Friday, December 27, 2013

My Story, Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart

Ok. Reading this back to back with Malala's book was crazy. Although I didn't time when the books would come from being on hold at the library that's how it went. This book was a crazy page turner. I finished it in 2 days, mostly because I didn't feel I could live her ordeal in any more time than was necessary. While hard to read, I decided that if Elizabeth needed to write about it, then people needed to read about it. I remember hearing the chilling news about a young Salt Lake girl being kidnapped from her home. And I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the joyous news that she had been found! I remember praying for her, after her abduction, during her time missing (even when statistics said she was likely dead), and even more insistently when she was returned that the events would not traumatize her or haunt her for the rest of her life. What happened to her could be rated Explicit. It was not enjoyable to read. But like I said, if she needed it out there, it needs to be read. And the lessons in it are amazing.

This, like the story of Louis Zamperini in "Unbroken" can leave you in no other state than one of deepest humility and gratitude with a determination to be more grateful for everything you have, to show your love to those you love more often, and to be more forgiving instead of vengeful. Which I think is needed today in a world where one of the most watched television series is "Revenge" (yes, I watch it...but it's really in hope that they pain the road to revenge as one that the main character should never have pursued and how it stole her life and happiness when she could have just let go and lived a happier life).

If you don't know the story of Elizabeth Smart, you are either too young to remember when it all happened 10-11 years ago or maybe you lived in a cave at the time. But just a recap; 14 year old Elizabeth was kidnapped in the middle of the night from her bed where she shared a room with her younger sister. She was kept prisoner for 9 months. Her captor, Brian David Mitchell, one of the most evil men to walk this earth, a master manipulator pretending to be delusional, "married" himself to her and subject her to sexual abuse on a daily basis, forced her to view the hardest core pornography and his own personal "demonstrations" forced drug and alcohol consumption, subject her to neglect of starvation, no water, and very little regard to hygiene for anyone. His wife, Wanda Barzee, was accomplice to this as she never tried to protect Elizabeth and had some previous wicked acts to her name as well. And worse, he tried to take over her mind with fear and succeeded enough to make her feel like she couldn't even reveal herself to a police officer for threat of her and her entire family's life.

It is nothing short of an absolute miracle that Elizabeth never overdosed on a drug, got alcohol poisoning, died of thirst or starvation, got pregnant, or accidentally addicted to any substance. Beyond that, it is nothing short of a miracle that she never developed any of the horrendous physical ailments that come from malnutrition and physical exertion, or heat exhaustion/stroke. That she was able to keep her mind about her and never fall to the Stockholm Syndrome or any psychotic episodes as a result of her being abused. She completely overcame. Little rays of light and hope during her ordeal and wisdom coming after she was returned, along with her faith in God and her religious convictions have been her healing path. Following are some of my favorite quotes or stories.

While being forced to hike up the hill where Mitchell had his camp.
"I was so confused and so afraid. I don't understand! I did what you [God] have asked me! This can't be what you wanted! And it certainly wasn't. I know that now. Being taken captive was not part of some great, eternal plan. But the confusion was overwhelming. My mind tumbled in sheer terror: This doesn't make any sense! I've never done anything wrong! And though it would take awhile, the answers to my confusion eventually settled in my mind. I don't think what happened to me was something that God intended. He surely would not have wished the anguish and torment that I was about to go through upon anyone, especially upon a child. But since that time I have learned an important lesson. Yes, God can make some good come from evil. But even He, in all His majesty, won't make the evil go away. Men are free. He won't control them. There is wickedness in this world. Which left me with this: When faced with pain and evil, we have to make a choice. We can choose to be taken by the evil. Or we can try to embrace the good."page 10 -11

Sometimes we look for a "reason" behind evil acts. The person must be crazy. They must have some sort of psychotic issues or mental illnesses. We resist the idea that someone could consciously and rationally choose to be evil. But it's out there. I guess it's because we find the idea that someone would do this without any other explanation so repulsive that we shy away from it. But we can't do that in this case. As Elizabeth said:
"I also knew that, as time went by, he slipped deeper and deeper into his caricature of a prophet. But none of it was real. Brain David Mitchell is not insane. THe professional analysis is clear. He is a manipulative, antisocial, and narcissistic pedophile. He is not clinically psychotic or delusional. He is just an evil man." The religious thing was a convenient way to manipulate the situation and people around him. He is simply an evil man. Nothing else do it. And as repulsive as it is, it needs to be recognized. There is no justifying away his actions. He knew what he was doing, he knew the possible consequences of his actions. But he carried them out anyway. And had no remorse. Going as far as to faking seizures in the courtroom to prolong things or to prove that he somehow still had ultimate control over things. Narcissism at its finest.

On pages 131-132 she recounts a story of a miracle of a pioneer girl whose feet would leave bloody footprints in the snow because her shoes had worn out and found a pair of brand new shoes her size in some bushes and the only explanation was a miracle. After going several days without water, she awoke in the middle of the night for no reason. Both captors were asleep and when she looked around she found a yellow cup filled the the brim with clean, cold water. There was no way her captors would have shared if they had found water, the nearest source of water was a grueling hike down and then back up, and by the time they got it back was never super cold and tasted like the plastic jugs used to haul it up.  "Where did the water come from? I have no explanation other than the water came from God. I know we didn't have a drop of water in the camp.....Why did God do it? How did it happen? What was God trying to say? Would I have died without the water? Certainly not. As thirsty as I felt, and as terrible as it was, I was not teetering on the edge of a life-or-death situation. And I was not alone. Mitchell and Barzee needed water too. Mitchell wasn't going to stay up on the mountain and let us all die of thirst. Eventually he would have had to go down to the stream. So why did God send me the water? Because He loved me. And He wanted me to know. He wanted me to know that He was still near. He wanted me to know that He controlled the Earth and all the heavens, that all things were in His hands. And if He could move mountains, then he could do this thing for me. To Him it was a small thing-a terribly easy thing to do-but for me it was as powerful as if He had parted the sea. This experience reminded me once again that God had not deserted me. He was aware of my suffering and loneliness. And that assurance gave me hope. It helped me to keep my faith and gave me the strength that I needed to go on."

I think about all the times I get mad and decide to blame God for not helping me when it's so obviously in His power. If I were in Elizabeth's shoes, I'm not sure I would have accepted the miracle so graciously. I might have been thankful for an instant and then think sarcastically, "Great, He can conjure up a cup of cold water for me but He can't manage to help me escape or be rescued. Nice." And for that, I feel quite ashamed. I need to do some changing in perspective.....

Some advice her mother gave to her shortly after she was returned home on pages 285-286
"Elizabeth, what this man has done is terrible. There aren't any words that are strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is! He has taken nine months of your life that you will never get back again. But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy. To move forward with your life. To do exactly what you want. Because yes, this will probably go to trial and some kind of sentencing will be given to him and that wicked woman. But even if that's true, you may never feel like justice has been served or that true restitution has been made. But you don't need to worry about that. At the end of the day, God is our ultimate judge. He will make up to you every pain and loss that you have suffered. And if it turns out that these wicked people are not punished here on Earth, it doesn't matter. His punishments are just. You don't ever have to worry. You don't ever have to even thick about them again. You be happy, Elizabeth. Just be happy. If you go and feel sorry for yourself, or if you swell on what has happened, if you hold on to your pain, that is allowing him to steal more of your life away. So don't you do that! Don't you let him! There is no way that he deserves that. Not one more second of your life. You keep every second for yourself. You keep them and be happy. God will take care of the rest."God bless her mother for those inspired words of wisdom!

And finally this gem from Elizabeth on page 303
"When we are faced with a challenge, it is very easy to be mad or upset. But when we have passed our great test, we are then given opportunities to reach out to other people. We are able to effect change in a way that otherwise we wouldn't have been able to.

May God bless you and your family always, Elizabeth Smart, and smile on your marriage and the family you have created and will expand in the coming years.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I saw this book when I went to buy a Christmas gift for my sister. I knew I had to read it. But as finances are tight, it had to come from the library! Luckily they anticipated a high demand and bought 17 copies and then another shipment and I got a copy fairly quickly. Knowing I'd only have 3 weeks to read it (as books on hold by other patrons cannot be renewed) I dove into it.

WOW. I learned SO much history of Pakistan! There were names that I grew up learning about, since I was born in 81, and starting in the 7th grade in 1994 I had classes in which I needed to be aware of world events. Benazir Bhutto was a common name. Pakistan a nation constantly at war, the Sunni's and Shiaas a guaranteed answer in a quiz at least every other day in my Social Studies class. Although I can tell you, that at 13 I didn't understand nearly as well as I can now the complexities of the issues. I think I can barely wrap my head around them now!

