Monthly Archives: March 2016

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

1st Quarter Blog Post (Pg. 1-102)

Unbroken. A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. This title perfectly captures that pervading sensation of enduring tribulation and ultimately coming out victorious. The real-life story of Louie Zamperini–Olympic runner, World War II pilot, POW survivor… His unbroken spirit, enduring no matter what comes his way, is a story that is truly inspiring. Laura Hillenbrand had crafted what seemed to be a whole new world out of the accounts of Louie Zamperini, Pillsbury, and others whom she had interviewed, and it is a world that already has me in its engrossing grasp.

I have to say that I came into this having first watched the movie. I knew that Louie was an Olympic runner, that he had been an airman in the service of the U.S. Army, that he along with his crew had crashed and become stranded in the Pacific, and that the Japanese had held him prisoner…But I had never expected what Hillenbrand could have captured within her account. Hillenbrand is truly one of the few authors who can write a non-fiction story in the most vivid and gripping way imaginable. Few are blessed with such a way with words as she. Instead of being solely flowery or overly embellished, her prose lies basely on research, witness accounts, and interviews, and yet never manages to be dull nor tiresome.

I must also express that I am writing this blog post currently poised at the edge of my seat. Though slow in the beginning (as it provides much of the background to Louie’s Olympic aspirations and career, and is sprinkled intermittently with information about the U.S. Air Force and the specific models of planes) it had built towards such an engrossing cliffhanger that I am helpless in its hold. I can definitely see signs of foreshadowing that would soon amount to Louie’s crash and subsequent experience as a Prisoner of War. “The Flying Coffin,” the gathering of arms by both Hitler and the Japanese people (45), the passing of the Zeppelin who “was not a great presence but a great absence, a geometric ocean of darkness that seemed to swallow heaven itself…” (5) Even though I know the gist of what is about to happen, I still cannot wait to see what will unfold next!

Additionally, something that I noticed almost immediately upon reading this book is Hillenbrand’s style of narration. To me, it seemed the perfect balance between fiction and nonfiction. Not only does it reiterates facts and or relevant information such as statistics to the audience, she offers up an inside look into both Louie’s brain, and others of whom she interviewed, presenting an all-encompassing point of view. One example of this intriguing style of narration would be the character of Jimmie. She first presents him as a close friend of Louie’s—a scholarly, learned yet quiet man. In later pages, she provides a hint to his true identity, writing “Jimmie Sasaki wasn’t what he seemed…[his] attempts to pass as a student were apparently an elaborate ruse.” (42) Her writing seemed a perfect balance between fiction and nonfiction, as presenting a myriad of plots all at the same time. One might find a description of Hitler preparing his army and the Japanese minister raising his people up in arms…Hillenbrand’s description of events are all encompassing—many happen at the same time, illustrating the gravity of each situation. Furthermore, I love the way she so seamlessly incorporates each quote into the passages, providing a far more comprehensive account of World War II.

Though the 1st quarter technically ended on page 102, just as the survival of the crew of the Super Man came into question, I must admit that I may have ‘cheated’ in this aspect. Her writing has truly been so “ferociously cinematic” (to quote People) that I couldn’t simply stop at this climactic point. To stop would have meant that burning, all-enveloping sensation of curiosity, and I simply couldn’t bear not knowing. Reading this has simply enveloped me within Louie’s world, and so far my venture into the novel has been much promising, and I can hardly wait to further devour these pages. It is almost as if Louie’s dreams—his hopes and fears, his awe-inspiring experiences have entrapped me within its influence–a ‘cage’ that I cannot escape until I have satisfied my curiosity. Yet another World War II novel to add to that ever-growing collection of stories that we’d read this year! Happy reading!

