This Was Yours From The Beginning

Every so often the year starts with a bang, and last night sixty-two high school seniors rocked it.

For the last four years I have worked with an organization called the Posse Foundation, which works with universities across the country (and students in seven cities) to provide full tuition scholarships for the next generation of leaders. It started when one of Deborah Bial’s students told her that “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,” and today the organization is founded on the “belief that a small, diverse group of talented students—a Posse—carefully selected and trained, can serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development.” Many of you may have first heard about the organization last year when President Obama donated part of his Nobel Prize winnings to this worthy cause.

Last night was the 2011 Posse celebration ceremony for this years scholarship recipients. It is the moment when each Posse meets supporters from their future college/university (the DC schools are: Lafayette, Bucknell, Pepperdine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sewanee (University of the South), and Grinnell) and rousing cheers from other Posse’s currently at said universities. They are, after all, about to become a part of the family.

This year we not only heard about an amazing alumni Loubens Theork who graduated from Hamilton College and started a scholarship program for Haitian children (and he will be using 10k from this year’s Alumni Achievement Award towards this program), but we learned that every single one of the sixty-two students has already proven themselves to be leaders in their communities, schools and families. What is even more remarkable is that fifty percent of these students will now be the first in their families to attend college.

I know that is something that a lot of people throw around, but even from my seat in the back I could feel the pride in the room. As parents and grandparents called out in joy for their daughter, grandson, brother, sister these men and women represented, as Frank Sesno the Posse D.C. Advisory Board Chair stated, that something that had gone right.

My role in Posse is after the celebration, when Posse preps students for their entry into the collegiate environment. For four years I’ve worked as a writing coach and have found it fulfilling, exhilarating and have developed my own sense of pride for these students who continue to work hard even after they graduate.

This is what I find so inspiring about this organization. The relationship with the students does not stop with the money, but rather continues well beyond the four year college experience. A full support system. I always walk away from this ceremony wanting to be more and to do more.  One of the university liasons from Grinnell told these students that this honor “was yours from the beginning.”  And he was right, because that statement emphasizes that every accomplishment we have ever recieved is a consequence of our families and our own decisions along the way. We make it happen.

One final thought. The motto of Lafayette College comes from the words of the 19th year old Marquis de Lafayette who left France to fight for the colonial revolutionaries. When asked why he chose to fight he answered“Cur Non”, or “Why Not?”. So this year, anytime you are faced with a challenge, or anytime I am faced with a choice I’m going to remember these sixty-two students and ask–Why Not and try to make a difference.

Congratulations Posse Class of 2011!

Another Day, Another Year

What’s an end-of-the year blog without an end-of-the-year list? I’ve tried to fill 2010 with a lot of history—from great trips with my family to intelligent conversations with colleagues in San Francisco, Austin and Portland. At every step I’ve learned a little bit more about life, and a little bit more about myself. Below is a list of my top 3’s for the year. Some, like my music picks, are not necessarily from songs released in this year—but since they were new to me, I’m going to count them anyway. Others on the list you might recognize from other posts on this site.

Top 3 Books
Faithful Place by Tana French
French’s third book in the Dublin murder squad series is gritty and gripping, raw and emotional all at the same time. (Like how I used those adjectives without telling you anything?) Anyway if you like great mysteries that are well written check out this book. While reading In the Woods and The Likeness might be helpful it isn’t 100% necessary.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
History. Science. All with a very clear consequence for every individual in the United States and abroad. And all due to one woman whose life changed forever with her death.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Like I said some of these picks that are new to me—but after watching the BBC/PBS adaptation I had to read the real thing. Dickens, while always providing a dearth of genius does an amazing job showing the shifts between the rich and the poor—and the circumlocution office is just icing on the cake. Not to mention the vivid detail and characters in all walks of life.