This book is very well written and while it contains harsh facts, nothing is over dramatized or sensationalized. It is very mater of fact. And things that are not meant to be offensive are treated as such-an attitude of "this is not seen as offensive, this is just the way things are where we live", so as not to cause any outrage at local customs which do not demean in anyway, but Western Culture may perceive them as such. I would let my 8 year old read this book.

Malala is such a fortunate girl to be born to a father who loves and respects his daughter as much as his sons. In a culture where only sons are celebrated, her father insisted that his daughter be treated with as much celebration as any other. This is a very rare thing and I believe it put her in a position to stand up for what she knew was right. She knew so much inner workings of the politics at such a young age-because she was never shooed away from the conversations even if she didn't take part. I don't think we give young people enough credit. They see the world in a much more black and white sense and I believe this allows them the ability to truly see right and wrong as if it's plain as day, whereas adults will tend to bend the light to make things right in their eyes and justify actions as a means to an end. Which is technically NOT right. Malala started speaking out with a pen name when she was 11. She knew how important education was. How spoiled we are in America where a vast majority complain about going to school. Who just don't care at all. Where we live in a country which tells the kids "You don't have an option to fail, you WILL go to school and you WILL pass." Instead of healthy competition and pride in getting high marks as Malala did, always determined to get 1st place. Now, I've seen that backfire too, kids putting too much stress on themselves to come in first in a class of over 500 students. But that is not the point, the point is that Malala wanted to learn. She LOVED to learn. She KNEW the power in knowledge. She still does! She tries her best every single day because it is the right thing to do. She knows that education is not only a basic right, but a PRIVILEGE. Gosh I'd like to hit every kid over the head with this book and ask them, "Do you have ANY idea what you have? Did you know that in a tiny village in Pakistan called Swat, girls SNUCK to school, knowing any minute they could be killed just for going to school and they went ANWAY? EVERY day?" That Pakistan is a place where schools are bombed regularly and have shootings and the government does very little or nothing to apprehend the perpetrators. And what about women's rights? The US has come such a long way in women's rights, and all some can do is complain about what we don't yet have. Sure, maybe some things need improving, but couldn't EVERYTHING be improved? At least we can wear what we want, study what we want, apply for any job we want, come and go as we please with whomever we please without fear of being brutally physically punished or even killed-sometimes even by family for honor, and have people not bat an eye once.

We who live in free countries are blessed. And I think we would do well to acknowledge how blessed we are. In our abundance. And even though funds are tight enough I can't justify buying a book for $26 plus tax, I can feed my family a wide variety of healthy foods every day and keep us warm and clean and entertained. Gosh. I feel so spoiled. And there's nothing inherently wrong with having all these things, as long as we're grateful for them. Be grateful to whomever or whatever you want. For me, I'm grateful to God as I see Him as the granter of all things. But if that's not for you, you can be grateful to all your teachers and and people who helped you in the job you have, your hard work that provides these things, or whatever!

I also learned more about Islam from a non-Taliban perspective. I know that's all we see from Islam these days. We don't see the peaceful aspect of it, the side that teaches to be tolerant. But there are extremists in every religion. You know the one sect of Christianity, (Baptists?) who have been known to protest soldier's funerals? We don't judge all of Christianity based on that one extremist group, we call them crazies and write them off as NOT being Christian. And another Christian sect, the Fundamentalist Mormons. As a Mormon, I don't want everyone judging my religion based on the break off group Fundamentalist group who treats its women almost as bad as the Taliban as far as rights and privileges, because MY religion values women so much they put women in leadership roles around the world! So it was really nice to have Malala tell what the Quaran says. She says no where does it tell them to kill. No where does it tell that girls cannot go to school, that the opposite is stated that God wants them to have knowledge. Now I'm curious about the Quaran and feel that I need to read it for myself in order to truly understand Islam. And while I am firmly Christian in that I believe Jesus Christ is my Savior, I think there are many, many similarities and that Islam has a lot of the same stories-Jonah and the Whale (in the Quran his name is Yunus, but he is in the belly of whale just like Jonah) and Maryam is the mother of Jesus in the Quaran, but they believe that Jesus was not the Son of God, as he was the son of Maryam (Mary). So there are enough similarities that pique my curiosity. And then I can say "I've read the Quaran, I know it doesn't teach what those crazy Taliban guys say it does!"

I'll leave with sharing some of my favorite quotes from the book:

In giving advice to a friend, Malala's father states: "Don't accept good things from bad people." (This is one reason why I don't want my government giving people EVERYTHING that's good (education, food, health care, etc) because while there are good, honest people in government, there are many who are corrupt and dishonest and I don't trust them as a whole.)

"Education is educations. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow. Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human." Malala said this in response to the Taliban saying that education for girls was Western and against Islam and they were being taught corrupt things.

"Sometimes I think it's easier to be a Twilight vampire than a girl in Swat."-Moniba, Malala's best friend. This comment really shows the difficulties of a young girl growing up in Swat overtaken by the Taliban. Before the Taliban, the difficulty was in getting people to understand the importance of their girls' learning, even beyond their marrying age. And good headway was being made. But then you go throw in this religious movement of extremists who brainwash the people into thinking they cannot be saved if they allow this thing, it was like a few steps forward and a thousand steps back.

“There seemed to be so many things about which people were fighting. If Christians, Hindus or Jews are really our enemies, as so many say, why are we Muslims fighting with each other? Our people have become misguided. They think their greatest concern is defending Islam and are being led astray by those like the Taliban who deliberately misinterpret the Quran. We should focus on practical issues. We have so many people in our country who are illiterate. And many women have no education at all. We live in a place where schools are blown up. We have no reliable electricity supply. Not a single day passes without the killing of at least one Pakistani.” 223

“It was hard to visit that place [the tomb of the first leader of Pakistan, Jinnah] 

“Then they told me about the call [threats] from home and that they were taking the threats seriously. I don’t know why, but hearing I was being targeted did not worry me. It seemed to me that everyone knows they will die one day. My feeling was nobody can stop death; it doesn’t matter if it comes from a Talib or cancer. So I should do whatever I want to do. Maybe we should stop our campaigning, Jani, and go into hibernation for a time. Said my father. How can we do that? I replied. You were the one who said if we believe in something greater than our lives, then our voices will only multiply even if we are dead. We can’t disown our campaign!” 224-225
and read those speeches without thinking that Jinnah would be very disappointed in Pakistan. He would probably say that this was not the country he had wanted. He wished us to be independent, to be tolerant, to be kind to each other. He wanted everyone to be free whatever their beliefs.” 222 Malala was 15 I think when she had that thought. 

I've said before, we underestimate our youth. When we expect them to be incapable of greatness and that being a teen is a time to goof off, be rebellious, sleep around and party, that's what they are going to do. But if we expect them to be loving, compassionate, mindful of others, NOT being selfish and NOT being self indulgent, I believe they will rise to the occasion. There are many examples of kids who are not partying or sleeping around or doing other rebellious teen labeled activities. We just have to expect great things from them. And if we do, I think we will find a million more Malala's who are bigger than themselves. And want to make this world a better place. Malala's father could have been cynical and say you're just one person, and a girl at that. No one in our country will listen to a girl. You are only one, you can do nothing. But he didn't. I think that too many of us tell ourselves that we're just one, we can't do anything about it. And we pass that down to our kids. But one person CAN make a difference for good. You just have to be brave enough to do it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian, Rick Riordan

The last Percy Jackson in this group of books. I am aware there are more, which I'm looking forward to reading. These are just fun books. Like Gregor the Overlander, the Prophesies have multiple interpretations and the reality is not always obvious. True friendship, family loyalty, selflessness are all qualities our heroes show in this installment. Plus now that everyone is getting older (15-16 for Percy and Annabeth) relationships are also blossoming. I also like the theme of how a little appreciation and recognition can go a long way. This war was fed by the fact that the minor gods got little attention and that the demigods had little to no contact with their godly parent; some went completely unclaimed (which would be the worst feeling if one of your parents, and you KNEW it was a deity, was not claiming you as a child). I am currently reading "I Am Malala" about the 15 year old girl who stood up for education in Pakistan and was shot at point blank range in the head and survived. She mentioned that her people loved their shoes, but did not respect the cobbler, they love their fine scarfs but did not acknowledge the weaver or pay respect to the craftsman. And because of this, that under appreciated group joined their enemy and made the enemy (Taliban) VERY strong. And that is REAL LIFE in VERY RECENT history. So in this fictional representation of Greek Gods, Minor Gods and Demigods, has a VERY real applicable lesson to be learned. And Percy seems to get it. That's all he wants is for everyone to receive recognition, no matter how minor, and that knowing your parentage is a valuable thing too and will add to family loyalty to fight against evil as a collective force instead of letting the evil force feed on those feelings of inadequacy and say that THEY would be a better family for you than your real family.