 

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Night by Elie Wiesel

When I first chose to read Night I was a little worried it’d be too similar to the many other books on WWII I’d read this year (I read three books during the summer and we’ve read three for this class). But it has proved to be a unique and different view of the tragedy. I love the way Wiesel weaves nuanced themes and metaphors into every chapter. He does this with the idea of optimism, the constant losses, and more. But he especially uses this tactic with the word “Night.” At the very start of the book, night is cleverly established as a symbol of Jewish suffering when Wiesel says, “by night I would run to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple,” (3). This symbol is used throughout the book any time a bad event occurs. The meeting happens right after “night fell,” (12). Right before Wiesel is transported it says “night had fallen,” (18). I was really delighted to see such an intricate metaphor in a non-fiction novel. I never though nonfiction could be so beautifully written! What made the night metaphor so amazing was that once the painful meaning of the night as established it helped me understand (ever so slightly) the horror of the concentration camps. The line “never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that
turned my life into one long night seven times sealed,” let me see the endless toil and torture of the camps (34). It made the hopelessness and darkness a little closer to something I can grasp.

Another interesting theme sprinkled about the beginning of the book is the eternal optimism the Jews seemed to possess. I (being an overly logical person with 20/20 hindsight) found the Jew’s level of optimism to be almost unbelievable. I can’t tell if the hopefulness was more of a hindrance or a help. On the one hand, it gave people a reason to hang on one day longer, like when Stein proclaims that knowing his children are alive is “The only thing that keeps me alive,” (45). On the other hand, optimism blurs reality and could make people impractical and less cognizant of the threat of the Nazis or other dangers. Optimism blinded the people of Hungary and dissuaded Jews from leaving. “The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out—and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling,” (10). I think the larger message is that no matter what one would like to believe reality will always destroy any delusion.

On the subject of delusions, I would like to discuss  how religion is affected in the camps. In Man’s Search For Meaning religious devotion is described as almost always increased upon entering a camp. Yet Wiesel continues changing between deep belief and total rejection of Judaism. At one point while everyone is saying the Kaddish he “felt anger rising within,” (33), and even asks ” why should I sanctify His name?” (33). Yet shortly thereafter he “found [him]self-whispering the words,” (34). I think he is angry for the terrible events he has to endure and is blaming G-d for these problems. But at the same time, he needs a source of comfort and hope, and this is why he feels an urge to pray. Prayer gives him stability and normality (and, dare I say, meaning) in his life. It lets him be a human with a community he shares something with. So he has to face a large internal conflict about wat to do. Whereas in MSM, he recognized that it was of no use to blame G-d. Hence (like with his other placebo cures) he figured one might as well believe.

I also found the use of the kaddish an interesting representation of Wiesel’s feelings toward G-d. The Kaddish is used to divide services into sections. There are a few different Kadishes with the exact same words, but totally different meaning. People are able to take the words and impose upon them their own feelings and losses. It shows how religion can be a blank slate for the feelings of a nation and a source of unification and a shared suffering. In my opinion, the messages in Night, as well as the intelligent writing and strong emotions make it a wonderfully sad book to read.

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The Boys in The Boat by Daniel Brown

This book seems to be pretty interesting so far. Although the beginning was kind of rough for me, I guess I caught up with the face moving pace of the novel pretty quickly. Also, I wanted to join the Lake Oswego Rowing Community in the beginning of the year, so I learned a lot about this vigorous sport through my reading. That said, Brown does a great job of portraying life during the Great Depression.

It was quite disheartening actually, to see time after time, the misery that the characters in the novel have to face, especially Joe. Everything from Joe losing his mother and getting abandoned, to Joyce losing her house and living under her oppressive parents, it is pretty clear that the main characters’ lives were miserable. For example, when Harry and Thula left Joe, “The lightbulbs hanging from the raters flickered on for a moment. Then they flickered off and stayed off” (Brown 58). Light symbolizes hope, so the fact that the lightbulb stayed off means that basically, there is no hope in living on. That dampens the mood quite a bit in the novel, although it was not the first time something bad happened to him. Additionally, the recurring image of a burned down house symbolizes the destruction of family and homes, which effectively illustrates how hard life was back then.

On a brighter note, there are many hints of hope in the novel though. On the epigraph of page 25, the narrator compares the giant trees of a forest to people and describes, “Looking at the annular rings of the wood, you can tell what seasons they have been through. In some drought years they almost perished, as growth is barely perceptible. In others, the growth was far greater”. Even though the trees experienced some harsh seasons, they managed to survive and still had hope in living. Furthering that, is the victorious race between Washington University and California. From the blue skies, to the sparkling water, to the subtitle of the novel, “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics”, it was pretty clear that Washington was going to win. I honestly did not feel any suspension while reading the part about the race. However, that event did make the story so much happier. It just shows how courage in the face of adversary really pays off.

