Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun

Title: Half of A Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Year: 2006
Rating: A-
Country: Nigeria
Pages: 435 pgs. Book From: Public Library

I read Half of A Yellow Sun for my Reading Across Borders challenge. Travelling on from Austria, I hop across the Strait of Gibraltar, trekking across the Sahara to eventually arrive in Nigeria. I arrive in 1960's Nsukka, a small university town in the southeastern, largely Igbo region. Once there, I meet Odenigbo, a Nigerian professor; Olanna, his mistress who is from an elite Nigerian family; and Ugwu, a village boy that is employed as a houseboy in Odenigbo's home.

1960's Nigeria is one of turmoil. This epic story follows the plight of Odenigbo, Olanna, and Ugwu, as they are caught in the middle of the Biafran War. Following discrimination and massacres against Igbo in northern Nigeria, the south-eastern provinces of Nigeria seceeded to form their own nation of Biafra. What follows, both in history and this novel, is a brutal civil war in which hundreds of thousands lose their homes, are forced to flee numerous times, and ultimately face starvation and disease.

As Caribousmom has said, this is not a feel good novel. It is a novel about the realities of a post-colonial nation burdened by distinctions of class, race, and ethnicity. It is a novel about the horrors of war. It is a novel about death and destruction. That Chimamanda portrays such devestating topics with such depth, clarity, and compassion, is a sign of a masterpiece. And ultimately, in many ways, it is a story about love and survival.

On the creation of Biafra and secession from Nigeria:
"Olanna watched them and realized with a sweet surge that they all felt what she felt, what Odenigbo felt, as though it were liquid steel instead of blood that flowed through their veins, as though they could stand barefoot over red-hot embers."
The moment when regular people become refugees:
"Evacuate now! The federals have entered Nsukka! We are evacuating now! Right now! I am going to all the houses occupied. Evacuate now!"... "Gini? What things?" Olanna asked "What will I take?" Baby started to cry. There was the sound again, boom-boom-boom, closer and louder. "It won't be long, we'll be back soon. Just take a few things, clothes." Master gestured vaguely before he grabbed the car keys from the shelf.

On class distinction:
She hoped Professor Achara had found them accommodation close to other university people so that Baby would have the right kind of children to play with.

On war:
He writes about the world that remained silent while Biafrans died...In the United States, Biafra was "under Britain's sphere of interest." In Canada, the prime minister quipped, "Where is Biafra?" The Soviet Union sent technicians and planes to Nigeria, thrilled at the chance to influence Africa without offending America or Britain. And from their white-supremacist positions, South Africa and Rhodesia gloated at further proof that black-run governments were doomed to failure.
"The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Non-fiction 5 Challenge


Here is my hopefully final list. Since I have already read Aman, and plan to read Desert Flower soon, I'm replacing these with two other books, both on my TBR challenge list.

Thank god this challenge isn't starting for a few months, or I might become challenged out.

This could change at the drop of a hat, as I might read some of these books before April. But, right now my five books are:
1. Aman: The Story of a Somali Girl by Virginia Lee Barnes
2. Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie

1. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
2. Survival in Auschwitz - Primo Levi
3. Jihad vs McWorld by Benjamin Barber
4. The Great Influenza by John Barry
5. Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead

Aman: The Story of A Somali Girl

Title: Aman: The Story of A Somali Girl
Author: As told to Virginia Lee Barnes and Jance Boddy
Year: 1994
Rating: B
Pages: 349 pgs. Book From: Public Library

"Somalia has been without a central government since its last president, dictator Mohamed Siyaad Barre, fled the country in 1991. To date, there have been 14 efforts at national reconciliation."
-U.S. Bureau for African Affairs, Feb. 2007

"Around four or five in the morning we heard a big noise I had never heard before, like an earthquake. The whole house was shaking. It was the noise of the military tanks going by outside to arrest the ministers. In the middle of the night, Siyaad Barre, a young man who was in the military, had taken over the country...I know the military were very bad. Even the police were bad. Ever since that policeman had grabbed me off the street and thrown me in jail, I hated the police. I knew what they were like, and the military was worse than the police."
- Aman

As a human rights and refugee activist, one of my ongoing frustrations is the lack of attention paid to the political vacuum that is currently Somalia. Not only is it ignored by the vast majority of news outlets and government bodies, it is ignored by various human rights organizations as well [searching Human Rights Watch's website for reports on Somalia only brings up a handful, the most recent in 2004; only 5 reports dated after 1995, nothing from 1995-2000]. Considering myself somewhat knowledgeable and aware of Somali current events, I never quite understood the history behind what has happened in recent history, or what it was like for those who grew up in Somalia prior to the 1980's.