Top 3 History Fun
I wrote a lot about these three experiences on this blog. I learned much about the western immigrant experience in San Francisco, saw how you can tell the story of times past through the remains of ordinary people, and catch a unique vision of America (one that is cleaned, up and brightly colored). For that I choose Angel Island, Written in the Bone, and Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Top 3 Music Picks
Rodrigo y Gabriella: Awesome strains of drifting guitar, rich in melodic sounds and rhythmic beats.

O’ Children by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: This song was featured in the latest Harry Potter movie, but once I downloaded it I found it entirely engrossing in texture as his voice mixed with the chorales.

Wicked Soundtrack: I am a sucker for musicals and while I did love my purchases this year of the latest Green Day CD I found this to be the album that I am in love with the most. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel’s voices are remarkable and for a show with such a fantastic message you can’t go wrong with a song about fighting gravity.

Top 3 Television Picks
Fringe: How can you go wrong with parallel worlds and creepy X-files like cases. What really brings in this show, however is the phenomenal acting this season by Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv and John Noble. I know many are all about the awesomeness of cable, but sometimes its shows like this that can tell a story within network constraints that I love.

Masterpiece Theatre (Little Dorrit, Wallander, Sherlock): All three of these mini-series were at the highest caliber of storytelling. Little Dorrit, as I mentioned above, is one of the classics; Wallander had gripping mysteries with an awesome soundtrack (and Kenneth Branagh blew it out of the park); and Sherlock which looked at the classic stories with a modern day slant.

Lost Season 6 Finale: I know this was a controversial ending for those who once loved the show, but even now months after the finale I can say I loved the ending for the series. I’ll admit that there were times this last season that it was clunky and could have had a tighter narrative, but it ended just as I would have wanted it to. Most of what I said right after the episode aired still holds here.

Top 3 Movies
My top three movies for the year are all fairly popular ones. The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was amazing. While the book is still superior, there were elements of the film that had me emotionally involved, not to mention mesmerized (the scene where we are told the story of the Three Brothers). In the same vein Inception proves that you don’t need 3D to tell a story, and to be an excellent entertaining film. The fight in the hotel hallway is probably one of my favorite parts. Lastly, what can we say about Toy Story 3 that others haven’t already said. Any animated movie that can have you at the edge of your seats and cheering has my vote.

Now while this is a top 3 list, I do have to also give props to my favorite Hindi film of the year—3 Idiots which was compelling, and funny at the same time (though some of the songs could have been more memorable), and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus were excellent.

And the rest….

I’ve also had the chance to see some pretty great theatre. As a season ticket holder for the Shakepeare Theatre I was blown away by The Liar and more recently Candide. I also saw Wicked in early January and as I mentioned with the soundtrack the actual musical was beyond words.

Which brings me to 2011. What are my resolutions for the coming year? Well I hope to work on my two National Novel Writing Month projects—cleaning them up, tightening characters which will in turn help with my overall attempts at fiction writing. I also would really like to try my hand at learning Hindi, a language that I’ve never quite grasped, despite hearing it at home for most of my life. I am also looking forward to working on an exciting archive project not to mention my New Year’s Resolutions for preservation. I’ve also realized that this blog is now over a year old—so happy birthday blog!

Add to the list! Tell me what your best ofs for 2010 are, or what your new years resolutions are.

Farewell Twenty-Ten
I guess I knew you when
And while this year was not great
I’d like to think, not the worst to date
But 2011, here we come
Looking for brighter skies, and then some
With something for the spirit too
After all, I’ve got all of you

Happy New Year!!

A Mountain Retreat (with Sari shopping, a Movie and a Play)

One of the great things about India is that it is a place you have to experience. I can describe how we get from one place to another—squeezing into a rickshaw in damp heat, or the terror I have in crossing the street—especially when cars don’t maintain lanes…but it’s not the same as being here. However, the last few days have been a hodgepodge of new experiences, though I will report that I am no closer to getting information out of my grandmother than I was five days ago despite having an excellent birthday party, with some amazing images from her past, present and future (great-grand kids who are absolutely adorable).

