Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

6582864Blurb:

Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.

Review:

Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.

Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.

At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.

Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.

But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.

I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

12262741Blurb:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Review:

For someone who only walks to work and back home, to the grocery store then back home, to a friend’s place and once again back home, I really do love books about people hiking thousands of miles in the wilderness. Where a friend is someone you happen to pass on the trail, the grocery store is whatever dried food you can carry on your back, and home is nothing more than a tent perched on bumpy tree roots. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a more academic yet still autobiographical account of his months-long jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she recounts her adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail but in an altogether more emotive fashion. Her story is less guidebook or school report and more so the confessions of the innermost pieces of her soul, a highly polished personal journal of sorts.

That’s why sometimes it can, unfortunately, read like a literary afterschool special that warns not against the dangers of bullying or taking candy from strangers but the dangers of doing too much heroin after your mother dies tragically young or, um, deciding to hike a 2,000 mile trail through deserts and mountains with no preparation. I say afterschool special because that’s what Strayed’s style occasionally reminded me of. U-rah-rah-ing alongside self-evident morals and platitudes. But I hesitate to excessively fault her for this because that’s what recovering from depression requires: indomitable positivity cloaked with endless truisms. Clichés are, after all, cliché because they are so universally true.

But what I’m really here for in Wild (or any book describing a feat of human physical and mental strength, honestly…) is the triumph of the human spirit. In my daily life there are very few things, if any, that are truly hard. Backbreaking or braincrushing. So I find stories where people choose to flee from their comforts for a life that is decidedly uncomfortable hypnotic and intoxicating. I brim with questions and pride and awe. People often expostulate about the transformative power of reading but I found Wild transportative. For a few hours I left my living radius of 5 city blocks for a snow covered ridge in the Sierra Nevada or a solemn forest of trees standing like sentinels. It was a nice trip.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

20588698Blurb:

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told,” writes Lena Dunham, and it certainly takes guts to share the stories that make up her first book, Not That Kind of Girl. These are stories about getting your butt touched by your boss, about friendship and dieting (kind of) and having two existential crises before the age of 20. Stories about travel, both successful and less so, and about having the kind of sex where you feel like keeping your sneakers on in case you have to run away during the act. Stories about proving yourself to a room of 50-year-old men in Hollywood and showing up to “an outlandishly high-fashion event with the crustiest red nose you ever saw.” Fearless, smart, and as heartbreakingly honest as ever, Not That Kind of Girl establishes Lena Dunham as more than a hugely talented director, actress and producer-it announces her as a fresh and vibrant new literary voice.

Review:

For someone who has branded herself as “not that kind of girl” by titling her first book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham is still a very specific kind of girl with a very specific kind of (girl) fan, just not that kind.

Lena Dunham is the kind of girl who can write a sentence that makes you guffaw, “That can’t possibly be true!” and yet you believe it. A sentence like this:

He called me terrible names when I broke up with him for a Puerto Rican named Joe with a tattoo that said mom in Comic Sans.

She’s the kind of girl who observes, reports, analyzes, and reanalyzes until a situation is both gravid and devoid of meaning.

She’s the kind of girl who’s self-indulgent, self-involved, yet self-aware, so you can’t fault her for it. The kind of girl with a lot of self, for better or worse.

And therein lies her ineffable charm. Lena is a self. A voice to be adored, hated, broadcasted, muted, screamed over, listened to raptly. A voice to be heard. It’s refreshing to hear someone so young believe and argue that she has something to say. This confidence in self thus leads to hordes of fans, other girls full of various selves they want to share but don’t exactly know where or how or even if they can, because it might be scary.

I just wish Lena had taken this platform that she has built and decorated and adorned with Emmys and haters galore by age 28 and said something more…relevant? It’s a haphazardly constructed book, assembled like a 3rd grader doing papier mâché for the first time: ideas glued together, but no idea quite full enough to stand alone, no idea quite properly connected to the one attached to it.

People who have big, bursting selves that they are eager to share with a world that is often not ready to receive them frequently become bloated on their own raucous tales. I am a listener. When I meet people, I say barely anything about myself and pepper my partner with questions. I am a listener, and I’m completely content living my life this way. But sometimes you meet people who take advantage of your proclivity for listening. Lena, I expect, is one such person. Sure, I agreed to read her book, which means I willingly consented to listening to the mundanities and brilliances of Lena Dunham for at least two hundred pages. But it was too much at times. I don’t want to hear about that one time at summer camp when you were 14 years old unless you were my 14-year-old cabin bunkmate during my 14-year-old summer at Camp Birch Trails and we’re reminiscing. And maybe not even then.

