Night by Elie Wiesel

Rating: 5 Stars

Synopsis:  Elie Wiesel describes his experiences as a Jew during World War II, particularly his experiences in a concentration camp.  A terrifying, heartbreaking memoir of the final year of World War II.

Reflection:  Night is an intense memoir of the Holocaust as Elie Wiesel experienced it.  Despite the book’s short length, it provides an eye opening look into the horrors of the Holocaust.

Two things struck me while reading this book, which I read in basically one sitting.  First, the author’s loss of faith and second, the honesty of his descriptions.  From the opening moments of the book, Wiesel shows his reader everything.  He doesn’t overwrite; he doesn’t philosophize; he doesn’t create metaphorical images for the reader to unravel; he doesn’t make himself extra likeable or a hero.  He writes exactly what he saw with precise language and horrific simplicity.  The most gruesome scenes in the book occurred during his movements to and between camps.  Despite knowing every camp meant more death, he and the others always seemed to have some hope that relocation meant something better.  This hope, though vague and limited, made each arrival all the worse.  The thick black smoke, the mass graves, the hanging bodies, and the burning children are so clearly remembered by Wiesel.  He gives them to the reader to carry and remember – to share the burden he carries.

Wiesel’s loss of faith happens gradually during the war and in the camps.  The first time it seemed clear to me is when he loses faith in his father.  He is constantly worried about his father, and admits to wishing to no longer having that burden.  Wiesel shows that during the time in the camps, people lost so much outside of themselves that losing themselves became nearly inevitable.  The prisoners could only follow their instinct to survive.  With this he doubts his faith and questions God.  Despite his constant questioning, in nearly every moment of pain and stress he thought would break him and send him to the sky in the black clouds of smoke, he prayed.  Although the entire time in a concentration camp could easily be considered a breaking moment, Wiesel defines these moments and the occur less than one might imagine, but more than anyone should have to endure.

Night should be read by everyone.  It may not shed light onto the cause of the terrors Wiesel and some many others experience, but it demonstrates with clarity what can happen if power is left unchecked.  It serves to remind the world that these horrors happened; they must not be forgotten and we must work tirelessly to ensure nothing like that is repeated.

-M.R. Gavin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Rating: 2.5 Stars

Synopsis:  A.J. Fikry is a grumpy widower and bookstore owner.  His life changes when Maya crawls into it.  A heartwarming and easy read for any bibliophile.

Reflection:

As the title suggests, this is the story of the life of A.J. Fikry.  At least it is the “collected works” of his adult life.  A.J. is a man greatly impacted by his circumstances: traumatized by his wife’s death, compelled to care for an orphaned baby, forced out of his antisocial shell to become a “curator of culture” for his small town. He allows himself to influence and be influenced by those around him.  In my opinion, the characters are all a bit underdeveloped.  Ismay, the sister of A.J.’s dead wife, seems the most complex, Maya, A.J.’s adopted daughter, the most compelling, and Lambaise, a friend, the most likeable.

The structure and tone of the novel is light, pleasant, and easy to read.  This is where Zevin allows herself and A.J. to discuss the meaning and wonder of life.  Each chapter begins with a brief reflection of a short story A.J. has read.  These reflections are directed to Maya as suggested reading.  They also provide insight into the greater meaning of each short story and what A.J. hopes Maya will learn.  These snippits of A.J.’s writing provide insight into his character, and how he changes over the years.  Additionally, with the fast paced tone, Zevin skips over years of time that lack interest and highlight the events and times in A.J.’s and Maya’s life together.  At one point A.J. refers to life not as a novel or a short story, but as a collected work.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is structured just like that: collections of moments explaining and demonstrating who A.J is.

I would say this book gets its interest and intrigue from the structure of the book, the novelty of A.J.’s profession, and its appeal to bibliophiles.  A.J. owns the only bookstore on Alice Island; he is picky about the books he selects to sell and prefers quality literary fiction.  The novel discusses the challenges for book sellers and bibliophiles in the media age with e-readers, online buying, and lack of support for book retail in general.  These discussions are things book lovers have passionate opinions about.  A.J.’s life explores some of the day to day experiences of a bookseller meeting with sales reps, reading galleys, planning events, hosting book clubs.  For A.J. committing to these things changes his life and the lives of others in so many ways.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a quick and easy read.  While it was enjoyable, and used an interesting structure, I felt like the characters lacked enough development to make them compelling and the story felt gimmicky.

