Friday, July 25, 2014

Praise for In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

Late last night, or rather early this morning, I finished reading Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. I purchased this book with nothing to go on but my interest in WWII history and satisfaction with other works by Erik Larson - notably Devil in the White City and Isaac's Storm. I was not disappointed.

Those seeking a more shocking account of the atrocities committed during the war might be disappointed, for this book tells the story of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and his family during Hitler's rise to power. Ambassador Dodd was not the popular choice for the post, and his daughter Martha's zest for romantic encounters and her generally free spirit raised some eyebrows. She cavorted with young Nazi officers and a Russian spy alike, and it's worth noting that it is a mark of her time that her character is called into question for merely behaving almost as brashly as the men around her. Ultimately, Martha and Ambassador Dodd see the true and horrific nature of Hitler and his party and disassociate with them as much as possible while still in Germany. Dodd refused to attend Nazi rallies, making enemies at home and abroad as he chose to do the difficult but morally correct thing and uphold the values of democracy and freedom.

In this text, Larson paints a vivid account of what living in Germany was like during Hitler's rise, and begins to answer the question that so many have asked: how could so many people follow such a fascist, evil regime? In an honest account of the strengths and weaknesses of Germany, readers can begin to understand the depths of fear and control that permeated the country. Those who openly questioned Hitler's authority were killed, and while this doesn't justify the atmosphere of appeasement that occurred, it does explain it.

Once again, Larson's mastery of a flowing, narrative style to convey history, rich with cited primary sources, makes this book a page-turner. Now, on to Thunderstruck!

Eulogy for Melva

Recently, I faced the solemn task of trying to capture in words all that my grandmother meant to me. I felt honored to honor her at her funeral service, but I did worry about what to share; how much of my personal connection with my grandmother should be discussed versus an overall tribute that everyone would recognize as the woman they knew and loved? Ultimately, I decided that the same traits that made her such an incredibly loving force in my life would be instantly recognizable to others as what they knew about my grandma. Three of us spoke at the service, each with a different approach, and I think that, together, we did the best we could to capture the compassion, wit, and love that my grandmother exemplified. Some friends asked me to share what I wrote, so it follows here:

3 6 9 0 9 8 7. Imagine the numbers on a phone’s touchpad. 3 6 9 0 9 8 7.

            “There’s an easy way to remember this if you ever need me,” my grandma told me.

            She guided my tiny finger over the numbers as she showed me how the numbers 3,6,9,0,9,8,7 made a line down and back across the dial.

            You see, I wasn’t always able to see my grandma as a child, but she wanted to make sure I remembered that she was always there for me if I needed her.

            Of course I needed her. I don’t think a more loving, compassionate, talented, and incredibly beautiful woman ever lived.

            I needed her to take care of me, and she did. She taught me how to cook everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches toasted with real butter, not margarine, to bacon that was crisp and very well done – the way we agreed all meats should be prepared. She gave me beautiful flowing nightgowns because she thought I should feel beautiful, even in my sleep. We visited Northpark Mall quite regularly, where we talked and walked – and walked really quickly, by the way. She might have had short legs, but we would weave in and out of slower walkers and she could run laps around people with much longer legs. On these excursions, grandma often insisted that I pick out a new outfit. Being very frugal, I would head straight to the clearance rack to try to save her money. She would get so frustrated with me because she wanted me to feel that I was worth more. “If you like what’s on clearance, then buy it, but don’t buy something you don’t like just because it’s a few dollars less.” Of course, the underlying message was always that I had value, and she didn’t want me to forget that.

            I needed her to be a role model, and she was. No, she is. My grandma shared her stories with me but also listened to mine. I learned that despite our difference in years, we had a great deal in common. We joked about our Taurus traits – loyalty and stubbornness. When I admitted to her that I had skipped school one day to drive to Lake Murray in Oklahoma with Erik, she told me about the time she skipped school to go drag racing. We discussed serious issues and social injustices as easily as we discussed favorite colors and movies. She taught me to communicate – through song, if necessary. I learned that my propensity to alter the lyrics of songs to fit the occasion was a family gift that originated with her dad, who would often wake his daughters up in this way. Perhaps the greatest of all values that my grandmother instilled in me is the ability to put myself in the place of others and to remember that everyone is facing some form of adversity. She taught me that words are powerful, and that kind words can work miracles. My grandmother followed her heart and went after what she wanted. So when she decided that she wanted to sing on live radio and landed the job, she also found her accompanist for life in her handsome pianist. Several of us would not be here today if not for her passion for music and her tenacity.

