“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doer

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, All the Light We Cannot See is an exquisitely written, allthelightintricately woven, expansive story of two children growing up in the throes of World War II.  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History.  Her father works there as the keeper of keys and master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure loses her sight and her father, a skilled woodworker, goes to extreme lengths to help her compensate.  He creates an exact, intricate miniature of their neighborhood out of wood.  She memorizes buildings and streets by touch which allows her to navigate the real-life neighborhood on her own, granting her freedom and independence. For her birthdays, he makes complicated wooden puzzle boxes that, when solved, reveal a gift inside.  When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, so she and her father flee to the walled fortress of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. To guard against Nazi looting, the father secrets the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel – a priceless blue diamond called the Sea of Flames. It allegedly bestows on its keeper the gift of eternal life, but curses all he loves with unending misfortune. Suspense is added to the novel as a Nazi treasure hunter is hot on their trail, obsessed with pursuing the fabled gem.

In a parallel story in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in the coal-mining town of Zollverein with his sister Jutta – both orphaned when their father is crushed in the coal mines.  When they find a broken short-wave radio behind the Children’s Home where they live, Werner repairs it – discovering an uncanny talent and interest in electronics. On the radio, they chance upon a mysterious Frenchman talking about science and how the brain can create light in darkness: “What do we call visible light?” the Frenchman asks. “We call it color. But . . . really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” They spend many evenings listening to the enigmatic Frenchman over the airwaves. Werner again proves his electronic prowess when a German officer asks if he can fix an expensive Philco radio owned by a rich, powerful couple in town.  Being successful earns him a reputation that spares him from a life in the mines and lands him a spot in an elite Nazi school that emphasizes military training. When he graduates, his discipline and scientific skill launch him into the Wehrmacht, where he is tasked with finding the sources of illegal radio transmissions. He becomes dispirited when on one of his missions he tracks a radio signal to its source: “Inside the closet is not a radio but a child sitting on her bottom with a bullet through her head.” He remembers the Frenchman’s broadcasts – a time when science was a tool for wonder and understanding, not for death and destruction.

The beauty of the novel is when the author, Anthony Doer, brings these two captivating lives together from opposite sides of the war.  In 1944, when Allied forces have landed on the beaches in Normandy, Werner’s unit is dispatched to Saint-Malo to find and destroy the sender of cryptic intelligence broadcasts.  Marie-Laure, Werner, and the gem chaser all come together in the novel’s climax in Saint-Malo.  The structure of the novel, cutting back and forth in time, is pieced together as intricately as one of Marie-Laure’s puzzle boxes – the gift inside is well worth the 544-page effort.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, May 1.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 3 to discuss All the Light We Cannot See at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” by Timothy Egan

shortnights2Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a riveting biography of the epic life of Edward Curtis and his audacious project: running against the clock to capture the life of American Indians in photographs and recordings before it all would be lost to history.

When Seattle was a fledgling town and they were giving away land for free, Edward Curtis and his father made a reconnaissance journey from the Midwest to stake out a new homestead for the family.  Just as Seattle was a voucher to a new future, Curtis vowed to make his new-found love – the camera – his path to supporting himself financially.  Success came quickly.  His studio thrived and a portrait by celebrity photographer Edward Curtis was to become the status symbol of the upper crust of the Pacific Northwest.

America’s development, growth, and harvesting of riches in the West, displaced the natives who originally inhabited the area and depended on the natural resources for their existence.  Curtis was struck by Princes Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, holed up in a shack down by the shore, still living off the land.  It was illegal for Indians to live in the city, but she refused to leave.  He paid her one dollar to photograph her in his studio.  She died shortly after.

Another bit of synchronicity occurred when Curtis, on one of his many excursions in the mountains, rescued a couple of men from a glacier on Mount Rainier.  Namely, George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society and friend of Theodore Roosevelt; and C. Hart Merriam, cofounder of the National Geographic Society.  The following spring, Grinnell invited him to tag along with his camera on the largest scientific exploration of Alaska.  Grinnell again invited him that summer to join him to capture the ceremonies of the Blackfeet Indians in Montana.  It was the seed that blossomed into the project that would consume the next 30 years of his life.  Encouraged by Teddy Roosevelt, who thought it was a “bully idea,” with  financing from J.P. Morgan, Curtis captured more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings of the American Indian.  He is credited with making the first documentary film with narration.