-M.R. Gavin

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Rating: 4 Stars

Synopsis: This is the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, a champion for education, particularly of ensuring women, children, and the poor are educated.  In 2012, she was attacked by the Taliban and shot.  Despite her injuries, she still fights for the right of all to learn.

Reflection: I Am Malala, written by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb chronicles the life of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012.  This autobiography sheds light on the unsettled political state of Pakistan, the impact of the Taliban and outside countries, and the state of education in Pakistan.  Malala’s goal is to promote education for all children, regardless of their sex, race, political views, or socio-economic position.  

Yousafzai, does an excellent job telling her story and including important historical facts that had an impact on how her life and the lives of many in Pakistan have proceeded.  For example, before even talking about her own life, she discusses the upbringing of her parents and grandparents: where they are from, how they lived, what they believed.  In addition, she takes time to explain important historical occurrences and political changes impacting Pakistan during and prior to her lifetime.  The political climate has been unsettled for most of modern history.  Pakistan has been used as a proxy in several wars, by countries of much greater wealth.  She clearly describes the oppression Pakistan has suffered.  While reading about Malala’s home in Swat, the reader learns how the people of Pakistan have been oppressed.  A lack of resources, a lack of education all contribute to a cycle of oppression.  This part of her story allows the reader to understand the life that Malala and many others are experiencing.  It made me consider my own life, my perspective, and my privilege.  

While Malala tells the story of her upbringing and mixes it with the history and politics of Pakistan, she integrates the memories and perspectives of others into her story as well.  Malala was shot in the head on the bus home from school in October, 2012.  It is not a spoiler that this occurred or that she survived.  However, I was surprised she tells her story entirely in first person.  Generally speaking when someone experiences a traumatic injury, his or her memory of the incident itself is spotty at best, and often non-existent.  Malala doesn’t remember anything other than being with her friends on the bus, and waking up in a hospital in Europe.  Everything else is fuzzy.  Yousafzai and Christina Lamb do an excellent job integrating what Malala does recall – include her false memories – with the experiences of those close to her at the time: her mother and father, her teacher, and her doctors.  This provides a holistic view of the event without disturbing the first person prose of Malala’s story.  She relates the facts of what happened in what feels like a retelling of a story told to her.  She specifically refers to the feelings of her father and mother, their hopes, their doubts, and their prayers to enlighten the reader’s understanding of the faith, luck, and science involved in saving Malala’s life.

This is an incredible story.  I recommend this book to anyone who values education for all, for young women and men fighting for equal rights, for educators, for students, for those who simply wish to read an inspirational book.  As a former educator in a low-income, high-needs area, I thought this book would help me understand what my students need or want.  In truth, it didn’t meet that expectation, but it made me realize how lucky my students and I are to have the opportunity to learn.  Not all of my students value education in the same way Malala does, and many people her book do not value it in the same way.  That is where I see the greatest need for change.  Education should not be for only the privileged, or the wealthy, or the western nations.  Education must be for all.  Parents must be encouraged to support their children’s education.  Malala was taught the value of education and didn’t waste one minute of it.  I think often times, students who have the opportunity for school view it as an obligation, instead of something to be coveted.  Malala calls everyone to arms, to support the education of all people, young and old, poor and rich, male and female.  That begins with every individual person taking stock in the education they have and supporting the ones they love to see the value in education every day.

-M.R. Gavin

Dying

2.  You find out that you will die in five years or less. How do you find this out?  What do you do with those last five years? (Andrew Kinder, 1000 Awesome Writing Prompts)

 

We ArE coMinG fOr You.  yOu HavE fiVe YeaRs leFt to liVe.  ThEN youR DeBt is DuE.

 

I reread the magazine letter clipped note again.  I found it on my door four years earlier.  I knew who it was from, I knew why it was there, and I knew without a doubt in one year, I would be dead.  When I first got the note, I didn’t believe it.  They couldn’t have found me.  We made a deal, but then I hid, changed my name, my looks, moved across the world.  I hid the note for a long time from my wife.  She wouldn’t understand the deal, or the death sentence.  She would be devastated.  Last year I told her.

I woke up, took out the note and set it on the bed.  I went to make coffee and bring her a cup to help get through the conversation we were about to have.  She was awake when I returned, but hadn’t seen the note. It had fallen to the floor.  It was my chance to just let it go, to die in two years and have her find out and mourn for me the way most widows do.  The burden was too much.  I needed to tell someone.  Picking the note off the floor, I handed it to her.  