Then I met Aman. Figuratively, that is. Her story is one of a woman growing up in Somalia in the 1950's and 60's. It is one story, and should not be taken as the norm for Somali women of her generation. It should also not be seen as particularly unusual circumstances. Many events in her young life are reflected in the lives of others. Her story is told in the way of her culture, through oral storytelling to Virginia Lee Barnes, and later, Janice Boddy.

Owing to the rich oral storytelling tradition in Somalia, and Aman's raw talent, she relates the details of her childhood in amazingly detailed and believeable accounts. Aman struggles from an early age with the norms of her culture. Although willingly undergoing an infibulation circumcision, she balks at most other gender-scripted tasks required of her. In many ways, she behaves in a similar manner to teenage girls the world over: she rebels, runs away, sulks, throws tantrums, and does everything else in her power to get her way. Unlike many teens however, what she is rebelling from is astounding: at age 11 she is forbidden from an innocent relationship with an Italian boy; at 13 she is given away in arranged marriage to a man more than four times her age. Aman survives on her wits in Mogadishu, using her sexuality as a rebellion against many of the expectations and social norms of traditional Somali culture. She finally flees Somalia after the military coup makes life in the city even more treacherous.

Aman's story is all the more poignant for her unabashed straightforwardness. She does not apologize for her actions that were selfish, but through her story presents a clear reminder of the victimization and oppression of women around the world.

One of the more shocking descriptions for me was Aman's defense of female circumsion (what I refer to as female genital mutilation).

"You know, Rahima, I've heard many Europeans, many white people no matter where they come from, they're trying to educate Africans about circumcision. But would they accept it if I educated them to circumcise? This is my culture, my religion, and I don't believe another nation can take away another nation's culture. If Somali women change, it will be a change done by us, among us. When they order us to stop, tell us what we must do, it is offensive to the black person or the Muslim person who believes in circumcision. To advise is good, but not to order."

Although my opinion about FGM has not changed, thank you Aman for allowing me to view the issue from a different perspective.

And, one more quote:
"Mama and I slept side by side on a wooden bed. There was only one sheet, and she always made sure she covered me with it. It was no problem. But some nights, I thought of the spring bed I had in the hospital. If people had money, they bought those. They could also have tables and more dishes, with maybe a radio, and everything clean. I wanted that. But we didn't have it and it didn't bother me. I was happy with what we had. I knew we were poor."

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Book Thing

Thanks to A Work in Progress for the inspiration for the following post.

After a visit to The Book Thing in Baltimore on Sunday, I came back with some great finds. All-in-all I came away with 26 books that I have been wanting to read, or books I have read and loved but do not own.

The Book Thing is a wonderful resource, and I hope more cities pick up on a good thing. Their mission is simple, to put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them. Just imagine the thrill of walking into a used bookstore, browsing thousands and thousands of titles. Picking out some cherished favorites, you step over to the counter and record how many books will be leaving with you, smile and say thank you, and go home in utter bliss. It's like a library, except the books can be loaned out forever with no late fees! No pretensions, no admonishments for taking so many books, no requests for financial support. The quiet assumption is that whenever you are able, feel free to bring some books back to share with others. It works. The owner, Russell Wattenberg, says that an average weekend will see 10,000 books walk out of the unheated mini warehouse. For charm city, this is truly one of its greatest, and quietest charms. For every 10,000 that leave, another 10,000 are on their way in. Donations come from all over: rich families, poor families, couples moving in together and combining their books for the first time, public libraries (in a subversive and secretive way to get around beauracratic nastiness), and many many more. During the week, The Book Thing delivers books to public schools, shelters, prisons, basically, anywhere and everywhere books are needed.

So, after my most recent visit, I came away with some wonderful finds, with my favorites pictured above. Darling Isabel stands guard, admonishing me for not picking up any books by her namesake, Isabel Allende. Perusing the classics shelves I came across an old, worn copy of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. It was love at first sight. After picking up three more classics, Little Women, A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Scarlet Letter, I sauntered over to the Recommended Fiction shelves. Separated from general fiction, these are the books that are currently popular. And boy, did I get some great books! My eye quickly spotted Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Geraldine Brooks' March (to go along with Little Women, of course!) in near-perfect condition - I was elated! Books that have been turned into movies seems to have been a theme for the day as I grabbed The Hours by Michael Cunningham and In Her Shoes by Jennifer Garner. Right next door on the mystery shelves, I was elated to find H,K,O,P and Q of Sue Grafton's Alphabet series.

