Monday, February 1, 2016

War

Author: Sebastian Junger
Published: 2010
Length: 287 pages/7 hours, 21 minutes
Source: Personal library/library audiobook

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5

War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is a smaller game that young men fall in love with.

These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees where the men feel not most alive--that you can get skydiving--but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger took five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, a volatile area "too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off." There the insurgency engaged in raids and ambushes at a level of intensity and frequency unequaled by any other area in Afghanistan. Junger chose to be embedded with Battle Company, Second Platoon precisely because of the high stakes involved. His goal was to find out how soldiers function in a hyper-dangerous situation in an isolated area. How do they deal with fear? How do they feel about killing?  What kind of relationships do they form and how does that affect their effectiveness? 

For the most part setting aside the big picture--the context of the war, political wrangling, and ramifications of the counterinsurgency--Junger focuses on the most primal emotion--their need to survive. A successful unit (one that "survives") is one that choreographs its actions best, in which each member makes decisions not about what is best for himself, but for the group as a whole. Whether they live or die can depend on this group functionality based on a complete sacrifice of self. 

This reveals the somewhat uncomfortable truth that Junger exposes that even though war is horrible, it is not all bad. Often these young men have a sense of purpose and a clear self-identity that they never had before. They have a brotherhood with a rock-solid assurance that each would sacrifice himself for another in a heartbeat.  As Junger points out, this is not a situation that is often replicated in every day life. But in the Korengal Valley, it was a certainty that was empowering for both individual and team:
You could be anything back home--shy,ugly, rich, poor, unpopular--and it won't matter because it's of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to fake (page 234).
Combat is also very exciting--an adrenaline rush. Scary as hell, yes, but also potentially addictive. Junger suggests that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up and return to a normal life. They "miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted."  Nearly everyone who died in the Korengal Valley died at unexpected times, making them aware that anything they did was "potentially the last thing they'd ever do." How does this affect life after service?  For one soldier it could mean a life always yearning for the intensity of combat and the inability to create as strong of a bond with anyone other than his brothers that fought by his side. Another soldier might continue  to serve many years to hold on to the structure and relationships forged. After returning to normal life after his time embedded with Battle Company, Junger experienced an amplification of emotions, finding himself moved to tears at weddings and other happy occasions. Junger illustrates poignantly that war is bad, but it is not all bad.

War gave me a unique perspective on life in the military. I've been reading different war memoirs and accounts over the last year or so to better understand the sacrifice that individuals make to serve our country. Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed:At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge are both excellent memoirs about WWII. American Sniper by Chris Kyle made me realize that a hero might very well be someone I would dislike in real life. Fearless by Eric Blehm is not so much a war account as the road to the decision of a drug addict to become a Navy SEAL. Although it was seemed overly sanitized, I admit that I cried like a baby through the whole book. War delved deeper into the psychological, physiological, and emotional experience than these other accounts did. 

No matter how much I read I know that it is impossible for me to fully understand the experience of a soldier, but I feel the need to a least try to get a glimpse into the lives of those who put their lives on the line for a cause larger than themselves. Some might not enlist for patriotic reasons. Maybe they are trying to escape a life of trouble, or feel a need to prove themselves. Or maybe they feel like they were made for combat. Additionally, as War shows, once in combat the larger picture of the war is usually the farthest thing from their minds. Their "cause" becomes having each others backs through firefight after firefight. But intentions and tactics don't make their sacrifice any less. I'm grateful.

 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Published: 2013
Length: 404 pages
Source: Library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5


All good things in life are fragile and easily lost.

Cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.

I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that.



A bedtime story should have a balance between delight and comfort--a tale to send the listener off into the land of Nod with positive, peaceful vibes. This is not the case with the story that Saboor, a loving but impoverished father living in a small Afghan village, tells his children Abdullah and Pari at the opening of this book. "So then," he begins.  "You want a story and I will tell you one." 

He then continues to tell them about a poor farmer who must sacrifice his favorite child to a div or the whole family will be killed. They must "cut off the finger to save the hand."  When he travels to the div's fort to kill it and retrieve his son, he is given a choice.  He can take his son home, depriving him of the joyful paradise that the div has provided, or he can let his son stay, which means the heartbroken father will never see his son again.  He chooses the less selfish choice--to let his son stay and live a better life than he would back home. Mercifully, the div gives the farmer a potion that wipes away his memory, a reward for choosing his son's happiness over his own. 

Thus the tone is set for the rest of the novel. Not a narrative to send one off into sweet dreams, but rather a heavy load to keep one awake. Hard choices. Separation from loved ones. The haunting or forgetting of memories. Guilt. Hopeless causes. The morning after Saboor tells his children the story of the div, he sells Pari to a wealthy couple in Kabul.  She will have a better life.  Saboor's family will not starve the next winter. But Abdullah, who has a deep connection with his sister, will be heartbroken for years.