Baar baar din ye aaye, baar baar dil ye gaaye
Tu jiye hazaaron saal, ye meri hai aarzoo
Happy Birthday to you

Time And Again, Let This Day Return, Time And Again Let The Heart Sing This
May You Live Thousands Of Years, This Is My Wish
Happy Birthday to you

From Faarz (1967)|Listen to the song here|

The birthday celebrations launched with a trip to Khandala—a mountain retreat about an hour outside of Mumbai. The gaggle of family members that came with me (21 in all) ranged from 80 to 3. It included uncles, aunts, cousins, cousin-in-law’s who came from India and the UAE. Aside from the general family revelry (who doesn’t love 21 people in a room with a Karaoke machine) we visited some waterfalls and had exciting encounters with crabs. The one in the picture here is one that decided it lived in my cousin’s toilet—and sometime in the night crawled out to visit.

That being said, Khandala was beautiful. A tad cooler than the city, it boasted amazing view shed’s of lush greenery, though due to low rainfall the waterfalls had been reduced to a trickle. At one point we found ourselves driving up the windy roadway engulfed in a fog bank, unable to see more than a foot in front or behind. Then there were the monkey’s that hung out on the expressway as we took pictures of the Duke’s nose on our way home.

Silky Saris and Other Shopping Fun

After our trip the shopping for the wedding began in earnest. Its hard to explain the magic of a sari shop which holds rows upon rows of the six yard long garment in varying prices, sizes, and fabrics. Some come in dual tone with nothing but embroidery while others are filled with jari (translation lots and lots of beading and stones, almost like someone ran a muck with a beadazzler). When you step into a shop you sit in front of a table and give one of two things—a price point or a description of what you are looking for. Then the sales clerks pull out product after product trying to gauge your reaction. The fun in all this is seeing the flashing color swirl around you olive greens, deep purples, pinks and lavenders, oranges and blues (sometimes on the same garment) while checking out how the blouse piece contrasts with the actual sari. Then once you decide on the color you have to remember to take a a critical eye to the “palu” the end of the garment that drapes down your back (or in front depending on how you drape the fabric—trust me, there are many, many ways). Click here for a video of how we try on Saris at the store (starring my sister).

Another way that we shop is to take older sari’s of my mothers and take it to a tailor who transforms them into gaghra choli’s (basically a blouse/skirt/scarf) or a punjabi suit (a long top with pants). In order to get those made you have to buy lining which involves a whole other type of shopping—as seen here. I know that fabric shops exist in the United States but the process of making and buying clothes here is a full-service one that uses a different set of skills than one usually uses.

Bollywood & Kaanji

I’m not going to lie. We didn’t spend all our time inside stores, ogling clothing. When we first got back from Khandala we went to see a Hindi movie called Dabaang (Fearless). It stars Salmaan Kahn, an actor who I don’t particularly like but was what we call a timepass movie. Turn off your brain and enjoy….the colors, the fights (which were a combination of Kill Bill and Matrix style feats and acrobatics). Not to mention the song and dance numbers which I still can’t get out of my head. (Click on the link for a music video).

Then on Viserajan— we decided to brave the crowds to go see my cousin’s husband in a Gujarati play, something we’ve always wanted to do but have never had the chance. I know I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a firm grasp on either Hindi or Gujarati, something I always vow to fix, but I was amazed at how much I understood. Entitled Kaanji versus Kaanji (Kaanji being another name for Lord Krishna)it was essentially an adapted piece about a man who loses his lively hood due to an earthquake (“an act of God”)  and upon being turned down for insurance decides to sue god.

It was fantastic. I’m not saying this just because my cousin was in it, but it was funny, serious, and meaningful all at the same time. It dealt with issues of spirituality, ritual, and made some cutting observations about the practice of Hinduism in the modern (and digital) age.

The final part of the play, which dealt with belief, practice, life and death asked the audience to first find god within yourself before looking for him/she/it out in the world.

This is India I suppose, one part spirituality, one part entertainment, and another part full of vivid color and family. A portrait, a rendering of philosophical theory, mixed in with millions of unique stories and lives.

