Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

A beautifully written memoir, Brother, I’m Dying is the story of two Haitian brothers who, living thousands of miles apart, share a great love for one another and use that love to cultivate their exceptionally compassionate and supportive family, despite the distance and a number of difficult challenges. 

The book is written by Edwidge Danticat, who was born in Haiti in 1969.  When she was just two years old, her father, Andre, left Haiti for New York City to find work and make a place for his family.  Her mother joined him two years later, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother with Andre’s older brother (her Uncle Joseph) and his wife and family.  During her twelve years of childhood in Haiti, Edwidge came to know Uncle Joseph as her second father.  At age twelve, Edwidge’s parents came back to Haiti with their two youngest children, whom Edwidge and her brother had never met.  They all returned to New York together.  Despite the distance, the two halves of the family remained close, and their concern and care for each other are remarkable qualities missing from many family dynamics today.  I wonder if their closeness was a characteristic of Haitian culture or of this particular family.

While the book is largely about her family and the relationship between her father and uncle, Danticat also discusses the relationship between Haiti and the United States.  She incorporates within her story certain facts from 20th century history as they affected her family, especially regarding political unrest in Haiti and the involvement of the United States.  As an Haitian-American the author seems conflicted by the changing relationship between the two countries.  She mentions both negative and positive effects of U.S. agencies in Haiti and exposes some shockingly brutal facts regarding the treatment of Haitian immigrants in the United States.  These facts are always revealed clearly and without sensationalism which I feel greatly increases her credibility.

Because the characters are presented by someone who loves them, the reader can’t help but feel love for them, too.  It’s easy to cry and laugh with them, be dismayed by bad news, happy during long-awaited reunions and heartbroken during injustice and tragedy.  While most of the stories in the book are written from verbal recollections she gathered from members of her family, I found the scenes written from her own experiences particularly compelling.

Danticat has written one other work of non-fiction, After the Dance:  A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti and four books of fiction:  The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones, Krik? Krak!, and Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Published in: on August 1, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson & Martin Dugard

I had high hopes for this book.  A nonfiction account of one of history’s most intriguing characters written by one of the most popular authors of crime and suspense fiction…it seemed like a sure thing.  Unfortunately, I’ve rarely been so disappointed in a book.

There are three nonfiction stories being told simultaneously in the book.  First, Patterson writes about his excitement while planning and researching the subject with co-author Martin Dugard.  Second is the story of Howard Carter, the British Egyptologist who discovered the 3,000 year-old, long-lost tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 after years of searching.  Third is the story of King Tut himself and the events leading up to his supposed murder when he was only 19 years old. 

All three storylines are interesting and woven together well.  But the problem I had with the book is one that often comes up for me when reading books by authors like Patterson or Baldacci, whose prolificacy sometimes seems to come at the expense of quality writing.  In other words, I really feel like he phoned this one in.  The language was simple, the text was printed in large font and most chapters were about a page and a half long occasionally even breaking up conversations, which was very disruptive.  It felt a little like reading a report written by a middle schooler who was trying to use fluff-up tricks to make the report long enough.  And unfortunately, I can’t even recommend it for young readers, because while the reading level is certainly juvenile enough, the book contains one episode of violent sexuality that keeps it firmly on the adult shelf.

Also, I’m not sure exactly why this book is considered nonfiction rather than historic fiction.  Patterson makes sure to explain that he is meticulous about his research and includes known facts and generally accepted suppositions whenever possible, but the Tut portion of the story reads so much like fiction, including events and conversations that are impossible to know for certain that I think it should be considered fiction.

If you want a quick lesson on King Tut or Howard Carter I’d suggest skipping this book and just hitting wikipedia for the same facts and a lot less fluff.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 12:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Remarkable Creatures by Sean B. Carroll

Remarkable Creatures is a collection of “epic adventures in the search for the origins of species.”  The book is made up of short non-fiction accounts of some of the most influential scientists and researchers from the early 1800s through present day who studied the history of the earth and those creatures that have lived upon it.  The title of the book seems not only to refer to the menagerie of species, both living and extinct, that were the focus of study, but also the singular men and women who studied them.

