Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie

Tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom (Adult Memoir)

 It was to be professor Morrie Schwartz’s final class.  A class with no grades, no textbooks, and no final exam.  Weekly oral exams were required and a long paper on what was learned was expected (a kiss good-bye earned an extra credit).  The subject would be The Meaning of Life and the class would cover such topics as family, work, aging, forgiveness, love, and death.  It would last fourteen weeks (fourteen Tuesdays to be exact), be held after breakfast, and would have just one pupil—a former student by the name of Mitch Albom who had lost his way somehow.  Thanks to Ted Koppel, Mitch found his way again because he had found Morrie Schwartz.

Tuesdays with Morrie reminded me of John Gunther’s 1949 memoir Death Be Not Proud.  Both were a celebration of life and showed us what true courage, grace, peace, and humility look like.  Mitch Albom provides us with an honest, candid, and raw account of his beloved professor’s last weeks on earth as he battles and eventually succumbs to the ravages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  His account of his time with Morrie is heartbreaking and humorous, tragic and hopeful, and gives us a precious glimpse into the life of a man who accepted his fate with dignity and generosity.  By openly sharing his steady decline with Albom and by conducting several interviews on national television, Morrie cast modesty and privacy aside with the hope that those touched by his story may cherish the time that they have been given and re-evaluate what was truly most important in life.

Throughout his memoir, Albom blesses us with many of Morrie’s aphorisms: “Do the kinds of things that come from the heart.”; “Love each other or perish.”; “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”; and his last one, “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.”  Albom’s story of his former professor and friend is bittersweet because we know how the story is going to end.  With each turn of the page, we understand that we’re getting closer to Morrie’s final day and although we hope that never turning another page might mean that Morrie could somehow avoid death, we know that isn’t possible and that his fate has already been determined and carried out.

Tuesdays with Morrie explores humanity and what it means to be a part of humankind.  Although published in 1997, Morrie’s insights and observations ring just as true today as they did almost twenty-five years ago.  Back then, while society was caught up with Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the trial of O. J. Simpson, Morrie said to Albom, “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.  And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”  How unfortunate that this is just as relevant today as it was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

In his final weeks, scores of Morrie’s former students traveled domestically and internationally for the chance to visit their favorite professor one final time.  Morrie knew, better than anyone, that the role of educator carries a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence.  In death, as I imagine it was true in life, Morrie gave each one of his visitors his undivided attention and made them feel like they were the most important thing in the world.  He made everyone feel important, special, and loved.  That was Morrie’s legacy and his hope for the future.  That everyone would feel good about themselves.

At one time or another, we’ve all had a favorite teacher, camp counselor, or coach who had a profound impact on the way we wanted to model ourselves as adults.  They encouraged, supported, and challenged us and their influence will always be a part of us.  But what we often fail to realize, and what Albom reminds us of, is the effect that we—as students, campers, or athletes—have had on their lives as well.  The gestures of appreciation, the thirst for knowledge, the desire to please is just as important and meaningful.  It’s a fragile circle that can be strengthened with a simple “Thank You” or weakened with a harsh word.  But through Morrie and Mitch, we’re shown just how joyful this unique bond and relationship can be and even though graduations and retirements come and go, the learning—the loving—never stops.  As Morrie said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”  Well said, Professor.  Class dismissed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (J Historical Fiction)

Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Sunflower was lonely.  Her father was a revered sculptor in the city, but he—like so many others—had been sent to work at the Cadre School and now Sunflower has very little to do all day.  To pass the time, she goes down to the river and looks to the other side at the village called Damaidi.  In Damaidi, there is life, there is activity, and most of all, there are children.  She dreams of what it might be like to go over there and play and explore.  Then one day, Sunflower’s dad tragically drowns in the river and she is accepted into the home of Damaidi’s poorest family.  There she meets Baba, Mama, grandmother Nainai, and Bronze, their mute son.  Suddenly, Sunflower is a daughter, a granddaughter, and a sister and life amongst these poor people was about to make her richer than she could ever imagine.

Translated from Mandarin by Helen Wang, Bronze and Sunflower is a masterpiece in storytelling.  It tells the story of a family and a village caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Wenxuan doesn’t make this period in history the center of his story, but instead chooses to keep it as a backdrop.  He instead focuses on the unique and touching bond between Bronze and Sunflower and the family’s struggle to survive floods, locusts, famine, and dishonor.  It’s a tale replete with villains and heroes, sadness and joy, and despair and hope.  Wenxuan effortlessly weaves a tale showing us that life isn’t fair, that justice is often elusive, and that those in power—for better or worse—wield a mighty influence.  But he also shows us the importance of family, the power of redemption, and the value of integrity.  It’s a story absolutely brimming with moral lessons and human values and should be devoured by readers of all ages.

