So, if you think only of yourself, only your own happiness, the result is actually less happiness. You get more anxiety, more fear."

This is a great book, if you are looking for a brief overview of the Buddhist religion, however, if you are looking for greater detail and understanding I would suggest some further reading on the subject.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


As I walked into the books store by my house to pick out this weeks book, I noticed a table near the front with a variety of titles stacked on top. Becoming curious why those specific books were singled out, I walked over to have a look, and began to read the plot summaries. Having recently been thinking about reading another mystery book, Private, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, caught my attention.

Private is the first title in a new series for Patterson featuring ex CIA agent Jack Morgan, who now works as a private investigator. After rebuilding his Father's agency, appropriately named Private, it becomes a global company which is where people turn when they need ”maximum force and maximum discretion”. Jack is already deep into the investigation of a multi-million dollar NFL gambling scandal and the unsolved slayings of 18 schoolgirls, when he learns of a horrific murder close to home: his best friend's wife, and Jack's former lover, has been killed. It nearly pushes him over the edge, but instead, Jack pushes back and devotes all of Private's resources to tracking down her killer.

Although the idea of having three mysteries going on at once seems like it would be very entertaining and suspenseful, there was just too much happening. It seemed like a promising start as we were introduced to the characters and the different plots, however as the pages went by, I began to feel like I was deprived of great detail and character development. In my mind, those are possibly two of the most important things, especially when is comes to mystery novels. Personally, I like having enough information that I can try to solve the mystery myself before the solution is revealed, but I was not able to do that here because the information was so scattered.

I am discovering that I have a hard time remembering characters if they are not described to me by the author. I don't mean their looks, that image forms over time as you grow to know the, I mean how the think and feel, how they react to situations, and what their morals and values are. The characters in Private had the potential to be intriguing and enthralling people, bonded together with intricate and complicated histories and relationships, but unfortunately we were left just short of these details. I would have liked to know more about Jacks Father and how he came to start Private, why Jack went to war, and ow he came to know and work with his team at Private. Basically what I'm saying is the characters were not fully developed. It was almost like reading the first draft of a story, where we are given just the basics or the skeleton, before all the editing and rewriting, where more and more detail, development, and description is added each time.

I have heard many good things about Patterson's older work, so don't write him off completely. My tip for this book, is read some of Patterson's other novels, for they seem to be much more popular among the fans and critics alike. Patterson and Paetro’s volume launches the Private series in the United States, while thriller authors overseas will be writing their own versions of the series, with Private London by Mark Pearson, and others to follow in writing Private Rome, Private Australia, and Private Amsterdam. Hopefully these titles will be available here as well, so my second tip is to read some of these, for it is a great introduction to the work of the overseas writers with whom you may have only a passing or limited familiarity with.