Saturday, April 18, 2009

have you ever wondered?

Have you ever read a book about some everyday person who, in harrowing circumstances, steps forward and sacrifices his/her life for the benefit of others? Have you ever wondered if you could/would do the same thing? Do you have the strength of character to choose death so someone else can live?

Last night, stretched out on my daybed, I finished The boy who dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, a fictionalized version of the live of Helmuth Huebner, a German teenager of the Mormon faith who, after many years in the Hitler youth, realizes the Nazis are doing terrible things to the German people and decides to fight back. With two young friends, he begins distributing pamphlets condemning the Nazis. In secret, the three boys are listening to the BBC radio broadcasts (something outlawed by Hitler and the Nazis) and learning the true story of the battles in the war and the actions of the German government--the pamphlets are based on the information the boys are hearing through the BBC news reports. When the boys are captured, Helmuth steps forward and takes full responsibility for the pamphlet writing and distribution, knowing that it could lead to his execution. Helmuth's friends are sentenced to years of labor in prison but Helmuth is indeed, at 16, condemned to execution by guillotine.

Bartoletti also wrote Hitler Youth: growing up in Hitler's shadow, a Newbery honor book which is a fascinating look at the propoganda/indoctrination techniques used by the Nazis to ensure that German children grow up to be "good" Germans. It is always so disturbing to me what the Nazis did and how they managed to sell their actions to the German people as beneficial to the Fatherland. I simply do not understand the fear and hatred felt towards Jews, gays, gypsies and all of the other targeted groups.

So, I have been pondering my character and wondering if I would be noble or selfish. My gut feeling is self preservation would win out but who knows. I hope I'm never in a position to find out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

reliving a memory

Back in 1983, I traveled to England with my family. One of our stops was Coventry, best known for Lady Godiva to those outside of England. Coventry was heavily bombed by the Germans during World War II because it was the home of many industries affecting the war. The cathedral was completely destroyed. Shortly after the bombing, a rough cross was made out of burnt timbers and the words "Father forgive" were scrawled on the charred walls behind the altar. After the war, many German youth groups came to Coventry to help with the clean-up of the city. Fast forward to the early 1960s when a new cathedral was built on the land next to the destroyed cathedral. The new cathedral is very modern. The back wall is completely made of glass, etched with angels, and looks out on the charred remains of the old cathedral which have been preserved and turned into a park of sorts: benches, pots of flowers and trees open to the brilliant blue skies over England. It is a very touching sight, one which my mother was particularly taken with.

Why this trip down memory lane? Last night, I finished Helen Humphreys' Coventry, a novel about the bombing. The novel tells the story of two women: Harriet, made a widow by World War I, and Maeve, an artist with a son in his early 20s. The two women had met as young women and had spent a happy, carefree day together, enjoying each other's company but never exchanging names. As the years passed, Harriet just lived, worked at a dull job, managed the apartment building where she lived. Maeve had an affair which resulted in her son, Jeremy, and drifted from place to place, job to job. Jeremy and Harriet meet on the night of the bombing because they are both fire watchers on the roof of the Coventry Cathedral. The novel is the story of the bombing, the search for loved ones and the pain and destruction caused on November 14, 1940.
I read the book on the recommendation of my cohort in crime, the Book Besotted Librarian (aka Cleery) because Helen Humphreys is her favorite author. I really enjoyed the book and have requested another by Ms. Humphreys--The lost garden--which is about the land girls who helped keep farming alive during World War II. So, thank you, Cleery for introducing me to a new author. I hope I can return the favor sometime soon.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

not just maps and beautiful pictures any more

I've been on a nonfiction reading binge, adding to the nonfiction reading list on my library's website. I've read some wonderful books but last's night selection really knocked me between the eyes. It was published by National Geographic, which has been putting out incredible children's fiction, on a huge variety of subjects, over the last ten years or so.

Stretched out on my daybed, I devoured Ain't nothing but a man: my quest to find the real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson. Nelson was fascinated by the folk song about John Henry and decided to get to the bottom of it, hoping to discover a kernel of truth in its verses. The book takes you through his research process and, you soon discover, how much happenstance and just plain luck is involved in historical research. First, there are so many different versions of the song that need to be sifted through for clues, then there are problems gaining access to historical materials (archivists and librarians can be very protective/possessive of their treasures). Being of the library persuasion, the steps he took were fascinating to me--it is stunning what is available on the internet and beyond. When he actually discovered a "John William Henry" on a microfiche of prison records, my heart started beating faster. Please, read this book--it is fabulous!

A few of my other National Geographic favorites are:

Curse of the Pharaohs: my adventures with mummies by Zahi Hawass. Dr. Hawass if the director of antiquities in Egypt and is responsible for current excavations in the country as well as studying/protecting the artifacts--he is a bit like Indiana Jones (but handsomer, sorry Harrison Ford!). He writes about his experiences in excavation sites that are infested with cobras, scorpions and other creatures that don't experience universal love and popularity. His description of a dig when he pounded a hole in a wall only to see two big dark eyes staring back at his is unnerving, to say the least.

African critters by Robert B. Haas. Haas is a wildlife photographer writing of his experiences, including long periods of waiting for the animal, the light, the pose to be just right. His pictures are full of life--the pictures of a cavorting baby elephant are funny and delightful.

Genius: a photobiography of Albert Einstein by Marfe Ferguson Delano. This book almost made me understand the theory of relativity!

I've also read about African-American polar explorer Matthew Henson, Ben Franklin, Elizabeth I, Washington Irving, poetic tributes to the monuments (the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, etc.) of this world, King Tut, Annie Sullivan who served as Helen Keller's eyes, a young Dutch girl interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. I'm awaiting Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, the story of Mary Todd Lincoln's friendship with her African-American seamstress (anything to do with Lincoln fascinates me).

Aren't you glad that National Geographic is more than the magazine with a yellow border that nobody seems able to throw away?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

pass me a tissue (or ten), please

I read a lot of reviews for children's books and request a lot of books because of those reviews (and sometimes wonder why in the world I requested a book when it finally comes in...but that is another story). One of the frequently starred books this year is Ways to live forever by Sally Nicholls. My, oh my, what a heart-wrenching book.

The books starts with a list of things you need to know about 11-year-old Sam. One thing: he has leukemia. Another: he will be dead by the time you read this book. Ouch.

Sam is home schooled because of his health problems and one of his assignments is to write about himself. His autobiography includes a list of his life dreams, including having a girlfriend and riding in an airship. He asks a lot of questions about death, natural for someone facing that big unknown. He complains about relatives who come to visit him, bearing fancy gifts and then ignoring him. He feels restricted by his in-denial father and his overprotective mother. He is an endearing narrator.

I could not put this book down. I completely fell apart--sobs and buckets of tears--at the end, more because of the way his death was handled (no, I'm not telling you anything about the book) than because of his death.

I noticed that my library's copy has 15 checkouts which means the kids are reading it. I'm so glad that they've found such an intelligent and sensitive book. I hope they keep a box of tissues at hand when reading it.