Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ashes, Part II

I don't think there are really any spoilers, but I've gotten some email asking for the details of why I loved this book, & since I'm dying to talk about it more, here goes

[Stop reading if you want to finish the book first but haven't. Stop reading if your name is Landon.]

Ok, you've been warned.

A friend described this book as "ok" without any extraordinary plot twists. Although I enjoyed the plot, my friend is right—the beauty of Ashes is not primarily in the plot.

First, it was the voice. Gabriella genuinely sounded like a 13yo girl at the outset, & her gushing commentary on actresses & movies of the time had an unusual combination of genuine 13yo girl & really having grown up during the first run of those movies—at the very least, I believed that the author had spent weeks watching & rewatching period films to try to see what 13yo girls would have seen at the time.

Then there was the description of Einstein. At first, I was a little put out by it. I mean, it's kind-of fun for him to turn up as a minor character, but…he was so undeveloped in his first fleeting appearance, that it seemed kind-of gimmicky. But his mannerisms…were actually quite vivid. His lack of development early on made sense, too, when I thought of him as a colleague of the main character’s father—not someone she’d pay that much attention to. As the book progresses…there were a lot of little things that added up to a strong supporting character. My favorite? Einstein almost stepping on her as he crossed the lawn, both coming to visit her father and going home later that night.

These impressed me, kept me reading, made me enjoy the process. The perspective added a lot, too: I haven’t seen anything (that I can think of) written about this period (PRE-WWII) or from this point of view (non-Jewish). A fresh look at something is always intriguing to me.

But what took my breath away in a time-slowing surreal sort of way was the book burning. Of course it’s bad to burn books. We all know that. But I’ve never thought about the experience of a book burning, of being surrounded by people who madly cheer the process.

It was the scent of the Linden trees being overcome by the scent of burning paper that made everything stop for me. Who but a first-hand observer would know of something as minute as the scent of a Linden tree? And who but a writer would pause to notice?

It was this combination of details that are indiscernible by research and clarity that cannot be captured by a witness that captivated me. How did she know, I found myself wondering. How could she? I calculated and recalculated Lasky’s possible age, knowing this could not be a first-hand account but unable to accept that research could be so seamless, so authentic, so thorough.

She explains in an afterword as she thanks the people who contributed to the authenticity of the work. From German phrases threaded in and out of conversations—as if that language were more natural than English—to the names of shops and breads and stars, I believe in Gabriella. I believe in her world, her shame, her voice. And for the first time, I have a glimpse of the Germany she did not want to leave behind.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

No Other Gods

Okay, I can't resist.

I visited a ladies' Bible study last night. The theme of the 8-week class is "No other gods." Then they passed the calendar around, to remind everyone that there would be no class on Super Bowl Sunday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ashes by Kathryn Lasky

I didn't know that my heart had breath until it stopped breathing. I feel like a kid who's just read his first chapter book & is breathless with the exhilaration of the freedom that comes with reading.

That first taste of freedom is quickly drowned by a gluttony of books, & he begins to discover that all books are not written equally. The feel of the wind rushing up under his wings is forgotten as he stares at walls & walls of books with the dour pessimism that can only be embodied by a young reader: I've read everything good. There's nothing left.

I have just been reminded of that feeling, though, & I am long past my first experience with a book. I have beside me Ashes by Kathryn Lasky. It's the library's copy, & I tell myself that it's much cheaper to buy my own than to keep this one, but like my husband and my children, this is a...voice...I cannot part with. Not ever.

Ashes is a young adult historical fiction set in pre-WWII Germany. Within that period, I've read many fiction and non-fiction books; this one is the first that I can think of that is not specifically about the Holocaust. It tells another story of the Nazi tragedy that is haunting because we all know so well what came after.

I enjoy historical fiction, but it almost seems unfair to classify this book: it rises above genre. It's a coming-of-age story, & it's a human story. Post-WWI Germany is just its tumultuous setting, although "just" is hardly an appropriate adjective. When we define something as a "setting," there seems to be the implication that it's distinctly less relevant than plot or characterization. But of course, none of us can really separate the setting of our lives from the plot, & it is often as much our setting as anything that gives us character, makes us who we are. Lasky writes as if she understands this deeply.

It's not due back until the end of January, so I have some time to get to a bookstore. My real concern, of course, is how many copies to buy & how to get them autographed. When I return the book to the library, I'm thinking of returning it with a donation, in honor of my gratitude to a system that stocks such great literature so soon after its publication date (2010). And for being brave enough to share it with me.

I feel as if I have never read a good book before, as if I'd just this week learned to enjoy reading. Actually, based on my previous might agree.

Ashes is as fun to read as mind-candy & perhaps it is that that makes its beauty all the more stunning. Several times, I had to stop reading—just to breathe. It's not a breathless adventure novel; it's just that its...authenticity...takes you that much by surprise. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever read a truer book, on either side of the library.

Ashes is not a style I've ever been particularly drawn to. It's relatively traditional (with the exception of the preface through chapter 3), but the tightness of the writing & the authenticity of the voice, the texture with which Lasky weaves the story—are all revolutionary in their excellence.

I want to give you examples, but my husband has asked that I don't. He wants to keep the experience pure for himself as he reads, to be as surprised by the skillfulness of the author & the detail of the story as I was. For his sake, I'll at least hold off on examples. But I do have advice for you before you run out to get your own copy:

1. Do not read the dust jacket. It's a good book, so you don't need a preview (although I enjoyed reading the back cover first), & I think the dust jacket gives just a little too much away. Not anything plot-changing, but more fun as a surprise.

