Reading recommendations …
… by Susanne Dominguez
You can’t speed read any of Nobel laureate and Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison’s novels because they are so rich with symbolism and profound depth. God Help the Child is a powerful story that must be read, digested, and reflected upon again and again. The book begins with the statement, “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me.” The core of the novel is about how the trauma of emotional and physical child abuse impacts and is internalized by abused children in their adult life and how their adult behavior is influenced by their hurtful past. It skillfully discusses universal themes such as parent/child relationships, forgiveness, responsibility, and the many aspects of love. Lula Ann Bridewell, later called Bride, is a successful and beautiful woman who feels unlovable because her mother, Sweetness, hates her for being ” midnight black, Sudanese black” instead of having a lighter skin, as she has. In the tradition of Morrison’s devastating first novel The Bluest Eye, she packs penetrating messages in this haunting, often painful, but beautifully crafted novel.
The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
Author Josh Hanagarne has a way with words, an exceptional sense of humor, writes with endearing frankness, and is a dedicated Salt Lake City librarian. “But while we may never find a specific, actionable solution, a good library’s existence is a potential step forward for a community. If hate and fear have ignorance at their core, maybe the library can curb their effects, if only by offering ideas and neutrality. It’s a safe place to explore, to meet with other minds, to touch other centuries, religions, races, and learn what you truly think about the world.” Hanagarne is 6 ‘7″ and suffers from Tourette Syndrome. An autistic weight lifter and former Iraq prison guard helped Hanagarne manage his challenging and debilitating tics through strength- and weight-training — hence the book’s title. He openly discusses his struggles with his Mormon faith, Tourette’s, and the obstacles he overcame to become a librarian and raise a family, all in a witty yet serious manner. Although he eventually left his church, his discussions and conflicts about his faith were absorbing to me since I was unfamiliar with the Mormon religion. Hanagarne is the eternal optimist, and his first book is both candid and exhilarating.
Initially I became bogged down reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and didn’t finish it. However, a dear friend urged me to complete it, assuring me it was worth it. And it absolutely is ! Two separate stories, seemingly unrelated, are ingeniously woven together as you move through the book. The stories occur in Germany and France before and during WWII and involve an object of inestimable value, a young blind girl, and two orphaned siblings. I don’t want to disclose more, other than to state this enchanting story, filled with adventure, history, and mystery will sweep you off your feet.
Dr. Hawa Abdi, a lawyer and one of the first gynecologists in her country of Somalia, is often called the Somalian Mother Teresa. After attending medical school on a scholarship in the Soviet Union, she has devoted her life to combating famine and poverty in Somalia and has focused on providing medical assistance and educational opportunities to her people. On her farm she once housed over 90,000 refugees displaced by civil war. She and her daughters, who also became physicians, established a hospital at their farm. In 2010 and again in 2012 militant rebels destroyed most of the hospital and terrorized Dr. Abdi and her clinic. Her achievements over the past 24 years amid dire violence from civil war are awe-inspiring, as are her courage and indomitable spirit. Dr. Abdi eventually established the nonprofit Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, which includes a hospital, medical clinic, and school. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the cultural and political history of Somalia in this informative and impressive memoir.
This monumental maritime adventure novel chronicles the life of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the legendary HMS Beagle, his celebrated passenger Charles Darwin, and their famed voyage of exploration to the southern tip of South America. Twenty-three year old FitzRoy took command of the ship after the original captain committed suicide. A man of faith, FitzRoy believed in the sacredness of human beings. He considered himself to be an explorer, not a conqueror or colonialist, and believed all people were equal. Darwin believed in the superiority of Western over indigenous cultures. FitzRoy and Darwin initially became good friends, but later due to their opposing world views the friendship dissolved. The novel’s scope is immense. Masterfully written and well researched, To the Edge of the World is filled with fascinating details about 19th-century history, naval history, and the exotic fauna and flora observed during the expedition.
The Painter is a suspenseful, introspective story about Jim Stegner, a flawed human being who has a good heart but poor anger control and is prone to violence. He is a passionate artist and avid fly fisherman who finds peace while painting and fishing. Nature and art play an integral part of the novel. Stegner seeks redemption and escape through art and nature from the guilt and grief he has as a result of his teenage daughter’s death, a bar shooting, and his divorce. The story unfolds in Colorado when Stegner encounters a man brutally beating a horse. Stegner intervenes, rescues and steals the horse, the horse’s owner consequently vows revenge, a man is murdered, and Stegner becomes a hunted man. Stegner, who just wanted to fish and paint, unwillingly becomes part of a dangerous cat-and-mouse game. He divides his time between Colorado and New Mexico, particularly Santa Fe since his art dealer is located there. El Farol, Ten Thousand Waves, and the St. Francis Hotel are among some notable Santa Fe sites mentioned.