So let that be a lesson to you (and I am about halfway through "Malala" so that review will be coming soon). Don't look down on people as if their profession is "below you" because EVERYONE deserves our gratitude for what they do. The trash collectors? If we didn't have them, we'd have rubbish piles polluting our neighborhoods and smelling up our cities. The plumbers? Without them, many of us would be at a loss when sewage backs up and our homes would smell like squalor far longer than necessary. Even though we know it's their job and they're getting paid to do it (maybe not as much as YOU would need to be paid to do it as well!), but that doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't show our appreciation. We're building a house. We're VERY appreciative of our builder, and we know we're paying him for it, and that could be evidence enough of our appreciation, but it's not enough when we've been through this process. We show gratitude by praising his work and craftsmanship because quite frankly, it IS AMAZING and freaking AWESOME what he can do! And we don't show gratitude because we think it's the right thing to do or because we feel obligated, we do so because we FELL appreciation and the only way to portray it is to SAY or DO something so the appreciation is known. So if someone were to make something to wear, and you buy it directly from them, you can praise the craftsmanship, you can tell everyone who made it and bring the person more business and build their reputation as an excellent craftsman. Like in the Princess and the Frog. Even though black people were still not on par with white people economically, Lottie's dad praises Tiana's mom as the "best seamstress" in the area and proves it by always commissioning her to make Lottie far more dresses than she needs or deserves. But it kind of broke the ethnic barrier, I thought, for him to treat her as the best seamstress and not "the black woman who can sew what my daughter wants for cheap" you know? It's all in the attitude. When people don't feel appreciated, they tend to get negative and look for ways to be known-you know how you learn about little kids, ANY attention is better than NO attention, even if it's NEGATIVE attention in the form of yelling, disciplining, punishing? And conflict inevitable rises up. So hopefully the young people today who are reading Percy Jackson will be able to feel that conflict and to help avoid it by showing friendship and gratitude to those around them.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

These is my Words The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881-1901 Arizona Territories, Nancy E. Turner

I really enjoyed this book! It has been recommended to me by several people and I finally got it. It was also one of the books that inspired "Relic" which is when I decided I absolutely HAD to read it. While riveting and exciting, it is not a page turning quick read like other novels. I think that's because it's all in first person, because all of the text is as if reading a diary. A very extremely detailed diary complete with recaps of conversations. I don't usually write that way in my journal, but I have read other journals from early settlers and sometimes they did recount things in a similar way. Plus, you wouldn't have a very good novel if you only had internal reflections and no conversation :-)

I found that I could relate quite a bit with Sarah, her dislike of having her husband away. I get cross too, if my husband volunteers to go away. It's one thing if he HAS to, and quite another if he just WANTS to, you know? I felt like this story captured a lot of what went on in the day, the wrongs of settlers that caused brutal retaliation from the natives to equal that of the settlers, train robbers, literacy, sickness and illness, child bearing, a tiny nod to birth control of the day. The one thing I thought was kind of funny is that things that seem so incredibly obvious to the reader, Sarah is completely oblivious to them. But maybe that's the kind of innocence they held back then.

There are some very shocking things that occur in this book to make it for a more mature audience. My 8 year old asked if she could read it after me......I told her she needed to wait until around high school.

Some discussion points could be the role of religion, the various degrees of love, how women want to be loved, the value of hard work, the value of women being able to be independent as well as part of a team in a relationship, the shift in perspective going from child to parent, depression and how un-treatable it was in the day and how far we've come, and dealing with grief.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Allegiant, Veronica Roth

The 3rd and final book of the Divergent Triology. Oh. My. Word. Luckily I have a friend who loaned me her copy after she finished so I didn't have to wait ages on the hold list at the library. And I devoured it. As fast as a stay at home mother of a 2.5 and 8 year old could do. Which is to say less than a week's time.

This one is split narrative between Tris and Tobias which was nice, and also 100% necessary to get the entire story. It was a little hard to go back and forth nearly every chapter, but that was just usually when I forgot to check the chapter heading to figure out whose head I was in at the time :-)

My hunch was correct. I had not guessed on motives, and I don't think I could have. It was crazy! But this book brought up so many beautiful things to discuss and I am SO glad that these things are being brought about by Roth to introduce these ideas into the minds of our young people. Things that were heavily addressed are: What is love? What are relationships (based on love) about?" What does it mean to be brave? What does it mean to forgive? And the age old nature vs nurture and how the way you were born and the way you were raised is neither an excuse nor a reason for your behavior-you are an agent unto yourself to choose your actions to go along with or against the grain of who you are and what you've been taught. The idea that it's not nature vs nurture, and perhaps not even a combination of the two that make us who we are, but some inherent complexity that as humans we just can't grasp so we shouldn't try to slap some label on it as if we actually understand human nature at all. It also addresses two main components of tyranny: Control of weapons and Control of information. And how the control of information is probably the worse and more damaging of the two. And that just because someone can put a label on you of a condition you might have, it doesn't change who you inherently are on the inside. For instance, just because you're "dyslexic" or "ADHD" tells you a susceptibility you have or a way your brain needs information presented to it that might require different ways to approach it, but it does not make you ANY LESS OF A PERSON. If you're labeled "bi-polar" it doesn't mean you aren't WHOLE, that you're somehow BROKEN. It means that you need to do certain things that others don't need, but it in no way makes you LESS HUMAN. And that is a BIG theme in this book. Even if people give you all the facts about everything, it cannot dominate who YOU ARE AS A PERSON. Because those things are just a very small finite part of what makes you you. Your choice in how to accept labels or reject them, or embrace them as part of your identity that is in no way tied to your worth to yourself, family or society is what really matters. Your choices. And your choice to accept responsibility for those choices. Even if they are not good. Even if they resulted from a mistake you made. Or from your poor judgement. But admitting your fault is not a bad thing. It's a brave thing. It's the RIGHT thing.

And then there's this most beautiful conversation about relationships between Tris and Tobais. **SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT, SKIP THIS PARAGRAH IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT AND DON'T WANT ANYTHING SPOILED!!!!**Tobias made a mistake that Tris is finding it hard to forgive him for. She is struck by a conversation she had with Amar (former Dauntless trainer living "outside") where he tells her that she has been "Good for" Tobias in that she diminishes his less great tendencies (such as self-doubt) and enhances his good qualities. Tris says "If we stay together, I'll have to forgive you over and over and over again, and if you're still in this, you'll have to forgive me over and over and over again too. So forgiveness isn't the point. What I really should have been trying to figure out is whether we are still good for each other or not." All the way home I thought about what Amar said, about every relationship having its problems. I thought about my parents, who argued more often than any other Abnegation parents I know, who nonetheless went through each day together until they died. Then I thought of how strong I have become, how secure I feel with the person I now am, and how all along the way he has told me that I am brave, I am respected, I am loved and worth love. "And?" he says, his voice and his eyes and his hands a little unsteady. "And," I say, "I think you're still the only person sharp enough to sharpen someone like me." Isn't that one incredible lesson for young adults to learn? That you WILL have to forgive people over and over and over again. And that's not the point-if you're going to be in a relationship, you accept that part-the part where you will continually forgive. But that relationships shouldn't end because you "can't forgive" someone, but relationships should end when you are no longer good for each other. When you are no longer constructive as a pair, but destructive. And that you should TRY your BEST to be constructive when you've made commitments to each other. Then she says "I used to think that when people fell in love, they just landed where they landed, and they had no choice in the matter afterward. And maybe that's true of beginnings, but it's not true of this, now. I fell in love with him. But I don't just stay with him by default as if there's no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me." Isn't that one beautiful reality? One I wish I had fully integrated in my life. I kinda stayed with someone by default, because I truly felt like my options were limited. It was a long distance thing and in no way destructive, but we weren't exactly CONSTRUCTIVE together either. And even though I was willing to forgive over and over again, deep down, it wasn't really for the right reasons. It was really more out of desperation, which I didn't recognize at the time. And then there are the multiple lessons we get about dealing with grief. Which I think is truly important for young adults today. Living through a literary character who is torn apart by grief is not necessarily fun. It's heart wrenching and I'll confess I bawled my way through some of this. But that's what happens when someone grieves in real life. It affects different people in different ways. And you can see through the eyes of the narrator how different people, family and friends, deal with that grief-and how they've processed it before in the past and how they can turn to help others. Because that's what people do. In times of crises, we take care of each other. We don't need to be told, we draw upon any similar life experiences and we help the people we care about to work through their difficult times.

