Originally published in France in four separate volumes, and later in the US in two, The Complete Persepolis brings them all together for the first ti...moreOriginally published in France in four separate volumes, and later in the US in two, The Complete Persepolis brings them all together for the first time. It is the story of the author's youth, growing up in revolutionary Iran before moving to Austria at 14, and then later returning to Iran before escaping again, this time to France, where she still lives.
Her story is both familiar and alien - a story of being a child enjoying her childhood during the revolution of '79, and how it impacted on her life; learning about the history of her country, the religious hypocrisy, the regime; being a teenager in the 80s in Europe, delving into pot and nihilism, trying to find a place in the world but never really fitting in.
The story is often funny, and the method of telling it in comic-strip style suits it perfectly. There's not a wasted panel, and the illustrations add layers to the dialogue and exposition captions. While it's also a very controlling method - in that, because graphics are supplied, you're not really able to imagine it freely on your own - there's so much in the details, and so much feeling in the illustrations, that I'm reminded of that saying, "a picture speaks a thousand words".
It was fascinating to learn about what Iran's been through from someone who's lived through it - I used to read a lot of those books written by women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but they lacked a broader scope of understanding, and exposure to foreign political ideology and perspective. Satrapi read a lot of philosophers etc., and while some of her youthful ideologies are captured with a degree of irony, she still had a clear understanding of the situation - aided by her free-thinking parents and her wonderful grandmother.
While I had trouble in the beginning keeping up with the history of Iran's political leaders, which I found confusing, the story is easy to follow and is a great way to introduce people to the reality of Iran - up to the mid-1990s anyway. The hypocrisies, contrasts, day-to-day living, life-style, dreams and ambitions are all rendered in clear, distinctive black-and-white illustrations and laced with irony. There were many moments were I laughed myself silly, and other moments that were poignant and sad, but always, always, Satrapi is brutally honest with herself and her readers. Highly recommended. (less)
This is the sad yet beautiful, poignant true story of three Aboriginal girls who were taken from their families and tribe during the Australian govern...moreThis is the sad yet beautiful, poignant true story of three Aboriginal girls who were taken from their families and tribe during the Australian government's policy of removing children, educating them to be servants and working towards a goal of assimilation by wiping out their genes – the entire race, eventually – through inter-racial marriage. They had found that within three generations of breeding with whites, the children are blond and blue-eyed. Today these children are known as the Stolen Generation.
Set in Western Australia in the 1930s, the story is about three cousins – Molly, 14; Daisy, 11; and Gracie, 8 – who are forcibly taken from their tribe and home at Jigalong in the north-west to the Moore River Native Settlement just north of Perth. In Western Australia are two rabbit-proof fences that run north-south, and east of Perth, to keep the rabbits out of the farmland (Europeans deliberately introduced rabbits to Australia, where they have been a plague ever since). It’s the longest fence of its kind in the world.
The settlement the three girls are taken to is one of many designed to eradicate their cultural heritage – they’re forbidden to speak their native tongue – and mould them into good servants. It’s a cruel and punitive place. They escape the school and, barefoot and without provisions, undertake to walk 1,600 kilometres home by following the rabbit-proof fence, which runs past Jigalong. White men and black trackers follow them and planes search for them from above while they hid and trekked through scrub, rock and salt plains. The girls made the historic journey only to be taken back to the settlement.
The first five chapters give background and historical context for the story, as well as an understanding of Aboriginal culture and their thoughts and feelings. There’s also an appendix of Aboriginal words used in the story.
It’s a harrowing survival story of historic proportions that was made into a wonderful movie with breath-taking cinematography. Either the book or the movie would be great to use. The connections between the way the Australian Aborigines and the Canadian First Nations people were treated through government policy and settlements/residential schools add context and perspective to the history of either country. The fact that it’s a true story and an historical story, as well as an extraordinary feat, makes it a powerful story.
Written by Molly's daughter Nugi Garimara, whose "white" name is Doris Pilkington, the movie is also a must-see - the breath-taking cinemetagraphy helps balance out the sadness, and the young actors are excellent. It's yet another painful chapter in Australia's history, but one that shouldn't be ignored. (less)
When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven year...moreWhen the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father's general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn't leave, the government-backed murahaleen - Arabs on horses - come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.
He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia - otherwise known as a military coup - the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors - including thousands of "Lost Boys" like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere - a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.
There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree - which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.
This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng's story, in Deng's voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers' voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else's story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man - one of many - who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero's story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.
It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.
A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can't even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It's not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]
I rather think he's a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations - and let's face it, the United States is proud of the "freedoms" it offers - and you'll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can't fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That's a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we're used to, aren't dealing with it very well.
Deng's story is a long one, and it's by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid - not surprisingly, since they didn't keep calendars and don't use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn't tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I've read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally.
One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. "The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it." [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn't give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis' garden of Eden.
I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book - the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan - came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn't Deng's determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue's fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).
This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There's a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it's not an enjoyable novel - though there are moments of humour, it's so interwoven with tragedy that it's hard to crack a smile. It's a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It's a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don't spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng's foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he's already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life! (less)
It's become a cliché, but true nonetheless, that when faced with something big and scary, something that makes us feel both angry and impotent, we alw...moreIt's become a cliché, but true nonetheless, that when faced with something big and scary, something that makes us feel both angry and impotent, we always think and say we are too small in the scheme of things, that we are just one person, we couldn't do anything to help with those things, and so we never try. We make excuses in order to live with ourselves, because we know X is wrong, we can see the big picture and some of the long-running implications and consequences, we care, we want to scream our frustration at times at the injustice of it and we want to enact change - but we feel helpless to do it. Volunteering with an organisation, donating time or money or what's needed to a charity - these are things we can do. For some people, it appeases their conscience and they never think of making any changes in their own lives; saying they care and buying the Organics label is enough for them.
But there are people out there who didn't make those time-worn excuses to themselves, but instead made a promise to themselves and kept it. It sounds cheesy to say "So-and-so made the world a better place for these people"; we also, if we are sensitive to it, become wary and judgemental for fear we white people are being all colonial on the brown people - blundering in, taking over, thinking we know what's best for them just like we always do, and trying to make them more like us.
So there are two things you should know about Greg Mortenson: he started something that became huge and changed the lives of thousands of children and adults in one of the most remote and poverty-stricken areas in the world, without lots of money or even much help from fellow white people (but plenty from the locals); and he managed to do it without trying to change the people, their traditions and beliefs or their way of life. In fact, he learnt more from them than he ever could have taught them.
Truthfully, I was wary too - here we have an American who, after failing to reach the summit of K2 in Pakistan, becomes lost on his way back down and ends up in a small village called Korphe. The villagers take him in without question, help him regain his strength, and he ends up staying and putting into practice all his nurse training - the village is so poor and so isolated the people can die from simple things. He wants to repay them by giving them something they are lacking: when the village headman, Haji Ali, shows him where the children are scratching in the dirt on a windblown ledge under the tutelage of a teacher who hasn't been paid by the government in a year, and tells Mortenson that it's the school, Greg knows he has to do something to help.
