Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book review: The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

I picked up The Zookeeper's Wife at Target as an impulse buy since I needed something to kill the time between matches at N's volleyball tournament a couple weeks ago. The blurb on the back bills it as the amazing story of how two Gentile Polish zookeepers "managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages".

While the title centers on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, the book is really the story of how many Polish citizens risked their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. While in the past I've read a lot about WWII and the Nazis, I don't remember ever reading much about the occupation of Poland or the Polish resistance. It's really an incredible story, and the people described are so much whom I would want to be if I was ever in such a situation. It's hard to imagine the courage necessary the courage it must have taken to defy the Nazis, at risk of not only their own lives but their children's. One scene, in particular, where Jan and Antonina's son is threatened by Nazi soldiers, is absolutely chilling.

This is a book that inspires you and renews your faith in humanity. It's a great story...but it isn't a great story. That is, it's a non-fiction work. Because it's written as history, the narration leads to a certain distance from the events of the book. That probably made it easier to read, but it also kept me from feeling the kind of connection I would have had with the characters if it had been written from a closer point of view. I bought the book under the impression that it was based on history; that is, I expected it to read more like a work of fiction. I found the style (for example, reporting what Antonina wrote about something in her diary rather than having the character Antonina tell something) very distracting until, towards the end off the book, I happened to finally notice the back of the book where it said, plain as day, "HISTORY/WWII". D'oh.

Pick this one up. You'll be amazed, inspired, and probably want to dig deeper into her sources to read more about these incredible people. I know I do.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Books and challenge and distance, oh my!

I've been reading The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime for about two years now.  It's not such a long book, and it's not uninteresting; it just keeps getting set aside for other things.  Just as Born to Run was a story about running that ranged across real-life characters and countries, The Island of Lost Maps tells not just the story of one, very prolific, map thief, but of maps and history and people across the world.  So, yes, it's a good book, but that's not why I bring it up.

Last night, some quotes from the book struck me.

Harvey discusses the impact and importance of maps throughout history and the way that they helped lead to the discovery of the New World.  During the Age of Discovery, the world seemed such a big place.  There were so many many blank spots on the map.  And then, Harvey writes,

The world started getting smaller again.  In The Human Condition, Arendt described "the shrinkage of space and the abolition of distance through railroads, steamships, and airplanes." (129)
And isn't that true? Sometimes I am amazed now at the thought that my drive to work, 35 minutes or so every day, would have been a journey during earlier days.  My class talked about that as we read Little House in the Big Wood; the Ingalls girls rarely saw anyone else, a trip to town was a once a year treat, while we think little of taking a plane across the country.

In addition to transportation, technology has managed to shrink the distances between us as well.  Harvey quotes The Death of Distance:

Geography, borders, time zones--all are rapidly becoming irrelevant...courtesy of the communications revolution.
How many friends do you have outside of your town? If you're like me, more than the number in your town. My kids barely even know what long-distance telephone rates are. We can video chat on our cell phones (well, we can't, but people do). This has been such a huge change just in my lifetime. A cousin of my husband served in the first Gulf War and had very limited communication with his family back home. My brother has been to Iraq twice, and we regularly heard from him.

He goes on to say
As I was reading [this], it occurred to me that there are now two types of adventurers.  The old breed--the kind who once slogged forth into the great unknown, back when there was enough unknown left to accurately describe it as "great"--is an endangered species, and not a happy one, either.  The old breed does not want to be part of the main.  It years for islands.  It feels grounded in the global village.  As the mountain climber Gaston Rebuffat once put it, "In this modern age, very little remains that is real: night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars." And so the old breed finds itself jammed into the last fragments of true man versus nature wilderness, adventure ghettos like Mount Everest.

The new breed talks much the same game as the old, appropriating Age of Discovery language to describe Age of Information concepts (Netscape Navigator [clearly this edition is from 2001 since there's not much talk of Netscape Navigator these days], Microsoft Explorer). But the similarities end there.  The new breed has no need for physical wilderness.  It celebrates the fact that, as Rebuffat puts it, very little remains that is real.  The new breed dances on the grave of poor old Distance, believing that in cyberspace all vistas are endless.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt, one of the last great icons of the old breed, argued that the adventurer's heart "must thrill for the saddle and not the hearthstone." At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the new breed of adventurer must thrill only for the placid glow of a computer screen.

