Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Wind in the Willows

I have been reading this book in spurts for quite some time. That is some of the beauty of Kenneth Grahame's little piece. Sure you can read it in one fell swoop, but it's also easy to put it down and pick it back up whenever. It's as relaxed and easy a read as the river by which it takes place.

As a girl, my parent's read me a few of the stories from The Wind and the Willows. They were in story book form, however, instead of the novel form I've read. There were beautiful drawings of Rat and Mole, the Wild Woods, and the Riverbank. I thought it was magical as a child. How I wished for those woods and waterways, the ambling lifestyle of the characters, and the beauty of nature that they lived in harmony with.  The four main characters of the stories are Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger. They live in England in the country in the early 20th century. As an adult going back to those first stories and then reading through the entire book, I wondered why this book is a classic? Why is it for adults and children? I enjoyed reading it and still had the longings of my childhood, but I was trying to understand the meaning, if there is one, behind the concept for the stories. Upon asking my father, the ever wise patriarch of my family, he said that The Wind in the Willows is about life and lifestyles. The four characters represent different characteristics and lifestyles.

Toad is the easiest to place. He is conceited, wealthy, extravagant. He has few redeeming characteristics, but does love his friends, however he gets in loads of trouble because he is unable to see the fault in his actions.

Water Rat is friendly, outgoing, clever, intelligent, and always ready with a helping paw. He tries to set Toad right when he needs it, and he befriends Mole and shows him the world. He loves his River and the people on it and is happy with floating down it with a picnic basket and a good buddy.

Mole is sensible, patient, kind-hearted, and a good listener. He too cares about his friends and shyly makes new ones, but is ready for his new adventures in the River world.

Badger is wise, stern, speaks softly, but carries a big stick, he is fond of solitude, but generous when he is around others.

The stories are good for a languid afternoon or a drowsy evening. The whole book encompasses a year. My favorites are "The Riverbank", "The Wild Wood" (which leads into "Mr. Badger"), and "Dulce Domum". Pretty much the stories involving Mole and Rat. Whether these sophisticated creatures are getting lost in the woods, reeking havoc on the road, or enjoying evenings together, it's a testament to how one can enjoy life in several different ways. This is not a moral that screams at you, but you'll find yourself dreaming about such lifestyles for years to come. I can't wait to read these stories to my nieces and nephews (once one of my siblings has a kid) and have them dreaming of streams and wooded adventures.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education

When does education mean the difference between life and death? Well...in life or death situations. The education system has its problems at all different levels and factions, but sans formal education, the learning curve is a lot steeper when you're holding another's life in your hands. At the same time there's no equivalent to hands on experience. The big question becomes how much can formal education prepare you before experience takes its toll?

Throughout his memoir, Craig Mullaney explores the education he received to become a U.S. Army Captain and lead an infantry platoon. The book is split into three sections: (1) student (2) soldier (3) veteran. Mullaney is a West Point graduate. His recap of his college years is quite different than the 'traditional' university education. 6am runs followed by class, wrestling, drills, being harassed by upperclassmen, studying, target practice, etc., etc., etc. This is a system strictly meant for vocational work i.e. soldiering (yes, I may have invented a verb). The critical thinking skills Mullaney learns in his history classes and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford help him have a more critical mind and analyze at a deeper level. Although given test after test in school, in field training, and in Ranger school, Mullaney unfortunately learns that when the unforgiving minute comes and the bullets are real, training only goes so far.

As a soldier, Mullaney is sent to Afghanistan to lead a platoon. There he fights boredom, sand, routine, and chaos. While sweeping an area, Mullaney's men land upon surprised terrorists. It is in this instance that all the education and training should assist him, but in his first battle, Mullaney freezes for a bit. What do you do? How do you react when the blood is real? When you're not firing at a piece of paper, but at a person? It's on Losano Ridge that Mullaney loses a soldier. At this point, Craig begins to question what his training has done for him and what mistakes he made. In the end he figures out that maybe there was nothing he could have done and fate took hold. One of the lessons the war teaches him is "combat was both the ultimate test of courage and its classroom".

As a veteran, Mullaney begins teaching at the Naval Academy. Here he hopes to impart the critical thinking skills that aided him in the battlefield and eventually he uses his own experience to try and teach his students how to help themselves when their moment comes.

This book is a pleasure to read. Craig Mullaney is both a warrior and a scholar. His story is well written and easily accessible. It marries personal details with his upbringing as a soldier. I enjoyed the vulnerability that Craig showed throughout the book. Soldiers are viewed as men-men (another term coined by yours truly) across the world, so it's nice to see that under the Kevlar vests there are emotions, fears, doubts, and regrets. Here is a great glimpse into the making of a soldier and the memoir of a man's toughest story to tell.