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!!

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

the light we lost

This is a love story that starts, ironically, when the world feels like it might end – in New York City, on 9/11/01.  Lucy and Gabe feel it too – they reach for each other, barely knowing each other, and then it’s over.  But years later, when they meet again, the spark is reignited, and this begins a heartbreaker for Lucy that she endures quite in spite of herself.

The voice is what is unique in this story and I think is what engages the reader.  It is written from Lucy to Gabe, almost as a letter, which gives it a very intimate feel.  On the other hand, because we only hear Lucy’s voice, it can sometimes feel one-dimensional.  There is no layering of the plot, but rather a single-mindedness of the narrative becomes almost droning as the novel progresses.

What is more deeply troubling about this novel, however, is that once again,  the outwardly independent female character is bound to a male character and jumps to his beck and call each and every time.  I felt myself literally growing angry as Lucy again and again fell into this same pattern.  While Lucy does not go with Gabe when he needs to travel for his life work – hurrah for her –  she then pines for him throughout the rest of the book, answering his calls whenever he deigns to reach out and dropping everything for him when he needs her.  (Really?  We’ve not moved past that?). And while she notices when her new boyfriend, Darren, makes plans without her input- and gets angry about it – she never stands up to him or says anything about it.  Why can’t our female characters be unequivocally strong?  I’m tired of this.

I think this book was off to a great start, and had great potential but was just disappointing on multiple levels.  Oh, well!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge of clay

Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, has proven once again to be part writer, part poet, and part craftsman in his newest, breathtaking novel.  The story is about 5 brothers who are raising each other, the parents who raised them first, and the complicated history of how these parents came to be.  It is a story of love and relationships and loss and not really coping and, well, trying to cope;   And while its a bit of an effort to get to know each of the characters at first (as in real life), it’s ultimately well worth the time.

The narrative here is stunning – and must be appreciated for its understated beauty.  There is raw emotion and silence and pain and beauty and love and everything in between that is utterly palpable and with a feeling of air between each word so that the reader has time to experience each of these right there beside each character.  Each word, each sentence is painstakingly chosen and there is poetry on each page of this prose.  By the later chapters, the reader feels the characters are so real that one might just walk in and sit on the couch and watch the bad, 1980’s movies with the boys and tussle with them as they do with each other.  And the love of storytelling by the main character, Clay, allows for the  actual storyteller, Matthew (the oldest brother) to switch gracefully back and forth between the boys’ adventures and the parents’ earlier experiences so that have the privilege of getting to know all of them.

But be warned – it is a slow start and a bit beyond midway it feels like it is finished when it is not.  This book requires patience and calm.  But like most things in life, patience is heartily rewarded here.  I literally could not speak for awhile after reading the ending of this story, feeling absolutely washed over by its utter warmth and love.

This is a masterpiece of subtlety and a very large poem of the heart.

I hope will allow yourself the privilege of loving it as I did.

 

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!

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

no one can pronounce my name

Harit does not imagine how he will ever escape the droll and bizarre routine of his life, working in Men’s Accessories in a department store with the tedious and talkative Teddy, and then on returning home each day, having to dress as his dead sister for his mother to appease her denial of the death.  This just seems to be his life.  Likewise,, on the other side of their Cleveland suburb,  Ranjana is questioning how she should adapt to what she has found on her husband’s search history on their shared computer, which suggests the possibility of an affair.  Now that their one son is off to Princeton, does this mean that their life together will change?  Not that she’s been all that satisfied, as she’s had to express herself through the writing which she’s all but hidden from everyone but her little writing group that she sneaks off to once a week.  Eventually, her world collides with Harit’s in an unusual way, and the two of them find what friendship really means and how deeply it can enrich their lives and enable each of them to grow into their best selves.

This is a very quirky, sweet novel that highlights the immigrant experience and shows how important it is to find community and support from others.  Neither of these characters has just arrived to the United States and neither is young, but both are still grappling with finding themselves in the context of their families and their histories, given their own talents, limitations, and orientations.  They each reach out for friendship and learn that it may be hard to find honesty where you hope to find it.

I believe the strength of this story rests in the character development, as each character is rich and layered and colorful.  Each one is traced out at different times in the story and we travel through time and country with each as they track back to the center of the action, successfully reinvigorating the story with a new understanding of each character. It is similar to the experience of getting to know those in our own lives as we ask more and more about them and learn more and more about their past.

This is an interesting read – colorful, quirky and sweet.  Enjoy!

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!