West Michigan will be hearing and seeing a lot about Edward Curtis in the coming months.  This book was selected in conjunction with the Community Read led by The Muskegon Museum of Art in preparation for their upcoming exhibit: Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian which will open on May 11 and run through September 10.  The exhibit, sure to garner national interest, will feature 723 photogravures and the complete 20  bound volumes which were sold as a subscription from 1908-1930 (the museum owns subscription #70 out of 222). The exhibit will also include original field recordings of Native music, historic objects related to Curtis’s work, and examples of cultural artifacts represented in the photogravures. There will be many opportunities for book discussions, film screenings, lectures, and an evening with author Timothy Egan at the Frauenthal Theater on May 17.  All of the events surrounding the exhibit can be found on the museum’s website www.muskegonartmuseum.org.

The Book Nook will also be hosting events this summer in conjunction with the exhibit, including a screening of a documentary about Edward Curtis “Coming to Light;” the documentary by Edward Curtis “In the Land of the Head Hunters;” and “The Indian Picture Opera,” a recreation of the traveling Magic Lantern slide show Curtis created In 1911 in an effort to promote his book sales.  Stereo-Opticon projectors put Curtis’s stunning images on screens in America’s largest cities…. one scene dissolving into another. A small orchestra played music derived from Indian chants and rhythms, and Edward Curtis lectured on the intimate stories of tribal life.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 5 for a discussion of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly

hiddenfiguresHidden Figures is the extraordinary true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations, prior to computers, facilitated some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

This eye-opening story shows that before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to figure the math and trajectories that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space, and more importantly bring them safely home.

What is astounding about this account is that, not only was this accomplished by humans rather than computers, but they were female and black in a time when significant roles for females, let alone blacks, were limited. Hidden Figures follows the interlaced accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, some of the sharpest minds of their generation. Formerly consigned to teaching math in segregated public schools of the South, opportunity came during the labor shortages of World War II – anyone with the smarts, regardless of skin color or sex, were sorely needed in America’s aeronautics industry. Eagerly, these heretofore unnoticed mathematical masterminds answered their country’s call, moving to Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.

The story moves from World War II through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, these women helped America achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Space Race. For over three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

A movie was made from the book staring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner; it was released on Christmas Day, 2016.

Katherine Johnson, one of the women featured in the book and film, is still living. She was awarded the Presidential medal of freedom in 2015. She was born before the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, and she grew up going to segregated schools.

The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1969 where she knew many of the women she later wrote about in her debut book. Her father worked as a research scientist at NASA-Langley Research Center, and her mother was an English professor at Hampton University. In 2013, Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project, an organization whose mission is to archive the work of all of the women who worked as computers and mathematicians in the early days of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 6. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 1 for a discussion of Hidden Figures at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Like Family” by Paulo Giordano

Like Family by Paulo Giordano

likefamilyThis short novella takes an intimate look at a young, mismatched husband and wife: Nora is an exuberant, creative, messy, and outgoing interior decorator, while the unnamed 35-year-old narrator is a mathematical, precise, introverted, and socially awkward Ph.D. in physics.  The narrator credits Nora with bursting into his life and flushing him out of his “hidey-hole.”  When Nora is bedridden with her first pregnancy, they hire a childless, elderly widow known as Mrs. A. to help.  The couple nicknames her Babette because, like the Isak Dinesen character of Babette’s Feast, she prepares elaborate meals for them.  She soon becomes a fixture in their lives and stays on to serve as housekeeper and nanny to their new son, Emanuele.  A loving, but finicky, woman, she sets the standards for the household: she rewashes dishes the narrator had washed the night before.  As the title implies, she becomes so much a part of the family that she accompanies the family on Emanuele’s first day of school and is mistaken by strangers to be his grandmother.

With no warning, after eight years of employment, Mrs. A. calls one morning to report that she can no longer work for them, because she is “tired”.   Blind-sighted and stunned, the couple soon learn that the real reason for her departure is that she has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  This is not a spoiler as the book opens with Mrs. A.’s death, then circles back in time through her 16-month fight and loss to cancer, and the halcyon days when she was considered a member of the family.  Mrs. A. not only performed the most tedious household chores, she was their confidant, encourager, and the glue that held them together, “a steady element, a haven, an ancient tree with a trunk so massive that even three pairs of arms could not encircle it,” the author writes.