It was truly an emotionally charged book filled with beauty and tragedy and great life lessons that I don't think I've seen outlined in such a black and white way in young adult literature very often. I can see how many people might not like the ending. But to me, it was fitting and I understand. The people are on the mends, the way of life is improved for all within immediate reach with a very optimistic tone that things will continue to improve across the country. Overall, it is a victory for humanity and true freedom. I am excited to see this trilogy hit the Big Screen just as I was about the hunger games! This was truly a unique dystopian society series and I encourage everyone to read it. Again, no love triangle, romance is BIG, but never raunchy. Wonderful topics of conversation and great writing. Now I want to get my hands on the smaller vignettes that were written, like "Free Four" (Divergent from Tobias' point of view) and I know I saw another one....but can't remember, but my friend rated it on Good Reads, so I'll pop on over there to remember :-) 

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riodan

As usual, I enjoyed reading more about Percy, Annabeth and Grover's adventures, along with Tyson. In this book, Annabeth leads the quest into Daedelus's labyrinth. Daedelus has always been a hero of Annabeth's with all of her love of architecture.

One of my favorite parts of this book was when Riordan poked fun at the educational system and testing via the Sphinx that will not let people pass without solving the riddle. Originally, you had to answer one riddle. Now it's 20 "Oh, we've raised our standards! To pass, you must show proficiency in all twenty. Isn't that great?" And then the Sphinx proceeds to ask trivia questions....and Annabeth is required to enter her answers onto the bubble sheet with a #2 pencil with all the instructions we're familiar with so the machine can grade the answers. Annabeth protests after the first question "What about 'What walks on four legs in the morning?'....the riddle about man. He walks on four legs in the morning, like a baby, two legs in the afternoon, like an adult and three legs in the evening, as an old man with a cane. That's the riddle you used to ask." "Exactly why we changed the test!" the Sphinx exclaimed "You already knew the answer." After a couple more trivia questions Annabeth protests again "Hold up!...These aren't riddles."
"What do you mean?...Of course they are. This test material is specially designed-"
"It's just a bunch of dumb, random facts. Riddles are supposed to make you think."
"Think? How am I supposed to test whether you can think? That's ridiculous! Now How much force is required-"
"Stop! This is a stupid test."
"Why then, my dear....If you won't pass, you fail. And since we can't allow any children to be held back, you'll be EATEN!"

Now isn't that interchange great? Now I'd venture to say, as a former full time teacher myself, that at least 98% of teachers know that standardized testing is one of the worst and least informative ways to test students for a knowledge of their learning. It's so limited in scope and design. However, we also know that the best ways to assess knowledge acquisition take a lot of time and can't be graded quickly either with a scantron machine. And no one seems to want to take this time, or in a teacher's position, they are simply not allowed to take the time to do this when they are required to drill students to be able to fill in a bubble sheet. Oral examinations, practical examinations (for instance, successfully carrying out a scientific experiment to illustrate you understand the concept of titration instead of answering questions about the steps to completing a titration), and obviously, some will require resources. It's simply harder to test whether a person can think vs whether a person can remember facts. And that's one of the biggest problems today, it's an insult not just to the "child of Athena's" intelligence, it's an insult to our children's intelligence on a whole. My 3rd grader told me she is already getting nervous about taking the standardized tests in March. Nearly 6 months away and my EIGHT YEAR OLD is getting test anxiety? And she's a bright student. *sigh*.

Anyhow, another big lesson learned in this book is that sometimes we've built up our personal heroes so much in our minds that if and when we meet them, it's a let down. We realize they have their faults and that they've made mistakes just like anyone else. We realize that sometimes they aren't always brave and won't always save the day. And that's ok. They can still be a hero in other ways. In fact, I think it makes people MORE of a hero when they admit to mistakes or apologize and try to right the wrongs they've done. And that, I believe is one of the best lessons taught.

Another question that is brought up and not fully resolved is the choice between what is right and wrong and family. Calypso is eternally punished because of what her father did in the Titan war against the Gods and the fact that she supported her Father. And she asks Percy if he supports the Gods because they are good or because they are family. It's an interesting concept. How loyal do you run with your family? Would you do something out of loyalty that you normally wouldn't, simply because "it's family"? It's definitely a thought worth dwelling on because everyone has different moral lines governed by various ideals. It's like in Gilmore Girls when Lorelai breaks up with Jason because he is suing her family and she states that she loves him, but can't be with someone who is suing her family. And it also brings up how there isn't always a clear line between good or not. While Percy acknowledges that the Gods don't always do good things and that they don't always show that they really care for their half-blood children, supporting them does seem to be a MUCH better alternative to letting the Titan's rule with their evil agenda. And thus, many of our choices in who will be the best leadership in our lives sometimes isn't a choice between the good candidate and the not so good candidate, but the lesser of the two evils. Which is also a worthy lesson to take away.

We also seem more of Nico's struggle to find his place as a son of Hades. Not quite welcome at camp Half-Blood, but not really belonging anywhere else, this poor young boy has so many inner struggles, it's amazing what he has to deal with. I look forward to learning more about him. And cheering him on to hopefully make the right choices as he's faced with them.

A page turner again that leaves you wanting more and more!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lemon Tart, Josi Kilpack

Lemon Tart is a culinary murder mystery. This means that the main character is obsessed with baking and share's her recipes with you throughout the book. This is definitely a plus when she describes the carrot cookie with orange glaze so well you can almost taste them, and really WANT to taste them, and there you go, at the end of the chapter, the recipe! So I liked that.

Total, I'd probably give it 3.5/5 stars. Sadie, the main character and voice of narration is in her mid-fifties, a widow with 2 grown children-both adopted, although you only meet her daughter Breanna, you know that Shawn was a rather picky eater based on her recipe notes. Sadie's newer younger friend Anne Lemmon was found murdered outside her home and her toddler son missing. Sadie just can't seem to keep her nose out of things-if you've ever watched the show, Castle, she's 100 times more annoying that he is and doesn't have any connections to let her be in on this even though she DOES offer some helpful tips to the detectives working the case. She jumps to conclusions and in real life would definitely have been arrested only a few chapters in just for interfering with an investigation. I found myself annoyed with Sadie a LOT of the time. But I think that's because Josi Kilpack describes her so well, we all know someone in our life who cares very much about how they look, how they're perceived, what's going on, mother hen, can't pass up any gossip-especially if it's in the name of "good". While Sadie goes through many different assumptions of what is going on, there are some twists I wasn't really expecting, but I though they were a little wild and when things finally wound down to "who dunnit" I wasn't really at all surprised. Evidently this is a continuing series, which seems a little funny because really, how many random murders can show up in a "normal" person's life? Perhaps I'm just not as familiar with this genre and what's generally expected for an audience for the genre.

It was entertaining, even though some parts were fantastical (as well as the things that happen in the TV shows we love, like Castle), there was definitely a lot of humor. For instance, Sadie ends up sneaking around where she doesn't belong-twice in the same day at different locations-and both times ends up hiding under a bed in order to avoid being caught. Can you imagine a mid-fifties woman hiding under a bed? Yeah, that definitely made me laugh (and roll my eyes). But I think that's what makes it eye rolling funny-she's playing detective the way Nancy Drew did, but she's not young and glamorous.

And I did come away with a wonderful mantra. Sadie states that her metabolism isn't what it used to be and if she wanted to maintain any semblance of her figure, she had to be careful about things. But she didn't believe in depriving herself of anything either, so her personal rule was "Eat what you want, but not all of it." Which meant that if she was craving brownies, she'd make a pan of brownies, set some aside for herself and then take the rest to a friend or neighbor. Same with rich dinners, such as lasagna. I thought those were definitely good words to live by!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I never read this in high school, and with the new movie that came out last year, and has gotten rave reviews, I knew that if I were to see the movie I would first have to read the book.

It took awhile, as it was published in 1925 and the writing style was quite different. And it was told in the voice of Nick, distant cousin to Daisy Buchanan. And it's told in a reminiscent way as well, with some things chronologically out of order in order to place a backstory where it would most make sense. Lots and lots of descriptions of events, but not overdoing it on physical descriptions of characters, so I didn't have a very sharp imagination image of everyone; but I think that's because once the description was given, it was assumed you wouldn't really need it again.