Stegner is a visceral yet sensitive artist who paints in an expressionist style intended to elicit the viewer’s emotions. Throughout the book the character discusses how art affects him, and specifically certain works, such as Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937 to protest Germany’s bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. “I think of Guernica, the painting. The knife in the horse. A story I read once by one of the Russians, maybe Chekhov, a man beating a horse. How seeing it happen is so much worse. A big man wreaking his anger on a tied horse who cannot even beg.”
The Painter is a provocative novel with shades of gray, no definitive right or wrong, and can be read and understood as a deeper, philosophical story that moves you in a way that is distinctly different from reading it solely as an interesting plot. The prose is lyrical, especially the descriptions of Colorado and New Mexico scenery.
This eye-opening historical account tells the story of how three audacious siblings from a French family participated in the French resistance and risked death fighting the Nazis during the German occupation in France. The last surviving member of the family, Christiane, described what life under the occupation and the Vichy government was like for her, her family, and other French citizens. Ranging from ages 17 to 25 , André, Christiane, and Jacqueline Boulloche performed numerous heroic acts. The family kept silent for decades because of traumatic events they experienced, but eventually the author, an American whose uncle lived with two of the sisters in 1944 and who has known them for over 50 years, convinced them to tell their valiant story. He also hopes the book will raise Americans’ awareness of the instrumental role the French resistance had during World War II, for instance regarding the Normandy D-Day landings.
Red Notice is a spine-tingling narrative about the Kremlin’s takeover of one of the most prosperous private equity foreign investment firms operating in Russia in the 2000s. Bill Browder is an American financier and former hedge fund CEO of Hermitage Capital management. He became rich from investing in Russia during the 1990s. His Russian accountant, 37-year-old Sergi Magnitsky, discovered massive corruption by the Russians which led all the way to the Kremlin. Although threatened with violence, Magnitsky refused to leave Russia or recant his allegations, idealistically thinking Russian law would be upheld. He was later imprisoned and murdered while in custody. After continuing to investigate the corruption, Browder was labeled a threat to national security by the government, his firm was seized, he was convicted of tax evasion on fraudulent evidence, and was deported in 2005. The new owners of Browder’s firm (oligarchs and former members of the KGB, now known as the Federal Security Service, according to Browder) received a “tax rebate” of $230 million, and the money was transferred to shell companies. Two years later the fund was bankrupt.
Browder, a determined maverick, transformed himself after Magnitsky’s murder from hedge fund investor to a human rights advocate. He vowed to avenge Magnitsky’s death and find justice for him. Since he could no longer enter Russia, he decided to fight its human rights abuses by other means. He persuaded Congress to pass legislation freezing assets and denying/cancelling visas of Russians violating human rights. Browder successfully caused the creation of the 2012 Sergi Magnitsky Act by Congress. This was no easy feat. Officially known as the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, it gives the U.S. the authority to withhold visas and freeze financial assets of Russian officials thought to be involved with human rights violations. The Kremlin retaliated to this legislation by banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans, and a Russian court tried and convicted Magnitsky of fraud posthumously. The Kremlin also issued an “Interpol Red Notice” demanding the arrest and extradition of Browder. Browder was convicted in absentia to nine years in prison. The title, Red Notice, refers to “a roster of internationally wanted fugitives who can be extradited from nations of refuge to the countries where they will be tried for crimes.” This is a chilling, white-knuckle thriller that just happens to be true.
If you are interested in reading about history of the Southwest, the unrivaled, quintessential classic on the Rio Grande Valley is the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winner Great River. Great River is a brilliant saga beginning with the early Anasazi Pueblo people continuing on through the twentieth century. It explores the four primary cultures in the Southwest: Native American, Anglo, Mexican, and Spanish. Keep in mind the cultural and historical context at the time it was written. Great River is reminiscent of the outstanding Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, but it presents a more detailed account of the early history of the Southwest and focuses on the Rio Grande and its environs. A New Mexico resident, the author and historian was a former chairman of the Santa Fe Opera and alumnus of the New Mexico Military Institute. He won a second Pulitzer, also for history, for his book Lamy of Santa Fe.
Author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova has written another winner. Just as in her previous novels, Still Alice and Left Neglect, she writes an enlightening, heartfelt story. The main character, 44-year-old Joe O’Brien, is a dedicated Boston policeman, who is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a hereditary and incurable neurodegenerative disease. How he and his Irish Catholic family handle this heartbreaking news and come to terms with it are compelling. They must grapple with formidable issues: Do the adult children undergo genetic testing? Do they prefer to avoid knowing they may eventually struggle with this devastating disease? Do they decide to start a family? How does Joe, a devoted family man, manage to continue being a proud, protective, and loving father and husband? It’s a pensive story of a family’s strength and acceptance of a grievous situation. Not plot-driven, the characters are well developed. I felt as though I knew them and shared their pain and the reality of their circumstances. This is my favorite of Genova’s books, and although the subject matter is grim, it is an inspiring and emotionally rich read.