Since his birth, Emanuele has only known family to include Mrs. A. so he is understandably baffled that she could just stop coming one day.  He learns the hard lesson that “nothing lasts forever when it comes to human relationships.”  The narrator and Nora have also spent most of their years together with Mrs. A. at their side.  They must reevaluate their life without her.  He tells his therapist, “Nora and I are always so busy, so distracted, so tired.  If these really are our best years, I’m not satisfied with how we’re using them.”

The couple sees Mrs. A. through her illness, accompanies her to the wig maker, and sits by her bedside.  This beautifully written story is a striking portrait of marriage, the meaning of family, and the legacy of love an individual can leave.

The Italian author, Paulo Giordano, is a Ph.D. in particle physics (the same as the narrator).  His first novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, published in 2008, catapulted the then 26-year old author into the literary spotlight when it won the Strega Prize, the most prestigious Italian literary award.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 1 for a discussion of Like Family at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author of Americanah, is more an essay than a book (52 pages – easily read on a lunch break) adapted from her celebrated TEDx talk of the same name. Adichie proposes a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century, one rooted in inclusion and awareness.

weshouldallbefeministsShe first unpacks the term feminist from all the negative baggage and stereo types: “you hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”

She tells a story from her childhood. At the beginning of the term at her primary school, her teacher said that whoever got the highest score on the test could be class monitor. If you were class monitor, you would write down the names of the noise-makers every day. You also were given a cane to hold in your hand as you patrolled the class. Even though you were not allowed to use the cane, it was an accoutrement of authority. Adichie very much wanted to be class monitor, and she got the highest score on the test. To her surprise, the teacher then said the class monitor had to be a boy – so the boy with the second-highest score became the class monitor. “What was more interesting is that this boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling the class with a stick,” while she was full of ambition to do so. The teacher didn’t make this caveat to the rule clear as she assumed it was understood. It was “normal” that only boys could be class monitor. If we do something over and over again, or see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, clergy, presidents, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should hold those positions.

Adiche acknowledges that men and women are different – different hormones, sexual organs, and biological abilities. And, women can have babies; men cannot. Men have more testosterone and are, in general, physically stronger than women. It made sense a thousand years ago that men ruled the world, because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. Today, the person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. “It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes.” We have evolved. She argues that our ideas of gender need to evolve to catch up.
We teach girls to be “nice,” not angry, aggressive, and tough. Boys are taught to be “hard” – so, angry, aggressive, and tough are okay. We spend too much time teaching girls to worry what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case; she goes on to state: “I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”

Adichie ends with her own definition of a feminist: “a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.” We should all be feminists.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 4 for a discussion of We Should All Be Feminists at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout, winner of the Man Booker Prize, is an irreverent, satirical novel about race relations in America, specifically in and around Los Angeles.  The nselloutameless narrator is an African-American male of undetermined age who lives and works as a farmer in Dickens, California. Dickens is a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles, notorious for its violence.  The narrator is smart, college-educated, sarcastic, and witty. Initially, he is a self-interested libertarian who has no interest in giving back to his community. The narrator disagrees with the prevailing black cultural mindset. For example, his father and Foy Cheshire (a washed-up black intellectual who became rich after stealing an idea for a Saturday cartoon series from the narrator’s father) see racism as prevalent everywhere. Though the narrator himself has experienced racism firsthand, he also knows that race relations are far better than they used to be, though they still require cultivation. He sees the issue to be more about class and “opportunity kicked aside.”  When the City of Dickens is “deleted” from the map to increase the property values of homes and business surrounding the area, the narrator takes it upon himself to restore Dickens with the help of his friend Hominy Jenkins.