I spent the next hour browsing the general fiction shelves. I came away with:

  • A Patchwork Planet, by Baltimore's very own Anne Tyler
  • Say When by Elizabeth Berg
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (I read this a few years ago but never owned a copy)
  • The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
  • Tough Guys Don't Dance by Norman Mailer
  • Lasher by Anne Rice
  • Cujo by Stephen King
  • For my mom: Labryinth by Kate Mosse and Puerto Vallarta Squeeze by Robert James Waller
I am in book heaven.

As for my current TBR book, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, it's a tosser. Two challenges can not motivate me to finish this book.

The readability of the book is not the problem. But, it makes me so bloody melancholy for no apparent reason! Ayn Rand is not a novelist, she is a philosopher. I disagree with her philosophy, and I'm not about to torture myself by finishing this lengthy oratory of her
ideals with a shoddy plot, stilted dialogue, and unlikeable characters. I believe she may be one of the most over-hyped writers of the 20th century, and one of the few well-known female authors that I DID NOT LIKE.

I think I will be subsititing my alternate Untangling My Chopsticks by
Victoria Riccardi on my TBR list. But first I will read Half of A Yellow Sun, as I'm pretty sure I'm going to like this book. And that is after I finish Aman, by Virginia Lee Barnes and Janice Brody.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Mango Season - Amulya Malladi

Title: The Mango Season
Author: Amulya Malladi
Rating: B-
Pages: 229 pgs.

The storyline is nothing particularly imaginative. Priya has lived in America for the last seven years and finally embarks on a long-overdue visit home to Hyderabad, India. She comes home bearing gifts and a secret: an American fiancee. The story largely consists the few days in her visit when she struggles to tell her family about her new life, and new love.

I was not very impressed. I got the strong impression that Amulya does not look highly upon her homeland. I know what it is like to live out away from your country of origin for years at a time. You don't forget your culture that quickly, as Priya supposedly did. She struggles in a salwar kameez and other components of everyday life were not very believeable.

All of the stereotypical components were present: arranged marriages, racism, prejudice, caste system, gender discrimination. To include such highly controversial topics, the novel remained overwhelmingly superficial. I was particularly disappointed in the lack of complexity and depth that Amulay gave Priya's mother. She was present in most scenes, yet at the end of the novel I barely knew her at all. I don't think it would be a good thing if this book was read by someone who had never read an Indian novel, and knew nothing about Indian culture. It's not a good starting point.

What redeemed the story, and garnered my decent rating, was its descriptions in the kitchen. Much of the novel takes place in Priya's Ammamma's home, while creating delicious dishes utilizing the abundant mangos at the height of the mango season (except I thought mango season was May, not July?). It was a delight to partake in the juicy and tasty descriptions of a group of women getting together to make mango pickle. My mouth watered while reading about a summer lunch consisting of avial, pappu, potato curry, rice, and cold yogurt. Mmmm. The recipe additions were a nice touch. It made me miss the great meals I had while visiting Madras in Tamil Nadu. It is hard to find South Indian cuisine here.

"'Are you saying my mangoes are bad?' Ma asked instantly, her eyes blazing, a knife held firmly in her hand. Warrior Pickle Woman was ready to defend her mangoes."

"The man was a bigot, racist, a chauvinist, and generally too arrogant for anyone's liking, yet I loved him. Family never came in neat little packages with warranty signs on them."

"India was not just a country you visited, it was a country that sank into your blood and stole a part of you."

New words learned:
Idli: A snack popular in South Indian states. The batter is usually made from pulses or rice and often paired with sambar or chutney.
Bidi: Smaller than a cigarette, bidi's are made of tobacco wrapped in a tendu leaf.
Mallepullu: fresh jasmine

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February 13 in Literature

Snagged from ReadySteadyBook , on the evening of this day in 1945, British and U.S. planes began the 48-hour bombing of Dresden, Germany. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is the most famous fictional record of what resulted -- a firestorm that destroyed 85% of the city and killed 135,000 people.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Rating: A-
Pages: 335

Jacob Jankowsi is ninety. Or ninety-three. He has lived a fulfilling life, yet is plagued by someone else's secret. Her secret is the story of this novel, told from Jacob's perspective. At the age of twenty-three, after the tragic death of his parents, Jacob flees veterinary school at Cornell and hops aboard the train of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Hired to care for the animals, such begins a story of a varied group of people and animals, trying to make their way through the height of the Great Depression. Being kicked off the show means certain homelessness, and possible starvation.

Jacob meets a variety of characters that make the novel such a treat: Walter and Queenie, a dwarf clown performer and his dog; Marlena, one of the star performers; Camel, a baggage stock bloke who has run into some bad luck; Rosie, a loyal elephant and loving to those who treat her right; Rex the toothless lion, and many many more.

