Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing story about a young girl, her family and her neighbors being forced from their home in Lithuania and imprisoned in a brutal Siberian encampment under Stalin’s rule. As one would expect, this wartime story is horribly sad and disturbing. However, there are moments in the imprisoned people’s lives where they remind one another that they are indeed compassionate human beings who are capable of empowering themselves and one another by sharing happy and peaceful memories. These moments better enable them to survive–spiritually and physically. On one occasion the “prisoners” free themselves from several months of endless burden and physical wear with the use of what can be called, collective memory. They secretly gather on Christmas Eve and recreate a scene that resembles a traditional Lithuanian Christmas dinner celebration—Kucios. During this commemoration they have only the small stolen rations of stale food from the farming camp that they are temporarily enslaved at. Yet, with these very limited means the group manages to capture the spirit of the holiday celebration, perhaps in a more powerful manner than any Christmas past.
Lina, the protagonist of the story, is a gifted artist and seizes every opportunity to capture, on bark or stolen paper, such moments of beauty. She also uses her artistic abilities to record the destruction and obscenities she has witnessed and experienced. Lina draws with an understanding that her depictions are recorded evidence as well as an act of defiance and freedom of expression. Moreover, she holds onto the hope that her drawings are a conduit through which her separated family can communicate and reunite. The characters in this story, and their small amount of personal belongings, are up-heaved and moved from place to place further away from their homeland and from the peaceful lives they once knew. Lina’s story, and her art, balances a wanting of what once was, with a need to move forward.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (especially for those moments of beauty amidst despair)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (which also emphasizes the survival of people’s traditions and culture)
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (another story that presents complex individuals who are capable of doing good and of creating harm)
The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch
Nell is one of only two survivors of a plane crash. She remembers nothing of her life, but learns that she runs an art gallery with her sister, and is married to (but separated from) Peter, and is the daughter of a famous reclusive painter who abandoned the family years ago. She is surprised to find that she’s a control freak who only wears neutral colors, and that she and her sister weren’t speaking before the accident. She used to like music, and her sister makes a recording of music to help prompt her memory. It seems that no one is telling her the whole truth, and she turns to fellow survivor, actor Anderson, to help her find out who she really is. I was really interested in Nell’s story, but found the lies her family and friends told somewhat unbelievable, more so than the amnesia itself. A real page-turner.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Alice hits her head during spin class one morning, and loses a decade of her life. She thinks she’s pregnant with her first child, and is stunned to find out that she and Nick have three kids, and are separated. Her sister Elizabeth is married but seems distant, and her mother has remarried, to the most surprising person ever, and enjoys salsa dancing. Alice only gradually remembers flashes of the last decade, and frankly doesn’t like the older Alice. She’s a super mom, very involved at the kids’ school, but they don’t seem that happy. Why is everyone asking her about plans to break the world record for lemon meringue pie? And is she really dating Dominick, the school principal? I really liked the early Alice, and was rooting for her to remain true to herself as she regained her memories. Besides the lemon meringue pie scene, some of my favorite funny parts were how she handles a child’s getting kicked out of school, and salsa dancing.
If you’d like to read more novels about people starting over after a memory loss, try these recent books:
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
The Last Letter from Your Lover, by Jojo Moyes
The Shadow of Your Smile, by Susan May Warren
Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella
Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory
I don’t usually read books about zombies, but this is not your typical zombie story. Are you ready for the zombie apocalypse? Me, neither. In fact, I think the existence of zombies is impossible. Oddly, so does Stony Mayhall, Daryl Gregory’s living dead protagonist. In 1968, Wanda Mayhall is driving her three girls home through an Iowa snowstorm when she sees a body by the side of the road. Wanda finds the frozen body of a young woman, with a cold baby in her arms. Then the baby opens his eyes, and Wanda takes him home, where she and the girls keep Stony’s existence secret from everybody but their Korean neighbors. After young Kwang comes to visit, Stony grows in size to match him, and they grow up together. While frustrated because he’s stuck at home, Stony loves his family. After a tragedy, Stony is separated from his family and taken to a safe house with other living dead (LDs), and even to a secret LD convention, which ends badly. LDs have different political views, and are really dangerous for only a few days after they are bitten and become LD. They can eat and drink, but don’t need to, and smoke a lot. Some even fall in love.
Stony studies the origins and science of LDs and meets a wealthy entrepreneur on a desert island who wants to send LDs into space. Stony longs for contact with his human family, and tries to prevent a faction of LDs from starting the Big Bite, or zombie apocalypse. A funny, sweet, and frightening story of self-discovery, family love, and zombies.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
As many sweet and savory treats are prepared and enjoyed in the winter, it seems like a good time of the year to learn about the history of food by looking at the tools and equipment used in cooking and dining. British food writer Bee Wilson describes important inventions over the centuries, and how our tastes in food have changed along with the equipment. The first big inventions were roasting spits and clay pots. Wilson describes the evolution of the stove and refrigerator, appliances we would struggle without today. Chopsticks versus eating knives reveal the difference in culture, and how a cuisine that began by conserving fuel by quick cooking in a wok now consumes billions of disposable chopsticks annually, many now made in Georgia. Many cooks occasionally enjoy using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor can save large amounts of time and labor. Why do American recipes use measured amounts while other cultures give weights? Wilson has a theory. Even the grating of nutmeg and cheese get their turn here, as does an amusing look at the spork. And who would have guessed how much forks changed during and after the English Civil War? I really enjoyed Wilson’s look at food and history. Readers might also enjoy At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.
This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg
“This machine kills secrets” is a riff on Woody Guthrie’s slogan “this machine kills fascists.” Greenberg lays out how cryptography and anonymity are the machine that can help people leak secrets that those in power don’t want the public to know. The best example of this idea is Wikileaks where thousands of classified documents were posted for public consumption. Greenberg goes back to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers where the leaking technology was nothing more than a photocopier and brings the reader to today where Tor, PGP, SSL, and other technologies make it possible for whistleblowers to anonymously spread information. Or at least they would in theory. In practice, Wikileaks and similar sites are plagued by problems like internal strife, legal issues, and endangerment of innocents mentioned in leaked documents.
Greenberg does a wonderful job of capturing the personalities of those involved in the struggle to free information. He doesn’t shy away from showing that some of the “heroes” of the movement are deeply flawed. He’s equally honest about the subject of leaking. While leaked documents can make for a more informed public, they can also cause great danger to the people who leak and share them as well as those mentioned in the documents themselves. Security measures to prevent or catch whistleblowers are more likely to catch innocent people and are a danger as well.
There are many elements to leaks–why people do it, how they do it, where the leaks go, what happens with the information, how you protect the people who want to leak information, and how to keep that information from doing more harm. Greenberg covers all of them and his conclusion is that what we currently have in the form of Wikileaks and its offshoots and copycats isn’t the final form and somewhere, someone is working on the next big thing. After reading This Machine Kills Secrets, I have a better understanding of why people are working on it. I wish some of the technical descriptions had been more detailed (I’m a fan of Neal Stephenson’s infodumps and think Cryptonomicon would be a great readalike). Despite the subject, this is a very readable book since Greenberg focuses on individuals and uses them to talk about the technologies they use. You don’t need a lot of knowledge about computers to get into This Machine Kills Secrets but it may leave you wanting to learn more.
The Big Read is coming! The 2012 Big Read selection is The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. A wide variety of programs and book discussions will be offered by 10 southwest suburban public libraries during March and April, 2012, with an author visit in May.
For more information, visit thebigread.org.