It's one thing to promise someone you'll build a school for them, another entirely to make it happen. Mortenson worked odd shifts at a hospital so he could take off to go mountain-climbing when he wanted to. He didn't have any money. He didn't know any rich people. He had not connections. He lived in his old yellow car, on a cheap and nasty diet, renting a typewriter (this is 1993) to write letters to several hundred influential people, like Oprah Winfrey. His mother worked at a primary school and after he came and gave a talk to the children, they saved their pennies and donated them to help build Korphe's school - over six hundred dollars.
It wasn't until a rich old man heard of what Greg was trying to do through their mutual mountain climbing friends and donated the money he needed in one fell swoop - twelve thousand dollars - that Mortenson felt like he could actually keep his promise to Haji Ali and Korphe's children. Yet it was only the first step in what proved to be a very long and complicated road that only his determination and selfless dedication saw him complete. Along the way, every setback you could think and more (including a kidnapping) are thrown Greg's way, and it's really due to the kind of person he is that he didn't give up. A new non-profit organisation, the Central Asia Institute, began and many more schools were built, and continue to be built - and by making it a community endeavour, with the villagers themselves working to build them and Mortenson supplying the funds and helping to organise the project, it became very much a matter of the people helping themselves.
Greg is a big man all over - tall, broad, and with a big heart. So say all the people interviewed by journalist David Oliver Relin, and I believe them. In terms of size, Mortenson is heavy-footed. But in terms of intelligence, sensitivity and determination, he's a gentle giant (another quote). Terribly shy, he nonetheless becomes fluent in the Balti language (the remote area of Pakistan that he first works in is called Baltistan) and learns both the Shia and the Sunni traditions of prayer, dress etc. He goes to some of the most formidable, frightening places in Pakistan and Afghanistan to see if the people are interested in helping him build a school, and along the way his determination shifts: from caring on a small scale for the people of Korphe and the nearby villages and wanting to help them achieve their dream of an education, to deeply believing that the answer to the problems in the region - including terrorism - is education, especially for girls. And I couldn't agree more.
Several times during this book I felt my chin wobble and my eyes ache: I really wanted to cry. If I'd been at home I would have, but it's never a good idea for a woman to start crying on the subway. It's not because it's necessarily a sad or tragic book, and it's certainly not manipulative - that only makes me pissed off. No, it's because it makes you feel at once tiny in a big scary world, and like your heart is bigger than your whole body, and it aches. It aches at the enormity of Mortenson's simple idea; it aches at what people in the world endure through economic policies designed to make rich countries richer; it aches to hear Korphe's first female graduate share her plans to get a medical degree; it aches for those poor (literally) boys whose only chance at an education in some places is through madrassas where they are taught to fight and kill; it aches at the world, both the goodness in it and the short-sighted, narrow-minded, greedy, corrupting badness.
Because it was written by a journalist, it's much more readable than if Mortenson had tried to write it himself. There are still some rough patches, but overall I found it engrossing. I absolutely loved the first half, reading about how it all began. It's the kind of thing I always want to know, and even though Mortenson has the advantage of being male in a traditional Islamic country which undoubtedly helped, it was actually reassuring to hear that a "regular" person with no capital could make something happen through sweat and determination. It's inspiring (and it's sad I don't say that much).
It does shy away from delving into the political side of things, and even the historical side. There are passing mentions of America's involvement in helping the Taliban get the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and Mortenson does make an effort to bring the Washington politicians to task about the truth of the war in its early days. But this isn't a book about that; rather, it can provide detailed and personal insight into the people, culture and problems of the region, humanise it for us, and hopefully do some good that way. It is not a critical examination of the practices of colonialism, either in Pakistan's history (it was once part of British-India) or in its present, but it shows more than tells or passes judgement. Descriptions of the European, American, Canadian, Australian and Kiwi mountain climbers traipsing through and leaving their shit (literally) all over the place, speaks loud and clear. The world is a fucked-up place, at times, and it's mostly our fault - we can't go back and change anything; we can only work with what's left and stop shitting all over it. In the meantime, books like this will help educate in their own way, even if those to whom the ideas aren't new, and who realise that it's deeply complex, might be motivated by it to read more deeply into the issue. It really just whets the appetite.
It's not without faults, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this, it's one of those bestsellers that as soon as you've read it you know exactly why it's done so well and are happy for it (have you noticed in yourself a slight penchant for resenting bestsellers, like Life of Pi, until you cave and read it and join right in? Yeah I do that). The message that Mortenson is trying to get people to hear is still timely and probably will be for a long time to come, until our governments wise up to the importance of a balanced education in fighting the kind of fear, anger and religious fundamentalism bred by ignorance, instead of bombs and neo-liberal economic policies (if you're interested in that side of things, I recommend Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.
Based on the author's childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam during the war and arriving in Canada as a refugee, Ru is a scattering of memories, sho...moreBased on the author's childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam during the war and arriving in Canada as a refugee, Ru is a scattering of memories, short vignettes told by Nguyễn An Tịnh (An Tịnh being her first name, which is one punctuation mark different from her mother's). The word "ru" means "small stream" in French; in Vietnamese is means "lullaby" - both meanings capture both the meandering nature of the story, such as it is, as well as the soothing voice of a woman to her past self, the child of her memories, as well as her own children. The word, according to the blurb on the book, also signifies a flow - of tears, blood, money. This too resonates with the passage An Tịnh finds herself on with her once-affluent family, from luxury estate to destitute boat people to new immigrants in Canada, struggling to balance their cultural heritage with the world they find themselves in.
When I started reading this, I was struck by the beauty of the language. The very first page, the first vignette, reads like a spoken word poem and gave me a good feeling: this was going to be a book I would love. Alas, it was not to be. But let me share that first page with you, so you can see what I mean:
I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.
I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.
I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life's duty was to prolong that of my mother. [p.1]
It sets the scene well, introducing us to our narrator - now a mother of two boys living in Montreal in the present day - as well as to what life was like around the time of her birth. Fleeing as a refugee feels imminent, and in a way, it is: the vignettes aren't told - or shared - in chronological order; they jump around in time and location, and many are like snapshots, a scene, a memory, frozen in time and set on a loop, the only things left of a life, a world, long gone. I read this for a book club and one of the other people there mentioned that she had heard or read that Thúy jotted these down in her car while waiting at red lights, which helped her read it because that is the way our memories come to us, in bits, randomly, suddenly, a flash across the mind. But for me, it only added to the sense that this memoir disguised as a novel lacked structure and focus, and without some of both, I held in my hands just that: random scribblings, put together in a sloppy, lazy way, where the moments of poetry cannot make up for the unreliable narrator and the lack of cohesion.