“What’s this?” she said, her smile fading as she read it.  

“What is this?  Is this some kind of joke?”  I took her hand, and started talking.  I was amazed at the pace I used to explain everything.  When I was finished, tears rolled down her cheeks, and she asked the one question I knew she needed to know, but I didn’t want to answer.

“How long ago did you receive this letter? You are too calm for it have been today.  Please don’t tell me it was five years ago.”  

“No,” I said, “It was three.  I have two more years.”  

We spent the rest of the morning in bed.  Her asking me questions, me being completely honest about my past, and the dogs snoring.  Around noon, I dozed off.  When I awoke, she was gone.  For a moment I thought she left me and was gone for good, but then I heard bustling downstairs and her voice as she chastised the dogs for barking.  

I got myself ready for the day, and went downstairs.  Across our table where maps, and travel books, her computer had  thirty-two tabs open to different hotels and cities.  

“What is this?” I asked.  

“You have two years right?” she said

“Can we not talk about this anymore?”

“You have two years?”

I nodded.

“Then that simply ruins all the plans I had for traveling together when we retire, because you will be gone by then.  So I have decided that we will spend the next two years in retirement, and when you are gone and I have mourned you, I will go back to work.  I’ve already checked the retirement accounts, we have enough sitting in our life insurance.  We can do it. We can travel wherever we want.” She said.

“What if I want to stay here and just see you?”

“Cheesy. I will allot time for us to relax at home.”  She proceeded to tell me her list of places to visit over the next two years.  She asked if there was anywhere I wanted to add.  I told her no.  Then came what I was waiting for:

“In exactly two years we will be in Tokyo.  Amidst millions of other people.  They will just have to wait until we get home for you to pay your debt. Or maybe they will just give up and leave you alone.”

“That’s not how it works, sweetie.  If that’s what all this is about, I appreciate it, but no matter where I am,  two years from today they will get what they are owed.”

She sighed, more tears flowed.

“Well,” she said at least, “get the checkbook, this is too much for me to organize without a professional’s assistance. We are going to the travel agent.”

A year has past since that day.  Right now we are on some private tropical beach in the Pacific.  There are others on the island, but this beach hut and white sand shore we have completely to ourselves.  She made me promise never to reminder her how much time was left, but to pretend that this two year vacation is infinite.  She even went as far as to plan – although not book – trips after the two year mark to make it seem real.  

Maybe she thinks it is real.  Maybe it is what she needs to wake up and not cry, but I know she sometimes does.  Whatever the next year holds, in one year I will be home – I made her promise to have us at home – and then, I will be gone and she will be free.

-M.R. Gavin

The Vessel

The Vessel: Write about a ship or other vehicle that can take you somewhere different from where you are now. (365 Creative Writing Prompts)

Colorful paper hangs on the walls highlighting the things I have tried to embed in my students over the course of the year.  My desk is cluttered with papers needing grading, broken pencils, and drawings given to me by my students.  While I want to feel enlightened, positive and smiling like the posters on the classroom wall, I feel far more like my desk – drowning in clutter and monotony.  

Any teacher will tell you the challenges of teaching, the  work at home, the pressure of standardized tests, the behaviors of students, but I want to tell you the secret wish of teachers – or at least of myself.  To leave.  To get up from behind the piles of grading and planning, to be staring at a room full of faces that aren’t listening, to drop the white board marker or chalk in hand and to walk out.  

Now under normal circumstances, I would never even consider doing this, despite my wish.  Students may be a pain, but I am committed to my job.  I chose it after all.  But this is not a story of normal circumstances.  This is a story  of the day things changed, of the day my wish came true and I left.

The morning started as normal, students shuffling in, grabbing a breakfast bag, talking loudly across the classroom, while I walked around and chatted with them.  After eating, we moved right along and began vocabulary.  Coincidentally, one of our words was “wanderlust.”  We discussed its meaning and where we might go.  Many of my students have never left the city.  With that their concept of the world and all its possibilities are limited.  Some said they would want to travel “downtown,” other expressed interest in New York City, Atlanta, and Disney World.  One student said he would want to travel to Japan.  

Lanae asked, “Where would you want to go?”  

The question caught me off guard, although it shouldn’t have, my students always almost ask me the same questions they are encouraged to ponder.