Midway through the book, tempted to skip another essay seemingly rehashing the same old topics that I stopped caring about one hundred pages ago, I asked myself: are there stories that simply don’t need to be told? As a lover of stories and storytelling, my knee-jerk response is to say no, loudly and declaratively. But I’m reconsidering. Not every story has some latent meaning, awaiting discovery and retrospective analysis decades later. Not every story deserves to be shouted from rooftops or graven on paper. Some stories are just things that happen. To us they’re important. We should keep them, love them, learn from them. And then we should pack them in boxes in the backs of our minds, mature and aware that they are simply some parts of our “selves” that we don’t need to share.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussmann

18264396Blurb:

After scriptwriter Jane Bussmann moves to Hollywood, she realizes her day job interviewing celebrities sucks. She goes to Africa in search of a dreamy activist and ends up uncovering Joseph Kony’s crimes.

Review:

This is an occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious book about genocide and the mass kidnappings and rape of tens of thousands of Ugandan children. If you’re still with me after that description, know that it’s also about well-intentioned but misguided Western governmental interference in African affairs, a Useless Person learning how to become Useful, and Ashton Kutcher.

Clearly it’s a bit piecemeal, a collage of assorted ideas with ragged edges sewn together. But its main conceit is Jane Bussmann, celebrity journalist, can barely stop herself from committing suicide mid-interview with Ashton Kutcher, immensely idiotic but almost universally praised actor, and thus decides to pursue real journalism. She tricks her way to Uganda by pretending to be a foreign correspondent and not the author of “Nicole Richie’s Sexy Summer Bikini Bod!” and tries to blow the whistle on Joseph Kony, the leader of a militant Ugandan rebel group that kidnaps children to serve as wives and soldiers, before discovering that the situation is much more complex than simply painting Kony as the “Most Evil Man in the World.”

Here’s the thing: Jane’s background in humor writing and celebrity journalism both makes and breaks this story. Jane is a self-deprecating reader stand-in. She’s just as unknowing as most of us on these topics, just as shocked, and just as horrified that she, as well as nobody else, is doing anything about it. Her affable ignorance excuses our own ignorance while her visceral reaction against what she learns prods us to learn more too. But I think this book was also intended to be read as a decent exposé of Kony and what the Ugandan government may or may not be doing to help prop his rebel regime up. And as far as that goes, Jane fails. She lacks the geopolitical background to tell a cohesive narrative about how Kony came to power and how he’s managed to stay in power so long. She’s able to identify a problem and say, “Hey, hey! That’s not right!” (more than most people in the world, who, willfully or will-lessly, are content to be blind) but she can’t explain how it came to be problematic and possible solutions for it to no longer be problematic.

But honestly if reading about dreadful war crimes and the inefficient meddling of Western charities and governments combatting them was always this fun, I think the general human population would be much more informed about various atrocities occurring throughout the world. And yeah yeah, I hear ya, being “informed” doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful change, but it’s a start. We may live in what Jane calls “The Golden Age of Stupid,” but I still believe that most of us are compassionate people. Often things that are entertaining are considered unworthy of serious attention. Yet Jane has written an entertaining book about a serious subject, and it’s an approach I’d like to see more of.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer by Vicki Lesage

22363991Blurb:

Diapers, tantrums, and French bureaucracy – the crazy life of an American Mom in Paris.

Party Girl is back, this time as the sassy mommy of two kids trying to navigate the beautiful, yet infuriating, city of Paris.

How does she steer a stroller around piles of dog poop? How does she find time for French administration between breastfeeding and business meetings? And can she ever lose the baby weight with croissants staring her in the face from every street corner?

Answers to these pressing questions – and many more – are in this hilarious sequel. Laugh, cry, and wipe up drool right alongside Vicki as she and her ever-patient French husband raise two children in the City of Light.

Review:

When writing a memoir, the most important thing is voice. Everyone on this planet has terrific stories to tell, but most of us just can’t find the right words to tell them. So when I read a memoir, I want to hear the author’s voice in my ear and get a sense of who she is as a person. I’ve now read both of Vicki Lesage’s Parisian memoirs—Confessions of a Paris Party Girl and Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer–and fortunately, she does not lack for voice.

Both of these books are charming reads. Each chapter focuses on a single frustrating or ridiculous or amazing anecdote from Vicki’s French life. The stories are interesting and recounted in the perfect way: edited properly for ideal pacing but just unpolished enough that we can hear the person telling the story. Reading this book really does feel like listening to a friend detail her trials and tribulations over dinner and drinks.

Vicki is also funny, which is lucky for her, because you need a good sense of humor to survive French bureaucracy. In this book, she starts adding to her Franco-American family with the arrival of two babies. From a cultural perspective, it’s fascinating. You’ll learn all sorts of quirky medical differences between the two countries. For example, American infant birth weight is simply calculated differently—a baby who is considered average size stateside is seen as above average weight in France. It found it incredible that seemingly objective medical markers could use different formulas depending on the country.

Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer is a sweet book that largely succeeds on the strength of Vicki’s voice. Her ability to laugh at herself and her willingness to call out French and Americans alike when they’re wrong (there is a scene on the Metro where she absolutely destroys a yuppie connard that will make you applaud) makes her the perfect companion for a lovely Parisian adventure.

4 out of 5 stars