It's not that I wanted this to conform to the standard structure of a novel, not at all. I'm all for the experimental novel, even the ones I'm not interested in reading like the Irvine Welsh book where the guy's tapeworm talks in the margins and, as it grows fatter, takes over from the man's narration altogether (I do, after all, find that I get the most enjoyment and meaning out of stories that use a more sturdy, reliable framework rather than some pretentious narrative structure that just distracts from the content - and perhaps tries to hide the vacuousness of the story itself). But sometimes you read a book where it feels like the author really didn't exercise enough control over their artistic, creative impulses. The art comes first, you could say, and then a good writer must shape it, give it form, and breathe life into it. With Ru, I felt like some random person had come across a draft, sketches, notes of a potential novel or pages from someone's diary, all torn up and scattered on the ground, and had picked them up and tried to sort them then given up, and published them just like that.
That wasn't actually my problem with reading this. Chiefly, I never managed to connect or relate to the narrator, An Tịnh - a fictionalised version of Thúy. Part of the problem was the simple fact that I just don't know enough about the Vietnam war or what Canada was like in the 70s to be able to fill in the gaps in context, because there's no historical or political context provided, no background details. I have only a vague understanding of the Vietnam war based on a few classic American movies (and some not-so-classic) and the fact - little known in North America - that Australia fought for the U.S. in that war. Even though I grew up with kids whose dads had been there and had various side-effects, no one talked about that war, no one taught it or studied it. We did have a draft but nothing like the American one, and the men had a choice: go or be in the Reserves. When my dad's birthday was called, he chose the Reserves and has many hilarious stories to tell of what he and these other young men got up to on those weekends. As to the politics behind the war, my understanding is as thinly sketched out as this novel.
There are some details about the Vietnam War, but they only served to confuse me most of the time. I couldn't follow the narrative all the time. Even though I read this almost in one sitting, it seemed like one minute the narrator said one thing and the next she contradicted herself. Lines like this: "The police were ordered to allow all boats carrying Vietnamese of Chinese background to leave 'in secret'. The Chinese were capitalists, hence anti-Communist, because of their ethnic background and their accent." [p.44] just left me feeling bewildered. Often within a scene you couldn't tell who she was talking about, as the use of pronouns would follow a proper noun and yet she'd be talking about someone else. It's the kind of book you would need to read at least three times to get to the point of following it better.
After some time - a year? - in a refugee camp in Malaysia, An Tịnh and her family - once so affluent with wealth and a large estate - arrive in Canada as destitute boat people and, as part of a government policy at the time, are settled into the small rural town of Granby, Quebec. An Tịnh is still a child and one whose life has been uprooted; she latches onto new friends and small kindnesses in a pitiful way, a lost child in a new place, struggling to make a home. Again, my lack of contextual knowledge of Canada at the time made these memories, these scenes, decidedly lacking in a deeper meaning so that they read as superficial - a kind of wishful thinking rather than reality (many people in my book club had personal immigrant experiences to share, that this book made them think of. I'm an immigrant to Canada as well, but as a white English-speaking, Anglo-ethnic woman migrating from Australia to Canada, I don't feel like I had a "true" immigrant experience). Everyone in Quebec was so kind and welcoming and helpful to these refugees, these aliens in their midst. In the 1970s. To one who wasn't here to witness it (I wasn't even alive at the time), who didn't have knowledge of this policy or what people were like back then, it was disconcerting and unreal. And you still don't get a sense for An Tịnh anymore than you do in the scenes of her as a mother in the present, even though small details about her life are so vivid.
Speaking of motherhood reminds me to mention that there are some recurring themes and elements in the book, some of them better executed than others. In the beginning she talks about the ties between her and her own mother, something culturally Other and hard to grasp in a way I could even picture; I had expected some more meaningful parallel between this relationship and the one she has with her own two boys (another confusing detail is her relationship status - at one point I was sure she mentioned a husband or father to her children, while later she talks about all her flings, her seeking of pleasure which implies she's a single mother. Frankly I've no idea what the truth is). One parallel that worked well (it wasn't subtle) was the one between north and south Vietnam, and English- and French-speaking Canada.
Around that time, my employer, who was based in Quebec, clipped an article from a Montreal paper reiterating that the "Quebecois nation" was Caucasian, that my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category, even though Quebec had given me my American dream, even though it had cradled me for thirty years. Whom to like, then? No one or everyone? I chose to like the gentleman from Saint-Felicien who asked me in English to grant him a dance. "Follow the guy," he told me. I also like the rickshaw driver in Da Nang who asked me how much I was paid as an escort for my "white" husband. And I often think about the woman who sold cakes of tofu for five cents each, sitting on the ground in a hidden corner of the market in Hanoi, who told her neighbours that I was from Japan, that I was making good progress with my Vietnamese.
She was right. I had to relearn my mother tongue, which I'd given up too soon. In any case, I hadn't really mastered it completely because the country was divided in two when I was born. I come from the South, so I had never heard people from the North until I went back to Vietnam. Similarly, people in the North had never heard people from the South before reunification. Like Canada, Vietnam had its own two solitudes. [p.79]
Other recurring themes include walls or barriers, especially between people - or peoples - sharing a space, and about being unable to speak. There were several references to shadows which I barely noticed at the time so I have no opinion on that. The novel is very tactile, very engaging of the senses - one of things I did like. In small details sights, smells, tastes, textures are described which does give the narrative a richness, in the way that memories can sometimes be accompanied by a single overriding sense, making the two inseparable.
And there were moments of humour, like the young soldiers auditing the contents of their mansion who find their grandmother's dresser drawer full of bras - which they'd never seen before so they decide they're coffee filters (the new puzzle: why are there two of them joined together? After some thought they decide it's because you don't drink coffee alone), alongside moments of tragedy, like her aunt who's mentally handicapped in some way (undiagnosed, this being in Vietnam in the 60s) who used to escape the house and run wild through the alleys until one time she comes home pregnant. The little glimpses of life during the war are poignant and precious.
Most of those children of GIs became orphans, homeless, ostracized not only because of their mothers' profession but also because of their fathers'. They were the hidden side of the war. Thirty years after the last GI had left, the United States went back to Vietnam in place of their soldiers to rehabilitate those damaged children. The government granted them a whole new identity to erase the one that had been tarnished. A number of those children now had, for the first time, an address, a residence, a full life. Some, though, were unable to adapt to such wealth.
Once, when I was working as an interpreter for the New York police, I met one of those children, now adult. She was illiterate, wandering the streets of the Bronx. She'd come to Manhattan on a bus from a place she couldn't name. She hoped that the bus would take her back to her bed made of cardboard boxes, just outside the post office in Saigon. She declared insistently that she was Vietnamese. Even though she had cafe au lait skin, thick wavy hair, African blood, deep scars, she was Vietnamese, only Vietnamese, she repeated incessantly. She begged me to translate for the policeman her desire to go back to her own jungle. But the policeman could only release her into the jungle of the Bronx. Had I been able to, I would have asked her to curl up against me. Had I been able to, I'd have erased every trace of dirty hands from her body. I was the same age as her. No, I don't have the right to say that I was the same age as her; her age was measured in the number of stars she saw when she was being beaten and not in years, months, days. [pp.82-3]
In a way, reading individual vignettes like that is more satisfying and engaging than reading the whole as a novel. I got much more out of that particular vignette, for instance, as I read it again just now than I did as I was reading it for the first time, when I had trouble following it even. It makes so much more sense the second time, and I'm sure the book as a whole would too if I were to re-read it. It would also make more sense to those who have the knowledge, the context, the history to understand what's really going on here. Lacking that, it wouldn't matter how many times I read it, there are parts that just won't make sense to me without the necessary context - some of it cultural and unlearnable. And no matter how many times I could read this, I don't think I would ever find the narrator to be anything other than a vague voice on a page, not a living, breathing woman with a rich and varied past.