From the naturalist Humboldt who explored the wilderness of South America and Mexico for many years in the early 1800s collecting specimens and cataloging previously unknown plant and animal species, to Darwin whose own exploratory findings lead him to put forth his controversial hypotheses on the origin of species, Remarkable Creatures presents historic facts and theories while also creating an interesting narrative of the main characters and their adventures.

From Humboldt and Darwin, continuing chronologically, the book then moves into the era of paleontology.  With several new theories put forth in the mid and late 1800s, there were many scientists anxious to prove, disprove or offer their own hypotheses.  Each character is presented as the star of their own story, often starting from childhood.  My favorite of these adventurers was Roy Chapman Andrews, a fellow from Wisconsin who loved spending time outdoors as a child while growing up in the late 1800s and who desperately wanted to pursue a profession in natural history.  Even though he had never traveled farther than 90 miles from his home, on the day of his graduation from a nearby college he declared that he was going to New York  to try to get a job at the natural history museum.  Though he was told there were no positions available, Roy said that he would be happy to clean floors just so that he could be at the museum.  Slowly, he worked his way up, impressing the museum director and his co-workers, eventually leading to a number of field expeditions.  During World War I Roy secured an assignment as a spy, working under the cover of collecting zoological specimens in Asia.  After the war ended, Roy proposed a grand Mongolian expedition to the museum president, outlining all necessities and addressing the many logistical challenges.  The president was immediately captivated and Roy then went to visit a number of Wall Street tycoons for financing.  The expeditions that followed were tremendous successes, unearthing thousands of fossils and the first dinosaur eggs ever seen.  Roy was the image of a new breed of explorer-scientist, and with his ever-present hat and rifle, and infamous fear of snakes, it is no wonder that many assume he was the original influence in the creation of the character Indiana Jones.

The book tells the stories of many such interesting characters, including Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father and son team who determined that a meteor struck the earth roughly 65 million years ago causing widespread devastation, and the husband-wife team Louis and Mary Leakey who, in an attempt to find a humanoid “missing link” in Africa, uncovered fossils never before seen.  There are stories of the search and discovery of fossils linking dinosaurs and birds as well as the missing “fishapod” which served to form more links in the evolutionary chain.  The final chapters in the book focus on recent advancements in genetic aging techniques and where the field might go from this point.

The book is well composed; a lot of information presented concisely and without too much of a heavy scientific hand.  Written by a professor and scientist in the field of molecular biology and genetics, it is apparent that Carroll loves the subject matter.  If I have any criticism of the book it would be that on occasion he seemed to get overexcited about what he was writing and would throw in a bad pun or two and interrupt the flow, but overall a very interesting and informative history that can be enjoyed even by those of us without exceptionally scientific minds.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Influenza by John M. Barry


The Great Influenza is “The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” i.e. the Spanish Influenza, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide over a period of 24 weeks in 1918 and 1919 during the height of World War I.

This book is indeed epic in scope and it took me quite a while to get through it.  That wasn’t because it was tedious or boring, but only because of the massive amount of information it contains.  It’s not a book to be consumed quickly, but must be digested in small amounts, bit by bit.  Always fascinating and immensely educational, The Great Influenza is two parts history lesson and one part crash-course in bacteriology.  Sandwiched between biographies of some of the most influential scientific researchers during an exciting period of world-wide medical enlightenment is a detailed account of the epidemic’s destructive, murderous path from its probable origin point in rural Kansas to army cantonments throughout the country and then with American soldiers to France, England and on to the rest of the world.

