I did it! I read three books in February! I started the month with a long one and I wasn't finished with it until around the 15th. Close call.
1. Brave Companions by David McCullough
I read McCullough's John Adams many years ago and it was one of the best reading experiences I've ever had. In college I minored in History, mostly American, and he made it live and breathe for me in such a wonderful way. Brave Companions was published in 1992 and includes chapters on people McCullough didn't write an entire book about (at the time), but who fascinated him. "What history is chiefly about is life, and while there are indeed great, often unfathomable forces in history before which even the most exceptional of individuals seem insignificant, the wonder is how often events turn on a single personality, or the quality called character" (David McCullough, Brave Companions).
In each chapter, McCullough writes a brief portrait of a person in history that he admires. What kind of person does David McCullough admire? The kind who lives every second of every day. I was introduced to people who had an amazing capacity for work. Even in old age, most of the subjects were still writing and discovering.
One of my favorite chapters was a speech McCullough gave to a graduating class at Middlebury College (Vermont!). Here is one of my favorite lines: "I feel sorry for anyone who misses the experience of history, the horizons of history. We think little of those who, given the chance to travel, go nowhere. We deprecate provincialism. But it is possible to be as provincial in time as it is in space. Because you were born into this particular era doesn't mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places. Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?"
Brave Companions made me want to read more and watch TV less. And I want to read what McCullough recommends. :) I'll have to go to the library for it, but Conrad Richter is on my list of authors to read soon. (I need more books to be available on Kindle! It took me no time at all to get used to not needing a light to read. Ah!) There are so many great books out there and so little time!
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
I remember all the controversy surrounding this book last year. Amy Chua was vilified for pushing her daughters the way she has. Battle Hymn is a memoir, but it is also self-parody. Chua is clearly exaggerating a lot of the time and she takes a step back through this book, to see that her ideas of child-rearing weren't all correct all the time. Parenting and doing the best possible job as a mother is something that is on my mind almost every minute. Even before I read this book I was feeling an anxiousness to step up my game - spend more time teaching my children good values and work ethic and service. I agreed with so much of Chua's philosophy - even some of the so-called shocking parts. (I would never have the energy to make my children practice their instruments on vacation.)
Amy Chua (and her husband, who supports her 100% - which is why their philosophy worked) set out to make sure that her two daughters did not become entitled and "soft." She did that by having them learn Mandarin Chinese from a young age, having them learn classical music (on the piano for the oldest daughter and the violin for the youngest) and drilling all school subjects (except gym!). "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it's math, piano, pitching, or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun."
It's so true! I had a Western version of a Tiger Mother when it came to learning to play the piano. The easy thing would have been for my Mom to let us "follow our dreams" so she could sit back and enjoy her own life a little. Instead, she had to listen to complaining and crying for YEARS as each of us got through the hardest part. Battle Hymn made me realize that I need to assume strength in my children and teach them how to achieve great things. That means I'm on the clock all the time. That means putting aside what might be fun for me now and dedicating myself to making great adults out of these precious children who came into my life through miraculous means.
One more favorite quote from the book: "Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't." Amen, Sister! I feel like Amy Chua is a kindred spirit, even though I'm an Ox Mother, not a Tiger Mother. :)
3. Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber
I was very young when John Hinckley, Jr. tried to kill President Ronald Reagan to get the attention of actress, Jodie Foster. Rawhide Down is a minute by minute account of what happened that day from the point of view of many of the people who were involved. It really struck me how close the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was to the attempt on President Reagan's life. Twenty years isn't that long. Jerry Parr (the Secret Service Agent pushing Reagan into the car) was even in Dallas and kept watch over Lee Harvy Oswald's mother during the aftermath of the shooting. (So chilling - Oswald's mother was pleased that her son's name would be part of history. Yikes.) Anyway, Reagan did almost die and it would have been a devastating thing for the whole country. The way he handled himself, though, changed his presidency.
Jerry Parr did save President Reagan's life. The bullet that entered Reagan's body had ricocheted off the armored car and under Reagan's uplifted left arm. It made a slice instead of a hole and the doctor that recognized that it was a bullet wound could do so because of his recent experiences in Vietnam. In every moment of the day leading up to the assassination attempt, I felt like the people who were there to save Reagan were destined to play their role. Jerry Parr had reassigned himself to Reagan's detail in order to get to know Reagan better. Parr had much more experience than the man who would have been in his place that day.
I guess Reagan didn't speak much about the attempt on his life, but he did write, "Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Perhaps that is the reason I was spared." I got emotional at several spots in this book (surprise, to me). There were three other men shot at the scene and one was the press secretary, Jim Brady. Brady took a bullet to the back of the head and it required a very risky and intricate surgery to keep him alive. His doctor instructed a Secret Service Agent to push people out of the way in their hurry to get Brady to an operating room. When the agent came to an abrupt stop before their destination, Brady's doctor got upset. "Sir, that is the president rolling in front of us," the agent replied. "We have to let him go first."
I'm not sure why that gets to me. I enjoyed this book. It's always interesting to look back at the moments before everything changes forever.