It's not that Thúy didn't accomplish what she set out to do: tracing a young girl's journey from her war-torn homeland, across the ocean in perilous circumstances to a new home where everything is so vastly different and having to find her place in it. It's that I didn't find she was fully successful in her control of her own writing. Writing takes a lot of work and practice, and authors take a long time - and a lot of drafts and scrapped stories - developing their own style.
I am torn in two by Ru: there were elements to it that I greatly admire and even loved, and there is a lyrical, almost magical quality to it that appeals to me no less than the story of a refugee trying to reconcile her past with her new life. But if I can't relate to the narrator, if I can't even follow what's going on half the time, then I just feel alienated rather than engaged, frustrated rather than empathetic. It doesn't matter that this was the point, that, as others have pointed out, her story is fragmented and confused as a true reflection of her life.
By the time I got to the end I was just glad it was so short and I didn't have to fight my headache anymore. For a book so beautifully written and with such potential (and trust me, I can see why so many people loved this), it was deeply disappointing for me and the only thing that makes it stand out at all (or makes it memorable at all) is the way it is written, which is not altogether successful. (less)
In the 1990s Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa, found itself sinking into a very bloody internal war between corrupt government soldiers an...moreIn the 1990s Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa, found itself sinking into a very bloody internal war between corrupt government soldiers and armed rebels. It lasted at least ten years, and while now the country is stable and has a booming tourism industry, during the war countless innocent civilians were slaughtered and hundreds of boys were recruited by both sides.
Ishmael is twelve when the rebels arrive at his small mining town in the south-west, not so far from the ocean. He is with his older brother, Junior, and their friends at a nearby town when the attack happens, and he is separated from his parents and younger brother, never to see them again. People are mowed down as they run, fleeing one town for another with the rebels not far behind.
So begins a long journey for Ishmael as he tries to survive and stay alive. Food is hard to come by, and he has so many near-misses with death - not just at the hands of the rebels, but other villagers who are suspicious of him - that if this weren't a memoir you would never believe it. More than once, the tapes of American rap music save his life. Ironic, huh?
He is recruited into the government's army, given an AK-47 and becomes addicted to several kinds of drugs, including cocaine, that the lieutenant hands out. He hardly sleeps, has loads of energy, and his migraines have stopped. He becomes a junior sergeant and leads his small unit of boys - some of these recruited boys are as young as 7 and can barely lift their guns - into laying ambushes and attacks on villages. At one point, he encounters a rebel group of boys just like his, and like all the other squirmishes it is a fight to the death.
A Long Way Gone tells Ishmael's story, from the moment his home is destroyed, to being rehabilitated, representing other child soldiers at a UN conference and finally finding a new home in America. It is an interesting read on many levels. It is at the same time both simplistic and complex, distant and intense, coldly factual and emotionally harrowing. Throughout it all I kept reminding myself, "He's twelve"; "He's thirteen" and so on. Sometimes Bael's writing has the mature tone of a reflective adult, but generally the style is reminiscent of a report a 15-year-old might make for school. While this is a simplistic way to write anything, it could also be the only way he could write it. It is fact, not embellishment. He was deeply scarred and traumatised by all the things he'd seen and done during the war, and that's not something you can write fancifully about. It also renders it coldly brutal in its accuracy.
Some people have complained that if it had delved into the political etc. situation, the circumstances behind the war, it would have been more interesting. I disagree, though it certainly made me curious about what was going on. This is not that type of memoir, and if that's what they were expecting then they have some very strange expectations of former child soldiers. On the contrary, this is the side of the war you usually don't get to see. It humanises it, in a way, and desensitises it. It's one thing to see this kind of thing on the telly, another to be pulled into a personal story as sad and frightening as this one. The very fact of the often unemotional writing (not dry or dull, but with a protective layer to shield the author) makes it all the more believable and heart-breaking.
His speech at the UN conference brought tears to my eyes - not because it was poetic or profound or a great piece of oratory skill, but because it was straight-forward, from the mouth of a child who had lived through a kind of hell. His experiences didn't exactly make him older - not at first - but they certainly made him wild for a time. Bael doesn't dwell too much on his experiences as a soldier, it is more a balanced account of how he got into such a situation, what it did to him, and how he got out of it. Even then, he doesn't really explain how he shook off the mentality of a child soldier and became "rehabilitated". He also doesn't explain how he made it to America the second time - here I, perhaps suspiciously, feel US immigration wouldn't want that in a book; or maybe Bael just didn't feel it had any relevance. Still, I was taken rather by surprised when the story stopped.
In short, A Long Way Gone is a powerful, visceral account of what happens when you give a scared but resourceful boy a big fucking gun and teach him how to kill people and be proud of it. It also shows with painful clarity the truly pointless aspects of this kind of war - of any war, true, but this kind especially, where those involved lose their sense of humanity and feel nothing for killing innocent bystanders, or burning people in their homes, or raping, looting and terrifying, all in the name of freeing the country from someone else doing exactly the same things. It makes no sense. It is hell on earth. (less)
After seeing the movie Julie & Julia, it was Julia Child's story that interested me. Her incredible enthusiasm and lust for life was, if not infec...moreAfter seeing the movie Julie & Julia, it was Julia Child's story that interested me. Her incredible enthusiasm and lust for life was, if not infectious, then admirable. And having spent a measly two weeks in France a few years ago, I dearly wanted to revisit - I can't afford the actual trip, but I could afford the book! I wasn't able to find a copy without the movie cover, sadly, but still.
If you've seen the movie then you're familiar with the book, only there's a lot more in the book than they put in the movie (though Nora Ephron did an excellent job on the screenplay). Between 1948 and 1954 Julia Child lived with her husband Paul, a US government diplomat, in Paris and Marseilles, were afterwards moved to Norway before returning to America when Paul retired at 60. When they first arrived in France, Julia knew nothing about cooking and couldn't even make scrambled eggs correctly. She falls so heavily in love with French food that she's motivated to learn - at Cordon Bleu, the famous chef school. From there she and two French friends start a cooking school for American women, and then helps them with their cookbook - French cooking for American housewives, the first of its kind. So begins Julia's career in cooking and cookbooks and, back in America, television.
Told with impressive detail, My Life in France resurrects this time in her life with gusto. You really feel like you're right there with her. Sadly, a lot has changed - she says it herself - but the flavour is all still there. There are some great scenes and some fascinating insights - I loved the "quiet" moments as much as the intense ones: describing a new apartment or the house they had built in the country, describing the food and how to make it (I especially loved learning about French food), and just her thought-processes. You really come to know and love Julia, who is loud, boisterous, exuberant, intelligent, thoughtful, appreciative, gracious - it helps that we have some things or opinions in common (and plenty that we don't!).