With the current swine flu outbreak it was particularly interesting to learn about the nature of viruses and the influenza virus in particular.  The book offers a detailed layperson understanding of how influenza can be transferred from animals to humans and also how and why some strains are so mild and others so deadly.  It also explains why researchers who were so frantically looking for ways to control the disease in 1918 were having trouble.  They were unable at that time to even identify the pathogen and cutting corners while performing research experiments in an effort to develop an anti-serum more quickly did not help.

Other interesting facts learned from this book:

**Politics played far too great a role in the number of fatalities.  Because of the war, politicians were reluctant to even admit the existence of the epidemic for fear that it would lower morale.  Although local governments in large cities were advised to enforce laws against public meetings, most refused to comply and newspapers did not run warnings or advice until late in the epidemic.

**The misnomer “Spanish Flu” was given to the disease because Spain was the first country to have newspapers running headlines announcing the epidemic.  They were not yet involved in the war and therefore were not censoring their media.

**The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an unusually high percentage of healthy, young people between the ages of 21 and 40, which is typically the age group with the greatest survival rate.  The reason is that this particular strain of influenza was so virulent that the healthiest immune systems would often launch such aggressive attacks that they would essentially destroy the victim’s lungs and/or heart.

**The influenza may have indirectly been responsible for events leading up to the start of World War II.  While in France negotiating peace terms with representatives from Britain, France and Italy, Woodrow Wilson became ill with influenza.  He was bedridden for days, and though he recovered, the illness appeared to have altered his mental capabilities (minor brain damage was later proven to be a common side effect of severe influenza).  He suddenly and inexplicably gave in to all of France’s demands which included many harsh penalties against Germany and set the stage for things to come.  Wilson never fully recovered and for the rest of his term, many presidential decisions were made by his wife and personal physician.

I only wish this book could have contained an afterword addressing the recent H1N1 influenza strain.  It’s possible that information may be added at a later time since I think there was an afterword added regarding the avian flu in an edition published after the version I read.  It would be interesting to know the specifics of the swine flu’s makeup and how it compares to the other epidemics since 1918.  If the 1918 flu is any indication of how things could play out, the mild outbreak that we saw this spring could be followed by a much more severe outbreak this fall.

I highly recommend this book with the warning that it may take a while to get through.  If you’re like me, you may want some nice, easy fiction to read at the same time.

And as a coincidental anecdote, an older gentleman stopped in the store a week ago.  He was from Michigan and was visiting his mother here in Floyd.  Without mentioning that I was reading this book he told me that his mother, who is now in her late 90s, took him to a family graveyard and showed him the row of tombstones which were all marked with dates within the same couple of weeks in 1918 — all victims of the influenza.

The Great Influenza is available at noteBooks in trade papaerback for $16.00.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah


A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical retelling of his experiences as a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.  As a child Ishmael lived a relatively happy and normal life with his family in Mogbwemo, a small west African village.  He attended school and was an excellent student.  He enjoyed American rap music and would choreograph dances and performances to the music of his favorite artists with his older brother and friends.  They played sports, hunted birds with slingshots, went to the movies in nearby Mattru Jong and watched curiously as refugees passed through with tales of war that seemed exaggerated at the time.

When Ishmael was twelve the rebel army (RUF) attacked Mattru Jong and surrounding villages.  Ishmael, his brother and their small group of friends escaped capture and traveled on foot looking for food and survivors.  Eventually, after spending a year on the run in the wilderness and without finding his family, Ishmael was picked up by the government army, given a gun and trained as a soldier.  After two years of fighting, at the age of fifteen, he was removed by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center to begin the process of healing, detoxification and self-forgiveness.

The way the book is written is interesting:  Ishmael writes in first person while describing the time period that he was a refugee, and also the time in the rehabilitation center.  However, while writing about the two-year period that he was a soldier, he writes in a series of flashbacks and memories.  I wonder if he chose to write this way because he prefers to keep that time more distant from himself or because it really is harder for him to remember (the army kept their soldiers high on amphetamines and brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder).  Whatever the reason, I appreciated it because some of his acts were so atrocious that the distance is necessary to see this person as someone who has been rehabilitated.  The reader is still made completely aware of the depth of horror, without it becoming gratuitously violent.  I’m really amazed that someone could go through what he did and then re-learn how to have a reverence for human life again…is that a trait of humanity in general, of the culture, of youth or of the individual?