A wonderfully gripping and fast-paced National Book Award winning book, In the Heart of the Sea chronicles the nineteenth century disaster of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex. The Essex was attacked twice by an 85-foot, 80-ton sperm whale. The crew’s efforts to survive were stunning. The survivors endured sailing 4,500 miles at sea for three months. The tragedy was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. Like Moby Dick, In the Heart of the Sea is a story about the human spirit and the struggle to survive. Fascinating descriptions of whaling traditions and Nantucket’s history are interspersed throughout the narrative and enhance an already superb read. Nantucket was not only one of the wealthiest towns in the nation, it was also once the whaling capital of the nation. The author is an authority on Nantucket marine history, so readers can be assured of a factual account of the Essex’s last voyage. A movie based on the book and directed by Ron Howard was released to theaters in December.
Unable to renew her U.S. visa, British-born Pakistani physician Ahmed left the U.S. for a 2year stint at a medical facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. During her assignment, she discovered the Muslim religion she practiced was not the same as practiced or interpreted by the Wahabis, a strict Muslim sect and the state religion of the kingdom. In the book she contrasts the differences, which are edifying. Her engaging writing and personal insight and observations provide a fascinating story about the culture and religion non-Muslims would normally never know or understand. She describes the unique men and women she met while living in Riyadh. She also details her experiences during the pilgrimage she made to Mecca, known as the Hajj (a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims.) I was engrossed with her descriptions about this spiritual journey and the interactions she had with people she encountered. Ahmed returned to the U.S. after her contract ended, and according to her website, currently practices medicine in New York.
In this remarkable National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. They live in Nigeria which is governed by a dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country. Ifemelu, the protagonist, leaves for America on scholarship, a place she’s always dreamed of. Meanwhile Obinze cannot join her as planned because of 9/11 issues so he moves to London.
Americanah is a complex, touching love story about finding their “true selves.” The essence of the novel is about what it means to be human, to love, to succeed, to fail, to dream. It implies what supports us in life is not the things we do, but our relationships. Racism in America, another theme in the novel, offers much to be considered by readers. Ifemelu finds it surprising that the America depicted in movies is quite different than in actuality. In America, Ifemelu “discovers” she is “black” and what it means to be black in America. The nuances are so amusing and fascinating to her, she begins to write a blog titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks by a Non-American Black.”
A gifted writer, Adichie presents shrewd social commentary in a direct and often humorous manner about race in America. The book is based on her experiences living here.
The author narrates a harrowing true account of his rise to the highest level of government as an elite propagandist against South Korea, and as North Korea’s Poet Laureate. Being a member of the elite, he was provided with many privileges, such as additional food rations (from U.S. humanitarian aid intended for the poor). He also had access to South Korean books and other related information which ultimately caused him to question his government’s repressive total control. He describes some of the reasons he decided to escape such as witnessing people from his former villagers dying of starvation, while he and his colleagues had plenty to eat and enjoyed a satisfactory standard of living. Fortunately he was never captured or tortured. He describes his escape to South Korea, as well as the corruption in the totalitarian regime, and the contempt the Kim family has for human rights. A worthy and yet disturbing read, I reviewed this because the book I reviewed in February, Escape From Camp 14, while profoundly enlightening, later became associated with controversy because prison camp survivor, Shin Dong-hyuk, later changed portions of his story. Dear Leader is unique since it is written by an educated former member of the secretive Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party, which has absolute powers of surveillance. The author says the OGD, rather than the military, is the North’s true “engine of power.” Note: This book has also been published under the title My Escape From North Korea.
There are no little green space aliens in this riveting and campy story of survival on Mars. Astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars and assumed dead by his crew after a severe storm causes NASA to abort their mission. It turns out Mark is only injured, but cannot communicate this information to the crew or NASA. Ever resourceful, he hopes to survive until he is rescued. He records daily events in his logbook, such as finding solutions to life-threatening problems he encounters with malfunctioning equipment. He details a problem in scientific jargon, explaining technology and what happens if something isn’t working, what is required to make it work, and how he ingeniously repairs it or proposes to repair it. It’s not tedious by any means. You’ll learn some fascinating facts (really) about Mars, space travel, and even potatoes, among many other things, in a witty, irreverent manner.