Her husband Paul's black and white photos illustrate the story, and I loved seeing Paris in the 40s and 50s. It sometimes reminded me a little of Hemmingway's Fiesta - lots of ex-pat Americans drinking and talking loudly and taking over restaurants and bars; but far less obnoxious!
It definitely leaves you feeling a tad sad - nostalgic not only for Julia and Paul's life but also for the-world-as-it-was, and France-as-it-was. There are some things we've really lost in the name of "progress". It's also a great celebration of life, and yes, I confess, I did go out and take a look at The Book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking - I am tempted to get a copy, but I'm also intimidated at the same time. And there are some French things I really refuse to eat, like foie gras, which Julia eats a lot of in the book. (less)
Daoud Hari is a Zaghawa tribesman from the region known as Darfur in west Sudan. In 2003 his peaceful village life is shattered when government helico...moreDaoud Hari is a Zaghawa tribesman from the region known as Darfur in west Sudan. In 2003 his peaceful village life is shattered when government helicopters arrive, gunning down the villagers where they stand, followed by government-backed Arab militia on horses who murder, rape and burn their homes. The desired effect is achieved: the tribespeople are driven from their lands. Some make the long trek into neighbouring Chad, also Darfur territory, while others relocate, becoming "internally displaced people". Daoud finds himself working as a translator for foreign journalists, helping them get into Darfur and document these destroyed village, the murdered tribespeople.
His story is a harrowing, violent and increasingly dangerous one. Even before the Muslim government of Sudan, led by Ahmad al-Bashir, decided to actively remove the settled Africans from the land, Daoud's life had been adventurous and more than a bit scary. He had moved to a large town to continue his education, then decided he wanted to see the world rather than go home and submit to an arranged marriage. He traveled through Chad to Libya to work, then went to Egypt for more work. When he heard of high-paying menial jobs in Israel, he tried to enter the country illegally but was arrested as soon as he got through the fence, and was extradited back to Egypt where he spent a long time in an over-crowded prison that would make our jails look like holiday resorts. With help, he was finally released into Chad - if he had been sent back to Sudan, the government would have executed him immediately (mostly for embarrassing them).
With fake Chad identification papers and a new name - Suleyman - Daoud used his linguistic skills and his many contacts with the various rebel groups in the region to ferry journalists safely through Darfur. Only "safety" is an illusion and there's no protection for anyone, and he very nearly loses his life many times.
Having already read a few books about South Sudan and the civil war, it was good to read a book about Darfur alongside them - interesting to see what they have in common, and how they differ. I came to these books knowing very little about Sudan, and having read four in a month, feel I've learnt a great deal. Like the south of Sudan, Darfur is a large territory (the size of France) inhabited by many different tribes:
Dar means land. The Fur are tribespeople farther south who are mostly farmers. One of the Fur leaders was king of the whole region in the 1500s. The region took its name from that time. [p.x]
Daoud's story is told like an oral story, but arranged non-chronologically to create a more interesting narrative flow. We gradually get the pieces we need to flesh out a nightmarish vision, told in Daoud's almost laconic voice, with a tone that displays unflagging optimism and humour while at the same time a sad acceptance. Life in Darfur - in all of Sudan, and Africa - is so vastly different from the western world. It would be easy to think that they hold life to be cheap, and certainly some of them do. I cannot even begin to put myself in their shoes to empathise with that kind of attitude - it's wholly alien and I don't understand enough. But reading Daoud's account, it's clear that they don't hold life to be cheap. It's just that there's nothing you can do, no laws or army to protect you. The African tribespeople of Sudan have only themselves and their long centuries of culture which has changed very little.
And the west has so very little real sympathy for people like this. I see it in how our own governments treat the Aborigines, for instance: we have a kind of disguised disdain for these people and their culture. We don't understand it and we don't value it, collectively and individually. We wish they'd just "get with the program" and join our consumeristic, salaried, car-driving, suit-wearing, depressed society. We look down on them because they're practically prehistoric, especially these African tribes. We can't see value or worth in them, only the resources they're sitting on, squandering. It's fucking tragic is what it is. As if we had the answers. Deep down, many people in the west have a secret voice that just wishes people like the Aborigines and Africans would just give up on their traditional way of life and assimilate. I don't just suspect this, I've heard it from those who actually say it.
This is a highly readable book and Daoud's voice leads us through the minefields with our hearts in our mouths. There's one particular story, not one that he witnessed but one that the father, almost mad with shock and grief, relates to him that had me sobbing. The story seems extreme at times, like it can't possibly be real, these things couldn't possibly have happened to him, it's way too over-the-top. But once you enter the world of Sudan, it all becomes possible, and probable. I had no trouble believing in his story.
Daoud is clearly a thoughtful, reflective and highly intelligent man, who touches on the political issues in succinct, hard-hitting lines, as well as other themes like what it means to be a man, and the shares the traditional way of life. Not all of it is perfect, he isn't deluded, but he recognises that all this trouble - like with the south of Sudan - arose partly out of colonialism and the mistakes of the British etc. They are also suffering from extreme Islamic fundamentalism, through Bashir, the dictator of Sudan, who invited Bin Laden to stay (Bin Laden's first bombings were within Africa, which I hadn't even heard about - no surprise there).
The story carries a wealth of hope along with insight, and the appendices at the back are useful too in understanding more of the issues in Sudan. He also includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is telling. I'll end with a number of quotes that really struck me.
As for the future, the only way that the world can say no to genocide is to make sure that the people of Darfur are returned to their homes and given protection. If the world allows the people of Darfur to be removed forever from their land and their way of life, then genocide will happen elsewhere because it will be seen as something that works. It must not be allowed to work. The people of Darfur need to go home now. [p.x]
You have to be stronger than your fears if you want to get anything done in this life. [p.11]
"Shooting people doesn't make you a man, Daoud," [Ahmed] said. "Doing the right thing for who you are makes you a man." [p.17]
It says everything about this land to know that even the mountains are not to be trusted, and that the crunching sound under your camel's hooves is usually human bones hidden and revealed as the wind pleases. [p.20]
In Africa, our families are everything. We do all we can to help them, without question. [p.23]
Many men were joining resistance groups; you would see very young teenage boys jumping into the backs of trucks with a family weapon and that was it for them. No one in the boys' families would try to stop them. It was as if everybody had accepted that we were all going to die, and it was for each to decide how they wanted to go. It was like that. The end of the world was upon us. [p.46]
We came upon a lone tree not far from the Chad border where a woman and two of her three children were dead. The third child died in our arms. The skin of these little children was like delicate brown paper, so wrinkled. You have see pictures of children who are dying of hunger and thirst, their little bones showing and their heads so big against their withered bodies. You will think this takes a long time to happen to a child, but it takes only a few days. It breaks your heart to see, just as it breaks a mother's heart to see. This woman hanged herself from her shawl, tied in the tree. We gently took her down and buried her beside her children. This moment stays with me every day. [p.65]
...the world's charity seemed almost invisible here [at the refugee camp]. Perhaps the wealthy nations had finally blown themselves away and were no longer available to send their usual token remedies for the problems that their thirst for resources has always brought to such people as these. [pp.73-4]
At the edge of one village, in a thickly forested place, the village defenders had made their last stand by wedging themselves high in the trees with their rifles. They were all shot and killed. It had been three days or more since the men in the trees had died, and on this steamy spring afternoon, their bodies were coming to earth. We walked through a strange world of occasionally falling human limbs and heads. a leg fell near me. A head thumped to the ground farther away. Horrible smells filled the grove like poision gas that even hurts the eyes. And yet this was but the welcome to what we would eventually see: eighty-one men and boys fallen across one another, hacked and stabbed to death in that same attack.