I thought the whole passage was interesting, but I think endurance athletes are reclaiming Distance from the grave.  The world may feel smaller until you run that mile instead of driving it.  One hundred miles isn't a big deal in a car, but it's a pretty significant number on a bike...and it's really something when you're running it.  Referencing the Rebuffet quote above, night and cold and wind can be banished, but many of us choose to go out and experience them.  There are many places I'd love to visit, but I can certainly find adventure and challenge right around where I live.  And as I realize once again that the world is bigger and more impressive than it might seem from the seat of a car, I'm learning that I am, too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Feeling stylish

I am pleased to announce that I am the recipient of a Major Award.

Oh, no...not the leg lamp.  Anyone could win a leg lamp.  But Kovas and Amanda and Craig have deemed me (cue fanfare) a stylish blogger.  Blush.  Thank you, Kovas. And Amanda. And Craig

Now, others may tell you differently (about Kovas anyway), but clearly Kovas and Amanda and Craig are people of taste and distinction.  Because I was tagged by three (count 'em, three) people, I'll offer three photographs as evidence of my stylishness.

Fashion Disaster Day
Adventurous use of color and texture

Able to accessorize with flair

Granted, I don't dress up as much as my brother for a race...

...but black is pretty formal.
Of course, certain duties accompany my new role as fashion icon.  In order to accept this award, one must:

1. Thank and link back to the person who awarded this to you.  Now, I already thanked Kovas and Amanda and Craig but I'm not yet too big to show some love to the "little people" who've helped me get where I am today.  So, thank you, Kovas and Amanda and Craig for showing such faith in me.

2. Share 7 things about yourself.  This is difficult because I just did a 30 things about me post, and I feel like I need to share something different...and while I may be (according to Kovas and Amanda and Craig) fabulous, I'm just not that interesting.  Hmmm.

  • I've lived in Illinois my entire life, mostly in the St. Louis region.  I did live in Rockford (second biggest city in IL) for a few years, but not long enough to consider everywhere south of Chicago "Downstate" (not that Kovas would do that).
  • I think it's pretty ironic that my students believe I know everything and my children (even the one who's the same age as my students) believe I don't know anything.
  • My husband is currently mad at me for dream cheating on him (his dream, not mine).  Hardly fair.
  • I spend my fall/winter/spring watching my son's volleyball tournaments but skip (arguably) the biggest one in California to go on a week-long bike trip.
  • I have three brothers and three sons and that pretty much guarantees that I'm comfortable with loud and obnoxious.  And, um...I'm not much of a lady.
  • My driver's side window doesn't work anymore, but I'd rather save the money for a pair of trail running shoes than fix it.
  • I have a new set of clipless pedals (thanks, Craig!), so now all I need is a pair of bike shoes and some courage and I'll be all set.  If you look at the item above, you'll note that I've got a little bit of time to develop the courage.
3.  Pay it forward to 15 great blogs - consider yourselves tagged!
4. Contact those bloggers and let them know about their award. If you follow me already (further proof of your stylish nature), consider yourself notified.  If not (I forgive you), I'll post to them.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Book review: The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer

    My husband picked this book up for me at a thrift store, and though I'm not (any more) a non-runner, I am training for a marathon, so I was interested in what it had to say.

    The book shares the lessons taught in a popular marathon class taught at the University of Northern Iowa. According to the book jacket of my 1998 edition, "The class has been offered five times over 10 years, and all but one student finished the marathon. That is approximately 200 students - all first-time marathoners and many with absolutely no running background." While it says "non-runners" on the cover, the actual marathon plan assumes that you can jog for 30 minutes without stopping; if you can't, it includes a 10 week preliminary (couch to 5k style) program to get you to that point.

    The marathon plan itself is a 16 week program. Participants run four days a week, increasing their mileage by no more than 10% a week. The goal of this program is to finish a marathon, not to finish at a particular time or to finish without walking. In addition to the assigned runs, the book also offers nutritional guidelines and a variety of mental strategies to help cope with the emotional demands of marathon training and participation. Each chapter has sections addressing physical and psychological components of training, as well as quotes from class participants.

    While I haven't yet completed a marathon, the basic training plan looked very similar to training plans I've seen. Some of the mental strategies seemed a little silly (though others were things I already do), but I can see where they would be helpful in developing a positive attitude towards the challenge of running a marathon. The authors are very big on positive self talk.

    I am certainly no expert or trainer, but the only inaccurate thing I noticed was a recommendation to strike with the heel or midfoot; everything I've read cautions against heel strike. Also, this edition being 23 years old, I'd be cautious about the guidelines given regarding nutritional intake, particularly percentages of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Note: the repeated reference to carbohydrates as "carbos" made me grit my teeth.

    I was going to pass this on to a friend who I know wants to run a marathon, but in the course of looking up this book to review it, I came across two different Amazon links offering it for $74+. I may explore why before passing it on.