On a side note, did anyone find it hard to follow the book at the beginning? I thought it was extremely difficult to keep track of all the characters and their names when the author jumped from one to the next in the first thirty pages or so.

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2nd Chance by James Patterson

I must say that I am writing this on the very edge of my seat, ready to dive into the rest of the novel. Patterson has worked his magic yet again by developing a frightening plot line that is so realistic it scares the reader enough to keep looking back over her shoulder once in awhile while she eagerly turns the next page.

One of the qualities in the first book that I enjoyed were the occasional chapters thrown in that were told from the killer’s perspective. Thankfully, Patterson brought these back in the second novel. These chapters help add a gruesome element to the novel mainly due to the revolting way in which the killer explains the joy he receives after killing his victims.

Additionally, the realism of the plot line, characters, and setting help readers connect to the novel. While I am not a police officer working in the Homicide Department, the way in which I, as a reader, am able to connect to the plot is astonishing. One place in the novel where I found very realistic was when Patterson writes after one of the main characters announced her pregnancy, “After a few giddy hugs” (Patterson 61). The word choice Patterson uses with “giddy” helps to perfectly capture this happy moment and I can immediately connect this with numerous other similar experiences.

In the first novel of the series, I noted how the romance was slightly distracting. Thankfully, there does not seem to be as much of a romantic component in this novel and instead there are events such as pregnancies which I greatly appreciate. Without romance distraction, I am able to focus more on the plot of the novel.

Since the main topic of the novel, murder, is very heavy for the reader, it is important for there to be some humor incorporated. After the killer made fools of the Homicide Department, Patterson writes, “‘One thing we learned.’ Jacobi smirked. ‘The SOB’s got a sense of humor.’ ‘I’m glad you are a fan,’ [Lindsay] said” (Patterson 74). The sarcasm which is used in this case help give the reader a chance to take a breath and reflect on the stressful previous chapters. However, it is this suspense which keeps the reader yearning for more, and it took much restraint to put down the novel. Keep up the suspense and sarcasm, Patterson.

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Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: pgs. 1-71

Hi everyone!  I hope you’re all enjoying the book and are having a good week!  If you’re not, then I hope it gets better.  🙂

First of all, Blink has been an extremely fascinating and engaging read for me.  Given the subject matter, I expected it to be interesting at least, but it also keeps my attention and goes by quickly.  I believe this is a result of the various anecdotes which Malcolm Gladwell employs to drive home his point, such as the stories about speed-dating, the gamblers and the card decks, and the bedroom experiment.  This technique, aside from retaining the reader’s interest, also allows the reader to apply Gladwell’s advice to real life.  At the same time, he connects each anecdote back to his original points, which is simply good essay-writing strategy.  (I wonder why our textbooks can’t be this interesting…must be against the law or something.)  Additionally, the tone of Gladwell’s writing is playful and sprinkled with sarcasm and humor, which helps lighten the weighty amounts of information and statistics.  All in all, I truly have not read another nonfiction book as impossible to put down as this one (well, I could put it down, but I didn’t want to).  True, the ideas are the focus rather than symbolism or character development, but I find that a refreshing change.

Aside from the style of Gladwell’s writing, his ideas are also incredibly eye-opening.  In all honesty, I had no idea that our unconscious minds played such a large role in our decision-making and in our actions.  For example, the concept of thin-slicing particularly appeals to me.  It does make sense; just as you learn a complicated mathematical concept by breaking it down, your brain also, without your knowledge, processes the important information in small bits and leads you to an answer.  It is impossible to look at the entire picture at once.  I remember Mr. Dennis telling us in ACS that it’s impossible to concentrate on all the information your senses are giving you at one moment of time, like the feeling of the socks on your feet and your hair against your face and the speck of dust on your binder.  This, he said, is your unconscious filtering through the information and letting you “zero in on what really matters” (34).  However, the truly amazing thing to me is people’s ability to know so much based on that meager bit of knowledge.  Gottman can “zero in” on the contempt in a marriage and determine its probability of success (kind of disturbing, if you’re a married couple).  Art experts can tell at a glance whether a statue is fake or not.  It all comes down to Gladwell’s “locked door,” which finds expression for Bernard Berenson upon viewing a fake art piece as “a curious ringing in his ears…a momentary depression” (51).  We humans pride ourselves on our rationality, yet we are so often irrational when we listen to these vague feelings.  Our minds are asking us to trust them blindly-do we listen?  It is so incredibly frustrating to me that we don’t know how we do this, yet analyzing the reason destroys the very ability we are trying to puzzle out.  Essentially, we must have faith in ourselves.  Is this ability what sets us apart from other animals, or is it a remnant of our animal instincts?  If it is the latter, then humans are peculiarly blessed (or cursed) with a conscious mind as well as an unconscious one.  For better or worse, we can think on our instincts.  Perhaps we really are “better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us” (61).  I hope mine has my best interests at heart.