Reporters are so very human, wonderfully so, and they weep sometimes as they walk through hard areas. There is no hiding their crying after a time. They sometimes kneel and put their heads in their hands near the ground. They pray aloud and will often find A handful of soil to lay on the body of a child, or they may find some cloth to cover the dead faces of a young family - faces frozen in terror with their eyes and mouths still open too wide. They will help bury bodies; we buried many on the British TV journey. But these eighty-one boys and men were too much for everyone. [p.112]
Ali speaking to the Zaghawa boy soldiers in the rebel-army-turned-government-force:
"Did you know that Darfur was a great country long ago, so great that it was both in Sudan and also in Chad? Did you know that the French, who later controlled Chad, and the British, who later controlled Sudan, drew a line, putting half of Darfur in each new nation? Did you know that? What do you care about this line if you are Darfur men? What business is it of yours if the British and the French draw lines on maps? What does it have to do with the fact that we are brothers?" [p.138]
With the mandate of the United Nations, the African Union troops were in Darfur - some barely a mile away - to monitor the peace agreement between the Sudan government and one of the rebel groups. If the government and this rebel group want to attack villages together, or the government and the Janjaweed want to attack a village, or just the Janjaweed or just the government, then that is not the A.U.'s business, though they might make a report about it. They have not been given the resources to do much more than give President Bashir the ability to say that peacekeeping troops are already in Darfur, so other nations can please stay away. Also, African troops have seen so much blood and so many killed that their sense of outrage has perhaps been damaged for this kind of situation. U.N. troops from safer parts of the world, where people still feel outrage, might be better. [pp.146-7]
The genocide in Darfur began in 2003. It is now been going on for 10 years, and still the world refuses to get involved. It is true what they say: we learned nothing from Rwanda. This is an important book and it is the saddest truth imaginable that it is still timely and relevant. For more information, start with the United Human Rights Council website and go from there.(less)
The older brother of author Augusten Burroughs, John Elder Robison grew up in a dysfunctional household with an abusive, drunken father and an insane...moreThe older brother of author Augusten Burroughs, John Elder Robison grew up in a dysfunctional household with an abusive, drunken father and an insane mother - and undiagnosed Asperger's. He details his life growing up and handling a conditon he didn't know he had until 1990 - several years after the condition was identified and named. Asperger's is on the spectrum of Autism.
Despite higher-than-average intelligence and a liking for practical jokes, John Elder's childhood was lonely and unpleasant. His inability to look people in the eye, his problems with social interactions and saying the "right" thing, alienated him. He dropped out of school at fifteen and became a music engineer for a band, then worked on Pink Floyd's gear and ended up designing the light guitars and exploding guitars for KISS, a band he toured with for several years.
Switching to Milton Bradley, the toy manufacturer, he tried fitting in and being part of the corporate ladder but finally decided it wasn't worth his unhappiness and started his own fine automobile service business. Two wives, one child and a diagnosis later, Robison is much more content with himself than he was growing up, and after the first release of his memoir, he discovered that pretty much everyone experiences similar feelings of loneliness and alienation, and don't fit in as well as they think they should.
It's an amazing story and a wonderful opportunity to see inside the head of someone with Asperger's. The difference between the way an Aspergian thinks and the way non-Aspergians think comes across in the writing, which also makes it harder to read.
The story jumps around a lot, and new phases of life or people's names are dropped in without introduction or priming, which makes it hard to follow at times. The funny thing about it is, Robison likes logic, but his story doesn't always follow logically. I'm very organised, and I would have liked the story to read more coherently. At the same time, I wouldn't want to mould his voice or make him write to a standard structure, because it's a memoir and we would completely lose who Robison really is. So as much as I would wish for a book that suited me, I am grateful to read Robison's story in his authentic voice, even if it did make it hard to get through.
Robison has led and will probably continue to lead a very colourful life. Some of the things he got up to are surprising - like setting up fake cocaine lines in his office at MB and filming one of the top managers sneaking in to steal it. Told mostly in chronological form, it does jump back and forth a bit and it wasn't always apparent how old he was or at what stage of his life something happened in - the markers weren't always there, so it seemed like things were happening all at once. That's what I mean by making it more organised!
It did give me an insight into Asperger's, though everyone's different and Robison is not a template for the condition. It's a thoughtful, personal story, musing about the human mind and society and showing just how similar we are, at the end of the day.(less)
This is a book I would probably have never known about if it hadn't been for a little workshop I attended during my teaching degree. Which would have...moreThis is a book I would probably have never known about if it hadn't been for a little workshop I attended during my teaching degree. Which would have been a sad loss for me, because this is an excellent book, vivid and educational, emotional and honest, a book that brings a complex and confusing war into your lap, at the same time beautiful in its artistic skill, and heart-wrenching in the agony of its story.
Goražde (pronounced "go-RAJH-duh") is a town in Bosnia, which used to be part of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a confusing history, but it essentially came into being after the Second World War. It was made up of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia achieved independence in 1991 after their own battles, leaving Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro as a "rump" Yugoslavia. The population was made up of three distinct ethnic and religious groups: Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, all living together harmoniously until political leaders began stirring up discontent:
Little more than a decade after Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to come apart, and the driving figure in the break-up and the tragedies that followed was the man who would become Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic. He had exploited and encouraged Serb nationalism and sense of victimhood to consolidate his power in Serbia and extend his influence over Serbs living in the other republics. (p. 36)
A brutal era of ethnic cleansing ensued, and several different and equally vicious armies formed. The scary thing about this war is that there was no clear "good guy, bad guy" dichotomy. The Allies won WWII, and so Hitler is the "bad guy". Serbia comes across as the clear "bad guy" in this war, and yet all sides of the conflict were committing atrocities. This is the story of the town of Goražde, though, and it seems clear the people and refugees living there were victims. The Serbs and Muslims had lived together peacefully for a long time, until, with war brewing, it became dangerous to do so. The Serb population left as the Serbian army began annexing great chunks of Bosnia, and the Muslims who remained in this and other small towns in the area barely survived three years of bloody war.
The UN declared a few places "safe areas", but this story is also the story of UN failure to enforce peace and protect people - just as they failed in Rwanda. Every time genocide occurs, we say "never again". And then it happens again, and we shake our heads and Tsk while people in important positions make bad decisions or no decisions. And people begin to die, horrifically and needlessly.