Click here to view more pictures of Khandala and Shopping.

Roots. Roots. Roots. (And Lord Ganesha)

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a first generation Indian-American. My parents came to this country in the 1970s (my dad for graduate school, my mother after marriage). I’ve been back to their country of birth many times in my life, and every time I gain an increased appreciation and love for my extended family and the country in which they live.

No….this is not an Eat. Pray. Love. moment. I’m not going to tell you all of my innermost thoughts about the wonders of India and my life, but I thought I might try and blog every few days about the sights, smells, and sounds of my trip.

We are here for three reasons.

  1. My grandmother is turning eighty years old.
  2. My older sister is getting married, so naturally we are doing a little shopping.
  3. A few days of fun in Goa.

The first two are probably the most relevant for this blog—because they have to do with my personal history. Mostly because of a communication barrier, I never really asked my dad’s mom about her life growing up in India or for stories about my father—something that I regret.  And both my grandfathers passed on before I was born/old enough to ask questions. Therefore, one of my missions for the next three weeks is to get my remaining grandmother to talk. It will be tough, since in her words, she has lived eighty years’ so now all there is left to think about is eating well, living well, and having fun.

A Word About Roots

I am an ABD. An American Born Desi. I take out the “C” which stands for confused, because I don’t really believe that is an issue (and for those who don’t know a Desi is another word for someone of South Asian descent). I know where I stand—both as an American and as an individual of Indian heritage. That being said, I don’t have family that came over on the Mayflower (or the Susan Constant), or a relative that fought in the Civil War. Both sets of grandparents lived during the time of Mahatma Gandhi and Partition—both things that shaped the way my parents grew up, and consequently the way I was raised.

11 Days of Lord Ganesha

Mumbai is in full on celebratory mode. For ten days India, especially the State of Maharashtra, celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesha (otherwise known to some as the Elephant god).

A quick interlude:

Here is a one sentence crash course on Hinduism (as I see it). Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. There is one god, fathomless and infinite. In order for humans to recognize the unfathomable, God—known as Brahman is qualified into three deities—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These three—the Trimurti (representing the creator, maintainer/preserver, destroyer) are further broken into avatars as a means of giving a face and a name to something that is beyond human understanding. Lord Ganesha is the “child” of Lord Shiva and Parvati, and is the god of many things including new beginnings and opportunities.

So for 11 days Hindus, particularly in the State of Maharashtra (where I am) celebrate Lord Ganesha’s birth with ten days of prayer, pomp and revelry (Ganesh Chaturthi), and on the 11th day (Visarjan.)the statues are immersed and returned to the sea/ocean. This symbolizes sending Ganesh back home where he takes the misfortunes of his devotees with him. I wanted to share a few pictures of one of the statues from the city of Pune (above).

It has been an impressive cultural experience with four days filled with songs of devotion and prayer booming from loudspeakers until well past midnight, and loud bursts of fireworks coupled with dancing in the streetsright now a group is playing a flute and drums in a steady, rapid fire beat. (Click on the link to watch a video/hear the music. It is a bit dark, but makes the point).

This is one of the things I love about coming to India every few years. No experience is the same, and aside from touching base with my extended family it is nice to be fully immersed in a world that is in my blood—and is very much a part of my Indian-American life.

Understanding another culture is hard, and while India is a mix between the old and the new, it is a Nation much more complex than what you see in a Bollywood movie. So while investigating my roots, I’m going to sally forth on another one of my missions: to bring a little bit of India to this blog.

As an aside, one interesting note is the environmental impact of this festival (there is some information about it in the article linked above)–how the plaster of Paris that the statues are made of effect the bodies of water in which they are immersed.

Click here to view full album from India.

California Bound: San Francisco, Fog, and the History of Asian Pacific Americans

There are words in the remnants of the registration building at Angel Island, a footprint of history, lost to time.