The story flows back and forth between the young 1920's Jacob and the present-day, cantankerous and feisty Old Jacob. Sara Gruen does a wonderful job of whisking you away to the world of the circus in the 1920's, and her meticulous research shines through. The animals really make this story, which is why the scenes of neglect become so heart-wrenching (especially if you are like moi, an animal lover). The ending was absolutely perfect, which ends in the present day with Old Jacob, but that's all I'm going to say.

More than anything, this story resurfaced my unfulfilled wish of being able to go back and time and talk to my grandmother about her life. After severe bouts of depression and numerous ECT treatments (when ECT was still very problematic), by grandmother was unable to recover many of her memories. Which also brings me to one of the few minor discrepancies in the novel. My grandmother was diagnosed as bipolar, which she was not (she did have major depressive disorder-the most common mental illness among elderly). August, the equestrian director and Marlena's husband, is described as paranoid schizophrenic. Yet, the term "schizophrenia" only began to be used after 1911, and the subset "paranoid schizophrenia" appeared officially in the DSM III in the 1980's. Small detail, as August very well could have been paranoid schizophrenic, but I'm highly doubtful that the circus manager would have known that in the 1920's. And now I'll push my psychology education back into its little compartment now. :)

My favorite quotes:
"I don't talk much about those days. Never did. I don't know why--I worked on circuses for nearly seven years, and if that isn't fodder for conversation, I don't know what is.
Actually, I do know why: I never trusted myself. I was afraid I'd let it slip. I knew how important it was to keep her secret, and keep it I did--for the rest of her life, and beyond. In seventy years, I've never told a blessed soul."

"The memory of last night htis me like a wrecking ball. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to force my mind to go blank, but it won't. The more distressing the memory, the more persistent its presence."

"Walter and Camel spend the night making the noises men make when they're trying not to cry, and I spend the night punching my pillow up around my ears trying not to hear them."

"August marches off. I turn back to Rosie. She stares at me, a look of unspeakable sadness on her face. Her amber eyes are filled with tears."

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Face Behind the Veil - Donna Gehrke-White

Title: The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America
Author: Donna Gehrke-White
Pages: 299
Rating: B

The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America gives us a glimpse of the everyday lives of American Muslim women from all walks of life. The stories of African-Americans, white suburban housemoms, refugees, career-driven professionals, community activists, and others form the basis of this book with a series of 50 essays interviewing 50 different women.

In theory, this is a great book. It celebrates the initiatives many Muslim women (singular: Muslimah) have taken to stay true to their faith, many times in the face of adversity. We learn about women who are working for reform within Islam to allow men and women to pray side by side at the mosque; women that stand strong in their efforts to foster tolerance and understanding between different faiths and cultures; women who found peace and happiness in converting, and women who had the strength to leave everything behind in order to survive. Their stories are touching, and poignant.

Yet, there is a lot I did not like about this book, which I view as mainly a weakness on the author's part. My main criticisms:
1. The author included stories about 50 women in a book that is just under 300 pages. That is an average of 6 pgs/person. I felt that many of the stories were very superficially researched. I believe more justice could have been done to this topic by focusing more intensively and analytically on a smaller number of case studies. Furthermore, this "skimming the surface" approach opens the book up to criticism, especially when so many of the stories involve negative situations.
2. This book is about a celebration of Muslim women. I am confused as to why the author chose to include a chapter on a woman who was Christian, converted to Islam, then became a born-again Christian and a minister. She blamed her domestic violence situation on Islam, and, as a Christian minister, has started a non-profit to help Muslim women. Her story is no less important and valid, but I think it detracts from the purpose of this book.
3. In the section on "The Persecuted", there was only one story of an African Muslim refugee. Yet, the largest numbers of refugees currently admitted to the US are from Africa, and many are Muslim.
4. You are a journalist! You have an editor! Yet, the number of grammatical mistakes I found were astounding, and I wasn't even looking for them!

With all of that said, the profound and inspiring stories of the women interviewed still manage to shine through, which is why I still gave this book a fairly decent rating. It shows the positive power of diversity.

In some ways, this book is similar to a non-fiction book idea I am currently doing some preliminary research on, that of the experiences of refugee women in America. No one yet has turned my specific idea into a book, but I probably better speed up my plan!

In my new habit of tying other aspects of my life into the book that I am reading, I made a favorite recipe of mine, that was given to me by a good friend who is a Muslim woman from Kuwait.