Weir, who was hired at age fifteen as a programmer for a national laboratory, states he is “a lifelong space nerd.” The book originated in serials on his website. Since so many fans wanted to read it on their Kindles, he self-published it and sold it on Amazon for 99 cents. It became one of Amazon’s top five sci-fi bestsellers, and the rest is history. Weir reports he “received fan emails from astronauts, people in Mission Control, nuclear submarine technicians, chemists, physicists, geologists, and folks in pretty much every other scientific discipline. All of them had nice things to say about the book’s technical accuracy, though some of them also sent formal proofs where I’d gone wrong. I corrected those problems (mostly) in the final edition that went to print.” A movie based on the book was released in October with Matt Damon portraying Mark.
Oliver Sacks’ fascinating autobiography recounts his colorful and extraordinary life. A brilliant neurologist and author of illuminating books such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, he advocated for his patients, researched historical medical texts long considered out-of-date and useless in order to obtain an obscure medical diagnosis or treatment for patients, dealt with his own drug addiction, was passionate about riding his motorcycle, bucked conventional medical procedures, and with his immense intellect, creativity,and curiosity, pioneered innovative medical treatments. He was a profoundly compassionate and astute soul, a dare devil, and adventurer. Sacks had a medical condition which kept him from recognizing faces—face blindness. Perhaps this is a reason he related to others who suffered from neurological conditions such as autism and Tourette syndrome. He showed incredible sensitivity and respect towards his patients. He candidly shares painful personal struggles, as well as heartwarming experiences. The people and patients he interacted with and how they influenced him, along with his insights and intuition regarding perception and consciousness, make a captivating story. Sadly, Sacks died in August.
Joseph Anton is a stunning memoir of the thirteen years Salmon Rushdie spent in hiding and fear after a fatwa (an edict for a death sentence) was issued against him in 1989 as a result of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses. The fatwa stated, “All those involved in its publication who were aware of its content are sentenced to death.” The “incident of the satanic verses” refers to this story: The Prophet came down from the mountain and declared three winged female goddesses whose temples guarded the gates to the city to be divine. Later he recanted and stated he’d been deceived by Satan to include the lines and said the goddesses were not divine after all, that the satanic verses should be removed from the Koran immediately. He stated, “Shall God have daughters while you have sons? That would be an unjust division.” Most of the critics never read the book, and many critics never planned to read it. One person told Rushdie years later that he had organized demonstrations against him in England at the time, but “recently read the book and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.” “Joseph Anton” is the pseudonym Rushdie used when British security required him to use an alias. It is derived from his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Narrating in third person, Rushdie begins his extraordinarily candid memoir with learning of the fatwa issued against him by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini who considered the novel blasphemous. Rushdie discusses the years hiding under the 24/7 protection of British security and the impact on his private life: police lived with him in his home, television shows and national opinion polls asked if he should indeed be murdered, friends and family could only meet with him surreptitiously, airlines considered him a security risk and refused to fly him anywhere, and he was vilified by the media.
The first part of the book is a bit slow, so keep reading. It chronicles Rushdie’s life as a struggling writer, his personal life such as his wives and other relationships, and winning both the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 and the Best of the Booker for Midnight Children. Later it evolves into an intense, dramatic account including the risks and terrorist threats against the booksellers, publishers, and translators who were murdered and attacked.
It is telling that people who never read the novel chastised him and believed rumors about him and The Satanic Verses without checking facts. Rushdie, in addition to asking ethical and philosophical questions, eloquently examines how censorship, intolerance, terrorism, and religious fanaticism attack freedom of expression. Rushdie is truly a champion for intellectual freedom and has remained true to his beliefs despite the devastating personal experiences he suffered as a result of this modern-day witch hunt. The idea for The Satanic Verses originated while Rushdie was a student at Cambridge studying “Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliph.” Facts about Muhammad were researched in the course which caused Rushdie to consider writing a novel about him. Twenty years later that novel came to fruition. As a fan of Rushdie’s wildly imaginative and cerebral novels, filled with allegories, metaphors, and parables, I appreciate the thought processes and insights he provides concerning his writing. Rushdie was born and raised in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). In 2007 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
You’ll laugh out loud reading this hilarious novel about “an uncommon reader,” namely the Queen of England. While out walking her corgis, Her Majesty discovers a mobile library near the palace and investigates. Being the proper Queen, she checks out a book just to be polite. Since she considers reading “not doing something” she previously never read much. She eventually becomes obsessed with reading and begins to resent the social obligations taking up her time while she could be reading! She carries a book with her everywhere and questions everyone she meets about what they are reading, instead of sticking to tried and true politically correct questions, much to the chagrin of her advisors and the Prime Minister, who plot to hide her books and banish her reading mentor, among other shenanigans. The Queen becomes aware of a world she was unfamiliar with and her perspective subsequently is broadened by reading. A brief novel, there is much to reflect on.
Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local— and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy
Factory Man refers to John Bassett III, a larger-than-life character and the maverick grandson of the founder of Bassett Furniture, at one time the largest wood furniture company in the world. The book relates how the tenacious Bassett fought for the survival of his company, despite the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. It also chronicles how a small town in Appalachian Virginia survived a potential economic disaster, the impact of globalization and offshoring of companies on factory workers, how Bassett took Chinese furniture manufacturers to court and won, and the Bassett dynasty. Bassett could have sold out to the Chinese as many other furniture manufacturers did, making millions of dollars in the process. Instead he fought the International Trade Commission because he believed the Chinese manufacturers were illegally “dumping” products. American furniture companies could not compete and were going out of business. According to the World Trade Organization, “If a company exports a product at a price that is lower than the price it normally charges in its own home market, or sells at a price that does not meet its full cost of production, it is said to be ‘dumping’ the product. ” Bassett ultimately saved his company, along with 700 jobs. The author is the daughter of a factory worker and grew up in a factory town. According to her website, Factory Man is in development to become an HBO miniseries, executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman of Playtone.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Physick : The art or skill of healing, to cure. First known use—14th century
The main character in this entertaining historical novel is Connie Goodwin— no, no, not our invaluable and dedicated PCL volunteer. The fictional Connie is preparing her dissertation when she receives a call from her mother, a hippie living in New Mexico. Her mother wants her to go to Connie’s grandmother’s house in Massachusetts and prepare it to sell. Her grandmother passed away years ago, and Connie has never seen the house so she welcomes the diversion. However, mysterious occurrences, along with the discovery of a book entitled The Physick Book, cause Connie to neglect her dissertation and instead search for answers to questions regarding her family that have arisen while she has been cleaning house. The story moves back and forth between present day and the 1690s. It is an intriguing tale about secrets, magic, a bit of romance, and the infamous Salem Witch trials. Howe is well-versed on those trials. Not only does she have a Ph.D. in American history, she is a descendant of both Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, who were accused of being witches. Elizabeth Proctor survived the trials.
Crossing To Safety by William Stegner
Pulitzer-prize-winning author William Stegner’s final novel is an exquisitely written, subtle, philosophical story about a forty-year friendship between two couples. Larry, the narrator, and his wife, Sally, have traveled from their home in New Mexico to visit their long-time friends, Sid and Charity, in Vermont because Charity is seriously ill. Larry, now a successful writer, reminisces about how they met— Larry and Sid as young idealistic new professors and Sally and Charity as enthusiastic faculty wives full of dreams for the future. He muses on how their lives have changed through the decades and about the memories they’ve shared. Not only does Crossing to Safety epitomize the power of true friendship, it is a reflective novel about enduring love and the acceptance of our too-human flaws.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 23, 2005. When the levees broke an already catastrophic situation became nightmarish. Memorial Hospital was stranded by rising water and left without power. Its response to issues of patient care during the storm until five days later when everyone was finally evacuated is the subject of this book.
In the event of a disaster, how do hospital personnel determine the evacuation protocol for patients when no procedure is in place? In what priority should health personnel evacuate patients? How are the lack of medical supplies and loss of power for life-saving equipment handled? Who decides who will live and who will die? The exhausted personnel at Memorial performed valiantly amidst the dire situation and grim uncertainty when forced to confront these conundrums and many others. The first section of the book details what occurred at the hospital. The second examines the investigation into patient deaths and the health professionals who were subsequently accused of murder.
Up to the final page, Five Days at Memorial raises numerous ethical questions that you will ponder for days. You may even reconsider how you feel about some topics—including how you might respond in similar circumstances—perhaps not as you expect. Throughout the book, the author presents a balanced, nonjudgmental account of the actions of the hospital personnel, the hospital’s corporate owner, and the government. She provides different viewpoints gleaned from the people she interviewed and from document research. I was transfixed by the story. Fink, a physician, who has served as a relief worker in BosniaHerzegovina and in Haiti, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for an article about Memorial Hospital and Hurricane Katrina. She enlarged upon the article by writing this book. It won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Non-Fiction.
A Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
A poignant novel, Family Life is based on the author’s life. Nine year old Ajay Mishra , the narrator, moves with his family from Delhi, India, to the United States in 1979. Birju, his elder brother, is both charismatic and gifted. His proud parents expect him to attend college, become successful, and achieve the “American dream.” After Birju experiences a life-changing accident, the family’s new life in America changes dramatically. They must cope with their new circumstances, both psychologically and financially, regarding Birju’s medical and physical needs and the loss of their dreams for both him and their family. How Ajay learns to deal with the conflicts of living in the shadows of his brother and achieving his aspirations, while fulfilling his filial duty is stirring. This sensitively written novel appears to be a simple story, but is rich with insight.