This is a tragic love story....Daisy meets Jay, they fall in love. Jay goes off to war, and not to mention he is not of the same social standing as Daisy they really couldn't have realistically gotten married. Daisy marries Tom. Jay comes back-and into money-and becomes a very influential up and coming character whom no one really knows anything about but is always throwing lavish parties with no particular guest list.

It's the roaring 20's and everything is all about high society. Another problem is affairs. So many stories wouldn't be written at all if it weren't for the fact that married companions wander off to greener pastures. I don't know what it is with Tom, but I think he takes Daisy for granted, and doesn't think he'd ever really lose her so although not confirmed, I believe personally that he has "wandered" just about everywhere and that is my hunch about why they've moved so many times. Daisy, while always the "rich girl" has a deep desire to be loved. She had one such romance, and I think when Tom is distant, she goes back mentally to Jay and thinks that "this would never happen if I were with Jay." And then the opportunity presents itself. I think both Jay and Daisy have a tainted view of what things are supposed to be like. I think that in his time away from Daisy, Jay has built her up to an idolized Goddess that is so perfect, there's no way she was a real person anymore.

When many things are misconstrued, misunderstood and possibly misinformed on purpose and Jay dies, despite all the people who surrounded him in life, no one really is there in his death. It's really sad. That most of his life was superficial. And while he was optimistic, I can't help but feel that the way he came into money was by shady ways and that he never thought that it would catch up to him. And while that part didn't, he tragically got involved in something he had nothing to do with. I think Daisy gave him a sense of invincibility that destiny was him and Daisy together and as that was happening and as long as Daisy loved him, nothing could go wrong.

Nick learned a lot by observing these people, including a brief love tryst with professional golfer Jordan Baker (I had no idea that Jordan was being used as a female back then!) that falls apart for circumstances that are not favorable. Nick learns that everyone, EVERYONE needs friends. At least one genuine friend. And that doing what's right is not what everyone is interested in doing. I think he learns that obtaining false wealth in order to impress someone is not worth it. He probably learns that you should be extra cautious on who you marry if you truly want to be happy, you should really both be in love with each other on the same level. I think he also learns that the glamorized like of the "Hamptons" if you will, are also not quite all they're hyped up to be. That pastures can be just as green where ever you spring up as anywhere else.

I sometimes wonder about Tom and Daisy. I wonder if what they went through, both losing their lovers within days of each other and realizing how much they had lost each other, if perhaps maybe would bring a renewed commitment to each other. I wonder if Tom finally realized that he wasn't giving Daisy everything he could and if he DID maybe he'd get a WHOLE LOT in return from her.

Here is a link I came across with some interesting thoughts on things we could learn from Gatsby:

One that I particularly liked was the part about trying to fit in where you don't necessarily belong-or even need to fit in with. It reminds me of a statement made once that said "Be grateful that the choices you make will not allow you to fit in where you don't belong." It was a statement addressed in a religious service and it was directed at teenagers who had chosen particularly high moral standards. And were possibly feeling a little isolated by those choices because the weren't exactly "popular". But seriously, if you evaluate your goals in life, you really can't afford to waste time trying to fit in with a certain populace who won't help you achieve those goals. It's like trying to become a pro-football player while only taking ballet lessons. It just won't happen.

Anyhow, it was a good read, and I enjoyed it and the lessons learned. Now I have checked out the first movie of The Great Gatsby starring Mira Sorvino, Toby Stephens, and Paul Rudd in 2000 to watch while I wait for the Leonardo DiCaprio version to cycle my way and can compare the two :-)

Happy Reading!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Letters From the Jade Dragon Box, Gale Sears

This is a Historical Fiction-which is one of my favorite genres of all time! As anyone who has read my blog knows. There's just something about the combination of fact and fiction that makes fact come alive and become memorable in a way that fact alone cannot. It's probably the lack of personal details in fact that makes it more sterile.

This book is told by 15 year old Wen-Shan's voice and perspective. She was born in mainland China, Guilin but was smuggled out at the age of around 5 to live with her great uncle in Hong Kong when things got really bad under Mao Tse-tung's rule.

Like my friend who also reviewed (and recommended this book to me) this book, I feel like my history knowledge is grossly lacking! But I'm not sure exactly whose fault that is. I mean, there's only so much time in a day and you really don't get a real history class until high school. With the government in our country so bent on making sure that the English and Math skills are up, a lot of other subjects suffer. My mom who taught Kindergarten and is now teaching first grade had to cut Science and other activities due to requirements of MORE reading and MORE math. The school district I used to teach for cut most of the trained librarians-media specialists-the year I moved and I recently found out that PE was cut too. What's next? What's the next seemingly less important subject? History has been grossly pushed to the side at the expense of learning lessons we NEED to know. Teachers who are saints and probably magicians as well, have found ways to incorporate meaningful history lessons into other units of study (I know I did my best to do this in my band classes-since I never did manage to make the connection that Mozart lived during the same time as the Revolutionary War even though I KNEW the dates of both.....when I was younger), but still, the fact that time keeps marching forward and history is being created every second, how in the world can all of it possibly be taught? And who can really say what is the most important history to learn? I now think about the excruciating decision authors of Scripture must have had when trying to decide what to write and what to leave out-especially the scripture that was recorded on metal plating instead of paper and had only a finite amount of room.

Anyhow, I knew very little about the oppression of the Chinese citizens under the tyrannical-insanity driven ruler Mao Tse-tung. He was truly crazy. He insisted that 3X's the normal crop of rice be yielded. He ordered citizens to kill all the sparrows because they were pests who ate the grain. Then with a lack of them in the eco system, the following year, the insects destroyed the crops since they no longer had predators to keep the populations in check. He pounded it into their heads that he was doing everything for the people, yet people starved-even when producing enough-because it was sent to other countries to buy machinery. He wanted an ignorant society only able to read the book of his personal sayings. One of his philosophies was "Do unto others what you would not want done to yourself" which is 100% opposite of Confucius who states "Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself." It was Marxism and Socialism and Communism to the T.

Anyhow, Wen-shan and her uncle receive a call on the same day as the announcement of the death of Mao Tse-tung, from someone saying they have something for them, and it turns out that Master Quan, her uncle and grandfather's teacher of art, has been smuggled out of China and with him, he has brought a great treasure he also smuggled, the Jade Dragon Box which contains letters to Wen-shan from her mother, and paintings from her grandfather which were penned and hidden at great dangers to them both. It is through these letters you find out what has been going on. And through the paintings you realize that beauty and perseverance cannot be taken from someone. That bamboo is both very hard, strong, but also bendable and flexible so that it does not break or snap when it faces storms.

The other beautiful thing is the change in relationship between Wen-shan and her uncle. As the story unfolds, they speak very little. Her uncle is a widower whose wife passed away not too long after Wen-shan came to live with him. So he has had much trouble of his own. Through the sharing of these very personal letters and paintings, they begin to open up to each other and soften their hearts to one another. In addition, the paintings seem to soften everyone's hearts. Everyone realizes that these incredible works of art were created amidst much more pain, sorrow and adversity than they in Hong Kong had ever known. If such beauty can exist there, then certainly in much brighter circumstances, we should be able to create beauty here. And not just visible works of art beauty, but beauty in how we treat others and how we view them.

There were small references to the LDS church and its early history in China and Hong Kong. Wen-shan's uncle joined the church not too long after arriving as a refugee in Hong Kong. There are a few interesting historical stories, but they play a minor role in the story.

There are chapter notes at the end of each chapter that denote fact and include further definitions of things mentioned in the chapters. I find this type of notes my favorite more so than footnotes so I feel like I'm getting a recap. They are brief and instructive.

I truly enjoyed this book and if you don't feel like reading this one, I would encourage you to seek out other books to teach you about the Mao Tse-tung rule. The more we educate ourselves, the more we can pass onto our children, since we see them so much more than their history teachers, we can relay the most expansive knowledge of any adult in their life!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Relic, Renee Collins

I am so privileged to write my review of this book, Relic by Renee Collins. It's a privilege because after a few months of moving to Fruita, I met Renee Collins. Well, I met her in passing before, but then, in my church, I was assigned to visit her in a program my church does called Visiting Teaching. The purpose of Visiting Teaching is for the women in a congregation to go in partners to a few other women in the congregation once a month to deliver a spiritually uplifting message and check on any temporal or spiritual needs she or her family may have so that we as a church community can help to ease burdens. It's really quite fun and I've made some of the BEST friends through participating in this voluntary program. Renee was on my route and I soon found out that she would be publishing a book! It's not her first completed novel, but it is her first published work.