The only fault I had with this book is its ending.  It’s vague (I re-read it several times to make sure I didn’t miss any subtle clue or hidden meaning) and puts the burden on the reader to determine what happened.  I’m not a fan of this kind of ambiguous ending, but the overall story isn’t dependent upon it and so its vagueness shouldn’t serve as a detraction from an otherwise engaging and captivating tale that was an absolute joy to read and experience.

Without giving away any spoilers, the saddest part of the story—for me—was the eventuality of Bronze and Sunflower growing up…as children tend to do.  The head of the village of Damaidi stated as much when he met with Baba and Mama and said, “Time’s moving on.”  Simple words that remind us how fleeting and fragile time is and that everything should be cherished and savored for nothing is certain or guaranteed.  With the sudden loss of her father, Sunflower understood the unpredictability of life and the value that came with belonging.  Despite her poverty, Sunflower considered herself wealthy beyond measure because she was part of a family and that family loved her very much.  Actor, author, and activist Michael J. Fox once said, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”  In that respect, Sunflower had everything and perhaps that made her the richest person in all of Damaidi.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.abebooks.com

Dead Boy by Laurel Gale (J)

Dead Boy

Dead Boy

Laurel Gale (Juvenile Fiction)

Being dead stank.  Literally.  With everything rotting, decaying, and decomposing, it really did stink.  And let’s not talk about the maggots and the skin falling off and the hair falling out.  Death was really the pits and eleven-year-old Crow Darlingson should know because Crow is dead.  Well, dead but somehow alive.  If you ask Crow what’s worse than being dead, he would tell you that it’s being alone.  Loneliness really stank.  But along came Melody Plympton, his new neighbor, who somehow accepted his deadness.  Just when things were looking up, Crow and Melody discover a terrifying and mysterious creature hiding in the park.  A monster that also grants wishes.  Could this same creature be the cause of Crow’s unusual existence?  Could Crow somehow wish himself a normal life?  Crow is willing to face whatever tests and dangers the monster throws at him.  After all, once you’re dead, what’s the worst that can happen?

Dead Boy is Laurel Gale’s debut novel and she sure delivers!  She delights and entertains readers with a creepy, ghoulish, sweet, and imaginative story that’s full of heart.  Although it’s labeled as a “horror” story and depicts scenes of maggots falling out of various body parts at inappropriate times (not that there’s an appropriate time), Dead Boy is really a story about a young boy wanting to be accepted and longing for a friend.  Anyone who’s ever wanted a friend who liked and accepted them for just the way they are will empathize with Crow and his unfortunate situation.

What I found refreshing about Crow was his ability to see the positive in any situation and to enjoy what little pleasure life might happen to toss his way.  Here’s a boy with no friends, unable to eat food, incapable of sleep, and whose entire existence is spent indoors surrounded by the safety of air conditioning (he lives in the desert of all places), yet he delights in the simple act of lying beneath the stars and gazing up at the night’s sky.  He’s selfless, understanding, intelligent, loyal, and a true friend in every sense of the word.  He’s probably one of the most unlikely protagonists that I’ve come upon in a long time and I certainly hope he won’t be the last.

Near the end of the book, when the dust has settled after all of his exploits and adventures, Crow realized something important that beautifully sums up the meaning of this book: “Maybe having friends wasn’t as important as having the right friends”.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

A Virtuous Woman

A Virtuous Woman  

Kaye Gibbons (Adult Fiction)

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes is forty when he marries Ruby Pitt Woodrow.  Jack is twice Ruby’s age, skinny, and homely, but despite his drawbacks, he loves Ruby unconditionally and promises to take care of her.  After suffering a tormented marriage to a brutal drifter, Ruby longs for stability and security and accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage.  Such is the story of two very different people who transcend both economic worth and social status in order to make a marriage work.

Gibbons gives us a simple story about a man and a woman whose devotion for one another is uncomplicated, unwavering, and unbounded.  Jack and Ruby’s love is quiet and kind and both derive a satisfying and greatly needed comfort from their marriage.  A Virtuous Woman is a pleasant read and flows along at a relaxed pace—alternating narration between Jack and Ruby.  Sadly, this book barely breaks the surface and fails to give the reader an opportunity to emotionally bond with either the story or to its characters.  Gibbons succeeds in providing a big-picture view of a bittersweet relationship between two broken people, but the story could have been far richer had Gibbons further fleshed out the complicated feelings and effects associated with infertility, terminal illness, and bereavement.

Jack and Ruby’s unlikely relationship reminds us that love need not be complicated or blind.  Sometimes, just having someone there offering you acceptance, kindness, and peace is enough.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com