Courage                                                                                    Seperation
Segregation                                                                            Confinement
Bravery Lonliness                                                               Frustration   Anger
Exclusion                                                                                Inclusion
Appeals   Hearings  Examinations                                Denial       Perseverance     Entry
Human Spirit   Opportunities                                         Acceptance     Rejection
Dreams   Hope  Fear  Faith                                              Civil Rights  Realities  Social Justice

I recently wrote the post below for the blog, but I wanted to add a few thoughts regarding the importance of tangible and intangible heritage in telling the stories of immigrant America.  My travels around San Francisco emphasized just how important history is in the broader community. Documenting the past has never been more important–not only in terms of producing an archive for posterity, but also for the next generation as a means of forming a broader American identity.

A brief tangent: while at the College of William and Mary I had a chance to read the text from Colonial Williamsburg known as “Becoming Americans“. This publication, a thematic interpretation plan for CW,  pulls out the following main ideas in examining and interpreting the colonial period for the public.

  • Diverse Peoples
  • Clashing Interests
  • Shared Values
  • Formative Institutions
  • Partial Freedoms
  • Revolutionary Promise

While it isn’t a perfect interpretive plan, the main themes do lend themselves as a basic framework for stories of other immigrants to the United States. The interactions between cultures, their individual identities and the process of adapting in a new world may  not be a direct parallel to the stories of the colonial era “immigrants” but they do perhaps offer a glimpse into how American democracy and history constantly evolves and follows the similar arcs throughout time.

In early American the hypocrisy of the revolutionary fervor and the culture of slavery that had taken root in Virgina and other colonies was not lost on individuals like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Despite that recognition it took hundreds of years before we, as Americans, began seriously to work to end the legacies of slavery in this country (which includes post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws and segregation).

If you look at later groups that came to this country–the Irish and Scots, the Chinese and Japanese, the Eastern Europeans or African immigrants–all have experienced a level of discrimination and hardships before being accepted into mainstream America. Some would claim that it is a process still in progress for many of the more recent immigrant groups. At various points in time APA immigrants experienced, for a variety of reasons, discrimination and censure whether it is due to the Chinese Exclusion Act or the reactions to the 1942 bombings of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internments.

For Asian Pacific American communities the preservation of their communities, buildings, stories, music, language and artifacts are essential to documenting the APIA narrative of “Becoming Americans.” So those words that I saw on the stairway to the Angel Island Immigration Station barracks are more than just thought provoking phrases, or poetry to evoke emotion at the site, they are representative of what it means to be American, and that to understand the stories from Angel Island is to understand the story of every single citizen of the United States.

Below is the text from my blog on Click here to view the slide show of my trip to San Francisco.

San Francisco Tours Offer a Glimpse at the Asian Pacific American Experience

A letter speaking about the events of April 18, 1906 in San Francisco, California

For me to describe the scenes and events of the past few days would be an impossibility at present, and no doubt you would have had more news regarding the awful fate of this city than I myself know. All that I can say at this writing is, that about 5:15 a.m., Wednesday morning, I was thrown out of bed and in a twinkling of an eye the side of our house [at 151—24th Ave.] was dashed to the ground. How we go into the street I will never be able to tell, as I fell and crawled down the stairs amid flying glass and timber and plaster. When the dust cleared away I saw nothing but a ruin of a house and home that it had taken twenty years to build…

The Peace Pagoda in Japantown.
The Peace Pagoda in Japantown.

The Peace Pagoda in Japantown.

On my first day in San Francisco I attended a reception for the National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum (more on this in a blog post next week) at the Chinese Historical Society of America. Amidst the exhibitions, I found myself standing before a pair of slippers belonging to a Mrs. Lee Yoke Suey, a woman who came to America and found herself detained at Angel Island for over 15 months. These slippers were unfathomably tiny, a witness to the Chinese custom of foot binding, but also a part of Mrs. Suey’s American story, for as I talked about the practice with another conference attendee I learned that during the great earthquake of 1906 many of the fatalities included Chinese women whose bound feet rendered them unable to walk, and consequently unable to escape from the resulting fire.

