Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Difficult Books

I couldn’t say I enjoyed reading One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad.  Her book is about Anders Breivik, who in 2011 detonated a bomb outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo killing eight people and then made his way to Utøya, an island youth camp where he slowly and methodically shot and killed sixty-nine people, mostly teenagers.  Not exactly happy time reading. 

But a book I would highly recommend.  Why do tragedies like this happen?  We want to understand what could possibly make a person do something as horrible as a Columbine or the Aurora movie theatre shooting.  Or the massacre in Norway.  Reading about the pain and suffering of the victims and their families isn’t easy.  There were times when I had to put the book down and walk away from it.

 Ms. Seierstad is a well-known journalist and a wonderful writer.  There is a great deal of detail in One of Us – the lives of some of the victims as well as the sad life of Anders Breivik.  When Breivik was very young, his family was observed by the Centre for Child Care and Adolescent Psychiatry and it was suggested he be removed from his family and sent to stable foster care.  One of many "what ifs" that could have prevented the massacre.

The short prologue of the book takes place on Utøya where teenagers are fleeing from Breivik.  We don’t come back till that terrible day until page 272 (it’s 500+ pages).  By then we’ve met many of the victims and the prologue becomes clearer and even more heartbreaking.  One of Us is never exploitative and very respectful to everyone involved, including Breivik’s parents.  Yes, One of Us was a tough read, but in the end it felt like a tribute to the lives lost on that terrible day.    

Friday, April 10, 2015

Books That Surprise You - Sounds Crazy, No?

One of the best parts about reading is stumbling across a book and falling wildly, madly in love with it.

I had medium expectations for Wonder of Wonders, a Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon.  Yes, I like musical theatre (Stephen Sondheim is a god, btw), but a “cultural history?”  That sounded dry, like a failed thesis project.  I’d read a biography of Jerome Robbins, the choreographer/director, and I knew the musical (how did the bottles stay on the dancers’ heads during the bottle dance?  Because they better not fall off, that’s how), so why not give the book a chance?

Wonder of Wonders starts with Sholem-Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer, and explores the world of Yiddish theatre.  I knew a little about Sholem-Aleichem, but not much (okay, nothing) about Yiddish theatre.  And – go figure – it’s fascinating.  The book talks about the making of the Broadway show, but spends as much time talking about about culture and storytelling and the importance of keeping history alive. 

The book is beautifully written.  And parts made me cry – a chapter called “Fiddler While Brooklyn Burns,” about an inner-city school doing a mostly African-American and Hispanic production of Fiddler – amazing. 

Even if you’re not a musical fan, this is a book to read and savor.

"Here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!"