Oskar’s Heavy Boots

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer tells the story of a young boy named Oskar who is on a quest to come to terms with the sudden death of his father in the 9/11 attacks. While rummaging through his father’s belongings a few days after the tragic events of that day, he finds a mysterious key inside a vase. Determined to find the lock that it belongs to, he travels around all of New York city in search of closure.  Foer captures the voice of a nine year old boy perfectly. We are immediately attached to him and his terrible loss and spend the rest of the book hoping that he succeeds in his journey.


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
By Jonathan Safran Foer
368 pp. Mariner Books $25

September 11th was not the only tragedy that was covered in this book. A generation earlier, Oskar’s grandfather survived the Bombing of Dresden. While he walked away with his life, he chose to live his life as a victim rather than a survivor. He leaves Oskar’s grandmother abruptly, loses the ability to speak, and spends many years writing letters to his son (Oskar’s father) which he never delivers before his death.

The book consists of intertwined segments. The main story is pushed along via Oskar’s narration. Pieces of the past are presented in the form of letters from his Grandparents. It explores a wide range of emotions including tragedy, loss, love and regret.

I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently.

Oskar slowly finds a way to cope with his fathers death. Throughout his journey he comes up with many provocative metaphors. The one that stood out the most to me was comparing life to a building on fire.

Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.

It’s difficult to read this book even a decade after the terrible events of that day. Those of us who were witnesses were changed forever in one way or another. An entire generation has now grown up viewing life from the lens of everything that happened before 9/11 and everything that has happened after.

We are quickly approaching a date where everyone under the age of 18 will have been born after September 11, 2001. I imagine they will grow up to view this day similar to how people in their 30’s and 40’s think about Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima; a terrible event that happened long ago but has little emotional connection to every day reality. Historical fiction books are important in this regard. Unlike the non-fiction books that tell an objective story with facts, figures, and death tolls, fiction allows us to view the event from the perspective of a real human being. We feel something more than shock. We learn something more than a statistic or a timeline of events.

I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

This book does not have a happy ending. We walk away feeling the same hopelessness and loss that Oskar does. Our boots become very heavy. The next 9/11, Hiroshima, Bombing of Dresden, Rape of Nanking, or < INSERT NAME OF TRAGEDY HERE >, is potentially days away. I would love to live in a world where books like this one were pure fiction, instead of based on a true story.

 

Obama’s Journey to Discover His Roots

In 1995, after becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a young and relatively unknown politician named Barack Obama wrote a candid memoir tracing his quest to discover who he was.


DREAMS FROM MY FATHER
By Barack Obama
466 pp. Random House $17

Obama begins with a recount of his childhood growing up in Honolulu where he was estranged from his father at a very young age. His father was from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from the midwest.

It couldn’t have been easy growing up as a mixed race person in the 1960s and 70s. Race relations in the United States were at a breaking point and every bit of progress that was made with legislation seemed to not quite be enough to change the attitudes of the general population. His struggle with identity, belonging, and purpose continued throughout his childhood and into his later years.

He had a strong support structure thanks to his mother and grandparents. They accepted him, encouraged him, and ensured that he was given the tools that he needed to succeed. Unfortunately, their support was not quite enough to calm the gnawing feeling of not belonging.

Know where you belong, he advised. He made it sound simple, like calling directory assistance. “Information—what city, please?” “Uh … I’m not sure. I was hoping you could tell me. The name’s Obama. Where do I belong?”

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (pp. 114-115). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Obama had limited engagement with his father growing up. They mostly communicated via letters. His father’s advice to him was to known where he belongs. With this advice in hand, upon completing his undergraduate studies Obama began exploring activism and political organizing.

The next part of the book chronicles his work as a community organizer in Chicago. We learn about the struggles of the community and the long hours and hard fought battles that took place in order to make any sort of progress.

The last part of the book goes into detail into Obama’s journey to Kenya to meet his fathers side of the family. It was common in Kenya for men to have multiples wives which resulted in very large families. We are introduced to close and distant relatives through a series of vivid recollections of the conversations, stories, and experiences that took place.

Obama’s writing style and voice is superb. He tells an honest story and produces rich characters that we can relate to through the brief vignettes that we are shown. His descriptions of the people, places, and things that he encounters on his quest transport the reader from the beautiful islands of Hawaii, to the chilly slums of Chicago, all the way to the arid plains of Kenya. It is amazing to witness the level of detail that went in to developing the compelling dialog and meaningful stories that are scattered throughout the memoir.

In the epilogue, Obama laments the challenges of studying and practicing law.

The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality;

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 437). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

He poses a question for us to think about.

How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 438). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Many leaders don’t start to write books until they are well into the prime of their careers. This peek into the early part of Obamas life written at a time before he became one of the most powerful people on Earth provides us with a unique perspective that helps us understand his character and values. Obama’s story has unique twists, but the general theme is a universal one and inspires all who are struggling to find where they belong in this world.

Looking Back on 2017

2017 was a challenging year for our society. The political climate in the United States is hostile, uncertainly clouds the future, and in many ways it felt like we took several steps back as a nation. Luckily there are glimmers of hope and I look forward to seeing what 2018 brings us. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on all of the things that happened to me this year.

I continued my journey to the state capitals as a part of my Tralev project. By far the most memorable trip was visiting Honolulu with my family. I slowed down a bit toward the end of the year for various reasons but I look forward to continuing this project in the new year.

My writing took a turn for the better. I was re-reading “On Writing Well” during my trip to Boise and witnessed a local author speaking about his own writing. I was so moved by his speech that I made a laundry list of writing goals for myself. Although I did not accomplish all of my goals I have continue to write consistently and have been lucky enough to join a writing club in San Francisco. I look forward to really taking my writing to the next level in 2018.

I started a new job at the end of the year at LaunchDarkly. Working at CircleCI was honestly the best job that I have ever had. I am so grateful to everyone in that company that made my time there rewarding and special. LaunchDarkly is a small company with big plans for 2018. I can’t wait to be a part of those plans and watch the company grow over the next year.

I traveled to Uzbekistan for my brothers wedding. It was an amazing experience full of amazing people, delicious food, and a wonderful culture. I am so happy to see that my brother found love and I wish nothing but the best for him and his wife. I hope that in 2018 we will see more of each other and maybe even have a new nephew or niece? 🙂

I continued my relationship with Aosheng, we have been on many adventures together and we are starting off 2018 on an exciting note by traveling to China during the second week of January.

I began taking some classes at UC Berkeley Extension and have been really inspired by the community of professionals doing continuing education. I look forward to taking even more courses in 2018.

I started a handful of coding projects, gave up on more, rekindled others. Still searching for the next big idea, but having a great time along the way. I also set a goal to become a Python Core Developer. I didn’t reach it this year, but I hope to make some significant progress toward this goal in 2018.

I started going to more meetups toward the end of the year. It has been great to meet all sorts of new people doing exciting things. I look forward to continuing to be a part of the local tech community and perhaps even start giving talks of my own at various meetups around town.

All in all, 2017 was a great year. My main goal for 2018 is to successfully turn 30. In addition I want to write more, code more, listen more, read more, and travel just enough. 😉 I am wishing everyone a very Happy New Year. I hope that in 2018 all of your dreams come true.