This book is also Joe Sacco's personal account, as a journalist, of his trips to Goražde, the friends he made there, and the stories he recorded which make up the bulk of this book. He's a character in his own novel, so we get the contrasting Western perspective, but having the visuals brings home to the reader (so much more so than words ever could) not just what it was like, but how non-alien the Bosnian people are - these aren't people we can look at and not find familiar, like the Afghans (you know we do this, even if not consciously). They live like "we" do, they wear the same clothes, go to university, all that is familiar to us. If anything, it becomes all the more tragic for it. We can so easily distance ourselves from images of war in the Middle East or Africa, but seeing images of war in a place like Bosnia is like seeing war in Canada, or England, or France or America or Australia. These might not be rich countries, but it gives you a healthy jolt and reminder of what racial discrimination - and religious discrimination - can lead to if you let a few prominent people loudly draw lines between groups, separating people based on religious and racial lines, creating an "us vs. them" dichotomy.
Goražde was a town cut off and isolated from the rest of Bosnia, often attacked by Serb nationalists, but it survived. Many others did not, and the entire Muslim populations of towns were massacred. In Goražde, Sacco made friends with a university student, Edin, who had been very close to finishing his PhD before the war started and now taught maths, intermittently, to the students in Goražde. His proficiency in English made him an excellent guide and translator, but Sacco made friends with other men and women in the town, as well as with some of the refugees. The story has an unusual structure, one that seems chaotic and jumbled, moving back and forth in time, from place to place, with no apparent sense of order. It does make it hard to grasp the time frame or remember whereabouts you are, but it also helps break up the stories of atrocities with seeing how people are surviving in the "present".
The complexity of the book itself is further compounded by how terribly complex the situation of the Bosnian War itself was. It's hard to keep all the different groups straight in my head, though I think re-reading it would help.
One of the things that really impressed me were the drawings themselves, the graphics. It must have taken Sacco years: the level of detail in them is extraordinary. So, even though I found the structure of the book sometimes hard to follow, and the political situation can get confusing, Sacco still did a really good job at explaining things, giving stories context and perspective as well as a personal human element through the voices of the survivors.
Safe Area Goražde took me a month to read mostly because it's so much to take in, so tragic, so horrible to think of us all going about our lives while this was going on. I vaguely remember it from when I was a teen, but - and this is a failing of the education system, in my opinion - we never looked into it in any class. No teacher tried to explain what was going on, or incorporated it into their curriculum as a kind of case study. Which is a shame. But I've found that teachers are much better at that these days, and have seen English teachers, for example, use story boards (graphic novel interpretations) as ways for students to interpret books they've read, like A Thousand Splendid Suns. You could use this book in many ways in the school system, either just a page or two or the entire thing. It's graphic format makes it a highly accessible historical text.
The war in Bosnia has become a kind of "forgotten war", a genocide that has slipped from the public consciousness. How can we even think that it will not happen again, if we pretend it didn't happen in Bosnia in the 1990s? Shame on us.(less)
"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and re...more"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and responses from that column, as well as some new ones that hadn't been published before, all culled from a collection of thousands and thousands of letters and organised in five groups. You can read all the original letters and Sugar's replies on the site, though there have been no new Dear Sugar letters-and-replies since May 2012. I would imagine the wonderful woman behind the persona of Sugar, Cheryl Strayed, is much too busy for the unpaid job anymore - and with good reason.
I had never read The Rumpus or the Dear Sugar column before; hadn't, in fact, heard of it before learning of this book - no surprise there, I just don't have the time to read things online or even explore it that much (and what a shame that is!). I learned of Tiny Beautiful Things through the equally wonderful site, Brain Pickings, on a post featuring The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites, which included a quote from Steve Almond's incredibly quotable introduction to the book (he was the first "Sugar", before passing the baton on to Strayed) - and because it's what made me instantly order a copy, I want to include the same quote here:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it. [pp.4-5]
I have always found the questions asking for advice in magazines interesting to read, though the answers are always too short and too "professional" to be all that entertaining or educational: what I always wanted from such columns was to learn a little about someone else's life, to gain some perspective by seeing things from another perspective, and to, hopefully, pick up some useful advice that would either lend itself to my own life, or help me understand someone else's. I don't read self-help books - in fact, I detest them. The difference here is how deeply personal and private these letters - and Sugar's responses - are. There are no generalities. And the way Sugar writes her responses is so very, very different - and so much more hard-hitting - than the usual agony aunt replies, that you can't help but be effected when you read them.
Cheryl Strayed is a wonderful, unique writer. You can't help but read this book with tears in your eyes and a clenching in your gut. You can't read it in a detached way, or even in a "oh my life is so much better than this person's, thank God" way of feeling better about yourself. You are granted insight into fragile, vulnerable states of mind, including Sugar's. And she has a way of replying that makes everything relatable, regardless of the fact that you have never experienced the problem the letter-writer has.
What I admire most about the say Sugar gives advice, is how she forces the letter-writers to look for the answers within themselves. She presents the facts as she knows and understands them, and paints a picture, and walks the writer through it, and gets them to focus on the right questions, or to see where their thinking is clouded. The stories - they are letters, but they are stories too, because Sugar often tells stories from her own life, relates things to her own experiences, thus giving them weight and empathy - that I most connected with were the ones in response to a woman struggling to write and suffering from depression, and a woman who wanted to have a baby on her own, after her boyfriend went back to his ex-wife and her own biological clock is in its last ticks.
...you'll have a baby. An amazing little being who will blow your mind and expand your heart and make you think things you never thought and remember things you believed you forgot and heal things you imagined would never heal and forgive people you've begrudged for too long and understand things you didn't understand before you fell madly in love with a tiny tyrant who doesn't give a damn whether you need to pee. You will sing again if you stopped singing. You will dance again if you stopped dancing. You will crawl around on the floor and play chase and tickle and peek-a-boo. You'll make towers of teetering blocks and snakes and rabbits with clay.
It's an altogether cool thing.
And it will be lonely, too, doing all that without a partner. How lonely, I can't say. You will hold your baby and cry sometimes in frustration, in rage, in despair, in exhaustion and inexplicable sorrow. You will watch your baby with joy and laugh at the wonder so pure and the beauty so unconcealed that it will make you ache. These are the times when it's really nice to have a partner, M. What will you do? How will you fill the place where the man you've been holding out for would have been?
That is your hard question for me - the one I didn't ask myself when I decided to get pregnant and become a mother, though of course it was naïve for me to think I didn't have to. Not a single one of us knows what the future holds. The unexpected happens even when we've got everything mapped out. [...]
It works in reverse too. What you fear might not come to pass. You might decide to have your baby and find true love in the midst of that. You might search your soul and realize that you don't want a baby after all, not if it means going it without a man.
What's important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision the [High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction] made up. It's up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that. [pp.122-123]
In response to the woman struggling to write while feeling envy towards friends who had secured a book deal, Sugar shares her experiences writing her first novel, Torch. She describes that book as a second heart, beating strongly in her chest but never materialising until, with her thirtieth birthday approaching, she realised that it wouldn't come at all unless she sat down and thought of "only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I meant work."
