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

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

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Synopsis: Madeline has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything and has kept her in her house for 18 years.  But her isolation comes to an unexpected end when a family moves in next door.  

Reflection:

What does it mean to live?  To breath and be alive?  To experience the world and all its mysteries?  In Everything, Everything, the debut novel of Nicola Yoon, Madeline Whittier faces those questions with intensity.

Everything, Everything is a Young Adult novel full of teenage love, drama, and rebellion.  It follows the life of Madeline, a girl who has never in her memory been outside of her home due to a rare disease making her allergic to everything.  Yoon adeptly combines first person narrative and primary sources from Madeline like medical documents, emails, and IM’s to tell the story.  This is a very appealing technique to use for a young adult audience as it adds variety, maintains interest, and encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.  (As a former teacher, books that lend themselves to encouraging reading comprehension, like drawing conclusions, are great!)

Yoon’s style adds to the intensity of Madeline’s questions and pondering of the meaning of live.  Having lived a life of solitude and routine, everything changes when neighbors move in.  Olly, one of the neighbors and Madeline develop a friendship through the window, which leads to emailing, instant messaging, and permanently altering the course of Madeline’s life.

Since the neighbors are such a key component to the story, I think I should add that the ‘neighbors’ are the only thing that bothered me in Everything, Everything.  Not Olly or his family, who have an interested side story, but the fact that in the almost 18 years of living in her house, Madeline and her mom have only had neighbors twice and both for brief periods of time.  This would make sense if they lived in a not so good neighborhood, with abandoned homes, or in a vacation home area, but that is not the sense the reader is given.  The area seems higher end, it accommodates Madeline’s medical needs, her mom is a doctor, they can afford a nice home.  If it were a vacation home, people would be coming and going all the time and neighbors probably wouldn’t face Madeline, but that isn’t how it is presented.  Instead in the 18 years she has been there, they had a neighbor for a summer when she was eight, and now Olly’s family at 18.  Obviously, this is not a deal breaker for the book, just an oddity I had a hard time overcoming.  But perhaps I missed something or misread it, in which case please let me know!

Aside from having few neighbors and friends, Madeline struggles with the question “What does it mean to live?”  She discusses this with her nurse Carla and with Olly.  Is it just to be somewhat healthy, and breathing, or is it to be doing and experiencing things in the world with other people in the world?  Paired with that Madeline spends a lot of time thinking about ‘moments.’  For a while she is convinced a single moment led to her life of solitude and if she could find it and change it, her life would be completely different.  But would she have met the person who caused her to seek change if it was different?  She describes this as part of the chaos theory, which is one of the many times she displays her intelligence and thoughtfulness.

With the two broad concepts of what is life and moments in life, Everything, Everything goes from an entertaining Young Adult novel to a meaningful Young Adult novel that asks the same questions many of its readers contemplate.  I think Everything, Everything gives readers a lot to think about on those subjects and presents them in manageable ways.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Everything, Everything.  It had the elements of most popular Young Adult Fiction, but was, in my opinion, more interesting and valuable because of the questions and thoughts it provoked.

-M.R. Gavin

On Writing by Stephen King

Rating: 5 Stars

Synopsis: Best selling author Stephen King reveals some of his practices on good writing to help aspiring writers develop their toolbox.  He also tells stories of his life and their influence on his development as a writer.

Reflection:

On Writing by Stephen King is a combination memoir and how to writing book. Throughout the book King references many of his life experiences and how they led him to writing or impacted his writing practice. He also provides tips of the trade and a few things he found essential to the growth and development of his writing.
It was the tips that I found most interesting and most insightful into King’s life and writing process. Part of the reason I wanted to read On Writing was to see how King got started and what sort of routine he had for writing. Through anecdotal stories, he maintains his usual conversational tone, write in an easy to read fashion, and had me laughing out loud several times from both his antics and his commentary.
In the book, King takes a whole section to discuss the importance reading has to an author. He says the two most important things you can do to help yourself as a writer are: read all the time and write. While I have always been an active reader, I never listened to audiobooks. King suggested them for car rides. I recently took that suggestion and have been listening to audiobooks in the car and while walking my dogs. I think it is a great way to read some of the classics, which for me are often hard to focus on, plus many classics are in the public domain and free to listen to.
Another great tip from King it to write first with the door closed, then later with the door open. For him, he first opens his door to his “ideal reader” – his wife – and then to other friends. Finding your ideal reader is important to developing a story and to receiving valuable feedback. As the book progresses, he gives more specific tips and examples for the physical art and craft of writing; like: editing, avoiding adverbs, and having too many pronouns. He often tied each suggestion to a story in his life that taught it to him.
Finally, one of the things I found most interesting about On Writing is how it shows King’s writing process in action. The book took him years to write due to other novels, stories, and life interruptions. However, he makes it clear how essential writing is to his daily life, well-being, and happiness. I hope to put some of his suggestions to the test as I continue to develop my own writing.

-M.R. Gavin