Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

I wanted to see this movie since I saw the first preview, but never did.  I found the book in a secondhand store and decided it would probably be a better read anyway, and it sat for months.  Finally I’ve read it, and I’m sure the movie is good, but aren’t the books always better?  I have my own image of Oskar, his family, the friends he meets and places he goes all floating in my imagination, and no matter how good the movie is, it can’t beat my own inventions of the characters.

Oskar is a nine year-old boy who lost his father two years ago in the World Trade Center on 9-11.  He has a brilliant imagination, but struggles so much from the sudden loss of his best friend and dad, Thomas.  The book triangulates between Oskar’s adventure of finding the lock to match a key he found in a new vase his father had hidden in his room, and letters from Oskar’s grandpa to his son (Oskar’s dad), and letters from Oskar’s grandma to Oskar.

Oskar’s grandparents grew up in Dresden, which was bombed in WWII while they were growing up.  Oskar’s grandpa, Thomas Sr., was in love with Anna (Oskar’s grandma’s sister) and she died in the bombing.  Thomas Sr. was devastated by the loss and happened to bump into her sister years later when they both moved to New York City.  They married and settled down, but both struggled with the loss of Anna.  Soon, Thomas Sr. decided to leave as he felt he wasn’t living or loving as he wished he could, but just before he left his wife confessed she was pregnant.  Thomas Sr was torn, but wrote letters to his unborn son every day, and continued to do so to the day he found out his son died decades later.

The key Oskar found was in an envelope that had the word ‘Black’ written on it in red ink, which led Oskar to believe it was a name, not a color.  He embarked on a journey to find every person in the phone book named ‘Black’ and ask them if they knew what the key was for.  He met many nice people along the way.  A favorite character of mine was A. R. Black, a 103 year-old man who happened to live in the apartment above Oskar.  He was a war correspondent and traveled extensively to cover news of the wars through the years.  He collected many things and had a passion for life.  He was once engaged to F Scott Fitzgerald’s sister.  Mr. Black and Oskar became close and they went together for months searching for the other ‘Blacks’.

The book has many clues throughout it, and many connections between characters and events, so it makes it a little difficult to write about without giving much away.  I liked that.  I think mourning and dealing with the loss of loved ones ties everything together.  Thomas Sr. wandered around lost, trying to get on with life after he lost Anna, but never settling kept him from ever knowing his son.  Oskar was also wandering around New York searching for the lock that matched his key, as a way of finding closure from losing his father. We might never understand why people are taken from our lives, why they die, or why they leave, but the book does a good job of looking into it, and showing the different perspectives.

Rating: *********9/10

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Col. Chris Hadfield

Wow, a very enjoyable book.  I grew up with a father who followed the news of space and he even took us to watch a shuttle launch in Florida one summer.  Reading and watching programs about space exploration and science have been fascinating and this book was no exception.  I first learned about Colonel Chris Hadfield as many others have, singing a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while in orbit in the space station (Click here for video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo ).  As a teacher, I shared multiple youtube videos of Hadfield in space demonstrating things like what happens to the water when you wring out a wet towel, or how you throw up in space.  Students loved the Canadian Space Agency’s youtube channel and it was a go to on many days in the classroom.

So now to the book.  Let me begin the review by including Hadfield’s description of the night sky from the International Space Station, one of the nicest lines I’ve read in literature, “The night sky was beautiful, too: fine-spun necklaces of countless tiny lights dressed up the jet-black cloak covering Earth.” (p179)

As a child in the 1960’s, Hadfield watched the astronauts land on the moon in 1969 from his neighbors house in rural Canada.  From then on he dreamed of being an astronaut.  At the time, this was impossible.  Canada had no space agency and only Americans and Russians were allowed into the space programs.  He never gave up on his dream, and in 1995 he made it into orbit.  The first third of his book was very motivational and told how he got to the position he achieved.  Many times, he asked himself, “What would I need to do to get myself closer to the dream?”  He studied mechanical engineering, flew fighter jets in the service and became a test pilot, all preparing him for the impossible. Until one day, NASA opened up their applications to other counties and Colonel Hadfield made the cut.

The last two-thirds of the book went into great detail of training, launching, living in space, and landing.  Riddled in with the technical details, Hadfield included many personal stories which helped bring the reader into the book at a more personal level.

Many people wonder, what does an astronaut do when they aren’t in space.  As Hadfield explains, the astronauts train for nearly two years after they have been assigned a mission, before the blast-off.  Many medical tests, and simulations are done to ensure the safety and success of a mission.  Planning, practicing, and executing are essential for space exploration.  Hadfield made a great point that being successful at any profession finds necessity in these ideals.  Perhaps, though, preparation is a little more thorough in space exploration.  It makes more sense to have a few individuals who are ‘jacks of all trades’ than to have a specialist in each need on board.  Astronauts are trained in dentistry, plumbing, electronics, robotics, just to name a few skills they have on their repertoire.

Hadfield wrote “Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.  When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.” (p65)

In all honesty, I could probably write a book about this book.  I really liked it and found so many interesting points he made and stories he told.  I recommend it to any and all who have the slightest interest in aviation, space exploration, or just want to know what it’s like to be a successful person.  Colonel Chris Hadfield, thanks for a great read.

Rating: **********10/10

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Number the Stars – Lois Lowry

“…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one.  That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.”

-Kim Malthe-Bruun

This excerpt was from a real letter written by a young man who was part of the Denmark resistance of Nazi occupied forces, from his prison cell just before he was executed.  While Lowry’s story was fictional, she explained in the Afterword that stories like this were true and provided this sample to illustrate how the people of Denmark worked together to save the lives of thousands of Jewish citizens.