The separation of Abdullah and Pari frames a collection of stories of other characters that have some connection to the pair, but with timelines and heartaches all their own.  Pari's Uncle Nabi is in love with Nila Wahdati, the rich woman who buys Pari.  But she is always beyond his grasp, and she takes Pari to Paris with her after her husband has a stroke and he never sees her again. Mr. Wahdati has feelings for Nabi that will never be requited even though Nabi stays with him for the rest of his life. Pari's mother has a tragic past riddled with guilt, which she lives with everyday. These characters and several more all try to find meaning in tragedy while at the same time grappling with the potential for poison or distance in any relationship.

Hosseini also introduces a couple of other characters with weaker connections to the siblings, but they allow him to explore what people do (or don't do) to ease the suffering of others. Idris is a doctor (and former neighbor of the Wahdatis) who visits Afghanistan and meets a young girl, Rashi, who has been mutilated.  He promises that he will make arrangements and pay for her to have surgery.  Once he returns to America, though, he gradually rationalizes away the need to help her. On the other hand there is Amra, a foreign aid worker who gives up a normal life to help people like Rashi. She seems to be a naturally altruistic person who is genuine and dependable.  We also meet Mr. Markos, a plastic surgeon who works in turbulent places like Afghanistan (and lives in the Wahdati's old house).  We watch his growth from a child who shuns an acquaintance because he is horrified by her dog-mauled face to a self-centered young man traveling the world. But ultimately he takes on the role of a surgeon willing to risk his own personal safety to help other people. The message is clear--intentions are not enough.  If we want to make a difference and ease the pain of a troubled world, we need to take action, even though it is inconvenient, or even dangerous. 

It is the inclusion of these stories of selflessness that prevent this collection of heartbreaking narratives from reducing the reader to complete misery. The chapters leap around in time which lends to a bit of confusion, but I just let go of the idea of having it all clear in my head.  The historical timeline is much less important in this book than Hosseini's others.  And the Mountains Echoed is more psychological, and the characterizations more complex than The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and these take center stage over the events in Afghanistan and other settings in the story. 

One complaint: I'm not a fan of using letters as a device in novels when they are much more personal than any letter would ever realistically be. Nabi writes a letter to Mr. Markos explaining the history of Abdullah and Pari, which is important, but he also includes details about his infatuation with Nila, Mr. Wahdati's obsession with him and other things. It's a long letter. I think an author needs to choose between a letter that is as impersonal as a letter to a stranger would be, or choose another style/device that allows all of the inner/personal details to be revealed in a more organic way. I don't know--maybe people are more open in their letters than I would be...

All in all, it's a beautiful book. Hosseini has already established himself as a masterful storyteller in his previous novels.  He applies his talents to a new format and a different focus in And the Mountains Echoed, and I loved it.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mini Bloggiesta January 16-17

Winter Mini Bloggiesta 2016





This mini Bloggiesta is just what I need right now.  I really feel like I'm starting all over, so my to-do list is pretty basic:

  • Rediscover and add links to my favorite blogs.  I've started this but haven't been able to devote a huge chunk of time to it yet. Every time I remember or come across an old favorite it makes me happy.
  • Visit other participants and see what they're up to. And other blogs too. I should probably put a number goal on this but I just can't even figure out what that number would be. 
  • Complete at least two mini-challenges
  • Write a post with mini-reviews of my favorites reads over the past year or two since I've been absent from blogging
  • Update my index pages of reviews
  • Tweet.  Something.  I'm finding I like Twitter better than I did a couple of years ago.  Probably because I now have a phone that has internet.
  • Relearn some basic html. I seem to have forgotten some things.
That's all I can think of for now, and that list might be too much. But it will be fun, no stress involved!  


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster
Originally Published: 1961
Length: 256 pages
Source: Nook
Challenge: Back to the Classics 2016

Personal Enjoyment Factor:4.5/5


When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going.  Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him--least of all the things that should have.


Young Milo is letting the wonder of life pass by unobserved and unappreciated.  Youth truly is wasted on the young! But that's all about to change when he arrives home to find a mysterious tollbooth waiting in his bedroom.  Without much hesitation, he takes the bait and embarks on a journey to a land filled with whimsy, wonder, conflict and uncertainty. Milo learns to live in the moment and open his mind to new ideas, all while becoming an unlikely hero determined to bring Rhyme and Reason back to a land embittered by a battle between words and numbers. 

I read this because my daughter told me to and you always read what your daughter tells you to read.  I remember seeing this book in my school library when I was in fourth grade. (I can still vividly picture my elementary school library and many of the books I checked out.  I wonder if that's normal?) I never read it, and I've always assumed it was about a ghost named "Tollbooth." And that Tollbooth was a dog with a clock on him.  I was obviously wrong, but there's really no way to anticipate what this book has in store for its readers. A symphony that composes the colors in the world. A Valley of Sound plagued by silence. A market of words.  I loved the witty puns and the power of words. One of my favorites was the wagon that moves when everyone is silent--it "goes without saying."  And I  loved the banquet where they gave "speeches" listing foods, because they "ate their words." My speech would go like this: 

"Avocados, enchiladas, asparagus, Chex mix, Diet Coke Lime, banana cream pie." 

