Monday, July 29, 2019

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Second Book Club, Book #4

This book was beautifully written. Whether or not you like novels within the military genre (I usually don't,) this is a must-read for the way the author weaves language together to create the perfect flow. 

Poignant words and powerful stories create a snapshot of the Vietnam War. Life over there, loss over there, survival over there. The emotional overload of war for any one person. A complete journey into war, from this most unique perspective. The realities of Vietnam aren't necessarily within the stories shared here, but the real feelings and fears, ups and downs are conveyed. You see into the puzzling experience war was for a young man, forced into a situation where the art of survival vastly changes.

As a collection of stories, The Things They Carried isn't about what actually happens to this one troop of soldiers, but rather what feelings evoked in you as the reader through your experience. O'Brien even goes so far to question the truthfulness of his own stories while he's telling them. What's true is of so little importance when compared with what was felt, what feelings never go away.

I think the point of this book is the same point that all war stories should have -- there's no moral. There's nothing to learn here about history or the human experience within war. We already know wars are horrible, and that Vietnam was a particular kind of harsh. We know soldiers came back traumatized and damaged in ways that an entire lifetime may not repair. What we're given here is what's often missing during war -- the connection between those really experiencing it and those continuing to live at home. Reaching out through the emotional baggage they're forced to carry into war and then bring home, we're given unique insight into this experience. It almost puts the residual effect of war, from a soldier's perspective, on a level, emotional playing field.

O'Brien's beautiful language and expertly composed stories didn't help me understand war, instead it opened the tiniest window into what it felt like to be there. That level of access, even through fiction, made such an impression and brought together an amazing read.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia

Book club book #6

I wish I was fluent in Spanish so I could have read this in its original language. As a beautiful story in English, I bet it really shines in its native tongue. As is, Murmur of Bees is an intense and emotional tale of an agricultural family in Mexico at the early part of the 20th Century. Part of the wealthier sect as land owners, the trajectory of their lives is forever altered by the discovery of a newborn boy, left by the side of the road, covered in bees.

Adopted into the network of workers, servants, and the boss' family, Simonopio and his bees settle into their own little space. He's a special boy who see things, feels things, understands his life is leading up to a very specific moment.

While we wait for that moment, time passes and huge things happen. The Spanish influenza ravages Mexico and takes a massive swipe at the population. Farming in this particular region transforms with the introduction of orange trees. Land ownership becomes a high-risk occupation as government agencies seize what they want, no questions asked. So many forces push against a successful and healthy life, but with Simonopio's help, his family thrives.

All along, Simonopio continues to grow and wait for his moment, which comes alongside a great sadness. He does what he must, sacrificing much in his continued devotion to the family that cares for him. Without his intervention, the family would have had a history full of suffering instead of just moments of intense strife.

This was a beautifully told story by an unlikely narrator, who isn't even born until halfway through the book. His deep insight into his family allows you to really understand the emotional toll life takes during this time in Mexico's history, along with understanding what some felt they had to do -- good and bad -- just to get through it all.

The author draws on the real history of Monterrey, Mexico and the small, surrounding towns, as the backdrop for a little magic, much love, and a level of familial devotion that creates a great read. The suspense, slowly woven in and built up, makes it a page-turner as well. The payoff is perfect too. You really do have to wait until the end for complete closure of this powerful tale. 

A little slow at the start, the book quickly picks up. You'll have a hard time putting it down before you know it as you get to know each member of the Morales family, whether bound by blood or by the land. It's an exciting read and one I highly recommend.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Second Book Club, Book #3

It takes a commitment to get all the way through this book. Five hundred pages isn't necessarily long, but this book is the definition of dense. This is one of the most detailed accounts of a single life I've seen. The sheer volume of life, Peekay, the main character, lives before reaching adulthood is overwhelming.

It's more than just what happens to Peekay throughout his childhood that got me, it's what he accomplishes. Born in South Africa as WWII settles in on the world, as a white, English person, he struggles with his place. He's hated by the Boer or Afrikaner whites, yet held as a superior to the black community, often referred to as The People. Each sect speaks their own variety of languages, honors their own superstitions, and manifests their own hate and prejudice. Peekay learns quickly that language helps bridge the gap and uses it to reach into the lives of others in a way that ultimately proves productive. He uses it to spearhead prison reform in his own town and help educate men in poor communities. It's also what makes him different, exposing him to pain, suffering, and abuse compounded by his heritage.

Starting out ignorant to the world, thrust into a community of young, aggressive boys, survival is hard for Peekay. Pain taints his early years at boarding school as he questions the best strategy for survival, but he makes it. With the help of some very intelligent, supportive, insightful, and kind individuals, Peekay learns how to not only get through the complicated life in South Africa, but how to thrive and inspire others. Education, compassion, and boxing end up serving as his tools, along with a willingness to challenge the system. As he gets older, Peekay becomes a symbol of a life where the lines between races blur and people help one another.

Through great sadness and great success, and a little luck, Peekay finds the power of one, the courage to be different and think for himself. It puts him into position to face down his biggest challenge and overcome his deepest pain. While the route he takes may be a little questionable in the end, this way of thinking sustains him through his childhood in a way that opens doors for his future.

This is a powerful book, exploring race in South Africa within the life of a single individual. A little disjointed in parts, with an ending I'm still on the fence about, if you've the time to put into this book, it's worth a read. I'd suggest getting a friend to read it with you though. I feel as if it's the kind of book you'll want to talk about as you go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Calypso by David Sedaris

Book club book #5

This is the first Sedaris book I've read, although they're a favorite to listen to on car trips. That being said, this is probably the first Sedaris book to have my undivided attention.

As a person, I love Sedaris' quirkiness and the ability he has to tell a really emotional story between the lines of his overly-comfortable-with-each-other family. He capitalizes on the sentiment of the old journalism lesson: Nobody wants to read a story about a dog biting the mailman, but if the mailman bites the dog, that's news!

Sedaris takes emotions we all feel -- loss, fear of aging, family strife, mental illness, obsession -- and wraps it up in a package of unconventional elements and silly sibling banter for truly entertaining tales.

Almost all of the stories in Calypso happen in, or include a visit to, Sedaris' vacation home. Aptly named the Sea Section, it's located on the Emerald Isle in North Carolina. It serves as a meeting place for his family since they've all spread out across the globe. Sedaris' homebase is in England. All of the stories illicit a smile or two, but my favorites revolve around the obsession contrived by the desire to please your FitBit and the idea that you could feed a benign tumor to a snapping turtle. 

The most touching element to the stories in this book is Sedaris' kindness. You can see it throughout his stories as he picks up trash in his hometown, buys a second home large enough for his entire family, interacts with fans while on tour, and cares for a wild fox, even though he's been told not to by his partner, Hugh. While the kindness isn't all-encompassing, Sedaris is vulnerable enough to show you where he might have slipped up, where he took the easier route of being cruel when maybe he didn't need to be, but more so there is his kind heart.

I don't really laugh when I read Sedaris. Classified as humor, his stories make me smile. They make me happy as I find the common thread that connects his experiences to my life, and that someone could tell that commonality in such an entertaining way. I don't think he's for everyone, but I do think he's worth a read if only to realize we all go through it, it's always awkward, and you're not the only one not totally comfortable in your life.