It is set in an alternate re-imagined Western. Now, I have to admit when she said the word "Western" all that came to mind was all the cliche's that come with the genre. And I tend to be anti-cliche least in theory if not in execution. BUT it did intrigue me, and I read/watched numerous reviews that said the exact same thing. "I don't like Westerns, but I LOVED this book." And so this time, I join the throng of cliche's.

From the back cover:

After a raging fire consumes her town and kills her parents, Maggie Davis is on her own to protect her younger sister and survive best she can in the Colorado town of Burning Mesa. In Maggie's world, the bones of long-extinct magical creatures such as dragons and sirens are mined and traded for their residual magical elements, and harnessing these relic's powers allows the user to wield fire, turn invisible, or heal even the worst of injuries.

Working in a local saloon, Maggie befriends the spirited showgirl Adelaide and falls for the roughish cowboy Landon. But when she proves to have a particular skill at harnessing the relics' powers, Maggie is whisked away to the glamorous hacienda of Alvar Castilla, the wealthy young relic baron who runs Burning Mesa. Though his intentions aren't always clear, Alvar trains Maggie in the world of relic magic. But when the mysterious fires reappear in their neighboring towns, Maggie must discover who is channeling relic magic for evil before it's too late.

Relic is a thrilling adventure set in a wholly unique world, and a spell-binding story of love, trust, and the power of good.

Collins tried to incorporate all the stereo types of the old West-their are Native Americans, Chinese, Saloon fare, migrant workers, cowboys, the whole shebang, and she does it well. She creates strong emotional bonds so quickly I got teary-eyed in chapter 1.....the last time that happened was when Prim's name was called for the reaping.....(although Renee Collins is not directly related to Suzanne Collins, there's definitely some writing mojo in that surname!).

Maggie goes through a lot as a teenager who is suddenly the sole provider and protector of her younger sister Ella, who is 7. She has to consider what she IS and ISN'T willing to do to provide. One thing I liked a lot is that she never wants to resort to prostitution as a form of income. She was taught by her mother to be as upstanding and proper as possible and she does many things to ensure that she can provide for her sister without compromising her standards. It takes some creativity, but that is the case with all things worth while.

The pace is REALLY fast. Almost too fast for me. It seemed like every chapter ending was a cliff-hanger, which made it a page turner for sure, and I did like that. But it also seemed like the moments of peril were happening so fast it seemed less plausible. We all know bad things happen in 3s. They seem to happen to Maggie in multiples of 3 and I haven't decided yet exactly how I feel about it. In some ways I appreciate the pace-and there really ARE down times when you can delve into Maggie's character when she's NOT experiencing trauma and she can catch her breath. However, the pace also leaned toward the melodramatic-but that DOES fit with the Western genrea. I think what made it seem faster paced than other novels with characters in near-constant peril (Gregor, Percy Jackson) I think was that in several circumstances, each incident was short-lived and isolated from the other events even though they connected. For instance, with Gregor and Percy, the peril was all part of the same quest and it was very obvious. Here you're not always sure how the peril fits together; your puzzle pieces are not all the edges first and then the middle (which is the way I put a puzzle together personally, so maybe the issue here is ME). Many things are wrapped up nicely, but there is going to be a sequel and many things are left hanging. But it's not a horrible way to end a book, like some other series or trilogies where you are completely left hanging. So you can feel satisfied at the end and have things to look forward to. But you're not going to give yourself an aneurism trying to figure out District 13 or wondering who R.A.B. is for a year before the next book is put out. (PLEASE tell me you understand those references....PLEASE and if you don't, lie and say you do).

I really, REALLY enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the perspective of the teenage girl in the old West grappling with her identity, coming of age, unexpected responsibility, and living up to her personal moral standards. I love how she is able to learn from her mistakes quickly so she doesn't repeat them. I love how she is a good role model for young women of today that they don't have to lower themselves in order to provide a living, follow their dreams, or succeed in whatever world they live in. I loved also how it showed that in order to realize the full potential of the Relic, you had to ask "please" or at least that's how Maggie harnesses the power. I loved how she trusted her instinct about things and people. How when she realized her perceptions were wrong, she changed them. There's so much criticism for people who change their minds, being called flip floppers. But aren't we all supposed to make judgements based on our knowledge and then when we learn more we can adjust those judgments? It helped me to further my ability to see the other side and resolve to make fewer snap judgements in my day to day life.

Things I hope will be in the sequel without any spoilers: Further development of Ella, Moon John, and Yahn. Maggie's mother's back story. I would love to see Adelaide be able to stop being a show girl and getting to settle down and have a family-and I wouldn't mind more background history on her as well. I'm a sucker for background stories.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is the true story of WWII Japanese POW Louis Zameperini, also an Olympic medalist runner in the 1936 Olympics.

I had tried to read this book a couple years ago but had book ADD at the time and had to turn it back in after only 2 weeks because someone else had a hold on it. When someone chose it for my current book club, I was determined to read it. However, it is not a quick read, although some parts were page turners. I found the audio book and since I had to return this book after 3 weeks due to another hold being on it, I uploaded the audio and listened to probably the last 2/3 of it.

It's funny how at this point literature is starting to intertwine for me. Reading this book has also opened a new perspective for me from the previous book I read "The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" where a Japanese girl and her family are put in a camp here in America just because they are Japanese-even though they are all born American. However, because of the horrors that the Japanese did to their POW's-37% of Japanese POW's died compared to the 1% of Nazi POWs-WOW- I can totally understand now why people in America would be so afraid of anyone Japanese that they would feel it absolutely necessary to put them in camps. Again, does that mean I agree? No. But it DOES make it easy to understand the time and the circumstances MUCH MUCH better. The Japanese did many things similar to the Nazi's. Medical "experiments", procedures without anesthesia, starvation, work camps, beatings, and the worst of them all, de-humanization.

Louis went through some remarkable circumstances. When his plane initially went down, he was in a raft with 2 other men, his friend Phil and another they didn't know as well. They were adrift 47 days. 47 days!!! Drinking water when it fell from the sky, beating off sharks, eating birds or fish or whatever they could-raw-for sustenance. Then when they were finally found-they were captured. And the 47 days in the ocean with sharks suddenly seems like a much more friendly place to be. As with the Nazi's, learning more about the Japanese side of the war, I am appalled and disgusted with the amount of pain and humiliation that humans can do to one another. But I am buoyed up by the stories of Japanese soldiers who, like some of the Nazi soldiers, risked everything in order to be humane, even kind to their captives. Not subscribing to the philosophy that they were superior. And then the human spirit that in some people cannot be broken. Amazing.

It's also interesting how much was left out of my education on WWII. I have been well versed in the European front, but realized how little I knew about Japan. Did you know, for instance, that prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and other cities, our bombers flew all over Japan and dropped leaflets that stated the cities being targeted for bombings and urging citizens to evacuate? Hello, what? When does that happen in war? Why didn't anyone tell me, WE TRIED TO WARN THEM. We are not ruthless bad guys policing the world. We did not WANT innocent lives to be lost! The Japanese government confiscated those leaflets and punished people who had them. Now who's the bad guys not caring about citizens?

One of the most amazing things was the general attitude all the POWs had at the end of the war. Immediately the Japanese soldiers were afraid of retaliation, but from the accounts to write this book, most of the men instantaneously forgave their captors. They shared any food with the citizens in the area and their captors.

The book also talks about post war life and PTSD and other things. It touches on the American history we no longer teach-because it became apparent that we needed the Japanese as allies more than we needed retribution against the guards who treated other human beings so badly. It told of a small town which wished to erect a memorial to the war prisoners held there, because they felt bad. They even raised 85% of the funds themselves! One of the citizens had been a POW held by the US and had been treated so kindly he referred to his time as "lucky prison" or something similar. Now, since I don't know much about it, I don't know that we DIDN'T have brutality in some prison camps in the US, but it makes me feel good to know that for at least 1 man's experience (and probably the others at the same location) they were treated civilly and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

War is a complicated situation and sometimes people view it as an excuse to be more brutal than necessary. But on another hand, sometimes people see no other way of extracting intelligence that would protect us. I hate that there doesn't seem to be a clear black and white, but a theory I've held fast to for the past year or so that is that very rarely is there a blanket statement that tells the exact right way for every single person to do in every situation and achieve the same results. What is right in one situation would not be right in another. What would normally be intolerable could be absolutely necessary in another. And we just have to make the best judgements we can based on the knowledge we have, and then we have to allow ourselves to be open to new or additional information as it comes along. As much as I don't care for Dr. Phil anymore, he's had a saying that I've really liked that says "You do what you know and when you know better, you do better." Sometimes we make snap judgements without knowing, but if once we know we refuse to take it into account, then we pass from sins of ignorance to sins of disobedience, which is worse.

