We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

we were the lucky ones

Addy Kurc tried desperately to make it home from France to his small Polish town of Radom for Passover, but in March of 1939, as Hitler and his German army was blocking travel through Europe, this was not to be.  The Kurc family tried to feign normalcy, going through the familiar seder rituals, but each of the members of this tight-knit family sensed that there was something about to change in their world.  Never, could they have imagined the horrors they would be facing, however, as Poland would be complicit in the anihiliation of millions of Jewish people along with Germany.  And never would they believe how far they’d travel and how many years it would be until they would be celebrating Passover together again as a Kurc family.

I wasn’t looking for a Holocaust novel, and when I realized that that is what this was, I almost put it aside.  But the writing was so compelling I couldn’t.  There was something about this story, about these characters, that I had to continue with it.  I had to know if Addy was reunited with his family.  I had to know if each of his siblings (and there were 5 altogether) survived the war, and if his baby niece actually made it through as well.  And how, if it were at all possible, would his parents survive the war, as they were elderly although not frail when the war broke out.  The characters were very compelling and each went through such harrowing experiences.

And that was even before I knew that the story was true!  Addy was the grandfather of the author!

I know that especially in this very difficult time, when we hear about hate in the news almost every day, with racial tensions, police brutality, shootings, and hate and bias incidents, it is hard to read about the Holocaust.  On the other hand, I feel it is crucial in this time not to forget what it can grow to be.  We cannot  get complacent and think the it can’t get there again.

That’s what they believed in Radom in 1939.

 

The Telomere Effect by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel

telomere effect

This is science at its most glorious.  What these two brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning researchers manage to do between the covers of these non-fiction pages is to bring their crucial medical findings from their laboratory into your home.  And what they’ve found is how to keep yourself healthier, longer.

The telomere is a part of the chromosome that is involved in the aging process.  In short, the telomere is to the chromosome as the aglet is to the shoelace – it functions to protect the chromosome from wear and tear.  As one ages, one’s telomeres become shorter and less effective.  When this occurs one becomes more prone to inflammatory conditions, infections, and even death.

So what do we do about this?  Fortunately, the doctors provide a great deal of research that shows that if we take care of ourselves, eat healthfully, sleep well, and so on, we can improve the condition of our telomeres.  So what is the value of this?  Is this not intuitive?

Well, no, it’s not.  So many give up and say that genetics predetermine how long they will live and how long they will remain healthy and it doesn’t matter what we do in the meantime.  This research shows how and why it actually does matter how we care for ourselves – how mindful we are, how we exercise, how we sleep – it all matters.

And one very striking takeaway:  How one approaches stressors has an impact on one’s telomeres.  If you feel oppressed by your stressors and maintain a negative attitude, you will have shorter telomeres; however, if you view stressors as “challenges”and keep a can-do attitude instead, your telomeres will be longer and more robust.  It will even help you look younger!

This is a fascinating read that is full of science, but made accessible by excellent, clear, vey understandable writing.  Highly recommend!!

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

rising out of hatred

Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

coddling of american mind

For anyone who works with or parents a young person who has entered college starting the year 2013, you will have noticed a difference from those who started at any time prior.  There is a rate of anxiety unlike any generation that has preceded it – and it is compounded by parents who perpetuate the sense of fragility that these students have by continuing to overprotect them and college administrations who do the same.  Why?  The researchers who have written this book give explanations based on the following 3 “untruths” that get perpetuated by these parents and college administrators:

  1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.  (Actually – it makes you stronger.  But we still strive to shield our young from any and all potential harm.  This of course deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with adversity.)
  2. Always trust your feelings.  (NO!  Our feelings are often inaccurate.  We need to explore and learn and find that there really isn’t a ghost hiding under the bed, and that girl over there looking at us might not hate us, but might just be shy herself.  We need to look at facts, not at just our own perceptions.)
  3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.  (This may be the most dangerous of the untruths, creating the us-vs-them mentality that informs the current toxic discourse on college campuses today.  There is so much more intolerance of opposing views and so much less ability to have civil conversation about anything at all controversial that even professors are shying away from anything that may smack of real import in their classrooms.  This is actually a threat to education itself.)

