Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Nightingale

Author: Kristin Hannah
Published: 2015
Length: 440 pages
Source: Library e-book

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

"I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain."

"How fragile life was, how fragile they were. Love. It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him, All her life she had waited -longed for - people to love her, but now she saw what she really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it."

Keep a box of tissue nearby while reading this one.  You'll need it for the inevitable blubber-fest, and a tissue makes a convenient bookmark for when you're reading into the wee hours of the night and you're too tired to find the sleek metal one engraved with a George Eliot quote that you paid ten dollars for and never seems to be there when you need it.

This is a widely- read book by now, so I'll keep the summary brief. Hannah tells the story of two sisters and the different courses their lives take in response to the invasion of France by the Nazis during World War II.  Vianne lives a quiet life with her little family, very much dependent upon her husband until he leaves home to fight for France.  Initially, she accommodates herself to the new circumstances, hoping to keep her family safe and keep a low profile.   Her younger sister Isabelle is by nature rebellious, and passionately resists the occupation in any way she can.  Through the many harsh and emotional experiences they have as the war rages on, they learn about themselves, and what they are capable of.

Vianne's slow and sometimes frustrating transformation was a little terrifying for me to read because I saw myself in her.  You always wonder (at least I do) what you would have done in different historical events. Would I have been a Loyalist or a Patriot?  Would I have opposed or supported desegregation if I lived in the South? Would I have backed Hitler when he brought order and pride back to prewar Germany or recognized him as a monster? Of course I'd like to think that I would have resisted the easy path. But I could see myself making some of the same choices Vianne did.  I'd like to think that I wouldn't have offered my best friend's name to the list of Jews the Germans were compiling. But without the hindsight we have now of what happened to the Jews, would I have rationalized the way Vianne did even thought she sensed something was off? But thankfully Vianne grows and changes, and becomes just as much the hero as her impetuous sister, but in her own way.  There is hope for me!

In contrast, Isabelle's story is one of  reckless bravery and passionate romance. Yeah, I really can't relate to that at all. However foreign to me, her narrative contributes the main drama that keeps the finger swiping across the tablet. Under the false identity of Juliet Gervaise, she transports Allied airmen across the Pyrenees into the safety of Spain. She survives a gunshot wound, nurtured by the dashing Gaetan who finally submits to his love for her. As unlikely as some of the romance scenes seem to me, I found myself a little swept away.  Except for their first kiss. Isabelle thinks about how her romantic novels finally made sense, and she realizes that the "landscape of a woman's soul could change as quickly as a world at war"(57). All I could think about was how they probably hadn't brushed their teeth for the three days, and were covered with "sweat and blood and mud and death"(56).  Oh, to be 18 again, I guess.

Overall, this is great historical fiction that is entertaining and empowering, poignant and inspirational. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Author: Marie Kondo
Published: 2014
Length: 213 pages
Source: Overdrive e-book

Personal Enjoyment Factor:  3.5/5

"Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle."

"If sweatpants are your everyday attire, you’ll end up looking like you belong in them, which is not very attractive. What you wear in the house does impact your self-image."

But what if my sweatpants speak to my heart??

This little book truly changed my life! I will never again go into my closet without thinking that my blouses have spirits and my socks are having a party in the drawer--at least as long as I've folded them right. Add to that the traumatic realization that these quasi-sentient articles of clothing have all seen me naked!! I am riddled with new-found guilt because I have neglected for years to thank my purse each day for a job well done. I feel like  a failure because I still hang on to that toilet brush that does not "spark joy."  

But seriously, I appreciate the overall message that Kondo is trying to convey: get rid of the clutter in our lives and only hang on to those items that bring us joy so that we can lead our best lives.Cleaning out definitely resets my mood, and most importantly, it keeps me from buying more useless crap. But I will not get rid of any of my books. I will continue to wear dumpy clothes around the house if I want to.  There are mementos that I just don't want to get rid of, even if they have already served their purposes. And I just can't quite get myself to talk to my possessions, whether it be a "thank you" or a "goodbye." (Sometimes I call them "stupid," but don't tell Marie that.)