2. If you've ever read anything else by Kathryn Lasky, assume nothing about this novel. I read The Night Journey to the kids the week before I read Ashes. Thirty years have passed between the publication of the two books, & it shows. Lasky's skill has developed so incredibly in those intervening years that she is almost unrecognizable from one book to another. Ashes reads as if it were a story she'd been wanting to tell her whole life & finally, she's pulled together the words & the images, & the result is a masterpiece, a life's work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Reading

For the last several months, I have disappeared. We’ve gotten most of our schoolwork done, but everything else from cooking to cleaning and sometimes answering the phone, has dropped off my radar.

I’ve been reading.  I’m an odd bird when it comes to reading.  Although I’d never say so in front of my children, I don’t like to read.  I’m a literature major, for heaven’s sake!  But I like writing more than reading, and I have found that books too often disappoint me.  The writing is weak, or the climax is less than I’d imagined.  No matter what, a book requires tedious hours of sitting still and waiting.  I don’t wait well.  I peek at the last pages, I shake the boxes under the Christmas tree when everyone’s sleeping, and—don’t tell—sometimes I read the Spark Notes or watch the movie.  The disappointment of a bad book is so easily replaced with the thrill of getting away with not reading it.
So now you understand, and most of you have probably stopped reading in disgust.  To make things worse, I’m a classical homeschooler who likes to teach through literature.  I just don’t like to read.  Read-alouds here take anywhere from six weeks to a year.  My oldest two learned to read because they gave up on me sitting down with them.
But wait.  It gets worse.  All of that is just how I feel about fiction, and compared to nonfiction, I adore made-up stories.  My husband is the kind who enjoys the history channel and remembers odd facts about science and gets excited about new dinosaur discoveries and other such dry information.  At least fiction can be made into a good movie.  Nothing can be done to save nonfiction, and while I used to feign interest in such high-browed subjects in polite company, the truth is that I don’t care. Please don’t tell my children.
It’s a good show I pull off, and if you knew me in real life, you’d be laughing, thinking I was lying.  I’m not.
So I’ve spent the last several months feeding my kids frozen pizzas and sandwiches they make themselves because I’ve been busy reading, but the frightening thing here is what I’ve been reading.  Nonfiction.  Stacks of it.  I took a rolly cart full of books with me to Starbucks one day, lest I run out of books.  And to compound my poor husband’s confusion, it’s the worst kind of nonfiction: there are no pictures.  There are over 100 pages in each pictureless book.  The full moon has come and gone, and my rolly cart has been refilled again and again with books that I’m actually reading, ranging from the history of ancient China to the geography of Africa.
Last summer, I realized that I didn’t have a history program for next year.  We would be finishing Story of the World, and I couldn’t find a satisfactory program to use afterward.  Research led to reading which led to research which led to reading, and I’ve been lost in ancient China, dreamed I was a hieroglyph, and marched toward Stonehenge on the winter solstice.  From a handful of kids’ books—they may not have pictures, but I’m still sticking to the juvenile side of the library—I’ve learned more about ancient history than my husband, who actually reads and has a degree in history.
I felt guilty at first, to indulge myself to such a degree in my own meandering pursuit of information.  At first, there were no notes, no product, nothing but soaking my synapses in the information and reveling in the raw knowledge I was amassing, and the guilt was huge.  I’d hurry through grammar and tell the kids to help themselves in the kitchen so I could get back to my own reading.  I let my nine-year-old figure out the laundry while I read.  Dishes were washed on an as-needed basis, but my wise husband invested in paper plates and frozen meals.
Worse, I’ve been incredibly boring to talk to.  My in-laws took the kids for the weekend a few weeks ago, and when my husband wanted to go to a movie, I snuck a book in with us.  Over coffee afterward, I genuinely tried to talk about something other than the Derg, to no avail.
As I’ve been reading, however, my family has been sucked in.  The kids pick up books I’ve finished and read them.  My husband endures my conversations and helps me brainstorm the big picture.  At this point, it may not matter what we use for history next year: we’ve learned ancient history together this year.
And in the end, that is my point.  Even with all of our great insights into education and shiny curricula and nifty manipulatives, we tend to fit education into a kind of a box, in which we as educators present information and our children fill in the blanks.  We break out of this box from time to time, in some subjects more than others, but the box seems to always be there, pulling us back, offering us something easy.
I’ve begun to read, against my nature, and to learn ancient history and geography, even more against my nature, because I had a real-life problem to solve: finding or writing a history curriculum for my kids.  It may not be the most exciting problem to solve, but the problem provides motivation to do the work that needs to be done and a disguise for the least palatable aspects of research.  Like the self-discovery of hands-on exhibits at museums, I gave myself the whole of ancient history to dissect and touch and see.
I like boxes.  I like a list of objectives beside my jar of play-doh, or too often I find myself mashing the dough wondering what the point is.  On the other hand, a problem to solve is as exciting to me as a blank sheet of paper.  It’s like putting a door in the box, so that my imagination can take over, rescuing me, and with that imagination, I can free others, too.
Last night, we spent the evening fighting over raw meat and animal bones in order to survive the Stone Age, and suddenly the monumental nature of Stonehenge and the Sphinx and the terra cotta army has the power to bring us to our knees.  Instead of a sidebar in a history textbook, we see these things for what they are: time spent on something other than survival.  And we marvel at what it is to be human, to work day in and day out at the mundane while our spirits yearn for so much more.