I won this memoir from the First Reads program. I was excited to receive a copy because I love memoirs and this particular one piqued my interest. Goi...moreI won this memoir from the First Reads program. I was excited to receive a copy because I love memoirs and this particular one piqued my interest. Going in, I knew very little about Tibet other than some scattered impressions gathered from the periodic popularity surges of the “Free Tibet” movement here in the United States. I enjoyed this easy read. Its structure as a multigenerational memoir was interesting and well done. I appreciated that Brauen isn’t an apologist for the unattractive aspects of Tibetan culture as it is probably easy for exiles (especially those a generation removed) to look back with nostalgia’s distorting lens.
Yangzom Brauen has a Tibetan mother and Swiss father and although she’s spent most of her life in the West, her mother and maternal grandmother wee born in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. The three women’s experiences and attitudes fit on different places in the East-West spectrum. Her grandmother, Kunsang, spent her time in Tibet serving as a devout Buddhist nun who rather unconventionally fell in love with a Buddhist monk. Even in the several countries Kunsang has lived in since her flight over the Himalayas, she has retained her devotion to Buddhism and incorporates many of the Tibetan traditions she grew up with into her daily life thousands of miles away. Yangzom’s mother, Sonam was born in Tibet but has spent most of her life in India and Europe. Sonam is not particularly Buddhist, but retains her cultural roots. Yangzom has secular Western attitudes but her Tibetan heritage is a source of great pride and she is active in the Tibetan exile community abroad.
Across Many Mountains covers almost an hundred years of Tibetan history as told through Yangzom’s family’s experiences. This memoir is rich in details about Tibetan life before and after Chinese occupation and the author writes about her great grandmother’s traditional sky burial with the same finesse as she describes the daily drudgery facing her mother and grandmother as Tibetan exiles in India. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is that Kunsang and her family appear to be typical Tibetans. Many of the memoirs I have read written by exiles from various strife filled countries represent the country’s more privileged classes with the money and wherewithal to leave the country relatively comfortably and safely. Kunsang and her husband hiked over the Himalayans with two young children with very little provisions or a plan for their arrival in India; they didn’t board the last plane out or use student visas to escape their war torn country. Every refugee’s story deserves to be heard, but there is something thrilling and inspiring about Kunsang’s poor families setting out in one of the harshest climates of the world to an uncertain fate.
I think what surprised me most about this book is the revelation that Tibetan culture really sucked in a lot of ways. Before I read this book, my knowledge of Tibetan culture began at the Dali Lama and ended at prayer flags (throw in yaks and snow and you’ve got all my synapses dedicated to Tibet). Both the Dali Lama and prayer flags are bright, joyous, friendly things that beloved by friendly hippies in American college towns, leaving me with the superficial impression that Tibetan life was sunshine and butterflies. To learn that the unifying feature of Tibetan life for the last millennia seems to be the acceptance of unending drudgery capped by a probably early death was a bit of a shocker for me. What was even more shocking was the information that it particularly sucked to be a Tibetan woman. I thought that Buddhism was a fairly egalitarian religion as religions go so I raised my eyebrows when I read about Kunsang’s experiences as a Tibetan woman and Buddhist nun.
Tibet’s harsh living conditions also imbibe its citizens with a quiet sense of self-sufficiency and although they may resign themselves to the life fate has given them, their acceptance that life is hard also gives them great resilience. I recently ventured out with my daughter for a three mile walk on sidewalks in forty degree weather and that felt like quite the trek with a stroller and the two of us warmly bundled up. My high fructose corn syrup fueled ass couldn’t make it several hundred feet hiking through the Tibetan mountains with the supplies Kunsang and her husband carried with children in tow. I find Kunsang’s resignation to her hard life as a Tibetan woman contrasted with her unbelievable resilience fascinating.
Across Many Mountains dragged on in several spots and like many translated works, some passages made me scratch my head a bit. But I can see this family’s saga engaging many readers, both those with a compelling interest in Tibet and memoir lovers like myself. Another good read for people who enjoyed this book is Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World, a memoir written by a member of a different minority group living under modern China’s rule.
I won this historic fiction novel about the Iranian Revolution from First Reads. It’s from a smaller press (or maybe self-published, I’m not sure). I...moreI won this historic fiction novel about the Iranian Revolution from First Reads. It’s from a smaller press (or maybe self-published, I’m not sure). I don’t think I’ve read anything about the Iranian revolution except for Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood but the topic of Muslim women is fascinating to me and the reason why I entered to win a copy.
Leila is a typical upper class Iranian girl (and later woman) enjoying her life in her native Iran somewhere between Islamic traditions and modernity’s beguiling tugs. Her mother wants Leila to follow the proscribed path of a young arranged marriage leading into submissive Muslim wifehood and motherhood while her father wishes for her to have the opportunities for education and self-fulfillment her older brother enjoys. Leila is able to pursue a post-secondary education at a small liberal arts college in America. Leila is studying there when the Ayatollah’s rise to power keeps her from returning home for most of her school vacations. During her time in the United States, she favors a secular life with American friends over associating with the more traditional Muslim student society. She dates and falls deeply in love with an American man, involved in a frustratingly unnamed “Christian community.” The couple deals with backlash from their respective religious communities that eventually tears them apart. The breakup coupled with a family tragedy convinces Leila to return to a deeply changed Iran after her graduation. She adjusts to a new Tehran where women are veiled by law and spouses carry their marriage licenses with them in the street to escape punishment for interacting with the opposite sex. Leila agrees to an arranged marriage that is ultimately unhappy and her life takes another downward spiral when her beloved parents are forced into exile in France to escape the regime. Leila is imprisoned and abused until she is able to make a dramatic escape herself to be reunited with her parents in Paris where she rebuilds her life far away from the religious fundamentalism that scars her ancestral nation.
Most of the characters seemed a little flat to me. It’s obvious the author had a story to tell about her native Iran but the characters used as vehicles to tell the story were not always relatable and compelling. The characters often acted in ways contrary to how they were described with no real explanation of the contradictions. I also was really confused about the “Christian community” Jack engaged in. Its characteristics didn’t sound like any contemporary group I’m familiar with and it would have added a great sense of reality if this group was named. Ultimately, I would recommend this book to people wishing to know more about Iran’s turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s but not so much to people looking for a novel with a strong plot and characters. (less)