The book expounds upon these ideas, given fascinating – and often appalling – examples of real incidents on college campuses and some high schools where these theories and ideas have come about.  They also expound upon what might have caused this situation and what might improve it.

As someone who not only has children exactly this age and who works professionally with students at a college, I fully appreciate the message of this book.  It is a harsh statement about how restricting free play time, scheduling so many activities, making the college application process so all-consuming that it has to start in preschool (!) — this takes away from a persons ability to develop normal self sufficiency.  There is no room for failure from which to learn valuable life lessons.  And when we don’t learn how to fail, we don’t learn that we can ever be wrong – and that is quite dangerous.

This is an outstanding book that I have to recommend as a MUST READ!

Hunger by Roxane Gay

hunger

This memoir by Roxane Gay — an author, celebrated feminist, and educator — is the story of her experience as a person going through life extremely fat.  She reveals early on that she had been raped at the young age of 12 years, and, sadly, did not feel able to tell anyone about it for years.  Her way of coping was to eat in order to gain weight, to make herself unappealing so that she would protect herself from letting that ever happen again.  Unfortunately, it also had an impact on everything else in her life as well.

While the book does tell the story of her life, regrettably it does so in a very rambling, stream-of-consciousness sort of way that is extraordinarily repetitive.  There are segments that wind back around to prior themes and scenes that are repeated over and over again, much like her thoughts.

Nevertheless, it is also extremely enlightening and enables the reader to really understand and what it means to be in the shoes of someone who, as she describes, takes up the space that she does.  Her descriptions of having to research restaurants in advance to assess the seating situation, for example, is something that I might not have appreciated.  Because of her size, she cannot feel comfortable in most chairs with arms, nor in most booths that have a fixed distance between the seat and the table.  Hence, she checks that there will be seating that can accommodate her before she will go to a particular restaurant.  Sometimes, when she doesn’t, and she has to sit in a chair with arms, she sustains bruises that cause her pain that can last for days.

This broke my heart.

There is a daily onslaught of taunts, sidebar commentary from strangers, suggestions – people even taking items out of her shopping cart at the supermarket!  Having to endure the humiliations that people throw at her, both intentionally and unintentionally is both unfair and relentless.

So while the writing and probably more so the editing of this book is not ideal, I think the author is incredibly brave in sharing her experience with all of us.  I think it is important for people to understand how it feels to walk in her shoes so that we can all be a little kinder to those who are different sizes than we are.

 

 

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killers of the flower moon

In the late 1800’s, the Osage tribe was forced onto what was thought to be a no-man’s land in Oklahoma.  At first, they lived there in poverty, but made the best of things.  When it was discovered that oil lay below their land, however, the Osage people quickly amassed a huge amount of wealth.  This brought with it, as it often does, great tragedy.  By the 1920’s came what has been called the Reign of Terror, during which many Osage tribespeople were killed for their inheritances because of this new wealth.  Worst, however, was the breadth of the corruption and cooperation among the law enforcement and the justice system at the time, mainly because of the overriding racism toward Native Americans.  It took Agent White, of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the helm of a young J. Edgar Hoover, to uncover the underbelly of the evil of what was going on – and still there was mystery around what really happened.

The story written about here is complicated.  It is a fascinating one, highlighting the development of crime investigation, as it was really at its infancy when these killings started.  It is also one of historical details, illuminating the beginnings of the FBI and how it began as an agency under J Edgar Hoover.  Really, though, it is another horribly shameful example in the history of our country, where racism enabled evildoers to perpetrate crimes with impunity against a group of people — similar to what we see today, sadly.

The writing of this story was a bit choppy and at times confusing; however, I imagine that combing through the years worth of documentation that the author had to search through, organizing all of the details into a linear pathway was a monumental feat.  Moreover, while telling this story more like a novel might have been a little more readable, it might have taken away from the credibility of the story.   The true beauty of this story, I feel, is that the author is honoring the poor victims of this ugly era by relaying this story as authentically as possible.  (The photos included really add to this in a huge way as well.)

To all you historians, this is especially for you.

 

 

The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

forever letter

Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!