Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Brothers Forever

by Tom Sileo and Col. Tom Manion
Da Capo Press     2014
268 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

It is soon to be Memorial Day weekend and it is fitting that we look at a book about two brave Americans, Travis Manion and Brendon Looney, who are buried together in Arlington National Cemetery.

During the Christmas break in 2001, my daughter and her friends gathered for a meal at our kitchen table. Everyone had been at college for a year now, and their lives were beginning to take shape. One young man told the rest that he was going to quit college and join the Marines because he felt a patriotic call to serve his country and respond to the World Trade Center attacks of September 11. I looked with horror at the young man that I had known for several years and realized that his life was taking a turn that scared me. Although his friends were proud of his decision, they were also scared for him as well. 

The book, Brothers Forever, documents the journey of two young men in the years following the attacks of September 11. They met at the U.S. Naval Academy in their freshman year, and became fast friend. Travis Manion became a Marine officer and served two deployments in Afghanistan. Brendon Looney trained as a Navy SEAL and was stationed in Iraq. Both were killed in battle. They are buried together in Arlington National Cemetery. The book  narrates the power of their friendship as well as the honor and horror of their war experiences and of their ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Brothers Forever is written with great love and pride by Travis' father, Col. Tom Manion, USMC (Ret.)
with the help of professional author, Tom Sileo. Although a tragic narrative, it is also inspiring. It would be an excellent choice for an ex-military father for Father's Day.

The publicist for the book also sent me a video link to the book's trailer. It is worth watching.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Hidden Child

by Camilla Lӓckberg
Pegasus     2014
400 pages     Fiction

The Hidden Child is another of Lӓckberg's Fjallbacka mysteries featuring Erika, the author, and Patrik, the police detective. This time, however, Patrik is on paternity leave from the police department with full care of their daughter Maja while Erika writes a novel. The story line extends beyond Erika and Patrik with Lӓckberg exploring the Nazi connections in Sweden and Norway during World War II, and the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden currently.

Erika, who is ostensibly writing a novel, is in actuality using her time to explore her mother's youth. Erika's mother has always been an enigma to her, and she is hoping to gain some understanding by reading her teenage diaries, which were written in 1944 and 1945. Although Fjallbacka is a small town, Erika had never met her mother's childhood friends, and she never could understand her mother's aloofness and lack of affection for her children. Among her mother's effects, she finds a Nazi war medal and this leads her on a search for a reason why her mother would have such a medal. Then, quite abruptly, two of her mother's childhood friends are found murdered, and Erika's search becomes intensified.

The police characters are much the same as in the previous Fjallbacka mysteries—including the police superintendent, Mallberg, one of my favorite characters in this series. In this episode, he has found love, has become tolerant of the lesbian detective Paula and her partner (who are expecting a baby by the way) and has been adopted by a stray dog. The good humored acceptance of Mallberg by the other detectives adds some lightness to the otherwise dark novel.

The story line goes back and forth between the search for the murderer and the scene in Fjallbacka in 1944-1945 when Erika's mother was a teenager. One reviewer says that Lӓckberg uses "steely skill" in handling the time and generation changes. Like the rest of the books in the series, Lӓckberg explores family secrets—those things that never get talked about but remain just under the surface of family life. 

There may be a few too many characters to keep everyone straight. I had particular trouble keeping Erika's sister's family organized in my brain. I'm not sure they even need to be in the book, unless Lӓckberg has a plan for them in the next novel. I remember in a review of a past Lӓckberg novel that the reviewer suggested keeping a character list to keep all the characters straight.

Three old men are major characters in The Hidden Child; all of their lives changed by World War II—Erik, a historian specializing in World War II, Axel who ran an organization that tracked down and prosecuted Nazis, and Frans, who became a neo-Nazi in adulthood. Now in their late 70s they are still dealing with the consequences of their actions in the 1940s. Axel asks Frans, "How did things turn out this way?" Frans replies, "That's what I'm trying to tell you. It doesn't matter how things turned out this way. It is what it is. And all we can do is try to make changes, to survive. Not to look back, not to wallow in regret or speculation as to how things might have been. . .You mustn't look back. What's done is done. The past is the past. There is no such thing as regret." Axel responds: "That's where you're wrong, Frans. That's where you're very wrong." Regret permeates the novel. 

My book club recently read a novella written by John Steinbeck about the Nazi invasion of Norway, The Moon is Down. It was a perfect companion novel to The Hidden Child.