Dear Zari: The Secret Lives of the Women of Afghanistan by Zarghuna Kargar
Dear Zari is a collection of true stories about the lives of 13 Afghan women featured on the BBC radio show “Afghan Woman’s Hour.” The author is “Zari” , Zarghuna Kargar, an Afghan woman who grew up in Kabul. She and her family fled to Pakistan in 1994, during Afghanistan’s civil war. In 2001, the family claimed asylum in the U.K. Kargar hosted the radio show from 2004 until 2010, when it was cancelled. It provided Afghan women a weekly program and forum about social issues. Some of the women brought up heartbreaking taboo topics such as being shunned for being a widow or for bearing only daughters. Then there is the woman who was married as a child to an older man as payment for money owed to the man by her family. The tradition of giving babies opium to quiet them while their mothers concentrate on weaving the magnificent rugs Afghan women are famous for creating was widespread, but thanks to the BBC program, many mothers were alerted to the potential of their babies becoming addicted to and/or brain damaged by the opium usage. The weavers, women and young girls, often spend 12 hours or more daily at their loom, and are valued based on their carpet weaving skill. As stated in the book, “Many women justify their behavior by convincing themselves that a custom is in fact religious law or duty, when in fact most religious rules are limited to prayers and fasting. Lack of education is chiefly to blame, but these traditions are also maintained at home in each family, and passed down from mother to mother.” An informative book, it depicts the women’s resilience and the adversity they endure.
Vanished : The Sixty Year Search For the Missing Men of World War II by Wil S. Hylton
Vanished is a true account of the search for an American B-24 Liberator bomber shot down during World War II in the Pacific Theater. The bomber is the same type of plane Louis Zamperini flew in the biographical movie and book Unbroken. The story of Pat Scannon’s noble efforts in locating the remains of the lost bomber, in the Pacific Ocean near the Pacific archipelago of Palau, is stirring. The bomber was shot down and lost September 1, 1944, and discovered 60 years later by Scannon. Scannon, a physician who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, was scuba diving in 1993 near Pala, when he located a wing of an American bomber. He experienced an epiphany after he realized it was a grave and wrote in his journal, ” I am interested in how individual crews, albeit in a lesser campaign, came under intense fire, lost their lives, and have, by necessity, been forgotten. . . . It is time someone acknowledges their efforts and perhaps lays to rest the outcome for their family members.” Scannon understood and respected the sacrifices of these men. He vowed to locate the rest of the plane and repatriate the remains of the airmen. After ten years of painstaking research, interviews with veterans and the government, repeated trips to the Pacific, huge amounts of money – all self-funded by Scannon and other team members (i.e. divers, scientists),the bomber was finally located. Eight of the airmen’s remains were recovered. Tragically, three members of the eleven member crew had parachuted before crashing and were captured and executed by the Japanese. In a heartfelt account, the author describes the surviving family members’ relief and sorrow. At last they knew what happened to their loved ones. The confirmation put to rest the disquieting questions they’d asked themselves all these years. Scannon created a non-profit organization, the Bentprop Project, ” a team of volunteers, each with essential expertise (history, aviation, diving, navigation, forensic anthropology), who are dedicated to locating and assisting with identifying American prisoners of war and missing in action (POW/MIA) from World War II in Western Pacific Islands.” To date, he and his organization have located 30 Japanese and 30 American crash sites, according to his website.
All Our Names is set in the 1960s to 1970s in both Uganda and the American Midwest. The story begins in Uganda with an idealistic young man, known initially to the reader as Langston. He is devoted to his good friend Isaac, who is a revolutionary amidst a chaotic political revolution. Langston becomes involved in the revolution, but after the violence escalates, he fears for his life, and Isaac helps him escape to the U. S. When Langston flees he changes his name to Isaac. Once he arrives, he meets Helen, an immigration social worker, and they fall in love. They encounter many challenges concerning their relationship, such as the complacent racism in their small town, but they are determined to continue their relationship and overcome any obstacles. Mengestu implies how labels and categorization can be divisive and exclude people by the usage of terms such as rebel, patriot, black, white. What’s in a name or label? How does it define or identify us? These are questions you’ll ask yourself. A thoughtful read, this profound novel offers perspectives on immigrant assimilation, identity, and the plight of people escaping war. The acclaimed author describes his novel “as a love story, not a book about war.” It is beautifully written and is essentially about relationships and the challenges and courage that can cause relationships to endure or be destroyed.
Malena is a revealing work of historical fiction set in Buenos Aires in 1979 during the “Dirty War.” It is about the military junta in Argentina and is based on actual events and persons, including the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the mothers and grandmothers of the “desaparecidos,” the “disappeared.” Holzman calls the novel his “book of conscience.”
