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Books | Fall Reading 2014

How can it be autumn already?  The leaves are turning beautiful colors and falling to the ground, but it was sunny and nearly 70 degrees yesterday.  The first day of November!  In Germany!  It’s like some kind of crazy time warp, isn’t it?  Personally, I was just getting used to summer.  But indeed, time is marching on.  I haven’t felt like I’ve had a lot of time for reading lately, but apparently I’ve blazed my way through a few books that are definitely worth sharing…


Long Walk to Freedom

I can’t put my finger on what exactly inspired me to read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.   It was more like a general dissatisfaction at having everything I knew about Mandela being based on popular media and imagery.  I wanted to get a taste of the complexities of Mandela’s life and ideals, in his own words.

He wrote Long Walk to Freedom twenty years ago, so it does not cover too much of the time between his release from prison and his death in 2013.  Instead, it focuses on Mandela’s childhood and young adulthood, his early days as a lawyer in Johannesburg,  his increasing involvement with the African National Congress in the campaign against oppression, and his 27-year long imprisonment.

Mandela’s attention to detail in this autobiography is incredible.  I came away with a strong sense of the inner workings of the ANC and a profound respect for the commitment of those in the anti-apartheid movement.  It’s completely mind-blowing the extremes to which the South African government went in order to repress the overwhelming majority of its population.  That Mandela and his colleagues continued this struggle even within prison is impressive.

It was also clear from his writings that he was deeply conflicted about the sacrifices his family had to make for him to be a freedom fighter.  Although it pained him, he acknowledged that it was not possible for him to be both the “father of the nation” and a real father to his own children.  For Mandela, the greater good of freeing South Africa from oppression was worth the sacrifice.  In any case, it was a fascinating peek into Mandela’s mind and at South African history.


The Giver

I decided to read The Giver after being deeply disappointed with the Hollywood version I saw during a surprise sneak preview hosted by my local cinema.  I knew the book was much loved and the winner of many awards for children’s and young adult fiction, so I was hopeful that the story would be much more compelling in novel form.  Thankfully, where the movie fell flat, the novel was rich in detail and nuance.

The story centers around a dystopian community that promotes “sameness” in order to avoid the pain and conflict that comes with diversity.  But in doing so they also deprive themselves of love and joy.   Needing at least one individual in the community to carry the wisdom from the world prior to sameness, Jonas — an adolescent boy — is chosen to be the receiver of all memories.   The descriptions of the community and of the dilemmas Jonas faces with his new knowledge are fascinating.

But I have to admit that I was disappointed with the ending.  It was vague and unsatisfying.  It’s just the first book in a series of four, but I had still expected the story to be able to stand alone.  But since it’s so short, it’s still a valuable read, especially from an adult perspective.


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

I’ve had Wild recommended to me several times, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s a memoir of Strayed’s 1,100-mile solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail during a particularly turbulent time in her life.  Recovering from the sudden death of her mother to cancer, Strayed’s life unravels at the seams.  As a way of finding herself again, she embarks on this very ambitious journey with shockingly little  preparation or experience.  Strayed suffers from her rookie mistakes and learns very painful lessons, but always manages to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.  Along the way she manages to make peace with herself and let her mother’s spirit cross over to the other side.

Altogether, Strayed told her story beautifully.  After the somewhat stilted prose of a Long Walk to Freedom, it was a pleasure to revel in Strayed’s gorgeous imagery.  But as someone who loves being over prepared for everything in life, I found her lack of preparation for the PCT maddening and downright dangerous.  But it’s authentic and part of her story.  I think anyone who has undertaken such an enormous physical challenge as Strayed did, will identify with the ways in which it leaves you a changed person.  And maybe it will inspire a few more people to shake up their lives and see where the trail leads them.

What should I read next?  I have Being Mortal, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Hard Choices at the top of my list.  What have been your favorites lately? 

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