In her fictional story, Number the Stars, Lowry introduced the readers to the Johansen family.  The main character, Annemarie, her younger sister, Kristi, and her parents.  Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen was a Jewish girl living in the same apartments and the two were nearly inseparable.  During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the time came when the German soldiers attempted to relocate the Jewish citizens.  The bravery of the Johansen family was told as they risked their lives to save their friends from the unknown dangers of the relocations.

Annemarie discovered a secret language of codes used by her family. At first she thought it was strange and was angry that her family would lie to her, but she discovered it made it easier for one to be brave if they don’t know the entire truth.  She found her uncle and father talking of delivering a carton of cigarettes to be strange, but the carton turned out to be the code for her friend, Ellen, who was to be taken to a safe place.  Good weather for fishing came to mean, a good time to take the Jewish friends to a safe place as well.

While the story was fictional, the reader experiences with the characters what it means to be brave and overcome life and death challenges.  I enjoy reading stories of the brave persevering during tough times, who doesn’t?  Lowry is an exceptional writer with other works like The Giver, if you haven’t read any of her work, you are missing out!

Rating: *********9/10

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

A Pulitzer winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces had me locked in from the beginning.  It’s a comedic tale of Ignatious Reilly and his mishaps in New Orleans.  He is a peculiar man, set in his thoughts and ways. He wears a green hunting cap at all times to protect his ears from noise and climate with the built-in muffs.  He is overtly religious and pushes his thoughts onto others by explaining their faults and calling them ‘mongoloids’. The ease of his harsh attitude is one of the great humors in the novel. He is a graduate of higher education, nevertheless, an unemployed son living with his poor mother.

Ignatious lives with his mother in a run-down house in New Orleans, his father passed some twenty years before.  While waiting for his mother during a shopping excursion, Ignatious was stopped by a policeman who attempted to arrest him for vagrancy.  His mother was so upset, she backed her car into a building and was liable for the damages.  With no other means of income to pay for the damage, Ignatious was sent out to finally find a  job.  His previous attempts at employment had found him banned from the public library, so he was not exactly thrilled to find himself stomping the streets for a job.

Myrna Minx was a cohort of Ignatious from his college days.  She pushed political agendas and fought social injustice.  As ignatious wandered through his journey of employment, he penned and received letters from Myrna in New York, trying to out-do each other in their absurd lives.  She always pushed Ignatious to break out of his reclusive shell of his room and sexual repression.

Officer Mercuso attempted to arrest Ignatious in the beginning, he was also the first on the scene when Mrs. Reilly wrecked her car.  He developed a friendly relationship with Mrs. R and introduced her to his Aunt Santa.  Ignatious believed his mother was betraying him by spending time with the family of the ‘mongoloid Mercuso’. Eventually, Santa introduced her to a man, Mr. Robichaux, a retired man who adored Mrs. Reilly.

Jones, an African American worked in the Night of Joy for less than minimum wage to avoid vagrancy.  He was constantly at ends with Ms. Lee, the owner.  She believed she ran into some luck having a worker at a discount who was afraid of losing his job.  At the same time, she was involved with a ‘charity’ which Jones believed was a sham, and he was dedicated to taking her down.

Levy Pants was an old company from which Ignatious gained employment.  He loved the job, he was free to do as he pleased there.  This did not last long as he rallied the factory workers to stage a protest that proved calamitous.

To the embarrassment of his mother, Paradise Hot Dogs offered Ignatious a job as a hot dog vendor.  The portly Ignatiious ate as he pleased and brought home very little pay to his mother to help pay the damages.

Interestingly, all the characters and places were tied together by the end of the story.  Seemingly unrelated, the writer was developing a cast of characters who were all unique and peculiar in their own way.  The humor of each chapter kept the pages turning, a really enjoyable and exciting read!

Rating: *********9/10

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God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian – Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is a favorite, so this may be a little biased, ha.  Though “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” may sound quite morbid and unappealing, the book was quite interesting.  Vonnegut compiled several short pieces from a show he did on public radio in the late 1990’s, each visiting a different character in history.  Here’s the catch: he wrote as if he went through a blue tunnel up to the pearly gates of heaven assisted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who made him just dead enough to get Vonnegut there and then to safely bring him back from the dead.  At under 80 pages, this was a quick but satisfying read.  He was able to quote memorable historical figures, friends, and acquaintances as he visited about 20 dead souls in heaven.

First, Vonnegut stated that this does not reflect his religious views (as the president of the American Humanist Association), but was a fun way to look at different perspectives of history.  Humorously, he interviewed Isaac Newton, who said he can’t forgive himself for overlooking the theories of evolution and relativity (even though he invented the reflecting telescope and calculus).  Hitler was interviewed, asking for forgiveness.  Yes, Hitler was in heaven, Vonnegut said there was no hell and that everyone simply went to heaven, because nobody knows, who can say he’s wrong?  Isaac Asimov was also interviewed and asked how he became such a prolific writer (over 500 novels).  He replied with one word, “escape,” followed by quoting Satre, saying “Hell is other people.” Vonnegut even wrote in his mysterious alter-ego, Kilgore Trout into an interview.

I have enjoyed all I’ve read by Vonnegut and this was no exception.  His witty and thoughtful work did a nice job of exploring the afterlife and people who have influenced himself and the world.  A quick read, not to be taken seriously, it was a nice ‘brain break’ from the world, if only for a short time.

Rating: **********10/10