Now, before coming to California I knew that my visit would include three typical tourist experiences. A view of Alcatraz Island? Check. A visit to Fisherman’s Wharf? Check, Check. Taking a lot of pictures of fog as it rolled over the Golden Gate Bridge? Triple check.

But during the last weekend in June I found myself experiencing a different view of San Francisco, one that looked at the history of the city through the lens of APA America.

While in San Francisco I stayed in an area known as Japantown, a small community that includes community-run stores, the headquarters for the National Japanese American Historical Society(NJAHS) and places for the Japanese-American community to gather and live. My first introduction to the history of San Francisco came from my tour of Japantown by youth tour guides from NJAHS. As with most things in the city the history of Japantown begins with the 1906 earthquake.

Even though APA communities lived in San Francisco before the earthquake, this area—known as the Western Addition—is where the Japanese community re-established themselves following the destruction of their former homes. By 1940 the neighborhood had grown into a vibrant community center with Japanese-American run businesses and places for the community to gather; something that changed following the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans.

This is where most of my tour of the current Japantown began. At NJAHS headquarters I saw Sa sa E, or Camp Objects of Memories—material objects made by residents of internment camps. These artifacts are made of whatever materials the artists could find reflecting the scarcity and solitude of those years. The guides walked us to the place where citizens stood in line to register for the camps, and on a faded staircase we can see remnants of graffiti that proclaims “Japs Keep Out.” It is an interesting glimpse for me, a life-long East Coaster, to actually stand and view facets of American history that I had only seen in textbooks.

Eventually, we walked across the street to the Peace Pagoda, which opened in 1968 as a gift from the people of Osaka, Japan. The structure is centered on a plaza that exhibits four basic elements: fire, earth, water and stone, but also represents the late-20th century story of Japantown, a place stuck in a cycle of redevelopment threats that began with urban renewal and continue on to the present day. This serves as an excellent backdrop to the conversations going on in the Forum, where community members across the Pacific Rim have gathered to identify how best to preserve what’s left of their American-legacy before it is too late.

Orig. Chinese (Cantonese) of the "Wooden House" poem by a  detainee.
Orig. Chinese (Cantonese) of the "Wooden House" poem by a detainee.

Orig. Chinese (Cantonese) of the “Wooden House” poem by a detainee.

The second major site I visited while I was in San Francisco was the Angel Island Immigration Station, which is where immigrants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Russians and Asians were detained. While many call this site the “Ellis Island of the West,” my guide emphasized that this was more like the “Guardian of the West.” Not all immigrants coming to San Francisco went through Angel Island, but rather this is where those (during the years of 1910-1940) who needed “further scrutiny” were held. This is particularly true for the Chinese immigrants who were escaping economic woes (amongst other reasons) in China who found them being held due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. There is a lengthy history of the act and its role in American immigration policy but I want to emphasize that for many the stay at Angel Island was brief, while for others it lasted as long as two years.

Many of the structures at the station are closed to visitors due to decay, but what I found most amazing about the building that we were allowed to tour (where the male detainees were kept) was that many of the detainees took their emotion and reactions to being held and transcribed them onto the walls in the forms of poetry. These poems represent heartache, loneliness, and uncertainty, and what I love about Angel Island is that despite the poems and writings being covered over after the military took over the station to house POWs they can still be seen—revealing the human emotion and a fragment of one life in the APA immigrant story.

Over the course of the weekend I did see some other sites—the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Haight-Ashbury—but I think that I left with a broader understanding regarding the many different stories that we, as Americans, have to offer. Stories of sadness, but also of courage and determination—and how we can preserve those stories as time goes by.

Hodge Podge: Books that Changed A Life

One of the reasons I started this blog has to do with my love of a particular NPR podcast/radio show known as This American Life. Every week I would listen to Ira Glass and think about how much I wanted to talk to someone about what happened or I wanted to put pen to paper and write about a particular episode that moved me in some remarkable way. A lot of people I know listen to this and we’re always asking each other—did you see the one where the woman got rabies and couldn’t find vaccine (I can’t for the life of me remember the episode name)? Or in Switched at Birth where those girls are switched at birth and the mother who knew didn’t do anything about it (we always get angry when we think about this one). One of my favorites is the story of the Iranian couple who divorced and then two years later, found each other again (Reunited (and it feels good)). Don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.