The two main characters are Kevin “Solo” Solorzano, an American translator for a Human Rights Commission, who has taken a temporary assignment to investigate human rights violations in Argentina, and Diego Fiorvanti, a passionate tango dancer and captain in the Argentine army, who is aware of the terror campaign against “dissidents” and plans to leave the country. Both men are in love with the beautiful Ines Maldonado. This galvanizing novel is important because it sheds light on the repressive dictatorship during the controversial and tragic period. More information regarding the military dictatorship has been discovered in the past few decades, such as the “Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared of 1984,” to which Holzman refers. Holzman, who was born in Buenos Aires, is an attorney and translator and worked for international organizations involved in human rights in the 1970s. According to the author: Many human rights scholars believe that the Dirty War and its aftermath shaped the course of the modern human rights movement. The 1984 report on the “disappeared,” issued after the military left power, has been a model for truth commissions ever since. The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo were the actuating force behind major advances in DNA analysis, forensic anthropology and the establishment of a pioneering genetic data bank to identify victims of the regime. International conventions have been signed to protect children, combat torture and crimes against humanity. And now, three decades after the Dirty War, the trials of hundreds of members of the regime are unprecedented worldwide and are setting a new standard for prosecuting crimes against humanity
This story occurs in a surreal post-apocalyptic America. It’s unusual because the narration is in first person plural, a collective consciousness. Not character driven, it’s part an adventure tale and part quest tale, with Fam as the courageous protagonist. She leaves the protection of her village and job to search for her boyfriend Reg who suddenly disappears. During her journey, she becomes a mythic heroine and catalyst to villagers who change their perspective of their lives, because Fam dares to demonstrate her initiative and independence by leaving her village. There are three separate classes of people in this world. Descendants of Chinese immigrants who escaped from an environmentall
y polluted China are the new middle class and are all laborers in villages. They provide food to the wealthy charter class. The third class are the people who live in the Counties, a chaotic region with no government or corporate organizational structures. They are poor, desperate, and dangerous. Because of Fam’s daring, the villagers begin to question the rigid confines of their lives and they begin to consider whether or not having the stability of the collective is better than leading independent lives, and they consider other alternatives. An intriguing, reflective novel, the numerous themes include identity, individualism, aspiration, immigration, income inequality, and upward mobility. The title is derived from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: We, at the height, are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
The Greatest Knight : The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones by Thomas Asbridge
Based on a 13th-century manuscript discovered in 1861 by French scholar Paul Meyer, Dr. Asbridge’s singular biography of medieval knight William Marshal is absolutely engrossing. It transports readers to the medieval era. In addition to telling the tale of a young man who climbs the ladder of medieval society to become one of the most powerful men in England, it abounds with accounts of medieval politics and mores, feuds among the nobility, and details of the culture of the medieval knight. In 1152 five-year-old Marshal was given to King Stephen as a war hostage by his father, a minor nobleman. This was common practice in guaranteeing terms of a truce. Marshal commenced the process of becoming a knight at age 13. With his exceptional political skills and physical prowess, he eventually became regent of England. During his lifetime, Marshal not only assisted with drafting the Magna Carta, he served five monarchs: Henry II; his sons Young Henry, Richard the Lionheart, and King John; and his grandson Henry III. The author, a medieval history specialist, is best known for his acclaimed BBC documentary on William Marshal.
Lunch in Paris, a Love Story With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
In the tradition of Adriana Trigiani’s Supreme Macaroni Company and Marlena de Blasi’s The Lady in the Palazzo, Lunch in Paris is a witty and entertaining memoir. Elizabeth Bard falls in love with the man of her dreams – Gwendal, a Frenchman with verve and grace – and moves to the City of Lights. As her very personal story unfolds, she candidly describes the challenges of living in a foreign country. Most interesting are the insights and observations she humorously expresses regarding the contrasts between American and French cultures and philosophies. She discusses French attitudes regarding, for instance, ambition and money. When shopping retail, the salesperson knows best. One never challenges an authority figure or professional. Gwendal says, “in America, every man is potentially president. Here, every man is potentially zero.” Bard also relates why French women don’t get fat. Then there is the le cinq a sept, the “five to seven,” that hard-to-account-for time after work when lovers meet for a quick tryst before going home to their families for dinner. Bard passionately describes what she loves best about living in Paris, such as the joys of cooking in the French manner, lingering over meals, the magical beauty of Paris, and people- watching at an outdoor cafe with a steaming cup of cafe au lait and a perfectly-baked croissant. A winning story, Lunch in Paris highlights the pleasures of French cooking with heavenly recipes interspersed throughout the book, from Tartare d’Espadon (swordfish tartare) to Le Bon Jeune Homme (chocolate cream with creme anglaise).
The Zhivago Affair : The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
This dramatic true story chronicles how Dr. Zhivago, a classic novel of Russian literature, was used as propaganda during the Cold War by the United States. Boris Pasternak, Russia’s greatest living poet at the time, courageously published his banned manuscript against the Soviet Union’s wishes and suffered dire consequences. The legendary novel was finally published in Italy in 1956 despite incredible obstacles orchestrated by the Soviet Union.