Ishmael never found any surviving members of his immediate family.  In 1998 he escaped Sierra Leone and moved to the United States to live with a foster family.  He graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and is a speaker and activist dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.

A Long Way Gone is one of those books that everyone should read.  It should be added to high school and college history classes that cover recent events (I’m sure some teachers and professors already require it) and it may even be a useful resource for psychology courses covering child psychology.  I highly recommend this book for all adults and teenagers.  The descriptions, details and metaphors are unique and emotionally stimulating.  This is an important story told by an honest and gifted narrator who has roots in a culture of storytellers.

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Marley and Me by John Grogan


This book was on my “To Read” list for a while.  (It came out in 2005.)  It got bumped up to the top when I saw that a movie of the book was being made.  I wanted to make sure I’d read the book before seeing the film.  I knew I would like it, there were many recommendations from others to read it, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed it as much as I did.  My recommendation to others, however, is conditional: 

If you are an animal and pet lover I absolutely encourage you to read this book.  I can nearly guarantee that you will love it.

If you don’t really care for animals, or don’t enjoy living with pets (especially dogs) you should pass on this one.

If you are on the fence, thinking about possibly getting a dog, maybe don’t have a lot of experience owning a dog, I recommend that you avoid this book at all costs as it could severely and unfairly bias your decision.  (…I’m only half-joking.)

Marley & Me is John Grogan’s true account of “life and love with the world’s worst dog.”  Marley was a Labrador Retriever whose life was chronicled in humorous detail by the owner who loved him.  Marley was incredibly neurotic, spastic and slobbery but also exceedingly loyal and loving.  For people who have lived with troublesome dogs, there is a certain understanding (and sympathy!) that comes from reading about Marley’s antics.  Marley proved to be exceptional in that he possessed more than his fair share of bothersome canine personality traits, but he still managed to come through as a hero after Grogan’s loving testimonial.

In addition to the hilarious retellings of Marley’s shenanigans, the real joy of the book comes from the way Grogan shares the intertwining of Marley’s life with his own.  Marley is there when Grogan and his wife, Jenny, are living as newlyweds, when they have difficulty conceiving a child, then for the birth of each of their three children.  He witnesses family arguments, triumphs and life changes including career decisions and a cross-country move.  Through it all, Marley is there being Marley and being a part of the family.  Readers who love their pets will enjoy the book for its tender acknowledgment of all that animal family members give to those they love.

John Grogan is a pleasure to read.  More recently he wrote a book titled The Longest Trip Home which is a memoir of his childhood.  I have not read it yet, but if you enjoy(ed) Marley & Me, it might be worth checking out.  He has also written a couple of children’s books about Marley illustrated by Richard Cowdrey — Bad Dog, Marley! and A Very Marley Christmas.

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris


I know there are a lot of loyal David Sedaris fans out there, so I’m hesitant to say anything negative about the guy.  But I read his latest book of humorous essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and was decidedly underwhelmed.  It’s possible that my expectations were unrealistic.  It was, after all, the first of his books that I have read, and knowing that all of his books have been New York Times Bestsellers and that he contributes regularly to NPR’s This American Life, I was expecting a lot.

That’s not to say I hated the book — because I absolutely didn’t.  I even laughed (well, it was more like a quick, unexpected exhalation) when the author was describing his unusual Japanese hair salon experience.  And I enjoyed the format:  short essays that don’t require large chunks of time to commit to reading, making it a perfect book to have in the car, in the bathroom or on the bedside table, if you’re like me and tend to fall asleep quickly while reading in bed.  But as far as the humor genre goes (to which I admit I have been greatly underexposed) I preferred the only other collection of humorous essays I’ve ever read, Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff, which I highly recommend, whether you are a Sedaris fan or not.

