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