Pasternak was persecuted by the government and was denounced a traitor. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but was forced to renounce it for fear of being executed. Khrushchev hadn’t read the book, yet he condemned it. Years later, after he finally read it, he announced there was no reason to have banned it since it was not anti-Soviet after all. The authors used recent declassified CIA documents that provide information regarding some of the propaganda techniques used during the Cold War. If you enjoyed reading Dr. Zhivago or are fond of books about espionage and Cold War history, you’ll find this a gripping narrative.
A masterful, multi-layered novel, Bezmozgis explores the universal themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and morality. The protagonist, Baruch Kotler, is a Soviet Jewish defector and highly esteemed Israeli politician. He and his mistress escape to Yalta when his affair is exposed by vengeful politicians who oppose Kotler’s position on an issue concerning settlements in the West Bank. In Yalta, he meets Tankilevich, a former friend whose treachery sent Kotler to the Soviet Gulag for many years. Kotler and Tankilevich are complex, conflicted men who, along with both Kotler’s loyal & steadfast wife and Kotler’s son, explore the essence of forgiveness and redemption in this brilliant character study.
Renowned travel writer Tahir Shah writes about his experience in buying the home of his dreams in Casablanca, the capital city of Morocco and moving his family there. They were living in London and Shah wanted he and his family to experience his heritage. Shah was born & raised in England and often heard stories about his father’s life as a Sufi spiritual leader, and his grandfather’s life as an Afghan chieftain. Shah’s dream was realized when he bought the abandoned estate, complete with courtyards, magnificent mosaic, and traditional handcrafted tiles, a staff of three “guardians”, and Jinns. Jinns are part of Islamic mythology, can be visible or invisible, and must be appeased or they will cause evil deeds.
The dilapidated mansion, Dar Khalifa ( Caliph’s House in English), was formerly owned by Casablanca’s caliph (religious leader). Shah said “my first glimpse of it revealed courtyards overflowing
with date palms and fragrant hibiscus flowers, fountains perched in symmetrical pools, mature gardens planted with bougainvillea, cacti and all manner of exotic trees, an orange grove and tennis court, a swimming pool and, beyond it, stables.”
Reminiscent of Peter Mayles’s A Year in Provence, Shah hilariously describes his trials and tribulations in renovating the mansion to its former glory. The renovations turned out to be much more problematic than he originally anticipated. The engaging narrative also discusses the family’s adjustment to a very different culture, while not being able to speak Arabic. The local mosque recruits people for Al Queda, Jinns are considered a reality in Islamic culture, and the muezzin’s calls to prayer are a daily reminder of the exotic Moroccan culture, along with its age-old, revered traditions. It was a pleasure reading about the culture and colorful characters encountered by Shah.
by Martin Pistorius and Megan Lloyd Davies
Eloquent, breathtaking and frank, this memoir is a triumph of the human spirit. Martin Pistorius’ memoirs are profound. When Martin was twelve years old, he was diagnosed with a mysterious degenerative disease that to-date has not been identified. His muscles were uncontrollable, and he lost his ability to speak. He eventually became comatose. He was thought by everyone to be in a “vegetative state, ” and his devoted parents were told he would only live a couple of years. However, he was actually conscious and aware of his surroundings for 10 of the 12 years he was in a “vegetative state.”
An extraordinarily stable and emotionally strong person, he mastered his emotions in order to not go completely berserk, and to accept his physical limitations. He states: “My mind was trapped inside a useless body, my arms and legs weren’t mine to control and my voice was mute. . . . I couldn’t make a sign or sounds to let anyone know I’d become aware again. I was invisible – the ghost boy.” He was vulnerable, being unable to communicate, unable to take care of his physical needs. He briefly addresses incidents of indifference and abuse by caregivers: “I’ve escaped using the only thing I have—my mind—and explored everything from the black abyss of despair to the psychedelic landscape of fantasy.” Eventually a caregiver became convinced he was attempting to communicate with her, and Martin was able to be tested. The assessment declared him conscious. He was 25 years old.
Martin wrote: “I can feel the wings of a bird called hope beginning to beat softly inside my chest.” In 2009, he married. “I will not look back. It is time to forget the past. All I can think of is the future.”
I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes
A riveting, brilliant international thriller, fast paced, well researched, unpredictable–what more can I say? I don’t want to spoil the “read,” so will be brief. The protagonist, code named Pilgrim, is in a race against time to prevent a terrorist plot against the U.S. from coming to fruition. The unswerving terrorist is Pilgrim’s match in this gripping cat and mouse game. The plot sounds simple but is complex and full of surprises.