Anyway I’m a few weeks behind and finally heard an episode that originally aired on August 20, 1999. and was re-aired on October 2nd. This episode was called The Book That Changed Your Life. Made up of four acts this episode took a look at the ways in which a particular book touched and of course changed lives. I think the episode is best summed up by a quotation in Act 1 which looks at how playwright Alexa Junge used a book from her grandfather’s library to feel closer to him. She says that

“When you read a book and something speaks to you and you feel understood and it makes the world a less lonely place.” Books can be powerful things and I’ll be first to admit that sometimes we read things that aren’t quite so intellectual or highbrow because they make us feel comfortable and at peace. Others challenge you to look beyond your normal scope of inquiry to see worlds beyond your wildest imagination.

It is to their credit that the power of the written world sometimes trumps other storytelling mediums (one example from the last decade would be the translation of the Harry Potter series to the big screen.) There is also something about books that reflect on the simplicity of expression. In Act III we learn about Roger a construction manager who becomes obsessed with collecting every book about Lewis & Clark known to man. At first he doesn’t read the texts, but once has the final piece (I believe it is a copy of the two volume first official printing of their journals) he opens up and begins learning as much as he can about these two people he has spent years of his life on. The magic is in his voice as he describes reading about the moment when Lewis and Clark reach the ocean, and how he would have been screaming and dancing but for Lewis and Clark their excitement is summed up in the simple text “ocean in view. Oh the joy.”

So it got me thinking about the fiction books that have changed my life. If I included nonfiction this could be a very long list, since there are many, many non-fiction books that inspired me. To some extent these five books are the ones that made me think about the construction of a story, but also made me think about the choices characters are forced to make and how powerful those choices can be as a reflection of reality.

  1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. The Lord of the Rings (fine three books not one but I’m counting it as one) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
  5. Atonement Ian McEwan

The Giver, the story of a boy living in a colorless world was perhaps my first introduction to the idea that maybe not everyone can see the world the way I do. What could I live without? A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps one of Dickens most quoted books and while not necessarily his best (I may say that Bleak House might be that) his ability to take his many story strands from incoherency and then pull them back together is just one of the reasons why I love this. It might be the vivid picture of the dirt, the gritty grime of his London/Paris that says it all. As for Tolkien it is the classic hero’s journey, and one which has parallels from all parts of life. Pride & Prejudice has more to do with Jane Austen and what she could do in the middle of 18th century England, but also the way she uses the story to provide a glimpse into all walks of English society. Lastly, Atonement…..really its because Ian McEwan has created a character who is both morally ambiguous and for whom I can never decide whether I would like to feel sorry for or just hate.

As always though as I put together this list other books started popping out at me so instead of me talking about myself—tell me about what books you guys love.

A few related notes:

  1. Claude Levi-Strauss: Levi-Strauss was a French structuralist anthropologist, who formulated theories on how and why so many myths from around the world seem to have similar structures and ideas. He died at the age of 100 last week and his writings were one of the first to push my mind beyond looking at things in one particular way. Levi-Strauss also had a big role in the creation of UNESCO race policy. Learn about his work at UNESCO here.
  2. A few weeks ago during one of Gene Weingarten (a columnist for the Washington Post) humor chats he asked us to take a look at a newly surfaced video that provides a single three second glimpse of Anne Frank prior to when her family went into hiding. He wanted us to decide if it was powerful and to explain why—so I’m asking you. Is it just a video of a girl watching her neighbors go off on their honeymoon, or is it powerful (as I found it) to finally catch a glimpse of someone whose words symbolize some of the acute horrors of the Holocaust.
  3. You might not get another long blog post from me until after November. I’ve decided to write for National Novel Writing Month (50k words in 30 days.) For more information visit