I think my biggest issue with When You Are Engulfed in Flames was how self-deprecating Sedaris is.  I know, I know, that’s his modus operandi, the thing that makes him so entertaining and endearing.  But I can only listen to (or read about) someone beating themself up over and over before it becomes distracting and I feel a nagging obligation to step in and reassure them that they’re not as much of a hypocrite as they think they are, that they really are worthy of being in a long-term relationship with a great person, and that no, their butt isn’t too flat, it’s really just fine.  The exception to the trend was the final essay in the book, which was also my favorite (probably no coincidence) in which Sedaris documents his experiences while quitting smoking.  I guess he just couldn’t be too hard on himself after such an accomplishment.

To end on a good note, I do think David Sedaris is an excellent writer.  I would imagine that being funny while writing would be a unique challenge since so much of humor is expressed in verbal and physical nuances.  Sedaris manages to express wit and sarcasm without being too cerebral.  The jokes are easy to get, it’ll just depend on your personal preferences whether you like them or not.

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Featured Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Around here, in Southwestern Virginia, we like Barbara Kingsolver.  She and her family are a recent, permanent addition to the SWVA area.  She grew up in the Kentucky Appalachians and, until a couple of years ago, spent her winters in Arizona.  Back in 2006 Kingsolver came to Floyd and spoke at the high school.  She read from her latest book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and signed copies of her book of essays, Small Wonder.  Always interested in supporting local economies, Kingsolver asked that the purchasing and selling of copies of Small Wonder be handled by a local bookstore rather than by a corporate chain.  My mother was ecstatic.  As the owner of noteBooks, the town’s only bookstore at the time, and a fan of the author, it was an exciting event for her.  My mother got signed copies of the book for all of her daughters and it was in this way that I was introduced to Barbara Kingsolver.

I read Small Wonder (published in 2002), and I enjoyed most of it.  As is probably the case with most collections, whether they be of essays, poetry or short stories, there are going to be some that grab you and others that just aren’t your cup of tea.  In this collection, Kingsolver writes about her wordly travels from the eyes of a nature-and-people-lover.  She reminisces about her childhood and touts the benefits of supporting local farmers and living off the land.  She writes, with heartbroken sincerity, about humanity’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  She also discusses environmental dangers threatening parts of the world, both near and far.  But the two essays that I enjoyed most were the letters; she wrote one to her daughter and another to her mother.  The entries are beautiful, raw and I sincerely believe any female who is, has been or ever will be a daughter or mother should read them, especially if, like me, laughter through tears is one of your favorite emotions.

The next Barbara Kingsolver book I picked up, about a year later, was the novel The Poisonwood Bible(1998).  One of my sisters had long proclaimed it her favorite book.  There must be others who feel the same way, as it remains her best-selling book and was a New York Times Bestseller.  The Poisonwood Bible is the story of a missionary family who travels to the Belgian Congo in 1960 and the ways in which the experience changes each of them.  The book is written from the various points of view of each of the four daughters and their mother and spans over three decades.  This book made me keenly aware of Kingsolver’s extraordinary relationship with language.  The narrators thought and spoke in very different ways and the methods in which words were manipulated sculpted poignant characterizations of each one.

The next book I read was one of her first novels, The Bean Trees (1988).  It was obvious this book lacked the worldly sophistication of the previous two, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It was very real…very human, simple but vividly organic.  It must have been somewhat autobiographical since it told of a young woman from Kentucky who found herself living in Arizona and the observations of the differences between the two regions permeated the story.  It’s also easy to see Kingsolver’s developing passions of nature and personal relationships which continue in her later works.  A sequel to The Bean Trees was written a few years later.  Pigs in Heaven is on my short list of books to read soon.