At the time, I believed that I'd wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn't have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with "intelligence and heart and lengthiness." But I'd finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn't have written my book before I did. I simply wasn't capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O'Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge's first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? [sic] To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That's where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn't get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn't know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn't care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I'd pulled one out with my bare hands. I'd suffered. I'd given it everything I had.
I'd finally been able to give it because I'd let go of all the grandiose ideas I'd once had about myself and my writing - so talented! so young! I'd stopped being grandiose. I'd lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I'd-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do. [pp.56-7]
I feel emotional, and very, very human, just reading these snippets again, here and now. There's something incredibly humbling - I choose that word deliberately - about the way Sugar writes and provides perspective. She avoids bullshit, she demolishes the neuroses and visions in people's heads, and reduces things to the key point.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm - all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it's particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn't exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn't mean you pack your bags the moment there's strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that. [pp.171-2]
There's so much quote-worthy material in this collection of letters around the themes of love and life. Strayed doesn't have the technical qualifications of other agony aunts, but what she has is life experience, and the ability to strip away the padding to reach the core of the matter, and then to discuss it in a way that is both a personal message of understanding and philosophical inquiry, as well as an ad hoc memoir. One of the stories from her life that hit me particularly hard is the time she worked with high school girls who were considered the most likely to drop out early - and later end up in jail. Over time they came to trust her, and would sit in an ugly chair in her office and tell her the horrifying stories of their home lives. She would report cases of abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, but nothing was ever done. Finally, she asked them what they do with her reports, and was told that they record them, file them, and that's it. There's no funding for helping teenagers, Strayed is told over the phone. Better if they run away from home, there's money for helping them then. Have you ever heard anything more tragic and senseless and awful?
Whether Sugar is replying to someone whose grown-up sons (and girlfriends) have moved in and taken over her life without even asking, or someone who can't decide whether she should marry her fiance, or someone who overheard his best friends discussing him behind his back, or someone who is physically ugly and doesn't know if they should even try to find someone to love who will love them back - through all of Sugar's responses come heartwarming, frank, open, honest, open-minded, sincere, encouraging messages that carry their own recurring theme: take a leap, jump high and with intent, put all you've got into it, make space for yourself to breathe, and "when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don't look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life. Say thank you." [pp.352-3](less)
This is only the second Hemingway book I've read, the other being Fiesta (or, The Sun Also Rises) which I quite enjoyed except for the ending. True at...moreThis is only the second Hemingway book I've read, the other being Fiesta (or, The Sun Also Rises) which I quite enjoyed except for the ending. True at First Light is an account of his second safari in Africa, in 1953, with his fourth wife, Mary, which he wrote a year later. It was first published posthumously by his son Patrick, who edited it from a much longer manuscript. This is all in the introduction by Patrick Hemingway, which is best to read first. There's also a handy list of characters and glossary of common native words, though a few were left out which was annoying.
The story isn't just about him and his wife shooting lions and wildebeest etc. There's also the subplot of - wait for it - Hemingway being "engaged" to a young African woman, Debba, giving gifts to her parents so he can sleep with her, while Mary says she doesn't mind as long as he loves her more. Yeah right, in your sick fantasies you dirty old man. I don't know that he's a reliable narrator - and this is a "fictional" memoir, so. Seriously though, he was essentially on holiday and he's playing fast and loose with a tribe's culture, taking advantage of their polygamous society with no intention of hanging around (though he does reassure one of the Africans on safari with him, that he will care for whatever child Debba has, but still, he's hardly planning on hanging around).
Meanwhile, Mary's determined to kill a particular lion that goes for domestic herd animals and has caused problems for the natives - some effort is made by Hemingway to let us know the only lions and leopards etc. they shoot are ones that are dangerous and they've received complaints against, and he also mentions the scam that is the safari for rich people, and the white hunter who doesn't want lots of animals killed simply because that'd be the end of their money-making venture.
Mary's been hunting this particular lion for months, and has to kill it before "the birth of the Baby Jesus". She's picked the Christmas tree that she wants, unaware of what kind of tree it is - one that'd get an elephant drunk for two days if it ate it!
To be fair, there is humour in this book, though most of it is mocking and taking advantage of the African's perceived ignorance. Hemingway has devised his own religion, and makes up the rules as he goes along. He means to portray himself as sympathetic and understanding to the situation in Africa, but he's still very superior (and, as I mentioned before, taking advantage of them).
The prose is rather interesting - he's written it with continuous use of the run-on sentence, which gives it a childlike quality. He sounds younger than he is, almost naive at times. You know the kind of writing I mean - here's an example:
I wanted to say that I felt good and very relaxed and a little sleepy and did not feel much like talking and would have prefered fresh meat to spaghetti but had not wished to kill anything and that I was worried about all three of my children for different causes and that I was worried about the Shamba and I was a little worried about G.C. and quite worried about Mary and that I was a fake as a good witch doctor, but no more a fake that the others were, and that I wished Mr. Singh would keep out of trouble and that I hoped the operation we were committed in as from Christmas Day would go well and that I had some more 220 grain solids and that Simenon would write fewer and better books. (page 137-8)
Maybe he was trying to capture the simplicity and raw natural qualities of Africa, to reflect the place in the prose, but if so I don't think it's a good match at all. In readability terms, it makes it often quite difficult, to know who is the subject of the sentence, and what he was talking about at the beginning because by the time you get to the end you've forgotten.
There was also a section where I got very frustrated and angry and if I didn't treasure books so much may have gone all Office Space on it: after Mary's anticlimactic lion-shooting, which upsets her, Hemingway seems irritated by her reaction and starts talking about a time on a Reservation in the US where he shot his horse and then lay in wait under some junipers, killing a bear and several eagles that come along to eat the horse. He talks about this like we should think he's Mr Sensitive. I couldn't follow what he was talking about very well at all, to be frank. It didn't make much sense. I was also confused by him talking about eagles being condemned - I would've thought they'd be protected. I'm sure in Australia they are. Maybe they weren't in the early 20th century?
Regardless, there are some parts where he gets quite introspective and philosophical, which mostly make sense; and others where he takes the piss out of the natives in stretches of dialogue where it becomes hard to tell who's speaking; and yes, he is terrible at writing women. He spends no time understanding Debba, who seems to have no personality whatsoever, and Mary is as he sees her, which is superficially. He also mentions a girl he fancies back home (he's quite the womaniser), who has "great Negroe legs". Yes, it's rather dated.
For all that, I kinda enjoyed it, but I should have given myself more time to read it because although it's short in length, it's a slow read, and sometimes confusing, and plenty of times provoking. Apparently it's a rather controversial book - I came across some "reviews" by Hemingway fans that essentially said this book should never have been published. But I don't know why not. Perhaps because too many people hated it and it makes the rest of his work look bad?? Still, I love this cover, it's very light and fresh and really situates the story well. (less)