Not just a memoir, The Woman Warrior combines fiction and biographical elements too. Hong Kingston writes partly of her childhood in America; she’s never been to China; partly of her mother’s childhood in China and later years in America, and partly of fables her mother shared while they were growing up. It is utterly un-nostalgic. She writes honestly of the myriad griefs of growing up too American for Chinese parents, and too Chinese for the surrounding American culture. And writes honestly of her own failings in some disturbing accounts of bullying her schoolmates – the classmate who refused to speak, the boy with mental disabilities who spent his spare time sitting silently at her family’s laundry while they steamed and washed and pressed in tropics-like conditions. She is not exactly remorseful. Nor is remorse evident in the first chapter, No Name Woman, which recounts a mob raiding and trashing the house of Hong Kingston’s aunt. Animals are slaughtered and stores strewn into the mud as punishment for the aunt’s adulterous pregnancy, her husband having gone overseas years ago to make money during a time of extended scarcity. The aunt is expelled from her family and her name is deliberately forgotten. She dies soon after. She doesn’t name the man who impregnated her. He doesn’t come forward and remains unpunished. It’s a dark way to start off a book even if it is followed by a fictionalized tale of the author leaving home in her youth and training in marital arts for 15 years with an elderly couple living alone on a mountain. She returns to her family, raises an army, and sets about avenging the wrongs done to her village by wealthy barons and a government concerned only with its own wealth, eventually putting a new emperor on the throne. She is hailed as a hero everywhere. Valued and powerful. And a cutting, polar opposite to the rest of the book. To her real life.
The perfect book to cap off February and move into March with, Hidden Figures reveals the little known story of the black women mathematicians who worked with NASA to help the United States win the space race and set the first man on the moon. Let me say that again for the people in the back: in the 30’s there were black women mathematicians working for NASA. And Shetterly introduces you to almost all of them. These women are brilliant. Determined. Ambitious. They leave their steady, if drastically underpaid teaching jobs when NASA puts out the call in WWII for more “computers” to hand calculate pages of complex equations about aerodynamics for the engineers and physicists – careers often denied to the black female computers regardless of their qualifications – to fine tune the performance of the new planes NASA – at that time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA – was inventing. Shetterly does a beautiful job integrating the personal lives of these women with the changes in American society, and world history from the 1930s to the end of the space race. Hidden Figures is a science-packed read and a great story.
A complicated personal history of Ethiopian Yètèmegn Mèkonnen; one hundred years of life retold by her granddaughter Aida Edemariam. Yètemegn is born in Ethiopia in the early 1900s to reasonably well off parents and married off at the ripe old age of eight to a man almost in his thirties, an ambitious priest named Tsèga Teshale. Yètèmegn will have 10 children by him and weather revolutions, famine, Tsèga’s unjust imprisonment, his death and the deaths of several of their children. Despite not being able to read, she makes it her personal mission to clear his name and regain their family home and lands, taking on the court system to win back the house they built together from the priests who stole it after he was imprisoned. Edemariam weaves her grandmother’s story in amongst the seasonal changes, cultural events, and political machinations Ethiopia endured from 1916 to 2013 and speckles the whole work with the legends, hymns, and religious passages that would have informed and governed Yètèmegn’s days. Some of it I was baffled by; the unexplained ritual early on in Yètèmegn’s marriage where her neck is daubed with a dark cooked paste of soot, kohl and oil seeds and the marks are then tattooed on with a needle was obviously something she was enraged and horrified by, but I lacked the necessary background to understand what was happening or why she reacted the way she did. But overall, the cultural gap is tidily bridged by Edemariam. Her skill, and Yètèmegn’s courage and spirit, will linger with you long after you finish this book.
Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.
If you are in crisis dial 911 or see this website for a list of help lines in your area https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/ (in Canada)
http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-he… (worldwide list of crisis hotlines)
In the States call 1-800-273-8255
“I wish I could make your suicidal thoughts disappear, but I can’t. What I can do is teach you how to get through those excruciating moments when every cell in your brain and body is screaming, ‘I want to die!’ By surviving those moments unharmed and learning new ways of coping, you will gradually create a set of tools that can make life more manageable.” (3)
I had never heard of this book until I passed it on a library shelf in a period of random wanderings. It is exactly what it says, a collection of what Blauner refers to as “Tricks of the Trade” that allowed her – with the guidance and assistance of regular therapy, and the stabilizing effect of medication – to cope with and gradually disarm the suicidal thoughts that for 18 years ruled her days, hospitalized her three times, and nearly ended her life. It is at times a very challenging book, aside from teaching readers how to reformat their brains and keep themselves alive, Blauner includes discussions of her prior suicidal gestures that at times go from frank and open right into graphic. She recommends reading this book in small, manageable chunks, remaining aware of your body while you do, and if you get distressed take a break and do something nice for yourself. Excellent advice that can be applied in a variety of situations. And then there’s the crisis plans, meditations, exercises in identifying your feelings and breaking habit loops. It’s a very thorough book. I hope everyone who needs a copy will find it.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read Persepolis immediately following Maus and now the two are tied together in my brain. These two graphic novels have a lot in common. Both are done entirely in black and white, not even grey shading. Both cover very heavy topics: Maus I covers the Second World War as seen through the eyes of the author’s Jewish father Vladek, and Persepolis, which guides us through the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the Islamic Revolution, and the war with Iraq via Satrapi’s childhood memories. Death and propaganda saturate the pages. If it’s not posters in the streets it’s lies in the classrooms. As if the government wasn’t cruel enough all on its own, your neighbours would turn you in. An old woman in an upstairs apartment screaming for the police as a young married couple crosses the courtyard – she thinks they are Jewish. A mother accosted on the street by men who think she should be wearing a veil. It’s terrifying and baffling. As if there wasn’t enough grief in the world that some people would seek to add more. They are heavy books to start a year off with, and very difficult to put down. They don’t offer any answers, or ask many questions. They just present history. So that we don’t forget it.