Lebanese Mashed Potatoes with Meat (I don't know the real name for this):
4 lg potatos, boiled
2 T butter
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp salt

1 onion, chopped
1/2 lb lamb meat
Lebanese spice mix (Baharat: composed of black pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamon)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 small can mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp allspice

2 T butter, cut in small pieces
Bread crumbs

Mash potatoes with butter, salt, and milk. Prepare filling. Fry meat with Baharat spice mix. Add onions and fry till golden brown. Add pine nuts and mushrooms, fry well. Spread 1/2 of potato mixture in the bottom of a greased pan. Add in the filling, and cover with the rest of the potato mixure. Dot with butter and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 250F for 25 min. Cut in squares, serve, enjoy!

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Accidental Tourist - Anne Tyler

Title: The Accidental Tourist
Author: Anne Tyler
Rating: A-

Macon Leary comes from a methodical and efficient family. His sister, Rose, organizes her food pantry alphabetically (E for elbow macaroni) and irons her brothers' socks . His brothers insist at eating at 5.30 sharp each night. Macon himself writes travel guides for people who did not like to travel, but are forced to do so for business, helping them to pretend they never left home.

Macon and Sarah's marriage crumbles after their son is killed in a random incident. Macon is thrust into an unknown world in an effort to re-discover himself (while remaining sheltered by his move-in with his sister and brothers). Pursued by a flighty yet determined dog trainer, Muriel, Macon sets of on a journey to discover how to live life, not just plod along quietly.

I was delighted when, a few pages in, I discovered this book was written by a Baltimore-based author, and took place in Baltimore itself. Familiar settings jumped out at me. Roland Park, the neighborhood Macon lives, is 10 minutes away from my own. Muriel's mother lives in Timonium, the suburb that I go to for pet food and REI. The delight remained, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this bittersweet, heartwarming story.

Since my book includes discussion questions, I have decided to answer a few.
1. Would you characterize yourself as an accidental tourist in your own life?
Yes and No. Largely no. There are many decisions I have made in my life that went against the grain of my family, and sometimes society, rather than letting life "happen to me". But there are other times that I am an accidental tourist, staying within my comfort zone.

2. What kind of traveler are you? Would you find Macon's guides helpful?
I would not find a use for Macon's travel guides at all. When I travel, I do rely on travel books, but not to keep me "in America". I travel to experience other cultures, food, people, etc. I love to try new things, go off the beaten path, and meet new people. I would never ever eat at a chain restaurant on a vacation (I don't eat there at home, either! Local business only for us.). I found it amusing that towards the end of the novel, Muriel was more adept at getting around Paris and conversing with the locals than Macon.

5. Macon's style of mourning offends many people, including his wife. Do their complaints have any merit?
I think many societies have an "acceptable" method that people should grieve. When their style of grieving varies from the norm, many people don't understand, and some are offended. I feel a person should grieve in whatever way is most natural for them. If you conform your feelings to societal standards, then you are undermining your own process in moving past your grief. No, I don't think their complaints had any merit.

6. Do you think any of the couples in this novel stand a chance?
Yes. I think Rose and Julian are in for a lifetime of happiness. Although I don't like Muriel, I believe she is right for Macon at this point in his life. I don't know if that will last. I turned against her when she quit her job and started pressuring Macon financially.

Macon Leary on flying:
"Always bring a book as protection against strangers. Magazines don't last. Newspapers from home will make you homesick and newspapers from elsewhere will remind you you don't belong. You know how alien another paper's typeface seems."

Macon's brothers take on the inner workings of a pet's mind:
"Animals!" he said brightly. "Ever considered what they must think of us? I mean, here we come back from the grocery store with the most amazing haul--chicken, pork, half a cow. We leave at nine and we're back at ten, evidently having caught an entire herd of beasts. They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth!"

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Two new book acquisitions

This weekend brought two new books to add to my collection:
1. Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam by Asra Q. Nomani
2. Links by Nuruddin Farah

Standing Alone, an early birthday gift from a good friend, is about a single mother who is Muslim, and embarks on the pilgrimmage to Mecca with her infant son. She also happens to be a friend of Daniel Pearl (the American reporter kidnapped and killed a few years ago in Pakistan). The hajj becomes her journey of empowerment. It looks like a really interesting book.

The second book, Links, I picked up at Daedalus Bookstore in Belvedere Square, one of my favorite eating and food shopping destinations in Baltimore. Written by Nuruddin Farah, he tells the fictionalized story of a Somali man, Jeebleh, and his journey from New York back to his homeland, Mogadishu, Somalia for the first time in 20 years. The story takes place in the 90's, not that long after the American peacekeepers up and left.

I am very tempted to skip the Super Bowl party and be a hermit, reading all night. :)