Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ghost Runners by Robert Rubenstein


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started this book I knew nothing about the 1936 Olympics and the two jewish runners, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. I also did not know of Avery Brundage, the US Olympic committee leader who pulled those two atheletes from the American team at the last minute. The speculation is that Avery Brundage made his decision in an attempt to avoid embarrassing the Olympic host country, Nazi Germany. I researched the event while reading Ghost Runners to learn a little more about the event that Robert Rubenstein based his book on. It is a tribute to Rubenstein's that I was not only drawn in by the story, but was motivated to look into the facts behind it.

Robert Rubenstein has written the story of Bobby Gillman and Joshua Sellers who were pulled from this fictional Olympic team by Arian Bandage. Fiction is in many ways truer than non-fiction because writers of fiction are free to speculate about the powerful emotions behind the facts. That's what we readers get in Ghost Runners. Rubenstein has changed the names of some of his main characters so he can show their reality. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have relationships. They love their sport and they take pride in their heritage. By reading this account of the story I didn't just learn the facts, I was consumed by them.

In the book readers are taken from the streets of Brooklyn, New York to Germany via the Manhattan, a renovated cruise ship set up to allow the team to train while traveling. The training had its problems due to politics, partying, and sea sickness. But the team got where they needed to go. Once in Germany the story brings in famous names such as Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed the event, Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, and, of course, Adolf Hitler. On the American side there are athletes such as Jesse Owens and politicians such as FDR and Gerald Ford.

I've been reading a number of WW2 books recently. I'm glad I chose this one to add to that list. It's a wonderful read and a fascinating insight to that time.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Kira-KiraKira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because of the enormous tragedy brought to Japan by the tsunami and its disastrous affect on one of their nuclear power plants, I, like everyone else I know, have had the people of that country constantly on my mind. I read the updates on line to find out what is happening with the reactors. I listen with awe to the stories of the plant personnel walking into certain death with only the hope that they can do something to help their neighbors. And, of course, I pray.

When I want to know what's going on with any world event I go to our news outlets. But when I want to know how people feel I go to the world of fiction. Because that's where the most powerful emotions and thoughts are documented. This time I wanted to know about the Japanese people, so I chose the book Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. This may seem like an odd choice, because it is a book about Japanese Americans living first in Iowa then in Georgia and because it is a book intended for young people. But it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Kira-Kira is the story of a young Japanese American whose sister suffers with lymphoma. Katie loves her sister. She also looks up to Lynn as a role model and as a parent figure. They live in poverty and their parents have to spend most of their time just trying to put food on their table. That is why Lynn is in many ways the person raising Katie.

I loved the way the book captured many aspects of the Japanese culture, but remained focused on more universal qualities such as family love. Katie's father is strong, yet gentle. He is willing to do anything for his family and is frustrated when some problems are beyond his power.

The book is beautifully written and had me in tears during some of the most emotional scenes. It gave me a sense of how people deal with loss from a Japanese perspective and that's what I wanted. It is a wonderful story.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was born in 1950, so I'm the perfect demographic for this memoir. Bill Bryson has written about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa during the fifties. I can't speak for younger readers, but as one of the people who lived through that time I found the book hysterical.

He talks about comic books, chemistry sets, and crushes on young girls. His early years could have been any of ours, only documented better and much funnier. I loved his descriptions of people pitching brands on old TV shows, like Harry Von Zell on The George Burns and Gracie Allen show. But what I loved the most about the book was the way he captured that innocent, self-centered way of living that I certainly enjoyed as a boy.

I read this book because it was my book club's selection for March. After I finished it, I wasn't convinced that it would lead to much of a discussion. But I was so wrong. Everyone in the group was caught up in the nostalgia and joined in the conversation about the way things were when they were young. It turned out to be one of the best discussions we've had. Everyone had something in the book to identify with. When I read about Bryson's father picking a dentist who didn't use Novocain simply because he charged less, I recognized my own father in the story.

Some of Bryson's lists of things from the fifties went on too long, but that was my only complaint. What excited me about the book was the way I could identify with Bryson and relive my childhood through him. If you like memoirs, this would be a good one to try.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch (Signet Classics)Middlemarch by George Eliot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic is a book that can pull the reader entirely into an age long passed with scandals and gossip we can understand, even if our own scandals and gossip are different today. The characters each have their own personalities, yet they are all believable and all have something about them that allows the reader to identify with and often appreciate what they do.

There are many sections in the book that would have been pared down considerably if it had been written today. At times it seemed that Eliot would think of a half dozen ways to say something then, instead of picking one, would use them all. This tendency to wordiness was especially evident in the scenes of the minor characters gossiping or discussing politics.

The women in the book are more interesting than the men. Even Mrs. Bulstrode, a fairly minor character, seemed to have more depth than her husband, a man whose past pushed him into unscrupulous actions. The one exception to this rule was Fred Vincy. It was a pleasure to follow him as he matured throughout the book, from a wild young man with a gambling habit into a hard working adult, capable of living a life based on hard work and dedication to the woman he loved. But it is the young women who make the book great. It is wonderful following the ambitions and problems of Dorothea and Rosamond as one of the women tries to make a contribution to the world and the other tries to make a life of ease and status for herself.

Overall it is a very good read. I had trouble putting it down.

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