            I needed her to guide me, and she did. My grandmother exuded love and warmth every second we were together and made me feel secure – something that was lacking at home. In this atmosphere of safety, she helped me explore my interests and encouraged me to read. The copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she lent me taught me that my situation did not define or limit me, and that education would shape my life and provide new opportunities. I would not be an English teacher today if not for grandma’s encouragement and her passion for reading and insistence that I follow my dreams. I was going to say that any time I needed advice, she gave it to me, but that’s not quite right. When I thought I needed advice, grandma would talk with me until I clearly understood what I wanted to do and why I needed to do it. I don’t know if she learned stealthy counseling super-powers during the many years she worked at SMU’s mental health clinic, or if this, as I suspect, was a natural gift of hers, but I always felt more confident, empowered, and at peace after talking with my grandmother.

When I was 18, I needed her to answer the phone. A very difficult year left me estranged from my family, living overseas, and not knowing how to get in touch with anyone. And then I remembered.

            The lesson she taught me as a child echoed in my memory as I looked at the phone and dialed: 3 6 9 0 9 8 7. My grandma’s warm, musical voice greeted me, and her unwavering love and support immediately healed all wounds. I have valued every year since, knowing her not only as a wonderful grandmother, but also as a friend. You’re all here not only because you know what an enlightening presence Melva was in this world, but also because we have all been blessed by how she enriched, and will continue to enrich, each of our lives.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Really Wanted to Appreciate This Book

I just finished Uri Orlev's novel Run, Boy, Run. It relates the true (yet partially fictionalized) account of a young Jewish boy who fights to survive during WWII against all odds.
Being fairly well-versed in Holocaust literature and memoirs, I understand that many survivors have seemingly impossible stories. Impossible because of the depths of evil that occurred and impossible because of the strength, courage, and perseverance of others. Yet these events did occur, and it's important that the world does not forget.
This is where I felt disappointed with the book. It has the abstract feeling of inauthenticity. It just doesn't quite ring true, and I feel like this does a disservice to the very real survivor depicted in the novel. I understand that some holes in the story must be filled in with the best information possible, but I don't feel that this has been seamlessly done here. Maybe I've been spoiled by Erik Larson.
Here's the problem: Goodreads tells me I'm wrong. People love this book. Am I judging it too harshly against the more mature literature I usually read? This book is clearly geared toward middle-schoolers. I think they would be enthralled and able to relate (on some levels) to the story's protagonist. If this is a gentler introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust, isn't that a good thing? The book also provides an alternate story of pain and loss not centered on a death camp. I do respect this focus on a different aspect of the realities of war.
Ultimately, I recommend this book for young adult audiences, preferably with a knowledgeable adult with whom to discuss the history behind the book.

Friday, July 4, 2014

You Can’t Buy an Aztec Pyramid at Kmart!

You Can’t Buy an Aztec Pyramid at Kmart!

By Amber Counts

Of all the teachers who shaped me, for better or worse, there are a few I wish I could speak with now that I am an adult. I was fortunate enough to tell two of my favorites just how much they meant to me before they retired, and I’m still trying to track down my high school biology teacher, Mr. Reichle, though I fear he is no longer with us, to tell him how much his encouragement, expectations, and enthusiasm still mean to me. However, there is one teacher with whom I would have a very different conversation if given the chance.

            In Spanish I, we were asked to construct a cultural or architectural artifact from an ancient culture that once existed in a region that currently speaks Spanish. Inspired by their architecture, I decided to construct an Aztec pyramid. I studied pictures in encyclopedias and library books and bought supplies at the craft store with money I had earned babysitting.

            Based on careful research, I meticulously measured and cut the balsa wood and glued the pieces together to build a replica of the pyramid. Once dry and structurally sound, I sprayed the model with Fleck Stone – a new type of spray paint at the time, and not cheap by my standards – to make it look like stone. The results were pretty impressive, even up to the impossibly high standards I set for myself.

            The day came to turn in projects, and the first clue that things weren’t going to work out as they should came when my Spanish teacher laughed at me, in front of the entire class, for listing items like “X-acto knife” and “pencil” on my supply list. She had said to list everything we used, but clearly she didn’t really mean “everything.” After berating me in front of my peers, she gave me an “F” on my project.

            “I think you bought this,” she taunted me.

I had never spoken back to this hateful teacher, nor any teacher, before. Not even when she got mad at me because there wasn’t a close enough Spanish version of my name and I had to go with “Amalia” for class purposes. I just couldn’t stomach the injustice of this accusation.

“You can’t buy Aztec pyramids at Kmart! Where, exactly, am I supposed to have bought this?”

With a cold sneer spreading across her lips, she responded slowly and quietly. “Get out of my class, Amalia.”

And I did. I dropped Spanish, but that “F” remained on my report card.

When I think of my former teachers, good and bad, I try to make sure I take the best properties of each and mimic those traits in my own teaching style, but I also remember not to make my students feel the way that my Spanish teacher made me feel.

I always used to think that if I ran into my former Spanish teacher, I would stand up for myself in a way I couldn’t in my youth and tell her what miserable person she is. But now, I would thank her, for she taught me valuable lessons about what kind of teacher I want to be, and I never doubt that my students are capable of impressive feats. I never forget that I am their advocate.