My only complaint about The Hidden Child is the title. It gives away an important detail of the novel that the reader keeps waiting and waiting to be revealed. The novel was published in Swedish several years ago, and was made into a Swedish movie. It has just now been released in English. I have written about two other Lӓckberg novels, The Ice Princess and The Preacher. While all three are part of a series they don't need to be read in order. I enjoyed them all.

Camilla Lӓckberg website:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

An Altar in the World

by Barbara Brown Taylor
Harper One  2010
240 pages     Spiritual

An Altar in the World is a book about spiritual practices, but not the sort you find in esoteric spirituality. Taylor discusses the spiritual practices of the everyday. Taylor is a woman of great wisdom; her life has made many twists and turns, but she remains true to her Christian roots. A pastor once asked her to preach on what was "saving her life" now. She says: "What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. . . What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world." She claims no distinction between the secular and the sacred—every moment is a sacred moment to Taylor.

In twelve chapters, she focuses on sacred practices that requires a body as well as a soul. She discusses living with purpose, paying attention and being present to God, encountering others, feeling pain, and practicing Sabbath. This practice she calls "the practice of saying no." This chapter was especially meaningful to me as I attempt to disengage myself from activities that wear me out rather than build me up. This is a project that I am not very good at, but Taylor says that in our culture, not too many people are very good at it because "being busy is how our culture measures worth." So, therefore, I am consciously practicing Sabbath frequently.

Yesterday, we were supposed to have been driving to visit a son and family in West Virginia, but at the last minute the trip was called off. My husband and I declared it a day of Sabbath. We had already said no to everything that we were committed to doing, so we had a delightfully free day. We ate lunch and dinner out; we went looking for a new couch; we watched a movie; we took naps, and drank wine. And we woke up this morning refreshed. We celebrated a Sabbath, even though it was Friday.

Another practice I appreciated was the practice of valuing the people around you and finding the face of God in each person. When I was driving my friend home yesterday, we came upon the garbage truck in her neighborhood. She said, "You see that garbage man! He is the most pleasant fellow. He knows the names of each family, and speaks to everyone. He even knows our dog's name." Now, here is a person who recognizes the worth of all the people around him. And my friend recognized the worth as well, because she acknowledges his worth as a human being and not just as her garbage man. Taylor says that Jesus was the prime example of a person who appreciated those around him and acknowledged their worth. 

For the past six months, a group I belong to have been studying ancient spiritual practices using a book by Ruth Haley Barton called Sacred Rhythms. Taylor's approach is more earthy and earthly, but the message is the same. Spiritual growth comes from living life true to yourself, which also makes your life true to God.

Time Magazine named Taylor one of 2014's 100 most influential people, and then the very next week (April 28) she appeared on the cover with a review of her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark. The magazine calls her "a centering voice in the wilderness." She is the author of 13 books. I think I need to read them all.

The Time Magazine review of Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor's website:

Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday Monday

by Elizabeth Crook
Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2014
340 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

One of the women with whom I spent a weekend retreat this past week discussed how she is continually haunted with memories of her childhood in Germany during the final years of World War II, and how she is unable to view life except through the lens of the war. 

For many of us, there are defining moments when our lives change forever—for good or ill—and, like my friend, we view the rest of our lives through the lens of that experience. For the characters in the book Monday, Monday by Elizabeth Crook, the event that shaped the rest of their lives was the August 1, 1966 shooting at the University of Texas. The book begins with the first shots ringing out from the bell tower and it ends 40 years later when one of the victims, Shelly, is able to go up into the
tower and look down to the place where she lay after being shot and see how the trajectory of her life came from that moment.

There have been far too many mass shootings, and the shooting that fateful day in Austin Texas seems to have been the first. It is an intriguing and appropriate place to begin a novel about the life effects of trauma. Like most sagas, Monday Monday is the story of the twists and turns in the lives of three characters who were there at that day. The story is fascinating, the characters are well drawn, and the plot line is plausible. Even more, the book begins with tragedy, but ends with hope.

The reviewer in the Book Page review says: "... what makes this book so compelling is the open and tender way each character is honestly but lovingly portrayed. Monday, Monday is a wonderful book that will make you cry, but also uplift you."

In an interview, Crook says that she had begun a far different novel, but an article about the shooter, Charles Whitman, in the Texas Monthly changed her perspective, and the mother in the novel she was writing suddenly became the character, Shelly, crossing the mall at the University of Texas on a sunny summer afternoon. The entire focus of her book changed in that instant. She said that the value of what she was writing became all the more important with the escalation of school shootings in recent years. It is a valuable and insightful book,well worth reading.

The review and interview in The Rivard Report:
Elizabeth Crook's website: