Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

Book: The Other Wes Moore
Basic Information : Synopsis : Thoughts : Evaluation : Book Group : New Words : Book References : Good Quotes
: Table of Contents : References

Basic Information:
 Author: Wes Moore
Edition: eBook from the Public Library
Read: April 12, 2017
323 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5
As the title implies, the author whose name is Wes Moore tracks another Wes Moore who lived only a few blocks away from him in Baltimore. Both are about the same age and both are African-American. One ends up being a Rhodes scholar, the other in prison for murder.

You would expect in a book like this, there would be some prescription for how to make things better. But at the end, it sounds like Wes Moore is still sorting out his thoughts which is a bit refreshing, also a bit dissatisfying. The dissatisfying because you want the way to have things different. But refreshing because you realize that people come in so many different ways that doing one thing will never fit all people or even most of them.

Wes Moore leaves the prescription to others to state. Even then the answer given is to be involved. And that is the call to action. Not more government programs or more money or another organization, but individual involvement in individual lives.

The involvement of people close to the author made the difference between the two Wes Moores. Even though the other Wes Moore had his brother saying don’t go the way I did and a mother who was concerned. They were not effective nor energetic in keeping him away from running drugs.

The thoughts on manhood is interesting. The way the author was through the military’s way of owning up. It seemed like the other Wes Moore was still searching for what it meant to be a man. The South African story at the end is the author’s way of supporting that there is a need for ritual from when a child becomes an adult. Age does not make the difference, but outlook does.

Part I. Fathers and angels.
I was taught to remember, but never question. Wes was taught to forget and never ask why. The other Wes is so much sadder, much of it caused by the failings of a father. But I am not sure you can talk about the father's failings without understanding the father more. Was it fleeing a responsibility which he never wanted?

...pondering an absence [of their father]. This is a key meditation of our society. What has become of the fathers, and secondly, how can we be responsive to those who are fatherless?

Part II. Choices and second chances.
The author is coming to visit his namesake in prison. He stops and noted the daily miracle of my freedom. This is something we are so used, that I take it for granted.  It is only when we are faced with the loss of something which we appreciate what we have.

The other Wes asks the author, when did you become a man. The answer: when I first felt accountable to people other than myself. When I first cared that my actions mattered to people other than just me. But the author seems discontent with the answer, a bit too pat. He cannot identify a moment when he felt like he became a man.  The other Wes gets pretty close when he says that second chances are pretty fleeting.  There is a sharp edge between heading right and heading down. Author Wes Moore adds in about second chances and last chances.

Marking territory
The other Wes Moore wanted to be like his drug pushing brother; the brother wanted him to stay clear of that lifestyle. Sometimes it is the person who has made a mistake and cannot get out of it is the best person to keep us away from a problem. the “don’t do what I do, do what I say.” May seem hypocritical, yet it may be the best someone can do.

Part III. Paths taken and expectations fulfilled.
The other Wes Moore kept repeating his innocence, even though there was conclusive proof that he was involved. The author wonders, did he think if he repeated this enough times, he would be innocent? How about us? Do we repeat something about ourselves hoping that it is true?

Then there is a meaningful section about expectations. Is it our expectation of ourselves which forms us? Or those placed upon us?  The conclusion is that our expectations are influenced by those others have on us.

The land that God forgot
Books suddenly become alive for the author.  He was able to learn about various situations and imagine himself in them and see how he could work things out. The academic life grew on him.

Also the military school surrounding the author formed his thinking from easy ways to doing the right things.

excuses are the tools of the incompetent was pounded into the author by Sergeant Major Harry Harris. While I do not think this is an absolute truth, I know I perform better if I do not look for excuses.

The above can be contrasted with the other Wes thoughts about God. Where was God when things went wrong?  When bad things happen? The conclusion on this was, He certainly did not reside where this Wes Moore was.

The other Wes Moore never thought about the long term arc of his life. Do I think about where I am going and what I am doing? How does this fit in for the next five years? Ten years?

The author realized he had been very fortunate not to end up like his namesake. Others had been set onto the wrong path by tiny misfortunes-he had not been. He realized that his missions has to be to pull up others behind us. This was done for him and he wanted to do it for others. This is a good realization to have. Even for someone who was not from the projects. We cannot say that we are completely self-made as we are a product of our circumstances as well.

...admire the beauty and culture. But make sure you do not leave without understanding the history. That is something which we all should do wherever we are. When I am in Yosemite, it is not enough to see its beauty, but understand how we got to this place, so that as the future unfolds, we are not the slave to its past.

The author asked his South African host "how are you able to forgive?  ... How are you so able to move on?" The answer is less than intuitive: She gave me an easy half smile and took another sip from her mug. "Because Mr. Mandela asked us to."

I'd expected more. "I'd expected her to tell me that she was still working on her revenge scheme, ... But her simple and profound answer helped me to understand ubuntu  was not simply a word. It was a way of life. Her candor and exquisite simplicity framed the rest of my trip and helped me better understand the land I was living in. We are part of a community and must learn to live in one or we will self-destruct. Even if parts of that community has done us wrong.

There is a ceremony which the author’s host son will be going through which will mark him becoming a man. It will be painful. But the son says  it’s not the process you should focus on; it’s the joy you will feel after you go through the process. Wisdom from a young man.

As a note: this ties in with the question from the other Wes Moore-when did you become a man? In the South African case, it was after he had gone through the ceremony. Maybe that is what we lack. A boundary which says you are no longer a boy, but a man and now must take responsibilities as one.

The author talks about the camaraderie of being with fellow soldiers, those who have the same mission and understanding, along with the passion. He also talks about the fellowship of those who serve and who have commitment, integrity and sacrifice. There is not a sense of aloofness which you get in our society.

The author also talks about the process of writing this story. How he listen, took notes and wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps of getting the story right. I am thinking about how we no longer have that passion for making the story right, but would rather twist our stories to fit our beliefs.

He also talks about What made the difference [between the two Wes’s]? He does not have a ready made answer. One thing he does bring up is the place of strong mentors in his life at crucial times. There is also a need to give young people the opportunity to make the best decisions on their lives, along with the information and tools and support.

What changed the author? He does not feel going to military school was the changing point. But when he felt himself surrounded by supportive people-his mom, grandparents, and extended family.

He concludes that it is up to us, all of us, to make a way for them [boys and girls growing up].

Wes Moore points out that lives typically do not change at a single moment, but are an accumulation of events. But even more important is a person perceives themselves in their own story. To me it is a rare person who can understand themselves enough to both be on stage and see the part they play.

A call to action / Tavis Smiley
the battle of life is won in the trying and serving.
 Good book with interesting lines of thoughts about how two similar people can grow up to be two different men. The author does not leave us with a prescription to correct the situation, but advocates involvement in people, particularly at critical times in their development.  Wes Moore’s background is as a scholar rather than a writer. His writing is fair, but not with charm or excitement. So when you read this book, read for content not great writing.

Notes from my book group:
Some of the thoughts which came out from our OSHER group were:
  • Expectations
    • The expectation others place on us influences our own expectations and consequently our own results
  • Each person is different.
  • Do not give up on the person, even if they give up on themselves
  • Mental and physical health
    • This has a great bearing on what we are able to do.
  • Focus on the people around me
  • Hope Now For Youth
    • A local example of a group who are changing gang members.
  • Individual responsibility to be a solution
    • Just because we are ok does not relieve us of the responsibilities to others.
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Other Wes Moore:
1. How well does Moore describe the culture of the streets, where young boys grow up believing that violence transforms them into men? Talk about the street culture—its violence, drug dealing, disdain for education. What creates that ethos and why do so many young men find it attractive?
2. In writing about the Wes Moore who is in prison, Wes Moore the author says, "The chilling truth is that his life could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his." What do you make of that statement? Do you think Moore is correct?
3. Oprah Winfrey has said that "when you hear this story, it's going to turn the way you think about free will and fate upside down." So, which is it...freedom or determinism? If determinism, what kind of determinism—God, cosmic fate, environment, biology, psychology? Or if freedom, to what degree are we free to choose and create our own destiny?
4. The overriding question of this book is what critical factors in the lives of these two men, who were similar in many ways, created such a vast difference in their destinies?
5. Talk about the role of family—and especially the present or absence of fathers—in the lives of children. Consider the role of the two mothers, Joy and Mary, as well as the care of the author's grandparents in this book.
6. Why did young Wes, who ran away from military school five times, finally decide to stay put?
7. Why was the author haunted by the story of his namesake? What was the reason he insisted on meeting him in prison? Talk about the awkwardness of the two Weses' first meeting and their gradual openness and sharing with one another.
8. From prison, the other Wes responded to the author's initial letter with his own letter, in which he said, "When you're in here, you think people don't even know you're alive anymore." Talk about the power of hope versus hopelessness for those imprisoned. What difference can it make to a prisoner to know that he or she is remembered?
8. The author Wes asked the prisoner Wes, "when did you first know you were a man?" Talk about the significance of that question...and how each man responded.
9. Has this book left you with any ideas for ameliorating the conditions that led to the imprisonment of the other Wes Moore? What can be done to ensure a more productive life for the many young men who grow up on the streets?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
New Words:
  • Inshallah (Introduction)
Book References:
  • Fab Five by Mitch Albom 
    My American Journey by Colin Powell

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: This is the story of two boys living in Baltimore with similar histories and an identical name: Wes Moore.
  • Last Line: How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.  (quoted from William Ernest Henley)
  • excuses are the tools of the incompetent  (chp. The land that God forgot )
  • ...admire the beauty and culture. But make sure you do not leave without understanding the history. (Surrounded)
  • it’s not the process you should focus on; it’s the joy you will feel after you go through the process (Surrounded)
  • the battle of life is won in the trying and serving. (A call to action / Tavis Smiley )
Table of Contents:
  • Part I. Fathers and angels.
    • Is daddy coming with us?
    • In search of home
    • Foreign ground
  • Part II. Choices and second chances.
    • Marking territory
    • Lost
    • Hunted
  • Part III. Paths taken and expectations fulfilled.
    • The land that God forgot
    • Surrounded
  • Epilogue
  • A call to action / Tavis Smiley.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Man Called Ove

Book: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Bakman
Basic Information : Synopsis : Thoughts : Evaluation : Book Group : New Words : Book References : Good Quotes
: References

Basic Information:
 Author:  Fredrik Backman
Edition:   paperback copy, and  eBook on Overdrive from the Mountain View Public Library
Read:April 5, 2017
401 pages
Genre:  Fiction
Rated: 3.5  out of 5

A Man Called Ove is really a series of short stories strung together with a coherent theme. Ove is a lonely old recent widower living in a development. The story shows a man who did not get along with his neighbors and how he started to bound with them through a series of times he helped them.

The stories talk about his youth, the gaining and the loss of his wife, his neighborhood feuds and the impositions his neighbors had on having him do favors for them. Overlaid in all of this is his loneliness leading to several thwarted suicide attempts. That would be thwarted through the needs of his neighbors.

Then in the background is the feud with Ove's friend Rune, even though the term friend may be a bit loose. Their is a sense of at least a renewal of relationship when Rune has dementia and the “white suits” want to take him away. Ove stages a guerrilla war to prevent that from happening with the help of neighbors and friends.

Through all of this, the end of his life is surrounded by friends and neighbors. He is still a gruff old man, but much loved.

There are certain themes which run through this book:
  • Contrast between the closed mouth Ove and the joyful Sonja
  • Going after the inner good in all people
  • The effects of grudges
  • How bureaucracies tend to rule lives unless stood up too.
  • Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.

As I look over my notes, I realize there is a whole cast of characters which can be analyzed, which I have not touched:

  • Patrick — Parvaneh — Ove's neighbor, a pregnant woman of Iranian descent, a mother of two
  • Parvaneh's husband
  • Rune — Ove's friend and neighbor
  • Anita — Rune's wife
  • Adrian — the neighborhood mailman
  • Jimmy — the overweight neighbor

A Man Called Ove Makes his Neighborhood Inspection
And where was the world going if people couldn't write or brew a pot of coffee. I confess: I cannot perk coffee, nor do I care.  My English teachers would also say that I could not write either.  But Ove's point is that our abilities are being taken away by our dependence on conveniences. In this case espresso machines.  I was thinking about that the other day-where would I be without flipping on a light or flushing a toilet.

A Man Called Ove Does Not Pay A Three-Kronor Surcharge
How can anyone spend their whole life long for the day when they become superfluous? That is a retirement question. In Ove's case, a forced retirement. So the object of retirement is not to be more valuable in your old position, but to explore and become proficient in other activities, more useful in other ways.

A Man Called Ove
Ove's generation did not talk much, but did. He observes that the current generation talks a lot of doing things, but never seems like it is worth doing.

Only a swine thinks size and strength are the same thing.

There was a day when Ove made a determination about to keep money he found at this job, or turn it in. Backman says that is the day Ove learned how to do right instead of wrong.

A Man Called Ove Drills A Hole for a Hook
You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. True-I see this when my wife and I are apart-it takes me forever to go to sleep.

A Man Who Was Ove and A Pair of His Father's Old Footprints
Backman states that Ove differentiated between those who did and those who talked. Ove chose the route of talking less and doing more. This resonates with me. A good reminder to let actions do my talking.

A Man Who Was Ove and A House That Ove Built
if there was anything this middle class was not enamored of, it was whatever stood in the way of progress.  Is this really true? In this case Ove's father's house was to be destroyed to make way for a housing development.

A Man Who Was Ove and a Woman on a Train
Ove discovers that being on time may not be the most important attribute about a relationship. I have and am learning this. There is more to relationships than punctuality. As Ove discovers, that one person is unique to them and he needs to have that person in his life.

A Man Called Ove and A Cat Called Earnest
Sorrow does strange things to living creatures. Let your mind wander with this.

A Man Who Was Over and Countries Where They Play Foreign Music in Restaurants
When Ove and his wife Sonja is in Spain they see a street person asking for money.  He protests because you never know what they will do with the money. Her response? They can do what they like with the money.  She also says that when a person gives to another person it's not just the receiver who's blessed. It's the giver.  Words of wisdom.

A Man Who Was Ove and A Bus That Never Got There
Sonja would not have been Sonja if she had let the darkness win.  At the core, we are only what our values are. This has got to lead us to action to defend our values.
Then a few pages further Backman continues on  with that thought:  Every human been needs to know what she's fighting for.  The theme is that we

A Man Called Ove and a Piece of Corrugated Iron
Ove is trying to commit suicide. This time with pills. There is a comment that many normal folk strive for the feeling of losing control and go after it. But it is not within Ove to do that. Does not sound like it is a great temptation for Ove, just something within his internal makeup.

...[there is a] difference between being wicked because one has to be or because one can. Which begs the question, is it ok to be wicked ever? If so, under what circumstances?

A Man Who Was Ove and A Man Who Was Rune
sorrow...should have brought the two men closer. But sorrow is unreliable in that way. Talking about how one lost a child and the other had a son who he could not get along with.

I think one of the most pungent lines in the whole book is when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever. And for that maybe neither Ove nor Rune forgave him. When dreams leave, we are left with decay.

There were certain people who thought that feelings could not be judged by looking at cars. But they were wrong. At least in Rune and Ove's case.

A Man Called Ove Backs Up a Trailer Again
One side story which continues throughout the book is Ove's battle with the state bureaucracy. It first tries to tell him how his wife Sonja should live. Then tries to take Rune away from Anita when Run has dementia. A bureaucracy which is set up to try to take care of people becomes a means to controlling them.  In this way. A Man Called Ove is a morality story to warn us to fight for our independence. Not to let some “white suit” dictate the terms of our lives.

A Man Called Ove Isn't Running A Dammed Hotel
Talks more about how bureaucracy not only stops us from what we want to do, but in many cases stops us from doing what is best for us.

A Man Caled Ove and An Inspection Tour That is Not the Usual
Backman notes that there are times when men will just go off an do something:
1) Because they will need to do it sometime and they might as well do it now
2) Because it should have been done a long time ago

A Man Called Ove and Social Incompetence
the first people to break the laws of bureaucracy are always the bureaucrats themselves. Not sure how accurate this is, but it seems like there are certainly a lot of them.

A Man Called Ove and a Whiskey
It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a very long time. Sort of says it all. The immediate application is to a father of a homosexual-not Ove. But then while Ove is right about the particulars of his life, he has not been right about the outlook. He realizes that by creating a buffer to others, he and they have lost out. When we have nothing to look forward to and can only look back, as Backman says.

A Man Called Ove
For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone. Is this true? Why do the rich believe in cryogenics? Do they not want to live forever? I think that is something innate in us and why heaven is persistent to us. We are still remnants from our past forefather in creation which is eternal. What we do not want is getting old and useless, forgetting who we are. This happens when we forsake our ancestry and despair of this world.

A Man Called Ove and the End of a Story
Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise. While not speaking of Ove, this may have been the theme of the book.  Ove finds that there is love of another kind besides is wife's love. While not a substitute, it is there for the taking. You just need to reach out to it.


The first two-thirds of A Man Called Ove, I was wondering why am I reading this book? Why should I care about Ove? But as I plodded on, I started to root for Ove, wondering how Backman was going to get him involved in other people's lives rather than his reclusive ways. This is the magic of this book: the bringing out the inner Ove. The one who feels he is superior, but has a heart deep within him.

Notes from my book group:
At the OSHER book group there were several comments which instigated some thoughts from me:
  • Was Ove's death a suicide?
    • I do not think so. Backman notes that it was several years after the main part of the book takes place. Ove seems content to be with his neighbors and has found a means to be himself, but enjoy them still.
  • Conversations at home is with neighbors
  • The characters are pretty well developed
  • Parallel situation between Ove/Sonja and Anita/Rune
    • You have two men who are stubborn and very inward.
    • Two women who love their men and who are best friends
    • Each husband very much think they are right.
    • Each couple has a crisis where there is loss of one of them. But  it takes Anita to reach out to Ove to start a somewhat reconcilation.
  • Ove did not have to stop being who he was before he died.
    • I think this is where Backman does well-describes how Ove does not get transformed into something else, but is more open to helping others who are in need.
  • What did the cat represent? Maybe Sonja?
    • I am not sure that the cat represents anything. But I think the cat is a vehicle for Ove to express his love for Sonja by trying to do what she would do.
  • Did Ove friends change him or he changed his neighbors?
    • It probably is both. Any interaction changes the things being acted upon. But in a lot of ways, I think this is a story about others being changed. Not because Ove is a change agent. But because Ove being Ove gives people pause to evaluate themselves.
  • Return to a life, not necessarily a place
    • This phrase was mentioned, not because it was instrumental about the book, but as an aside. I felt this was somewhat appropriate for my sitation.