Louis got to run the Olympic torch through the place he'd been held captive. Full of forgiveness even for the most brutal and inhumane of all guards who personally had it out for him. He wrote a letter detailing his experiences and explaining his post war trauma and symptoms and how he found, though Billy Graham, God and forgiveness and had it delivered to this particular guard. It truly is incredible.

And it's a slap to the face. For me, or anyone who hasn't faced the horrors of being a POW, how on Earth can we justify holding a grudge and withholding forgiveness when chances are VERY good that whatever the offense was pale in comparison to the way those men were treated in Japan? This book teaches how hate can consume you and drive you to ruins, but forgiveness-whether you do so for religious reasons or not, will give you peace. Forgiveness is NOT easy for anyone. But if Louis Zamperini could do it. Then I sure as heck have no business not attempting it in my life.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse, Rick Riordian

Book 3 in the Percy Jackson Series. Very enjoyable read. Another tale of bravery and following your heart to know what decision is best. Some parts were very predictable, others not. I again enjoyed more mythology.

SPOILER ALERT for discussions' sake

Percy finds out at the end from Athena what his fatal flaw is. Every hero has one. Well, I guess you could say every PERSON has one. The conversation between Athena and Percy brings something else to light. She says "Kronos knows your flaw, even if you do not. He knows how to study his enemies. Think Percy. How has he manipulated you?" And that mirrors common Christianity beliefs about the Devil, or Satan. He knows our weaknesses even if we don't. He knows how to study us and manipulate us into sinning. Athena then tells him "Your fatal flaw is personal loyalty, Percy. You do not know when to cut your losses. To save a friend, you would sacrifice the world." I can relate to that, as I have often described myself as loyal to a fault. Percy states "That's not a flaw. Just because I want to help my friends-" To which she replies "The most dangerous flaws are those which are good in moderation. Evil is easy to fight. Lack of wisdom...that is very hard indeed." SO incredibly true in life! Many people, if they are going to sin, won't be in the form of murdering someone or even overtly stealing something. It's going to be something else. It's going to be going overboard with "Wholesome Recreation" with your family, or taking care of yourself to be healthy to an extreme becoming obsessed with fitness and your body and extreme eating habits. Things that are good in moderation-and then taken to the extreme. Very dangerous territory indeed. Absolutely NOTHING is good in the extreme. Nothing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Rent Collector, Camron Wright

This book was recommended by my friend Amy. I have a few friends who have such impeccable taste in literature that if I see they've read and liked something, I can pick it up without any reservations. This was one of those books.

It takes place in the actual Cambodian dump of Stung Meanchey. Several characters are real people, such as the main character Sang Ly, her husband Ki Lim and son Nisay. However, some of the book is factual and based on the author's son's documentary River of Victory (, but most is fictional. Based on the author's idea of what would happen if the people of Stung Meanchey were to be given the gift of literacy.

The Rent Collector, also nicknamed "The Cow" is an older woman who name is Sopeap Sin. Not many like her. But that all changes when Sang Ly realized that Sopeap knows how to read and requests to be taught. In Stung Meanchey, you earn enough for each day's food by going through the trash and picking out recyclables which you are then paid for. There really isn't a way to "get ahead" and even if you could, life wouldn't necessarily be better. For instance, when Sang Ly's son is continually sick and they have been to every doctor they can possibly take him to, she decides she must go back to the village of her childhood to the Healer who lives there. While waiting for the Healer to come back from a quick trip to a neighboring village, Ki is granted temporary work in the rice fields there. He makes less working the rice fields than he does at the dump.

I don't know much about Cambodia and the revolution there, but from what the book depicts it is every bit as awful as the Nazi regime. They killed anyone who was educated, claiming it was useless and selfish that the only ones who mattered were the working class. That it was unfair for anyone to live off the working class, therefore everyone had to work. Only those who worked would eat. But on the flip side, they stripped the identity of people in work camps stating that they were each only one grain of rice in a huge bowl. Take one grain out and the bowl is still full.  That brings up a lot to think about in and of itself.

But Sopeap is not liked at all, it is not until she is needed again that you start to see who she really is as a person. It reminds us that the people who are the hardest to love are the ones who probably need it the most. It also shows how when we are sincere, sometimes we can break down the barriers and truly come to know the person inside a hardened exterior.

I absolutely loved all the references to wonderful literature, the discussions of what makes literature and how to interpret how everything is symbolic in literature as well as possible inclinations to the literal. There is a discussion about the Cambodian version of Cinderella, a woman by the name Sarann. And Sopeap details to Sang Ly that this story appears in almost every culture around the world, independent of one another. Sopeap talks about this idea saying "I am talking about the constant nature of truth. Look at Buggha's philosophy-it's about the path and our journey. That's what his teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path are all about. Do you see what I mean? Have you ever found a classical book of literature that isn't about a journey-whether actual or within?....There isn't one. It's not just Sarann and Cinderella. Look at all books, plays, movies-we keep writing the same plots, with the same characters, teaching the same lessons.Why do you suppose that is?" Sang Ly replies "Nobody has an original idea?" Sopeap replies "Or is the original idea so intrinsic, inherent, and ingenious, so fundamental to our existence, that we can't help but be drawn back? ... I'm suggesting that writers can't help themselves. Our trials, our troubles, our demons, our angels-we reenact them because these stories explain our lives. Literature's lessons repeat because they echo from deeper places. They touch a chord in our soul because they're notes we've already heard played. Plots repeat because, from the birth of man, they explore the reasons for our being. Stories tech us to not give up hope because there are times in our own journey when we mustn't give up hope. They teach endurance because in our lives we are meant to endure. They carry messages that are older than the words themselves, messages that reach beyond the page."

How beautiful is that? Instead of criticizing the fact that there may be only 7 plots in the world, why not explore WHY, at the core of human nature we seem to gravitate-heavily-to those 7 plots. It may have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of originality and EVERYTHING to do with the fact that people inherently want to hope, want to have freedoms, want to avoid things, want good to triumph over evil. Mind blowing! It's not a weakness. It is a strength to paint the same picture with different hues and different colors.

Anyhow, this was a truly beautiful story. So many gems of literature-I have decided that I highly prefer the Cambodian Cinderella Sarann to the one we know in Western culture-the entire tale is printed in this book! I even read it to my 8 year old. This book has not only taught me so much about kindness, patients and basic human needs-both physical and emotional-but how to appreciate literature on an even deeper level. Especially some of the older, classics that are not as sensational page turners but can teach us so much. I'm even inspired to go back and attempt Mobey Dick again.....we'll see how that goes! This book touched me and resonated in my soul. Now you read it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Daja's Book, Tamora Pierce

I can't remember if I started blogging after I read the first two books in this Quartet....The first was Sandry's Book followed by Tris's Book.

Anyhow, these 4 younger kids (I can't remember what age they are at the start, maybe around 10-12?) are found by a renowned mage, Niko. They are brought to a place called Winding Circle in order to learn their magic and learn how to contain and control it. None of the kids new they had any magic within them before this. Sandry's magic is with weaving and the materials used to weave, cotton, silk, etc. Tris's is with weather. Before she learned to control her magic, a bad mood would bring storms and anger would bring lightning. Briar's is with plants and the earth. Daja's is with fire and smithing. Because their abilities are all rare, they are brought together in this small group for learning. They all come from different backgrounds too. Sandry is a noble by blood, Tris from a merchant family, Briar was a street urchin and Daja a Trader.

Daja was a lone survivor of her family's trader ship after a terrible storm and wreck. Because of trader beliefs, that is NOT good. If you are the only survivor, then you are bad luck, you are a trangshi which basically means that you are erased from the books of traders as if you don't exist. She is not allowed to live among traders at all for fear that her bad luck will bring ill fates to the rest of the caravan.

In this book, they have travelled with Sandry's uncle and teachers to a northern land that has been suffering from drought for 3 years, plagued by grass fires, and unable to even mine copper for which they are famous. Sandry's uncle, The Duke is seeing if there's anything he can do to help. The other mages are doing likewise. In a preivous book in order to survive a terrible earth quake, Sandry spun all of their magic's together and now they are finding that their powers are jumping from one to the other, which causes problems. For instance when Briar goes to feel the ground to know what's fully going on with the drying saffron plants-one of the two main forms of money for this community-lightning shoots from his fingers and it kills some of the plants and creates a piece of glass from the sandy soil. Sandry examines some gold thread and it melts. So Sandry has to weave a map of where things are overlapping and re-weave it so they don't interfere with each other anymore. Inadvertently, Daja creates a living iron vine that actually grows and sprouts limbs and buds-so does so when it gets more metal to draw from. The Traders want this item, but according to their law, they can't do business with a trangshi. However, this is such a valuable and unusual item....things might change.

