1. Front row parking.

2. Freedom to work at your own pace.

3. The ability to pair work with Pandora for eight hours straight.

4. Darkness.

5. Sleeping in late when you get back.
I've let things get a little heavy these past few posts on my blog, so maybe it's time to lighten up the mood a little. :)

You know those families where everyone looks alike and everyone thinks they are the black sheep of the family, when really they're all just variations of other relatives?

You know the families who can't seem to get along a whole lot but love being together anyway?

You know the families who have ridiculous reunions with everyone talking over top of each other and running frenetically around planning crazy, not-that-fun activities?

You know the ones... who get matching T-shirts...

Well, apparently my family now has become one of those families.

I cried harder last night than I have in months, and definitely harder than I have ever cried because of a book.

This one was called "The Book Thief," and it took me nearly a month to read it after first checking it out from Van Belkum Branch Library.

It wasn't because the book wasn't a page-turner. It was. It wasn't because it was 550 pages. Although it was.

The reason it took me almost a month was because it was filled with suffering and pain, and I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it later, when I knew I'd be ready for it again.

The story was like none I've ever read before. It was about a girl named Liesel Meminger who lived in Nazi Germany in the middle of World War II.

Instead of a tale told from the perspective of the Jews, like so many other WWII books, such as "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," "The Hiding Place," and "The Devil's Arithmetic," author Markus Zusak hands us a story from the point of view of Germans living under the terrifying rule of "the Fuhrer," as they called Hitler. We see and feel the constant terror running through German souls -- the things they had to do, the price for hiding Jews, and the way Hitler wielded words in his quest to rule the world.

**Such a powerful, sobering thought that was for me, a writer, an editor — someone whose daily life and breath is the food of words. Someone whose existence is intertwined with paragraphs and sentences. To think of the misuse of words, to me, is terrifying.**


The part that stunned me about this book is that the story itself was fictional, with the exception of its historical context, and yet I found myself wrapped up in Liesel Meminger's life, fascinated by her foster parents' odd ways of showing love, drawn to her best friend and hero, Rudy Steiner, heartbroken by the sorrow of the Jew they hid, Max Vandenburg, whose friendship to Liesel follows her throughout life, and sympathetic to Liesel's hunger for books, a pull that draws her into thievery and brings her face-to-face with Death three times.

For this book is narrated by Death himself. He sees human souls as colors and takes a sick pleasure in that which will shock, appall and disturb.

And yet, despite that, I couldn't help but sympathize with him, in the sense that it was clear he loathed his job and carried it out of a sense of fateful inevitability, knowing that nothing could stop the ebbing away of souls during that war. He carried each one lightly, respectfully, even on days when his task list numbered in the thousands.

I was angry at him for telling me ahead of time what would happen to each character. Angry when he revealed before it happened the specific manner of each person's death.

And yet, being prepared for their deaths in advance, and by extension the heartbreak they would cause Liesel, did nothing to soften the blow to my heart when they actually occurred.

"Why? Why?" I asked myself What made this book so difficult to read?

Part of it must have been because I knew that although Liesel and Rudy were merely products of Zusak's imagination, there were so many in 1943 with stories just like theirs that weren't fictional.

People really did follow Hitler in hypnotized, numb terror. And those who tried to resist met with suffering and death.

People died alone. They died not knowing hope. They landed in unmarked graves — whole families at once, so many that it's likely some families trees were obliterated — with no one left alive today who even knows or remembers they existed.

I don't want to forget that. I don't want to watch the ones around me die without hope like they did.
After a too-long absence from the blogosphere due to the lack of home Internet access, I'm glad to say I'm back and ready to write.

I was going to toss around some thoughts about President Obama's speech on education from earlier today, but in keeping with the spirit of this blog, let me deviate to something I've been thinking about since last night.

A couple of weeks ago while editing the Sunday books page at work, I stumbled across a review of a local Vietnamese author, Bich Minh Nguyen, who just released her second book in two years.

Her second was a novel called “Short Girls.” As I read the review, I noticed her first work was not a novel at all, but a memoir titled “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” about her family's flight to Grand Rapids in 1975 on the heels of the Vietnam War. The title alone was enough to intrigue me, so (as soon as I had finished editing, of course) I immediately scouted it out on Amazon.com.

I just finished reading it last night. It wasn't the kind of book that made me leap for joy; it was more of a thought-provoker. Nguyen's writing is by turns concise, conversational, emotional, comedic, descriptive and understated — yes, it can be all those things — but it left me so sad, hungering for something elusive she never quite served.

And that is ironic, because food was her primary narrative tool. All of the chapter headings (Pringles, Dairy Cone, Toll House Cookies, Ponderosa, etc.) and all of her primary childhood memories revolved around experiencing new foods, from her native Vietnamese staples, to the campy American packaged fats and sweets she looked upon as delicacies, to the Mexican variety her stepmother introduced.

It made me sick to read the lists and lists of food she wove into every chapter as she described how each family she met made their food differently.

But it wasn’t until today I began to pinpoint the exact cause of my uneasiness. When Nguyen arrived in Grand Rapids, she took in her first doses of two things: Christianity and capitalism. The “upward mobility” of her Christian neighbors in the perfect house with the perfect yard and the Stouffer's insta-meals became inextricably linked, in her mind, to the meaning of Christianity. All she saw was a striving toward perfectionism and success, and it both fascinated and repulsed her.

The result: She rejected Christianity and embraced Buddhism even more fully.

I finished the last page feeling so utterly sad that her neighbors, so terrified by the Nguyen's living room altar to Buddha that little Jennifer Vander Wal was not allowed to go inside, completely missed the fact that this precious little Vietnamese girl, who wanted to understand Christianity, turned away from it because of what she saw in them.

In the book’s quintessential passage, Nguyen decides to steal a piece of the fruit her grandmother set out as an offering to Buddha, and she takes it with her and hides in the neighbor’s tree while they are away from home. Here is how she describes that memory:

As I sat in the Vander Wals’ tree, Christianity seemed about as real to me as the Agapaopolis (a Sunday School musical in which Jennifer had a role). It seemed as distant from my person as blond hair and blue eyes. It also seemed manipulative, what with all that fire and hell. When Jennifer talked about the Lord it was with equal parts love and fear. Noi (Bich’s paternal grandmother) didn’t fear, or even really love, Buddha. She didn’t worship him; she gave him her respect. … When she bowed and chanted she wasn’t praying out of fear, or to save herself, or to ask for something good to happen for her. The Christians were God’s minions, but Noi was not Buddha’s.

It is entirely possible, even very likely, that the Vander Wals were sincere, well-meaning Christians. But if so, how is it possible the major impressions left on young Nguyen were of a twisted, subservient Christianity, manipulative in its intent, and primarily connected to consumer culture?

It’s possible because the things we value — the things we work for and guard carefully — these are the things we actually love, regardless of the message we think we are projecting. And if the things that frighten us most are people different from ourselves, as with the Vander Wal’s perpetual terror of and hatred for the Nguyens, then maybe it’s time to step back and reevaluate if we really know the heart of Jesus.

Is He one whose selfishness turns away little children? Is He one who advocated climbing the social and economic ladder above all else? No.

Thank-you, Bich Minh Nguyen, for painting such a vivid picture of the things that break my Savior’s heart. May I never forget.