Questions from Lit Lovers:
  1. How does the opening scene, in which Ove attempts to purchase a computer, succinctly express the main points of Ove’s ongoing battle with the stupidities of the modern world?
  2. Ove loves things that have a purpose, that are useful. How does this worldview fail him when he believes himself to be useless? How is he convinced that he can still be useful?
  3. As readers, we get to know Ove slowly, with his past only being revealed piece by piece. What surprised you about Ove’s past? Why do you think the author revealed Ove’s past the way that he did?
  4. We all know our own grumpy old men. How do Ove’s core values lead him to appear as such a cranky old coot, when he is in fact nothing of the sort? Which of these values do you agree or disagree with?
  5. Although Ove has some major "disagreements" with the way the world turned out, there are some undeniable advantages to the modernization he finds so hollow. How do these advantages improve Ove’s life, even if he can’t admit it?
  6. Parveneh’s perspective on life, as radically different from Ove’s as it is, eventually succeeds in breaking Ove out of his shell, even if she can’t change his feelings about Saabs. How does her brash, extroverted attitude manage to somehow be both rude and helpful?
  7. Ove strives to be “as little unlike his father as possible.” Although this emulation provides much of the strength that helps Ove persevere through a difficult life, it also has some disadvantages. What are some of the ways that Ove grows into a new way of thinking over the course of the book?
  8. Ove is a believer in the value of routine—how can following a routine be both comforting and stultifying? How can we balance routine and spontaneity? Should we? Or is there sense in eating sausage and potatoes your whole life?
  9. The truism “it takes a village to raise a child” has some resonance with A Man Called Ove. How does the eclectic cast of posers, suits, deadbeats, and teens each help Ove in their own way?
  10. Although we all identify with Ove to some extent, especially by the end of the story, we certainly also have our differences with him. Which of the supporting cast (Parveneh, Jimmy, the Lanky One, Anita) did you find yourself identifying with most?
  11. What did you make of Ove’s ongoing battle with the bureaucracies that persist in getting in his way? Is Ove’s true fight with the various ruling bodies, or are they stand-ins, scapegoats, for something else?
  12. On page 113, after a younger Ove punches Tom, the author reflects: "A time like that comes for all men, when they choose what sort of men they want to be." Do you agree with this sentiment, especially in this context? How does the book deal with varying ideas of masculinity?
  13. On page 246, the author muses that when people don’t share sorrow, it can drive them apart. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
  14. What do you think of Ove’s relationship with the mangy cat he adopts? What does the cat allow him to express that he couldn’t otherwise say?
  15. On Ove and Sonja’s trip to Spain, Ove spends his time helping the locals and fixing things. How does Ove the “hero” compare and contrast to his behavior in the rest of the book? Is that Ove’s true personality?
  16. Ove and Sonja’s love story is one of the most affecting, tender parts of the book. What is the key to their romance? Why do they fit so well together?
  17.  Saab? Volvo? BMW? Scania?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

New Words:
  • palaver: prolonged and idle discussion.
Book References:
  • Shakespeare
  • CS Lewis and Narnia

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: Ove is fifty nine.
  • Last Line: Saab
  •  How can anyone spend their whole life long for the day when they become superfluous? (A Man Called Ove Does Not Pay A Three-Kronor Surcharge)
  • Only a swine thinks size and strength are the same thing. (A Man Called Ove)
  • Sorrow does strange things to living creatures. (A Man Called Ove and A Cat Called Earnest)
  • when a person gives to another person it's not just the receiver who's blessed. It's the giver.  (A Man Who Was Over and Countries Where They Play Foreign Music in Restaurants)  
  • Every human been needs to know what she's fighting for. (A Man Who Was Ove and A Bus That Never Got There)
  • [there is a] difference between being wicked because one has to be or because one can. (A Man Called Ove and a Piece of Corrugated Iron)
  • the first people to break the laws of bureaucracy are always the bureaucrats themselves. (A Man Called Ove and Social Incompetence) 
  • It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a very long time.  (A Man Called Ove and a Whiskey) 
  • For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone. I(A Man Called Ove)
  • Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.  (A Man Called Ove and the End of a Story)