Hominy Jenkins is an elderly African-American man in his eighties. He is a local celebrity for being the final remaining living member of the Little Rascals. Hominy is well-loved and well-respected, but he is heartbroken when the City of Dickens is “deleted”. Hominy, who has experienced the most vile racism of anyone in the neighborhood, feels powerless and used like a slave. He opts to become the narrator’s slave. The narrator grudgingly takes on Hominy as a slave, as Hominy insists. The narrator and Hominy set about marking the boundaries of Dickens with spray paint. They put up signs for Dickens and seek to re-institute segregation in the community as a way to bring people together. It will serve as a reminder of how far they have come and of how far they still have to go. The narrator’s work enrages people like Foy, who condemns the narrator as a “Sellout.” The narrator’s attempts to integrate the all-minority Chaff Middle School with five white kids are opposed on racist grounds by Foy, who ends up shooting the narrator. It is during this time that the narrator’s holding of Hominy as a slave and his work in segregation are discovered. The two factors earn him a case tried before the Supreme Court.

The narrator recognizes that, although racism is nowhere nearly as bad as it used to be, it still exists and must be dealt with, rather than ignored or exaggerated. For example, a truth that most people ignore is that Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in the world.  The narrator approves of young white people and black writers at the Atlantic magazine who are willing to risk controversy by having conversations about race. He opposes people like Foy who want to shut down debate and then control the narrative, or people like a black comedian who chases white people out of the audience by saying that this is “our thing.”  This timely novel is sure to spur conversation and debate about the current status of race relations in our country.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 7 for a discussion of The Sellout at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“Becoming Amish” by Jeff Smith

Bill and Tricia Moser lived a charmed life in one of America’s wealthiest communities, Grobecomingamishfrontcoversse Pointe, a tony suburb of Detroit where they drove BMWs to their well-paying jobs as an architect and occupational therapist.  Questioning the meaning of it all, they began a personal and spiritual journey that eventually led to a horse-and-buggy life in an Amish community.  The book relates their fascinating quest for faith and community.

When they made the transition, everything changed dramatically: simple living, plain dress, and a prohibition against most technology.  The mode of transportation was a horse and buggy or bike.  They grew their own food.  Tricia traded her professional life for a traditional domestic role: she and her daughter were responsible for making the clothes for the family, doing the laundry with a tub washer and ringer, canning food for the winter, and preparing meals.  Bill and his sons built wooden pallets for money, chopped wood for heat and cooking, and farmed with a horse and plow.  Women wore long dresses, smocks and head coverings.  Men wore work pants, suspenders, shirts with vests, hats and grew long beards.  No more individuality; everything was uniform.

The book draws back the curtain on their intriguing way of life.  We experience a typical 3-hour church service with 45 minutes of singing at the start of the service, the message in the middle and more signing at the end all in German (or Pennsylvania Dutch) – translators were provided for the Mosers.  Men sit on one side, and women sit on the other.  They take turns holding services in each other’s homes.  Amish communion services are held twice a year, and it is a whole community, full-day event.  Services begin at 8:30 in the morning with Scripture readings until a short break at noon for lunch, then more Scripture until about 3:00, the hour tradition holds that Jesus died.  Bread is broken, and then a foot-washing ceremony takes place with men pairing up with men and women with women, all taking turns washing each other’s feet, just as Jesus did to his disciples.

Formal education ends at 8th grade around age 13 or 14.  Until they are 16, the children apprentice with an adult for whatever means of earning a living they will be going into.  When the young adults are ready to testify to their faith, they become baptized and join the church – usually age 18 through early 20s.  The Amish and Mennonites were descended from the Swiss Anabaptists.  They fled persecution and settled in America.

Communities are limited to about 20-40 families (families are usually 6-7 kids).  When a community grows too large, they split off some of the families and move them to another area to start a new community.   Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbors and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family. Their life is designed to serve God and neighbors.  Barn raisings and work bees are community events that everyone partakes in.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the Amish lifestyle is that it is regulated by the Ordnung  (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another.  The community norms are decided and adhered to by the members of the community.   Some norms seem arbitrary and inconsistent – you must drive a horse, but you can charge a high-tech lithium battery with a generator.  You can’t use buttons (clothing has hooks rather than buttons), but you can use a fully automated pallet maker.  You milk your cow by hand and then go to the local library to surf the web.

The author, Jeff Smith, writes with a straightforward journalistic style with frequent highly descriptive scenes about the people and the countryside.  Meet Jeff in person at the Book Nook at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 5.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, November 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, November 2 for a discussion of Becoming Amish at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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