 I think I'd be sick, but in this case I wouldn't mind eating my words.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016



My first challenge of the year and the first in a long time!! The Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 is hosted by Karen from Books and Chocolate.  Here are my picks:


1.  A 19th Century Classic - Our Mutual Friend  by Charles Dickens or Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Two fat books that I've wanted to tackle for a long time. 


2.  A 20th Century Classic -  A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. I have the cutest little hardcover of this one.  It has been collecting a handful of dust on the bookshelf.


3.  A classic by a woman author. Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot.  One of the last of hers that I haven't read.  Not sure what to expect. 


4.  A classic in translation.   The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.  This one sounds so intriguing to me.  It's quite long, so I hope it's good.

5.  A classic by a non-white author.  Twelve Years a Slave by Simon Northup.  Just on my radar with the movie out fairly recently.


6.  An adventure classic -  Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Just for pure fun, I hope.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  I started this before deciding to do the challenge, but luckily started on January 1, so it's in keeping with the rules.


8.  A classic detective novel.  The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler.  This will be the second I've read by Chandler.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson or The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  I've tried this one once before and was lost.  A friend from a book club was talking about how much she loved it so I'm inspired to give it another try.  Hopefully the second time is a charm. 


11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  Undecided.  First I need to remember that far back. 


12. A volume of classic short stories. Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton.  I love Wharton and have heard good things about this collection.

(The formatting is coming out weird on this post and I can't figure out how to fix it.  Clearly I don't know what I'm doing anymore!)




Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year!

It's been over two years since I last posted, so this feels like starting all over again.  Nine years ago I started book blogging with my review of I Capture the Castle.  Back then I did quirky things like make some words really big and I divided my reading  into categories like "Read Aloud" and "Comfy-Chair Reading." I remember the discovery and subsequent addiction to reading challenges, and the novelty and genius of Dewey's first 24-hour-Readathons when there were actually less than 100 participants and you could visit everyone. I remember signing up for my first A to Z Challenge and thinking it would be impossible to read 52 books in a year.  How young and naive I was then!  By the end of the year I had read 126 books, completing the 100+ Challenge.  After that honeymoon phase of binge reading and book blogging--my blog was entitled "ChainReader" back then--I tapered off a bit, but still find my life unfulfilled if I'm not juggling a few books at a time, and I feel like a good benchmark is around 75 books a year.

So here I am at the beginning of 2016, ready to blog again, for pretty much the same reason:  I actually want to remember something about the books I read!  My goal is to review every book I read this year.  I used to do that, but then I didn't.

The last couple of years have been pretty busy.  I went back to school and earned my Bachelor's Degree in History. We moved to a new house.  My husband got a new job.  I sent one daughter off to college in Idaho, and one son off to college in Utah and then on a church mission to Kansas. I served in a stressful but rewarding position at church with the youth.  And I gained about 30 pounds, darn it!

But now I have a little more time to commit to reviewing.  I plan to go back to school in the sort-of-near future to either get a teaching credential or a masters degree.  In the mean time, while I decide what I want to be when I grow up, I figure I have time to read and review. I also have dreams of opening an Etsy shop to sell wooden signs of movie and book quotes and training for a half-marathon.  Oh, and I'm going to lose that 30 pounds, and then some.

I realize I maybe be writing to the air.  The last time I blogged I was still bemoaning the death of Google Reader, and reluctantly signing up with Feedly and Bloglovin. I don't even know if Feedly is still a thing.  I check Bloglovin from time to time, so I know it's there, and I'm on it.  If that even means anything anymore.

So if by chance you're reading this--

Hi!  I'm back.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Moll Flanders

Author: Daniel Defoe
Originally published:1722
Length: 339 pages
Source: Local library
Challenge(s): 18th Century Challenge, 1001+

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3/5

I found by experience, that to be friendless is the worst condition, next to being in want that a woman can be reduced to: I say a woman, because 'tis evident men can be their own advisers, and their own directors, and know how to work themselves out of difficulties and into business better than women; but if a woman has no friend to communicate her affairs to, and to advise and assist her, 'tis ten to one but she is undone.


I love that there is a built-in summary in the long version of the title:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

For modern readers, this may take all the fun out of reading a novel. Back in the 18th Century I suppose it might have been great advertising.  I found it pretty captivating in the beginning, but had to really force myself to keep turning the pages near the end. Moll is a great character because you can admire her one minute, and then be horrified by her actions the next. She gets herself out of devastating situations that a woman without many options would face at that time.  It's sink or swim, and she not only keeps her head above the water, but she makes it to the finish line in first place. On the other hand, she steals from children, takes advantage of people in the midst of tragedies, and tells a lot of lies.  But overall I admired her determination.  In the 17th century, when her story takes place, she survived by becoming a prostitute and a thief, and, perhaps most importantly, managing her money well.  In today's world, she would surely be near the top of the corporate ladder, breaking glass ceilings, without having to commit any crimes.

I read this as part of o's celebration of 18th Century Literature in June.  I really would have liked to have read more.  If only I had a nickel for every time I've said that.