Overall, I admit I found the book inspirational--I cleaned out some closets and my boxes of memories with gusto after reading it. But I also laughed so hard I cried in certain sections, which I hope doesn't indicate some sort of cultural insensitivity on my part. I've internalized the lessons I learned from it--many of them pop into my brain as I'm currently helping my husband clean out the garage. I don't go so far as to ask him "Does it spark joy?" Just reasoning, sometimes pleading with him to get rid of so many things that we don't need anymore. It will truly take magic to get it done.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

Author: David E. Hoffman
Published: 2009
Length: 592 pages
Source: Local library
Award: Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2010)

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

     Reagan escorted his guest [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko] down the long colonnade from the West Wing to the main White House mansion for a reception...A small chamber orchestra played classical music. Reagan introduced Nancy.  At the end of the reception, Gromyko took Nancy aside and said, "Does your husband believe in peace?"
     "Of course," she replied.
     "Then whisper 'peace' in your husbands ear every night," he said.
     "I will, and I will also whisper it in your ear," she said. And with that she leaned over with a smile and whispered softly, "Peace."

If only simple whispers of peace in the ears of Soviet and American leaders could have prevented the misguided suspicions and nuclear arms buildup that characterized the Cold War. In The Dead Hand, David E Hoffman offers a new understanding of both sides of the conflict, aided by his access to internal documents of the Soviet Defense Department, as well as memoirs, diaries and interviews. These sources provide an inside view of the attitudes and reactions of the Soviet leadership in the last years of the Cold War. What were Soviet leaders thinking? What did they say to each other behind closed doors? Interwoven with a detailed account of Reagan's horror at the prospect of nuclear war and his reasoning behind "Star Wars," the capture of both perspectives gives the sense of listening in on an intense conversation--a dysfunctional one, but it keeps the pages turning. 

Hoffman includes a terrifying history of the Soviet Union's covert biological weapons program. Brilliant scientists, afraid to refuse assignments from the government or convinced that they needed to counter an alleged secret U.S. program, worked feverishly to genetically engineer pathogens that could wipe out huge populations--smallpox, plague, tularemia, anthrax. The program was so secretive that it is questionable whether Gorbachev knew of it. In contrast, United States stopped research and development of biological weapons in 1969, reasoning that nuclear weapons were a sufficient deterrent. As Nixon said, "If someone uses germs on us, we'll nuke 'em." 

Nixon's statement is a good example of militant rhetoric on both sides that camouflaged the extreme abhorrence with which leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev viewed the possible use of their massive and costly stashes of nuclear weapons.  Each side was convinced that the other side was ready to push the button, and they had to be prepared. The "Dead Hand" refers to the Soviet plans to create a Doomsday machine that would launch a retaliatory strike if their leadership was wiped out by an initial U.S. strike. This horrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon launch free of human decision was never actually operative. Instead, they developed a semi-automatic system called Perimeter.  As for the U.S., Reagan's vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative was never realized, but it showed his concern that an attack from the "Evil Empire" was possible at any time, and we desperately  needed a way to defend ourselves from a fate imagined in "The Day After."  In reality, both sides hoped to avoid WWIII, but the realization of this unfolded at a slow, painful, and costly pace.

I was born in 1973, so I lived through the last chapter of Cold War hostilities. I was blissfully unaware of the frightening possibilities. I saw headlines here and there, and I remember when "The Day After" was televised, but it never really sunk in. I was happy watching MTV and spraying my hair with copious amounts of Sun-In. I would have never imagined that the Soviets were cooking up ways to kill me and my family with smallpox or the plague.  As terrifying as their biological weapons program  was, the real horror is the present danger triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the "leftovers" of the Cold War. The highly enriched uranium and plutonium that sit unguarded in warehouses. The engineers and scientists ready to sell their knowledge and/or weapons to the highest bidder just so they can feed their families. Who will end up with these weapons and the knowledge to develop and manufacture more?  Now that MTV sucks and my hair is gray, I'm a little more aware of what's going on in the world. As frightening as the idea of the Dead Hand was, the legacy of the Cold War is the bigger nightmare.