The Monday Book – The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World by Steve Pemberton

Guest review by Janelle Bailey, retired Literature teacher.

I eagerly picked up this second title of Steve Pemberton’s after enthusiastically finishing his A Chance in the World (a second time) and while also eagerly anticipating his visit to Pulaski and the opportunity to have him sign my books.

Meeting Steve in person before reading this new book likely changed—enhanced, enriched—my reading experience, as I simply heard him reading it, saw him sharing it much as he spoke to all of us during his visit, and that is the valuable thing that can happen once one has met a book’s author. And when anyone can make a gymnasium full of 1000+ high schoolers feel like a little conversation, keep the attention of that group, and address individual students and remember their names, well…he made a difference that day for a whole lot of people, I am sure!

Pemberton’s “lighthouse effect” is an idea that must have come about while writing A Chance in the World, as he references from early on in that book individuals who were “lighthouses” or even “buoys” for him as a child being abused by his foster parents, as a child without a family or true home. Thankfully, there were others, like Claire Levin, who made eye contact with him and provided for him in ways they knew to; in Mrs. Levin’s case it was to bring boxes of books to Steve, books her own sons had read and outgrown. Steve’s life may have been saved by those books and what they afforded him in hope and trust that there was, somehow and some way, a better life out there for him. It just took him a long time to get there. But I’m not sure hed have believed it if not for reading all of Mrs. Levin’s books, specifically his very favorite, Watership Down. He very much identified with that particular story.

In A Chance in the World Pemberton has not yet located Mrs. Levin to thank her. But eventually he does, and she has her own a section of the nine in The Lighthouse Effect, for being one of Pemberton’s very critical “lighthouses.”

His reasons for thinking of people—ordinary people—as “lighthouses” are numerous and apt. I won’t spoil any of that here, as you should read the book yourself to let Pemberton explain it himself. I expect that many who read this book might see the “lighthouse” they themselves are as well.

The book profiles ten such “lighthouses,” with not only Mrs. Levin but a few others whom readers of A Chance in the World will also recognize, including John Sykes, to whom The Lighthouse Effect is dedicated. How apropos! It is enjoyable to hear the “more” of each of these stories and learn how Pemberton stayed in touch with these individuals very significant to his childhood, how he maintained his connection to them.

The others who are newly introduced in this book are lighthouses for others much as the previous handful were for Pemberton himself. The “lighthouse effect” is for certain an interesting consideration that probably prompts many readers to also reflect on and consider whom the lighthouses in their own lives have been.

Having read A Chance in the World twice, I recognized most of the stories Pemberton told during his assembly at the local high school. The Q and A sessions, though—and he initiated one each of the three times I got to hear him speak (one all-school assembly, one community and school leaders group, and one student leadership group)—were my favorite part of the day by far. I appreciated completely Pemberton’s vulnerability, his sincerity of response, and his heartfelt interaction with both the students and adults. I learned early in the day that there were students who, having read his book (it was an all-school read the past few months), really wanted to speak with him, and he honored that meeting individually with a number of students. He never got a break all day, actually, moving from one conversation to the next and also lingering to sign books, take photos, and interact with any who were waiting for him.

I am honored to have met Steve Pemberton. If he ever does run for office again, I will be very pleased to say…”here we are back when,” and I am truly honored to have met him!

The Monday Book – Send For Me by Lauren Fox

Guest review by Janelle Bailey, retired Literature teacher.

Having enjoyed all of Lauren Fox’s previous novels, one in preparation for meeting and introducing her at the Wisconsin Book Festival a few years back and the other two following that, I was both excited and extremely intrigued when this one came out, but given all that was going on at the moment, I just did not feel up to (another) World War II novel…so did wait a little bit to actually pick it up. I packed it with my spring break to-read stack-in-a-bag. And I am not disappointed at all to have done so.