When I told my mom that my next review was going to be a feature on Barbara Kingsolver she said, “Well, you HAVE to read her latest one.”  I actually didn’t even realize there WAS a latest one (luckily for me I have a mother who is so with the times).  As it turns out Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) is my favorite Barbara Kingsolver yet.  In this nonfiction book she expands on some of the issues she touched on in Small Wonder, namely the wastefulness of corporate agriculture and food shipping, how the United States has somehow gotten twisted up in our way of thinking about food and our relationship with what we eat, perhaps because Americans lacks a distinct food culture of our own.  The book documents the year in which her family vows to eat only foods that they either grow or raise on their own or which can be purchased locally.  I found the whole book to be very conversational (funny!) and not at all sanctimonious.  It is especially relevant in our area because we are fortunate to have local farmers to buy from and good soil in which to grow food ourselves.  The book also serves as a basic how-to on getting started on your own garden and recipes to use throughout the year.
Barbara Kingsolver has written twelve books, all of which are available or can be ordered at noteBooks.  Incidentally…Mom still has 42 copies of Small Wonder left over from the author’s visit to Floyd and she’ll happily sell you a copy at 40% off!

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

What an amazing book.  What an amazing man!  Greg Mortenson is a real honest-to-goodness hero who proves that with enough bravery, hard work and determination, a person really can change the world.

In 1993 Mortenson, a mountain climber, was in northern Pakistan to attempt to climb K2.  His attempt failed, and in his exhaustion and disappointment he accidentally wandered into a remote Karakoram village, Korphe, where he was greeted with warmth and hospitality.  Mortenson was so moved by the people’s kindness, and by their poverty, that he promised to return and help them build a school.  Three Cups of Tea is the story of how Mortenson worked diligently to fulfill that promise and the extraordinary events that transpired as a result.

Amidst an increasingly volatile political environment, (leading up to, including and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) Mortenson continued to insist that the greatest weapon we have against terrorism was education, especially for the girls of Pakistan.  Not only is this book a tribute to the power of peaceful solutions, but it’s a great recent history lesson as well, explaning the events leading up to the current situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan involving the Taliban.  It’s also an insightful glimpse into the Islamic cultures of the middle east and the USA’s influences there, both good and bad.

I think this book should be required reading for high school seniors, at least for as long as US troops are involved in conflicts in the area.  I’d also confidently recommend it to anyone, as it was recommended to me.  It was a surprising inspiration.

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 7:08 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (with Jeffrey Zaslow)

On September 18, 2007 Randy Pausch delivered a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” as part of an ongoing “Journeys” series which asked professors to create a lecture as if it was their last — thinking hard about what really mattered to them.  Unfortunately, this really was to be Pausch’s last lecture since he had been given a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer the month before.  Pausch was told that he had 3-6 months to live and as a result, his last lecture was really something special.

Pausch only had an hour for his lecture so in the book The Last Lecture he expanded on his points, describing in detail how, through hard work, resourcefulness and a bit of luck, he achieved nearly all of his childhood dreams.  Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, had also taught at the University of Virginia and was a significant contributor to the field of Computer Science.  He gives professional and personal advice on dealing with difficult people and what to do when you realize you’re the difficult one.  He shares stories of speedbumps he experienced and how he overcame them.  He also shares his thoughts about dealing with a terminal illness, knowing that your days are numbered and how to best use the time you have to tie things up and leave a legacy for your family.

Pausch rationalized spending a portion of his precious, limited time on writing his last lecture and this book stating two important goals:  He did it for himself, to prove that he could accomplish this final, difficult task despite the foreboding knowledge of his imminent death, and he did it for his three young children, to whom he wanted to give something of himself that would be available for them when they got older and wondered what kind of person their father was.  There is even a chapter near the end of the book where Pausch speaks directly to each of them.  The reader may feel as if they are intruding on something very personal, but it’s this sharing that allows us to feel especially moved by his emotion and character, and in that way his message to them is a gift to anyone who reads the words.

Randy Pausch died on July 25, 2008.  You can watch his last lecture here:

Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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