Finally (yes I’m almost done), it is odd how incredibly sneaky our unconscious can be.  The priming experiments, for example, that could make you walk more slowly or be more patient or cooperative – those were stunning.  Perhaps this is where our values and preconceptions come from:  if you think about it, we are being “primed” our entire lives with ideas.  I have heard about babies being prepared for speaking a certain language from hearing the tones of voices outside the womb; is it so amazing that other influences in our worlds could prepare us for certain actions, no matter our ages?  We have a wealth of opinions and knowledge hidden in our unconscious, which is part of you even if you don’t know it. I wish I had known about my extra brain sooner.

Anyway, have fun reading everyone and enjoy the rest of the book!  I can’t wait to read the other blog posts!

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

     

First quarter: chapters 1-6

American Gods is an… interesting book.  After reading that it was about the conflict between the ‘old gods’ (Odin, Ibis, etc.) and the ‘new gods’ such as media and technology, I assumed that it would be a deep commentary on the American people.  After reading the first thirty or so pages, it became obvious that this story doesn’t have one underlying meaning beyond that we worship stocks and technology.  You can, of course, force a universal meaning upon it, but it’s not quite the same:

“Through the main character of the novel, Shadow, Neil Gaiman conveys to the reader that a struggle can destroy one’s individuality until they are simply a pawn of greater forces.”

“American Gods conveys that the American people are increasingly controlled by their insatiable appetite for material goods rather than values such as strength and valor, which are represented by the old gods.”

The meaning simply isn’t as obvious or powerful as that of To Kill A Mockingbird or Animal Farm.

That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying the book.  The plot is engaging, if you can get over the sheer randomness of it.  The title is magnificent.  From the first page of the novel, the characters are engaging, if not relatable.  But then the story just keeps on moving.  I would summarize the first quarter, but so much happens that it’s kind of a blur.  But hidden inside the weird plot twists are some really powerful statements or simply entertaining interactions.  Things like how Mr. Wednesday robs a bank.  Or when Mr. Wednesday says, “This is the only country in the world… that worries about what it is” (Gaiman 105).  The United States is so large and diverse that there isn’t one thing we can point to and say: “That’s American”.  We, as Americans, are simply a conglomeration of every part of the world.  Or when Shadow makes it snow simply by thinking of snow.  Does it mean that through belief we can accomplish anything?  Does it mean that reality is simply what we believe it to be?  At first I thought, probably not.  It probably means nothing–simply an anecdote.  But the more I think about the many stories contained in American Gods, the more amazing and meaningful the book is.

By far the most interesting part is at the very end of the first quarter.  Gaiman writes, “Then the lights went out, and Shadow saw the gods” (116).  Like the rest of the book, this could be interpreted in a multitude of ways.  It could be the obvious: that the lights were turned off, and Shadow literally saw, with his eyes, the gods.  It could mean that if we look beyond the obvious parts of our life, we are actually surrounded and controlled by gods such as honesty and bravery and intelligence.  That’s the best part of the book: that it’s so open to interpretation.  The next few pages were equally great.  Descriptions such as: “Shadow turned, slowly, streaming images of himself as he moved, frozen moments, each him captured in a fraction of a second, every tiny movement lasting for an infinite period… He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil moustache… and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin”… (Gaiman 117-118).  It’s like Percy Jackson on steroids but also with good writing.  You could take so many different meanings from it (not to mention that it’s astounding imagery), but the important part is simply that, so far, American Gods is an amazing story.

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