“Well,” I replied, “there are so many places I haven’t been or seen, I would want to travel everywhere.  All across the United States, all across the world.  There are so many things I would be interested in seeing and learning about.  It would probably make me a better teacher.”

The students considered this, and we moved on to our next word.  The day continued uneventful.  We read our novel, The World According to Humphrey, the students went to gym, and to lunch.  

After lunch the day started to get weird.  When I picked my students up, I was angry.  Three of them had been throwing food, which is a big deal and were in a lot of trouble.  Someone else had one of their snacks stolen and we couldn’t figure out who did it.  The rest of the class was talkative, amplified by all the things that had happened at lunch.  It gave lots of fuel for conversations, arguments, and accusations.  Nonetheless, we tried to continue with our day.  While the lesson progressed I glanced out the window regularly.  What had been a beautiful spring day was becoming overcast.  Rain was almost a guarantee, meaning no outdoor recess – the highlight of the day.  There was a lot of noise in the hall.  Students, feet, grumbling.  All of the sudden the sound turned into more of a rushing of wind.  I could see the trees blowing outside, but that did not explain the blowing coming from the hallway.  The whooshing got louder.  Even my students began to notice the change.  Some anxiously looked out the windows.  Several tried to get out of their seats to look out the door.

The howling wind slowed, but a sloshing sound took over, a trickle of water started coming through the door.  I looked into the hallway, but in front of the normal brick and locker covered walls, was several feet of water and a large pirate esque boat.  I blink.  My jaw dropped.  

Edward said, “What’s going on?”  

“I don’t know,” I replied.  

I felt a pull toward the ship.  An urge to open the door and leave.  I always wanted to, didn’t I?  Was this my opportunity?  I had to take it, but I paused.  Where would it go? Why was there no announcements?  Why was there no administration in the hall?Despite my questions, the ship tugged at my body and soul, my hand tightened on the door knob.  I turned to face my class with a smile.  

“Line up silently.  We are going on a field trip.”  

I don’t know what made me line them.  Perhaps it was faith in something amazing happening.  Perhaps it was momentary insanity.  Perhaps it was the feeling of responsibility that came with being a teacher.  

The students at the front of the line could now see what made my jaw drop.  There eyes were wide with wonder and awe; some were shocked with disbelief.  But each of them trusting me.  

I said, “Something magical is happening.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think it is important that we embrace this opportunity.  It could be scary; it might be a little dangerous.  You must listen and follow my directions no matter what.  If you don’t want to participate, I will send you to the other second grade.”  

No one protested.  The class was quietest they had been in days.  

“Ready?”  

“Yes!” Some shouted.  

I turned the knob and pushed the door open.  It didn’t resist despite the water.  

A voice yelled from the ship, “A’HOY!  Are you looking for adventure?”  

Edward shouted back, “Are you a pirate?!”  “Come aboard and find out,” he offered.  A plank emerged from the side of the boat and stopped at our door.  I boarded and counted each student as they followed.  

The man appeared in front of us, at the wheel of the boat.  He had a white sailor’s cap and a blue pea coat.  

“You don’t look like a pirate,” sighed Edward.  

“No,” said the man, “but I can show you anything in the world on this ship.  We can sail across oceans, fly over mountains, float into space.  That must be a fair bit better than sitting in a boring classroom.  Where shall we go first?”

A myriad of answers was flown from my students, but the man looked at me.  

“We want to see everything.  How much time do we have?”  

“I can get you everyday.”  

“Then let’s get started.”  

He smiled and the wind began to howl. The student held onto the polished wood railings, the white sails billowed in the wind, and suddenly we were flying over America. Perhaps I could escape and be a good teacher at the same time.  Only time will tell.

-M.R. Gavin

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Rating: 4 Stars

Synopsis:  Harry Potter is now an adult, struggling to relate to his middle son and working to maintain the safety of the wizarding world.  Albus Severus tries to balance being Harry Potter’s son with his house placement and friends at Hogwarts.  And  a follower of Voldemort threatens to dismantle the wizarding world again.

Reflection:

As it is about a year since the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, why not share my reflections on the play.  This story is a follow up to fantastic Harry Potter Series, which I and innumerable others grew up with.  It takes place in Harry’s adult life and focuses on his own child, Albus Severus.  I thoroughly enjoyed Cursed Child.  Written as a play, it is a fast paced story, but clearly written with readers in mind.  It lacks most typical stage directions, included more description of the characters’ feelings, and gave insight into the characters’ thoughts.  To be fair, this is the first play I have read written after 1990, so this could be the typical style now.  I really don’t have the background to say.