While fiction, this novel’s impetus lies in the truths discovered in letters that Fox’s great-grandmother had written to Fox’s grandmother…in an old, legibly readable to very few, German script. She explains, “After they [her grandparents] died, I found among their things a little wooden box full of letters written by my great-grandmother, Frieda, to my grandmother, Ilse, dating from 1938-1941. I knew almost immediately, and without being able to read a word, that this treasure I had stumbled upon would be life-changing.” Volumes of work and research and time then went into Fox’s translation work first: she found on campus and then met with a German professor weekly for a year during her graduate studies and with a tape recorder, to have him translate into English for her, letter by letter, those in her great-grandmother’s German script. And when all of that work was complete, she still hadn’t even decided what she would do with all she learned from those written exchanges. She did use it in her master’s thesis. But the way in which it all became, ultimately, the core of this novel’s stories required some more living of her own, the gaining of experience and reflection and this…necessarily more aged perspective for her to decide to use her great-grandmother’s letters, verbatim, and as they are here. 

Personally I feel this should be a front piece to the book rather than at the book’s end, as it lends more valuable depth and layers to Fox’s writing craft and talents…and for the reader, pushing whichever ethos, pathos, or logos layer button required for you to value quality story. This insight gives the reader an opportunity to appreciate more realistically the woven layers of fiction and non-fiction present in the novel, appreciating also the depths and layers of the work done by Fox, its very weaver.

Again, this is a novel, a work of fiction. However, Fox’s own ancestors’ stories do, like the characters’ stories in this book, share settings: in both Fox’s family facts and her fiction, some of the action occurs in the 1930s into early 1940s, and some of this action occurs in Germany and then other of it two generations later and right here in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee, specifically. Send For Me moves about and between these two settings, building the stories of Annelise and her parents, and then Annelise’s own family through their development to her granddaughter Clare. These characters, their lives and stories, woven through each of the five sections of the novel. Its layers read much like it feels to actually find a letter or photograph and then unpack its story and weave it back into its “place” in history. 

It does not hurt that this particular reader, I, am also a fan of baked goods and bakeries, warming very much to the early prewar Germany setting of this book, a family-owned bakery in where a young woman named Annelise works with her parents, Klara and Julius. The steady presentation of what is being made or baked, placed into and then ordered from the display cases, creates for this reader a warmth of yeasty aromas and camaraderie in the workplace that, well, work…very well. Additionally this all helps to solidify the “safety” and wholesome community and the feel of it here and in their routines, such that we readers, too, are surprised at the anti-Jewish sentiments rising throughout Germany and eventually moving right in this town and neighborhood as well.

And despite this reader’s lack of need for “romance,” ever, in a book for it to be “good” or an enjoyable read, the romantic elements of this novel are quite satisfying. Relationships were built that did not and/or did stand the test of time, and not all weathered well the challenges of the conflicts that developed between the Jews in Germany and their oppressors. Thus this does not read like a “romance novel” but includes believable elements of the tension of romantic relationships and how those have to be more than that to withstand many of the tests they face.

In the most contemporary setting of the book, taking place two generations after Annelise moves on and into her own married life and then motherhood as well, we meet Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, in a Midwestern town and navigating her own developing womanhood and self, finding her way while carrying with her all that her parents, her grandparents, have also endured and carried with them. (Here, too, I see Fox herself, caring for her ancestors’ history in the “things” they carried, discovered while cleaning.)

The story is conveyed far more simply than the complexity might suggest of the work and time that went into researching and writing it. But I think this all wise and time well spent to craft a story that does what the very best do: pulls us in to experience something that may be familiar to us or feel similar to things we’ve also carried or brand new and foreign-feeling, but it does not tell us what to think or how to feel. Rather, a book like Send For Me allows us to live in those spaces and places and try on any of those roles for a bit to better understand the lives others may have lived–possibly our very own ancestors in some ways, shape, or form– and allows us to better appreciate both their experiences and our own. 

I have spent much time reminiscing about my own grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents and up both immediate branches of my own family tree. About some of them I know a lot, and/or there are many artifacts, photos, stories passed on through letters/diaries/etc., and about others I know very, very little. But this book reminded me that every one of them had their own story. I wish I could hear them tell it. This book makes me crave that even more…along with needing to bake something yummy as well!