I really like these books, set in alternate times (I think older times for this one), a little like Harry Potter in which some people have magic and some don't, and you have to learn to use it. But unlike it in that you really specialize based on what you have and it's tied to certain elements. And not as sensational. Everyone knows about people with magic and rely on them to help out with their abilities, as Yarrun whose job it is to put out fires. It's nice to see kids from so strikingly different backgrounds become friends and how their backgrounds help give different perspectives on things. And how people can grow to become your family.

These are quick read books and very well written with many noble traits valued, such as honesty and integrity, not being greedy and doing things for the right reason. Being patient and understanding, even when you don't like the other person or how they act. All sorts of characteristics that every parent would want their kids to have. So having many protagonists value those traits makes these great books for a young reader to put on their list as well!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gregor and the Code of Claw, Suzanne Collins

The final book in the Underland Chronicles. In some ways I liked it a lot and in others, I didn't.

Gregor's mother has had a relapse of sickness from the plague in the form of pneumonia. The war that Luxa declared is in full swing. Everything hangs on the thread of the Prophecy of Time and the Code of Claw. The Code of Claw is the secret code made of taps, clicks and scratches-not too unlike Morse Code-in order to transmit information. The rats have made a new code and in order to receive the intelligence of their movings and strategies, they must crack the code. The prophecy calls for the "Princess" to help. Boots is less than helpful with the code team as all she does is sing and use strips of code as a "tail." Everything changes when suddenly Lizzie turns up on the scene. Their father has had a relapse of sickness and their grandma is sick in the hospital. She wants Gregor to come home, but also agrees upon seeing the plight of the Regalian's that his-and her own-help is needed. Lizzie who is so smart and loves to work on math and puzzles is enlisted to help break the code.

The romance between Luxa and Gregor blossoms. Which I thought was rather ridiculous. I mean, these kids are 12. I know they've been through a LOT to make them grow up faster than any kid should have to. Luxa facing the reality of leading her people as a queen at age 12 and Gregor being a key player in the war as a warrior at age 12. But seriously, they even kiss in this book. I don't want to think of a 12 year old kissing.  And they say "I love you" which is true because I'm sure they love each other as friends and beyond that is just a crush. To think that 12 year olds are capable of knowing what real romantic love is before their hormones are even fully there yet, despite their particular circumstances, just seems like a bit of a stretch.

The other part I didn't care for is the obvious blatant anti-war agenda and anti-Christopher Columbus agenda, and even a bit of anti-early America agenda. Yes, I do understand that war is bad. And she does point out that it would take EVERYONE in the world rejecting that war is an acceptable way to settle differences. But as long as there are still groups of people bent on killing as a means to their end, we must accept that war in defense of our freedom is inevitable. We do not have to like it, but unless we are willing to sit and die and watch everyone else die because others do not agree with a philosophy of not fighting, we don't really have options. Of course, things get a lot more complicated when you have to consider whether or not you get involved with a conflict outside of your immediate country's safety and have to consider allies and helping them etc. But I'm not going to into that. Anti-Christopher Columbus. Yes. I realize he was not a good person, really. He discovered this land-and don't tell me he didn't because it was new to HIM and it was new to all the OTHER people who weren't aware of its existence. I just discovered a new way to avoid the construction and get to the grocery store with less hassel. It was MY discovery. Sure, it existed before I knew about it and many other people have been using it before me, but it doesn't discount that I found out about it without anyone else telling me it was there. And he didn't treat the natives well. And the fact that Spain just hoped he would be killed in the process of finding this land so they wouldn't have to deal with him (most likely) doesn't help his case either. But you can't decide that he didn't do something incredible just because he wasn't a good person. You have to separate that. You can't just re-write history because he was bad. Good or bad, what he did was what he did. And you shouldn't try to teach that we shouldn't celebrate Columbus day because he was bad. You can lay out the facts and let people decide for themselves their view of him. But he wasn't the only person on the ship. There were other people on other ships as well who WEREN'T bad people who probably DIDN'T agree with all of Columbus' decisions, but we don't know about them. And I admit it's a shame that we know very little about those other people. And the anti-early America agenda. I couldn't help making connections between what early European settlers and the American government did to Native Americans and the things that Sandwhich and the early Regalian's did to other species in the Underland in order to take possession of the land they wanted. Including the poisoning of water sources. And then the references to the plague being used as a weapon. Which reminded me of the Native American's being given a "gift" of blankets that just also happened to be infested with small pox. I'm not saying any of this was RIGHT. It was downright REPULSIVE. But we don't do that anymore. Well, at least as so far as our government lets on.....I'm just saying the attitude it was portrayed in wasn't conducive to what I think she wanted to accomplish. You need to accept that mistakes were made, and it's a shame that they did, but that the best way to show you believe that is to make an individual change. Don't condemn our nation because of some really bad mistakes. Is Germany forever condemned as a nation because of the Holocaust? Do all of Germany's citizens walk around with their heads hanging because of how ashamed they were that Hitler duped them all into becoming a horror symbol to the world of some of the most heinous crimes against humanity AND the most RECENT horrific offenses in world history of that magnitude? I don't think so. I mean, I've never been to Germany, but I've had several friends live there for varying durations from 18-24 months and that's not the scene they paint of the people of Germany. They acknowledge and they say that they regret it happened. That they wish they could change the past, but they can't, so instead they are looking to build a better future to ensure they are never sweet talked by another leader again or allow such crimes to repeat themselves. At least not on their watch.

The character of Mrs. Cormaci makes a comment about war and how we're brought up to treat others kindly and to hurt someone is a crime and then you become a soldier and shipped out and told to kill and how that has to do something to you. It does. But I think the soldiers who are most resilient are the ones who know exactly what and who they are fighting for. They are fighting for the freedoms they want and the for the people they love. They never  get to the point where they ENJOY what they do, but they realize that in order to prevent extreme suffering, they must do what they must do.

There was even a touch on "pupettering" I don't know how to spell the term correctly, but when there is a person who is the leader, but not the mastermind. Some wonder if Hitler was the mastermind behind the Holocaust or if it was really one of his advisors who used flattery and manipulation because he couldn't rally the people the way Hitler could. The Bane is really only the leader of the rats because of the coincidence of his color and size in relation to the Prophecy of Bane, and because of how Twirltongue flatters and manipulates him to believe certain things. But Twirltongue knows she could never BE the leader. So she simply controls the leader with her agenda.

Anyway, despite all of that going on....and my daughter and I read this one out loud to each other, and she didn't pick up on most of this, and a few things I pointed out and we discussed how we felt about it and how it plays into our Christian value system and when war is ok and when it is not, etc. and when God sanctions an act that is a "thou shalt not" in the commandments. So it did open up some good dialog, even if it was a bit annoying in its blatancy.

The other thing I couldn't quite figure out if there was an agenda to it or not was the Prophecy's. Ripred admits to Gregor that he doesn't-and has never-believed in the prophecy's written by Sandwhich that if you stayed long enough, any number of things could be made to fit into it. And if something looks like it's going along and then changes, they say they must not have fully understood it. Also, it brings up the power of suggestion-did people do things in the prophesy because it suggested they should? Or would it have happened regardless? They've had to re-interpret things to fit what was written before, and chalked it up to lack of understanding. Ripred has used it to his advantage, but has manipulated it too in order to accomplish a task at hand. I don't know if this was a stab at religion or not, because Sandwhich was not a religious figure, and therefore, we have no idea where his "authority" to even make prophecy's would be. Although I guess a prophecy doesn't need to be religious in nature, although when it's not I've usually seen it referenced as something else, like predictions or foreseeing. I think the word prophecy denotes that it came from a prophet, which is a religious figure. Anyhow, giving something the title of prophecy makes it sound more serious, more legitimate, and more weighty and therefore have more power over the mind.

I'm not entirely sure I like where things ended, but when you go on a journey with characters, the story has to end somewhere and you will always be left wondering what happened to them after, but this series left with more questions unanswered than others. Even Hunger Games at least let you know what happened with key players-whether you liked it was a different story-and Harry Potter had a great epilogue. Here, Gregor's family still doesn't know what they are going to do, Regalia has a brighter future than ever, but you still wonder if it can be pulled off, and how.

There were still twists and turns and very unexpected things that kept you hanging on the brink. I would still recommend this series, but I would also highly recommend that if your child is reading them, that you read them as well and have some really great conversations with them.