In addition to being written in a different format, it also seems to be written for a different audience of readers, or rather the same audience who has simply matured and reached adulthood. Although parts of the story appeal to a younger audience (many scenes featuring Albus and his friend, Scorpio), the play is equally paired with more mature scenes of Harry struggling with how to be a good father and keep the wizarding world safe.  Having reached adulthood myself, this created an interesting dynamic of a child’s innocence and rebellion, parallelling the original novels, and an adult’s diplomatic sense of the world, responsibilities, and relationships.

Another interesting shift was Ron Weasley’s character.  While he was always the goofiest of the original trio, he was often emotional and jealous.  However, in adulthood his goofiness has multiplied, and his jealousy declined.  A hint of begrudging attitude from youth resurfaces during interactions with Draco Malfoy.  Even in these moment of animosity, Ron provides a needed comic relief to the adult scenes and proves to be well on his way to being the king of dad jokes.

Overall, I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  I enjoyed the emotions it brought back to me as an adult reader and the questions it provoked.  I must admit though, I hope this story is the final chapter for Harry, as anything else may feel too forced and lack the genuineness that made Harry Potter so influential to readers over the past two decades.  I leave with one final thought.  A question that has been weighing in my mind for almost a year now: Who is the cursed child?  Is it Albus or perhaps Delphi?  Could it still be Harry, or Cedric, or Scorpio?  Perhaps even Voldemort?  I think extensive arguments could be made supporting all of these characters as the cursed child, so to whom does the title refer.

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  I would love to discuss this story further with other Harry Potter fans!

-M.R. Gavin

Unrequited Love

Unrequited love: How do you feel when you love someone who does not love you back? (365 Creative Writing Prompts)

Unrequited love it the topic of many stories, novels, and poems from all periods of writing.  Fortunately, I don’t think I have ever felt that way.  The man I love has loved me for just as long; prior to that my loves were real, but also shared.  Anything prior was a childhood crush, and I honestly don’t remember those feelings – I was too busy playing and reading to care.  Below is my attempt at a description for unrequited love.

I stared at him from across the room.  Sitting with me were my girlfriends, chatting, snacking, and drinking.  They were all fortunate enough to have someone special in their lives, but I still searched for mine.  Sure, there had been flings.  A date here, an overnight guest there, but nothing lasting.  Nothing like the loves – or even one night stands – I read about or saw in the movies.  I desperately searched for a man who made my heart race every time I glanced at him, but stopped my heart every time he looked at me; for a gentleman with class, a strong man who could protect, a working man who could provide, a humble man who would support.  And of course be gorgeous.  

This was that guy.  Tall, dark, handsome, just as they say.  We worked together, but didn’t interact much.  But from our coworkers weekly happy hours, I had learned enough about him to be completely smitten.  He was the perfect combination of modest, but confident, hints of self deprecating humor, an adorable, but goofy smile.  He was well over 6 feet tall, with an athletic build, little bit of stubble on his chin, and dark hair.  

From across the room, I watched him sitting at the bar as I did every week. He and another coworker downed some beer and cheered when their team scored.  I wondered who his favorite team was; knowing that could help me start a conversation.  My friends were chuckling, I joined in too late and made it awkward.  But, my mind was elsewhere: imagining a life with him, pretending to be married, to have children, and then to grow old and gray.   

Suddenly, he turned in my direction; he looked right at me.  My heart stopped, but he wasn’t looking at me – he was looking through me.  A tall, blond bombshell with cleavage twice the amount of mine walked past me and straight to him.  Instead of an increased heart rate, my heart dropped.  I turned to look at my friend across from me – praying that it looked like I had been watching the game and returned to my conversation.  I looked at the window, saw my reflection and faded smile.  He welcomed the blonde with a passionate kiss and ordered her a  drink.  He had the most gorgeous smile and pearly white teeth.  He had no clue who I was, or that I was head over heels for him.  He had someone – someone of model proportions.  I felt myself slipping into ice cold water, everything slowing down, my head spinning.  If he only would talk to me, he would realize how perfect we could be.  He would leave the blonde for me, but I would never have the guts to go up to him.  So here I sit frozen, until the next fling and distraction comes along.

-M.R. Gavin