Raunchy and scattered. That’s my two word review of Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, feel free to stop there or read on for a slightly longer one. By this time it’s official; Carrie Fisher’s writing is just not my cup of tea. Her book reads as though she was having a conversation about her alcoholism and pill addictions and it got published after she accidentally transcribed the whole thing using voice-to-text and messaged it to her editor. Colloquial in the extreme. And so short! It’s an excellent gateway book for people who aren’t big readers, just get them hooked with short easy pieces like this one and in a few months they’ll be begging to borrow your copy of War and Peace. There’s not much about the making of Star Wars in this one, so your local Star Wars fanatic may not appreciate this book as much as The Princess Diarist, which is almost entirely Star Wars. But Wishful Drinking is chock full of celebrities from what I presume is that golden era of Hollywood. The visages of Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Elizabeth Taylor all grace these few pages. Mostly unlabelled, so I had to guess who was who but if you’re all about Hollywood gossip rags this book will be right up your alley. Other than that, well, if you have to read this at least it’s short.
A history of philosophy melded with a young adult novel that aims for quirky but just winds up being creepy and dull. Sophie’s World starts out with its fourteen year old protagonist receiving letters from a middle-aged man, a stranger to both her and her mother. Anyone who has read Lolita has their shoulders up around their ears already. While Alberto Knox’s intentions are pure – he only wishes to give Sophie a correspondence course in the history of philosophy – it took me at least 100 pages before I stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop and Knox to kidnap her. The rest of the book bounces between Sophie’s lessons with Alberto, in which we follow along, and someone named Hilde Møller Knag. Hilde’s personal belongings regularly turn up in Sophie’s mailbox. Or bedroom. The two girls have nothing in common. Sophie has to figure out who Hilde is and why Sophie is receiving mail addressed to Hilde before their birthdays, because Alberto is convinced something will happen when both girls are fifteen. The story gets more and more bizarre and eventually devolves into a mishmash of fairy tale characters gallivanting about. I resent the precious hours I wasted on it. All I have to show for all that time is a vague understanding of the history of philosophy.
This book should never have been written. There should never have been this story of griefs to record. There should never have been these atrocities against peoples whose only “crime” was being different from the Europeans who moved into their homes. Having happened, it should never have been swept under the proverbial rug by historians, politicians, journalists, activists, and law makers so we as Canadians could sing the praises of our tolerance internationally. It should never have been left out of our social studies classes, glossed over and summarized by one or two broken treaties as though the kindnesses of the white rulers far surpassed any minor betrayals. But here we are. King has written the most emotionally challenging, grief inducing book I have read this year. Also the most important. Ten chapters of complete ignorance of our own past, of horrific racism and destructive social policies and every promise broken almost immediately. Somehow King manages to stave off bitterness and rage over the endless injustices. I’m going to avoid closing my review with nebulous hopes for a better future. After this book, that seems naive and disingenuous. It’s not enough just to hope the future will be better. We (whites) have a lot of work ahead of us to make this right. Let’s hope we are finally ready to learn from our mistakes.
This book was phenomenal. Filled with imagery that transports you across continents and historical knowledge that flings you through time, Harris’ delightful – if saddle sore – journey through Asia’s ancient Silk Road will make you swear to take your own trip. And swear off it on the next page. Freezing weather, rain, snow, terrifying traffic, washboard roads (when there were roads at all), an eternity of living on instant noodles, instant coffee, and instant oatmeal. Harris manages to communicate her deep joy and gratitude for this experience, for every bleak vista she cycles by, while not holding back her about exhaustion, aching muscles, illnesses, and fear of detention travelling through countries with restrictive and byzantine tourism policies. In every line her brilliant writing and lyrical imagery shines through, carrying you along with her on the back of her bicycle. I feel truly privileged to have gotten a chance to read this book pre-release, having won it in a draw, and I highly recommend it to any fans of travel writing looking for new lands to explore. Coming to a bookstore near you in January 2018.